Ruth Prawer Jhabvala Biography

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(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala has lived her life as an expatriate—in England, India, and America—and consciousness of this fact has shaped her fiction. Having spent twenty-five years in India and having produced the bulk of her novels, short stories, and film scripts there, it is her personal experience of the East-West encounter that has molded her work. Her observations of Indian life have provided most of her fictional material. Jhabvala has shown particular interest in tracing interactions between Indians and Westerners in various kinds of relationships. Her writing is marked by details of Indian life that only an outsider would notice and remember; this bestows on her fiction a unique character and vision.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The novelist and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (jahb-VAH-lah) was the daughter of culturally assimilated German-Jewish parents who were forced to flee to England in 1939, when Ruth Prawer was twelve years old. She became a British subject in 1948 and married C. S. H. Jhabvala, a Parsi architect, in 1951. The couple moved to Delhi, India, where they reared three daughters and Jhabvala became a full-time writer.{$S[A]Prawer Jhabvala, Ruth;Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer}

In “Myself in India,” the introduction to Out of India: Selected Stories, Jhabvala declares that despite having spent most of her adult life in India and having an Indian family, she remained European. Her early works, set in India, reflect the detached, ironic viewpoint of an alien. After Jhabvala’s first novel, To Whom She Will, critics designated her the Jane Austen of middle-class Delhi urban society; categorized as comedy of manners, her work was praised for its wit and accuracy of observation. The five novels and three volumes of short stories she wrote during the next fifteen years maintained a similar tone, though it darkened considerably as the self-deceptions of her characters deepened. In the 1960’s Jhabvala entered artistic partnership with the newly founded film production team of Ismael Merchant and James Ivory and started writing screenplays and adapting the works of others, among them Henry James’s The Bostonians and E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View and Howards End; this new genre, in turn, influenced the style and structure of her novels. Thus when A New Dominion appeared in 1972, critics noticed resemblances not to the work of Austen but to that of Forster. Heat and Dust, which followed three years later and is even more complex and experimental, juxtaposes two stories, that of a colonial wife who left her husband for an Indian prince in the 1920’s and that of her step-granddaughter, who fifty years later, goes to India to solve an old riddle and herself becomes captivated by the land. Often designated Jhabvala’s masterpiece, Heat and Dust won the prestigious Booker Prize.

In 1974 Jhabvala moved to New York City; from then on she returned to Delhi only for three months each year. In the novels written since her move to the United States, the international theme expanded. In Search of Love and Beauty, for example, examines the lives of a group of German-Jewish refugees to America over a forty-year period. Three Continents, based loosely on the exploits of an Asian serial killer, tracks relationships between an American family and visiting Indians and Eurasians; the setting shifts from the United States to England and finally to India. Jhabvala continued to collaborate with Merchant and Ivory on films that include The Remains of the Day, which was an overwhelming critical success, and the less successful Jefferson in Paris. Jhabvala has won numerous awards, most of them for her screenwriting; Room with a View and Howards End both won Academy Awards for best screenplay adaptation.

Throughout her writings Jhabvala has remained preoccupied with the problem of alienation and the conflicts of individuals who are geographically and spiritually adrift. Even when the locale changes, the themes remain the same. In To Whom She Will , for example, two lovers are...

(The entire section is 1,355 words.)