Jane Seymour as Mary Yellan in the 1983 BBC version of Jamaica Inn
Jamaica Inn is a triumph of a good bad book*. You know the kind I mean–ridiculous, melodramatic, maybe even a bit embarrassing to read in public but it sucks you in and you end up finishing it in a matter of days (or hours, given a rainy weekend). Really there ought to be more good bad books out there. I spend Saturday mornings digging through discarded 1940s hardcovers at the recycling center in the hope that I’ll find something by “lady authors” like Daphne du Maurier, Agatha Christie, or Anya Seton. The forties were a bit of a last gasp for the good bad book. In the realm of contemporary fiction, good bad books have been shunted off to the science fiction/fantasy section (The Parasol Protectorate or A Song of Ice and Fire come to mind) and the new fiction section is left with virtually nothing between odious “chick lit” and the bad good books, so-called literary fiction that might be good writing but isn’t much fun and is frequently downright depressing. As a tonic, I turn to Daphne du Maurier’s books, among them some of the best good bad books in existence.
When I heard that there would be a new version of Jamaica Inn premiering Monday night, I grabbed my copy of the novel for a reread. If what you’re looking for is sinister and foreboding deliciousness, Jamaica Inn is the book for you. Ms. du Maurier excels at setting the scene. You’ll feel the rain and the wind. You’ll see the desolate moors stretching out for miles around. You’ll love every minute of it even when you’re thinking to yourself, “well, really, that is a bit much.” Jamaica Inn tells the story of Mary Yellan who, after the death of her mother, goes to live with her only remaining relative, Aunt Patience. Unfortunately for Aunt Patience, she married a thoroughly nasty man, Joss Merlyn, landlord of Jamaica Inn and notorious smuggler. Since Jamaica Inn is out in the middle of nowhere, Mary doesn’t meet many new people. Her acquaintances are limited to her uncle’s horse-stealing sexy younger brother, Jem, and Francis Davey, a mysterious local vicar. Will Mary escape the clutches of her uncle? Will she run off with the sexy horse thief or the mysterious vicar of Alternun? Your inquiring mind wants to know.
*The term comes from Angela Thirkell’s High Rising, in which the main character is an author of “good bad books.”