Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer (Vol. 138)
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala 1927-
German-born English novelist, screenwriter, and short story writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Jhabvala's work through 1998. For further information on Jhabvala's life and career, see CLC, Volumes 4, 8, 29, and 94.
Frequently utilizing her vantage point as an outsider among India's bourgeoisie, Jhabvala typically creates characters, both Indian and European, who have an uneasy relationship with their cultural heritage. Critics have compared Jhabvala's novels to those of Jane Austen, citing her propensity for creating middle-class characters overly concerned with social status and tradition—thematic points that have given her a reputation, like Austen, as a social satirist. Jhabvala has also written many screenplays, adapting both her own novels as well as those of others into elaborate costume dramas and comedies of manners for the filmmaking team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory. Her screenplay for A Room with a View (1986), adapted from E. M. Forster's novel, won her an Academy Award in 1986, as well as wider recognition in the United States.
Jhabvala was born in 1927 in Cologne, Germany, to Jewish Polish parents. With Hitler's seizure of power in 1933, members of Jhabvala's extended family moved to various countries in Europe; she and her parents escaped to England in 1939. Jhabvala and her family first lived in Coventry and later moved to a Jewish suburb of London. She earned a master's degree in English literature from Queen Mary College at London University in 1951. Upon her graduation, she married Cyrus S. H. Jhabvala, a Parsi architect whom she had met in London, and moved with him to Delhi, India, to raise their three daughters. In India, she began writing novels and had little trouble getting published; her first work, To Whom She Will (1955), was accepted by the fourth publisher to read the manuscript. Independent filmmakers Merchant and Ivory approached her following the publication of The Householder (1960) to ask if she would write the screenplay for their film adaptation, thus beginning a long and prosperous, as well as exclusive, partnership.
Jhabvala's novels frequently examine the social milieu of middle-class Indians who have profited from India's increasing urbanization and industrialization, and European expatriates who have married into Indian families. The Householder, for example, concerns the comic adventures of Prem, a young, recently married man facing the second in the four traditional Hindu stages of human life: the householder stage. Prem becomes enamored of the life of the swami, Hindu religious teachers whom he sees as free of the stresses of being husbands, providers, and fathers. In Hans, a young, carefree German traveling through India in search of a teacher, Prem finds a role model. Eventually, Prem capitulates to his traditional role and returns to his exotic, sybaritic wife, Indu, realizing that his desire to be a holy man was driven by his desire to avoid responsibility. In Esmond in India (1957), the title character is a womanizing British civil servant with an Indian wife and an English mistress. On assignment in India, Esmond befriends a number of social-climbing, middle-class Indian women, all of whom are beguiled by his boorish nature. As the characters engage in social and political intercourse, Esmond's long-suffering wife deserts him. A Backward Place (1965) concerns the plights of several expatriate European women whose reasons for remaining in India vary. Etta, a Hungarian woman whose marriage to an Indian crumbled years before, lives as the mistress of a hotel tycoon whose dalliance with his “niece” and their impending departure for Europe cause Etta to attempt suicide. In contrast, Judy, a British woman, admires her extended Hindi family whose laughter and closeness are a stark contrast to her strict English upbringing. Heat and Dust (1975), for which Jhabvala won the Booker Prize, tells two stories: that of Olivia, a young English bride taken to live in India in the 1920s, whose seduction by an Indian prince ends in disgrace; and that of her granddaughter, who, guided by the elder woman's diary, traces Olivia's path through India and ultimately meets the same unfortunate fate. In Search of Love and Beauty (1983), written after Jhabvala left India for New York, is her first novel to take place primarily in the United States, though the main character, a guru, entices women to ruin just as in her previous works.
Jhabvala's most popular screenplays are adaptations of other writers' works. With The Europeans (1979) and The Bostonians (1984), both adapted from novels by Henry James, Jhabvala gained a reputation for scripting witty period dialogue. Her recognition among moviegoers increased with A Room with a View, The Remains of the Day (1993), and Jefferson in Paris (1995). She has also published several collections of short stories, including How I Became a Holy Mother, and Other Stories (1975), Out of India: Selected Stories (1986), and, most recently, East into Upper East: Plain Tales from New York and New Delhi (1998).
