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This gothic is a classic with good reason
on August 28, 2004
JAMAICA INN has been on my "To Be Read" list for many years, so when I found an inexpensive paperback copy, it seemed like fate. Every bit as suspenseful as REBECCA but with a more engaging heroine, it kept me on the edge of my seat almost from the beginning.
Mary Yellan's mother dies, leaving her alone with a farm and no one to help her run it. (Apparently, in 19th century England, it was unthinkable that a 23-year-old woman should simply hire some help and keep the farm.) She sells up and goes to live in a distant county with an aunt she hasn't seen for ten years, but whom she remembers as pretty and vivacious. The aunt Patience she finds, however, is much changed. Now married to an abusive, drunken tyrant, Patience has relinquished her former self and become a cringing, wheedling shadow to her brutal husband. The couple reside at Jamaica Inn, an infamous establishment that respectable travelers have long abandoned.
The situation deteriorates further when inquisitive Mary discovers her uncle is involved in illegal dealings that include murder. Horrified, she stays at Jamaica Inn only for the sake of her aunt, whom she intends to rescue. She's befriended by the sympathetic vicar of a neighboring parish, and by her uncle's handsome brother, Jem, to whom she feels oddly drawn, despite his questionable livelihood as a horse thief.
In true Gothic style, the story hovers on the edges of believability. It doesn't pay to think too much on any one point. Mary displays the obligatory intelligence, pluck and curiosity of the gothic heroine, yet loses her courage and/or her smarts at just the points where her hesitation advances the plot. The villains of the story are pure evil without clear motivations. Jem is the most realistically drawn character.
But they don't write like Daphne DuMaurier anymore. Her richly descriptive style sets you squarely down in the midst of the Cornish moors, makes you see the stark granite rocks, feel the heavy air closing around you. Her pacing is nearly perfect, dragging only in one or two spots where I think she falters in her effort to prolong suspense. The story moves along so briskly that you're almost hypnotized into not noticing the plot's weaknesses. It certainly isn't hard to shuffle them to the back of your mind.
JAMAICA INN is well worth the read, especially if you're feeling a bit weary of "flavor-of-the-month" fiction. In particular, I found Ms. DuMaurier's portrayal of the local squire as a kind-hearted, blustering dullard interesting. I wonder if that was a reflection of current (1936) British attitudes toward the gentry. In a similar vein, the vicar's thoughts on religion must have been provocative at the time.