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.
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.
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 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].”