Jamaica Inn (Daphne du Maurier)

Posted: November 24, 2014 in fiction
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I tend to forget how much I enjoy some artists. I pick up a book, and set it on my shelf for a while, and the urgency and attraction fade. Then, one day, I open the book I’ve been neglecting, and it opens like this:

It was a cold gray day in late November. The weather had changed overnight, when a backing wind brought a granite sky and a mizzling rain with it, and although it was now only a little after two o’clock in the afternoon the pallor of a winter evening seemed to have closed upon the hills, cloaking them in mist. It would be dark by four. The air was clammy cold, and for all the tightly closed windows it penetrated the interior of the coach. The leather seats felt damp to the hands, and there must have been a small crack in the roof, because now and again little drips of rain fell softly through, smudging the leather and leaving a dark-blue stain like a splodge of ink. The wind came in gusts, at times shaking the coach as it traveled round the bend of the road, and in the exposed places on the high ground it blew with such force that the whole body of the coach trembled and swayed, rocking between the high wheels like a drunken man.

and I remember how much I love Daphne du Maurier. One of the things I love about her is her complete lack of the anxiety of influence. Her most famous novel, Rebecca, draws heavily from Jane Eyre; there are also accusations of plagiarism from other sources. Jamaica Inn is remarkably similar to the Gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe, particularly The Mysteries of Udolpho. [Radcliffe’s first novel, A Sicilian Romance, is remarkably similar to Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto.] Nice girl grows up in the countryside, then has to move to a new, isolated home when her parents die. Her aunt has married a real bastard who thrusts nice girl into a living hell for a few months, while she infiltrates his ring of criminals. She tries to escape a few times, but only succeeds when she brings down the entire organized crime syndicate. Writing in the 1930s instead of the 1790s, du Maurier has a little more freedom to imply homosexual attraction, but she refrains in this one. She does, however, make much of gender differences.

 Were she a man, now, she would receive rough treatment, or indifference at the best, and be requested to ride at once perhaps to Bodmin or to Launceston to bear witness, with an understanding that she should find her own lodging and betake herself to the world’s end if she wished when all questions had been asked. And she would depart, when they had finished with her, and go on a ship somewhere, working her passage before the mast; or tramp the road with one silver penny in her pocket and her heart and soul at liberty. Here she was, with tears ready to the surface and an aching head, being hurried from the scene of action with smooth words and gestures, a nuisance and a factor of delay, like every woman and every child after a tragedy.

Our protagonist Mary Yellan objects to the social roles allotted to women. Her father died when she was six years old, so her mother spent seventeen years working a farm as effectively as a man before dying herself right before the novel begins. Though she’s written in the 1930s, Mary lives in the 1810s; she has a firmly essentialist view of gender. She often struggles against what she perceives as her femininity, by which she means an ability to become stressed to the point of breaking, and a tendency to cry to vent emotional stress. If these things are essentially feminine, then I must have a feminine nature after all. I can’t cry on my own, though; I need a movie like The Majestic to get me going. Other characters don’t help matters, by also insisting on the restrictions placed on her by her gender.

You’re a woman, and your home is your kingdom, and all the little familiar things of day to day. I’ve never lived like that, and never shall. I’ll sleep on the hills one night, and in a city the next. I like to seek my fortune here and there and everywhere, with strangers for company and passers-by for friends. Today I meet a man upon the road, and journey with him for an hour or for a year; and tomorrow he is gone again. We speak a different language, you and I.

And yet, despite all the seeming indications to the contrary, once Mary’s free at the end of the book she lives this sort of life. She’s not alone, but she is free to experience adventure the way a man does. After all, she may seem limited:

Here she was on her bed, a girl of three-and-twenty, in a petticoat and a shawl, with no weapons but her own brain to oppose a fellow twice her age and eight times her strength, who, if he realized she had watched the scene tonight from her window, would encircle her neck with his hand, and, pressing lightly with finger and thumb, put an end to her questioning.

but she wins in the end.

There may not be any gay characters in Jamaica Inn, but du Maurier is frank on the subject of sexual attraction, much more than her eighteenth- and nineteenth-century influences.

