Book Reviews - Review 424
The Jewel in the Crown
Category: Fiction | Published: 1966 | Review Added: 07-08-2023
As with I, Claudius, I decided to read this book after being captivated by the DVDs of the television adaptation. The series, like the book, features a large cast of characters, dealing with crises personal and political in India during the Second World War.
For the first three years of the war, India remained largely unaffected by events in Europe. This was true not just for the Indians, but also for the British ruling class, which was living in a privileged bubble rooted in 19th-Century notions of stability, progress and a paternalistic sense of racial superiority.
In 1942, however, the Japanese captured Burma, and the strength of the Indian people's loyalty to the British Raj was put to the test for a second time in the century. Britain had made vague assurances during the First World War of a gradual transition, when it was over, towards a united, independent Indian state. By the middle of the century, nothing much had changed. Educated, politicised Indians were becoming impatient. The prospect of involvement in another war gave the opportunity to Indian nationalists, led by Mohandas Ghandi, to foment popular resentment towards the Raj.
The strange and close relationship between Britain and India had begun back in the Sixteenth Century with the establishment of English trading posts on the subcontinent. The British governors of the Raj, with their attendant civil servants, army generals, police, engineers, and professional classes - along with families - had for several generations called India their home, and would not be convinced that the time was ripe for a handover of power, let alone the sudden one that war was making a possibility. The question was partly a pragmatic one of whether India was ready to stand on her own feet. But it was also an emotional one. India, for its white population, was part of Britain. Conversely, many among the Indian educated classes had done very well out of British dominion, forming a stratum of largely westernised natives who cooperated with their colonisers while providing a supple interface with the common people. For well-off Indians, the Raj had moved their land forward at a time when its ancient native culture was stale and in need of a second wind.
That is the background to The Jewel in the Crown, and it is important, because it is a novel about history. Paul Scott was posted to India during the war, and spent three years there. His fascination with the country in all its aspects - political, social, and religious - is overwhelmingly apparent. There is an enormous amount of detail about both the daily and the political life of the country. If you prefer fast-paced novels, this one isn't for you. On the other hand, if you like fiction to extend your knowledge and expand your horizons, it will give you plenty to chew on.
When I wrote that this is a novel about history, I was oversimplifying things. It is a novel about how historical events and lives interact. There is a central story that is, narratively speaking, quite straightforward. Daphne Manners is the orphaned daughter of a high-placed British [official]. She is plain-looking, socially awkward, and independent-minded. She falls in love with a British-educated Indian, Hari Kumar, who has been in India since his indebted father committed suicide in Edinburgh. Kumar is an unhappy, displaced young man, whose strong sense of British identity was brutally withdrawn when circumstances forced him to return to India as an Indian. He lives with his father's kindly sister, but he cannot accommodate himself to what he perceives as the squalor and unsophistication of Indian life. More importantly, while his colour was never a problem in Britain, to the British in India he is "invisible" - just another black face. His perfect English accent increases the suspicion in which he is held by many whites, since it is educated young Indians who are being watched most closely for nationalist sympathies.
Hari reciprocates Daphne's feelings. They are both outsiders. They also both feel that their relationship is doomed - but, for different reasons, they feel personally doomed anyway, and so throw caution to the wind. One night they meet in a pavillion in the overgrown Bibighar Gardens of their town (the fictional Mayapore), and they make love. Immediately afterwards, they are attacked by a gang of Indian thugs. The thugs beat and bind Hari, and gang-rape Daphne.
When questioned by the authorities about the incident, Daphne denies that Hari was present, and tells Hari to "say nothing". Her motivation for the lie is ambiguous. Ostensibly, she wants to protect Hari, knowing that the local chief of police, an angry and reactionary young man called Ronald Merrick, has conceived an irrational dislike for Hari and will jump on any opportunity to incriminate him - especially given that he has facial injuries that he refuses to explain.
Yet Daphne's first-person narrative, which represents the seventh and final chapter of the novel, hints that she was also trying to protect herself. She refuses to attempt to identify a group of arrested men as her attackers, claiming she is all but certain that they are not (the arrested men are educated nationalists, not violent peasants). At the same time, she fears that if any of them are among the attackers, they are likely to testify that Hari was present, and thus expose her to ostracisim by her own people. (In 1942, a blind eye could be turned to sex before marriage, but not when the other party was of a different colour.)
I have dwelled on the central incident of the novel because I had to focus on something. No short review can do justice to the scope and ambition of the book. Most of the chapters consist largely of first-person written and spoken accounts of events at the time of the local and international crisis, by characters occupying the periphery of the story: Lady Chatterjee, the westernised and cool-headed widow of an ennobled Indian official; Sister Ludmilla, an enigmatic, philanthropic old European woman who runs a sanctuary for poor dying Indians; Brigadier Reid, a well-meaning but stiff army officer; and Robin White, the Deputy Commissoner of Mayapore, a progressive and tolerant senior civil servant whose idealism is challenged when trust between the British and the Indians breaks down.
The use of multiple narrators and perspectives emphasises the idea that there is never a definitive version of historical events. History is as much about the insights of the millions of individuals caught up in it, as about the forces that move nations. In some ways, The Jewel in the Crown follows in the tradition of the novels of Tolstoy and George Eliot, purveying a detached but kaleidoscopic perspective on human affairs. To compare Scott to those nineteenth-centurt greats may be bold, but he has the same combination of depth and breadth of understanding, coupled with an uncommon capacity for managing narrative detail.
Scott had his day as a writer (he won the Booker Prize in 1977), but I for one had never heard of him until I watched the television adaptation of The Jewel in the Crown (which covers all four of the "Raj Quartet" novels, not just this first one). On the strength of this novel, I would rank him among the great British novelists of the twentieth century. If he is not more widely read, it is because his writing is intricate and demanding, and deals with a time and a place that might not capture all readers' imaginations. It is, though, the universality of Scott's vision that impresses and, sometimes, moves. The sad story of Hari Kumar, burdened with the unrealistic ambitions of his misguided father, and therefore destined to be at home nowhere, rings true in every detail, while conveying profound general truths about human fate.