Before I purchased Rule Britannia for this month’s project, I had no idea that Daphne du Maurier had turned her talented hand to apocalyptic fiction. First published in 1972, the novel is a ‘chilling’ version of the future, in which du Maurier ‘explores the implications of a political, economic and military alliance between Britain and the United States’. In essence, Rule Britannia is the author’s own exploration of a Cold War situation, in which a superpower named USUK is created in order to try and reduce the threat from other countries.
In Ella Westland’s introduction, she writes: ‘In Rule Britannia‘s sardonic scenaro for the 1970s, the United States administration sets up an alliance with the UK government over the heads of the British people, and sends in the Marines to quell the troublemakers. But the authorities reckon without the truculence of the Celtic fringe’. Westland speaks of real-world politics alongside the events within the novel, and also draws parallels with du Maurier’s other, more famous work: ‘despite its dream opening, dangerous cliffs, dead bodies, and the slanting of the story through a young woman’s eyes – all the elements in common with Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier’s last novel is indeed very different from the book that made her world-famous’. Westland’s introduction has been carefully written, and each element of importance surrounding Rule Britannia – the thoughts of reviewers and the odd aspects of the plot, for example – has been considered intelligently.
Westland goes on to say: ‘In the zany Cornish world of Rule Britannia, Peter Pan meets the marines. Mad’s cool and sensible granddaughter plays Wendy to Mad’s Peter Pan, the lovable and exasperating fantasist who refuses to grow up’. Due to the USUK alliance, eighteen-year-old Emma’s life, and the world she knows, is shattered: ‘There’s no post, no telephone, no radio – and an American warship sits in the harbour’. When Emma wakes to no radio signal and problems all around her in the first chapter, the novel’s omniscient narrator says the following: ‘And this, she told herself, is what comes of living in a mad-house, rightly named after its owner [Emma’s grandmother, Mad], who, on retiring from the stage some years ago after a brilliant career, could think of nothing better to do than to adopt six parentless, maladjusted boys and let them run riot in her home, believing, by doing so, that she had justification for living when her career had finished’.
The characters in Rule Britannia are largely well-drawn, and all are distinctive and rather memorable. The boys which Mad has adopted are all quite different; Andy, for example, is adventurous and likes to clamber onto the roof of the house to shoot his bow and arrow, and Sam is rather obsessed with saving injured animals. The majority of the protagonists do feel like du Maurier creations.
Du Maurier demonstrates the way in which such a situation so affects the civilian quota, and can so easily create conditions with which people can pitch themselves against one another, creating an ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ culture. She shows the way in which such an alliance has the potential to change everything, from education to the standard national currency, and how hostility can so quickly manifest itself within society. Divisions are set out immediately when we find out that Emma’s merchant banker father is he enemy of sorts; he represents the ‘clueless’ London majority in the book who are intent upon ruling over all. Mad believes that he is ‘Treading the corridors of power. If there is any power left’.
In the small Cornish village in which Emma and Mad live, a resistance group is soon set up. Du Maurier has tried to give ‘her Cornwall back to the Cornish’, allowing them to defend their own county. Secrecy becomes a part of daily life, and it is never quite clear whom one is able to trust. Interestingly, aside from the setting and Cornish surnames used, there is nothing in the first few chapters of Rule Britannia which made me feel that it was distinctively du Maurier’s work. It feels far more modern in its prose style – and other respects – than a lot of her other work, and it is clear that the author adapted well to the time period in which she was writing.
The entirety of Rule Britannia is rather cleverly done; the elements which du Maurier has woven into daily life could quite easily be true. She has made them feel eminently realistic, so much so that as a reader, I barely questioned any of the new or ‘different’ elements which were added. The novel is well paced, and the plot moves along quite quickly. My only criticism of the story itself is that as it goes on, some of the decisions which particular protagonists make, and conversations which they have with one another, can tend to feel quite out of character and unrealistic. The realism, which was so well shown at first, seems to diminish rather in places. The mantra which Mad consequently drums into those around her to excuse them for their questionable behaviour is that ‘these are not normal times’, but this does not go quite far enough to excuse some of the events which occur. Rifts soon develop within the family too, running simultaneously alongside the problems in the wider community.
Rule Britannia is almost sinister at times; it feels as though the ever-present darkness within du Maurier’s short stories has crept in and firmly rooted itself. The novel is an incredibly interesting one, particularly when one is familiar with du Maurier’s other work. Interesting comparisons can be drawn to her other novels throughout. Rule Britannia is engaging from start to finish, and whilst it is very different to the majority of her other work in a plethora of different ways, it is, I think, one of her strongest novels.