- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 7, 2004


By Paul Scott


“This is the story of a rape, of the events that led up to it and followed it and of the place in which it happened. There are the action, the people and the place; all of which are interrelated but in their totality incommunicable in isolation from the moral continuum of human affairs.”

Thus Paul Scott writes early in “The Jewel in the Crown,” the first novel in his “Raj Quartet.” The succeeding volumes are “The Day of the Scorpion,” “The Towers of Silence,” and “A Division of the Spoils,” published from 1966 to 1975. A coda, “Staying On,” was awarded the 1977 Booker Prize. Scott’s fictional recounting of a time and place and the individuals who peopled it is memorable, Trollopean in sweep and exactness, masterful in narration and technique.

“The Jewel in the Crown” is set in 1942, the year in which a British army was defeated in Burma by the Japanese and seismic political tremors shook India. It is a tale of the deepening twilight of the British in India — the jewel in her crown, as Disraeli told Queen Victoria when he urged her to accept the title Empress of India.

In August 1942 Mahatma Gandhi issued his “Quit India” challenge to the United Kingdom, demanding that India be left “to God or to anarchy.” Members of the Indian National Congress holding provincial offices resigned and promptly were imprisoned by the British. Already, too, the religious fissures between Muslim and Hindu in the political movement were presaging the horror that would come when Great Britain divided the country into India and Pakistan upon granting independence after World War II.

In this first book of the quartet, three individuals are dominant; they provide theme and presence throughout the four novels. The first of them is Daphne Manners. She comes out from Britain after the deaths of her family. Plain, physically awkward, she is living in Mayapore, the fictional seat of the province in which most of “The Jewel in the Crown” takes place.

The second is Hari Kumar — or Harry Coomer. His father took him to England when the boy was two years old after the death of his mother. The father’s ambitions in his homeland were constricted by race and custom, and he was determined that it would not be so for his son. In England, his entrepreneurial success permits him to send Hari/Harry to a prestigious public (i.e., private) school, to mix with upper-crusty Brits and become, in effect, an Englishman — his father’s goal and vision of a passport to success for his son.

When Hari is 18, however, his father loses his fortune in a scandal and commits suicide. Hari is left with nothing. His only recourse is to return to India and an aunt who has only subsistence income. Hari speaks not a word of Hindi, is without prospects or hope. He is suspect to the Indians as too English, to the English as too Indian. He finally lands a marginal job with the English-language newspaper in the province, but is a man without identity.

The third person is Ronald Merrick, the district superintendent of police. He is from a lower-middle-class background and is regarded by the English establishment of Mayapore as not “one of us,” not “pukka.” Merrick’s position as policeman gives him what might be called a provisional visa to the more assured white world of colonialists. He resents the condescension that he encounters, but contains his bitterness behind a facade of disciplined reticence. He is deeply contemptuous of the Indians, and there is a vein of sadism in his character, which is also controlled, usually.

Daphne Manners is the fateful link between Hari Kumar and Ronald Merrick. At the first encounter of the two men, an observer is struck by “the darkness” in each of them. Daphne, troubled by and careless of the strict borders between the races, is attracted to Hari and he, finding a recognition of himself as an individual, responds. Unfortunately, Merrick also finds a warmth in Daphne that he is denied elsewhere, proposes to her and is rejected.

A rape will occur. But it is, like everything else in this fading colonial world, both more and less than that. Merrick frames Hari Kumar, arresting him and five other young Indians for the crime.

Coincident with this is widespread rioting in much of India, ignited by the Gandhi defiance and nationalist agitation. The British fear it could be another Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 and, with the Japanese pushing close to India, force is quickly applied. In the midst of this, with the “rape” victim adamantly denying that Hari and the other suspects are her assailants, the six young Indians are packed off to indefinite detention for political sedition. While in Merrick’s custody, Hari is brutally caned and sexually abused by Merrick. The other five, Hindus, also are caned and “defiled” by being fed beef.

There is apprehension among some of the Anglo residents and many Indians about how the case has been handled, but in a time of severe external threat and internal shakings, this remains private.

Throughout, the “Raj Quartet” is a fictional landscape of ambiguity: A once-confident regime now doubts the validity of the ideals that were deeply part of the imperial history. The genuine sympathy and aspirations of the Raj for the ruled has devolved into a fear on the part of the rulers; duty and honor are buffeted by a purpose that is eroding into desiccated form. These ambiguities are pondered from a variety of points of view throughout the novels — an intense effort by the author to explore the intellectual and ethical faces of the colonial experience.

A character in a later novel is forcibly jolted by the disjunctions she perceives, “so that it seemed to her that she was … suspended between an uncertain future and a fading history.”

These four novels are powerful, both in the plot and the careful focus with which Paul Scott controls this huge fictional panorama. Not only are the many principal characters drawn with a penetrating sense of the human head and heart, so is the large supporting cast developed with deftness and individuality.

The “Raj Quartet” was dramatized by Granada Television in a 15-part series in 1984. It had the flavor of the novels, but much of the texture, the freighted historical context, the dark tensions and agonies of mind were squeezed out, as so often happens in adaptations. A fine film was made of “Staying On” in 1981, starring Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson. Paul Scott, who served in India during World War II, died in 1978, shortly after “Staying On” was awarded the Booker Prize.

One literary essayist has concluded that the “Raj novels are among the greatest prose fictions of this and the nineteenth century.” That is an immense claim, but a re-reading of the novels inclines this deponent to suggest that it is a tenable judgment. The “Raj Quartet” remains indelibly with a reader.

Woody West is associate editor of The Washington Times.

“The Lost Word” appears on the second Sunday of each month. In it, commentators remind us of interesting but often forgotten writers and books from years past.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide