Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 8, 2019

Rule Britannia, by Daphne du Maurier

Rule Britannia is a bit of a disappointment, if only because the purpose of Daphne du Maurier week hosted by Heaven Ali is to celebrate the work of a British author whose books have stood the test of time, and this book is not one of her best.

It is however, a strangely relevant one, as Ali explains in her review. This is part of the blurb from the Victor Gollancz 1972 First Edition:

Emma, who lives in Cornwall with her grandmother, a famous retired actress, wakes one morning to find that the world has apparently gone mad: no post, no telephone, no radio, a warship in the bay and American soldiers advancing across the field towards the house.  England has withdrawn from the Common Market and, on the brink of bankruptcy, has decided that salvation lies in a union—with the United States.  Theoretically it is to be an equal partnership; but to some people it soon begins to look like a takeover bid.

Well, of course, with Brexit looming, and the prospect of economic chaos in plain sight, the plot doesn’t seem as fanciful to us as it might have in 1972 when Britain was just about to join the Common Market (and my grandmother was sending us gloomy missives about it). I don’t know if du Maurier (1907-1989) was also one of the naysayers, or merely satirising them, but she certainly beats the nationalist drum in this book.  Her eccentric characters morph from bewildered onlookers into a somewhat amateur resistance movement, and though their activities are mostly only insults and mockery, the American occupiers and the London politicians who’ve stitched up the union take them very seriously indeed.

USUK (yes, say it out loud, it’s not subtle) is being promoted as a union of English-speaking peoples, intended to form a bloc with Australia, New Zealand, Canada (huh? Quebec?) and bizarrely, South Africa.  Methinks du Maurier (who was getting on a bit by then) had not been paying attention because South Africa (a) had Afrikaans not English as its national language, and (b) had long memories of the Boer War, and with plenty of hard feelings (c) had ditched Britain and became a republic in 1962. (Perhaps she had an old imperial atlas with South Africa still coloured pink).

The Trevalan household is a strange one.  Emma’s mother died when she was young, and her father, Vic, a bombastic merchant banker, has left her in the care of her grandmother.  But Mad (a childhood abbreviation of Madame) has also adopted a collection of undisciplined boys, ranging from three-year-old Ben (who is black, mute, and the only one whose adoption is not explained); six-year-old Colin who was abandoned at a pop festival; nine-year-old Sam, who was a battered baby; twelve-year-old Andy whose intellectual parents died in an air-crash; seventeen-year-old Terry whose drug-addled mother couldn’t name his father; and nineteen-year-old Joe, whose parents abandoned him to migrate to Australia because he was illiterate and he embarrassed them.  There is also Dottie, who was Mad’s dresser when she was on the stage but has reinvented herself as a housekeeper; and Folly, an ancient Dalmatian.  All the flawed ‘offspring’ turn out to have some quality which is indispensable.

But needless to say, my hackles rose when Ben was addressed as a Blackamoor by Vic. And why isn’t his adoption explained? Is there an offensive assumption about black parental responsibility happening here?

What saves this book is the characterisation of Emma.  It is Emma who reflects on the way human relationships are tested by this situation.  There is a nice young marine called Wally who fancies her, and it’s because of him that she has some understanding of the American troops doggedly doing their duty in a situation where they are clearly not wanted.  She is the only one who is appalled when one of the youngsters shoots a soldier with a bow and arrow, and quite rightly attributes the atrocity to Mad’s irresponsible parenting.  It is she who tries to restrain her grandmother’s intemperate actions which bring retribution to the whole village, and it is she who reflects on the way the occupation has made liars of them all.

The novel is anti-American, no doubt about it.  The Brits (with some justification) resented the belated US entry to both World Wars and WW2 in particular because America waited until Britain was on its knees militarily and financially.  While the US enjoyed phenomenal economic growth in the postwar years, the Brits suffered years of austerity while paying for postwar reconstruction in Germany as well as their own country.  Du Maurier expresses these resentments with references to American Independence and other allusions that make it clear that the US in this novel is colonising Britain with its plans to make England a theme park for tourists and a new home for American Christian Evangelism.

