As Sarah Dunant says in her introduction to Daphne Du Maurier’s novel, Jamaica Inn opens with the feeling of Dracula – the carriage ride to a place where no one wants to go, and the foreboding character of the caretaker (or the count in the case of Dracula). Mary Yellen, a young girl of twenty-three is likewise akin to Jonathan Harker. She, too, meets trouble when she strays from her place of safety. Joss Merlyn is the resident vampire, sucking the life out of his wife, threatening the same to his niece, and is one of a band of wreckers, who plunder sunken ships, using the Inn as their storage place.
Though published in the twentieth century, Du Maurier’s tale is wrapped tightly up with the writers of the nineteenth century, in which this story takes place. Where Dracula seems to open the story, we can easily see traces of Mr. Rochester, Heathcliff, Mr. Darcy, even – or perhaps Mr. Wickham more like. I am reminded of a phrase from Pride and Prejudice in that one man has all the goodness, and the other the appearance of it, reminded only for none of the characters in this story are sharply divided along the black/white lines. Each character is firmly housed in grey area, Mary included.
Du Maurier may not have been trying to write literature, but went a good way along that path. Symbolism abounds. Mary is a girl in flux with no solidity to her situation. Every steps she takes could lead her on the right path, or into a deathly quagmire. The moors perfectly mirror this. The Vicar, a perfect example of the unsettling aspects of the story. He is a Vicar, a member of the clergy, one who should impart comfort and guidance on his charges. He is off-putting because of his physical appearance as an albino, clue number one that there might be something off about him, but also perfectly representative of the topsy-turvy nature of the narrative. The vicar has white hair and colourless eyes. White, a symbol of purity and integrity, is here used on the man who least deserves it. Joss Merlyn, one fearsome man, black as he is painted, is nothing to the vicar. And Jem is grayest of them all, behaving abysmally in his thievery, and only turning traitor to his brother when he was caught, but not quite as bad for all that.
Mary Yellen, what an admirable and frustrating character. Even in 1820, twenty-three was still remarkably young, and so she can be forgiven for taking so many missteps, but still, sometimes this reader wanted to slap her. As all good heroines should be, she was strong and willful, pushing the boundaries of acceptable behaviour while she tried to do what was right. But she did not always do what was absolutely right. In effort to save her aunt, a task at which she fails miserably, she misleads the Squire, who could have helped her, and then misses him when she does finally go to him for help. As a reader, Mary’s journey is as unsettling as it is supposed to be, if frustratingly so, but reading as a supposed writer, one can see the masterstroke. Mary is alone in a physical and psychological Moor, not knowing which way to turn to take the right path. She spends the entire novel not wanting to become like her aunt, but in the end, one wonders if she does not become just that.
Only the best novels can resolve themselves but still leave open questions. What happened to Mary? I dare say that the answer to that question could fill another book.