M(ary) M(argaret) Kaye Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

M(ary) M(argaret) Kaye 1909?–

(Has also written as Mollie Kaye and Mollie Hamilton) Indian-born British novelist and author of books for children.

Although Kaye has written many mystery novels, she is best known for her works of historical fiction set in India. Her experiences growing up in India and, later, her travels with her husband, a major general in the British army, have enabled her to write knowledgeably about the exotic locales in which she sets her novels.

Kaye's first novel, Death Walked in Kashmir, was published in 1953 but her first work to achieve wide acclaim was The Far Pavilions (1978). Four of her novels published in the 1950s and early 1960s have recently been republished and have been better received now that The Far Pavilions has established Kaye's reputation as an accomplished historical novelist. Changing British attitudes towards India partially explains the different receptions accorded Kaye's work in the two time periods.

Kaye's historical dramas, The Far Pavilions and Shadow of the Moon (1956), each combine a faithful account of the era of the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny with a romantic love story. The books are thematically similar as well, both centering on the conflict between Western and Indian culture. This conflict is seen on both a political level, in Britain's failure to maintain control of India, and on a personal level, in the protagonists' struggle to reconcile elements of both cultures in their own lives. Like Kaye herself, the protagonists in both of these novels spent their childhoods in India, were brought to England to be educated, and returned to India as adults out of love for that country. Trade Wind (1963), another historical novel, is set in Zanzibar and also concerns a clash between cultures. The heroine of this novel goes to Zanzibar to stop slavery and discovers that her limited understanding of the culture of the people she is trying to help will interfere with her goal. This book was reissued in 1981.

Although critics have virtually ignored Kaye's mystery novels, they have praised her India books, comparing them to Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind and Rudyard Kipling's Kim. They commend her ability to tell a suspenseful story and her knowledge of Indian history and culture; however, they also note that her characterizations are weak and that her lavish descriptions of the Indian countryside are overdone. Kaye's books have attained popular success in Britain, where anti-Indian sentiment has died down; in the United States, where interest in India is growing; and in India, where The Far Pavilions has reportedly been used as a classroom text.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 89-92.)