I was fifteen when I first read it, it drew me so deeply into twenty-three-year-old Mary Yellen’s world that imagined myself having to promise my dying mother that I’d leave our farm in Helford and live in Boden with my Aunt Patience. (I really had to stretch here because I never had an aunt who had even a jot of patience.) I read Jamaica Inn on a day that I had to stay indoors coated with Noxema because of a terrible sunburn. Yet it was I who arrived that raw November night at the rainswept Cornish coast to be warned by the coachman that the dark, forbidding Jamaica Inn, owned by my aunt’s evil giant of a husband, Joss Merlyn, wasn’t fit for decent people. Then there was the shock of seeing my Aunt Patience, formerly a lively, pretty woman, now reduced to a tattered wreck. How could I leave? I had to try to protect her. From my rattling window, all I saw was the black hills and the moors. On my walks, “soggy marsh sighed and whispered. When the wind blew on the hills, it whispered mournfully in the crevices of granite and sometimes shuddered like a man in pain.” Back at the inn, there was the mystery of the locked and barred room that Aunt Patience told me not to dare ask about. And then there were the strange men who’d come to Uncle Joss’ tavern and return with carts and covered wagons, and unload boxes. Smugglers, I realized. My heart pounded in my throat the day Uncle Joss left the door to the locked room open and I saw a hanging rope over a beam and knew that someone who had wanted to quit the smuggler’s gang must have been killed. Sitting close to the electric fan to relieve my sunburned skin, I was carried away as Uncle Joss’ villainous plan unspoiled more characters come aboard and more suspense whipped up.
Each decade that I reread Jamaica Inn, it meant more to me. In Jamaica Inn, you get the Gothic romance of the Bronte sisters’ novels plus the wild adventures of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. And the language of the book is as haunting as the spellbinding plot and the characters.