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The Origins of Paul Scott's Vast Masterpiece

The epic of colonial India

Getty Images/David Montgomery

I first met Paul Scott at Firpo’s bar on Chowringhee in Calcutta in 1944. I was an NCO in what was euphemistically described as “Special Duties,” that is, intelligence, but more often meant taking on any odd job for which no one else could be found; Paul was an air supply captain who had been commissioned into the Service Corps, unkindly known to the Rifle Brigade or the Gurkhas as, in the words of his biographer Hilary Spurling, “the Rice Corps, Flying Grocers, or Jam Stealers and generally considered to be about as low as it was possible to get in the Indian Army.” We eyed each other’s shoulder-chips with sympathy over drinks, and got on extremely well. I did wonder at the time whether he might not have been trying to pick me up, a suspicion that Spurling’s biography and the new collection of Scott’s letters have done nothing to dispel.

A decade later, with Cambridge behind me, I was trying to break into the London literary world, and decided I needed an agent. Summoned for an interview at the firm then known as Pearn, Pollinger and Higham, I found myself facing, across a desk, an elegantly suited gentleman who—I suddenly realized at about the same moment as the penny dropped for him—was none other than my Rice Corps bar companion. We both exploded with laughter, and I became his client on the spot.

So began a literary friendship that lasted, in person or by correspondence, until Paul’s tragically early death in 1978. For six years, until he gave up his job to become a full-time novelist in 1960, Paul was my literary agent. We exchanged innumerable critical letters1 (quite a few of which have found their way into Janis Haswell’s collection) about work in progress, together with a kind of running commentary on the rare splendors and all-too-frequent miseries, mostly financial, of the writer’s life. We lunched with each other regularly at Paul’s favorite Soho tavern, the Dog and Duck. He was pleasant, competent, sardonic: nice to know, but nothing out of the ordinary. When I moved to the country and came up to town on weekly flying visits, I occasionally stayed with him and his wife, Penny, and their two school-age daughters in Hampstead Garden Suburb.

But from 1963 until 1971, my family and I were living in Greece, and after that I took up an academic post in the United States, so that during this highly important late period of his career my friendship with Paul was in essence restricted to letters. It was then, in the early 1960s, that Paul finally discovered his great theme—the twilight and eclipse of the British Raj in India—and retreated further and further, during the decade that it took him to sweat out the four long volumes that emerged as The Raj Quartet, into a kind of creative solitude where the fictional world of British India that he conjured up became, more and more as time went on, virtually his sole reality.

The physical and emotional cost was appalling. It was, essentially, as his daughter Carol saw, the prime cause of his alienation from Penny, the break-up of his long marriage. By the end he was (as he told a doctor) eating little, sleeping less, and drinking a quart of vodka a day. When I finally saw him again, after the completion of the Quartet—we had invited him to lecture at the University of Texas—I was shocked by the change in his appearance. In 1975, though still only in his mid-fifties, he was a dying man, and knew it. The completion of that vast and complex project had exacted a horrendous price, of which perhaps the saddest aspect was that Paul never lived to enjoy the fame and success that it brought him.

Paul himself had put it on record, very early, “that I mean & intend to become a great artist if I possibly can be.” Yet there is nothing about his early suburban life—or, indeed, much of his pre-Quartet fiction—that presages the power and the scope of the Indian tetralogy. The son of a commercial artist (the family claimed descent from the engraver Thomas Bewick) who fell on hard times, he was removed from his private school—a far from classy one—at the age of fourteen and set to train as an accountant. He began writing poems and plays that were, as he agreed later in life, better forgotten. The turning point was his army career, which took him to Bengal, Imphal, and Malaya; but the seed then sown took years to come to fruition, and not before several not-quite-right attempts, such as Six Days in Marapore and The Chinese Love Pavilion, had been painstakingly hammered out. After the war, having qualified as an accountant, he got a job keeping the books for a new publishing firm, and from there moved on to the literary agency where I met him again. All the time he was writing, and fiction by now was slowly beginning to oust poems and plays.

Paul himself often said that his life, like that of most writers, was a fundamentally dull one. When I started on the first volume of Janis Haswell’s collection of his correspondence, which begins in 1940 with him as an army recruit, it was in the hope of proving him modestly wrong. At first I was disappointed. Paul was still plugging away, when he had time from army duties, at what sound like terrible plays and even worse poems, criticized and dissected at tedious length in correspondence with Clive Sansom. His literary standards were relentlessly middle-class: “I wish the rain wouldn’t look so much like a short story by Maugham. Nobody else has a chance to do anything literary with that man’s shadow haunting the scene.” The only unexpected discovery was his open discussion of his youthful homosexuality (often managed in the third person: he called his alter ego Ivan Kapinsky) with friends such as Ruth Sansom.

