No Place for a Girl, Daphne du Maurier,

Bodmin Moor

Night begins its descent as Mary Yellan’s coach, buffeted by fierce winds, makes its way across Bodmin Moor, heading for a place with a bad reputation: Jamaica Inn.

No trees, no lanes, no cluster of cottages or hamlet, but mile upon mile of bleak moorland, dark and untraversed rolling like a desert land to some unseen horizon. No human being could live in this wasted country, thought Mary, and remain like other people; the very children would be born twisted, like the blackened shrubs of broom, bent by the force of a wind that never ceased, blow as it would from east and west, from north and south. Their minds would be twisted, too, their thoughts evil, dwelling as they must amidst marshland and granite, harsh heather and crumbling stone.

When Daphne du Maurier began writing Jamaica Inn at the age of twenty-nine, she was almost four years into her marriage with Tommy ‘Boy’ Browning. They had a daughter, Tessa and they were happy, but their relationship was not without difficulties.

Charming and affable, Tommy was an ex-war hero, once voted the most handsome bachelor in London. At the age of thirty-two, he had been the youngest major in the army and he had a reputation for setting the highest standards of efficiency in the Brigade of Guards. Daphne understood that Tommy took army life seriously but, as she wrote to her mother even before marriage, she couldn’t see the sense in it:  the ‘bugles and khaki and people yelling all the time and saluting.’ To her it seemed a bit preposterous.

Tommy had been concerned about how a somewhat wayward Daphne would settle into life in the conservative and male-dominated world in which he had to uphold his authority. The wives of army officers were expected to be accommodating, attractive and quiet. He understood that she needed freedom, but he had been brought up with conventional ideas.

Daphne was shy and although she enjoyed relaxed gatherings of like-minded people, she hated the stiff, formal social occasions she was now required to attend. En route to one such event at Tommy’s battalion, she lost her way, and became surrounded by a group of wolf whistling soldiers. Lithe and blonde and youthful, she didn’t look remotely like the wife of the second-in-command of the 2nd Battalion Grenadier Guards.

Tommy’s Trauma

Daphne soon discovered that Tommy was not always the strong and independent person she thought she had married. She wrote to her mother describing ‘these awful nervy fits of misery…all harking back to that beastly war.’ He would wake in the night screaming, and she did her best to comfort him while he sobbed in her arms.

As a young officer, Tommy’s battalion had been involved in the third battle of Ypres in July 1917, known as Passchendaele. Despite his youth he was in command of three companies, due to the casualties that had been inflicted on the commanders. Under close enemy fire in Gauche Wood, many men had been killed and the trauma of the horrific assault, in which the outcome had rested largely upon his young shoulders, had never left him.

The violence of Tommy’s nightmares frightened and confused Daphne. She found it hard to imagine why events fourteen years earlier could still have such an impact; here was a smart, confident man, yet ‘he clings to me just like a terrified little boy’. It was unnerving and she felt privy to a dark secret she had never wished to know.

Army Wives

As Tommy’s wife, Daphne was expected to take responsibility for the wives of the men who were serving with him. She had never had strong maternal feelings and found the role onerous. As she wrote to her former governess, Tod:

Can you picture me going round the married quarters and chatting up forty different women? “And how is the leg, Mrs Skinner?” and “Dear little Freddie, what a fine boy he is: (this to a swollen-faced object obviously suffering from mumps, who comes and breathes over one.)’

She had never been exposed to the deprivations of the working class and the living conditions of the families under her husband’s command came as a shock. Fully aware of her privileged position, she helped women write letters to claim the benefits that were due to them, and she was unfailingly kind, if somewhat distant.

As for the wives of the officers, Daphne confided to Tod:

I dread the picture of paying calls, and watching polo, and having Mrs So-and-So whisper in Mrs Such-and Such’s ear (“Of course you know she had a terrible reputation in England – drinks like a fish – and they say the little girl isn’t her husband’s at all…”) What a life!

The dislike she felt for army life, and her wary attitude to human society in general, spurred her to create alternative worlds. After the success of the biography of her father Gerald, she now set about with great energy writing a novel that expressed her love of Cornwall, in all its mysterious aspects.

Daphne came to realise that it was writing that fulfilled her, more than being a wife and mother. Much as she loved Tommy, he was needy and always wanted to be in her company. She longed for solitary walks at Gribbin Head but now, based in Frimley, Surrey, she was far from her beloved Cornwall.

