Book Review

Review: Rule Britannia, by Daphne du Maurier (1972)

3.5/5 stars

If you hadn’t guessed already, I’m a huge du Maurier fan. I love her style, the Gothic themes she explores, how her characters seem to get under the reader’s skin.

Hence why I was so excited to pick up Rule Britannia – I knew the basic premise, and it sounded intriguing.

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The novel opens with a disturbance. Emma wakes to the sound of aircraft flying over the Cornish coastal town where she lives with her grandmother Mad, their ‘housekeeper’, (for want of a better description), and the six young boys that Mad has taken in. The chaotic household reminded me a little of Fagin’s in Oliver Twist, without the sinister undertones. Loyalty and love, rather than DNA, holds this family together. In fact, Emma’s father, and Mad’s son, is the outsider. Spending most of his time in London’s highest financial establishments working with the elite who run the country, Emma’s father has little time for the unruly boys in his mother’s care.

It seems that the arrival of the aircraft was only the first sign that change is afoot. Transport and telephone communications have been suspended, and only brief news broadcasts are delivered on the television and radio. A U.S. marine shoots a neighbouring farmer’s dog, and the younger boys are outraged.

Then comes the announcement:

The nations of the United Kingdom and the United States of America will become one. The Queen and the President will be joint leaders of USUK, alongside the Prime Minister. Following the recent referendum that saw the UK population request to leave their union with Europe, the country has suffered high unemployment and is facing bankruptcy. The U.S. has come to their aid – the united military forces will enforce a state of emergency for the transition period, and then everything will resume as before. All efforts to resist the transition towards full union will be punished, according to broadcasts – this is the new reality.

Mad is immediately suspicious – why was this arrangement kept secret? the town reopens, the population is alive with rumours and gossip, but Emma is most concerned by the small separations that already seem to be affecting her neighbours. Some, like Mad, are suspicious and unnerved; others are glad with the decision, claiming it is only right that English-speaking nations should unite.

“The situation is rapidly becoming one of Them and Us.”

Mad decides to rebel. She calls out the local MP on her lies or exaggerations, resists the efforts of U.S. officials to enlist her in cultural committees, and encourages the boys to play pranks on the marines.

As the story continues the town tries to adjust to the changes occurring around them. Du Maurier explores themes of secrecy, rebellion, political governance, and however contrived this might sound, the boundary between good and bad, or right and wrong. Are the marines wrong for following orders in spite of the disruption it is causing to the locals? Are they allies or occupiers? Are locals who assist the marines wrong for protecting themselves? Is Mad wrong for resisting? Troubling such assumptions is part and parcel of most Gothic fiction, and seeing this in Rule Britannia was one of the more enjoyable aspects of the novel, even though it was essentially a political narrative.

That political theme was extremely interesting given the similarities between the story and the current political situation in the UK. A referendum about Europe; unemployment; generational divides in political outlook; a ‘special relationship’ with the U.S.A. It was fascinating to see how du Maurier imagined such a scenario in 1972. The above quote about ‘Them and Us’ in particular seems very close to  current cultural atmospheres. It also acts as the pivotal aspect from which the other themes are explored. Who’s ‘inside’ and who is ‘excluded’; who can be trusted and who is to be resisted?

I felt that the narrative expressed an overwhelming distrust of governing authorities as a whole, rather than this or that political union. Du Maurier seems to glorify the idea of rural self-sufficiency – and make a point that Cornwall’s population would excel at it – with characters sharing their own farming produce with each other rather than sell it to supermarkets or traders.

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I really loved the character of Mad – eccentric, witty, mischievous, and a force to be reckoned with. After watching a BBC interview du Maurier gave from her Cornish home, I couldn’t help to notice a few similarities between the author and her character. More similarities, certainly, than seem to have informed any other of her works. There’s the shared theatrical background – Mad is a retired actress, while du Maurier’s father was a successful actor-manager in London; a love of Cornwall; a fierce independence. Scenes of Mad walking across fields towards the coast were reminiscent of the walk du Maurier showed her interviewer.

That, perhaps, is why I believed in Mad’s character more than any other. Mad felt real and three-dimensional, whereas I struggled with others. Emma felt especially frustrating, as though du Maurier was not quite sure how to define her personality.

I also didn’t feel very engaged with the plot – it lacked the power and intrigue that she has been celebrated for. Tension was built up in various places, but I personally didn’t feel that anything materialised from that. Suspicious characters lurked on the periphery, but I felt dissatisfied by their eventual role in the narrative. The ending was touching, but much of the story felt flat.

While this was not my favourite du Maurier – not as enchanting or provocative as much of her work – it was still decent. Some of her unique style shines through, the central concept itself is interesting, and the character of Mad entertaining enough to sustain interest.

 

*Rule Britannia was written by Daphne du Maurier, published by Virago Books.

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