Critical reaction to Jhabvala's works has been mixed. While reviewers have praised her screenplays, some have found her novels and short stories uneven and thematically limited. Often lauded for her depictions of India from a detached viewpoint, her use of irony and satire, and her explorations of such themes as isolation, rebellion, and cultural assimilation, Jhabvala is nonetheless occasionally faulted for her continued focus on middle-class Indian life and what some critics have called her “simple plots” and “unconvincing characterizations.” Some critics have also disparaged Jhabvala's seeming lack of concern over the extreme poverty and wretched living conditions of India's lower classes. Critics do, however, frequently remark on the literary nature and quality of her screenplays, particularly Howard's End (1992) and A Room with a View, and note how her cinematic works have influenced her novels. Others compliment the tone and mood evoked by her filmic renditions of Edwardian life. Vincent Canby has called the screenplay for A Room with a View, for example, a “faithful, ebullient screen equivalent to a literary work that lesser talents would embalm” and observes that the film's voice is “not unlike that of Forster, who tells the story … with as much genuine concern as astonished amusement.” Concerning Jhabvala's literary accomplishments as a whole, Francine du Plessix Gray has observed “With the exception of E. M. Forster, no 20th-century writer has more eloquently described Westerners' attempts to grasp the ambiguities of Indian culture than [Jhabvala].”
To Whom She Will [also published as Amrita, 1956] (novel) 1955
The Nature of Passion (novel) 1956
Esmond in India (novel) 1957
The Householder (novel) 1960
Get Ready for Battle (novel) 1962
*The Householder (screenplay) 1963
Like Birds, Like Fishes, and Other Stories (short stories) 1963
A Backward Place (novel) 1965
*Shakespeare Wallah (screenplay) 1965
*The Guru [with James Ivory] (screenplay) 1968
A Stronger Climate (short stories) 1968
*Bombay Talkie (screenplay) 1970
An Experience of India (short stories) 1971
A New Dominion [also published as Travelers, 1973] (novel) 1971
Autobiography of a Princess (novel) 1975
*Autobiography of a Princess (screenplay) 1975
Heat and Dust (novel) 1975
How I Became a Holy Mother, and Other Stories (short stories) 1975
*Roseland (screenplay) 1977
*Hullabaloo over Georgie and Bonnie's Pictures (screenplay) 1978
*The Europeans [adaptor, with Ivory; from the novel by Henry James] (screenplay) 1979...
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SOURCE: “The Hill of Devi and Heat and Dust,” in Essays in Criticism, Vol. 36, No. 2, April, 1986, pp. 142-59.
[In the following essay, Cronin discusses the relationship between Jhabvala and her literary predecessors, whom Cronin describes as “the Englishmen who described life in Indian princely states in the 1920s.”]
In Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's novel Heat and Dust (1975) two stories alternate, the story of a young English girl who goes to India in search of her family history, and the story of her grandfather's first wife, Olivia. The two stories approach each other, and drift apart. They coincide just once, at Baba Firdaus's shrine, where both women conceive a child, Olivia by the Nawab of Khatm, the modern girl by Inder Lal, a clerk. After aborting the child Olivia retreats to the mountains, and lives out her life silently, brooding, one supposes, on the past. The other girl goes to the Himalayas too, but she goes there to bear her child. The two stories—one of them takes place in the months from February to September in 1923, the other in those same months fifty years later—act as distorted reflections of each other. Through their likeness and their difference Jhabvala explores how independent India is connected with, and severed from, its imperial past. But modern India she knows, whereas the Nawab of Khatm, an Indian prince ruling his tiny state surrounded and...
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SOURCE: “Fictions of Princely States and Empire,” in Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, Vol. 17, No. 3, July, 1986, pp. 103-17.
[In the following essay, Chew examines a number of works, including Jhabvala's Heat and Dust, that concern the princely states of India as the subject of historical fiction and “fiction-about-history.”]
India became independent on 15 August 1947, and by mid-century the princely states no longer existed. Nevertheless, they continued to tease and to draw the literary imagination, as they had done throughout the period of British rule. The perspective, however, was altered and, with it, the highlights and depths, appearances and relationships. In Forster's A Passage to India, for example, the spiritual life of a princely state was viewed as a living part of the rich inheritance of India. When his The Hill of Devi appeared in 1953, it was to be “a record of a vanished civilization,” salvaging “something precious” which might otherwise have been thrown away with the rubbish.1
Forster's purpose was historical. In her fine study, The Storyteller Retrieves the Past, Mary Lascelles reminds us that wholly imaginative writers can also share in the historical activity, that is, the task of recreating the experiences of the past and of discovering thereby its relationship with the present. This paper will...
