Ruth Prawer Jhabvala Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer (Vol. 138) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala 1927-

German-born English novelist, screenwriter, and short story writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Jhabvala's work through 1998. For further information on Jhabvala's life and career, see CLC, Volumes 4, 8, 29, and 94.

Frequently utilizing her vantage point as an outsider among India's bourgeoisie, Jhabvala typically creates characters, both Indian and European, who have an uneasy relationship with their cultural heritage. Critics have compared Jhabvala's novels to those of Jane Austen, citing her propensity for creating middle-class characters overly concerned with social status and tradition—thematic points that have given her a reputation, like Austen, as a social satirist. Jhabvala has also written many screenplays, adapting both her own novels as well as those of others into elaborate costume dramas and comedies of manners for the filmmaking team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory. Her screenplay for A Room with a View (1986), adapted from E. M. Forster's novel, won her an Academy Award in 1986, as well as wider recognition in the United States.

Biographical Information

Jhabvala was born in 1927 in Cologne, Germany, to Jewish Polish parents. With Hitler's seizure of power in 1933, members of Jhabvala's extended family moved to various countries in Europe; she and her parents escaped to England in 1939. Jhabvala and her family first lived in Coventry and later moved to a Jewish suburb of London. She earned a master's degree in English literature from Queen Mary College at London University in 1951. Upon her graduation, she married Cyrus S. H. Jhabvala, a Parsi architect whom she had met in London, and moved with him to Delhi, India, to raise their three daughters. In India, she began writing novels and had little trouble getting published; her first work, To Whom She Will (1955), was accepted by the fourth publisher to read the manuscript. Independent filmmakers Merchant and Ivory approached her following the publication of The Householder (1960) to ask if she would write the screenplay for their film adaptation, thus beginning a long and prosperous, as well as exclusive, partnership.

Major Works

Jhabvala's novels frequently examine the social milieu of middle-class Indians who have profited from India's increasing urbanization and industrialization, and European expatriates who have married into Indian families. The Householder, for example, concerns the comic adventures of Prem, a young, recently married man facing the second in the four traditional Hindu stages of human life: the householder stage. Prem becomes enamored of the life of the swami, Hindu religious teachers whom he sees as free of the stresses of being husbands, providers, and fathers. In Hans, a young, carefree German traveling through India in search of a teacher, Prem finds a role model. Eventually, Prem capitulates to his traditional role and returns to his exotic, sybaritic wife, Indu, realizing that his desire to be a holy man was driven by his desire to avoid responsibility. In Esmond in India (1957), the title character is a womanizing British civil servant with an Indian wife and an English mistress. On assignment in India, Esmond befriends a number of social-climbing, middle-class Indian women, all of whom are beguiled by his boorish nature. As the characters engage in social and political intercourse, Esmond's long-suffering wife deserts him. A Backward Place (1965) concerns the plights of several expatriate European women whose reasons for remaining in India vary. Etta, a Hungarian woman whose marriage to an Indian crumbled years before, lives as the mistress of a hotel tycoon whose dalliance with his “niece” and their impending departure for Europe cause Etta to attempt suicide. In contrast, Judy, a British woman, admires her extended Hindi family whose laughter and closeness are a stark contrast to her strict English upbringing. Heat and Dust (1975), for which Jhabvala won the Booker Prize, tells two stories: that of Olivia, a young English bride taken to live in India in the 1920s, whose seduction by an Indian prince ends in disgrace; and that of her granddaughter, who, guided by the elder woman's diary, traces Olivia's path through India and ultimately meets the same unfortunate fate. In Search of Love and Beauty (1983), written after Jhabvala left India for New York, is her first novel to take place primarily in the United States, though the main character, a guru, entices women to ruin just as in her previous works.

