Review by Julian Budden
Don’t expect this book to be either 1930’s chick
lit or overblown swashbuckle saga, it is neither. Set in Cornwall
in the early part of the nineteenth century we join our heroine,
Mary Yellan, as she travels by coach to Jamaica Inn. Mary has
been forced to leave home by the death of her mother and, with
nowhere else to go, hopes to make a new life with her Aunt Patience
and Uncle, Joss Merlyn.
Even before she gets to Jamaica Inn the coach driver has warned
her it is no longer a place where a stranger is welcomed, as Mary
soon finds out when she meets her uncle - a towering seven-foot
giant full to bursting with malice and a weakness for brandy.
Mary is left in no doubt what her future will be when he asks
her ‘are you tame or do you bite?' We soon find out Mary
is an advocate of the former and we don’t have to wait long
to see why.
Ordered by Joss to ignore the sound of carriages arriving late
at night Mary chooses, instead, to ignore Joss. Peeping round
the curtains, fearing detection and its violent consequences,
she catches sight of a world inhabited by murderers and ship wreckers.
A world she is now, all too reluctantly, a part of.
Strong story line apart, the real
strength of this book is du Maurier's descriptive prose. Harsh
weather and the bleak countryside is brought to life in a way
that makes us thankful for our modern day central heating. Even
so, some of the characterisation, if used today, would seam politically
incorrect at best. Quite why Francis Davey, the vicar of Alternun,
has to be an albino is left unclear. Perhaps it tells us more
about the values of 1930’s Britain than it does about the
This dubious characterisation extends to others in Merlyn’s
gang. Whilst there may be no mention of anyone shivering their
timbers you feel at least one amongst the wreckers would, if du
Maurier looked their way, growl the words at her. Even the love
interest, her uncle's younger brother Jem, appears more like a
Californian heartthrob than the Cornish horse thief he really
As for Joss, inevitably he drinks himself into a stupor and confesses
the horrific details of how the victims of a wreck are treated.
A sight Mary then has to witness when she is forced to watch his
gang at work.
Perhaps predictably, the book ends with good triumphing over
evil. The baddies are polished off satisfactorily and Mary, whose
physical and mental endurance has been tested to the limit, rides
off into the sunset with her man, Jem.
Despite the minor irritations of the book I enjoyed it immensely.
Not only because it showed that girl power was alive and kicking
in the 1820’s but, quite simply, because it is a very good