Sunday, 13 July 2008

Jamaica Inn

by Daphne du Maurier

Published by Virago

Dan went off to horrible Camden one day to go to his local comic shop and came back with a gift for me - a six-pack of Daphne Du Maurier novels, an apt choice given Dan's birthplace. I had read Rebecca the previous year and sort-of enjoyed it. I love the Hitchcock film - it's definitely in my top three favourites - but the book is not so easy to love. It's full of dialogue and if there's one thing Daphne du Maurier is not good at, it's dialogue. But I was very pleasantly surprised when I tucked into Jamaica Inn. It's a fantastic, ridiculous romp, full of moody descriptions of Bodmin Moor and of course the Inn itself.

If Rebecca is du Maurier's Jane Eyre, then this is her Wuthering Heights. It fits exactly with the Gothic tradition: tragic heroine Mary loses parent and must travel miles to unfriendly relatives and spooky house which holds a secret only she can uncover. It runs exactly to formula but with brilliant results. The villain, Joss Merlyn, is violent, moody and yet strangely alluring to Mary. Luckily he has a younger brother with some of the same traits (but less violent) that she can fall for.

The plot storms along with gusto and I found I literally couldn't put the book down. I read most of it on the tube, going to and from work, and luckily there are very long escalators in tube stations, enabling me to read just a bit more. The book is dark and over-blown, especially in its depiction of the villains, but all the more enjoyable for that. But it is the writing which I found most surprising. Daphne du Maurier can really set a scene, particularly when she is describing her beloved Cornwall. The opening of the novel depicts a muddy, menacing race in horse and carriage which grabs the reader roughly and pulls them along with it:

It was a cold grey day in late November. The weather had changed overnight, when a backing wind brought a granite sky and a mizzling rain with it, and although it was only a little after two o' clock in the afternoon the pallor of a winter evening seemed to have closed upon the winter hills, cloaking them in mist...The wind came in gusts, at times shaking the coach as it travelled round the bend in the road...

I wish I had read this book when I was a teenager. I think I would have given it the same reverence and love I give Jane Eyre or Frankenstein. It has the same teenage fervour that these books have, the same thick, black italics in the writing style and the same monstrous, low-angle descriptions of its setting and characters. And, like those books, it's best read on a grey afternoon in November, with the rain beating on the window and the possibility of thunder not far away.

1 comment:

Gladys said...

Thanks, Deborah for reminding me what a wonderful yarn Jamaica Inn is! I haven't read it in years but your crit has made me want to revisit this one. It'll be interesting to see what my current self thinks of a story I last read when I was much younger!
I loved the film, too, in my younger days as I am a great fan of Robert Newton and wouldn't have minded looking like Maureen O'Hara.
It's going to be a real treat rediscovering this one and a complete contrast to the one I'm reading just now - Murder Most Fab by Julian Clary. But more of that later! Thank you again.