Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2997
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 soldiers—the old, formulaic Man-bap, or “I am your father and mother,” the same attitude Queen Victoria appears to convey to her Indian “children” in the painting.
The Day of the Scorpion, while preserving several characters and using parallel situations from The Jewel in the Crown, opens up interesting new territory. While The Jewel in the Crown deals primarily with the civilian side of Indian life, the focus in the second novel is on the military—military traditions, loyalties, and habits of mind. The Layton family’s heritage of military service is an important side of Sarah’s life, and she is fiercely loyal to her father, a prisoner of war in Germany. Her mother preserves the British stiff upper lip with the aid of regular infusions of gin; Susan sustains her role with feverish gaiety that masks a severely unbalanced mind. It falls on Sarah to soldier on and hold the family together. During her trip to Calcutta, she engages in a brief fling with a young officer named Clark; it is her one escape from a life bounded by service to others.
The social picture of the second novel revolves around the hill station of Pankot, the hot-weather home of the Laytons. The reader receives a strong impression of tightly knit circles and insistence on pukka attitudes. Sarah is the quietest of rebels; while she goes about her duties in the approved style, her attitudes and intellectual concerns regarding India are enlightened by an instinctive understanding. She is one of the few to realize that “all this” will not belong to the British Raj for long.
If The Day of the Scorpion brings images to mind of the ritualistic suicide of the Raj, The Towers of Silence presents the image of its unburied body. In India, the Parsee class bring their dead to the towers of silence for the vultures to pick the corpses clean. For Barbie Batchelor, one of the primary characters of the third novel, watching the birds at the distant tower is her last interest in life.
While The Towers of Silence continues to explore the Layton family’s involvement in Indian life, the reader now looks at them through the eyes of the elderly Mabel Layton’s companion and paying guest, Barbie. The reader is immediately aware of Barbie’s connection to Miss Crane; they have both taught in the mission schools, Barbie writes letters to Miss Crane, and Barbie owns a copy of the allegorical painting “The Jewel in Her Crown.” Barbie is a talkative, enthusiastic innocent with a large capacity for affection and need for acceptance. Her position in Mabel Layton’s cottage conflicts with Mildred Layton’s desire to move herself and her daughters, Sarah and Susan, closer to the hub of Pankot social life.
While The Day of the Scorpion introduced problems in the lives of the Layton women, Barbie’s inadvertent bumbling shows the reader Mildred’s defects in a harsher light. After Barbie accidently discovers Mildred’s liaison with a Captain Coley, Mildred is determined to discredit Barbie and drive her out of her retirement Eden, Rose Cottage. The death of Mabel Layton gives Mildred the opportunity to expel Barbie from her paradise. Barbie’s accident in a tonga overloaded with all of her worldly goods sends her, ill and nearly crazed, to a nursing home, from which she watches the vultures at the towers of silence.
Not all of Barbie’s possessions, however, are destroyed. Her last call on Rose Cottage to collect her belongings overlaps with a visit from Ronald Merrick, who hopes to pay his respects to the Laytons. The Laytons are in Calcutta, however, where Sarah has an abortion (a decision that sets her apart from Daphne), and Merrick passes the afternoon in conversation with Barbie. Realizing that Merrick knew Miss Crane, she presses him for details about Edwina’s suicide note, which included the final, cryptic words, “There is no God. Not even on the road from Dibrapur.” Barbie wants to give Merrick something in recompense, so she presents him with her copy of “The Jewel in Her Crown,” the picture that links her to Miss Crane. It is a fascinating transfer; Merrick is obviously uneasy about the gift, for, of all the characters, he is the least likely to believe in the Man-bap ethic of the picture. Barbie’s explanation, “One should always share one’s hopes,” partially reconciles him to her gesture.
The narration of The Towers of Silence dips backward in time and often runs parallel to the stories of both The Jewel in the Crown and The Day of the Scorpion. It begins in 1939 with Barbie’s retirement from the mission schools and her move to Rose Cottage. The narrator gives the reader Pankot’s reaction to the Civil Disturbances of August, 1942, by depicting the emergency measures taken at the club lest similar outrages occur. News of the attack on Miss Crane shakes the previously simple faith of Barbie. Scott sketches in the courtship of Teddie Bingham and Susan Layton and explains Teddie’s choice of Merrick as best man. After Teddie’s death and the birth of the baby Edward, Susan slips into madness and has to be hospitalized. She emerges as brittle and fragile as the glasses that slip from her trembling hands.
