Daphne du Maurier’s first two novels, The Loving Spirit and I’ll Never Be Young Again (1932), began to kindle an interest in romances during a period when realism was still in vogue. Her next novel, The Progress of Julius (1933), was much bolder: It introduced the theme of incest between father and daughter. This work was followed by du Maurier’s biography of her father, in which she attempts to sort out her complex feelings about him, to gain a perspective on him that would allow her the freedom to develop her independence.
In Jamaica Inn, du Maurier combines the elements of her earlier popular romances with those of the gothic novel to create her first mystery. This haunting tale, set on the Bodmin moor around the year 1835, is the story of an assertive, independent woman named Mary Yellan. The twenty-three-year-old heroine (who appears to embody du Maurier’s own fantasies of love and adventure) goes to live with her aunt and uncle, who manage Jamaica Inn, an isolated tavern whose dreadful secrets have driven Mary’s aunt mad. Mary’s uncle, Joss, it turns out, is a vicious smuggler. He and his consorts make secret trips to the coast, where they use lights to lure ships to crash on the rocks. These “wreckers,” as they are called, then murder the survivors and steal their goods, which they store at Jamaica Inn.
A noteworthy psychological dimension separates Jamaica Inn from the conventional mystery romance: Du Maurier bifurcates the demon-lover father of The Progress of Julius into two characters for this novel. Mary’s uncle, Joss, a powerful, huge, older man, embodies pure malignancy; his young brother, Jem, is a handsome, arrogant, mysterious figure who, by the end of the novel, becomes Mary’s lover and presumed husband.
Jamaica Inn is the first of du Maurier’s novels to contain the main features of the gothic romance: the isolated, bleak landscape; a house filled with mystery and terror; violence and murders; mysterious strangers; villains larger than life; and a strong-minded woman who bravely withstands hardships and brutality and is rewarded with marriage and the promise of a full life. Du Maurier renders her material in a style remarkable for its simplicity. She rarely employs metaphoric language except in her descriptions of landscape and buildings—and then does so with restraint, allowing highly selective details to convey the spirit of the atmosphere.
Du Maurier’s masterpiece, Rebecca, combines features of the popular romance, the gothic novel, the psychological novel, and autobiography to create one of the most powerful tales of mystery and romance in the twentieth century. Following the tradition of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), du Maurier’s novel contains most of the trappings of the typical gothic romance: a mysterious, haunted mansion, violence, murder, a sinister villain, sexual passion, a spectacular fire, brooding landscapes, and a version of the madwoman in the attic. Du Maurier’s novel, however, is much more than a simple thriller or mystery. It is a profound and fascinating study of an obsessive personality, of sexual dominance, human identity, and the liberation of the hidden self. The real power of the work derives from du Maurier’s obsession with her father and her resolution of that obsession through the fantasy structure of the novel.
In this sophisticated version of the Cinderella story, the poor, plain, nameless narrator marries Maxim de Winter, a handsome, brooding, wealthy man twice her age, and moves into Manderley, a mansion haunted by secret memories of...
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