M(ary) M(argaret) Kaye Essay - Critical Essays

Kaye, M(ary) M(argaret)


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.)

John Bayley

Shadow of the Moon is an excellent, long historical novel about the Indian Mutiny, excellent because Miss Kaye has a real historical conscience, a sense of impartiality and a great many old mutiny records to draw upon. She cannot refrain from exploiting the amorous and horrific side of the business—dash-ing officers with moustaches, and screaming ladies in crinolines having their heads hacked off by sepoys—but she does not let these things get out of hand and she should be read by those interested in the period as well as by addicts of the romantic past.

John Bayley, in a review of "Shadow of the Moon," in The Spectator (© 1957 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 198, No. 6720, April 12, 1957, p. 495.

The Times Literary Supplement

Shadow of the Moon is an unbiased picture of India at the time of the Mutiny, emphasizing that not only the policy of the Company but in addition the personal failings of many of its servants gave the sepoys of the Bengal Army an excuse for betraying their allegiance. The events of the war are clearly described, and the author makes the point that British garrisons in every station were hampered by the presence of women and children, who must be protected even if their protection immobilized a possible striking force. But perhaps this book would have been better as a popular history of the Mutiny, for the fictitious characters are wooden and unconvincing.

"History in Disguise," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1957; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 2877, April 19, 1957, p. 237.∗

David Tilden

Miss Kaye has lived in India much of her life and her forebears have distinguished themselves in service in that country for more than a century. [Shadow of the Moon], centered in the Indian Sepoy Mutiny, is dedicated to them.

The story beginning in a mid-Victorian setting in England that is hardly less strange by present-day standards than India itself, is the tale of a young girl, half British, half Spanish, who was born in India but reared chiefly in England after the death of her parents. Her mother, dying in India's heat, had asked to have the baby named Winter in longing for the coolness of her distant home.

The story is of Winter's journey and marriage, by circumstance ended in the carnage of the uprising, and the way out that the girl found through the reign of terror. Episodes in that story, patterned largely after the almost incredible actual events of 1857, are filled with excitement and suspense, but the story of India itself will have even greater fascination for many readers. Out of her own experience, including tales handed down in her family, Miss Kaye pictures its welter of races, religions, ideals and superstitions; its fragrances and stench, beauty and horror. Nor does she shrink from showing the shortcomings of all but a few of its British overlords.

Once one gets past a rather slow start …, this novel is a thriller the more thrilling because so much of it is or might have been true.

David Tilden, "An Indian Mutiny Thriller," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), September 1, 1957, p. 3.

The Times Literary Supplement

Kenya and the lingering aftermath of Mau-Mau provide the setting for Mrs. Kaye's Later Than You Think. A glorious farm in a golden valley beside a lake, surrounded by a garden with wonderful flowers and trees, is very well described by the author and it is hard not to feel that the Kenya scene and the love-interest of her story have not charmed her imagination more than has the detective-work necessitated by the plot. The colonial police-officers, however, are well drawn and there are some moments of lively apprehension.

"Deck-Chair Detectives," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1958; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission). No. 2947, August 22, 1958, p. 469.∗

Anthony Boucher

Price and jacket copy [for Later than You Think] might lead you to suspect a serious suspense story bordering on the straight novel. Don't be misled; this is a perfectly conventional whodunit of the feminine persuasion, verging on the Had-I-But-Known school, redeemed and revitalized by its setting in the Rift Valley, fifty miles from Nairobi, just after the Mau-Mau uprising—which apparently is known euphemistically in Kenya as "the Emergency." What seems to be first-hand depiction of the delicate tensions among white-settlers in this uneasy aftermath to violence manages to impart conviction and even distinction to an otherwise routine mystery-romance.

Anthony Boucher,...

(The entire section is 127 words.)

The Times Literary Supplement

The heroine [of House of Shade] is an English rose of truly startling naivety. ("Your I.Q. is probably the lowest on record," says her admirer with a rare flash of insight.) This silly girl, having been incompetently framed for a murder in London, dashes off to her mother's house in Zanzibar accompanied by a whole plane-load of suspicious characters. There is mention of Communists and buried treasure before she just escapes being pushed out a window. Miss Kaye writes pleasantly and the Zanzibar settings are agreeable, but the whole thing has a fainly old-fashioned air, reminiscent of those innocent adventure stories which filled young people's magazines in the 1930s.


(The entire section is 132 words.)

James Sandoe

The House of Shade … is in Zanzibar but Dany Ashton is in London and the police want her for questioning. So, one thing leading to another, she boards the plane as the secretary of a very tipsy young American publisher. M. M. Kaye's comic romance (with detection) takes a nimble, cooly absurd, somewhat word-heavy course, making admirable use of a handsome drench in the charms of Zanzibar. The sound of Americans (two of whom have strategic places in the plot) eludes Miss Kaye, whose range of British voices is well enough heard. It's a pleasant piece of work, striving a little hard for its thrills but keeping one diverted well enough.

James Sandoe, in a review of "The...

(The entire section is 137 words.)

Francis King

Among the many different categories of the novel. I have created two for myself: holiday novels and hospital novels. The first must be long, absorbing and not too exacting in style or thought. The second must be also long, also absorbing and in no way productive of morbid imaginings. M. M. Kaye's The Far Pavilions falls into both these categories, even if its size and weight are such that to place it across the knees might easily bring a deck-chair crashing to the ground or cause a relapse in a debilitated convalescent.

An account of a young man's life in India for about twenty-five years from the Indian Mutiny to the Second Afghan War, this jumbo historical novel reminded me irresistibly of...

(The entire section is 435 words.)