Jhabvala's most popular screenplays are adaptations of other writers' works. With The Europeans (1979) and The Bostonians (1984), both adapted from novels by Henry James, Jhabvala gained a reputation for scripting witty period dialogue. Her recognition among moviegoers increased with A Room with a View, The Remains of the Day (1993), and Jefferson in Paris (1995). She has also published several collections of short stories, including How I Became a Holy Mother, and Other Stories (1975), Out of India: Selected Stories (1986), and, most recently, East into Upper East: Plain Tales from New York and New Delhi (1998).

Critical Reception

Critical reaction to Jhabvala's works has been mixed. While reviewers have praised her screenplays, some have found her novels and short stories uneven and thematically limited. Often lauded for her depictions of India from a detached viewpoint, her use of irony and satire, and her explorations of such themes as isolation, rebellion, and cultural assimilation, Jhabvala is nonetheless occasionally faulted for her continued focus on middle-class Indian life and what some critics have called her “simple plots” and “unconvincing characterizations.” Some critics have also disparaged Jhabvala's seeming lack of concern over the extreme poverty and wretched living conditions of India's lower classes. Critics do, however, frequently remark on the literary nature and quality of her screenplays, particularly Howard's End (1992) and A Room with a View, and note how her cinematic works have influenced her novels. Others compliment the tone and mood evoked by her filmic renditions of Edwardian life. Vincent Canby has called the screenplay for A Room with a View, for example, a “faithful, ebullient screen equivalent to a literary work that lesser talents would embalm” and observes that the film's voice is “not unlike that of Forster, who tells the story … with as much genuine concern as astonished amusement.” Concerning Jhabvala's literary accomplishments as a whole, Francine du Plessix Gray has observed “With the exception of E. M. Forster, no 20th-century writer has more eloquently described Westerners' attempts to grasp the ambiguities of Indian culture than [Jhabvala].”

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

To Whom She Will [also published as Amrita, 1956] (novel) 1955

The Nature of Passion (novel) 1956

Esmond in India (novel) 1957

The Householder (novel) 1960

Get Ready for Battle (novel) 1962

*The Householder (screenplay) 1963

Like Birds, Like Fishes, and Other Stories (short stories) 1963

A Backward Place (novel) 1965

*Shakespeare Wallah (screenplay) 1965

*The Guru [with James Ivory] (screenplay) 1968

A Stronger Climate (short stories) 1968

*Bombay Talkie (screenplay) 1970

An Experience of India (short stories) 1971

A New Dominion [also published as Travelers, 1973] (novel) 1971

Autobiography of a Princess (novel) 1975

*Autobiography of a Princess (screenplay) 1975

Heat and Dust (novel) 1975

How I Became a Holy Mother, and Other Stories (short stories) 1975

*Roseland (screenplay) 1977

*Hullabaloo over Georgie and Bonnie's Pictures (screenplay) 1978

*The Europeans [adaptor, with Ivory; from the novel by Henry James] (screenplay) 1979

*Jane Austen in Manhattan (screenplays) 1980

*Quartet [adaptor, with Ivory; from the novel by Jean Rhys] (screenplay) 1981

*Heat and Dust (screenplay) 1983

In Search of Love and Beauty (novel) 1983

*The Bostonians [adaptor; from the novel by Henry James] (screenplay) 1984

Out of India: Selected Stories (short stories) 1986

*A Room with a View [adaptor; from the novel by E. M. Forster] (screenplay) 1986

Three Continents (novel) 1987

Madame Sousatzka [with John Schlesinger] (screenplay) 1988

*Mr. and Mrs. Bridge [adaptor; from the novels Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell] (screenplay) 1990

*Howard's End [adaptor; from the novel by E. M. Forster] (screenplay) 1992

Poet and Dancer (novel) 1993

*The Remains of the Day [adaptor; from the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro] (screenplay) 1993

*Jefferson in Paris (screenplay) 1995

Shards of Memory (novel) 1995

East into Upper East: Plain Tales from New York and New Delhi (short stories) 1998

*The film versions of these screenplays were directed by James Ivory and produced by Ismail Merchant.

