Sunday, February 27, 2022

Lessons from Jamaica Inn

 How far should one go to try to save someone?

That seems to be a central question of Jamaica Inn, a novel by Daphne Du Maurier, one of my favorite authors.  The protagonist of the novel is Mary Yellan, who grew up on a farm working alongside her mother, trying to support themselves after Mary’s father died.  But then her mother became ill and lost the will to live.  On her deathbed, Mary’s mother said:

“I want you to promise me this, child, that when I’m gone you’ll write to your Aunt Patience and tell her that it was my last and dearest wish that you should go to her.”

Mary accordingly leaves her beloved hometown of Helston and travels to her aunt, whom she remembers as a laughing, beautiful woman.  Her aunt is married now to a man who is the landlord of Jamaica Inn, on the Cornish coast.  Mary travels there, along a white road with the wild, barren, desperate moor on either side.  She soon learns that everyone in the area shuns Jamaica Inn, avoiding it at all costs as strange stories circulate about dreadful, mysterious happenings there.

The real Jamaica Inn, shown in 1959

Upon arrival, Mary meets her Uncle Joss Merlyn: almost seven feet tall with thick black hair, powerful shoulders, with a sunken mouth and red blood-flecks in his eyes.  He is an abusive, violent drunk haunted by secrets.  Meanwhile Mary’s Aunt Patience is a mere shadow of the woman she once was.  Her hair is gray and a nervous tick passes across her mouth.  She lives in constant fear of her belligerent husband, obeying his commands and cowering before him—yet, quick to come to his defense.

Mary learns that the locals have reason to fear Jamaica Inn.  Though her aunt stays tight-lipped, she does admit:

“There’s things that happen at Jamaica, Mary, that I’ve never dared to breathe. Bad things. Evil things. I can’t never tell you; I can’t even admit them to myself.”

Her first night there, Mary realizes that if she is to escape she must do it then, before her uncle prevents her.  Yet, as Mary creeps down the hall, she hears her aunt’s muffled cries, stifled in her pillow from the other bedroom.  Mary determines she cannot—will not—leave her Aunt Patience alone with Joss Merlyn.  Mary will stand between them, protect her aunt, and somehow bring her to safety.

It is certainly a noble purpose.  Yet, as the novel continues and Mary becomes more and more mired in the evil happening under her roof, I began to seriously question Mary’s judgment.  By the sheer act of living at Jamaica Inn, Mary is considered complicit with the criminal activity occurring there.  Secret, ghostly wagons appear in the dead of night and, locked in her bedroom, Mary peeks out her window to see her uncle, along with a company of questionable men, fill the wagons with packages … Where did these smuggled packages come from?  Why is there a room kept perpetually locked on the first floor of the Inn?  

One day, when Joss Merlyn is away on some untold business, Mr. Bassat—the local squire—arrives at Jamaica Inn to inspect it and to interrogate Mary and her aunt.  Before they answer the door, Aunt Patience turns to Mary:

The woman looked at her with haggard, desperate eyes. “Mary,” she said, “if Mr. Bassat asks you what you know, you won’t answer him, will you? I can trust you, can’t I? You’ll not tell him of the wagons? If any danger came to Joss I’d kill myself, Mary.” 

There was no argument after that. Mary would lie herself into hell rather than let her aunt suffer.

Mary lies to him to appease her aunt.  As the novel progresses, one can see Mary becoming lost in what is happening at Jamaica Inn.  She even becomes an (unwilling) eye witness to her uncle’s bloody, horrifying business.  

She also meets her uncle’s younger brother, Jem, who lives on the moor and is a horse-thief.  Jem bears some striking similarities to Joss, and, through his flirtations, Mary reflects that she can understand how her Aunt Patience once fell for Joss Merlyn.  

Jem takes Mary to a nearby fair on Christmas Eve, where he cunningly sells a stolen pony back to its unsuspecting owner.  With the money, Jem buys Mary a new headscarf.  They share a kiss and, when the weather turns miserable and the rain begins to pour mercilessly upon them, Jem invites Mary to spend the night with him there in town.  Mary refuses, knowing if she relents in this, she will be lost in her affection for him.  In many ways, she already feels lost.

“I can’t make plans or think for myself; I go round and round in a trap, all because of a man I despise, who has nothing to do with my brain or my understanding. I don’t want to love like a woman or feel like a woman, Mr. Davey; there’s pain that way, and suffering, and misery that can last a lifetime. I didn’t bargain for this; I don’t want it.”