Brigitte Weeks

The legendary sun has finally set on the British Empire and the India of the Raj has passed into history. In the inevitable sea-change that follows, its strengths are being remembered, its weaknesses softened by time.

Riding the crest of this revisionist wave, this Cecil B. DeMille production of a novel [The Far Pavilions]—15 years in the writing—brings those times close as only the most stirring fiction can. M. M. Kaye's formidable imagination, steeped in history, war and romance, conjures up sights and sounds of India, from palaces in the Himalayas to the docks of Bombay.

Ashton Pelham-Martyn, a hero worthy of the name, is the son of an eccentric British anthropologist...

(The entire section is 726 words.)

Theon Wilkinson

The Far Pavilions follows M. M. Kaye's two highly successful historical novels Shadows of the Moon and Trade Wind; all three set in the second half of the nineteenth century in lands bordering the Indian Ocean, and all three evidence of the author's passionate involvement with India…. She writes with the conviction that events must be told in their fullness or not at all, that every facet of information touching the characters must be embraced; and The Far Pavilions is a great oriental pot-pourri from which nothing is left out: Indian lullabys; regimental bawdy songs; regimental history, wars and campaigns; weddings; funerals; poisonous plants—a tribute to much painstaking research,...

(The entire section is 279 words.)

David Weinberger

Shadow of the Moon is a pale shadow of M. M. Kaye's previous best seller, The Far Pavilions, a 1,000-page epic of 19th-century India (pronounced In-juh). Her writing was competent and professional, she conveyed the historical information painlessly, and if the plot and characters were coldly calculated to get the hero to all the important events, still it was a novel one could read with a clear conscience. The new book is again set in India, this time prior to the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857, and we learn little new. Still, the familiar landscape might be enticing is only Kaye had bothered to come up with a new plot. (p. 56)

Kaye's reliance on mutual misunderstandings as a plot device in...

(The entire section is 321 words.)

Nicholas Shrimpton

M. M. Kaye's The Far Pavilions blended lurid oriental colour with homely occidental emotions. A quarter of a million copies have been sold in hardback alone, in less than a year. Shadow of the Moon, from the same hand and in the same manner, seems set to repeat that extraordinary success.

It's not in fact a new novel, having first seen the light of day, in abbreviated form, in 1957. But it is an extraordinarily apt successor to The Far Pavilions. Like that book it is a romance set in Victorian India. Like that book, again, its plot combines a dash of Kim with a good deal of Tristan und Isolde. Winter de Ballesteros, the heroine, is the orphan daughter of an English...

(The entire section is 412 words.)

Rahul Singh

It's intriguing how certain themes and subjects can be dormant for years and then, for some uncanny reason, they suddenly catch the popular imagination. In the 1960s Africa was "in" and now, I'm glad to say, it seems to be my country, India.

Until quite recently, anybody writing on India for a Western audience was usually told, sadly but firmly, by his publisher that "India just doesn't sell." (p. 903)

[How] does one explain the change? Perhaps the 32 years since India won its independence have been a sufficiently long period for the British public to reconcile itself to the loss of Empire and to view the Raj without too much discomfort. One could go further to say, a little...

(The entire section is 722 words.)

Staige D. Blackford

[Molly Kaye's] love of India is equalled only by her knowledge of it. This love and knowledge help to explain the superb success of her [The Far Pavilions and Shadow of the Moon] in America. You can quickly tell that this author writes not only from the heart but also from the head, that her comprehension of things Indian is as vast as it is varied. On the pages of her works India, with its many castes and creeds, its poverty and splendor, with its appalling heat and towering mountain peaks, comes to life. Furthermore Miss Kaye has been able to make the past come alive in the present. As one critic said, she "gives the reader a sense of being caught up in the fabric of another time, with the bonus of...

(The entire section is 604 words.)

Andrea Lee Shuey

"God is a great deviser of stratagems," writes Kaye. The stratagems devised for [Trade Wind] will keep the reader turning pages compulsively. Twenty-one year old Hero Athena Hollis sets out from Boston for Zanzibar in 1859 to fulfill her mission in life—to stop slave trading. On the journey she is washed overboard and rescued by Rory Frost, a piratical slave trader. Stubborn, spoiled Hero clashes with equally stubborn, overconfident, wicked Rory. Disagreements come in rapid succession about her naïve assumptions, his overbearing manner, her proposed marriage, his occupation, etc. Palace intrigue, revolution, a pirate raid on the island, and a murder lead up to Rory's kidnapping of Hero.


(The entire section is 143 words.)

Walter Shapiro

[In Trade Wind Kaye's] theme is, as always, the collision between western values and native culture in remote corners of the world in the mid-19th century. But Kaye recognizes all the moral ambiguities raised by this titanic clash of alien cultures. Her narrative indicts hypocrisy, intolerance and the inability of many westerners to appreciate or understand local customs. But she carefully avoids blanket indictments or the shrill rhetoric of anti-colonialism.

For those who have read her earlier novels, particularly The Far Pavilions, an epic portrayal of colonial India, it is unnecessary to emphasize her complex moral stance. But it is important to sing the praises of M. M. Kaye for the...

(The entire section is 610 words.)

The New Yorker

[In Trade Wind, as usual,] Miss Kaye's heroine and hero (this time, an orphaned American socialite and an English-born, Anglophobic smuggler) are outsiders and iconoclasts; while they despise the arrogance of Victorian talk about "progress and the millennium," they cannot adopt the cold-blooded resignation of some of their Eastern friends, the difference between intervention and interference must be learned by trial and error. Miss Kaye's ideal reader would be an amateur of British colonial history with a weakness for romantic fantasy; most readers will enjoy her novels for one of her specialties and in spite of the other. (p. 87)

A review of "Trade Wind," in The New...

(The entire section is 120 words.)