Richard Cronin (essay date April 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Hill of Devi and Heat and Dust,” in Essays in Criticism, Vol. 36, No. 2, April, 1986, pp. 142-59.

[In the following essay, Cronin discusses the relationship between Jhabvala and her literary predecessors, whom Cronin describes as “the Englishmen who described life in Indian princely states in the 1920s.”]

In Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's novel Heat and Dust (1975) two stories alternate, the story of a young English girl who goes to India in search of her family history, and the story of her grandfather's first wife, Olivia. The two stories approach each other, and drift apart. They coincide just once, at Baba Firdaus's shrine, where...

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Shirley Chew (essay date July 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Fictions of Princely States and Empire,” in Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, Vol. 17, No. 3, July, 1986, pp. 103-17.

[In the following essay, Chew examines a number of works, including Jhabvala's Heat and Dust, that concern the princely states of India as the subject of historical fiction and “fiction-about-history.”]

India became independent on 15 August 1947, and by mid-century the princely states no longer existed. Nevertheless, they continued to tease and to draw the literary imagination, as they had done throughout the period of British rule. The perspective, however, was altered and, with it, the highlights and depths,...

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Margaret Lenta (essay date July 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Narrators and Readers: 1902 and 1975,” in Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, Vol. 20, No. 3, July, 1989, pp. 19-36.

[In the following essay, Lenta compares and contrasts Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Jhabvala's Heat and Dust in an effort to expound Michael Echeruo's notion of “literatures which were originally conceived of in tribal contexts that have now become international and cross-cultural.”]

In his book The Conditioned Imagination from Shakespeare to Conrad Michael Echeruo discusses the idea that “literatures which were originally conceived of in tribal (ie. national) contexts have now become...

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Merle Rubin (review date 19 June 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's Stories from India Reissued,” in The Wall Street Journal, June 19, 1990, p. A18.

[In the following review, Rubin offers a positive assessment of ten of Jhabvala's novels rereleased by Simon & Schuster.]

Talking about contemporary writers, Dame Rebecca West once mentioned that one of her favorites was “that Polish woman with the Indian name who lives in New York.”

Well, that in a nutshell pretty much describes Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, whose 10 novels Simon & Schuster has now finished reprinting in paperback. A more prolix biographer might also add that she was born in 1927 to Polish Jewish parents, came to...

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Philip T. Kitley (essay date Spring 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Time and Scriptable Lives in Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's Heat and Dust,” in World Literature Written in English, Spring, 1992, pp. 55-65.

[In the following essay, Kitley examines a number of literary elements present in Heat and Dust, including intertextuality and narrative structure.]

In 1973 Ruth Jhabvala visited, with James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, the palace at Jodhpur. This visit, though none of those involved knew it at the time, was to culminate two years later in the release of the film Autobiography of a Princess and in the publication of Jhabvala's novel Heat and Dust, for which she won the Booker Prize in 1975....

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V. T. Usha (essay date 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's ‘The Widow’: Reading the Subtext,” in The Literary Criterion, Vol. 27, Nos. 1 & 2, June 1992, pp. 133-37.

[In the following essay, Usha provides an in-depth analysis of Jhabvala's short story “The Widow.”]

Born in Germany, of Jewish-Polish parentage and educated in England, R. P. Jhabvala came to India in 1951 as the wife of a Parsi architect. The 24 years she spent in India—“most of my adult life”—gave her abundant time and opportunity to study India and write about it. But her approach is that of an “initiated outsider” (in the words of John Updike in his review of Heat and Dust). Her relationship...

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Michiko Kakutani (review date 23 March 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Immigrant Families, at Home and Yet Alienated,” in The New York Times, March 23, 1993.

