Rule BritanniaDaphne Du Maurier
Daphne du Maurier
Foreword by Ella Westland
Table of Contents
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For Glads, a promise, with love.
Kilmarth, November 1971–March 1972
This is a Daphne du Maurier novel in disguise. In Rule Britannia’s sardonic scenario 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 any troublemakers. But the authorities reckon without the truculence of the Celtic fringe. In a big house in Cornwall, between the spectacularly beautiful south coast and the clay-mining country (where Daphne du Maurier herself lived throughout her writing life), an eccentric ex-actress named Mad and her crew of adopted boys throw in their lot with the emerging Cornish Resistance.
Understandably, readers of Rebecca might fear that Rule Britannia will not transport them back to Manderley. Despite its dream opening, dangerous cliffs, dead bodies, and the slanting of the story through a young woman’s eyes—all elements in common with Rebecca—Daphne du Maurier’s last novel is indeed very different from the book that made her world-famous. Her biographer, Margaret Forster, shows from her letters that she deliberately tried to write a lighter work than usual, one which “takes the mickey out of everything.” However, the novel she produced has more bite than she realized—she was closer to the mark when she called it “mocking”—its tone shifting from the funny and farcial to the bleak and bizarre. Her publishers were worried by the implausible plot, and many of her faithful readers were bemused. Yet what holds Rule Britannia together is its very absurdity, the bold concept of an eighty-year-old actress in league with the locals, which combines in one last gloriously defiant statement both the theatrical environment of the writer’s London childhood and the grand passion of her adult life, Cornwall.
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. The killing of an American by an arrow loosed by one of Mad’s adopted children (the act that winds up the tension to propel the plot) is a black parody of the Lost Boys winging Wendy as she approaches Neverland. But the reality of the marine’s murder marks Neverland’s shocking end—this is Death in Arcadia. It works, in this oddly truth-telling book, as a reminder that Cornwall in the 1970s has to face its own realities, and that even a secluded writer must face them too.
As daughters of the celebrated Gerald du Maurier, theater manager and matinee idol, Daphne and her two sisters were Peter Pan’s friends from the nursery. They were brought up in the glamorous milieu of the London stage, with J. M. Barrie as an honorary uncle. He had created Peter for Daphne’s Llewelyn Davies cousins (and became the guardian of the five brothers when they were orphaned, just as the Darlings adopted the six Lost Boys). Gerald had been playing Captain Hook since 1904, before Daphne was born, and Daphne’s elder sister Angela took the part of Wendy for three seasons in the 1920s, making the show an annual winter ritual for the whole family. Despite her personal shunning of the limelight, Daphne’s fascination with the theater never faded, and its influence on her fiction is particularly well understood by Nina Auerbach, in her maverick study, Haunted Heiress. In 1948 Daphne brought the two worlds together on the West End stage in the script of September Tide, a play set in Ferryside, the family’s converted boathouse on the river Fowey where she wrote her first novel. She began a serious flirtation with September Tide’s star, Gertrude Lawrence, an old flame of her father’s; as Forster observes, both Gertie and Gerald, she saw, were themselves types of Peter Pan, who “never grew up.”
Rule Britannia was dedicated to another of Gerald’s leading ladies, Gladys Cooper, who had died the previous autumn, and Mad was conceived as a larger-than-life “Glads.” As Angela recounted in her delightful autobiography, It’s Only the Sister, “Gladys came into our lives in 1911 and never left”; Daphne, who adored her and was said to resemble her, daydreamed of being her secret daughter. So when we enter Emma’s dream on the first page of Rule Britannia, while she holds her famous grandmother’s hand to acknowledge an audience’s rapturous applause, we are sharing Daphne’s teenage fantasy of finding her true mother, which blurs here into a moving tribute to the late actress taking her last curtain call.
It was clear to Daphne’s family and friends that her grandchildren also had their counterparts in Rule Britannia. She was sixty-four when she wrote it, with one teenage granddaughter a little younger than Emma, and five boisterous grandsons. Certainly, one motive behind the book was to explore her own feelings about the Britain that her grandchildren would inherit. A trace of the idea—“the faintest, faintest brew”—is recorded in a letter to her friend Oriel Malet seven years earlier but, by the time the book was written in 1972, it was very much a “state-of-the-nation” novel, projected forward into the later 1970s and anticipating an era after U.S. disengagement from Vietnam and the death of Mao (whose style of jackets Mad provocatively adopts). The Conservative Party had been returned to government in 1970 on a manifesto promising to pursue entry into the European Common Market, and the plot is predicated on wholescale public rejection of the move (though the 1975 referendum, two years after Britain joined, would actually produce a resounding vote of support). However, the real political interest of the book, rather than its somewhat crude analysis of the global situation, lies much closer to home, in Daphne’s determined attempt in her eighth Cornish novel to understand more objectively the place for which she felt such a powerful attachment.