So it’s a flawed novel, but it is still interesting to read.  Britain is the home of eccentricity, and Mad is a good example of its pros and cons.  She is fearless and indefatigable, and although she is exasperating and intemperate, she has a loving heart and she is loyal to her loved ones and her community.   And the plot moves along nicely, with enough surprises to keep the reader interested.

But still, it’s not one of du Maurier’s best.  I’ve read Rebecca (of course); Jamaica Inn; Frenchman’s Creek; The Scapegoat (see my review); The Flight of the Falcon; and The Parasites; and I’d recommend them all, but Rule Britannia is too much like a grumpy old woman’s rant to be really successful, IMO.

Author: Daphne du Maurier
Title: Rule Britannia
Publisher; Victor Gollancz, London, 1972, 318 pages
ISBN: 0575015985 (hbk.)
Source: Personal library, OpShop Find


Responses

  1. It sounds like a fascinating literary artifact, though, even if pretty irredeemably flawed. Almost science fiction, with that alternate-history vibe…

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    • Yes, I wouldn’t call it a dystopia because the world is still very recognisably 1970s Britain. More of an alternative history, like that UK detective show set in a postwar London when the Nazis have won.

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  2. I definitely don’t think this is Daphne Du Maurier’s best novel but I think I enjoyed it more than you. My hackles rose over Ben too, and it’s definitely very anti American and elements of the plot are a bit barmy. Still I found it very readable and I enjoyed the characters of Emma and Mad and the Welsh man in the woods. It’s definitely fascinating in many ways.

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    • *chuckle* I think the alternative history is a good idea… it’s just the occasional bits that seem like author rants that made me pause.

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  3. You’ve just reminded me that I haven’t read Daphne for years – I have quite a few of her books on my shelves. I must pull one out

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    • Mission accomplished!

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      • 😀

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  4. I’ve only read Rebecca by her, nothing else. I chuckled at your description of the pink countries in the atlas. It is interesting to read authors of the past. Makes one realise that although there is a ways to go we have come a long ways socially.

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    • Indeed we have. It’s a good thing to remember when we are feeling a bit despondent about the state of the world:)

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I would have said dystopian too, and good on her for giving it a shot, it’s not the sort of writing we normally associate with her. Her USUK sounds like Orwell’s Oceania – the same assumption I guess.

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    • No, it’s not. She’s often described as a romance novelist, but I think (no offence to romance novelists, lots of people like them) she’s a bit more complex than that. I like her stories about smugglers in Cornwall:)

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  6. I didn’t enjoy this one much either-her other book, The King’s General explores similar themes and I liked it much better of the two.

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    • I’ve got that one on the TBR, I think, so I should check it out too:)

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      • Do when you get the time–the characters in that book also appear in the Children of the New Forest!

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  7. Sounds like an interesting curio, particularly in light of the current political environment. Possibly one for du Maurier completists, would you say?

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    • Well, I think it would disappoint if it were the first DM one had read…

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  8. I quite fancied reading this not because I thought it would be one of her best but because I find the dystopian genre (especially when handled by writers not known for it) fascinating (Evelyn Waugh’s Love Among the Ruins, for example). Unfortunately Lucky Per has got in the way of pretty much everything!

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    • I should re-read Love Among the Ruins, I’ve been promising myself I’d re-read some Waugh and that would be a good one to start with:)

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  9. Heheh Funny. I wonder how many Grumpy Old Woman’s Rant novels one could assemble. Now THAT sounds like a blog reading event. *twitters* This one is on my stack for next week, but maybe I’m not in quite the right frame of mind (having been following the American political news a little too closely for comfort, lately, despite being north of the border, thanks to having recently acquired a Trumpian-provincial leader here in Ontario). If I do give it a go, I’ll keep my focus on Emma!

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    • LOL I might start a shelf for that on Goodreads…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Let me know if you need any suggestions for content. Other than supplying it personally, I mean. :)

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