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jamaica inn

4 november 2010

Daphne du Maurier's Jamaica Inn presents its young heroine Mary Yellan with a classic Gothic matrix of men. One appears to be good and is good; one appears to be bad and is very bad indeed. One appears to be bad but is really good; a fourth appears to be good but is bad. No points for guessing how the plot turns out, but in case somebody on the Internet someday runs across this review in the course of wondering whether they should read Jamaica Inn, I will forbear from drawing a diagram of the specific men and their corresponding inner natures.

Du Maurier is an author precariously placed in literary history. She was enormously popular early in her career. Her books are still in print, and her fans are legion. She is one of the great masters of narrative, magisterial in her ability to construct a pure story – and as such, worthy of attention from critics and theorists. A woman writer, she wrote in feminine modes, especially the Gothic thriller, but did not write on feminist themes. Of all her contemporaries, she perhaps most resembles Agatha Christie. But while Christie has gained substantial respect from postmodern theorists, du Maurier languishes in a sort of low-middlebrow reputational limbo.

As I've said, this limbo seems to be due to du Maurier's emphasis on technique above all else. Ideology seems absent from her better-known works, especially the incomparable Rebecca. She takes genre conventions for granted and works within them to savor the possibilities of narrative complication. Rebecca, slightly later than Jamaica Inn, is the great novel of what critic Gary Saul Morson calls "sideshadowing." The narrator of Rebecca, speaking in retrospect after her story has been resolved, constantly imagines what might have gone forward from crucial junctures in her life, but didn't. Jamaica Inn shows du Maurier developing the technique of sideshadowing in the context of a suspense plot told in the present moment by a third-person narrator.

Mary Yellan, the focus of the narration in Jamaica Inn, constantly imagines what might happen in the next few hours, and usually gets it wrong. In addition to being a conveniently unreliable forecaster, Mary has a touch of what Virginia Woolf might have called "unwritten novel syndrome." She tells herself formulaic stories that don't line up with the equally formulaic story that Daphne du Maurier constructs around her. Without developing any particularly original plot line, du Maurier juxtaposes several different formulas at once to create a rich and entirely original symphony of stories.

The best-developed "unwritten novel" in Jamaica Inn is somewhat tangential to the main plot, but it shows Mary's fabulating mind to best advantage. In the middle of the book, Mary muses on the unreasoning nature of desire, and the delusions of romantic love.

She had seen the girls at home walk with the village lads; and there would be a holding of hands, and blushing and confusion, and long-drawn sighs, and a gazing at the moonlight on the water. . . . Mary, coming out of the cowshed, wiped the sweat from her face with dripping hands, and thought of the newborn calf she had left beside its mother. She looked after the departing couple, and smiled, and shrugged her shoulders, and, going into the kitchen, she told her mother that there would be a wedding in Helford before the month was past .  . but before the year was out the moon and the stars could shine all night for all they cared, when the lad came home at evening tired from his work in the fields, and calling sharply that his supper was burnt, not fit for a dog. (148-49)
For once, Mary gets the story right, if only because she's heard it so many times before. She is an inveterate imaginer, and back "home" she imagines things the way they can't help but work out. But thrust into the macabre setting of Jamaica Inn, where human life is worth a few coppers at best, she continually gets things wrong. We so want her to be right that the suspense of her inevitable misprisions becomes unbearable. And in the realm of the Gothic novel, the unbearable is just what we crave.

Du Maurier, Daphne. Jamaica Inn. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1936.