An introduction to Jamaica Inn

Bidisha explores some of the themes and preoccupations of Jamaica Inn, from violence and the supernatural to love and desire.

Jamaica Inn was written in 1935 but set in the early 19th century in Cornwall, between Bodmin and Launceston. A psychodrama steeped in murder, paranoia and sexual threat, its most intense action occurs between the closing year’s shortest day – or, more pertinently, its longest night – and the New Year, with the majority of scenes happening in the witching hour.

Jamaica Inn’s heroine Mary Yellan has left home, a farm in Helford, following the death of her mother. The landscape of her childhood is presented in softened, heightened terms as a paradise of ‘shining waters’ and ‘green hills’ (ch. 1). She has lost everything: her mother (to whom she was a proxy husband for 17 years following the death of her father), her home, her livelihood, her independence and her social position as a farmer doing ‘the work of a man’ (ch. 1). Her arrival at the isolated Jamaica Inn, which lies ‘murky dim in the darkness’ (ch. 1) and is occupied by her aunt Patience and Patience’s husband Joss Merlyn, is the next stage in her journey from Heaven to Hell, childhood to adulthood, happy ignorance to tortured knowledge.

Mystery, fairy tale and dark secrets

Du Maurier excels at stewing an atmosphere of pagan ritualism, fated classical tragedy, fairy-tale-like mystery, atavistic darkness and Hollywood horror. The inn is described with Gothic relish as being steeped in suffering. Zombie-like, it is ‘like a live thing’ (ch. 12) but has a ‘cold, dead atmosphere’ (ch. 5). The clock ticks ‘like a dying man who cannot catch his breath’ (ch. 4), and the wooden sign creaks ‘like an animal in pain’ (ch. 2). The landscape works against its inhabitants, with its perilous bogs, blinding fog and ‘lashing, pitiless’ rain (ch. 1). The wind on the moors is ‘a chorus from the dead’ (ch. 17), and this is both metaphorically and literally true: there are murdered bodies buried on the moor and murderous secrets buried (yet always on the brink of emerging) in the community.

It is at Jamaica Inn that Mary learns fear for the first time. Penniless and now dependent on others, she goes from being a respected member of a village community to being a powerless outcast terrorised by local men. The only thing keeping Mary at the inn is her protectiveness towards her aunt against Uncle Joss’s brutish behaviour. Mary’s own dealings with Uncle Joss are charged with his violence and her loathing – and a half-acknowledged sexual desire. Like the wolf in ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, who consumes grown women and tempts visiting girls, Uncle Joss is powerful yet cunning, ‘lean and hungry’ (ch. 2). A wolf’s smile and Joss’s are said to be ‘one and the same’ (ch. 2).

Uncle Joss’s volatility is tied to the secrets he is repressing. He is the kingpin of a network of ‘wreckers’ (ch. 10) who lure ships off course using a ‘false light’ (ch. 11), cause them to be smashed against the coastal rocks, murder the survivors and steal the cargo. Joss is haunted by his crimes, and in a drunken bout of self-pity describes the men and women he has killed appearing to him ‘like live things in the darkness’ (ch. 8) – once again, like zombies. The inn reeks of death because it is literally used to store dead bodies, and also because it has soaked up the existential pain of the murderers who frequent it. There’s a locked and barred room downstairs, used for bodies and contraband: the perfect literal-and-symbolic du Maurier image of a secret which exists openly.

Bleeding out of the shadows

Uncle Joss’s cronies are described in the language of uncanny transformation and the supernatural. They are ‘no more than shadows’ (ch. 4)as if they have bled out of the darkness itself and are not part of the human race but a separate category of sub-creature, ‘shapeless and distorted’ (ch. 4), slithering from ‘every hole and corner’ (ch. 15). When they torment a simple-minded local man, their laughter resounds like ‘a tortured thing’ (ch. 4); even the men’s joy is a kind of pain. Joss Merlyn himself is tellingly named, after the mythical Arthurian wizard, yet the spell he casts is of black rather than benign magic. When Mary first encounters him, he pulls her ‘roughly’ inside (ch. 2), running his fingers over her and threatening her with rape and beating, as he does throughout the novel. Like all the men in the novel except the local squire, Joss manhandles Mary ‘until she cried out in pain’, warning her, ‘that’s like a foretaste of punishment, and you know what to expect’ (ch. 4).

