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Jamaica Inn: Daphne du Maurier



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 vicar.

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 is.

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 read.

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