08 January 2011

Getting Wrecked in Cornwall: Jamaica Inn—The Novel

Jamaica Inn (1936)
By Daphne du Maurier

Although Daphne du Maurier had written novels prior to Jamaica Inn, she had her first major success with this historical romance published in 1936. It opened up the road to her massive bestseller Rebecca two years later. A November visit to the actual Jamaica Inn in Cornwall, the southwest peninsula of England where du Maurier spent most of her life, inspired her to write this romantic historical adventure of thieves and murderers and a young obstinate heroine trapped in the middle of them. Constructed in the eighteenth century as a staging-post for coaches traveling along the precursor to the A30, Jamaica Inn provided travelers with a stopping place for food and necessities. It also became a center for one of Cornwall’s most famous industries: “fair-trading,” a.k.a. smuggling.

The title of the book might make an unsuspecting reader imagine a tropical island adventure. The story has beaches, but they are the chilly and wind-beaten winter coasts of the author’s beloved Cornwall, where ships crack-up on the rocks and spill their cargo for waiting looters who had falsely lured them onto the jagged shores. (According to University of Exeter Cornish Studies Professor Philip Payton, “Although there is no evidence of Cornish folk deliberately luring ships to their doom, the Cornish were well-known as ‘wreckers’, routinely plundering those vessels that had the misfortune to come to grief on Cornwall’s treacherous coasts.”) The inn in question sits on lonely Bodmin Moor.

However, if the misleading thoughts of a Caribbean adventure bring pirates to mind, the potential reader has hit near the mark as to what happens in the novel.

The tale begins on a November night, much like the night in du Maurier’s life that inspired her to write the story. It is the early nineteenth century (the King George mentioned is George IV), and a classic bit of Gothic mis-en-scene unfolds on the page: a coach rattles across the moorland in bleak weather, carrying a young girl toward an uncertain destination. The girl is Mary Yellan, and when she informs the driver that she intends to leave the coach at Jamaica Inn, she gets an ominous response, as if she had informed him that she was on her way to Castle Dracula. But Mary has little choice; her dying mother requested that she go live with her Aunt Patience and Uncle Joshua “Joss” Merlyn. Without family or money, Mary had to accept the invitation to stay and work at Jamaica Inn, where Uncle Joss is the landlord.

Mary Yellan is now thrust into the archetypal situation of the classic Gothic novel: a young woman trapped in a sinister castle at the mercy of some hovering danger. The castle is instead a roadside inn, but the circumstances are otherwise identical. Joss Merlyn shows himself to be a sneering, vicious figure, not unlike an ogre, who warns Mary that “It doesn’t do to be curious at Jamaica Inn, and I’ll have you remember that.” Aunt Patience is wilted and fearful of her husband, and every breath he makes exudes potential violence. However, Mary takes a tough and resolute stand with her uncle from the first, giving the reader the foreshadowing that this apparently small and unassuming girl has a heroine’s fortitude.

Mary learns through risky spying the black secret of Jamaica Inn. Empty most of the week, with no boarders or “custom,” on Saturday it suddenly bursts with ruffians and hard-drinkers. The men are a gang of smugglers (ah, “fair-traders,” I guess) running contraband from the north coasts through the way station at Jamaica Inn and then across the Tamar River to the rest of England. Although Joss Merlyn is a powerful man in the operation, Mary overhears him speaking to a man she cannot see who ranks higher than her uncle—but whose identity remains a secret to everyone else. The smuggling appalls Mary, but she could almost tolerate that and keep her mouth shut. But the men are also out-right murderers, and Mary decides she has to find a way to get her Aunt Patience away from the Inn and expose this band of criminals.

There are two other men who enter Mary’s life who offer the potential to ease or complicate the situation. First is Joss Merlyn’s younger brother Jem. A professed horse-thief who has nothing to do with his brother’s smuggling and killling, he befuddles Mary from almost the moment she meets him. In the setting of “romantic suspense,” Jem Merlyn is a perfect foil for the heroine. Handsome and dangerous, either worse or better than we and the heroine suspect him to be.

The other important man is the vicar of nearby village of Altarnun, Francis Davey. Although an albino, and thus bequeathed with a perfect Gothic strangeness, Davey offers the brightest gleam of hope in Mary’s world. He trusts her tales of Uncles Joss’s deprivations, and might know a way to bring the law down on him in a way that will save Mary and her Aunt Patience.

