The Jewel in the Crown by Paul Scott

End of Empire…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s 1942 and tensions are running high in India. Britain, with its usual high-handedness, has decided that Indian troops will join the war effort without consulting the Indian leaders. Gandhi is demanding that the British quit India, even though that will probably mean that the Japanese move in. When the British arrest the leaders of the Independence movement, for a few short days the peace of Mayapore is broken as rioters take to the streets. And in that time one British woman will see her idealistic dreams destroyed while another will be brutally raped. Eighteen years later, an unnamed researcher will come to Mayapore to try to discover the truth of what happened in those days.

Scott starts by telling us:

This is the story of a rape, of the events that led up to it and followed it and of the place in which it happened. There are the action, the people, and the place; all of which are interrelated but in their totality incommunicable in isolation from the moral continuum of human affairs.

But in fact it’s the story of two rapes – the rape perpetrated on Daphne Manners, a white girl who made the fatal mistake of falling in love with an Indian man, and the rape perpetrated by the British Empire on the culture, society and people of India. Written at the height of the breast-beating anti-Colonial guilt experienced in Britain following the gradual letting go of their empire, Scott shows no mercy in his dissection of the evils committed, not so much by individual Brits, though there’s some of that, but by the imposition of one dominant culture over another.

The book is told in a series of sections, each concentrating on one character, and gradually building to create an in-depth picture of fictional Mayapore, which functions as a manageable microcosm for India as a whole. It takes a long time to get to Daphne’s story, deliberately, as Scott circles round, showing life in Mayapore from many different angles and over a period of years both before and after the event, creating a feeling of eventual inevitability about her rape as a thing that rises out of that ‘moral continuum of human affairs’, and feeds back into it.

Scott uses many different styles to tell his story. Some parts are first person “spoken” accounts told to the researcher, some are third person narratives, some take the form of letters between characters, or official reports, and some come from Daphne’s journal. In the third person sections, where it’s written, presumably, in the author’s own style, the language is frequently complex, rather spare and understated at the moments of greatest emotion, but often with lush beauty in the descriptive passages, creating a wonderful sense of this town and the surrounding country. In the other sections, Scott creates individual voices for each of the narrators, suited to the form they’re using, and he sustains these superbly so that one gets a real feel for the personalities behind even the driest and most factual reports.

Some of the sections are intensely human stories, like that of Edwina Crane, a woman who has devoted her empty and lonely life to the Church of England mission schools that teach the Indian children how to be good little English-speaking Christians. Her admiration for Gandhi has finally been destroyed by his recent actions and she has found that the Indian women she had looked to for a meagre form of social life are no longer so keen to be patronised by white women. Or the story of Hari Kumar, an Indian boy brought up in England and suddenly transported back to the country of his birth, where he is an outsider to both cultures – unable to speak the Indian languages and lacking knowledge of their way of life, but as a ‘native’ he is not allowed to be a part of the British community either, despite his impeccable English manners and education.

Other sections are told to the researcher and although their purpose is to shed light on Daphne’s story, the characters reveal as much about themselves along the way: Lady Lili Chatterjee, high caste and with a British title via her deceased husband, she is respected by the British but still subjected to constant, often unthinking, discrimination; or Mr Srinivasan, a lawyer who was involved in the Independence movement, and who shows us the Indian perspective on the political questions. The reports from the military and civil authorities are formal in style, but are accompanied by letters to the researcher, where the characters are able to look back on and reassess events with the perspective of time passed.

And in the last section we learn Daphne’s own story in her own words – not just the story of her rape, but of her life, of the choices she made and of her reasons for making them.

Paul Scott

Scott creates a vivid and believable picture of the society, culture and politics that led to this moment in time, but he never forgets to put people at the heart of it. While some sections are focused very much on the political situation and, as a result, might be rather dry for readers who are less interested in that aspect, these are broken up by the often intensely intimate stories of the characters, many of whom become unforgettable. Since I’m fascinated by the British Empire, and India especially, I found the political stuff just as engrossing as the personal. Superbly written, intelligent at the political level and deeply moving at the personal – a wonderful novel.

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Book 20 of 20

36 thoughts on “The Jewel in the Crown by Paul Scott

  1. I have never read this and I’ve only been meaning to since I was 18, when my housemate spent weeks engrossed in the quartet and absolutely loved it! 24 years later, maybe now is the time… It sound excellent but quite a heavy read.