The larger part of Haswell’s first volume deals with Paul’s post-war life as a literary agent and a working novelist: the years when I knew him best. What strikes me now is how completely professional matters, and the correspondence dealing with them, occupied almost his entire waking life: even the lunches were literary, and almost all his friends were, one way or another, in the book trade. As everyone agreed, he was a brilliant agent, who took endless pains over his clients. Many of these letters deal with critical discussion of manuscripts, his own or those of others, which for those outside the charmed circle will make tough reading. (I suspect Haswell inserted so many of them for the benefit of English professors teaching Scott’s fiction.) As Paul wrote in 1960, “The bloody trouble is we are only alive when we’re half dead trying to get a paragraph right.” When he decides to give up the agency and become a full-time writer, there is more about his own problems and less about those of his clients: but the ingrown London world of novelists, reviewers, publishers, and agents remains essentially unaltered.

The turning point came in 1964, when his London publisher, Heinemann, with what can only be regarded, in hindsight, as remarkable acumen, arranged for his return to India on a six-week visit. (Two more such trips were arranged during the years when he was engaged with the Quartet.) He was looked after in Bombay by Dorothy Ganapathy, who became a lifelong friend. He stayed for over a week with his wartime havildar (sergeant), in a rural village in Andhra Pradesh, where he experienced culture-shock in its most extreme form. While in Calcutta he met Neil Ghosh, product of a British public-school education, who became the model for Hari Kumar in the Quartet. Best of all, he found a correct diagnosis of the amoebiasis that he had contracted during the war, with its legacy of “lassitude, depression, insomnia, mood swings, and lack of concentration.” For this he sought, and got, curative treatment in Paris. Almost immediately, in the surge of health that followed, his renewed acquaintance with India fresh in his mind, he began to write The Jewel in the Crown.

This, the first of the four novels that go to make up the Quartet, is set in 1942: the year of the British defeat by the Japanese in Burma and points east, the realization by Hindus and Muslims that the gods of the Raj were by no means omnipotent. We meet several of the main characters, whose lives are impacted, for good or ill, by these events, such as Edwina Crane, the elderly missionary, whose sense of progress and colonial idealism is left in tatters after a riot that kills the young Hindu teacher with whom she works, and leaves her holding his dead hand in the rain beside her burnt-out car. We sit in on the striated prejudices of the Europeans-only club, meet socially impeccable Brahmins such as Lady Chatterjee as well as the Eurasian half-castes who talk in what I remember being referred to, unkindly but accurately, as “Bombay Welsh,” and make pathetic claims to have come out from Brighton or Manchester: the simple fact of the existence of foreign rulers and native subjects is seen to penetrate and falsify all human relationships.

The most vivid, violent, and memorable of these relationships is that between the Indian Hari Kumar—resident in England almost all his life, public-school educated, speaking no Hindi or Urdu, and abruptly returned to Mayapore—and Daphne Manners, fresh out from home, the awkward big-boned niece of a former governor. They fall in love; they stumble through the dreadful minefield of social and racial taboos, and Daphne is raped by a bunch of out-of-town Hindu thugs while making love to Hari in the Bibighar Gardens at night. She cannot admit the affair with Hari without getting him into appalling trouble; but the lies involved are instantly picked up by Ronald Merrick, the district superintendent of police, a major malign figure throughout the Quartet, a lower-middle-class English provincial who is a steely upholder of the colonial status quo that has let him rise to a position of real authority in India. He has also proposed marriage to Daphne, and is all too ready to nail Hari Kumar for a serious offense. The repercussions of the rape in the Bibighar Gardens spread through the entire sequence, affecting not only the protagonists but everyone, English or Indian, civilian or military, who comes into contact with the case.

What has always astonished me about  The Raj Quartet is its sense of sophisticated and total control of its gigantic scenario and highly varied characters. The four volumes constitute perfectly interlocking movements of a grand overall design. The politics are handled with an expertise that intrigues and never bores, and are always seen in terms of individuals. Though Paul always saw the inevitability, and the necessity, of an end to the British occupation, and exploitation, of India, he still could see, and sympathize with, the odd virtues that the Raj bred in its officers. No one—certainly not E. M. Forster—has ever produced a subtler, more nuanced, picture of the Raj in action during its last fraught years, or of the seething, complex, and wildly disparate nationalist forces arrayed against it.

