Sunday, November 27, 2011

Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet after twenty-five years

I am teaching a class on E. M. Forster this term, and after reading his wonderful A Passage to India, I decided to look at these novels from the 1960’s that were inspired by Forster’s masterpiece.

The Jewel in the Crown

The Jewel in the Crown (462 pages, University of Chicago, $20) is the first book in Paul Scott’s majisterial Raj Quartet. First published in 1966, the novel looks back to the twilight years of the British colonial presence in India. Set in 1942, although it moves earlier and quite a bit later than this year, it tells the story of the incarceration of Indian political figures encouraging resistance to the British colonial rule, which results in several disturbing events that are told in intimate detail.

The first shocking tale is that of Miss Crane, a single English woman who settled in India as a teacher after being taken there as a governess in the employ of upper-class English civil servants. Miss Crane has been a wonderful pro-Indian teacher and worker, but even she feels the strong divisions of colonial rule. On the day when politicians are put in jail, rioting in the countryside catches Miss Crane off guard, and she and her Indian assistant are attacked by a mob. She survives, but the assistant is killed and Miss Crane sits with him in the rain until help arrives.

Miss Crane has a complete breakdown after this attack, feeling primarily that she let her assistant down. She loses her mind imagining that she could have done more to make the connection to the native population.

Miss Crane is a fitting character with which to begin this complex novel. She stands for all that is wrong with even the most well-meaning of the colonial power.

More riveting, in part because told from so many different angles, is the love affair between Daphne Manners, an orphaned English girl staying with a Brahman lady in the fictional Mayapore, and Hari Kumar, or Harry Coomer, the young Indian man who has been brought up in England and come through the public school system. This love affair is a tragedy by definition because of the racial and cultural differences that the two characters would have to overcome. Even their friends can hardly trust these two characters together. It simply isn’t done.

Far worse, though, is the mad and simmeringly homoerotic jealousy of Gordon Merrick, a local policeman, who himself proposes to Daphne and looks at his competition with a form of loathing desire. Needless to say this makes him sadistic in his prosecution of Hari when Daphne has been raped and it seems that Hari might well have been involved.

Scott tells this story with exhilarating narrative technique, which involves transcripts and interviews with almost all the central characters, some of whom are wonderfully colorful in their own right. And while he tells this story of sex and victimization, he also analyzes the presence of the British in India at the end of the Raj as few other writers have been able to do.

The Raj Quartet is a masterpiece, and The Jewel in the Crown is its wonderful beginning. I will reread all four novels in time, but I cannot promise to review then all at the same time.

Paul Scott

The Jewel in the Crown is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

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