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Du Maurier’s dark legacy at Jamaica Inn

I hadn’t been terribly familiar with the work of Daphne Du Maurier before reading Jamaica Inn. Don’t be fooled by her name. It conjures up images of a feminine lady sitting daintily at a typewriter - some sort of elegant, delicate little literary flower clad in floaty dresses. Maybe this is how she looked on the outside, but her writing talent clearly did not limit itself to the boundaries of pleasantries.

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Instead, Jamaica Inn is a tale of violence and abuse, of drink-induced trauma, of the dangers of love and brandy-addled men, of cold-blooded killers. She paints Bodmin Moor as a gothic symbol of murder and madness, and so with this mindset I am not so much keeping an eye out for glittering floors and Michelin star cuisine as I am for the inspiration behind Daphne’s story.

On this grey April evening I escape the granite heavens swelling with rain clouds that threaten a downpour, to shelter in this famous roadhouse. The atmosphere of impending sundown feels heavy and damp before rain has even started to spill onto the vast expanse of Bodmin Moor. With the inside of the Smugglers Bar dimmed by dark skies outside, the lethargy of the evening does not lift. The flesh around my eyes has taken on a weighty, burdensome sensation, so feeling oddly desperate to induce a sugar rush into my veins I order my favourite Sailor Jerry rum and Coke, plus a rich chocolate pud as a follow-up to my earlier dinner. The kindly barman chats idly, and is the pinnacle of politeness.

Having taken a seat next to the draughty door in the hope that the sharp breeze will stop me feeling so anaesthetised, I sit shivering while I sip icy rum, scribble down some observations and plough through a deliciously moist chocolate pudding with steaming hot custard. Residents of the hotel that is now run as part of Jamaica Inn, float in and out of the bar area discussing the turn in the weather, and a local man chats away to the waitresses. Heads skim the low wooden ceiling beams, which have been decorated with notes of various currencies. Money: a sobering reminder of the reason for the pillaging and plundering of the ghastly nineteenth century “wreckers”, despised so much by the protagonist of Daphne Du Maurier’s tale.

The Du Maurier museum upstairs is unfortunately closed for the day; as it is now 5:30: I am half an hour too late. That will have to be a review for another day, and secretly I’m a little relieved. The fuel behind Daphne’s imagination is apparent this evening and a little too close for comfort. Seeing her memorial rooms, complete with a box of her favourite cigarettes and beloved Glacier Mint sweets, may have been a little too haunting. She died in 1989, the year that I was born.

The main restaurant space is bustling as the staff set up for the dinner time buffet and offers stupendous views over the treacherous moors. Next door is the Old Bar which, scarily, was exactly how I’d seen it in my mind’s eye as described by Daphne at the start of her novel. Even the slightly odd-looking statues of the book’s two main characters that had been placed in the Old Bar reconstruction for tourists to photograph couldn’t shake the image of Mary Yellan, our orphaned main character, standing in the wake of the terrifying landlord. While her abused Aunt weeps in the bedroom upstairs, she is made to serve stolen liquor to the vulgar criminal regulars of the Jamaica Inn. It’s room four that is said to still be frequented by ghosts to this day: the spirit of a man who was mysteriously taken from the Inn and murdered on the moors has been sighted walking through the solid walls. No one knows how he was killed, nor who his murderer was.

I have a long drive ahead of me, and take my leave with one last backwards glance at the entrance of this historical place. On a summer’s day, it would be a perfectly fine place to take a breather and be fed and watered. On a heavy, overcast day like today however, it offers an understanding of exactly what Daphne Du Maurier was getting at, and the foreboding contrast of the inky sky against the dangerous moors becomes all too real.

One thing’s for sure – you’d never catch me here after dark. To this day, in the dead of night, people can still hear the clatter of hooves on cobbled ground, and the wheels of the smuggler’s wagons turning on the stony forecourt.

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  1. Lois Baker

    I went to Jamaica Inn when pregnant with your friend dee upstairs was full of stuffed kittens dressed and arranged into various scenes, it was really odd.

    Nov 16, 2011 @ 4:43 pm