I can quote the first sentence, I know the whole plot, and I might just have peeked at the ending, but I’ve never read the whole book, nor have I watched the film. I’m not really sure why. Something left for my bucket list, anyway.
I’ve read nearly everything else, both short stories and novels, that Daphne du Maurier wrote, and I have a great love and respect for her voice. I think I might have read The Scapegoat first. My mother had all the Du Maurier novels set out in a row on her bookshelves, and that title called to me. But the first book of Du Maurier’s I fell in love with, one blustery weekend in winter when I was just barely a teenager, was her Jamaica Inn.
To this day, it remains my favourite of all her books, and for me it’s the high bar that only one other—The House on the Strand—can come close to.
It helped, I think, that when I read it first I had already been to Cornwall, had already crossed the Tamar, and been captivated by the subtle magic of that place. The Cornwall I had seen, though, had been the more gentle south, “the green hills and the sloping valleys, the white cluster of cottages at the water’s edge” that the heroine, Mary Yellan, was coming from when first I met her in her coach upon the rugged moorland.
Like Mary, I had never seen the wilder side of Cornwall, or its darker places, and I was immediately lost in them and swept away, as she was. Those were the days of my life when, with no responsibilities, I had the freedom on a weekend to spend all day reading if I wanted to—to stay in bed and snuggle in my blankets and just lose myself. And lose myself I did.
I loved this book. I loved the action and the mystery, and the strong and vivid setting, with the violence like a current underneath the calmer surface, rather like the moors themselves. I loved that Mary was a strong heroine who made choices for herself. And I fell hopelessly for Jem. He was a different kind of hero than I’d met in all my Mary Stewart books. Jem Merlyn was an unrepentant thief, and far from perfect, and he had an edge, and yet beneath it he was more dependable and solid than he seemed. My first “bad boy” hero, and one who, again, set the bar rather high.
And the writing is just so incredibly good in this book. There are phrases that sing, and whole passages that I can nearly recite. I can still close my eyes and see so many scenes. This is one of my favourites—just look what she does with a few economical sentences; how she can paint a whole scene with the simplest words:
“They plunged into the thick of the fair, with all the warmth and the suggestion of packed humanity about them. Jem bought Mary a crimson shawl and gold rings for her ears. They sucked oranges beneath a striped tent and had their fortunes told by a wrinkled gypsy woman. ‘Beware of a dark stranger,’ she said to Mary, and they looked at one another and laughed again.
‘There’s blood in your hand, young man,’ she told him. ‘You’ll kill a man one day’; and ‘What did I tell you in the jingle this morning?’ said Jem. ‘I’m innocent as yet. Do you believe it now?’ But she shook her head at him; she would not say. Little raindrops splashed onto their faces and they did not care. The wind rose in gusts and billowed the fluttering tents, scattering paper and ribbons and silks; and a great striped booth shuddered an instant and crumpled, while apples and oranges rolled in the gutter. Flares streamed in the wind; the rain fell; and people ran hither and thither for shelter, laughing and calling to one another, the rain streaming from them.
Jem dragged Mary under cover of a doorway, his arms around her shoulders, and he turned her face against him and held her with his hands and kissed her. ‘Beware of the dark stranger,’ he said, and he laughed and kissed her again. The night clouds had come up with the rain, and it was black in an instant. The wind blew out the flares, the lanterns glowed dim and yellow, and all the bright colour of the fair was gone.”
That’s just beautiful writing.
I’m wary with Daphne du Maurier’s endings. They’re not always happy, and being a hopeless romantic at heart I do love happy endings, or ones that at least I can twist to make happy. Jamaica Inn has a good, twistable ending, and even now, when I re-read it, I close the book with the same satisfied sigh that I sighed thirty years ago, when I first read it on what might, in fact, have been “a cold grey day in late November”, as in the beginning sentence of the book.
I’m not in a position to compare it to Rebecca, but I still suspect my heart belongs more on the moors with Jem and Mary, than at Manderley.