Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I know the opening pages of Daphne du Maurier’s classic novel extremely well having used the opening for several years with my GCSE English students. It was an extract given in a past paper and I found it served wonderfully well as a first foray into analysing text. I have, along with my students, pored over every single word of the first 8-10 paragraphs. Over time, curiosity got the better of me – I wanted to know more of this elusive Mary Yellen mentioned so intriguingly in the first two paragraphs to mention her. I finally succumbed.
I recall watching Hitchcock’s rendering of the author’s most famous work, ‘Rebecca’, many years ago as a child and enjoying the brooding intensity of the plot. The author and director were a perfect match for one another it seems. ‘Jamaica Inn’ shares many of the same qualities.
Mary Yellen, after the death of her mother, has gone to live with her aunt at Jamaica Inn. Remembering her aunt in childhood as a joyful soul, she’s looking forward to this. But her aunt has married a terrible man who is the landlord of the infamous ‘Jamaica Inn’ where evil and murderous deeds take place in the dead of night. Mary Yellen soon finds her life and her sanity are in grave danger as she unravels the secrets.
The girl is presented as strong and courageous – admired by all, good and bad alike – and it was good to read a woman’s perspective on a female character rather than a man’s, as we so often read. Such is the excellent craftsmanship of the opening that I looked forward to the story unfolding.
Alas, du Maurier’s book has not aged too well. The plot was hopelessly obvious (I guessed both the mystery villain and future lover instantly on their introductions and found almost all the scenes predictable) and male characters rather pathetic and truly incompetent – unfortunate when they were all supposed to be strong, wild, brilliant and terrifying to some degree or another. Worse, Mary Yellen turns out to be petulant and obstinate, granted, but quick wits and courage were in short(lived) supply. It was most disappointing. A glowing figure for feminism, she is not.
For all that, it’s not a bad book in terms of writing quality, though I think if I see the words ‘mizzling rain’ one more time I may actually scream. Either Cornwall suffers a persistent rain of invariable and miserable quality, or du Maurier would have benefited from using her thesaurus a little more often. There came a point where I almost believed every page contained a form of ‘mizzle’ somehow. That aside, she builds atmosphere well and magically transports us back to the 19th century and to a time of thieves and vagabonds, ship wreckers and horse thieves, mysterious strangers and harsh men who are somehow deeply attractive. And hands. Lots of hands.
For readers looking for a romantic ‘Mills & Boon’ style of novel but with better quality writing, then you can do worse than choose ‘Jamaica Inn’. For me, I’ve satisfied my curiosity over this particular author and, while I don’t feel I’ve wasted hours of my life the way Conrad left me, I feel no need to explore ‘Rebecca’ or any of the other many stories she penned.
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Social Entrepreneur, educationalist, bestselling author and journalist, D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Listen to his life story in interview with the BBC here.
D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Alternatively, he is available for one-to-one mentoring and runs a course on the psychology of writing.
Ken writes for a number of publications around the world. Past reviewer for Paste magazine, The Doughnut, E2D and United Airways, and currently reviews for Lancashire Life magazine and Northern Arts Review.