Paul Scott’s 1966 novel, the first in his masterpiece series The Raj Quartet, is a story of doomed love across a racial divide. Through the story Scott explores powerful themes of racism, class and colonialism in a complex environment at the Empire’s darkest hour.
In mid-1942, shortly after the collapse of British Burma and with the threat of the Japanese army reaching the Indian border, MK Gandhi launches the Quit India campaign calling on the British to leave India ‘to God or anarchy’. On approving the Act, the membership of the Indian National Congress – some 60,000 people – were promptly arrested without trial and imprisoned for the duration of the war. In response, some rioting and violent protestations broke out, arguably worsened in the absence of the leadership that may have been able to control the crowds.
It is amongst this chaotic, tense and highly charged environment that Paul Scott sets into play his tragedy, The Jewel in the Crown, the first of four novels that comprise The Raj Quartet, often called an ‘Anglo-Indian War and Peace’.
It is a merciless tour de force and a powerful commentary on colonialism, racism, class and caste prejudice, religious and cultural differences in a dangerous time with emotions running high in a very complex environment. Within this context, three people who tried to straddle two worlds, who tried to find reconciliation and a place for themselves within it, are themselves torn apart and destroyed.
This is, as it says on the very first page, the story of a rape
Daphne Manners is a young woman who, having lost her parents in the war, moves to India to live with her nearest living relative, her Aunt Ethel. But she is disturbed by what she finds in India – the separation of the British from the locals, varieties of racist and classist practices and the prospect of living a largely inactive and privileged lifestyle in the midst of poverty and inequality. None of it is in her taste or nature.
Added to this, Daphne has attracted the attention of Ronald Merrick, a local police superintendant, who begins to court her. But Daphne never trusts Merrick’s intentions towards her. The fact that he seems to be a spiteful man, who harbours a strongly racist outlook, means that Daphne could never accept his affections. Her own views towards the locals and the English attitudes towards them become increasingly at odds with her peers.
She does find one comfort in her new life – a friendship with Hari Kumar. Like Daphne, Hari grew up in England and his move to India was not voluntary either. His father died bankrupt and, like Daphne, this left Hari with no alternative but to return to live with his nearest relatives. Despite being Indian by race, India is a completely alien country to him. He does not even speak any local language. Hardest for him to accept is the fact that the future which previously lay before him has now evaporated. With little opportunity for higher education or a respectable or lucrative career, and treated as an outsider by both the British and Indian communities, Hari grows increasingly bitter and isolated.
Hari and Daphne find solace with each other. Their similar experiences and the fact that Hari attended the same school as Daphne’s brother allow them the fantasy of escaping this segregated world by being together. But the reality is that there is no place that will accept them together, a fact that only increases Hari’s resentment towards his new life and threatens to destroy their budding relationship.
Following the brutal assault on Daphne, Merrick is in charge of the investigation and Hari is a natural suspect. Merrick is aware of Hari, having dealt with him previously. As an Indian, who in England enjoyed the privileges of a higher class than Merrick was born into, Hari is an easy target for Merrick’s racial and classist hatred. Daphne though, strongly denies that Hari was with her in the Bibighar Gardens and refuses to identify any suspect. The fact that she plans on keeping the resultant child and says that her attackers could have just as easily been Englishmen further ostracises her from the British community.
The novel is told as if the incident is being investigated years later. The point of view moves from character to character, first to third-person, at different points in time and uses a variety of forms from diaries and letters to interviews and third-person narration. This allows the author to explore, not only the chain of events and the characters involved, but various views on the social and political environment of the time. The reader can appreciate the complexity of the situation – with the war, the independence movement and various social, political and religious concerns – without being overwhelmed or necessarily being diverted too far from the story.
That is not to say that this is an easy or strongly engrossing read. Tolstoy’s War and Peace is an easier read
Of course, a writer using a story of a sexual assault, real or alleged, to explore themes of race and class is nothing new. A few years before this novel was published came the most famous example, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960). Even earlier than that, it had already been done within a colonial Indian context in A Passage to India (1924). This often reflects reality as sexual assaults, when reported, often expose the inequalities of a society and encourage debate and change. The recent unrest in India following a spate of assaults is a potential example. Apart from the use of a sexual assault to explore difficult themes, these novels have little else in common.
To Kill a Mockingbird is more subtle and more concise. It plants seeds in the reader’s imagination and encourages them to grow. There could not be an equivalent novel for British India, such a story would fail to encapsulate the complexity of that society. Scott does not evade the complexity but embraces it. By setting it at the Empire’s darkest hour in WWII and when various competing Indian independence interests are fighting as much with each other as with the British, Scott only adds further complexity to the context. You cannot overstate the ambition of this novel. The Jewel in the Crown is rightly more overt than To Kill a Mockingbird and leaves less to the imagination. In doing so it is perhaps less elegant but gains power and scope.
