After her mother’s death, Mary Yellan goes to live with her Aunt Patience and Uncle Joss at their inn on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall. But during the coach journey to her new home, Mary hears some disturbing things about Jamaica Inn and its landlord. Soon Mary makes her own shocking discoveries about Joss Merlyn’s activities and finds herself drawn into his villainous schemes while trying to protect her frightened, nervous Aunt Patience. And when Mary is befriended by two very different men – one of them her uncle’s horse thief brother, Jem Merlyn, and the other Francis Davey, the albino vicar of Altarnun – she must decide which, if either, she can trust.
This was actually a re-read for me, although it’s been so long since I first read it that all the details of the plot had completely faded from my mind. What I did remember was being disappointed. When I read it for the first time it was immediately after finishing Rebecca (which I loved – and which is still one of my favourite books ever) and Jamaica Inn just wasn’t as good. This was more than ten years ago though, so I recently decided to give it a second chance. And I did enjoy the book much more this time than I did the first time, maybe because now that I’ve read so many of du Maurier’s other novels it meant I could consider Jamaica Inn in the context of a wider body of work rather than solely in comparison with Rebecca.
Like many of du Maurier’s other books, this one is dark, gothic and atmospheric. Published in 1936 but set in the early 1800s, it has a lot of the traditional elements you would expect to find in a gothic novel (stormy weather, smugglers, locked rooms, shipwrecks, desolate moors, a remote, lonely inn). There are also some memorable characters – Mary herself is an intelligent and courageous heroine, and I know I said that I couldn’t remember much from my previous read, but I certainly hadn’t forgotten the character of her violent, brutal Uncle Joss!
So, Jamaica Inn is not one of my favourite du Maurier novels but not my least favourite either. It does not have the depth and complexity of Rebecca or some of her later novels, but then this one was written near the beginning of her career and is a good early example of her work. The plot is not particularly complicated and I found it quite predictable but du Maurier’s skill at creating tension and suspense meant that I still enjoyed reading it.