 And there, in spite of herself, came Jem’s face again, with the growth of beard like a tramp, and his dirty shirt, and his bold offensive stare. He lacked tenderness; he was rude; and he had more than a streak of cruelty in him; he was a thief and a liar. He stood for everything she feared and hated and despised; but she knew she could love him. Nature cared nothing for prejudice. Men and women were like the animals on the farm at Helford, she supposed; there was a common law of attraction for all living things, some similarity of skin or touch, and they would go to one another. This was no choice made with the mind. Animals did not reason, neither did the birds in the air. Mary was no hypocrite; she was bred to the soil, and she had lived too long with birds and beasts, had watched them mate, and bear their young, and die. There was precious little romance in nature, and she would not look for it in her own life.

I mean, realistically, there’s no reason for a farmgirl to be naïve about sex. Animals don’t care who’s watching. I should mention that Mary manages to protect herself from sexual attacks, but she’s frequently threatened with rape, and there’s at least one attempt. If this is a trigger, please be careful – but remember that she wins the fight for the right to choose what happens to her body.

The soil here is Cornwall, du Maurier’s home for nearly her entire life and certainly her favorite setting for her fiction. One of the things that always amazes me about the British is the way that they seem to think of the island that contains England, Scotland, and Wales as being at least the size of South America. Mary is constantly thinking how different people are in the North and the South, but she never leaves the county. She’s talking about North Cornwall and South Cornwall. She grows up in Helston, down at the end of the peninsula, and Jamaica Inn is located on the high road between Bodmin and Launceston, what is now the A30, not quite at the opposite end of the county, at a distance that we can drive in a little more than an hour (All the locations in the book are real). I admire the patriotism that can find such variety in so small a space, but I can’t quite comprehend it.

Du Maurier seems to have the Modernist cynicism on the subject of organized religion, particularly the established church. The turning point of the novel is on Christmas Eve, and it’s hardly a time of birth or renewal.

 Last year she had knelt beside her mother in church, and prayed that health and strength and courage should be given them both. She had prayed for peace of mind, and security; she had asked that her mother might be spared to her long, and that the farm should prosper. For answer came sickness, and poverty, and death. She was alone now, caught in a mesh of brutality and crime, living beneath a roof she loathed, among people she despised; and she was walking out across a barren, friendless moor to meet a horse-thief and a murderer of men. She would offer no prayers to God this Christmas.

Mary is a moral person, just not a religious one. I don’t see any direct correlation between the two qualities as I look around the world, and indeed, the difference between them is sometimes rather wide.

I was rather surprised by du Maurier’s representation of alcohol. She seems to come out in favor of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in the portrayal of Joss Merlyn. When he tells Mary about what it feels like to get drunk, he says:

 It’s power, and glory, and women, and the Kingdom of God, all rolled into one. I feel a king then, Mary. I feel I’ve got the strings of the world between my two fingers. It’s heaven and hell.

but drinking only makes him hallucinate about the people he’s killed, and it knocks him into bed for almost a week. After watching the process, Mary decides:

 She had lost her fear of him. There was only loathing left in her heart, loathing and disgust. He had lost all hold on humanity. He was a beast that walked by night. Now that she had seen him drunk, and she knew him for what he was, he could not frighten her.

Of course her fear of him comes back, but not as long as he’s drunk.

Jamaica Inn comes fairly early in du Maurier’s career, but she’s already mastered the most important and most difficult part of writing Gothic: atmosphere.

 Strange winds blew from nowhere; they crept along the surface of the grass, and the grass shivered; they breathed upon the little pools of rain in the hollowed stones, and the pools rippled. Sometimes the wind shouted and cried, and the cry echoed in the crevices, and moaned, and was lost again. There was a silence on the tors that belonged to another age; an age that is past and vanished as though it had never been, an age when man did not exist, but pagan footsteps trod upon the hills. And there was a stillness in the air, and a stranger, older peace, that was not the peace of God.

I was rather shocked at the lack of sympathy du Maurier has for Mary’s Aunt Patience. She fits right into our modern understanding of the psychology of battered women, but that doesn’t mean that the author has much mercy on her.

 In her own way Aunt Patience was a murderer too. She had killed them by her silence. Her guilt was as great as Joss Merlyn’s himself, for she was a woman and he was a monster. He was bound to her flesh and she let him remain.

I feel for Aunt Patience, because while Mary’s loyalty to her is more important than her actual appearances in the novel, she’s the character I identify the most strongly with.

