In his previous novels which make up The Raj Quartet, Paul Scott has dealt extensively with the final days of English domination over India just before that country’s independence was granted in 1947. The four previous books dealt with a considerable contingent of the English stationed in the country, and the events recounted were of a much more sensational nature than those in the present book. Staying On details the final days on one of the officers who elected to “stay on” after independence rather than return home to his native country. He and his wife are the sole remaining survivors some twenty-five years later.
Following India’s independence, Colonel “Tusker” Smalley chose to live what he considered a higher standard of life in a foreign land rather than face a life of impecunious struggle on his meager pension in his homeland. The novel opens with Tusker’s death on the last Monday of April in 1972, and fills in the background of the intervening years with flashbacks throughout the rest of the novel. The reader first sees Tusker as an almost stereotyped, opinionated, stuffy, domineering old Englishman who yet manages to come across the page as a humorous, largely ineffectual relic of the past. But by the end of the book, one can at least understand, if not empathize, with his rather pathetic situation.
The character of Tusker is treated sympathetically. Although he is the butt of much of the humor in the book—his blustering and raging, his embarrassing behavior at Hindu festivals—we learn in retrospect what has made him what he is. His marriage to Lucy had not been according to protocol, since Lucy had been a working girl, a virtual disgrace for an officer’s wife. In the rigid hierarchical pecking order of the military they had always been looked down upon. There were always higher ranking officers, and Lucy’s shorthand was prized more than her company; she never seemed to receive the same treatment as the other officers’ wives. This had always been more bothersome to Lucy; Tusker had never been ambitious, in or out of the army. In his words, he “deliberately kept what nowadays they call a low profile. I wanted to be thought dull. Dull but thoroughly reliable at the desk-work officers usually affected to despise.” By this means he managed to make himself indispensable enough to keep positions he liked, and yet unobtrusive enough to be passed over for advancement. His ambition was “to survive as comfortably as possible,” and survive he did.
Tusker’s job was with an international shipping and general merchandising agency, a job which he held for ten years until he was sixty-one. At that time the company was taken over by a larger concern which planned to allow him to serve the remaining year of his contract in England. Tusker saw the offer as an ultimatum, and his pride and independent spirit prompted him to remain in India taking a small sum in compensation rather than the pension which would otherwise have come to him—a decision which never pleased Lucy, who had only been happy in another part of India. They had quickly gone through their money, largely on an extravagant trip around India, and had had to live on his small army pension and the interest on a small amount of capital he had inherited. In retrospect, their life was wasted. Only in a letter to Lucy detailing the provisions he had made for her in his will does Tusker evince a recognition of his failure in life: “I still think we were right to stay on, though I don’t think of it any longer as staying on, but just as hanging on.” He says he invested the only thing he had in India—himself, and was fool enough to expect a return on his investment. He admits to having had the “longest male menopause on record.” He ends his letter to her stating that he wishes not to discuss the matter, and that if she brings up the subject, “I’ll only say something that will hurt you. . . . It’s my nature.”
This letter is the only evidence Tusker shows of self-awareness before his demise, for he is unable to speak seriously of his affairs even to his wife. Lucy recognizes their failure to communicate and says, “at the deepest level we do not know what the other one is thinking or feeling and you might think that after forty years of marriage we could have got around to that.” But she adds that neither blames the other. One is left with the feeling that their problem is beyond their control, something that developed slowly over the years.
From the beginning the reader sympathizes with Lucy, the long-suffering wife who is reduced to little deceptions to keep the household running smoothly,...
(The entire section is 1910 words.)