The second volume of Scott’s letters takes over as this great novel sequence begins to be written, and inevitably it contains far more than its predecessor to quicken the general reader’s interest. Other novelists will not be surprised to learn that many experiences in the The Raj Quartet that befall its various characters actually happened to Paul himself. “Madame Bovary, c’est moi, as Flaubert famously declared. There are changes of opinion: the project starts as one novel, grows to three in the middle of The Day of the Scorpion, and becomes a quartet only when The Towers of Silence threatens to become too unwieldyyet the larger whole never loses its overall cohesion.

In 1968, Paul opines that, as he grows older, he becomes “more and more convinced that literature isn’t really a fit subject for academic study.” Yet a decade later, he astonishes himself by emerging as a brilliant, and inspired, university teacher in the States. Those who claim he was short on humor should read his letters to his daughter Carol, which contain the adventures (with hilarious illustrative sketches) of one Abu Ben Grottso, Camille the Camel, and the sultry Scarlet Sahara. He meets Stevie Smith at a party and drives her home: “What a journey!” he reports. “I’ve not laughed so much in years.” Surprisingly, he turns out to be a close observer of natural life: in a letter to Freya Stark he talks of the creatures—hedgehogs, foxes, rabbits, magpies, a sparrowhawk—that he watches from his study window. Confronted by an early dissertation on his work, he addresses himself in the mirror: “You mean that’s what you were saying?” He regales his daughter Sally, only a year before his death, with four detailed, and expert, pages on how to cook chef-style curry and chicken pulao.

There is nothing here to indicate any fundamental road-to-Damascus change from the efficient agent and struggling, if ironic, littérateur from the London suburbs whom I knew as my friend and fellow-novelist in the late 1950s. We critiqued each other’s fiction: his was good, but not in any way really exceptional. By the time he was well into The Jewel in the Crown, I had left for Greece, and never saw the manuscript. In October 1965, he wrote me—already clearly worried about money—that “I think my future largely depends now on what happens to my mammoth novel (about the Indian rebellion of 1942).” He had said much the same thing in 1962 about The Birds of Paradise, which I had read: a fictional memoir by an Anglo-Indian raised in India, schooled in England, and scarred as much by heartache as by time spent in a Japanese POW camp. This, I now see, was a trial run for the The Raj Quartet, though I very much doubt that its author knew it at the time. Maugham still cast a long shadow over these pages. From Haswell’s selection it also emerges that Paul was already drinking very heavily, and had at one time at least contemplated suicide.

I have gone into these details in order to highlight the absolute astonishment I felt when I first read The Jewel in the Crown, and then, with mounting excitement, each subsequent volume of what was to become The Raj Quartet. The style, tone, depth, range, and human understanding had all, at a stroke, undergone a quite extraordinary, and enriching, metamorphosis. The perception of character that had previously restricted itself, in essence, to Scott’s own literary suburbia here suddenly blossomed into a breadth of understanding that had no trouble with a psychopathic police superintendent, an aristocratic Rajput matriarch, an émigré Russian homosexual acting as chief minister in an Indian princely state, a highly sophisticated Muslim politician, two elderly spinster missionaries, and a wide assortment of military families brought up, generation after generation, to serve the Raj.

The apparent knowledge of cantonment life, of high-level Anglo-Indian diplomacy, of the inner thoughts and emotional problems of both British administrators and Muslim or Hindu nationalists went far beyond what could be learned by research (of which, it turned out, Paul did a great deal).2 What really amazed was the way he never put a foot wrong psychologically over either caste or gender, so that an old Indian Civil Service luminary such as Sir Herbert Thompson, on reading A Division of the Spoils, instantly assumed that it must have been written by one of his former colleagues under a pseudonym. As Spurling says, when the truth was out and Paul had his first of many lunches with the Thompsons, he felt “the strange sensation of stepping through the looking-glass into a world he had so far projected only in his imagination.”3

