I first picked up Jamaica Inn when I was fifteen, and it’s remained on my favorites shelf ever since. Certain parts of it haven’t aged well, but I read it again recently and still felt a claustrophobia and growing dread even though I knew what would happen next.
In 1820, Mary Yellan’s dying mother, long since widowed, makes Mary promise her one thing – that after the funeral, Mary will go to live with her aunt rather than struggling to maintain their cottage and farm alone. Mary hasn’t seen her aunt in years, but she is nothing if not loyal to the people she loves. So she obeys her mother’s last wish.
Right from the start, it’s clear she’s traveling into danger. Her aunt is married to the landlord of Jamaica Inn, a distant, isolated place where the coaches don’t stop; Mary arrives on a cold night with the rain pelting down. She’s taken aback to meet Joss Merlyn, her uncle by marriage, since he’s a vicious bully with powerful hands twice the size they should be, but she’s downright appalled to see her Aunt Patience.
She had obviously just strung a new ribbon in her cap in some small attempt to brighten her dress…It was bright scarlet and showed up in horrible contrast to the pallor of her face.
Patience is a terrified wraith of a woman trying to put on a front for her niece, but she soon confides in Mary that certain questions should never be asked. Such as how the inn, with its bare cobwebby rooms, does business at all. Such as why nobody respectable ever visits it.
Mary knows better than to needlessly antagonize her uncle, but she keeps her eyes and ears open, and soon realizes that the inn does have a certain clientele… men who gather there every week to smuggle goods. Well, the free trade happens, and she can’t do anything about that. The inn is too remote, she doesn’t know any of the locals, and most of all she wants to protect her aunt.
To complicate matters, one day she finds a young man helping himself to ale in the bar. He has no fear of the landlord because he’s Jem Merlyn, her uncle’s much younger brother. Jem makes it clear he likes her, perhaps because she doesn’t take any guff from him, but he’s a Merlyn and a horse thief, meaning she has to keep him at arm’s length. Even if he is better-looking and more intelligent than his brother.
Then one night, her uncle gets drunk and tells Mary the truth – though not all of it – behind the dark façade of Jamaica Inn. It’s far worse than smuggling, and much later, when one of his conspirators challenges him with, “Listen here, Joss Merlyn: do you take your orders from one above you?” he reacts with murderous rage. Mary is trapped in the confines of the inn and isolated by the emptiness of the moors outside, but when she realizes the net of the law is finally closing in, she escapes, intending to expose her uncle’s crimes and save her aunt.
It doesn’t quite work the way she plans. But the twists in the story are startling and suspenseful, making this a wonderfully tense read at times.
I enjoyed the characters, too. Mary is brave and determined, but not stupidly reckless, and her mistakes are ones that anyone would have made under the same circumstances. As for Jem – well, I don’t normally go for bad boys, but he’s a charming rogue who sold a stolen horse to the magistrate’s wife for a good profit. The kicker? The horse was hers to begin with, and now sports a dyed coat, so she buys it for its resemblance to the one she lost.
Jem also made sure Mary understands that she can’t have both him and a quiet life back in the village of her birth, the life she longs for in her homesick moments. He’s an adventurer, and he’ll continue to be one until the day he dies. He’s willing to kill for her, but not to change for her. That was realistic in a bittersweet way.
The wild loneliness of the moors, where it’s easy to get lost in thick mist and wander into a bog, reminded me of Wuthering Heights. As for Jamaica Inn, it perfectly reflects the brutal menace of the man who owns it. That said, there are some problematic parts of the story. A persistent theme is the fragility of women. Both her uncle and Jem tell Mary how differently she’d be treated if she was a man, with a sort of regret that she isn’t, and on one occasion even Mary “[knows] the humility of being born a woman”. The depiction of the physically and the mentally atypical as freakish also show that this book is a period piece that reflects a different time.
But it’s still a memorable read. When I read dialogue like, “Roads? Who spoke of roads? We go by the moors and the hills, and tread granite and heather as the Druids did before us” I shiver a little, hear the curlews calling in the distance, and remember again why I keep my copy of Jamaica Inn.