Jamaica Inn by Daphne Du Maurier

His clothes are dirty, but his hands are clean
And you’re the best thing he’s ever seen

Squint sideways at it, and Jamaica Inn is a Western. Translate the characters from the Wild West of England in the early 19th Century to the frontier territory of the United States, twist the wreckers into outlaws who rob trains by blowing up the tracks, and suddenly Daphne Du Maurier is William Goldman and you’re reading Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

This is not my usual fare, and I was really reading it to evaluate it as a potential teaching text. I have to say, I’m probably not the person to be doing this. I don’t really get Gothic literature; I understand that exam boards are obsessed with it for some reason (they’re also obsessed with genre for similarly opaque motives), so we teach it, but… I really don’t get it. It was a dark and stormy night etc. It makes marginal sense to me if ghosts or other supernatural elements are involved, but if it’s just some kind of romantic adventure story featuring unwashed men and plucky heroines, I’m out.

Filthy men with elegant hands… sorry, but you’re weird. Go and watch some porn or something.

Plucky heroine Mary Yellan promises her dying mother that she’ll sell the farm and go and live with her aunt up near Bodmin. I’m a bit hung up on this detail. She sells the farm. So presumably she has some money, but this is never mentioned again, and when she (spoiler alert for a 90-year-old novel) rides off into the sunrise with her filthy man, she doesn’t even take the travelling trunk she arrived at Jamaica Inn with. She doesn’t even go home to pack, just jumps on the cart and leaves everything behind.

And the Inn itself is owned by her uncle, and when (spoiler alert for a 90-year-old novel) he and his wife die, presumably the Inn goes to the nearest relative? Except apparently not.

Leaving these minor details of plot logic aside, what we have here is a competently told adventure story about wreckers and smugglers in a Cornwall which is really treated as a separate country, a wild and lawless frontier. It’s on the cusp of being policed and patrolled by proper lawmen, you know, like the guy in the white hat in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, so the way of life is on its way out, and Mary Yellan is here to help it on its way.

The novel’s opening is laughable in its gothic details. The stormy coach journey, the warnings of fellow travellers not to go to Jamaica Inn, the gloomy, run down atmosphere of the Inn itself. It’s funny because Daphne Du Maurier wrote this after Cold Comfort Farm had been published.

So the gothic stuff is silly, and I know as an English teacher I’m supposed to point out how the author creates tension with her long descriptions of bleak journeys across the bleak landscape, but I’m really with the kids: she’s generating boredom, really, not tension. Also, two mentions of Brown Willy are a bit of a dealbreaker.

Difficult details: the person with the port wine birthmark is the village idiot. (Spoiler alert for a 90-year-old novel) The freakish albino clergyman in his shovel hat turns out to be the villain all along. This habit of authors to give their villains disabilities, deformities, or genetic anomalies is problematic.

Anyway, it’s all right if you like that kind of thing. It’s gothic but there are no ghosts. It’s a bit silly. Not many teachable moments in it, and… what did she do with her money?

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