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

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(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...

(The entire section is 36,915 words.)