Think of Paris in the early spring. The trees and shrubs are beginning to regreen themselves, and the air is always vaguely undecided as to whether it’s raining or not. I was on a break from teaching school, taking my first-ever vacation that wasn’t visiting relatives. I wandered around the city looking at things for a few days, and then one night I went to a café for a drink or two. There was a cute guy a few tables over, and when he caught my eye, I waved him over. He was Algerian and hated the French, so he was quite glad to find an American, particularly one who looks as Dutch/Swiss as I do. We were rather pleased with each other, so I brought him back to my place. Things went very well; no one has ever complimented me like he did. It was like being in a romance novel. Well, until I got his trousers off. He held me down and slapped me across the face – once was kind of a turn-on, but after several times in quick succession it was clear that he was just getting off on causing me pain. I remember thinking clearly, I’m turning into a battered wife. This is a class of people I’ve never understood very well, so I decided to let things play out a little longer. Things got worse when he started choking me. But he wasn’t pressing hard enough to hurt me, just enough to scare me. Later, he looked so sweet when he was asleep that I didn’t want to wake him up and throw him out, and in the morning he wasn’t violent at all.

We spent the next day together; he took me up to Montmartre to see the Moulin Rouge and the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart. During the day he was back to being perfect: attentive, kind, thoughtful, complimentary. So his behavior during the day outweighed what happened the night before, I made up excuses for him in my head, and I brought him back to bed again. The second night was worse. Along with all the slapping and choking, he spat in my face and bit me hard enough that I had a bruise for a week. He also talked about his fantasy of giving me a dog collar and keeping me in a cage. He kept hitting me until I’d join in the fantasy with him; it made me feel complicit in what was happening, but it gave him the thrill he was after without giving me physical pain. This second night I decided that no daytime behavior was worth all this, but that since I only had one more night before I left France, there wasn’t much point in making a scene. And I was a little afraid that if he was this violent when he claimed to love me, I could get really hurt if I tried to get rid of him.

The third night we stayed out late and we drank a lot. And I mean, a lot. For most people, that helps them sleep; for me, I can’t fall asleep until I’ve gotten rid of the alcohol in my system. Getting rip-roaring drunk is a certain way to keep me up all night. Luckily, he’s like most people and passed out within five minutes of walking in the door. I stayed up reading and watching him sleep. In the morning he was his sweet self, so it was easy to be sentimental about saying good-bye. Especially since I knew I was never going to run into him again. I had had the experience of being in an abusive relationship, and now I was more than ready for it to be over.

I know that my experience was very brief when compared with most wives with husbands who beat them, but in those two and a half days I saw, in miniature, the changes that happen to a person. He’s not always violent; most of the time he’s really very sweet. So long as he’s dressed. And it’s easy to forgive an action that only hurts me and gives pleasure to someone I care about. Maybe overlook is a better word than forgive. And what we do in the bedroom is no one else’s business. I keep reminding myself of all the good things and try to forget the bad, until he’s hitting me again and I get angry. My whole life people have minimized my feelings, so I feel a little silly and ashamed whenever I get mad. Like other things I get angry about, I need to deal with it on my own. I’m responsible for my own feelings; it’s not fair of me to take them out on the people around me. The mind becomes a strange mixture of a little good sense and a lot of lame excuses, all in a murky haze of affection for this guy who, sadly, can only get off by denying pleasure to others. He’s a sad case, really, not someone who’s incredibly bad for me. The compliments are nice to hear, but the compliments are so scarce in my life that I only half-believe them, and I’ve probably done something to attract bad karma, so I deserve a little suffering. You can’t smell the bullshit when you’re standing knee-deep in it. That requires some distance from him and the situation he keeps you in.

Politically speaking, it’s been important to the LGBT community to keep quiet about stories like this. People are pushing for marriage equality, so we only present to people the best possible impression of our relationships. The media is all Ellen DeGeneres and Neil Patrick Harris, and any problems get swept under the rug. The Trans community is becoming more vocal about the way LGBT groups keep them on the margins, but the internal violence is still something we don’t talk about. It’s real; it happens. Lesbians are better at getting help in exiting abusive situations than men. Men, including gay men, have a hard time admitting that someone is victimizing them. I don’t like remembering it clearly enough to tell the story. A friend of mine was raped once, and when a government official told him it was his own fault, he decided it wasn’t worth telling anyone about it. He spent years taking antidepressants and getting counseling for depression because he couldn’t talk about what had happened. We’ve got our problems too, and maybe when we finish getting the right to marry in all fifty states we’ll start addressing them.

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