Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier

published 1936, set in the early 1800s

[Mary Yellan has come to live at Jamaica Inn. Jem Merlyn is her uncle’s brother]

Mary leant against the gate and watched the ponies, and out of the tail of her eye, she saw a man coming down the track, carrying a bucket in either hand. She was about to continue her walk round the bend of the hill when he waved a bucket in the air, and shouted to her.

It was Jem Merlyn. There was no time to escape, and she stood where she was until he came to her. He wore a grimy shirt that had never seen a wash-tub, and a pair of dirty brown breeches, covered with horse hair and filth from an outhouse. He had neither hat nor coat, and there was a rough stubble of beard on his jaw. He laughed at her, showing his teeth, looking for all the world like his brother must have done 20 years ago.

observations: A new TV version of Jamaica Inn has just finished in the UK: a three-part film shown by the BBC. I would respectfully suggest that there will be a new film or TV version every 20 years or so for a long time to come. The story is ludicrous, melodramatic and completely over the top – so obviously it makes for compelling drama whether you read it or see it. I suppose it continues from the Gothic tradition so beloved of Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey, and I don’t know if Daphne du Maurier invented this 20th century version, but she certainly made it her own. In the opening pages, Mary Yellan tells her travelling companions where she is going:

‘Jamaica Inn? What would you be doing at Jamaica Inn? That’s no place for a girl.' 
‘My uncle is landlord of Jamaica Inn.’
There was a long silence…. [the woman said] ‘I’m sorry. It’s none of my business of course.’
There are dark doings at the Inn: her aunt’s husband Joss is a bad, drunken, violent man, and only very awful people patronize the inn. It is obvious from very early on that they are smugglers – and worse.

Jem, Joss’s brother, is a rather splendid hero. The first time she meets him Mary says

‘What do you do for a livelihood?’

‘I’m a horse-thief,’ he said pleasantly.
Du Maurier does a great job of making him extremely attractive without giving him any redeeming qualities at all, he is a cheerful change from most dramatic heroes, and anyone who likes a bad boy can see why Mary cannot resist him. But she is a sparky young thing too –when he teases her expecting ‘an evasion or a stammered reply’ about why she will go round and about with him, she says ‘For the sake of your bright eyes Jem Merlyn’, and ‘met his glance without a tremor.’

When I first read this book as a teenager, I was astonished by its un-stuffy ending – let’s say there’s no prospect of marriage in young Mary’s future. Re-reading, I am struck by how the story is informed by what we now know of du Maurier’s own conflicted personality and bumpy personal life. And what a good writer she was. There’s a conversation Mary has with the Vicar, who says:

I can guess your thoughts… I have heard confessions in my day, and I know the dreams of women better than you do yourself. There I have the advantage of the landlord’s brother.
-- which in context is an enthralling moment.

The smugglers picture is by George Morland, from The Athen
aeum website.

Daphne du Maurier has featured on the blog before: Don't Look Now, and The Scapegoat.


  1. Moira - Melodramatic and 'over the top' it certainly is. But that's what gives it that flair. And it's also what makes it so ripe for film and television adaptation. I think it translates quite well to that medium. I'm glad you mentioned Jem - He is a great character and I think it's his upbeat outlook if I can put it that way. And yes, the inn itself is quite effectively dark and atmosphere. You've nailed this book, no question.

    1. Thanks Margot. There's a reason why some books survive, and this one still makes enjoyable reading.

  2. I haven't caught this on TV and don't especially feel like I have missed out TBH. Not my cup of tea (and thankfully neither is it the family's!)
    Saw there was some fuss over the dialogue and apparently some sound issues when the first episode went out, otherwise it would have passed me by totally.

    1. It was so funny about the mumbling complaints - I'd thought it was just me (going deaf) so it was a real surprise to see there were major news items about it. They probably got some extra people to watch the 2nd epi that way, determined to test out their hearing and judge for themselves.

  3. After seeing this review and the one at Past Offences, I am interested in trying this someday. After I have read all the other books on my TBR pile because of this blog. I can't even be sure that I have read Rebecca, as I might have just seen the movie.

    1. Well - definitely try something by Daphne du Maurier - she's always a good read, with some very intriguing and unusual plots.

  4. Did you manage to make out the dialogue in the TV version? Most of my friends gave up!

    1. I found it very difficult - I was helped by having just read the book so could work out what they were probably saying...

  5. Moira, I was having trouble with my hearing before Jamaica Inn and panicked thinking it had got a lot worse. Luckily my wife said she could not hear the dialogue either!


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