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SOURCE: “Narrators and Readers: 1902 and 1975,” in Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, Vol. 20, No. 3, July, 1989, pp. 19-36.
[In the following essay, Lenta compares and contrasts Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Jhabvala's Heat and Dust in an effort to expound Michael Echeruo's notion of “literatures which were originally conceived of in tribal contexts that have now become international and cross-cultural.”]
In his book The Conditioned Imagination from Shakespeare to Conrad Michael Echeruo discusses the idea that “literatures which were originally conceived of in tribal (ie. national) contexts have now become international and cross-cultural” (10). He is writing of the spread of the English language; once the language of England, it has become the mother tongue of many other groups and the literary dialect of still more. Echeruo claims that writers who conceived of their readers as members of their own group characteristically demanded of them, as well as what structuralists call “literary competence,” a second area of awareness which may be called cultural competence; that is, a knowledge of the beliefs and attitudes common to the tribe, which is regarded by such writers as their primary audience.
In the present essay I have chosen to discuss two works: one, Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, published in 1902, and...
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SOURCE: “Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's Stories from India Reissued,” in The Wall Street Journal, June 19, 1990, p. A18.
[In the following review, Rubin offers a positive assessment of ten of Jhabvala's novels rereleased by Simon & Schuster.]
Talking about contemporary writers, Dame Rebecca West once mentioned that one of her favorites was “that Polish woman with the Indian name who lives in New York.”
Well, that in a nutshell pretty much describes Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, whose 10 novels Simon & Schuster has now finished reprinting in paperback. A more prolix biographer might also add that she was born in 1927 to Polish Jewish parents, came to England as a refugee in 1939, attended London University, and then moved in 1951 to India with her husband, the Indian architect C. S. H. Jhabvala, before heading for New York 24 years later.
Along the way she won the Booker Prize for her novel Heat and Dust and an Academy Award for A Room With a View, one of the numerous intelligent screen adaptations she's written for her good friends, the producer-director team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory.
From her first novel, Amrita (1955), a tale of forbidden love, to her most recent, Three Continents (1987), a satiric look at wealthy Westerners and their guru, India has furnished the background and inspiration for all but one of...
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SOURCE: “Time and Scriptable Lives in Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's Heat and Dust,” in World Literature Written in English, Spring, 1992, pp. 55-65.
[In the following essay, Kitley examines a number of literary elements present in Heat and Dust, including intertextuality and narrative structure.]
In 1973 Ruth Jhabvala visited, with James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, the palace at Jodhpur. This visit, though none of those involved knew it at the time, was to culminate two years later in the release of the film Autobiography of a Princess and in the publication of Jhabvala's novel Heat and Dust, for which she won the Booker Prize in 1975.
Autobiography of a Princess began with an idea Ivory had to produce a film about Indian palaces. As Ivory and his team toured various palaces they discovered that many of the former royal families had preserved in their private archives footage of all sorts of ceremonial and family events from years past. Ivory handed the archival material to Jhabvala and suggested that she write a screenplay that would allow them to integrate the documentary footage they had shot over the years with the archival film, to which would be added fictional sequences with Madhur Jaffrey playing an Indian princess. When Ivory and Merchant returned to New York, they had come to the view that the film should be set in London and should...
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SOURCE: “Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's ‘The Widow’: Reading the Subtext,” in The Literary Criterion, Vol. 27, Nos. 1 & 2, June 1992, pp. 133-37.
[In the following essay, Usha provides an in-depth analysis of Jhabvala's short story “The Widow.”]