    • Haha – well, if you’d read all the books you mean to, then what would you have to look forward to? 😉 I found it took me a while to get into it, but once I did it stopped feeling heavy and although it’s long my interest never flagged. I do think you’d enjoy it – I think it’s a very ‘you’ book… 😀

    • Thank you! 😀 I think I will, especially since several of the commenters have said they enjoyed the whole quartet. But as usual I’m going to have a struggle to fit it in – too many books!

    • I loved that he created a whole different style for each character – not at all easy to do! And some of his descriptive writing is sublime. I wondered if this was better than the others – it’s the one that gets mentioned most often, like Sunset Song in the Scots Quair trilogy. But I will read the other ones – though how I’m going to fit them in has yet to be worked out!

  2. I think I’m due a re-read of this. The first time round, a fair amount of the political and social criticism went over my head, as I was probably too young, but it is this side of it which would grab my attention now.

    • I’m quite glad I didn’t read it when I was young – I’m pretty sure a lot of it would have gone over my head too. But having read a fair amount about India and the struggle for independence over the last few years made me appreciate how well researched and historically accurate this is. Well worth a re-read!

  3. I’m so glad you liked this as much as you did, FictionFan. Sometimes those larger stories don’t work quite as well, but (I confess I’ve yet to read this one) it sounds as though this one keeps its focus if I can put it that way. And I like stories that take history down to the human level like that, as you know. You make an interesting point, too, about the way critiques like this seem to have their heydays. That in itself says something about society, I sometimes think…

    • It’s a remarkable achievement to be able to say so much about politics without ever losing the focus on the people, and I felt it was very historically accurate which is always a bonus. Yes, I felt if it had been written now perhaps the Brits would have come off a little better – we’ve maybe got a slightly more balanced view of the whole colonial thing now – but it was pretty nuanced for the time, I thought. My brother was telling me that Salman Rushdie hates it for it’s portrayal of the Indian characters and Tariq Ali – a prominent British Indian political and cultural commentator – thinks it’s great, so take your pick! 😉

  4. Brilliant review! I remember reading the entire Raj Quartet then watching the lengthy Granada (I think) adaptation of it which was pleasingly faithful to the books. No stuffing all four into six parts! Staying On, about those who stayed behind in India, is also excellent.

  5. Sounds like you really liked this one, FF (and how nice to start the week on a high-five!!) I haven’t read it and am not entirely sure I want to, but your review certainly makes me question my initial thoughts.

    • It is quite a British book, I think, because it’s so much about our Empire obsession, but because it always stays focused on the human stories I’m pretty sure people form other cultures would enjoy it just as much. Maybe if I ever get around to reading the other three books in the quartet I’ll be able to tempt you more… 😀

    • Thank you! 😀 They’re the kind of characters that you really feel you know by the time you finish reading, and care about what happens to them. I do think you’d enjoy it – if you ever get around to it, I hope you love it as much as I did! 😀

  6. I remember this lovely book cover from an earlier post. It does sound very interesting and I think I would enjoy the history as much as the characterizations. I’m also curious about the others books that follow it.

    • The cover really suits the book, too. I loved the history aspects and, although I’m no expert, it all felt very accurate and insightful to me – quite nuanced, too. Yes, I’m definitely going to have to read the other three… though how I’m going to fit them in will require some working out… and a lot of juggling! 😀

  7. I’m glad you you ended up liking this so much! I remember you included a lovely extract in an earlier post. I am very fascinated by India as well and would love to know more about its history. One of my best experiences ever was to attend a proper Indian wedding in Mumbai. Of course India still struggle with lots of serious problems (rape being one of them…). Will consider this book for the future.

    • Oh, how wonderful! That must have been a great experience! I’ve never been to India except through literature, but I have an on-going fascination with it, and with the Empire in general. The descriptive writing in this is great – gradually it gets to the point where you feel you’ve visited Mayapore and could find your way round it. And he brings out the Indian-ness of it without making it all faux-exotic, if you know what I mean. A great book! 😀

  8. I really enjoy historical works that incorporate a few voices, plus ‘historical documents’ (even if they are fictional) because it feels like we are getting a more complete picture of what happened…even though it’s all from the authors perspective.

    • I do too. It’s a good way of showing all different angles without having to have these false conversations you sometimes get where two characters tell each other things ta great length…

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