“She was a woman, and for no reason in heaven or earth she loved him. He had kissed her, and she was bound to him forever. She felt herself fallen and degraded, weakened in mind and body, who had been strong before; and her pride had gone with her independence.”

When Mary witnesses murder at the hands of her uncle, she realizes she now must act, regardless of what her Aunt Patience says.  Mary must bring justice to her uncle and she risks her life to do so.  Du Maurier brings the reader along on a horrifying, suspenseful journey with Mary, who acts with courage and daring, but who seeks help from a wolf in sheep’s clothing.  

Bodmin Moor in Cornwall

All along, Mary yearns to return to Helston—to neighbors who know her, to the care of farm animals, to working the land.  This has always been her desire, and at the end, she is ready to leave behind the desolate, savage moorland.  “To thine own self be true.”  Mary tells Jem:

… there’s a sickness in my heart for home and all the things I’ve lost.

In my opinion, perhaps the most chilling mystery of the novel is the one du Maurier leaves the reader with: Mary impetuously decides to stay with Jem, who travels north—not south to Helford—where he will wander about, sleeping on the side of the road, never setting down … a life with little comfort or stability. 

Is this a romantic riding-off-in-the-sunset?  Or has Mary definitively lost her own dreams and desires in the haze of love for a man?  Is Mary following in the same steps as the aunt she once tried to save … and will Mary eventually share the same fate?  It was a chilling and unsettling conclusion, leaving the reader with numerous questions and haunting doubts.

Sunday, February 13, 2022

Lessons from David Copperfield

David Copperfield, the somewhat autobiographical work by Charles Dickens, was published serially in 1849 and 1850.  It was his favorite novel that he authored and I wonder if he purposely inverted his initials to create David’s name as a nod to their commonalities.  Narrated in first person, David describes his life from the night of his birth until his adulthood.  There is a wide cast of characters, many of whom appear and reappear during various stages of David’s maturity.  It is at times a tragic story; other moments are hilarious.    

David’s life passes through distinct periods: his happy, early childhood; abuse at the hand of his strict stepfather; a period of time in Salem House, a boy’s boarding school; laboring in a factory in London; studying and then working as a legal proctor; eventually, getting married and embarking on a writing career.  As the reader, we see his progress from a na├»ve little boy to a wise adult; from someone whose heart acts impulsively to one who is discerning.  Yet, through these developments, challenges, and setbacks, David still manages to maintain his innocent goodwill and kindness.  

David’s life, as is the case with any of our lives, intersects with a myriad of people.  He meets many individuals along the way, some of whom have a major impact on his life’s course and his formation, while others merely pass through without leaving an impression on him.

What is curious, however, is the “coincidental” reemergence of characters throughout the novel.  For example, while working in the London factory, David has a kind landlord named Wilkins Micawber.  They part ways, Micawber and his family moving to Plymouth.  Yet, later on in the novel, Dickens is in Canterbury, visiting an acquaintance’s home.  Who should happen to pass by the open door and spot him?  Micawber, of course!  

This is but one example of many where various people from David’s life pop up—running into each other, spotting someone at a social gathering, reading in the newspaper about a teacher from his childhood.  On the one hand, this makes for an engaging plot where the characters interweave and interact in creative ways.  At the end of the novel, Dickens leaves the reader with a strong sense of closure, with all of the characters having clear, set endings.  There are no loose ends here.

Yet, I couldn’t help but reflect to myself that, unlike this novel, life is just very messy sometimes.  I consider people in my life: classmates I knew as a child, teachers I had in school, friends from college, even family members … individuals who crossed paths with me and for a while, we walked this life together: sharing memories, trading secrets, depending on each other. But for one reason or another, our paths have diverged and we no longer communicate with each other.

I suppose I could always “look someone up” on social media, but I purposely avoid those platforms.  So that often leaves me with a big question mark.  What ever happened to so-and-so?  How is he or she doing right now?  The hardest is relationships that ended on a sour note.  What does he or she think of me now … does he harbor anger toward me?  Does she think worse of me?  

David had a close friend named Steerforth, whom he met at his boarding school.  Steerforth was someone David admired and esteemed.  

“You have no best to me, Steerforth,” said I, “and no worst. You are always equally loved, and cherished in my heart.”

