Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier

I picked Jamaica Inn for my contribution to the #1936 club because I had a copy sitting on my shelves, and I had forgotten my first reading of it, which may have been about 50 years ago. I have been critical of Daphne du Maurier, specifically of Rebecca, but also of The House on the StrandJamaica Inn was her fourth novel, published before those two and in it I found a writer who can write a good old fashioned suspense story, with some romance. Wuthering Heights lite anyone?

Jamaica Inn

We are in Cornwall in the far south west of Britain in the 1820s. 

The heroine Mary Yellan is as she should be: youngish, but not so young as to be foolish; independent, but not by choice as she had promised her widowed and dying mother to live with her aunt at Jamaica Inn; pretty, but not so attractive that all the men will do anything for her; and with spirit to stand up to people, but a soft heart as well. The story begins as she makes her way from the peaceful town of her childhood, Helston, to the wilderness of Bodmin moor. It is night and the coachman is reluctant to set her down at this infamous hostelry.

The villain is Joss Merlyn and as villainous as a reader could wish. He is the landlord of Jamaica Inn. He drinks, he is a bully, he is violent and we know at once that he is up to no good. 

He was a great husk of a man, nearly seven feet high, with a creased black brow and a skin the colour of a gypsy. His thick dark hair fell over his eyes in a fringe and hung about his ears. He looked as if he had the strength of a horse, with immense, powerful shoulders, long arms that reached almost to his knees and large fists like hams.  (20)

He married Mary’s aunt Patience and has reduced her to a frightened dependence. It is not long before Mary discovers that he is the leader of a band of ruffians and cutthroats who are engaged in smuggling. Jamaica Inn is the perfect isolated place to store the contraband. Later when he is drunk he tells Mary that he and his band are also wreckers They deliberately lure ships onto the rocks to steal their cargo, killing any witnesses.

The hero Jem Merlyn is as he should be despite being the younger brother of the landlord: independent, a little wild but not with malice; handsome but in a rural and rugged way; with a reckless and adventurous outlook, and some mystery about him.

Daphne du Maurier tells a good story, full bloodied, daring heroine, ghastly baddies and set in a dramatic landscape that adds to the suspense. The story is set up well. We join Mary at the end of her coach journey in the late evening, the last passenger. She must be set down at Jamaica Inn despite the coachman’s reluctance, for respectable folk no longer go to the inn. Darkness continues to be the background for much of the action, in the inn, on the seashore and on the moor. This darkness is contrasted with the peaceful, bright little town of Helston where Mary was brought up, and the jollity of the Christmas fair at Launceston, where Mary and Jem spend a happy Christmas Eve. 

In the darkness sounds play a crucial role in the story: the sounds of horses, carts and men carrying heavy goods into Jamaica Inn rouse Mary to first notice the wrong-doing. Horse hooves on the roads announce the arrival in the scene of a new character. There is a clock that ticks, but one night it has stopped. There is rain and hail against the windows, and wind around the house. And when Mary is taken one night by the gang and left unconscious in a carriage on a narrow path, she wakes to hear the sea. 

There could be no stillness where the sea broke upon the rock-bound shore. She heard it again now, and continually; a murmur and a sigh as the spent water gave itself to the strand and withdrew reluctantly, and then a pause as the sea gathered itself for a renewal of effort – a momentary fragment in time – and then once more the thunder and the crash of the fulfilment, the roar of the surf upon shingle and the screaming scatter of stones as they followed the drag of the sea. (162)

What follows is a terrible scene as a ship is lured to the beach and the gang go wild with violence and greed.

So Mary’s task is to bring her uncle and his gang to justice and to rescue poor Patience. It’s hard to achieve for he has the physical advantage and on their return from the wrecking he makes a prison of Jamaica Inn, locking Mary in her room. It soon emerges that there is another person that has been directing Joss Merlyn and the wreckers. He is not prepared to be caught and goes to desperate ends to evade justice. The final climax takes place at Roughtor high on Bodmin moor.

Daphne du Maurier

Born in 1907, Daphne du Maurier lived until 1989. Her most famous book was Rebecca, but she wrote 17 novels in all and many other plays, pieces of journalism, essays. She lived for much of her adult life in Cornwall which features in many of her novels. 

As with some of her other novels, Alfred Hitchcock made a film of Jamaica Inn in 1939 with many changes to the story. Daphne du Maurier was not pleased with it. Nor was Hitchcock. There was also a serial by the BBC in 2014 and ITV adapted it for television in 1983.

Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier, first published in 1936. I read the Penguin edition of 1962. 268pp

Related posts

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier

The #1936 Club led by Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy‘s Bookish Ramblings


Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews

12 Responses to Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier

  1. The novel I most enjoyed by Daphne du Maurier – and I have by no means read them all – is “The Loving Spirit” – that I bought in a 1940 Evergreen Books edition some 30 years ago. I am not sure if it is the story that I loved – which I certainly did when I read it – or the associations of the purchase and reading of it as I bought it in Fowey one summer on holiday with the man who was to become my late husband. I still have the copy (which has ‘rare edition’ written in pencil inside it and perhaps it’s time to re-read it!

    • Caroline

      I was talking with someone yesterday about being near Daphne du Maurier country in Cornwall and we agreed that this author is a bit uneven. I mentioned that I found Rebecca really difficult.
      I’d be interested to know how you get on with The Loving Spirit.

  2. Jennifer

    I haven’t read it, but I will now. It sounds just the book for a holiday read in Cornwall.
    Ps. I really liked The House on the Strand. It was weirdly fascinating.

    • Caroline

      Absolutely a kind of holiday read, especially if in Cornwall.
      I’m surprised you havent read it because you always seem to have read everything!
      Hope you are having a good time on your holiday.

  3. I go back and forth on DDM, but at her best she is remarkable. Will have to give this one a go – thanks for adding it to the club!

    • Caroline

      Hi SImon,
      I admire Daphne Du Maurier’s craft and skill, but find some of her subject matter really questionable, especially Rebecca. Jamaica Inn is a jolly good story, with plenty of atmosphere and her style fits it beautifully.
      So many good books in 1936. Thanks for the club, and I have one more for you from the archives tomorrow!

  4. Sounds like a great yarn – I know the plot a bit although I haven’t read the book. Du Maurier is an author I’ve only read a little of, but hope to get onto more this year if HeavenAli holds her reading event. Great choice for 1936 – thanks for joining in! 😀

    • Caroline

      As I said to Simon, I think her novels are of an uneven quality. This one is a good story, well told, but not much more than that. And it doesn’t have to be, ofcourse. I hope you enjoy it if you decide to read it.
      Thanks for the #1936Club. Grerat year!

  5. This was only the second Du Maurier novel I read and after my first experience – My Cousin Rachel – I didn’t have great hopes. But she proved me wrong. I thought this was a good yarn with tremendous atmosphere and a brilliantly conceived villain. One day I’ll get around to reading Rebecca…

    • Caroline

      My own view is that Rebecca is over-rated, and somewhat immoral. But I know it is widely considered a favourite. See my review on here for why.
      Jamaica Inn is a good story, well told as you say. Is it more? Does it have to be?

  6. Good review–I’m going off now to read your thoughts on House on the Strand which I read and reviewed earlier (I’ll link to that in case you are interested–not many people seem to read it anymore). I had hoped to read Jamacia Inn for 1936 Club, but settled for a quick Agatha Christie due to life!

    • Caroline

      Thanks for this approval, Lisa. Sorry you didn’t get to read Jamaica Inn yet. But I expect your Agatha Christie was enjoyable too.

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