The Novels

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Four novels form Paul Scott’s series known as The Raj Quartet: The Jewel in the Crown, The Day of the Scorpion, The Towers of Silence, and A Division of the Spoils. The quartet takes a panoramic view of India during the last days of the Raj, the British ruling class in India. In 1945, the British government voted to grant India independence from Great Britain; the days of colonialism ended and an uneasy transfer of power began. Scott’s novels cover a five-year period from 1942 to 1947, and he uses that particularly turbulent and disturbing era to introduce a large cast of characters and the events that shape much of modern life—the last gasp of imperialism, World War II, and the dawn of the nuclear age.

While the four novels can be read separately, in isolation or out of chronological order, the narrative scope is best enjoyed by an orderly perusal. Each successive novel casts a new light on the one that came before; the later novels footnote, explain, and revise the history given earlier. Characters deepen and change subtly as India’s history requires that they play a different role. Scott uses his wide-angled approach to demonstrate the cycles in the affairs of history and the emotions of men and women; his technique allows for graceful repetitions and recurring symbols. Yet this is not a sweeping tale that blows character into the maelstrom of events. Scott particularizes character so that each individual stands as unique and very human.

As The Jewel in the Crown opens, two assaults have been made on English citizens in India. These outrages are a part of the general disturbances following the “Quit India” motion put forward by the All India Congress Committee in August, 1942. First, the narrator invites the reader to focus on Miss Edwina Crane, who is supervisor of the Mayapore district’s Protestant mission schools. Miss Crane is most atypical of the Raj; she is female, she is unmarried—not a memsahib—and she instinctively disapproves of the sense of community her fellow countrymen feel in India, the “mute, clan-gathering call to solidarity.” Distanced by her age, sex, marital status, and occupation, Miss Crane stays on the outskirts of Raj social life.

During the civil disturbances after the congress vote, Miss Crane and an Indian teacher, Mr. Chaudhuri, are beset by rioters crying “Quit India.” The Indians Miss Crane has tried to teach and understand (sometimes against a background hum of British criticism) beat her and kill Mr. Chaudhuri. The police find her “sitting in the pouring rain by the roadside holding the hand of a dead Indian.” As Miss Crane lies ill with pneumonia, a second outrage occurs.

Scott’s narrator then shifts his attention to the case of Daphne Manners, a good-natured, shy, rather clumsy English girl, who is raped by a gang of Indian youths in the Bibighar Gardens. Like Miss Crane, Daphne rejects the stuffy Raj clubbiness. Despite Daphne’s excellent connections, she chooses to live in an Indian household with Lili Chatterjee. She is eager to know and understand India. Daphne falls in love with Hari Kumar, an Indian educated in the British public school tradition at Chillingborough. Her preference for Hari Kumar attracts the malevolent notice of Ronald Merrick, District Superintendent of Police, who once asked Daphne to marry him. Merrick’s prejudice against Hari is strengthened by Hari’s public school drawl, a reminder that Merrick is merely a grammar school boy who made good. After the rape of Daphne on the night of August 9, Merrick is determined to pin the crime on Hari. First, Merrick plants Daphne’s bicycle at Hari’s residence, then, through intimidation and torture, Merrick extracts false testimony from one of Hari’s friends. Hari goes to prison, and Daphne gives birth to a daughter and dies. The sad, tender love of Daphne and Hari leaves a strong impression on a variety of characters.

The Jewel in the Crown employs a complex system of narration, far more varied than that of the two novels to follow. A stranger is investigating the unsettling events of early August, and he has more than a passing interest in Miss Crane and Daphne Manners. He talks to as many of the participants as possible, although Daphne and Miss Crane are dead. Daphne “speaks” through her journal and letters to her aunt, Lady Manners. Lili Chatterjee provides her version of the affair, while the combination of club gossip and “official” statement concludes the narrator’s research. The tale, however, is far from complete; the innocent Hari’s imprisonment and subsequent fate and the further break of Anglo-Indian relations are still at issue.

Scott takes the title The Day of the Scorpion from a haunting childhood memory burned into the mind of one of the novel’s main characters, Sarah Layton. She recalls the day an Indian servant discovered a scorpion, surrounded it with a circle of kerosene, and set the fuel alight. While the fascinated and repelled Layton sisters watched, the scorpion arched its back and appeared to sting itself with its deadly tail before the flames could spread. The image of the scorpion’s suicide (even though later exploded as a myth) troubles Sarah and becomes a metaphor for English vulnerability within India’s circle of fire. By the close of the novel, Sarah knows that her emotionally unstable sister has placed her newborn son in a similar circle of fire, echoing the scorpion and the fate of Miss Crane, who burned herself to death in a ritual form of suttee.

Sarah is the dominant figure in The Day of the Scorpion. She is a thoughtful, intelligent girl and, much like Daphne, does not take the Anglo-Indian Raj establishment too seriously. In a similar fashion, she forms a friendship (although not a romantic one) with a Muslim Indian, Ahmed Kasim, the son of an imprisoned chief minister of the Indian government. Sarah also attracts the admiration of Ronald Merrick, who serves as best man to her sister Susan’s fiance, Teddie Bingham.

Now a captain in military intelligence, Merrick puts the Bingham wedding party at risk when a stone is hurled through the window of the car in which he and Teddie ride to the church; later, as Susan and Teddie depart for their honeymoon, the Laytons observe an Indian woman prostrating herself before Merrick and causing a scene. Merrick explains these embarrassing and threatening events by giving Sarah his version of the arrest and punishment of Hari Kumar. Merrick obviously wants to impress Sarah and the Laytons, and they feel indebted to him when they discover, months later, that Merrick lies severely injured after attempting to save Susan’s husband. Teddie, like Miss Crane and the scorpion, dies within an encircling fire after trying to win back Indian soldiers now fighting with the Japanese. Merrick is badly burned and loses an arm. Despite Merrick’s heroism, his cruelty and depravity are uppermost in the reader’s mind.

When Sarah, on Susan’s request, visits the injured Merrick in a Calcutta hospital, he tells her the story of Teddie’s death and, in passing, of his investigation into the suicide of Miss Crane and his fascination with her allegorical painting “The Jewel in Her Crown.” Teddie’s death is linked to his idealized relationship with his Indian...

(The entire section is 2997 words.)