While the novel was “brewing,” the Mebyon Kernow (“Sons of Cornwall”) movement had adopted a more focused political strategy and put up their first parliamentary candidate, encouraged by the recent success of Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties at the polls. During the 1960s, their broad agenda had attracted a thousand members, successfully tapping into a proud sense of Cornish difference and rousing pragmatic resistance towards up-country policies that threatened interference in the region. Daphne had come to share many of Mebyon Kernow’s values, whose arguments infused the illustrated commentary on her adopted home, Vanishing Cornwall (1967). Though she was quick to criticize Mebyon Kernow for harking back to a mythic past, wanting to “put the people into black kilts, speaking the old Cornish language, with a Parliament west of Tamar,” in 1969 she accepted, not without wry amusement, an invitation to join the party, and even tried her hand at writing a political piece in their magazine, Cornish Nation (vol.I, no.5).
She could hardly be expected to come up with any solution to the conundrum that has frustrated Cornwall into the twenty-first century of “seeking ways and means of preserving Cornish individuality and independence, keeping the coast and countryside unspoiled, with people fully employed” (Vanishing Cornwall). But along with many other members of Mebyon Kernow, Cornish and non-Cornish alike, she loathed the superior attitude of the London center to the periphery, represented in Rule Britannia by the establishment figure of Emma’s father, who thinks that crossing the Tamar takes him out of the civilized world into Tibet. She disliked the unimaginative politicians appointed to represent Cornwall
’s interests in Whitehall, satirized in the novel by the “on-message” woman MP for Mid-Cornwall, who is quick to toe the government line. And most of all she resented crass interventions from up-country—the kind of London-centered thinking that had planned in the Sixties to re-house overspill populations in the South West peninsula—and despised the local people who colluded with such damaging projects for short-term gain. The publican in Rule Britannia who sees a future in selling drink to the marines and importing Californian wine, rather than joining the Cornish farmers and fishermen and clay-workers in a principled resistance movement, bears the brunt of Mad’s scathing dismissal of collaborators.
The anger felt by Daphne at the lack of political will to regenerate the local economy fuses in Rule Britannia with her dread of a “mass invasion” of tourists, a short-sighted economic solution which would turn Cornwall into “the playground of all England” (Vanishing Cornwall). There is, of course, much more at stake than an altruistic concern for Cornwall in her savage vision of an American takeover bid for Britain, which plans to convert the entire country into a gigantic theme park. As early as 1952, in a defensive letter to her socialist editor, Victor Gollancz, she admitted to her gut reaction against the “very noisy smelly people” who “strew the beach, once so white and lovely, with sandwich papers, cartons, corn-plasters, contraceptives”; indeed, in pre-war Rebecca (1938), the de Winters recoil from the summer visitors on the margins of Manderley. She would surely have hated “Eden,” the millennium project that, little more than a decade after her death in 1989, has converted one of the abandoned Cornish clay pits into a tourist attraction in the name of environmentalism, bringing two million visitors a year to the doorstep of what is now commodified as “du Maurier country.”
It is easy to lampoon the perennial hostility of Cornwall’s incomers to lower-class visitors, an attitude which has been as common among the less well-off writers and artists who have colonized different areas of Cornwall since the 1880s as among the more privileged owners of private rural retreats. This may be construed as a politically reactionary withdrawal from everything repellent in a more egalitarian, crowded Britain. But in Daphne du Maurier’s case, the desire to defend Cornwall welled more directly from her personal commitment to the rugged coastal landscape and the mysterious house she loved. “I do believe I love Mena more than people,” she once said of the Menabilly estate, the primary inspiration for Manderley, and her life was lived in the shadow of its inevitable renunciation.
Her passionate possession of Menabilly, initially made possible by Rebecca’s sales and Hitchcock’s film, was prolonged by a generous lease for a quarter of a century. But she had already mourned its destruction in the opening of Rebecca, when she was merely a trespasser in Menabilly’s deserted grounds; and in The King’s General (1946), written at the time when she first moved into the house during the war (and the Americans were massing around Fowey in anticipation of D-Day), she visualized the sacking of the earlier gracious building by Roundhead soldiers in the Civil War. In 1969, before the writing of Rule Britannia, she was finally forced to relinquish her tenure to the Rashleighs and move to the brighter dower house, Kilmarth, a little closer to Par (the “Poldrea” of Rule Britannia). She became apparently reconciled to the move, and bravely repopulated Mad’s fictional house with the troop of sons she had once wanted, but she never ceased grieving for Menabilly. And the apparently irrevocable vanishing of “her” Cornwall, a land of lonely cliffs and farms, in the face of modernization, immigration and tourism, actualized for her on a huge scale the nightmare of the second Mrs. de Winter—that she could never return to Manderley again.
In Rule Britannia, du Maurier tries hard to give her Cornwall back to the Cornish, and let them defend their own land. The locals’ voices are heard through the heroic figures of Jack Trembath, the farmer “with powerful shoulders who used to wrestle for Cornwall against Brittany in his younger days,” and Tom Bate, the fishmonger who skippers his own boat. Both are perilously close to ethnic caricature—though perhaps her strange creation of a Welsh beachcomber, representing a pan-Celtic alliance, calls such carping criticism into question. Mad’s embarrassing insistence on nicknaming him Taffy mocks Daphne’s own tendency to stereotype, a caution to the too literal reader that the whole novel, not only its extrovert heroine, is designed to be larger than life.
