I thought I would pace myself with these four volumes, but after I read the first I found I couldn’t stop. Here’s the third, and I will go right on to the fourth. There is a “fifth” too, called Staying On, but we’ll see about that.
The Towers of Silencece
The Towers of Silence (399 pages, University of Chicago, $20) is the third volume of Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet. It fills in much of what the first and second volumes cover, especially the story of Teddie Bingham, who married Susan Layton and then was killed at the Burmese front of the Second World War. We see Gordon Merrick, too, wounded and incapacitated, still nursing his grievance against Hari Kumar and still hoping for some kind of closure.
Sarah and Susan Layton, and their mother Mildred, are more central to this story. Susan, who slipped into a mad-seeming postpartum depression is recovering slowly. Sarah is trying to cope with her own disenchantment, both with her own family and with the entire British enterprise, but her only outward show of rebellion is her giving up her virginity in a crazy night in Calcutta, where she has gone to carry Susan’s thanks to Gordon Merrick. Merrick, it was thought, had helped Teddie at the time of the attack.
Another figure who is central to this volume and who only appeared briefly before, is Barbara Batchelor, a rather crazed retired schoolteacher who rented a room with Mabel Layton, Mildred’s step-mother, in Rose Cottage, and thereby earned the enmity of Mildred, who wanted that Cottage for herself, and Mildred’s friends.
Barbie, as she is known, knew Edwina Crane, the teacher who died in the first volume of the Quartet, and she keeps Edwina’s memory alive. She has a spooky sort of religious belief, and those she has lost, including Mabel who dies in the middle of this novel, haunt her everyday life, and she talks to them quite openly.
This ghostliness is suitable because Barbie herself is wraith-like and she haunts some of the other characters, especially the often-drunken Mildred Layton, as if she were a visitor from some other world. The hatred that Mildred feels for Barbie is irrational, but Barbie in her simple, neurotic, and unmeaning way, does expose Mildred as an adulteress and a drunk.
The person who understands and defends Barbie is Sarah, herself alienated, and sensitive to the older woman’s pain. The scenes between them are touching, and when the nasty British society of the their town start to suggest that Barbie’s interest might be lesbian, as Barbie hears from her friend Clarissa, even this solace becomes tainted.
The other important character in this novel, if it can be considered in terms of “character,” is the women’s society of this hill town that is a microcosm of colonial British culture. The women are left behind as the men go off to fight the Japanese, and the result is an exposure of everything that is wrong about the colonial presence. These women are petty and venal and self-important in ways that are almost laughable, and Scott seems to be using them as a way of talking about British-Indian relations.
This is another remarkable novel. No less moving than the other wonderful volumes in The Raj Quartet, it deepens our understanding of this dying empire and the pain with which its presence in India will come to an end.
The Towers of Silence is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.