Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier was first published in 1936.
On a nasty November night, Mary Yellan crosses Bodmin moor. Her mother’s dying wish was that she take refuge with her Aunt Patience at Jamaica Inn. When the coach driver hears where she’s going, he insists she must have made a mistake.
“That’s no place for a girl,” the coach driver tells her.
They arrive at the desolate tavern in the middle of Bodmin moor, its ‘battered signboard swinging and groaning in the wind like a dead man on a gibbet.’ Her Uncle Joss greets her with a warning: if she values her life, she’ll turn a blind eye to the wagons that visit in the night.
So starts this tale of adventure, smugglers and wreckers, violent and greedy men, who have lost sight of all morality and commit mass murder for profit.
This is no place for a girl.
Aunt Patience lives in constant fear of her husband’s drinking binges and frequent beatings. Mary is only spared being gang raped by Joss’s gang because she is his niece, “if you hadn’t had that honour – by God, there wouldn’t be much left of you now!” And her misogynist uncle drives home her condition, “I could have had you your first week at Jamaica Inn, if I’d wanted you. You’re a woman after all. Yes, by heaven, and you’d be lying at my feet now, like your Aunt Patience.”
One night, Mary’s inebriated uncle confesses his terrifying crimes to her: mass killings of men, women and children, including how he used a stone and “smashed in” the face of a woman holding her child and begging for his assistance, then “watched them drown in four feet of water”.
But Daphne du Maurier gives us a heroine strong enough to tackle this monster.
‘What a superbly astute, ass-kicking heroine Mary Yellan is. It’s Mary we turn the pages for, Mary who keeps our hearts in our mouths as we crouch in the dark kitchen or the passageway or out on the rain-lashed tor.‘ Julie Myerson author of The Quickening
When Mary arrives at the inn, she tells Joss she’ll turn a blind eye to everything but “if you hurt my Aunt Patience in any way, I tell you this – I’ll leave Jamaica Inn straight away and … have the law on you; and then try and break me if you like.”
And there is love. Against her will, Mary is powerfully drawn to Jem, her uncle’s younger brother. Against her will because, he looks so much like her uncle, he must be involved in his brother’s crimes. And yet …
Her weakness, upon which the novel, and nearly her life, ends is misjudging who to trust.
Alfred Hitchcock turned the novel into the film Jamaica Inn in 1939. Jane Seymour starred in its tv film remake in 1983. In 2014 the BBC made it into a 3-part series.