Ruth Prawer Jhabvala Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer (Vol. 94) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala 1927–

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

The following entry provides an overview of Jhabvala's career through 1995. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4, 8, 29.

Born in Germany to Jewish Polish parents and raised in England after her family fled the Nazis in 1939, Jhabvala began writing fiction after relocating with her husband to his native India in 1951. She frequently utilizes her vantage point as an outsider among India's bourgeoisie, and her characters, both Indian and European, often have an uneasy relationship with their cultural heritage. Critics have compared Jhabvala's novels to those of Jane Austen, citing her propensity for middle-class characters overly concerned with social status and tradition—thematic points that have given the author the reputation, like Austen, for being a social satirist. Jhabvala has also written many screenplays, adapting both her own novels as well as 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 Cologne, Germany. With Hitler's seizure of power in 1933, members of Jhabvala's extended family moved to various countries in Europe; her parents escaped to England in 1939. Jhabvala's family first lived in Conventry 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 on a houseboat 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 she queried. 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 on Euro-pean 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 travelling 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 avoidance of 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 charm and cultural sophistication and overlook his boorish nature. As the characters engage in social and political intercourse, Esmond's long-suffering wife deserts him, and he considers fleeing back to England with Betty, thereby leaving his new mistress, Shankutala, a woman he brought to ruin, behind in the country he loathes. A Backward Place (1965) concerns the plights of several expatriate European women whose reasons for remaining in India vary. Etta, a Hungarian women whose marriage to an Indian crumbled years ago, lives as the mistress of a hotel tycoon whose dalliance with his "niece" and their impending departure for Europe causes Etta to attempt suicide. In contrast, Judy, a British woman, admires her extended Hindi family whose laughter and closeness is 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 grand-daughter, 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) and Out of India: Selected Stories (1986).

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 continuing 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 conditions under which millions of India's lower classes live. Jhabvala, however, has readily acknowledged that living in India is to live "on the back of this great animal of poverty and backwardness. It is not possible to pretend otherwise." Critics frequently remark on the literary nature of Jhabvala's screenplays, particularly Howards 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 (novel) 1955; also published as Amrita, 1956
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: Nine Stories (short stories) 1968
Bombay Talkie (screenplay) 1970
An Experience of India (short stories) 1971
A New Dominion (novel) 1971; also published as Travelers, 1973
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 (screenplay) 1980
Quarter [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
The Courtesans of Bombay (screenplay) 1985
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
Howards 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

∗These films were directed by James Ivory and produced by Ismail Merchant.

†This film, made for British television, was jointly directed by Jhabvala, Ivory, and Merchant.

‡This film was directed by John Schlesinger.

Haydn Moore Williams (essay date June 1971)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Strangers in a Backward Place: Modern India in the Fiction of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala," in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. VI, No. 1, June, 1971, pp. 53-64.

[In the following essay, Williams discusses several of Jhabvala's novels, focusing on her sense of satire and irony and illustrating how her depiction of middle-class life subtly addresses various social and religious issues in India.]

The novels and short stories of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala stand in a unique relationship to Indian literature in English. Though she lives in India and is married to an Indian, she is European by origin, and her work belongs in some ways to the literature about India...

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Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (essay date 18 November 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Writers and the Cinema—A Symposium," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4267, November 18, 1983, p. 1287.

[In the following essay, Jhabvala comments on the reciprocal relationship between writing novels and screenplays.]

I suppose my experience with films has been different from that of most other writers because I've always worked with the same team, the director James Ivory and the producer Ismail Merchant. This has protected me in so far as they have stood between me and what I would have found terribly unpleasant: a collaborative effort at what is called the script level; the dreaded story conference. The only sort of story conference we ever seem to...

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Yasmine Gooneratne (essay date April 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Apollo, Krishna, Superman: The Image of India in Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's Ninth Novel," in Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, Vol. 15, No. 2, April, 1984, pp. 109-17.

[Gooneratne is a Ceylonese-born critic, poet, and educator. In the following essay, she examines Jhabvala's novel In Search of Love and Beauty, which she contends concerns itself more with Western culture than Jhabvala's previous novels.]

Q. Is there one thing you might just like to do which you have not done before?

A. Something I would like to do is combine my three backgrounds: my European background because it was...

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David Rubin (essay date Winter 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ruth Jhabvala in India," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 30, No. 4, Winter, 1984, pp. 669-83.

[In the following essay, Rubin categorizes Jhabvala not as an Indian novelist, but as an "Indo-Anglian" novelist in the tradition of R. K. Narayan and Raja Rao.]

Although the Major was so sympathetic to India, his piece sounds like a warning. He said that one has to be very determined to withstand—to stand up to—India. And the most vulnerable, he said, are always those who love her best. There are many ways of loving India, many things to love her for—the scenery, the history, the poetry, the music, and indeed the physical beauty of her men...

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H. Summerfield (essay date July 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Holy Women and Unholy Men: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala Confronts the Non-rational," in Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, Vol. 17, No. 3, July, 1986, pp. 85-101.

[In the following essay, Summerfield discusses critics' frequent comparisons of Jhabvala to Jane Austen and Anton Chekhov, concentrating on her frequent depictions of swamis and their relationships to their female followers.]

Any woman who writes witty novels in English about courtship and family life faces the occupational hazard of being compared to Jane Austen. Despite the exotic character (to Western readers) of her Indian settings, this has frequently been the privilege and the fate of...

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Ruth Prawer Jhabvala with Michael McDonough (interview date 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, in San Francisco Review of Books, Vol. 11, No. 4, Spring, 1987, pp. 5-6.

[In the following interview, which was conducted in New York in 1986, Jhabvala discusses her screenplays and her novel In Search of Love and Beauty, which she considers her first American novel, having written it after moving to New York City.]

