Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier (1936)

Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier cover

Jamaica Inn, a 1936 novel by British author Daphne du Maurier, is a period piece set in Cornwall, England of the early 1800s. Du Maurier was inspired by a stay at the actual Jamaica Inn, located at Bodmin Moor. Central to the story is a group of “wreckers” — murderers who run ships aground, kill sailors, and steal cargo.

The heroine of the tale is Mary Yellan, a young woman of twenty-three when the story opens. Upon her mother’s death, Mary moves from the farm in Helford where she was raised, to live with her mother’s sister.

Her Aunt Patience is married to a vicious drunkard and giant of a man named Joss Merlyn, who has her completely intimidated.

Mary soon realizes that things aren’t as they should be at this inn, which never has guests and isn’t open to the public. Filled with fascinating and creepy characters, Jamaica Inn is one of Daphne du Maurier’s best-known works, though perhaps not as fine a work of literature as her 1938 masterpiece, Rebecca.

The first film adaptation of Jamaica Inn came out in 1939 and was directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Following are two reviews from 1936 that give brief overviews of plot and assessments of the novel.

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Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

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A courageous heroine 

From the Salt Lake Tribune, May 31, 1936:  Daphne du Maurier presents a novel of high adventure, a melodramatic romance that possesses sweep and power. It is a full-blooded tale combining swift action and suspense after the best traditional manner, reminiscent of Stevenson, of Sir Walter Scott, or Farnol. In it she displays indisputable proof of her gifts as a storyteller, and in her courageous heroine she has created a figure to remember.

The tale is set on the wild, wind-swept moors of Cornwall, for which Mary Yellan had left the green hills and shining waters of Helford at her dying mother’s behest.

She could not live alone on the dear familiar farm but was compelled to go to her Aunt Patience, her mother’s sister, at Bodmin. But the aunt whose she found at Jamaica Inn, where the enormous Uncle Joss Merlyn was landlord, was no longer the pretty, laughing Aunt Patience that Mary had recalled, but a broken-spirited grey creature, living in terror of her husband.

Before she arrived at this sinister hostelry standing in isolation on the road between Launceston and Bodmin, Mary learned of Jamaica Inn’s evil repute. “That’s no place for a girl,” the coach had warned, urging her to stay in Bodmin. “Respectable people don’t go to Bodmin any more.”

But Mary’s promise to her mother bound her to go. The uninviting inn drew no travelers; the huge landlord wanted none. Only on an occasional night the inn gave hospitality, the bar filled with a wild gang of riff-raff, thieves, poachers, gypsies, peddlers, smugglers, and worse, and fierce revelry held sway.

Mary wasn’t long in coming to the knowledge that Joss Merlyn had other sources of income that the inn provided, but was counseled by her brutal uncle not to be curious, and on certain nights to keep to her room with closed eyes and ears.

But Mary isn’t shrinking or spineless, and not to be intimidated. Taking courage, she learns what goes on at Jamaica Inn after the revelry is over and mysterious, creaking wagons rumble into the yard into the darkness.

Later signs of even darker evil are forced on Mary’s sickened eyes, and she hears the dreaded word “wreckers.”

Only the poor, terrorized Aunt Patience holds Mary to the place; what can she do? As the story moves along, other strange personalities enter the scene: the soft-voiced albino, vicar of Altarnun, whose business takes him riding the moors at night, and whose persuasive tones with Mary to confide her secret. And handsome Jem Merlyn, her uncle’s younger brother both insolent and jolly, whom Mary might easily love were he not a Merlyn and an admitted horse thief.

There are, too, the vile, repulsive peddler Harry, and the blustering squire, who would rid himself of the Merlyns, but proves to be a friend to Mary.

Daphne du Maurier finds her Jamaica Inn a kindly, hospitable temperance house on the same spot today, but has carried us in imagination back to a day in the distant past when these grim, blood-chilling events might well have happened.

She succeeds admirably in creating the sinister atmosphere in which deeds more hideous even than organized crime can plot today, enacted by cutthroats who would as soon throttle a man as tip a glass.

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What horrors did its dark shutters hide?

Adapted from the Mansfield, Ohio News-Journal, June 1936:  The story of Jamaica Inn, Daphne du Maurier’s fourth novel, is pictured by the author as it might have been some 120 years ago. Jamaica Inn stands today, a temperance house, on a road between Bodmin and Launceston, England.

The Inn, located in a Cornish moor not far from the coast, had an evil name, and no man knew what horrors its dark shutters hid. Yet here was where Mary Yellan went to live after the death of her mother, to join her aunt Patience and the man her aunt had married, Joss Merlyn, landlord of the Inn.

Only too soon did she learn the full tale of its horror, though she stayed beneath its room because of her aunt, so lovely once, but battered and haunted now.

She also learned of Francis Davey, the albino preacher who rode the moors alone at midnight; of Joss’s brother, the horse-thief; of smugglers and murderers and the riff-raff of the coast; of the wreckers whose profession it was to lure ships inland by false lights when the tempests blew; of love and death and treachery and faith.

The author has brought to the reader a vivid picture of Mary, her aunt, Joss, and the life of the English countryside in this exciting novel.

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Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier

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