As a great fan of Daphne du Maurier, I have been watching the brouhaha over the excellent television dramatisation of her novel Jamaica Inn, with interest and with some bewilderment over the adverse reactions
This dramatisation has been much criticised for the fact that the minutiae of the spoken word seemed to be lost in the brilliantly evoked roaring storms, the swirling Celtic mists and the dramatic landscapes of nineteenth century Cornwall, where corruption, shipwrecking, smuggling and murder were a way of life. In this place at this time mere horse-stealing would count as a relatively innocent occupation.
|First American Edition of Daphne's Story|
The force of the drama plunges us into the dark centre of Mary Yellan’s story without the back-story embedded in the novel, of Mary herself, her wrecked and bedraggled Aunt Patience, and her nightmarish, haunted Uncle Joss Merlyn, the charismatic heartless wrecker whom in the twenty first century we would label a psychopath.
In the novel we are also introduced to wild Cornwall as Mary travels in the rocking coach as it hurtles through the dark night and the howling storm towards Jamaica Inn. But at this point Daphne’s prose on the page has already told us of the whys and wherefores of Mary Yellan’s presence on this wild Cornish shore. We already know how her youth Mary’s Aunt Patience had been wild and independent and has worn ribbons in her bonnet and a silk petticoat. We know that she had a curled fringe and large blue eyes, and how she picked up her skirts and tiptoed through the mud in the yard.
This prepares us to meet Patience again on that stormy night at Jamaica Inn. But now she is faded and abused and as much a wreck as any of the ships that her husband Joss had sent to the deep. In the drama we only meet this (wonderfully acted) version of Patience with no real sense of her backstory.
Mary Yellan’s first encounter with her Uncle Joss – again because of great acting – expressed tha sense of dark menace that Daphne employed to create this terrible and profoundly haunted man. The artifice of film – the dark ragged interiors of Jamaica Inn and the use of thin light – give us a certain access to this violent, explosive character. Although it does not replicate Daphne’s prose it does give a sense of the man.
And this must have been impossible to render directly/ Here is how Daphne describes him.
‘ … He was a great husk of a man, nearly seven feet high, with a creased black brow and a skin the colour of a gypsy. His thick dark hair fell over his eye in a fringe and hung about his ears. He looked as though he had the strength of a horse, with immense, powerful shoulders, long arms that reached almost to his knees, and large fists like hams. His frame was so big that in a sense his head was dwarfed and sunk between his shoulders, giving the half stooping impression of a gorilla with his black eyebrows and his mat of hair…’
Truly an apparition from a gothic nightmare. The fact is that in this television dramatisation the normal-sized, shaven headed actor does not reflect Daphne's prose description. And yet the high quality of the writing, acting, and direction here invoked a sense of nightmare menace to match Daphne’s dark vision.
In my opinion beside such a great production the mutterings about the drowned sound quality are less than relevant. In fact I think that the nature of this sound quality might add some meaning to the idea of an introverted and inarticulate community turned in on itself with its own private language and dark meanings. This is true to the spirit of the novel.
I think Daphne would have relished the drama and been intrigued to see what her dark vision of 18th Century Cornwall, (written in 1935 when she was twenty nine) has evoked for the twenty first century audience.
I would highly recommend watching all three episodes (no doubt there will be a boxed set) alongside a new reading of this great novel which truly stands the test of time. A double real treat for lovers of great stories.