[Mary Yellan, a young woman living at Jamaica Inn, has gone to the fair at Launceston on Christmas Eve, with Jem Merlyn]
Launceston itself seemed to rock in merriment as peal after peal of gaiety echoed in the street, mingling with the bustle and clatter of the fair; and with it all there was shouting, and callings, and a song from somewhere. The torches and the flares cast strangle lights on the faces of the people, and there was colour, and shadow, and the hum of voices, and a ripple of excitement in the air.
Jem caught at her hand and crumpled the fingers. ‘You’re glad you came now, aren’t you?’ he said, and ‘Yes,’ she said recklessly, and did not mind.
They plunged into the thick of the fair, with all the warmth and the suggestion of packed humanity about them. Jem bought Mary a crimson shawl, and gold rings for her ears. They sucked oranges beneath a striped tent, and had their fortunes told by a wrinkled gypsy woman. ‘ Beware of a dark stranger,’ she said to Mary, and they looked at one another and laughed again.
observations: The visit to the fair is the happy moment in the middle of the book, before the melodrama goes into overdrive, and it is a really great few pages - a very lively description of a country town full of interest and excitement and activity, convincingly done. Jem is a rogue and a charmer, and although both he and Mary are romantic and dramatic figureheads for the plot, neither of them is 2-dimensional. Du Maurier is a much better writer than she is sometimes given credit for.
It’s just as well Christmas Eve is such fun, because Christmas Day is going to be very, very bleak.
I do have one worry about Jem: he’s a horse-thief, and he sells a small pony for £30 guineas - back to its original owner in fact. Now, the buyer is meant to be rather foolish, but still. My favourite toy the currency converter tells me that’s more than £1000 in today’s money – unlikely surely? For comparison purposes, in the economic primer which is Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate, set 120 years later (around the time this book was written), Cedric buys a broken-down old horse for £40, to the horror of those around him - that’s far too much, they say, ‘You could get a hunter for less than that.’
One more thing about the book: Mary has strong feelings and worries and guilt about various things that happen, and fears about who else might be to blame, but never seems to realize that in the end it is her actions that directly bring about her beloved aunt’s death, because she can’t keep her mouth shut.
The young woman with the red shawl and gold earrings is by Alexei Harmaloff, and the picture is from the Athenaeum website.
Daphne du Maurier has featured on the blog before: an earlier entry on this book (at the time of the mumbling TV version) , Don't Look Now, and The Scapegoat, and this short story last week for my 1971 book.