Steerforth by Frank Reynolds

Then something tragic happened as young adults that separated them.  While David still appreciated Steerforth’s good qualities, he could no longer keep their friendship.  That is such a difficult part of life.  It’s a kind of death when you’ve had a friendship that brought joy and comfort … and then you have to let the friendship go and part ways.

 “I felt, as he had felt, that all was at an end between us. What his remembrances of me were, I have never known—they were light enough, perhaps, and easily dismissed—but mine of him were as the remembrances of a cherished friend, who was dead.”

Messiness happens in friendship; it happens in marriage too.  David met a young woman named Dora Spenlow and fell completely in love with her, bewitched by her golden curls and the way she found her lapdog, Jip, so amusing.  

I was a captive and a slave. I loved Dora Spenlow to distraction! She was more than human to me. She was a Fairy, a Sylph, I don't know what she was—anything that no one ever saw, and everything that everybody ever wanted. I was swallowed up in an abyss of love in an instant. There was no pausing on the brink; no looking down, or looking back; I was gone, headlong, before I had sense to say a word to her.”

Dora and David, by Frank Reynolds

They married after a long engagement and David couldn’t have been happier.  However, he soon found that married life with Dora presented challenges.  She was a frivolous girl, more skilled at taking care of Jip than maintaining any kind of order in their home.  Their servants stole from them.  Their meals were late and undercooked.  

Any attempt David made to form his wife’s mind and habits dissolved into tears and laments on the part of Dora, who felt undervalued and unappreciated.  She insisted on David considering her his “child-wife.”  Though Dora had a kind heart, she was far from similar-minded for the reflective, intellectual author David had become. 

 “There can be no disparity in marriage like unsuitability of mind and purpose.'”

He couldn’t share everything in his heart with her.  I admired David’s ability to still love Dora, despite his recognition of her shortcomings and inability to be a partner on equal footing.  David treated her with devotion and affection, not with resentment—perhaps because David himself carried a piece of childlike innocence in his heart.  Even so, their marriage was undoubtedly messy.

“I loved my wife dearly, and I was happy; but the happiness I had vaguely anticipated, once, was not the happiness I enjoyed, and there was always something wanting.”

In the fictional world of Dickens’s novel, these messy relationships come to a just, clear-cut, neat ending.  The bad guys have an unhappy ending.  The good guys live happily ever after.  There are no question marks or relationships left in the shadows of uncertainty.  

But for us in the real world, life will always be messy.  When I was in college, I had a friend who was there for me when I really needed someone more than ever.  Over and over again, I depended on him as a listening ear, a sympathetic heart, a source of wise advice and counsel.  During one of our conversations he told me, “In ten years’ time, no matter where we end up, you’re the kind of friend I’ll always send a Christmas card to every year.”  I believed my friend and I treasured that sentiment, a sign of the depth and meaning of our friendship.  But I never received a card and, this year, I finally accepted the reality that our friendship was only of the past and what he said then, doesn’t hold true any longer.  


Sometimes, for any manner of reasons, you decide you have to let a friendship fade.  Someone hurt you and you wonder whether he or she would understand why you feel hurt.  Do you dare open your heart to explain, running the risk of just getting hurt even more if the person doesn’t understand?  Or do you slowly step back, answering text messages more slowly and not initiating conversation … knowingly letting the friendship slowly die, aching inside because you never wanted this but can’t see another way out.  This was someone you trusted.  You opened your heart, let this person in.  But because of the closeness, the hurt is even more painful and now the person becomes like a stranger.

Sometimes I wish I lived in the world of a Dickens novel and coincidences would reunite us, answering the question marks.  But we aren’t characters; we are human people with our frailties, vices, and faults.  We make things messy and that messiness follows us.  It isn’t always neatly resolved in this life.  I suppose, looking forward in faith, we can trust that at the Second Coming of Christ, the “good guys” will then receive their happy ending and the “bad guys” their punishment.  At that point, all the question marks will be answered.  

But until then … things are messy.

Yet I find comfort in advice that David received from his eccentric but kind-hearted aunt:

“'It's in vain, Trot, to recall the past, unless it works some influence upon the present.”

At times my thoughts and memories stray to what used to be, but they cannot linger there.  Instead of lamenting what was, I can focus on what is: the relationships I have before me in the immediacy.  I can focus on being the best wife, mother, daughter, sister, and friend that I can to those whom God has placed around me.  Things will sometimes be messy, but when there is unity of mind and purpose, we can pull through the messiness, growing stronger in love, affection, and understanding.  Those are the relationships that will last.