The Quartet remains a tour de force virtually without rivals. The question is, how? How did this middle-class suburbanite—who left school at fourteen, had no experience of diplomacy or the civil service, in India or anywhere else, and never set foot inside a British university in his life—suddenly, after a solid but hitherto no more than middling literary career, acquire the vision that brought the world of the fading Raj to unforgettable life, in a quartet of novels that for range and power have been compared to Tolstoy? Suggestions have not been wanting, most notably that his experience on the wrong side of the rigid social divisions operating in pre-war London suburbia gave him a sharpened insight into both native caste distinctions and the even more absolute British color-bar that he found in India. Others have pointed to his sexual ambiguity (and probable repression of his homosexual side after a bad experience, perhaps drawn on for Corporal Pinker’s dealings with Colonel Merrick in A Division of the Spoils). There may be some truth in both of these theories, but since both stem from Paul’s early life, why did they not have the same transforming effect on his early fiction as they are alleged to have done on The Raj Quartet? The difference is as total, and as extraordinary, as the still not fully understood process by which a chrysalis becomes a butterfly.

In Paul’s case, it seems to have been a visitation akin to speaking in tongues, a literal possession; and this kind of possession can be dangerous. It perhaps explains what his wife misinterpreted as his “expression of hate” when she interrupted him. What he primarily felt was the agony of loss at being brought back out of an all-embracing cocoon: a total creative world in which he had been granted complete insight, social and psychological, into every character and action. After about a million words of this, he was an alcoholic wreck, and small wonder. It is especially interesting that Staying On, the short and charming coda4 to the magnum opus of the The Raj Quartet, shows no signs of this kind of possession, willed or involuntary: it was written fast and enjoyably, and reads like it, a deft and sympathetic jeu d’esprit created comfortably from the immense experience, and ample detritus, of its great predecessors. “What will survive of us is love,” said Larkin. Staying On, written after Penny had left him, is a wonderful exemplification of that wisdom.

Not long ago, after a lapse of some years, I re-read them all, and was struck, first and foremost, at how readable—even the disquisition on Hindu political cartoons!—the entire sequence was. “I am large,” wrote Whitman. “I contain multitudes.” Paul’s magnum opus has the same generous, almost Dickensian capacity. There are the great set-pieces—Daphne Manners’s report to her aunt on the rape in the Bibighar Gardens (I don’t agree that Paul was trying to outsmart Forster here); Sir George Malcolm’s interview with Mohammad Ali Khan; the interrogation of Hari Kumar by Nigel Rowan and Ramaswamy Gopal, with Lady Manners as unseen witness; Merrick’s report from his hospital bed to Sarah Layton of how Teddy Bingham died; Barbie and Mabel at the Pankot Rifles party; Mohammed Ali Kasim’s fraught meeting with his son Sayed, a prisoner after having served in the anti-British Indian National Army.

But for me, the most unforgettable moment in the entire sequence of novels comes at the climax of A Division of the Spoils, when Mohammed Ali Kasim’s other son, the aristocratic playboy and falconer Ahmed, in a train stopped by a bloodthirsty Hindu mob, says to his English friends, “It seems to be me they want,” and quietly walks out to his death. Like Captain Oates vanishing into the snows of the Antarctic, like Sydney Carton going to the guillotine to save another man, Ahmed Kasim the Muslim concludes the great work by carrying out, as calmly as he would flight his hawk, the sort of act of self-sacrificial heroism on which his Raj masters particularly prided themselves. It is almost the last thought we are left with: that dramatic moment crystallizes the deepest sense of Paul Scott’s great work. After this long saga of “the British coming to the end of themselves as they were,” after the racism, the greed, the arrogant memsahibs, the shattered ideals of service, the bloodshed, and the hatred, the image remaining with us is that of the universality, against whatever odds, of human dignity and courage. 

Peter Green is the Dougherty Cenntenial Professer Emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin, and the author, most recently, of a translation of Diodorus Sicilus’s The Persian Wars to the Fall of Athens: Books 11-14.34 (Texas).

  1. This whole correspondence now forms an archive in the library of the University of Tulsa, where Paul once taught.
  2. For years, it turns out, Paul contributed informed anonymous reviews, on all aspects ot the Indian political and social scene, to the Times Literary Supplement.
  3. The ability of creative imagination to capture a historical reality missed by academics is rare, but certainly exists: Rudyard Kipling’s evocation of Roman frontier life at Hadrian’s Wall in Puck of Pook’s Hill was pooh-poohed by scholars, but subsequent research confirmed it in almost every detail.
  4. It is interesting, but not surprising, that both the Quartet and Staying On, though very different, were turned into magnificent TV movies: Paul’s combination of a sharp visual; eye and penetrating individual dialogue made his work a natural for such adaptations.