“Respectable folk don’t go to Jamaica anymore. That’s all I know. In the old days we used to water the horses there, and feed them, and go in for a bit of a bite and drink. But we don’t stop there anymore. We whip the horses past and wait for nothing, not till we get to Five Lanes, and then we don’t bide long.”
It might be hard to find a better example of stereotypes about writers overshadowing the art than Daphne du Maurier. She wrote plays, nonfiction, and the stories that undergirded several acclaimed movies, but it’s her romances, on and off the page, that people think of, when she comes to mind at all. It’s a phenomenon that’s hardly confined to women — Robert Bloch, author of Psycho, has suffered a similar fate — but it’s one that happens to women far more often.
But du Maurier was far more than a romance author with a possibly scandalous love life (in fact, most of her books resist the classic romance formula). All of her works demonstrate a great skill for creating atmosphere and memorable characters, and the writing is smart and canny about human nature. Jamaica Inn is an excellent introduction to her work. Set at a real inn in Cornwall with a history of smuggling, it’s well-paced, exciting and full of twists and turns. There are secrets, betrayals, and romance, and a heroine who refuses to let other people define her.
Many years back, author Rachel Manija Brown wrote a post on working “cool bits,” “elements and images which I thought were cool or sexy or touching,” into a story. Du Maurier is another ‘cool bits’ writer, throwing in classic tropes with unbridled enthusiasm. Shipwrecks and smuggling! Men of God who are not what they seem! Sympathetic orphans thrust into a new, sinister world! There’s so much stuff in Jamaica Inn that the plot summary on Wikipedia takes six rather long paragraphs. Fortunately, du Maurier makes the journey a hell of a lot of fun.
Skip the movie, which neither du Maurier nor director Alfred Hitchcock approved of, thanks in part to Charles Laughton ruining the pacing. (No, really.) If you do want to see du Maurier’s work on screen, you’re better off with The Birds, Don’t Look Now, or Rebecca (the last two being the only adaptations the author herself liked). And there are plenty of books to read; this year is the 50th anniversary of The House on the Strand, an unsettling book about an unconventional method of time travel. It won’t be what others might have led you to expect.