Violence and the effects of abuse

The abuses which Mary witnesses and survives horrify her but do not seem credible ‘in the cold light of day’ (ch. 5). She is cowed by the certainty that she will not be believed and by fantasies about the physical freedom she would have as a man, when she could challenge her uncle in open combat, ‘and then away on a horse … with Aunt Patience riding pillion’ (ch. 4). Instead, as a woman, she has ‘no weapons’ (ch. 4), and is nothing more than ‘a petticoat and a shawl’ (ch. 4). Joss’s domination is such that Aunt Patience and Mary are diminished and caught, forced into silence through the fear of violence and the absence of escape, ‘like mice in a trap’ (ch. 2). Du Maurier writes expertly about the long-term effects of domestic abuse. In Aunt Patience we see someone whose personality and intelligence have been eroded because of constant fear. She is ‘like a whimpering dog that has been trained by constant cruelty to implicit obedience’ (ch. 2), living in ‘perpetual high anxiety and alert’.

Violence against women is normal amongst Uncle Joss’s cronies. After one of them attempts to rape Mary during a shipwreck between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, du Maurier writes brilliantly about the psychological effects of a sexual attack. She describes horror, inner destruction, defilement and dissociation: Mary feels that ‘the body lying on the bed did not belong to her’ (ch. 12), and ‘she had no wish to live’ (ch. 12). She is triggered by flashbacks, shrinking back when Aunt Patience leans over her. When she sees the rapist again she cannot bear to look at him, feeling an immediate ‘nausea and disgust’ (ch. 12). Later still, she can’t bring herself to describe what he has done, except to say he ‘attacked’ her (ch. 16).

The violence in the novel seems to seep into the characters from the land itself. Although the action spans barely a month, it bears the mythic build-up, not of years, but of epochs. Du Maurier describes the land as being abandoned by God, absent of God or ruled either by an archaic force pre-dating God, or by the Devil himself. The stones ridging the moors resemble pagan altars, while one landmark is described as bursting out of the earth like a devil’s hand. The darkness described repeatedly in the novel is at once literal, moral (describing murder, corruption and death) and emotional (alluding to grief, guilt and depression). The shipwreck on Christmas Eve is not just immoral and illegal; because of its timing it has an occult dimension of sacrilege and blasphemy, of mocking or profaning Christ.

The uncanny and the familiar

The novel’s most impressive feat is to take the elements of the uncanny and concentrate them into a character who is apparently integrated into the normal social fabric of the locality. Francis Davey is the vicar at nearby Altarnun, an albino who befriends Mary. Du Maurier’s descriptions of him evoke vampires, spectres, angels and aliens, strange visitors to whom normal rules of behaviour and appearance do not apply. Davey appears and disappears, ‘two white eyes and a voice in the darkness’ (ch. 9), materialising just when Mary needs him. His presence leaves no trace on the house he inhabits, and his ‘transparent gaze’ (ch. 6) comes from eyes like ‘glass’ (ch. 10), as if he is a transfigured character in a Hans Christian Andersen story. Like a fairy-tale trickster, he admits multiple times that he ‘speaks in riddles’ (ch. 10).

Davey is literally and symbolically the ‘false light’ (ch. 10) of the novel, leading Mary off course. This duplicity is hinted at when du Maurier describes his face as being ‘a white mask’ four times (ch. 9, ch. 17). Even his smile brings images of pain rather than joy, cutting into his face ‘like a wound’ (ch. 17). Mary finds a caricature he has drawn of himself, preaching at the pulpit as a wolf – both a fairy-tale character and an attractive predator, just like her uncle – with his parishioners drawn as sheep, obedient and easily deceived. Mary feels the picture to be not just arrogant and hypocritical but ‘blasphemous’ (ch. 16), against God. This is so in keeping with all the other characters in the novel that Mary realises too late that Davey is one of ‘them’, the ‘people of the moors’ (ch. 4), not any kind of friend.

Du Maurier skilfully blurs the line between realism and the ghastly fantastic, leaving open the possibility that Davey is, indeed, a creature who has existed since prehistory and embodies some ancient dynamic. He claims, like a vampire or a ghost, to ‘live in the past … in the beginning of time’ (ch. 17), and says he ‘understand[s] something of the night’ (ch. 17) as though he has lived for 100 years and either doesn’t sleep or sleeps during the day and walks at night. Like a damned Miltonian angel-turned-demon, Davey describes himself as ‘an outcast’ (ch. 16) who is excluded by, exempt from and indeed superior to everyday ‘dogma’ (ch. 16). In dismissing Jesus as ‘a puppet thing’ (ch. 16) he demonstrates his own sense of being above God and older than the Common Era.

