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.
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.
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 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]."