[Adapted and updated with permission from the publishers, from Paul Scott, Writers and Their Work series (Plymouth: Northcote House/ British Council, 1999), by Jacqueline Banerjee, Ph.D.
Paul Scott's obituary in The Times of 3 March 1978 was headed "Author of 'The Raj Quartet'" - and, since the Quartet is still such a favourite with the general public, the label has stuck. This is unfortunate. On the one hand, it takes no account of Scott's earlier work; and on the other hand, the Quartet itself tends to be dismissed in academe as the swansong of the out-dated Kipling/Forster tradition.
This long work about the last years of the Raj was always at a disadvantage. Before it was even completed, Indian novels dealing with the same events had gained widespread recognition. Kushwant Singh's novel about the horrors of Partition, Train to Pakistan (1956), and Manohar Malgonkar's novel about the decline of the princely states The Princes (1963), are just two examples. The need was to expose old wrongs, and in doing so to build confidence in the emergent national and cultural identity — not to re-examine the roles of the colonists, or to analyse the effects of the colonial past upon them.
These, however, were the issues with which Paul Scott was defiantly concerned. He felt strongly that "the ignorance of India of a vast majority of British living on their own island" was something to be "taken account of," something to be addressed. This was not a matter of introducing "Indian manners, customs, religious and domestic arrangements" to them, but of making a new honest assessment of (for example) "the multiple and conflicting interests that were at stake" during the last days of empire, and "the many-faceted response of individual Indians to individual Britons and vice-versa" (My Appointment with the Muse, 121). It also meant examining what it was to be a "brown Englishman" living between two communities, belonging securely to neither.
In fact, nothing could be more pertinent to present-day mullticultural societies. Yet a work which challenges as simplistic the "picture of a tyrannical and imperialistic power grinding the faces of its coloured subjects in the dust" (The Jewel in the Crown, 381) inevitably attracted the wrath of those still engaged in settling old scores. In January 1985, Salman Rushdie lent his full weight to the attack on the original television serialization of the Quartet when he wrote "Outside the Whale," a short but influential piece in the periodical American Film. Here, he condemned what he saw as an upsurge of nostalgia for the Raj on British television, and dismissed the serialization itself as "grotesquely overpraised." Rushdie went further, claiming that Scott reinforces old stereotypes ("white society's fear of the darkie") by using the gang-rape of a British girl in India, by Indian peasants, as a central motif for his whole long work.
Rushdie's attack, aimed at the book as much as at the serial, represents hasty judgements which are not at all borne out by a careful reading of the Quartet. Far from reinforcing prejudice, Scott uses all the means at his disposal — historical as well as novelistic — to undermine and destroy it. Among the most important points he makes are that Daphne Manners' attackers inside the Bibighar Gardens are never identified (she herself is prepared to testify that they could have been British), and that those who attack her just as hurtfully outside the Gardens are definitely British. The fact that Daphne's fellow-victim in all this is an innocent Indian also works strongly to disturb old stereotypes, reminding the reader that the rape itself is an ironic inversion of the rape of India by the British.
Only recently has the theoretical base of postcolonialism been broadened to admit the growing body of writing which, like Scott's, refuses to sit neatly on one side of the racial divide. Perhaps Neil Lazarus, in a discussion of postcolonial African fiction in 1990, was the first to notice how "reductive" the anticolonial enterprize was becoming (5). Later, in After Empire: Scott, Naipaul and Rushdie (1997), Michael Gorra argued that while "a postcolonial literature, a postcolonial politics, inevitably rests on and requires a foundation of anticolonialism ... it cannot, at the end of the [twentieth] century, be limited to that." There should, he maintained, be room for works which neither "attack nor ... defend" past conflicts, but explore them and trace their effects into the present. Examining the Raj Quartet from this point of view, he concluded that it is "the greatest work of fiction that the British produced about their empire" (59).
A better understanding of Scott's aims and vision as a novelist wiil also allow us to reevaluate this novelist's earlier work - particularly The Corrida at San Feliu (1964), a challengingly postmodernist novel which also has some Indian scenes, and which continues to be most unfairly neglected today.
Gorra, Michael. After Empire: Scott, Naipaul and Rushdie. Chicago: Chicago Univ. Press, 1997.
Jourard, Sidney M. "Some Lethal Aspects of the Male Role." Joseph H. Pleck and Jack Sawyer, eds. Men and Masculinity. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1974.
Lazarus, Neil. Resistance in Postcolonial African Fiction. Newhaven: Yale Univ. Press, 1990.
Rushdie, Salman. "Outside the Whale." American Film 10 (January 1985): 16, 70, 72-3.
Scott, Paul. The Jewel in the Crown. London: Mandarin, 1996.
____. My Appointment with the Muse: Essays 1961-1975. Ed. Shelley C. Reece. London: Heinemann, 1986.
Last modified 24 May 2005