The 2011 Mslexia Writer's Diary contains a series of monthly inspirations from current Virago authors who each discuss a Virago Modern Classic. I know we're at the end of January, but if you haven't yet bought your diary, here is one for all Virago lovers.
An orphaned heroine struggles through dark rain-slashed moorland, to a dwelling in the middle of nowhere, where a house sign 'twists in the wind like a human body on a gibbet.'
It’s a thriller writer's job to hook their audience early and Jamaica Inn starts as it means to go on: a chilling gothic romance, filled with secrets, terror and violence. At first glance this story of an 18th century Cornish smuggling and wrecking ring run by the mad, bad Joss Merlyn, his cruelty fuelled by drunken nightmares, might feel rather dated to a contemporary audience. But alongside her skill for plotting (the pace never lets up) du Maurier was also an astute psychological writer and this novel, perhaps more than any other, takes an unflinching look at relationships and the battle of the sexes. The portrait of the marriage of Joss and Patience (the heroine’s aunt) is one of clear domestic abuse, yet underneath there are hints of an earlier sexual intoxication and the suggestion of the collusion which can sometimes grow out of the dark soil of violence. The young heroine Mary, though terrified, manages to stand up to him, but the other men she meets, his younger brother Jem - Heathcliff charisma balanced on the edge of darkness - and the smooth-talking albino vicar (the meaning of black and white given a new twist here), both give off the smell of exotic unreliability. This is a world where women have to look out for themselves and where there is no such thing as a happy ending.
There is also another force at work in Jamaica Inn, in its own way as powerful as the gallery of rogues that Mary has to contend with. All through her life du Maurier had a fierce love of the Cornish countryside where she chose to live and she writes about it with a Bronte-like intensity. In Jamaica Inn its untamed unsentimental beauty both feeds her heroine at the same time as testing her courage to its limits. Of course she will survive. Du Maurier would not be so cruel as it to let strength and goodness fail. But there will be a cost. As a full-blown adventure story, Jamaica Inn is splendidly unromantic . Which is probably why, for all its 18th century setting, it has the tang of the modern about it.
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