The Anglo-Indian War and Peace’ tag is appropriate. One feels that this quartet of novels provides ample material for a thesis. The dense historical detail, plus the characterisations, multiple points of view and overlapping time periods, provide plenty of material to analyse. Easily enough to overwhelm a humble online reviewer.
But Scott also prevents the novel from becoming just a vehicle for commentary on colonialism, racism and class. He does this by making his novel rich in poetry, allegory and symbolism
The ‘Jewel in the Crown’ of the title is a phrase often used to refer to India when it was a part of the Empire. The phrase has a double-meaning as the Koh-i-Noor, once the world’s largest known diamond, was confiscated by the British East India Company and presented to Queen Victoria when she was proclaimed Empress of India in 1877. Ownership of the diamond, which is now part of Queen Elizabeth II’s crown, continues to be a point of contention between the British and Indian people and governments.
In the novel, ‘The Jewel in the Crown’ is also the title of a painting depicting the presentation of a diamond to Queen Victoria by several Indian princes who are paying obeisance to her. Miss Crane, a missionary teacher, uses the painting to explain to students that it is an allegory, that the jewel represents India and the scene as depicted never actually happened.
Miss Crane was, until recently, an ardent admirer of Gandhi. She hung his portrait on her wall and preferred to entertain Indians and fellow independence supporters. But Miss Crane has become disillusioned with Gandhi’s recent political moves and is more convinced that it is in India’s best interests to join the British for the duration of the war in resisting a Japanese invasion. ‘The Jewel in the Crown’ replaces the portrait of Gandhi on her wall. Along with the Daphne and Hari, Miss Crane is a third person in the novel trying to find a way to coexist in India. When the violence breaks out she is willing to risk her life betting on the goodness of her fellow man, hoping they will in turn see her goodness and her will rather than simply the colour of her skin.
Scott sets much of the plot in two locations in the fictional town of Mayapore – the MacGregor House and the Bibighar. The history of the House goes back to the eighteenth century when a local prince built the mansion to house a singer he was captivated with. When she died, the house fell into ruin and the prince was lost to grief.
The prince’s son, who despised his father’s attachment to the singer, built another house, the Bibighar to house his concubines. A voluptuary, the new prince’s state fell into economic despair and was annexed by the British. A Scottish nabob restored the singer’s house, naming it MacGregor House for himself, while burning down the Bibighar as a disgrace.
The MacGregor House is now inhabited by Lady Chatterjee, a wealthy Indian widow who is a friend of Daphne’s aunt and welcomes Daphne as a guest in her home. It is at MacGregor House that Daphne first meets Hari. Though Lady Chatterjee also straddles two worlds, her wealth and social status prevents her from experiencing any of the prejudice Hari is exposed to. She can’t however escape the fact that Daphne and Hari’s relationship developed under her watch and wonder what, if anything, she should have done differently.
The ruins of the Bibighar, with its overgrown gardens, mosaics and paintings that hint of a luxurious and lascivious past, is ignored by both the Indian and British locals and is the only place Daphne and Hari can be alone together. It is here they first express their growing affection for each other and also where Daphne is attacked.
As well as the symbolism, the poetry of the writing is also very enjoyable. The beauty of the writing is a point of difference from A Passage to India. In A Passage Forster certainly gets the context and explores the themes of colonialism and racism well, though in a less complex way, but the writing is perhaps less moving. Of many potential passages, I have decided to end this review with the following. Not the most beautiful or poetic, but perhaps a fitting one to end with and fittingly not brief:
Mayapore is an Indian town. And after a while when tempers had cooled and the English had forgotten the twenty-one-day wonder of the affair in the Bibighar, the Indians still remembered it. They did not understand it. Perhaps because of the punishments people said have been exacted they would have preferred to forget it too. But out of it, out of all its mysteries, to them there seemed to be at least one thing that emerged, perhaps not clearly, but insistently, like an ache in an old wound that had not healed itself. That Daphne Manners had loved them. And had not betrayed them, even when it seemed that they had betrayed her. Few Indians doubted that she had indeed been raped by men of their own race. Only they did not believe that among the boys arrested there was even one of those responsible. And this, they felt, was a belief they held with her. A cross, if you like, that they shared with her. And so, after the event, honoured her for the things she was reported to have said which shocked them at the time as much as they shocked the English. And particularly they remembered how she had said: For all I know they could have been British soldiers with their faces blacked.
Well! What courage it took to say that! In those days! When the cantonment was full of white soldiers and the Japanese were hammering at the gates down there in Burma, and the British were prone to describe as treachery anything that could not be called patriotic. And you must remember that. That these were special days. That tempers were very short because consciences were shorn. What sort of white Imperial power was it that could be chased out of Malaya and up through Burma by an army of yellow men? It was a question the Indian’s asked openly. The British only asked it in the unaccustomed stillness of their own hearts. And prayed for time, stability and loyalty, which are not things usually reaped without first being sown.
Perhaps, though, your prayers were granted. Because you are a curious people. In the main very conscious, as you walk in the sun, of the length or shortness of the shadows you cast.