As child growing up  in the late  fifties there was a slim volume on our bookshelves that I turned to over and over again. It was  certainly not intended  for a ten  or eleven year old, especially one  more  accustomed to  Enid Blyton and The Magic Faraway Tree.  Nevertheless,  I read it with horrified fascination,  though without the knowledge  of my parents.  The book was Jamaica Inn, by Daphne du Maurier; a dark but  compelling tale of smugglers and ship wreckers.

The story is set in Cornwall in  1819.    It opens with young   Mary Yellum  arriving  at remote Jamaica  Inn,  located  on the road  from  Bodmin to Launceston,  to  stay with her late  mother’s sister.  Mary finds that  her Aunt  Patience has become a cringing, downtrodden wreck. Her uncle,  the landlord Josh Merlin,  is a brutal drunkard and Jamaica  Inn is full of  terrible secrets.

There was one scene in particular that  repelled and disturbed  me.  The image  Miss du Maurier conjured has  remained with me ever since;  a wonderful  example of the power of writing   Late one night,  Mary is forced to serve drinks to  a motley collection of her uncle’s cronies:

The pedlar was making bait of the wretched idiot from Dozmary, who, crazy from drink, had no control of himself, and could not rise from the floor, where he squatted like an animal, They lifted him on to a table, and the pedlar made him repeat the words of his songs, complete with actions, amid the frenzy of laughter from the crowd; and the poor beast, excited by the applause that greeted him, jigged up and and down, whinnying delight , plucking at his spotted purple birthmark with a broken finger-nail.

The author discusses   the genesis of the novel in her memoir, Vanishing Cornwall , published in 1967.   She and a friend had once  ridden  out from  the inn and become lost on desolate  Bodmin Moor in rain and fog.  As the  light failed they  began to  panic and  gave the horses their heads, praying  the ponies would lead them back home.  Finally:  ‘...welcoming lamplight shone from the slated porch……here was the turf fire for which we had longed, brown and smoky sweet, a supper of eggs and bacon ready to be served with a pot of scalding tea.’

 ‘Out of that November evening long ago  came a novel which proved popular, passing, as fiction often  does, into the folk-lore of the district.. ‘ Miss  du  Maurier  expressed  some embarrassment over the motor coaches  that   began to greet travellers  in the wake of her novel’s success, intensified by the film  Jamaica Inn,  directed by Alfred Hitchcock  in 1934.     Today, literary pilgrims continue to roll up in summer, but  there is magic still in suddenly coming upon the  inn  when rain and wind sheet across the moors. It is  easy to imagine the desperate men du Maurier wrote about, and their wild, midnight rides from the coast. I took my elderly aunt to visit   Jamaica Inn some years ago, as part of a  tour of England. She had been reading the book for the first time as we made our way to Cornwall from London. I was delighted, if slightly  envious, that  she arrived with  the story so fresh and vivid  in her mind, and having  just visited a series of smugglers’ coves, including the impossibly beautiful Polperro.

Although Jamaica Inn itself has changed over the years, much of its original atmosphere remains,  due to its lonely position and forbidding exterior. Inside, a small museum contains du Maurier memorabilia, including the writer’s desk and typewriter. There is also a photograph of the author with her husband, ‘Boy’  Browning.






If you have read and enjoyed Rebecca  (and hasn’t everyone?)  I think you would also enjoy this book.




Feel free to leave a comment below – your contribution would be appreciated.


  1. Du Maurier country is a great place for a literary pilgrimage, especially hidden spots like Frenchman’s Creek.

  2. Pauline

    I agree, also Fowey where Du Maurier lived and wrote when she was young and the area around Menabilly, which of course became Manderley in Rebecca. There is even an annual Du Maurier festival at Fowey which is held in the English spring – http://www.dumaurierfestival.co.uk

  3. Ah, Daphne du Maurier – one of my all-time favourite authors! I came across her in the 1960s, when I was a teenager – and over the years read all of her books. Visited her part of Cornwall a few years ago, after reading her biography by Margaret Forster. If you haven’t read it – do! It’s excellent!

    • Pauline

      Yes, I have read it Ann. Her private life was as fascinating as her books!

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