Taffy also becomes the interface between a hard-edged view of 1970’s Cornwall and the haunting “other Cornwall,” saturated with Daphne du Maurier’s imagination. As Emma struggles to seek a path of certainties through her brave new world, she has her suspicions about Taffy’s authenticity, and challenges her grandmother’s grasp on reality:
“You imply that nothing is ever true, that we are all misled, that each one of us, guilty or innocent, follows some will o’ the wisp and then vanishes off the face of the earth for evermore?”
However, Mad has no difficulty with holding truth in suspense: “I neither believe nor disbelieve. Taffy’s a mountebank, so am I. Rogues, vagabonds, strolling players, we’re all alike.” Their exchange is unresolved, dramatically broken by terrifying, anarchic explosions.
The author is here both the critical observer and the maddening actress. As Oriel Malet knew, she had “put more of her own character into Mad than she realized,” and in this distinctively du Maurier moment, Daphne is claiming the writer’s prerogative to fuse real and imaginary worlds. What is “the real Cornwall” anyway? For thousands of readers, many of whom will never go there, Cornwall is not a region of clay pits and tourist attractions, but Daphne du Maurier’s Manderley, the place of her dreams.
Auerbach, Nina, Daphne du Maurier, Haunted Heiress (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000).
du Maurier, Angela, It’s Only the Sister: An Autobiography, first published 1951 (Mount Hawke, Cornwall: Truran, 2003).
du Maurier, Daphne, Vanishing Cornwall, first published 1967 (London: Penguin Books, 1972).
Forster, Margaret, Daphne du Maurier (London: Chatto & Windus, 1993).
Malet, Oriel, ed., Daphne du Maurier: Letters from Menabilly (London: Orion, 1994).
University of Exeter 2003
Emma awoke to the sound of planes passing overhead, but she was not fully conscious, and the sound merged with her dream. The dream was a recurring one, begun in childhood around the age of five and returning still at the age of twenty, so she knew it must have some sort of psychological importance, but what it was she did not care. In the dream she and Mad were holding hands, bowing gracefully to the audience and then to one another. The applause was deafening, and the curtain rose and fell several times but the clapping never ceased. As a child she had looked up to Mad in the dream, as her protectress, and there was a feeling of reassurance in the echoing smile, in the squeeze of the hand, as though Mad were saying, “It’s all right, they can’t hurt you, I’m here, now and forever.” Then through schooldays and adolescence the protectress figure had shrunk, or rather it was that Emma grew, and now they were equal in power, she and Mad, they were identical faces on either side of a coin, and the applause was for them both… The last burst of clapping, the final fall of the curtain, and it wasn’t the world of theater anymore but the dwindling sound of aircraft humming inland away from the coast, and she was in her own bed with the window rattling against the sill, the curtains blowing, and the smell of morning, cold and clean, seeping into the room.
Emma looked at her bedside clock—it was a few minutes after seven—and then switched on her radio to the local station. But there was no time signal, no announcer with the news, nothing but an interminable hum that must mean there was a fault somewhere, and it wasn’t any better when she tried the national program. The hum persisted, with crackling and spitting thrown in for good measure. “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 int
o a critical assessment of her own ambivalent life. To leave or not to leave, that is the question; whether ’tis nobler to continue living, sharing Mad’s life, her home, her whole existence, or to break here and now with all dominion, cut myself loose, start on a separate road…
The trouble is, which road? That was the rub. No openings for girls with or without the right exams behind them. Secretarial pools all jammed with applicants. Men, women, boys, girls, jostling for position, scrambling to obtain the few jobs worth the holding, and ever since the government had back-tracked and pulled out of Europe—dissension among the Ten was the official reason, and a national referendum had given the government of the day a thumping majority—things seemed to have gone from bad to worse. So Pa said, and he ought to know, being a merchant banker.
“Travel the world,” he told her. “I’ll pay.”
“I don’t want charity,” she replied. “I’ve turned eighteen.”
And so the inevitable and abortive effort to make the grade on the stage. Mad’s influence, of course. But despite the recurring dream she had made no headway. And unless she could get to the top bang off, then there was nothing doing. Not after all those childhood years with applause sounding in her ears. TV commercials or regional announcing? No, thank you, ladies and gentlemen and viewers everywhere. Let us rather bear the ills we have than fly to others that we know not of.
Emma tried the radio again, with the same result, a prolonged hum. She got out of bed and went along the passage to turn on the bathwater. Glancing out of the window she saw that the curtains of the little boys’ room were still tightly drawn. Thank heaven for that—with luck they might still be asleep. The side door slammed, well, that would rouse them, if the sound of the planes hadn’t. It was Terry, wheeling his bicycle out of the side hall—where he was not supposed to keep it—and careering away up the drive. Terry was a poor early riser as a rule, unlike Joe, who was always up by seven, chopping wood or digging in the garden, and curiosity impelled Emma to throw open the window and call after him.