As the novel comes to a close, Barbie joins Miss Crane and Mabel Layton in death. The three dominant female characters who remain, however, are at dramatic crossroads: Sarah has recovered physically from her abortion, but the narrator has told the reader little of her mental state or future plans; Susan seems to have entered the world of sanity again but is desperately vulnerable; and Mildred has received a message that her husband, released from a prisoner-of-war camp, is coming home. Their future hangs in the balance, as does that of India. Coinciding with Barbie’s death are two portentous events: The United States drops the first atomic bomb on Japan, and a new government is elected in Great Britain.
A Division of the Spoils, the final novel, begins in 1945 and ends with the British retreat from India in 1947. India now lies in the hands of the victorious Indians; unfortunately, it is a deeply divided country, where Hindu and Muslim grab for the spoils. The most intensely “historical” of the novels, A Division of the Spoils describes the complex nature of the sundering of Crown and Colony. The exodus of the Raj gives Scott the opportunity to call up the shades or actual presences of his many characters.
Scott draws on a variety of narrative techniques in the final volume, a return to the layered style prevalent in The Jewel in the Crown. What is interesting, Scott employs a new character for the presentation of current events and commentary on past ones. Sergeant Guy Perron is in army intelligence, and his area of expertise is that of a historian. A graduate of Chillingborough (linking him to Hari Kumar, Colonel Layton, Captain Rowan, and others) and Cambridge, Perron’s speciality is early imperialism and the Indian Mutiny. Knowing India’s past still condemns him to relive it.
Inevitably, Perron’s life and career overlap with those of Ronald Merrick, who is also involved in intelligence work, and the Laytons. At an almost Proustian gathering in Bombay, a party at the Maharanee’s, Perron meets Merrick and they speak of Hari, and Perron is introduced to Sarah, Ahmed Kasim, and Count Bronowski.
Scott then takes up the thread of the Layton family’s life, as Sarah escorts her father back home after his years in Germany as a prisoner of war. The world for which Colonel Layton left to fight is radically altered; his daughters have fully entered the adult world, Mildred is changed, Mabel dead, and the rose garden uprooted to make a tennis court. Colonel Layton is just as eager to reestablish contact with his men, particularly to find out why some of his Indian soldiers went over to the enemy. Merrick and Perron arrive in Pankot to investigate as well, a futile trip as the soldier they wish to question has killed himself. Merrick’s presence leads to his proposal of marriage to Susan and her acceptance.
Sarah is not without suitors as well. Nigel Rowan, who opened the Hari Kumar case at Lady Manner’s request, has fallen in love with Sarah, but the novel shows that she and Guy Perron are best suited for each other. Rowan does provide an important piece of narration, the story of Hari after his release from prison. Hari’s fate haunts Perron, particularly after he reads an article, “Alma Mater,” in the Ranpur Gazette. Perron can detect homage to Chillingborough and overwhelming homesickness for England in Hari’s mention of “dreams, never fulfilled, never to be fulfilled.”
The sadness and sense of waste linked to the life of Hari inevitably bring to mind Merrick, seemingly at the apex of his personal success. His burned face and artificial hand have done nothing to hinder his military career, and he has won the heart of Teddie Bingham’s widow. Merrick is murdered and hacked to pieces, however, and the single word “Bibighar” is written on the mirror. Perron, as curious about Merrick as he is about Hari, investigates his death, but it is a mystery never to be solved.
The novel comes to a dramatic close as the small, princely state of Mirat (once the setting for Susan and Teddie’s wedding) accedes to India. There is the inevitable violent clash between Hindu and Muslim. As the English leave (among them Sarah, Susan, Perron, and the Peabodys, a typical Raj couple), fanatical Hindus attack the train and remove Ahmed Kasim from the compartment where he sits with the English party. He is murdered as the train moves forward to safety. Sarah sits stunned, saying, “We just let him go. We all of us sat here and let him go.” For most of the Raj, it is the last moment of collective guilt before their return to England. The two bodies unlock from their “imperial embrace,” and India begins self-government.
Narrator and historian Perron makes one last investigation before he leaves India. He finds his way through the mazes of Indian tenements to the home of Hari Kumar. Hari is out and Perron leaves his card. The visit is more of a pilgrimage than an exercise in detection; it is Perron’s farewell as he returns to “the shade of different kinds of trees.” There is nothing further the English can do for the Indians but leave them to their separate destiny.
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