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was born to Jewish parents in Cologne, Germany on May 7, 1927. Her father, Marcus Prawer, came to Germany to escape military conscription in Poland; he met and married Eleanor (Cohn) Prawer in Cologne. Ruth Prawer's grandfather was the cantor of the largest synagogue in that city...

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Bruce Bawer (essay date December 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Passage to India: The Career of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala," in The New Criterion, Vol. VI, No. 4, December, 1987, pp. 5-19.

[Bawer is an American literary critic. In the following essay, he analyzes several of Jhabvala's novels, including The Householder, Travelers, and Heat and Dust, commending her more recent works for including American characters, while criticizing them for their preoccupation with Westerners who try to become Indians.]

Probably most Americans who recognize the name of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala know her mainly as a screenwriter, one third of the celebrated international movie-making team whose other members are the Indian producer...

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Ramlal Agarwal (essay date 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Critical Study of Heat and Dust," in Studies in Indian Fiction in English, edited by G. S. Balarama Gupta, Jiwe Publications, 1987, pp. 53-60.

[In the following essay, Agarwal discusses the stories of Olivia and her granddaughter in Heat and Dust, proposing that their tragic fates in India are due to their "liberalism and sensitivity."]

When the Booker Prize for 1975 was given to Heat and Dust the literati in India refused to be impressed. They thought that Jhabvala was awarded the prize for her ruthless damning of India, the country in which she had lived for over a quarter of a century. Naturally they hit back by damning the book. In...

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Charmazel Dudt (essay date 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Jhabvala's Fiction: The Passage from India," in Faith of a (Woman) Writer, edited by Alice Kessler-Harris and William McBrien, Greenwood Press, 1988, pp. 159-64.

[In the following essay, Dudt examines four of Jhabvala's novels—Amrita, Esmond in India, Travelers, and Heat and Dust—and discusses the ways in which her views of India have changed over the course of her writing.]

It is a truism that woman today is caught between old strictures and new possibilities. She is well aware of her historical role and, therefore, struggles to establish a consistent, reliable identity as a member of a world which has not yet absorbed her as an integral...

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Penelope Fitzgerald (review date 25 March 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Family Life," in London Review of Books, Vol. 15, No. 6, March 25, 1993, pp. 22-3.

[Fitzgerald is a British novelist and biographer. In the following review of Poet and Dancer, which she calls "the saddest of Jhabvala's books," Fitzgerald discusses the strained relationship between the two main characters, Lara and Angel.]

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Francine du Plessix Gray (review date 28 March 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Cult of the Cousin," in The New York Times Book Review, March 28, 1993, pp. 13-14.

[Gray is a Polish-born American journalist, novelist, and critic. In the following negative review of Poet and Dancer, she laments the absence of the "talismanic force of the subcontinent" that energized her previous novels.]

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 Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. In novels like Travelers and Heat and Dust, Ms. Jhabvala's portrayals of the subcontinent's Zeitgeist—its puzzling composite of emotional...

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Claire Messud (review date 16 April 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Tainted by Misery," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4698, April 16, 1993, p. 20.

[In the following review of Poet and Dancer, Messud claims that Jhabvala's depiction of New York City is less compelling than her portrayals of India in her previous works, and ultimately regards the novel as a failure for its inability to persuade the reader to care about its tragic characters.]

Unlike her past fictional triumphs, such as Heat and Dust or The Householder, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's first novel for six years, Poet and Dancer, is not set amid the beautifully conjured complexities of India. It is, rather, a New York novel, but one in...

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Judie Newman (essay date Spring 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Postcolonial Gothic: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and the Sobhraj Case," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 40, No. 1, Spring, 1994, pp. 85-100.

[Newman is a British educator, editor, and critic. In the following essay, she discusses the Gothic elements of Three Continents and its main character, the multi-national murderer Crishi, who resembles the real-life serial killer Charles Sobhraj.]

Gothic motifs are exceptionally prevalent in postcolonial fiction, even from very different locations. Classic post-colonial transformations of Gothic emanate from the Caribbean (Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea), Africa (Bessie Head's A Question of Power) and India...

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Molly E. Rauch (review date 11 September 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Other Voices, Other Rooms," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 261, No. 7, September 11, 1995, pp. 244-5.

[In the following mixed review of Shards of Memory, Rauch calls the complex relationships of the novel part of a "paradox that … lacks depth."]

In her twelfth novel, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala once again addresses the themes of family and history through the premise of a set of old papers. It's a method she cultivated many books and screenplays ago in her Booker Prizewinning Heat and Dust (1975), in which a woman discovers her late step-grandmother's scandalous letters and goes to India to investigate. As in Bharati Mukherjee's more recent Holder...

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C. K. Stead (review date 30 November 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Master," in The London Review of Books, Vol. 17, No. 23, November 30, 1995, p. 12.

[Stead is a poet, fiction writer, and critic from New Zealand. In the following review of Shards of Memory, he suggests that when Jhabvala does not attempt "to represent India truthfully, accurately, in all its complexity," her novels, like this one, lack energy and focus.]

Henry James's injunction to the novelist was 'Dramatise! Dramatise!' Ezra Pound advocated 'the presentative method'. A dozen lesser but important voices have urged that modern fiction must enact, not tell. The strongest intellectual pressures on the serious novelist in this century have all been,...

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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 annotated list of reviews and essays on her work.


Lassell, Michael. "The Passionate Observer." The Los Angeles Times Magazine (28 November 1993): 30-4, 62.

Recounts Jhabvala's youth, mentioning her family's flight from the Nazis, her unpopular reputation in India, her film career, and sense...

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