Born in Germany, of Jewish-Polish parentage and educated in England, R. P. Jhabvala came to India in 1951 as the wife of a Parsi architect. The 24 years she spent in India—“most of my adult life”—gave her abundant time and opportunity to study India and write about it. But her approach is that of an “initiated outsider” (in the words of John Updike in his review of Heat and Dust). Her relationship with India vacillates between extremes, ranging from intense love to active loathing. To describe it in her own words:
There is a cycle that Europeans—by Europeans I mean all Westerners, including Americans—tend to pass through. It goes like this: first stage, tremendous enthusiasm—everything Indian is marvelous, second stage, everything Indian abominable. For some people it ends there, for others the cycle renews itself and goes on. I have been through it so many times that now I think of myself as strapped to a wheel that goes round and round and sometimes I'm up and sometimes I'm down.
As Jhabvala herself confesses, she can “concentrate only on modern...
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SOURCE: “Immigrant Families, at Home and Yet Alienated,” in The New York Times, March 23, 1993.
[In the following review, Kakutani offers a mixed assessment of Poet and Dancer, praising Jhabvala's ability to write with “fluency and poise” but noting a vague dissatisfaction in the “predictable” ending.]
Both the themes and the characters of Poet and Dancer, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's 11th novel, uncannily echo those of In Search of Love and Beauty, a novel she published exactly 10 years ago. Both novels concern the fragmentation of family life experienced by immigrants in New York. Both novels feature a similar cast of people, including gurulike charlatans who seduce wealthy women with their promises of salvation; older matrons who end up leading lonely, desperate lives, and the offspring of these people, who drift aimlessly through life in search of love and connection.
This time the reader is introduced to Anna and Siegfried Manarr, wealthy German immigrants who have made a home for themselves in Manhattan. Assiduously devoted to each other, Anna and Siegfried spend their free time going to concerts and art exhibits. Having come from families who have prospered in business for generations, they dream of having children with artistic talent.
Instead, their son, Hugo, becomes a sort of new-age guru who dreams of “fashioning a new...
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SOURCE: “Foundering Father?: Jefferson in Paris,” in Commonweal, Vol. CXXII, No. 10, May 19, 1995.
[In the following review, Alleva criticizes Jhabvala's screenplay Jefferson in Paris, claiming that the film is “buried under research.”]
In thirty years of collaboration, producer Ismael Merchant, director James Ivory, and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala have created twenty-odd films, the best of which (Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, Shakespeare Wallah, their three E. M. Forster adaptations, and, best of the best, The Remains of the Day) have worked on the viewer like cinematic concentrates. Tightly structured, emotionally low-keyed, handsome but without spectacle or special effects, they linger in the mind long after viewing, expand, provoke discussion, become satisfying memories. Now, working with a much bigger budget (courtesy of Touchstone Pictures), they have produced Jefferson in Paris. And they have foundered. The money hasn't been spent on enriching a story but on stuffing it full of unassimilated research.
You can see what attracted the filmmaking team to this project. Jefferson, the Mona Lisa of American history, is, in their view, a man who deliberately repressed his deeper emotions and fit his life to a precise pattern. Drawn to an attractive and emotionally free-spending woman, he struggles to express his own emotions until circumstances...
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SOURCE: “Projecting One's Inner Self: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's ‘Rose Petals’,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 33, No. 1, Winter, 1996, pp. 43-9.
[In the following essay, Urstad examines Jhabvala's short story “Rose Petals,” focusing on Jhabvala's creation of sympathetically drawn characters who live isolated, privileged lives.]
There is an exploring quality about Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's work—both as a novelist and as a writer of screenplays—that has often been noted by critics (Gooneratne; Bailur; Crane). It probably stems from the fact that she was—in her own words—“practically born a displaced person” (Gooneratne 1) and so has always had to make an effort to understand a world not quite her own. Born of Jewish parents in Germany before the second World War, she became a permanent foreigner, first in England, then in India, now in America. Looking back at the years she spent living with her Indian husband in his country, she once wrote:
Sometimes I wrote about Europeans in India, sometimes about Indians in India, sometimes about both, but always attempting to present India to myself in the hope of giving myself some kind of foothold … I described the Indian scene not for its own sake but for mine. (Hayman 37)
In her short story “Rose Petals” she seems to have set out to explore how sympathetically...
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Publishers Weekly (review date 31 August 1998)
SOURCE: A review of East into Upper East, in Publishers Weekly, August 31, 1998, p. 48.
[The following review offers a positive assessment of East into Upper East, claiming Jhabvala's collection is “rich in character, observation, and insight.”]
