Thursday, 9 December 2010

Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier

Gothic goings on and murky tales of smugglers and wreckers off the Cornish coast in one of Daphne du Maurier’s most popular novels. First published in 1936 but set in the 1820s, Jamaica Inn has been adapted for both film and television as well as the stage. Somehow, in nigh on 35 years of life, I hadn’t got around to reading this brilliant book...

Mary Yellan is sent away to stay with her Aunt Patience on the bleak and inhospitable Bodmin Moor where she lives in the dismal and decrepit Jamaica Inn with her husband Joss Merlyn. Mary discovers the once outgoing Patience a cowed figure, terrified of the violent Joss who Mary quickly assesses as either mad or drunk, anyway. Probably both.

She’s not disabused of this by Joss, who sends poor Patience off to fetch him a drink:

“Patience, my dear,” he said, “Here’s the key. Go and fetch me a bottle of brandy, for the Lord’s sake. I’ve a thirst on me that all the waters of Dozmary would not slake.”

After a couple of glasses he tells Mary how things stand at the Inn. One glass more and he’s started on the road the confessional:

“There’s been one weakness in my life, and I’ll tell you what it is,” he said, “It’s drink. It’s a curse, and I know it. I can’t stop myself. One day it’ll be the end of me, and a good job too. There’s days go by and I don’t touch more than a drop, same as I’ve done tonight. And then I’ll feel the thirst come on me and I’ll soak. Soak for hours. It’s power, and glory, and women, and the Kingdom of God, all rolled into one. I feel a king then, Mary. I feel I’ve got the strings of the world between my two fingers. It’s heaven and hell. I talk then, talk until every damned thing I’ve ever done is spilt to the four winds. I shut myself in my room and shout my secrets in my pillow. Your aunt turns the key on me, and when I’m sober I hammer on the door and she lets me out. There’s no one knows that but she and I, and now I’ve told you. I’ve told you because I’m already a little drunk and I can’t hold my tongue. But I’m not drunk enough to lose my head. I’m not drunk enough to tell you why I live in this God-forsaken spot, and why I’m the landlord of Jamaica Inn.”

She finds out soon enough. Joss is head of a gang of hardened criminals who wreck ships off the north Cornwall coast, luring them onto the rocks with lights, then killing the crews and looting the wreckage for the cargo. Haunted by what he has done, Joss drinks himself into a torpor, sometimes for five days at a time. Repelled by Joss and determined to get Patience away from Jamaica Inn, Mary falls in with his brother Jem, another ne’r do well. Although not a smuggler or wrecker, horse thief Jem is hardly a great catch. Still, Mary finds herself falling for him, despite her better judgement.

Jem, at least, can stay sober. Drink doesn’t hold the same fascination for him as it does his brother Joss:

“Drink’s a funny thing,” he said, after a moment or two. “I got drunk once, in Amsterdam, the time I ran away to sea. I remember hearing a church clock strike half past nine in the evening, and I was sitting on the floor with my arms around a pretty red-haired girl. The next thing I knew, it was seven in the following morning, and I was lying on my back in the gutter, without any boots or breeches. I often wonder what I did during those ten hours. I’ve thought and thought, but I’m damned if I can remember.”

Meanwhile, Joss is recovering from another bender. Needless to say, he comes to a sticky end...

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