Ferryside at Last

Escaping from army life became a priority for Daphne and she returned to her home at Ferryside in Bodinnick as frequently as possible. Cornwall always made her feel instantly better. During one such visit in 1935 she took a trip to Bodmin Moor, triggering memories of an earlier visit with her friend Foy. While staying at the hostelry Jamaica Inn they had lost their way in the moors on horseback (there is a story about that here).

Drawing from this misadventure with Foy, she began to make notes for a new book she had been contracted to write for publisher Victor Gollancz.

With the help of a nanny, cook and cleaner, Daphne was free to embark on a strict writing schedule. She would write for three hours in the morning, two in the afternoon, and another hour in the evening if Tommy wasn’t visiting. Within three months she had produced a novel that Gollancz recognised as her best fiction so far.

The story of Jamaica Inn

At her mother’s dying request, heroine Mary Yellan leaves her rural idyll in Cornwall’s Helston to make a grim journey across Bodmin Moor to Jamaica Inn, the home of her Aunt Patience, who is now married to Joss Merlyn.

‘That’s no place for a girl’, the coachman warns her. But all he is prepared to add is that ‘queer tales get about’ and people are afraid to visit the place. There are echoes of Harker’s lonely journey to the Count’s Transylvanian castle in Dracula in the way Mary’s carriage trembles and sways in the fierce winds like a ‘drunken man’, while making its way to a remote destination. At Bodmin the other passengers leave the coach and alone and anxious as she watches the last cheerful lights of the town disappear, Mary wonders,

if this was how a ship felt when the security of harbour was left behind. No vessel could feel more desolate than she did, not even if the wind thundered in the rigging and the sea licked her decks.

Arriving at the inn that stands ‘foursquare to the winds’, Mary enters gothic territory. It is a hellish, lawless place – violent, filthy and full of dark secrets. She is dismayed to find that her Aunt Patience has become a trembling shadow of her formerly gay self. Overpowered by her towering brute of a husband, Joss, she is at the mercy of his drunken rages.

Obliged to stay on in order to protect Patience, Mary gradually becomes embroiled in a world of smuggling and murder. She soon discovers that contraband is being stored at the inn, but far more horrifying is the running of a gang of wreckers who lure ships onto the rocks, drowning survivors and carrying away the spoils.

Mary has a fighting spirit and she keeps her wits, but when she encounters Joss’s younger brother Jem, a horse thief, she becomes attracted to him against her better judgement. Over time, she comes to see that Joss is a weak man, all too human, but she has overlooked a far more evil person under her very nose.

Themes

It was Daphne’s intention to write a melodramatic tale along the lines of Stevenson’s Treasure Island. But even in 1936 she came perilously close to gothic cliché, and some of the characters feel like caricatures. At the beginning Joss Merlin is described somewhat improbably as having ‘skin the colour of a gypsy’, the ‘strength of a horse’, fists ‘like hams’ and a head that seems dwarfed between stooping shoulders, giving the impression of a gorilla. The dialogue can be clunky and doesn’t bear too much scrutiny.

What saves the book is an atmosphere dense with unease and a gripping, fast paced plot, full of twists and some genuine surprises. From the first day, when Mary barricades herself into her miserable, filthy room with night closing in, we are on her side. She is convincingly isolated in the middle of the moors and extremely vulnerable.

The unequal balance of power between the sexes is a theme that had run through all of du Maurier’s earlier stories, but in Jamaica Inn she took it to another level. As her biographer Margaret Forster points out, her portrayal of Mary Yellan as the victim of male brutality is a convincing and powerful subtext to the tale. Mary is courageous but her inferior status as a woman obliges her to seek the protection of a man, rather than live alone as she would have preferred. From the beginning, her dying mother tells her: ‘A girl can’t live alone, Mary, without she goes queer in the head, or comes to evil. It’s either one or the other.’

Once under the protection of the contemptible Joss, she becomes his victim, to be toyed with at his will. She is repulsed by his violence. ‘Had she been a man’, she would have confronted him. Mary is often told she is like a boy but Joss gives Mary a chilling reminder of her vulnerability as a woman when he tells her that, were it not for the fact that he is her uncle, she would have been raped by his drunken men long ago, ‘and by God, there wouldn’t be much of you left now!’ He himself would have ‘had her’ as soon as she arrived, were it not for the fact he has a ‘soft spot’ for her. Violence surrounds Mary and she is constantly leered at and degraded.

She is left in no doubt that sexual attraction is extremely dangerous for a woman. This makes her feelings of attraction for Jem Merlyn, her uncle’s brother, all the more conflicted. He makes her laugh and seems to understand her, yet he lacks tenderness and is rude, dirty, offensive, a thief and a liar. ‘He stood for everything she feared and hated and despised; but she knew she could love him.’ Whereas she had once been ‘indifferent and strong’, the attraction she feels for Jem renders her a ‘babbling child’. It is a growing torment that she wants to tear out of her body and trample underfoot.