[In the following review, Kakutani offers a mixed assessment of Poet and Dancer, praising Jhabvala's ability to write with “fluency and poise” but noting a vague dissatisfaction in the “predictable” ending.]

Both the themes and the characters of Poet and Dancer, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's 11th novel, uncannily echo those of In Search of Love and Beauty, a novel she published exactly 10 years ago. Both novels concern the fragmentation of family life experienced by immigrants in New York. Both novels feature a similar cast of people, including...

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Richard Alleva (review date 19 May 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Foundering Father?: Jefferson in Paris,” in Commonweal, Vol. CXXII, No. 10, May 19, 1995.

[In the following review, Alleva criticizes Jhabvala's screenplay Jefferson in Paris, claiming that the film is “buried under research.”]

In thirty years of collaboration, producer Ismael Merchant, director James Ivory, and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala have created twenty-odd films, the best of which (Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, Shakespeare Wallah, their three E. M. Forster adaptations, and, best of the best, The Remains of the Day) have worked on the viewer like cinematic concentrates. Tightly structured, emotionally low-keyed, handsome...

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Tonc Sundt Urstad (essay date Winter 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Projecting One's Inner Self: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's ‘Rose Petals’,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 33, No. 1, Winter, 1996, pp. 43-9.

[In the following essay, Urstad examines Jhabvala's short story “Rose Petals,” focusing on Jhabvala's creation of sympathetically drawn characters who live isolated, privileged lives.]

There is an exploring quality about Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's work—both as a novelist and as a writer of screenplays—that has often been noted by critics (Gooneratne; Bailur; Crane). It probably stems from the fact that she was—in her own words—“practically born a displaced person” (Gooneratne 1) and so has always had to...

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Publishers Weekly (review date 31 August 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Publishers Weekly (review date 31 August 1998)

SOURCE: A review of East into Upper East, in Publishers Weekly, August 31, 1998, p. 48.

[The following review offers a positive assessment of East into Upper East, claiming Jhabvala's collection is “rich in character, observation, and insight.”]

The author is too modest. Written over a span of 20 years, the 13 stories gathered here [in East into Upper East] (five of which have appeared in the New Yorker) are not “plain” at all. Rather, they're rich in character, observation and insight. The “Upper East” of the title refers to the Manhattan neighborhood;...

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Sarah Curtis (review date 2 October 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Antique Furnishings,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4983, October 2, 1998, p. 26.

[In the following review, Curtis offers a lukewarm assessment of Jhabvala's East into Upper East,claiming that “no new ground” is covered.]

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is one of those writers whose name immediately conjures up an image, in her case a double image. We see the heat and dust of India, particle by particle, usually through sympathetic and sometimes sentimental Western eyes. Almost simultaneously, we remember the Merchant-Ivory adaptations of E. M. Forster and the other films she has scripted with their heavy period detail. This collection of fourteen...

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Philip Glazebrook (review date 10 October 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Intruders in the Dusk and Elsewhere,” in The Spectator, Vol. 281, No. 8879, October 10, 1998, p. 43.

[In the following review, Glazebrook presents a positive appraisal of East into Upper East.]

These complex and delicate stories, [in East into Upper East] which I should hate to have missed reading, are the outcome of clear intentions expressed with controlled precision. The stories are not emotional, not lyrical, but they are extraordinarily deft, each one filling its 20-odd pages with sharp pictures of people busying themselves with living lives modified by shortcomings plainly visible to their creator. Half the stories take place around Delhi,...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Crane, Ralph J. “Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: A Checklist of Primary and Secondary Sources.” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature XX, No. 1 (1985): 171-203.

Bibliography of Jhabvala's books, articles, screenplays, and short stories, as well as an annotated list of reviews and essays on her work.


Agarwal, Ramlal G. “An Interview with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.” Quest 91 (September/October 1994): 33-6.

Discusses critics' comparisons of Jhabvala with Jane Austen, as well as complaints that her novels deal only with a small slice of Indian life.


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