Published: 7 June 2012
In this ominous novel of the future, Daphne du Maurier explores the implications of a political, economic, and military alliance between Britain and America.
Emma wakes one morning to an apocalyptic world. The cozy existence she shares with her grandmother, a once-famous actress, has been shattered—there’s no mail, no telephone, no radio, and an American warship sits in the harbour.
As the two women piece together clues about the “friendly” military occupation on their doorstep, family, friends, and neighbors gather to protect their heritage.
Rule Britannia, published in 1972, was Daphne du Maurier’s last novel but the relevancy to the political atmosphere in Britain today meant it sent chills up my spine as the story seems almost prophetic in nature.
Our main protagonist is twenty-year-old Emma who is living with her elderly grandmother, Mad, in Cornwall, along with the troop of six boys Mad has adopted over the years who range in age from three years to eighteen. When Emma wakes up one morning, she hears the sound of planes overhead and there is a US warship anchored in the bay. Curious about what’s going on, Emma and Mad soon realise there is a blackout on the television and radio stations, however the prime minister later broadcasts a speech indicating the United States and Britain have formed a single nation called the USUK. The reason behind the union is down to the economic upheaval in Europe and Britain’s decision to withdraw from the European Community.
We aren’t given much information about what’s going on in Europe but there are hints about financial corruption forcing Britain’s abrupt withdrawal and the subsequent chaos has left the country on the point of bankruptcy. According to the prime minister, the only solution was to merge with the United States and the deal was kept a secret to prevent mass unrest before everything was settled. A state of emergency has been declared to assist the changeover and Cornwall is cut off from the rest of the country. Some of the locals are okay with the changes, however Mad is deeply suspicious of the motives behind it and the behaviour of the US soldiers who are acting more like hostile invaders.
Things get worse when a marine is killed by one of Mad’s boys and they are forced to hide his body. As the military authorities search for him, they tighten their control over the locals by cutting food, electricity and water supplies. They also start rounding up men and boys over eighteen for questioning. However, the locals are soon fighting back by disrupting lines of communication and dumping piles of manure at a Thanksgiving celebration but things take a serious turn when the warship suddenly blows up and suspicion falls again on the locals. As the locals are held prisoner in their own homes, Emma’s family hunker down in the cellar for the night but they awaken to the news the Americans are retreating.
Rule Britannia was intended to be a funny novel but ended up being more satirical in nature and was not well received by critics. The foreword indicates the characters were loosely based on Peter Pan with Mad being Peter and Emma being Wendy, and the adopted boys representing the Lost Boys adopted by the Darling family, however that makes for an implausible plot. The real story behind it was Du Maurier’s growing concern over the changes taking place in Britain and her desire for the Cornish people not to be under the thumb of London. When the book was published, Britain was on the verge of joining the European Community, the precursor to the EU, and would officially join in January 1973. There was a real fears Britain would lose the democratic right to govern itself.
In Rule Britannia, the country is facing an economic crisis, the Queen is being held hostage in the White House, and no one is taking any notice of what the people actually want. Yet, there is hope because there are hints Cornwall isn’t the only place fighting back even though we don’t get to witness it. Reading the book in 2019, the story takes on a whole new perspective in light of the political upheaval being caused by Brexit and our government’s inability to come to an agreement with the EU. And, suddenly, the thought of Britain merging with the United States and being turned into an historical theme park for American tourists, isn’t so implausible after all.