Werner's Reviews > Jamaica Inn

Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier
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's review
Apr 10, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: historical-fiction
Recommended for: Fans of historical and Gothic fiction
Read from April 10 to 20, 2012 , read count: 1

Jamaica Inn is a real building which, as Du Maurier notes in her introductory note here, stood in her own time (and still does) on Cornwall's Bodmin Moor. The old inn caught the imagination of the young author, and she proceeded to spin a tale, envisioning it "as it might have been over a hundred and twenty years ago." (Since she wrote those words in 1935, that puts the setting of the novel somewhat before 1815; the date is never given in the text itself.) And what a tale it is, complete with smugglers and wreckers, violence and danger, romance, murder and insanity, all flavored with a richly Gothic seasoning. Add in a well-realized evocation of one of my favorite historical periods, a palpable sense of place (Du Maurier was actually born in London, but her family had a Cornish summer home; she spent a lot of time in Cornwall, and eventually made it her home), vividly-drawn characters and a masterful prose style, and you have all the ingredients of a fictional banquet that's bound to make me happy! This was my first experience of Du Maurier's work, but it definitely won't be the last. :-)

The plot here is compressed into a tight time-frame; it opens in November (with some references made, in Mary's memories, to earlier events), and concludes in early January. (It might be argued by some that this furnishes too little time for a couple to fall in love, and to decide on a life partner; but I would say that those things CAN happen in that time, when the attraction is real and strong.) Du Maurier's writing style has something of the flavor of a 19th-century novel (coming from me, that's a compliment); it doesn't have the elaborate, convoluted syntax, but it does have a substantial quality to it, and makes use of a wide vocabulary. (This was one of very few books in recent decades that sent me to the dictionaries in the house to look up a word!) She creates an atmosphere of oppression and dread in the old inn and its desolate, brooding surrounding countryside with a very deft use of language (and atmosphere is extremely crucial in this type of novel). She introduces key elements of traditional Gothic plotting (the old, menacing, isolated dwelling; the hidden secret; a possible love interest who's compromised by a very plausible reason to distrust him) in a way that seems natural and not formulaic. Her level of description is just right; it's obvious that she knows the varied topography of Cornwall firsthand, and she makes it real to the reader. All of the significant characters here are fully three-dimensional, with positive and negative traits intermingled (obviously in different proportions!), and believable reasons for their actions. The plot makes the book a gripping page-turner, and the climax is as exciting a piece of fictional writing as I've ever read.

Given all of these positives, what dropped the book's rating from the full five stars? Well, the plot device of the dropped nail from a horseshoe, which plays such a critical role in unraveling the mystery, struck me as somewhat contrived; I'm not sure a recently-driven nail would come loose so conveniently, or that someone with no reason to think it was there would find it so handily. (I'm also not sure that even someone knowledgeable about horses would know the work of local blacksmiths well enough to recognize a nail, even granting that these nails would have been hand-forged and that blacksmiths wouldn't be numerous.) More importantly, the text is salted with sexist comments, in the words of the male characters and often in Mary's own thoughts. True, this can be viewed as a reflection of the way she's been taught, rather than of Du Maurier's own attitude; and for all her ideas about the frailty of women, Mary Yellan is obviously no coward and not weak. She's not Supergirl; she can experience a good deal of fear when its warranted, and more than once be prostrated by shock and horror. But she's also taken responsibility to care for her dying mother; she chooses to stay at Jamaica Inn to help and protect her Aunt Patience when she'd much prefer to escape; and she displays resourcefulness and courage on more than one occasion. (And while she's no Sarah Tolerance (Point of Honour), she does immobilize a would-be rapist long enough to get away, and she can ask for a pistol and walk into a dangerous situation rather than let a male companion do it.) The overall effect of these comments, though, can be grating. That leads into a point that would constitute a spoiler.

(view spoiler) I also have another quibble about the ending. (view spoiler) Finally, I think the "freak" language used in several places in referring to the vicar's albinism was overdone and irritating. (Maybe I'm sensitive on this point because a friend of mine in seminary was an albino.) (view spoiler).

