The Queen of fear

I recently drove down to Cornwall for a short break and decided I would read a novel connected to the local area. The hotel being located between two moors gave me the choice of The Hound of the Baskervilles, based on the legend of haunted Dartmoor in neighbouring Devon, or Jamaica Inn, located on Bodmin Moor, in Cornwall.

As I had passed the Jamaica Inn so many times along the A30 when visiting Cornwall, I thought it was high time to read Daphne du Maurier’s novel after being put off from doing so by Hitchcock’s film.

Published in 1936, it was her fourth novel and most successful up to that point, selling more copies in the first three months than her first three books combined. It established her as a serious novelist and led to her becoming one of the highest earning female authors in the UK in the 1950s.

She was only 29 when she wrote Jamaica Inn, a historical novel set in 1820 about wreckers and smugglers in Cornwall. Mary Yellan, the 23-year-old heroine, is forced to live with her aunt at the Jamaica Inn after her mother dies and discovers fairly quickly that it is run by a violent drunk smuggler who’s married to her aunt. Slowly, she learns of the dark secrets of the tavern, a thieves’ lair, where wagon loads of contraband are brought there in the middle of the night for hiding.

To Mary’s horror her Uncle Joss is the supposed head of the smuggling ring and she suspects he murdered, with the help of a mystery man, one of his co-smugglers who wanted out. Perhaps also to her horror, she finds herself falling in love with Jem, the younger brother of Joss who is a petty horse thief.

She wants to run away from the tavern but not without taking her poor aunt with her and turns to a vicar for help in a nearby village. But when her uncle in a drunken stupor confesses being a wrecker and murdering men, women and children, victims of the wrecked ships, she needs to escape. The vicar turns out not to be her saviour, but instead the mystery man and mastermind of the smuggling and wrecking venture.

Du Maurier is often mistakenly described as a romantic novelist, but nothing could be further from the truth as her work deals with much deeper subjects that are not normally associated with the genre. Neither in my opinion is Jamaica Inn a gothic romance as claimed on the back cover of my book and I would not necessarily compare it either to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre or Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, as some have done.

Enthusiasts of Du Maurier claim that the inspiration for Jamaica Inn came from her childhood interest to write an adventure story in the style of Treasure Island. She had once stayed at the Jamaica Inn and became interested in the tales of smuggling after becoming lost on Bodmin moor with her horse.

But her story is about male abuse of women, threats of rape and gang rape, murders, drunkenness, hostage-taking and even has a shootout at the end. A swashbuckling romance, it is not. There is indeed a lot of anger in the writing from the perspective of Mary Yellan, who has attitude and is never intimidated, not even by her seven foot giant of an uncle, a natural born killer. Mary Yellan doesn’t take any nonsense from men who are always trying to control her in some way. She’s smarter than them and knows to take her time. Her one goal is to remain independent of men and run her own farm one day, although Du Maurier does give ground on this narrative with a compromised ending.

The structure and content of the book reads more like a crime novel although with an unconventional setting. If placed in a contemporary setting with the uncle being a drug dealer and Mary Yellan plotting to escape him it would have all the makings of a traditional thriller.

Du Maurier wrote Jamaica Inn at a time when the hard-boiled detective novels were just beginning to entertain American readers. But she didn’t have to look at the trends taking place across the Atlantic for inspiration. Her stock-in-trade was creating an environment of fear and she often found it within the confines of her beloved Cornwall. Her following book, Rebecca (See also, September 23, 2016), set on the Cornish coast was to become her most accomplished work, again wrongly labelled for many years as a gothic novel, but now regarded as an exceptional psychological thriller.

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at http://www.tomclaver.co.uk

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