Despite his pretensions, however, Francis Davey is no less a violent, sexually harassing, abusive man than Joss Merlyn and the wreckers. Like them, he threatens to ‘spoil’ Mary’s ‘youth and beauty’ (ch. 17) and leave her ‘face down’ (ch. 17). That is not an empty threat, because Davey’s violence comes with its own sly sadism: he murders alone, creeping up on people and stabbing them in the back. Spouting nonsense about living like the Druids, he violently abducts her, just as the wreckers did on Christmas Eve and makes for the moors, where the harsh conditions quickly make his fantasies look ridiculous.

Love and sexual desire

A final theme running through Jamaica Inn is one of love and sexual desire, which provokes feelings in Mary which are strong, yet conflicted. She is painfully aware of the similarities between Jem Merlyn, the horse-thief she desires, and his brother, her Uncle Joss, the man she hates; her feelings about both men merge into each other. Jem is a thinner, younger, stronger, healthier version of Joss; both are demonstrative, earthy, blunt and talkative. When Mary first meets Jem he reminds her of Uncle Joss ‘throughout the conversation’ (ch. 5); when she looks at her uncle the curve of his mouth is ‘painfully familiar’ (ch. 12), and she can’t help noticing the ‘long dark lashes [that] swept his cheek’ (ch. 8). Du Maurier is brilliant on the humiliating irrationality of physical desire, where incriminating impulses are ‘never acknowledged to the sturdy day’ (ch. 12).

For Mary, love is more damning than sexual desire and comes with greater risks. Mary fears the loss of self-mastery that comes with love, which is not described in joyful terms but those of ‘pain’ and ‘anguish’ (ch. 9). She is perturbed by liking Joss Merlyn despite her opinion of him: ‘He stood for everything she feared and hated and despised; but she knew she could love him’ (ch. 9). She judges herself harshly, describing herself in the same terms with which she derides Aunt Patience’s submissiveness towards Joss: ‘She ranged herself on his side, she defended him … without reason and against her sane judgement.’ (ch. 10)

Mary vows that ‘I don’t want to love like a woman or feel like a woman’ (ch. 10) because the intensity and trusting wholeheartedness of women’s feelings lead to ‘pain … suffering … misery’ (ch. 10). Mary loathes what Uncle Joss has done to Aunt Patience, but there is also a great deal of distaste in the way Aunt Patience is viewed by Mary. Patience is ‘useless’, acts like a ‘dummy’ (ch. 13)and is described as ineffective, repetitive, clingy and pathetic. Even though the perpetrators of all the abuse in the book are men, not women, Mary still manages to blame the victim, wondering, ‘why were women such fools, so short-sighted and unwise?’ (ch. 5)

At the same time, Mary can overlook Jem Merlyn’s misogyny. Jem says that ‘senseless or conscious, women are pretty much the same’ (ch. 5) and ‘there’s two things women ought to do by instinct, and cooking’s one of ’em’ (ch. 8). He is surprised, because he’s never thought about it, when Mary asks him to consider how his mother must have suffered as the daughter, wife and mother of abusive men. But Jem is charming and sexy, and so Mary ‘had not the heart to be angry with him’ (ch. 5). When she visits his hovel for the first time, she immediately scrubs the place, makes lunch and serves it to him.

In the final lines of the novel, Mary grapples with a dilemma: to return to Helford or to go with Jem. In keeping with the post-lapsarian theme of the book, a return to Helford and to the innocence and security it represents is impossible. Yet so is travelling with Jem as an equal. ‘If you were a man I’d ask you to come with me’ (ch. 18), he says in his typically direct way. But she is ‘only a woman’ (ch. 18)– and his teasing of Mary is ‘only’ a ‘playful’ version of Joss’s tormenting of Aunt Patience.

Mary joins Jem, in a last-minute happy ending, with a fatalistic and martyr-like pledging of her entire self which reminds the reader chillingly of Aunt Patience: ‘I want to … I must; because now and for ever more this is where I belong to be’ (ch. 18). They ride off, turning their backs against the violence of Jamaica Inn and Jem’s childhood. One wonders if they have been liberated from the past or if the locals’ repeated assertion that ‘there’s never been a Merlyn yet that came to any good’ (ch. 18)will be vindicated, and the family’s and landscape’s history will repeat itself yet again.

Banner credit: Copyright Getty Images/ Haynes Archive/ Popperfoto

  • Bidisha
  • Bidisha is a writer, a BBC radio and TV broadcaster and a Trustee of the Booker Prize Foundation. She is the author of two novels, two bestselling works of travel and reportage, Venetian Masters: Under the Skin of the City of Love and Beyond the Wall: Writing a Path Through Palestine, and most recently her fifth book Asylum and Exile: Hidden Voices, based on her outreach work with asylum seekers and refugees.

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