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.
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