These points, though (some of which are rather subjective), didn't keep me from really liking the book. In the main, I think it's a great read that I'd recommend to anyone with tastes for this type of fiction! (Note: If you're acquainted with the story only through the Hitchcock movie version, you need to know that he did NOT follow the novel very closely. Though it has some significant differences, the 1983 miniseries starring Jane Seymour is a much closer adaptation.)
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Comments (showing 1-26 of 26) (26 new)

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Werner Okay, I realized after thinking about it that I made one error in my comments above about the horseshoe nail. It wasn't "recently-driven;" the trip to the smithy would have been made to replace it. (Duh; face-palm!) But still, I continue to think the nail clue is somewhat contrived.

message 2: by B0nnie (new) - added it

B0nnie mmm a little Gothic seasoning - yummy review Werner (I didn't read the spoilers - it took a will of iron). I love the name "Daphne du Maurier"... it's so highfalutin'

Werner Thanks, Bonnie! Yes, if you ever plan to read the book, it's probably best not to read the spoilers (and kudos on your will power! :-) ).

I like Du Maurier's name, too; it's got a classy ring to it. My guess is that her ancestors were Norman French, probably aristocrats.

message 4: by Bruce (new)

Bruce A very rich review, Werner -- there are several things I'd like to comment on, but I must leave time for a good night's sleep! I, too, enjoyed the climax; the surprise ending was very well staged.

My feeling about du Maurier generally is that, despite her considerable story-telling talent, her work lacks a thematic and emotional focus that would give her stories more human significance--for instance, a profound moral dilemma to be resolved by the protagonist. I remember while reading Jamaica Inn not being able to shake the feeling I was reading slick magazine fiction, though very well done. But that's a very subjective appraisal which I can't substantiate.

In any case, Rebecca and The Breaking Point remain treasured reading experiences.

message 5: by Werner (last edited Aug 02, 2015 11:25AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Werner Thanks, Bruce! No, I don't think your appraisal is too subjective, at least where this novel is concerned (I hven't read any of her others). Objectively speaking, profound moral questions are not stressed here with anything like the sharpness and focus that they are in works like Jane Eyre or The Rise of Silas Lapham. In that sense, the latter novels can be said to be more significant than this one is.

I'll keep the two titles you mentioned in mind. Also, I have The House on the Strand buried in one of my numerous to-read piles (it was a generous gift from a Goodreads friend), and I'm somewhat intriguied by The King's General. What did you think of those, if you've read them?

message 6: by Nina (new)

Nina Werner wrote: "Okay, I realized after thinking about it that I made one error in my comments above about the horseshoe nail. It wasn't "recently-driven;" the trip to the smithy would have been made to replace it..."You might enjoy reading her autobiography, "Myself When Young."

Werner Thanks, Nina, I'll keep that one in mind. (It might be a title worth considering for the BC library colection, too.)

message 8: by [deleted user] (new)

When you get a chance give The House on the Strand a try. IMO its her best book altho I love Rebecca too.

Werner Next year, I need to start making a concerted effort to reduce my physical to-read piles. I'm definitely going to try to get to The House on the Strand as part of that program!

message 10: by [deleted user] (new)

Good luck! Since I joined goodreads I know there is no hope for me to reduce my TBR piles as I want to read most all of it. I still have 27 books that I got at the library book sale that I have NOT even touched except to carry them home and that does not count the ones most recently purchased. (one still in the bag!)

Werner Alice, I thought I was a sucker for used book sales, but I've never snagged 27 books at once! I don't know whether to congratulate you or commiserate with you (or both!). :-)

Werner I love to window-shop for books, in bookstores and book sections of department stores as well as in secondhand stores and at yard sales, etc. But compared to you, I'm actually a fairly picky buyer. I figure I don't need to own books that I know are in the library where I work, or in the public libraries around here; and a lot of books I see don't interest me enough as possible reads to buy them. Of course, I still buy more than I should (and have gotten quite a few free on BookMooch).

message 13: by [deleted user] (new)

I never know when I am going to find my new favorite book.

message 14: by Barbara (last edited Apr 25, 2012 02:39AM) (new)

Barbara Great review Werner. I didn't like JI as much as you did, but your review has made me want to dig it out again I must say.