Du Maurier’s crafting of suspense throughout the novel, although not done with the percision of Rebecca, is first-rate. Mary Yellan is a powerful heroine who always finds herself in powerless positions. She could easily give up and let all of it pass by, but she has the resolve not only to save herself and her aunt, but to see justice done. Du Maurier thus perfectly creates tension along with her main character. Mary always edges on getting caught, but the reader is also never sure who might catch her. There’s Joss Merlyn, of course, but who else can she really trust? She has no idea who also is involved in the smuggling operation, or who Joss’s hidden employer is. And her romantic interest, Jem Merlyn, could be the least trustworthy of all.

Beyond simply creating a fine story, du Maurier’s writing contains dark undercurrents that her reputation as a scribbler of romances often disguised from contemporary critics. The unease she puts into some of her suspense scenes goes beyond the superficial fear and plunges readers into nightmares. The most remarkable sequence in Jamaica Inn is a two-layered description of a shipwreck and the murder of the people aboard as they struggle to shore. First, a character in a drunken delirium tells about a wreck as if the events were nothing more than an alcohol-soaked hallucination. But soon after, Mary herself witnesses a wreck, and the prose borders on the supernatural. The effect both heightens the suspense and makes the criminals of the story implicated in something greater than lawbreaking, making them infernal and unreal.

Someone so in love with Cornwall could not help but give the reader astonishing descriptions of it, even ones that invest it with a sense of an alien land:
Strange winds blew from nowhere; they crept along the surface of the grass, and the grass shivered; they breathed upon the little pools of rain in the hollowed stones, and the pools rippled. Sometimes the wind shouted and cried, and moaned, and was lost again. There was a silence on the tors that belonged to another age; an age that is past and vanished as though it had never been, and age when man did not exist, but pagan footsteps trod upon the hulls. And there was a stillness in the air, and a stranger, older peace, that not the peace of God.
Yes, du Maurier was one of the great stylists of the twentieth-century thriller, and I am pleased she is getting recognition for it at last.

The popularity of the novel meant a film version only two years later. Jamaica Inn was the last film Alfred Hitchcock directed before leaving the British film industry for Hollywood (where he would immediately direct another du Maurier adaptation, the Oscar-winning Rebecca). The film marks a rare period piece for the director, and he did not enjoy the experience because of the creative choices that star Charles Laughton forced on him, some of which undercut the crucial suspense of the end of the novel. The movie did introduce the world to Maureen O’Hara, who plays Mary Yellan, and has some pleasures to it (watching Hitchcock maneuver in a period setting is at least interesting), but disappoints compared to the book’s tension.

Jamaica Inn still stands today on the A30 road, halfway between the towns of Launceston and Bodmin, near the village of Bolventor. After the end of the smuggling business with the establishment of the Coast Guard, the Inn entered a sleepy part of its history. However, the novel’s popularity turned it into a tourist attraction. Du Maurier lived long enough to see this transformation—and felt a pang of guilt over it:
Today all is changed, and as the poet Yeats once said, “changed utterly.” Motor-coaches, cars, electric light, a bar, dinner of river-trout, baths for the travel-stained instead of a cream-jug of hot water. As a motorist I pass by with some embarrassment, feeling myself to blame, for out of that November evening long ago came a novel which proved popular, passing, as fiction does, into the folk-lore of the district. As the author I am flattered, but as a one-time wanderer dismayed.
Du Maurier wrote this for her 1967 nonfiction book Vanishing Cornwall (a superb piece of travelogue and regional history), but it seems the situation has only worsened since her death in 1989. Looking at the photos on the inn’s website shows that the refurbishment has given the interior all the flavor of a Best Western Motel.

However, the text of the novel survives to take us back to the sensations that du Maurier felt on that November night when Jamaica Inn slipped from the mist as she traveled across the moor, and the landlord told her tales of the grand days of the “fair-traders.” It’s one of the great Gothic pieces of the twentieth century.
Jamaica Inn today
By the way, there is also a “Jamaica Inn” that is actually in Jamaica. I call foul! Boo, bogus-Jamaica Inn! You never had smugglers, you phonies. Don’t you dare ride the coattails of Dame Daphne du Maurier!