Thursday, April 14, 2022

A Cozy Catastrophe by Daphne du Maurier


Daphne du Maurier's last novel, Rule Britannia, published in 1972 and set in Cornwall, is a dystopian "cozy catastrophe."  This is now my third favorite of her books, after The Parasites and  Rebecca.  

The plot is fascinating, and, alas, plausible. One day in an alternate 1970s, the 20-year-old protagonist, Emma, wakes up to the sound of planes overhead.  The radio doesn't work. There is only a hissing, crackling sound.

"Oh, to hell with it!" She pushed the transistor aside and lay back on her pillow, her hands behind her head, transposing 'To be or not to be' from Hamlet into a critical assessment of her own ambivalent life.

An aspiring actress, Emma has made no headway in the profession and instead lives at home and tries to bring stability to the household dominated by her 80-year-old grandmother, Mad, a retired actress, and the six boys she has adopted, the oldest of whom is 18, the youngest three.  Emma wonders if she should stay with Mad, "or break here and now with all dominion..." 

The planes overhead indicate a different dominion.  The Americans have invaded England, or something very like it.  The UK has withdrawn from the European Common Market and  made a deal with the devil (the U.S.)  to survive financially by merging with the U.S. to become the USUK - only no one told the citizens.  

The appearance of an American warship in the harbor mystifies and upsets the family.  The resistance movement begins when American soldier shoots a farmer's beloved dog, Sprye.  (Mad buries the dog.)  A few days later, one of the boys, Andy, who is practicing archery with lethal arrows (provided by Mad), shoots and kills an American soldier.  And Emma is horrified that Andy does not understand the difference between right and wrong.  In fact, Mad does not think it was wrong.

Mad, Emma, and the neighbors cover up the killing, with the cooperation of Taffy, a radical beachcomber whose background seems to include disposing of bodies.  
Daphne du Maurier intended this to be a light novel, and there is a certain buoyancy because of Mad's wit, Emma's sensibility, and one very funny resistance protest.  But there are references to Americans in the Vietnam War, and there are some violent, appalling scenes as the Americans clamp down on the rebellious community. 

Du Maurier's writing is so fluent, effortless, and her theatrical dialogue so witty (she knew the theater well, as fans of her remarkable novel, The Parasites, know; and her father, Sir Gerald du Maurier was a famous actor-manager) that the  reader knows instinctively that things will turn out all right in the end.

I wonder why I never heard of this dystopian classic.  It is a forgotten gem, at least in the U.S.  I have never seen this on a dystopian novel list!


  1. This comment is from Ellen:

    "How interesting. Ever since DuMaurier's first books were labeled "woman's novels" and seen as torrid romance for silly women, no matter how several very good books have come out, serious biographies, a few essays, she is thoroughly crossed off the list of writers to be taken seriously. Her high status as a female gothic writer just hurts her further. Thank you for alerting us and this helpful summary and evaluation."

  2. Ellen, I do agree that she is overlooked because of her brilliant Gothic.. It simply astonishes me that I have never seen this book mentioned anywhere, not even at SF websites.

  3. It's well known in the UK. I suspect that her attitude to the Americans in this one has led to some people ignoring it. I think that during WW2 in Cornwall the US troops caused quite a bit of trouble to begin with and du Maurier had a long memory.