In the end she accepts Jem’s invitation to share his life ‘because I must’. Although in love, she is defeated and submitting without joy.

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.

If anything, Jamaica Inn is a tale of anti-romance in view of Mary’s fatalistic submission, reflecting du Maurier’s deeply pessimistic view of a woman’s lot.

Setting

Daphne wanted to write a book that was steeped in the atmosphere of Cornwall and her increasing intimacy with the landscape leaps off its pages. The moorland seems to be working against the people who try to live here. Its dangerous bogs, ‘lashing, pitiless’ rain, its wind like ‘a chorus from the dead’, remind the living of the murders that have taken place there; ‘a whisper of unrest bred deep in the soil’.

But Mary discovers that despite the desolation of these moors, they call her to adventure. The pure smelling wind brings colour to her cheeks, its water is bitter and peaty yet satisfying. This godless, unearthly landscape strengthens her body and spirits. There is:

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.

Publication

With reviews describing Jamaica Inn as ‘jolly good fun’ and an ‘exciting brew’, the book sold more in the first three months than Daphne’s first three novels put together and she had her first bestseller.

Rebecca and a further test to Daphne’s marriage were just around the corner.

Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn

The English actor Charles Laughton’s new Mayflower company picked up the film rights for Jamaica Inn. He had decided to co-produce the films in which he starred and he offered Alfred Hitchcock the role of director.

Although not especially enamoured with Daphne’s novels thus far, Hitchcock recognised their cinematic potential. He had been close friends with Daphne’s father, the actor Gerald, and produced a film in which Gerald had starred called Lord Camber’s Ladies (1932). Both men were pranksters and Gerald was the butt of a joke in which Hitchcock had arranged for a fully grown work-horse to be led into his dressing-room at the St James’s Theatre while he was on stage.

But the making of Jamaica Inn went sour from the beginning. An appalling script had Hitchcock pleading to be released from his contract but he had accepted a large advance and Laughton would have none of it. Hitchcock was a staid family man, and he deemed Laughton’s flamboyant bohemian approach to life to be ‘childish, self-indulgent and undisciplined’; it would appear that they fell out.

Laughton had originally intended to play Joss Merlyn. But when the censors objected to the portrayal of a clergyman (the Vicar of Altarnun) as the villain, the story line had to be altered. The ringleader was now to be a squire and Justice of the Peace called Pengellan, and Laughton opted to play this juicier role.

Hitchcock told the French director Francois Truffaut years later:

Jamaica Inn was an absurd thing to undertake. If you examine the basic story, you will see it’s a whodunnit. It was completely absurd, because the Justice of the Peace, played by Laughton [was the ringleader and] should have entered the scene only at the end of the adventure. Therefore it made no sense to cast Laughton in that key role. Finally I made the picture and although it became a box-office hit, I’m still unhappy over it…Laughton asked me to show him only in close shots, because he hadn’t figured out the manner of his walk. Ten days later, he was inspired by the beat of a little German waltz. Laughton wasn’t serious, and I don’t like to work that way. He wasn’t really a professional film man.’

Daphne also preferred to forget about the film, wishing she had not turned down the offer to write the script herself. Nonetheless the film became a strong vehicle for Maureen O’Hara who played Mary Yellan. She followed Laughton to America, playing Esmerelda to his hunchback in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Jamaica Inn was the last film Hitchcock directed in England before he, too, departed for America.

Music

Jamaica Inn (2014) Soundtrack: ‘Mary and Jem’ composed by Kim Neundorf

Canadian composer Kim Neundorf created a sensitive soundtrack for the latest adaptation of Jamaica Inn. This short edit from her Soundcloud account is all I can track down of it.

Connection

In his memoir Poldark’s Cornwall, Winston Graham writes that the sinister practice of wrecking (the use of false onshore lights to lure ships to their ruin) ‘seems to have been the invention of novelists who haven’t bothered to read their history. You may turn the pages of the records back and back and you will find virtually nothing’, he writes dismissively.

According to his son Andrew Graham his father was furious that, owing to Jamaica Inn, the Cornish people had gained a reputation for having been violent wreckers in the past. In the preface to Poldark’s Cornwall Andrew Graham said his father had done meticulous research, and that at no point had he come across any evidence of wrecking. Yes, the Cornish had been greedy and had taken the spoils of shipwrecks, sometimes violently (much of the populous was close to starvation). But suggesting they deliberately led the ships to their ruin and drowned the crews took things too far.

