‘Jamaica Inn’ & ‘The Scapegoat’ – Daphne Du Maurier

Before I stumbled across these beautiful new editions of the novels by Daphne Du Maurier published by ‘Virago Modern Classics’, I believed ‘Rebecca’ was her only contribution to literature. Turns out she was quite a prolific writer. As I browsed through the entire collection, lined like soldiers on the shelves of Bookworm, I was in an agony of indecision – buy one or buy the entire lot? Ultimately, after being brought to Earth by the amount of cash in my pocket I went for only two of them.

This is the story of Mary Yellan who is orphaned and must go and live with her aunt and uncle in Cornwall. Mary is a country girl and therefore practical and level-headed which is the reason she is able to survive the ordeal before her. Her aunt, whom she remembers as a happy, ‘butterfly’ sort of person married late in life and settled down in Cornwall with her husband and never visited or wrote afterwards. Mary is reluctant to leave her farm but it was not easy for a young, unmarried, orphan girl to live a solitary life even in the relative safety of a tiny village those days.

Unwillingly, Mary sets off to her aunt’s house only to find a very uncomfortable and rude welcome awaiting her. Her Uncle turns out to be a huge, brute of a man who runs a disreputable ale-house known as the ‘Jamaica Inn’ and her aunt is a cringing, hollow shadow of a woman. As the activities taking place in the shadow of the ale-house become alarmingly clear, Mary is first horrified and then offers grudging acceptance. However, when the true nature of the workings of her Uncle and his ‘associates’ is revealed to her, she begins planning an escape. Her only connection to the outside world is her Uncle’s brother who is himself a poacher and a thief even if he keeps his distance from the doings of his older brother.

It was a beautifully written story and felt too short. It is slow – paced at places and the descriptions of the landscape are especially vivid and breathtaking. I was not aware of the form of theft described by her in the book and it really was terrifying to imagine the callous trickery and brutality of men. Her characters are as beautifully etched as they were in ‘Rebecca’ and just like ‘Rebecca’ the entire novel works under a sort of grayness. At no point does the sun shine and the spring flowers bloom in Mary’s life while we are in witness to it and the future does not seem very bright either. Yet, it is a compelling read.

If you are an Indian and have a thing for Hindi movies, then you know a lot about identical twins eg. Ram aur ShyamSeeta aur Geeta, Chaalbaaz etc. Long story short, they are mostly orphans, who are separated at birth, brought up by foster parents; invariably at opposite ends of the socio-economic ladder, and finally the rich twin and the poor one exchange places and teach everyone a lesson. One twin is always the quiet one who suffers great hardships at the hands of his/her caretakers and the other is always the outgoing, Robin hood – adventurous who plays the rescuer. However, to burst your bubble this is not about twins though the protagonists are identical and they do exchange places though with very different results.

John, an Englishman, is a professor while Jean, a Frenchman, is the master of an impoverished estate and a glass works factory. They bump into each other and that is when Jean who is running away from his responsibilities decides to steal John’s identity. As John is swept away by the events that follow he begins to empathize and relate to the people Jean has left behind him. He suddenly becomes a part of something that has alluded him for a long time – family and the sense of belonging. At first he struggles to understand the dynamics of Jean’s relations to his wife, sister, mother, sister-in-law, brother and the mistress in town ( though the last is not really very difficult to understand) and then moves to disentangle the threads of their messy lives.

The first few pages were slow with John and his depressive ramblings and I was just getting a little disappointed when he meets Jean and then the story picks up it pace and gallops forward. John who comes across as weak and almost suicidal in the beginning, develops into a character that you begin to root for and wish he beats all the odds stacked against him. But of course, nothing in Maurier’s novels is as simple as it seems and the end of the story echoes the theme of loss and moving on that I have come across in all the three novels I have read so far.

They were both great summer reads and I can’t wait to get my hands on the rest of the books by Daphne Du Maurier.

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