Re the misogyny evident in many places, this is , I'm afraid, a reflection of Du Maurier herself, and very hard to overlook. But then both Goergette Heyer and Mary Renault, two of my favourite authors ( for very differnt reasons) had hard-to-forgive views on women in real life. Both seemed to believe that virtually all women, except themselves and a chosen few , were pretty much idiots and/or shrews.

Werner Thsnks, Barbara! And thanks for the info on Du Maurier's (and her two contemporaries') attitudes. (I've never read Heyer or Renault). You're right, the misogyny is hard to overlook!

message 16: by Nina (new)

Nina Do you remember that DuMaurier disappeared for several months and even her husband didn't know her whereabouts?

Werner Nina, you may be thinking of Agatha Christie. There was a famous episode in her life when she did exactly that, but I'm not aware of anything similar in Du Maurier's biography.

message 18: by Barbara (last edited Apr 27, 2012 11:33PM) (new)

Barbara Yes, definitely not Du Maurier Nina, but as Werner says, AC did do that.

Daphne du M did go to America for a while, fairly quietly and, actually , against her will as she had to defend a plaigiarism suit brought against her (quite wrongly it would appear)

The visit had compensations though as she met Ellen Doubleday , the publishers wife and fell in love with her . ED was not inclined to anything physical in same-sex love but they did love each other very much in other ways right up until Ellen's death.
As for a more a full fledged same sex love, she had that with the famous actress Gertrude Lawrence.

Pity that loving both of these women didn't make her more tolerant of women generally isn't it !

message 19: by Dolors (new) - added it

Dolors Du Maurier, I've got opposite feelings regarding her works...
"Rebecca" is one of the best novels I've ever read, but then I've read "The King's General" and "The loving spirit" and they were somehow more of the same, in style and in plot.
Maybe I should pick up "Jamaica Inn", I never took the plunge because it was a compulsory reading at school (when I was young an ignorant!) and I might have missed a good reading!

message 20: by Barbara (last edited Mar 20, 2013 06:44PM) (new)

Barbara Werner wrote: "Nina, you may be thinking of Agatha Christie. There was a famous episode in her life when she did exactly that, but I'm not aware of anything similar in Du Maurier's biography."

I have just read a biography of AC in which it becomes clear that she got a very bad press over the 'disappearance ' partly because of the badly constructed story her then husband put about , ie that she had amnesia. In fact her disappearance , only a few weeks in all, was an attempt by her to get her unfaithful husband back and she had - albeit obliquely- actually told him where she could be 'found '.

Apologies for the off-topic nature of this .

Werner No need to apologize, Barbara. Thanks for the interesting fact!

message 22: by Jean (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jean Excellent review Werner! I'm rereading this one as part of a group Daphne du Maurier readalong in March.

I do remember it being very atmospheric, but yes, rather misogynistic. It has to be remembered that it's one of her earlier novels, dating from 1936. Personally I think Rebecca My Cousin Rachel The Scapegoat and The House on the Strand are all better novels. And her short stories are superb - many quite nasty and unusually ahead of their time.

She famously wished she were a man, and was happier when writing male viewpoint characters.

Werner Thanks, Jean! I've never read any more of Du Maurier's work (yet); but when I get through some significant portion of the 350+ titles that are on my TBR list already, I hope to explore her writing in more depth.

message 24: by Jean (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jean Oh yes, the TBR list *sigh* ;)

If you'd like a taste of what "The House on the Strand" is like, as Alice recommended, you could read my review of it. It is quite an unusual book.

Werner Great review, Jean! I'm not sure if The House on the Strand would be my cup of tea or not. Usually, I prefer less ambiguity in my novel-length reads. :-)

message 26: by Jean (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jean Ah! Noted! She does tend to do that quite a lot.

And thank you :)

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