On the basis of this research, in the second of his Poldark novels Demelza, Graham describes a ship he calls Pride of Madras, full of cargo containing silks, tea and spices. It is wrecked in a storm off Hendrawna Beach (modelled on Perranporth). She comes in swiftly on a winter’s night, ‘starlit in a gale…full of the shadowed horror and shrill cadences of another world.’ The locals are alerted to her flare and run towards the beach. As word gets around, soon miners join the throng. Two sailors who manage to swim ashore, one with a rope, can find no one interested in holding it, so intent are the Cornish on laying their hands on the spoils. Members of the crew who manage to reach the shore are stripped of their shirts and breeches and left to crawl away as best they can, while those carrying knives are knocked unconscious.

By seven o’clock the next morning,

‘The ship was a carcass on which a myriad ants crawled…dragging out from the bowels of the ship the riches of the Indies.

Notes

My photographs cover the most important locations for the novel.

Jamaica Inn

Daphne gave the inn a distinct Gothic feel; portraying it as a place steeped in suffering. It is ‘like a live thing’ but with a ‘cold, dead atmosphere’. Its clock ticks ‘like a dying man who cannot catch his breath’ and its wooden sign swings and groans like a dead man on a gibbet.

I am fond of this dark and dingy place but the A30 motorway that cuts Bodmin Moor in half runs right behind it, completely spoiling its once remote aspect. A large new annex sits clunkily next to the old building. Coaches regularly pull into its car park, and tourists spill into the inn, its shop, and restaurant. Daphne du Maurier regretted that her novel had turned the place into such a tourist attraction and wrote in Vanishing Cornwall:

Today all is changed, and, as the poet Yeats once said, “changed utterly.” Motor-coaches, cars, electric light, a bar, dinner of river-trout, baths for the travel-stained instead of a cream-jug of hot water. As a motorist I pass by with some embarrassment, feeling myself to blame, for out of that November evening long ago came a novel which proved popular, passing, as fiction does, into the folk-lore of the district. As the author I am flattered, but as a one-time wanderer dismayed.

After Daphne died, some of her belongings were auctioned and the publican had the foresight to buy her writing desk and other memorabilia, now featured in a memorial room in the inn’s Pirate museum.

Be sure to read some of the entries in the visitors book about guests’ paranormal experiences. One writes:

Wonderful stay with 1st class staff & surroundings. Sleep paralysis experienced on first night, unable to speak or move. Not scared during but shaken afterwards.

Altarnun and St Nonna’s Church

The novel’s evil vicar, a ‘freak of nature’, resided at this village on the north-eastern edge of Bodmin Moor. Its church, which is also known as the ‘Cathedral of the Moors’, was important to Daphne. It is dedicated to St Nonna (Altar of Nonna – Altarnun) who was the mother of St David, patron saint of Wales. Originally dating from the 12th century, most of the church existing today was built in the 15th century from granite found on the moors. The church is famous for its 79 bench ends carved by Robart Daye between 1510 and 1530 that depict a mix of scenes from the Bible and every-day life. Over the years some of the wood has petrified.

On my last visit I saw a woman wearing a dog collar and cross, walking up the main street of Altarnun and asked her whether she happened to be the Vicar of Altarnun. ‘No, Heather would be cross if I laid claim to that title’, she replied.

It turns out I was talking to Doreen, a Methodist preacher. St Nonna is Anglican but Heather and Doreen alternate the services since the closure of the local Methodist church.

Doreen is the keeper of the key to the church and lives in the cottage next door (as did the Vicar of Altarnun). And she was well aware of Jamaica Inn: ‘On my bookshelf’, she said, ‘a writer who takes you with her.’

Forthright and friendly, she has been working hard to make the church relevant to this community, and judging from its busy noticeboard she is doing a good job.

The beautiful village of Altarnun (looking unfairly grim in the photograph) is well worth a visit. It has an excellent tea room.

Rough Tor

Rough Tor (pronounced ‘Row’ – as in argument, ‘terrr’) is the second highest peak in Bodmin Moor, the top of which Mary Yellan finds herself in the climax of the book.

… below the tor the heavy fog clung to the ground, obstinate as ever, with never a breath of air to roll away the clouds. Here on the summit the wind fretted and wept, whispering of fear, sobbing old memories of bloodshed and despair, and there was a wild, lost note that echoed in the granite high above Mary’s head, on the very peak of Rough Tor, as though the gods themselves stood there with their great heads lifted to the sky.

