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Linda Hilton

Reader, Writer, Merciless Reviewer and Incurable Romantic

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Atmosphere is terrific, but it's not enough to carry a story

Rebecca / Jamaica Inn / Frenchman's Creek / My cousin Rachel. - Daphne du Maurier

Huge spoilers ahead.


(Photo courtesy Jamaica Inn http://www.jamaicainn.co.uk/)


If you want a mood piece with fabulous descriptions of the harsh isolation of Bodmin Moor, this is it.  If you want a portrait of the worst of nineteenth century smuggling and wrecking, this is it.  If you want a coherent story with well-developed characters, this is not it.


For seventeen years, Mary Yellan and her widowed mother have maintained a small farm near Helford, at the southern end of Cornwall.  To comply with her dying mother's wish, Mary sells the farm and all her belongings and moves to Jamaica Inn on windswept Bodmin Moor, where her Aunt Patience lives with her husband, Joss Merlyn, the landlord of the inn.  Mary soon discovers her uncle-by-marriage is deeply involved in a huge smuggling operation.


Wow!  Great potential!  But . . . .



None of the characters is fully developed except the villainous Joss Merlyn, the huge and vicious leader of the smuggling ring.  He has no good qualities at all, and it was difficult for me as a reader to imagine Patience falling in love with him.  Even when Mary notices the occasional grace of Joss's fingers, that's not enough to redeem him even a tiny bit. 


Throughout the book, Patience is little more than a fluttering idiot, completely beaten emotionally by her horrible husband.  And frankly, Mary herself isn't a whole lot better.  After I had finished the novel, I began wondering just how many more of du Maurier's female characters were spineless like Mary -- the nameless heroine of Rebecca of course comes to mind -- and why she would write someone so unsympathetic.


In many ways, I felt Mary was TSTL, but even more than that I felt she was just poorly created.  There were so many aspects of her characterization that made no sense whatsoever, that I began to see her as a kind of tour guide to Bodmin-in-Winter and not really as a person involved in the drama that was unfolding around her.


More than anything else, Mary had no logical motivation for going to Jamaica Inn, nor any logical motivation for leaving it.


Mary goes to Jamaica Inn upon her mother's death, to fulfill an obligation her mother put on her to live with Aunt Patience.  Had Mary been younger and in need of a legal guardian, this might have made sense.  But Mary is 23, not 15 or even 19. 


Had Mary been destitute, this also might have made sense.  But Mary's mother had apparently inherited their small Helford farm upon the death of her husband, and mother and daughter had worked the farm for the following seventeen years.  Wouldn't Mary then have inherited it?  Why work all those years and then walk away?  Why make your daughter work all those years and then order her to walk away?  That sort of thing makes no sense.


Even so, what happens to the money Mary gets from selling the farm?  There's no mention of it, nor of debts that had to be paid off or anything else.  So Mary walks away from the only home she's ever known in a town where she has friends and presumably prospects for marriage.  Okay, fine.


She finds herself at Jamaica Inn, in the middle of a band of cutthroat smugglers, and she stays because of Aunt Patience, who is mostly a mumbling, mindless idiot.  Mary witnesses several murders, but she seems relatively unaffected by them.  Oh, it's awful, of course, that Joss and his confederates lure the ships onto the rocks, then bludgeon or drown the crew and passengers to death in order to salvage the cargo, but Mary somehow shoves it all down into the back of her mind and goes about her daily business.


For entertainment, she wanders the moors, and it's on one of these rambles that she meets Jem Merlyn, Joss's much younger brother.  Jem is a horsethief and lives in a pigsty of a cottage on the moor.  He has very little to recommend himself, but Mary falls in love with him anyway.  Why?  What's the matter with these women that they fall for absolute losers and don't question it?


Mary also meets the vicar of the church at Altarnun, the albino Francis Davey.  Davey is another character who held enormous potential for development and examination, but he became instead just a cardboard villain, the exotic "other" who must be inherently evil, like the albino assassin in The DaVinci Code


As soon as there's a hint that Joss Merlyn isn't the mastermind behind the smuggling operation, the identity of the true leader is left in little doubt.  Mary, who can't seem to figure anything out, foolishly alerts the vicar to Joss's plan to escape Cornwall, and this spurs Davey to take action to protect himself.  Both Joss and Patience are murdered, and Mary is kidnapped, but the local squire, assisted by Jem Merlyn, arrives to save the day and rescue Mary.


This leaves Mary once again at loose ends.  She has no family, no home, and she rejects the squire's offer of domestic employment.  She decides to return to Helford, maybe hire out as a farmhand until she can buy her own little place.  But she runs into Jem on the moor; he has packed all his personal belongings on a wagon and is headed off to parts unknown.  Mary just hops up on the wagon with him and they ride off into the sunset.


Huh?  What about her personal belongings?  And what about Jamaica Inn itself?


Just as Mary inherited her mother's farm and sold it, only to have the cash not be mentioned in the story, either she or Jem Merlyn should have inherited the Inn.  Joss Merlyn bought it from the squire, so upon his death it should have gone to either his wife and her heirs, which would be Mary; or it should have gone to Joss's only living relative, which would be his brother Jem.


Though there were hints of some irregularities in Joss's purchase of the inn -- he probably used proceeds of smuggling to come up with the cash -- the squire never seemed to contest Merlyn's ownership of the property.  Yet after the smuggling ring is broken up and the principals dead, the squire just sort of announces his plans for the inn's future.  How did he regain possession of it?

(show spoiler)



Through the reading, I felt du Maurier really didn't care about her characters, especially Mary Yellan.  They were props, providing a little bit of action so she could move them around on the stage of Bodmin Moor and describe it.  Mary had no spine, and no sense, and when she impulsively took off at the end, I again got that impression of someone just writing her off the scene.


Two stars for the descriptive writing, but that's stretching it.