As the world outside has gradually become red, brown and yellow with beautiful autumn leaves, and the mornings have grown foggy and damp, I have been feeling as though it is the perfect weather for curling up under my blanket and getting stuck in a good, thrilling book. What could be more perfect than a Daphne du Maurier with her chilling stories, usually set in a lonely location, with stormy weather and bleak countryside?
I have a large book with a collection of four of du Maurier’s “Great Cornish Novels” starting with Jamaica Inn. I first read this when I was quite young, and had forgotten the details of the plot. All I remembered was a feeling of tension, excitement and mystery surrounding the book. Eager to read the book again, I raced through it in only a few days. Indeed, it was hard to put the book down!
When Mary Yellan finds herself alone after her mother dies, she goes to live with her only remaining relative, Aunt Patience, who lives with her husband at the lonely and forbidding Jamaica Inn. Mary arrives to find her aunt a shadow of her former, happier and prettier self. Being constantly bullied and abused by her terrible husband, the drunken Joss Merlyn, Aunt Patience has turned into a gaunt and nervous woman.
Surrounded by moors and miles from anywhere, Jamaica Inn has few customers and a bad reputation. In this lonely spot, dangerous and terrible things are happening in the dead of night. Wheels can be heard under Mary’s window and the sounds of heavy objects being dragged from the forbidden, barred room downstairs.
Through snatches of overheard conversations and drunken confessions, Mary gradually begins to piece together the terrifying truth about Jamaica Inn. With no hope of escape without her aunt, Mary struggles on, hoping that an opportunity may arise, where she can finally put Joss Merlyn where he belongs, with a rope around his neck.
To complicate matters, Mary finds unlikely friendship in the landlords brother, Jem Merlyn. He is crude, impolite and a horse thief, but when in his company, Mary laughs and forgets her worries. Jem cannot fully be trusted though, as she often reminds herself – who knows how much involvement he has with the goings on at Jamaica Inn.
Du Maurier is a wonderful writer who grabs you attention from the very first words. The opening paragraph, describing a wet and windy evening, sets the mood for the rest of the novel. As we read on, and the story takes us from autumn to a cold and bleak winter, the tension begins to mount. With each chapter the feeling of dread and horror builds up, until it is impossible to put the book down and you find yourself sitting wide eyed, needing to know what will happen.
The character of Joss Merlyn is particularly scary, his moods dramatically swinging from drunken violence, to quiet and menacing viciousness, he is uncontrollable and unpredictable. It is characters like these that bring du Maurier’s work to life and characters like Mary Yellan, full of spirit and courage, that fill you with hope throughout the book.