This was an important ritual landscape to people of the Neolithic and early Bronze Ages. In his book Rising Ground, Philip Marsden discusses a recent study that shows how dozens of burial cairns in central Cornwall are positioned within sight of Rough Tor. The multitude of sight lines converge on its rocky summit, ‘like flight paths on an airport. They made a shrine of this rocky hill, a temple’. Amidst the boulders and slabs of granite strewn across the tor’s slopes lie orthostats – rocks which have been deliberately propped up or moved (I suspect I’ve taken a photograph of one of them above). And there are ‘tor enclosures’ bound by stone walls.

Like many features on the moor, Rough Tor is deceptive. From the safety of the road its peak appears close and not particularly high. But the more you walk towards it, the farther away it seems. Sometimes the peak mysteriously disappears, before making a dramatic reappearance farther up its slope. It is also much higher than you would expect. On one of my visits it was freezing, wet and foggy, replicating the moody weather in the novel’s climax. With not another soul around, I stomped about gleefully, pretending to be Mary Yellan.

Bodmin Moor

The moor itself is endlessly fascinating. The shots of it in golden light were taken on one of my last days in England before returning to Australia prior to the Pandemic. I have written about the moor in my story here.

Weblinks

Watch Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn here.

And a trailer for the 2014 BBC One adaptation of Jamaica Inn for television Starring Jessica Brown Findlay, Matthew McNulty and Joanne Whalley.

In this article writer Julie Myerson revisits Jamaica Inn, a novel she loved as a teen when she began a correspondence with Daphne du Maurier that changed her life.

Tori Amos song wrote this song inspired by Jamaica Inn. The singer songwriter has lived in Cornwall for fifteen years.

The official Daphne du Maurier website.

The wedding of Doc Martin and his long-suffering girlfriend Louisa was filmed in the Church of St Nonna, Altarnun. Here’s a behind the scenes look at Martin Clunes posing for a photo shoot in the church. Apparently the only reason he agreed to keep appearing in the series was because he was allowed to bring his dogs.

Bodmin Moorland Pony Rehabilitation is a charity formed in 2014 that cares for and rehomes abandoned and feral ponies and horses in Bodmin, Dartmoor and Exmoor.

For accommodation in the heart of the moor together with all things ghostly, try Jamaica Inn.

Visit Cornwall.

Sources:

Du Maurier, Daphne. Vanishing Cornwall, Penguin Books, 1978

Du Maurier, Daphne. Jamaica Inn, Virago Press, 2012

Dunn, Jane. Daphne Du Maurier and her Sisters: The Hidden Lives of Piffy, Bird and Bing, Harper Press, 2013

Forster, Margaret. Daphne du Maurier, Arrow, 1994

Graham, Winston. Demelza, Pan Books, 2015

Graham, Winston. Poldark’s Cornwall, Bodley Head, 1985

Marsden, Philip. Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place, Granta, 2014

Shallcross, Martyn. The Private World of Daphne du Maurier, St Martin’s Press, 1993

 

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Comments from others

  1. Cathy Macken on

    Excellent Jo. Really enjoyed this one.

    Daphne D. was one of those dynamic early 20th century women of culture. Certainly through the lense of ‘contemporary feminism’ their lives can seem oppressed and restricted. However, it could be argued that this ‘lense’ can easily and greatly fog our judgement.

    So many of these women left us a great body of cultural work despite their so named ‘oppression’. To my mind within their ‘oppression’ was freedom.
    Freedom to be women, mothers, sisters, aunts. friends, without the constant narrative that tells our younger women they must be like men. And that womanly things are somehow second rate.

    Hope I’m making sense here…

    Anyhow, I find all these women of the past inspiring and heroic.

    Here’s a question: have you come across the work of American writer Betty Macdonald?
    Her best known book is ‘The Egg and I’, Her work is cleverly crafted and sweetly humorous.
    Worth a read I promise.

    Reply
    • Jo Wing on

      Cathy, I’m sorry I have only just seen your comment – I’ve had a month of computer woes! Yes, Daphne D. was quite a woman. She certainly managed to live her life on her own terms, without too much compromise. But in her case don’t forget, she longed to be a man, and strongly felt that they had the greater opportunities and freedoms. And she did resent having to kowtow in the role of army wifie.

      I completely agree that so many of her contemporaries left inspiring bodies of work – Woolf and Bell, the Mitfords, Sackville-West, Anais Nin, Colette, Agatha Christie. Yet none of these women had any formal education. Virginia for one, would have killed to have had the same opportunities as her brother. It makes their achievements all the more miraculous in my mind.

      I’ve heard of ‘The Egg and I’ and now I’m going to look it up. Another one for the to be read pile. Thanks so much for the recommendation and your thoughtful comments.

      Reply