The author is too modest. Written over a span of 20 years, the 13 stories gathered here [in East into Upper East] (five of which have appeared in the New Yorker) are not “plain” at all. Rather, they're rich in character, observation and insight. The “Upper East” of the title refers to the Manhattan neighborhood; the title itself may echo Kipling's Plain Tales from the Hills. Novelist (Out of India) and screenwriter (A Room with a View) Jhabvala depicts characters struggling to reconcile dependency and accommodation in their relationships. Enmeshed by financial and emotional need, her upper class Indians and New Yorkers go to extremes to oblige companions, families and lovers. In the opening story, “Expiation,” a New Delhi man reflects guiltily on his responsibility toward his youngest brother, executed for murder. In one powerful New York story, “A Summer by the Sea,” a woman with inherited wealth supports her husband's family while tolerating his infidelity with young men. The New York real estate agent in “Great...
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SOURCE: “Antique Furnishings,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4983, October 2, 1998, p. 26.
[In the following review, Curtis offers a lukewarm assessment of Jhabvala's East into Upper East,claiming that “no new ground” is covered.]
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is one of those writers whose name immediately conjures up an image, in her case a double image. We see the heat and dust of India, particle by particle, usually through sympathetic and sometimes sentimental Western eyes. Almost simultaneously, we remember the Merchant-Ivory adaptations of E. M. Forster and the other films she has scripted with their heavy period detail. This collection of fourteen short stories, [East into Upper East] six set mostly in India, seven in wealthier enclaves of America and one in London, shows how easy it is to think the settings are the dominant feature of her work and how misleading such a judgment is. The exotic or familiar backgrounds, lovingly depicted, are a hallmark of her novels and of the work of Merchant—Ivory, but what matters in her books is the intensity of the emotions that she transmits.
Five of the Indian stories and two of the best of those set in America were first published in the New Yorker or other magazines. There is no new ground in these or the other stories. As in her eleven novels, Jhabvala sticks to what she is interested in—the personal rather...
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SOURCE: “Intruders in the Dusk and Elsewhere,” in The Spectator, Vol. 281, No. 8879, October 10, 1998, p. 43.
[In the following review, Glazebrook presents a positive appraisal of East into Upper East.]
These complex and delicate stories, [in East into Upper East] which I should hate to have missed reading, are the outcome of clear intentions expressed with controlled precision. The stories are not emotional, not lyrical, but they are extraordinarily deft, each one filling its 20-odd pages with sharp pictures of people busying themselves with living lives modified by shortcomings plainly visible to their creator. Half the stories take place around Delhi, half round New York, and it is a measure of Ruth Jhabvala's accuracy of observation that in no case could one of the American stories have happened in India, or vice versa; they are not stories about humanity, applicable like the parables to mankind anywhere, but accurate reports resulting from close scrutiny of individuals busy in their setting.
Yet there is a general theme, so it seemed to me. At the heart of many of the stories, the event which tightens their mainspring is the invasion of one person's space by another, and the consequent struggle of the host either to rid himself (or herself) of this incubus, or to tolerate it. A dying woman's New York apartment fills up with parasites; a New York estate agent has her...
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Crane, Ralph J. “Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: A Checklist of Primary and Secondary Sources.” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature XX, No. 1 (1985): 171-203.
Bibliography of Jhabvala's books, articles, screenplays, and short stories, as well as an annotated list of reviews and essays on her work.
Agarwal, Ramlal G. “An Interview with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.” Quest 91 (September/October 1994): 33-6.
Discusses critics' comparisons of Jhabvala with Jane Austen, as well as complaints that her novels deal only with a small slice of Indian life.
———. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: A Study of Her New Fiction. New Delhi: Sterling Publishers, 1990, 126 p.
Discusses eight of Jhabvala's novels at length, as well as many of her short stories. Includes a bibliography.
Atlas, James. “A Cinematic Sensibility.” Vogue 183 (March 1993): 248, 254.
Article based on an interview with Jhabvala in which she discusses moving to New York. Atlas criticizes her books and screenplays as painting a world “faintly unreal.”
Belliappa, Meena. “A Study of Jhabvala's Fiction.” The Miscellany, No. 43 (January-February 1971): 24-40.
Analysis of several of Jhabvala's books,...
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