Behind Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet: A Life in Letters, Volumes I & II

by Paul Scott, collected and edited by Janis Haswell

reviewed by Laura Albritton

Volume I: The Early Years (1940–1965)
Volume II: The Quartet and Beyond (1966–1978)

English author Paul Scott is justifiably most renowned for The Raj Quartet, four works that examine the British Raj in India through the spectrum of English and Indian characters. Despite their critics (including Salman Rushdie), The Jewel in the Crown, The Day of the Scorpion, The Towers of Silence, and The Division of the Spoils are some of the twentieth century’s most sensitive and intimate explorations of cultural encounters in a colonial context. From his portrait of Mohammed Ali Kasim, the Muslim politician, to Sarah Layton, the unconventional colonel’s daughter, Paul Scott created complex, riveting personae and indelible narratives. Years before Edward Said published Orientalism Scott was dissecting how the British had projected a fantasy both of themselves and of India upon the reality of the subcontinent.

Forty-six years after The Jewel in the Crown was published it is still in print, yet Scott remains to an extent an underappreciated writer. Hilary Spurling’s 1991 biography of Scott painted a picture of a gloomy life and a somewhat unremarkable man beset by frustration and alcoholism. That biography, while well-researched, left one puzzled as to how Scott could have written novels of such emotional and political perspicacity. Janis Haswell’s two-volume collection of Scott’s letters brings new and welcome insight into the man and the artist.

Haswell, a professor of English at Texas A&M Corpus Christi, has excellent introductions to each section of letters, which provide indispensable context and background. These passages, along with timelines and endnotes at the close of each section, will prove helpful to scholars and will also assist the general reader in keeping track of events and the many individuals involved. It is clear that Haswell admires Scott both for his talent and his tenacity, and her commentary is sympathetic. She does not whitewash his shortcomings or struggles, however. Vis-à-vis his relationship with his wife, Haswell notes, “He deliberately effaced any signs of marital tension (or its causes) in his letters.” And elsewhere: “It is tragically ironic that Scott as a novelist could read the hearts of his female characters, but as a husband he could not, in their later years, communicate with his wife.”

Volume I, The Early Years (1940–1965) covers the period in which Scott served in the army in India, married, worked as a literary agent, and published a number of novels. Scott alludes to his homosexuality—a fact with which Haswell believes him to have been relatively at peace (unlike his biographer, Spurling, who has another interpretation). As early as 1941, Scott declared, “I mean & intend to become a great artist if I possibly can be.” That qualification (“if I possibly can”) reflects the challenging circumstances of Scott’s life. Unlike The Raj Quartet’s patrician characters, Scott did not hail from the upper class and was forced by family finances to leave school at the age of fourteen. He first trained as an accountant before becoming a literary agent.

In a letter to John Blofeld, Scott writes, “I wish I could paint a brighter picture of the economics of writing for a living! . . . It would be reasonable to say, though, that establishing a reputation—and having an income (although the two do not necessarily go hand in hand!)—is a slow job; and it would be more reasonable still to say that few writers can afford to be ‘professional’ in the full sense of the word.” These lines would turn out to be prophetic. One constant theme that stretches through both volumes is Scott’s anxiety over his finances, which were always a terrible source of worry. Many of the letters from his literary agency period are slow going. They are businesslike, detailed, sometimes defensive, concerned with payments for clients or his own fiction, and not especially gripping reading. While there is material here that will interest Scott scholars, the general reader may be tempted to skim swaths of Volume I (a temptation this reviewer resisted).

What does emerge in the early letters, however, is a sensitive man who swings between confidence and insecurity. He can be an energetic, passionate correspondent, as when he writes to author E. M. Almedingen, “Chris, dear, in the end one realises one’s friends are one’s friends because it is only with them that you can speak the language you’re born with. . . . Your letter meant so much to me. Perhaps you did not know that, underneath that rather bland agency face I was a mess of wretchedness, far more tender than perhaps I looked.” The primary personal revelation of Volume I is Scott’s capacity for friendship, and his genuine engagement—at least on the page—with other people.

His struggle as a writer, as documented in the letters, was profound; none of his pre-Raj novels, such as The Chinese Love Pavilion, The Birds of Paradise, and The Corrida at San Feliu, did especially well. Over these years he dedicated himself to certain types of characters and themes but there was something missing, which at moments even Scott sensed. (He refers to a “membrane” that holds his work back.) The fact that his earlier novels are largely forgotten while his later four continue to be read suggests that it took Scott years to develop as a novelist.

Readers who love and admire The Raj Quartet will find Volume I something of a disappointment. Only towards the end of the book, when Scott arranges in 1964 to revisit India in hopes of inspiring his next novel, does the correspondence become consuming; the narrative arc becomes stronger and clearer, and we finally see the writer react to India itself. At one point he arranged to spend two weeks in the countryside with a former Indian havildar of very modest means who served under him during World War II. Scott imagines it will be a pastoral idyll (he enjoyed staying in India with middle- and upper-class Indians). But he had not accounted for the hardships of visiting a lower-income, rural family and the reality of living in taxing physical conditions—particularly as regards to running water, toilets, and hygiene—hit him hard. “Flies, heat, boredom, apprehension, homesickness,” he writes to his wife Penny, adding, “It’s a good reminder, too, of the reason why the English always made themselves v. comfortable & would have no truck with ‘customs.’” He relies on a stash of gin to get him through days of living and eating alone (which the Indian family insist on due to his “status”) in hot, uncomfortable surroundings, being stared at constantly, and enduring digestive complaints that require him to make the long trek across fields to use the one toilet. After he finally invents an excuse to leave early, he is enormously relieved.

Nevertheless this experience—of being catered to by an entire family and yet being so miserable physically—serves as a catalyst for the novels to come. He remembers what it is to wear his “Sahib’s face,” and finds that a deeply disturbing experience. While some, including Rushdie, have criticized Scott for his Orientalist point of view, he is extremely sensitive to the issue of racial prejudice. During his trip in India, he notes, “He [an English friend] had two frightful examples of the new English memsahib visiting. The air was icy, with me, too, because I came with Indians. It made my blood boil. You have to see this kind of thing to believe that it is possible.” Scott’s sympathies and friendships with Indians and his hatred of colonial and neo-colonial superiority make his experience at his former havildar’s home all the more upsetting to him. Many of the themes of the Quartet can be traced to this experience, including Hari Kumar’s discomfort when forced to leave England and reside with his penurious aunt in India. Scott’s accomplishment was in depicting not only intersections of race, but also race and class.

Volume II, The Quartet and Beyond (1966–1978) is of far greater interest to the general reader. Here we learn of many real-life inspirations for characters in The Raj Quartet, as Scott admits. “Of course some of the stuff has been fictionalized out of ordinary recognition in The Jewel in the Crown: Daphne Manner’s visit to the Vaishnavite Temple, Robin White, as a young man, being shaved by the nai, with water and razor only, and finding a flower in the pommel of his saddle after his unpleasant night in the mud hut.”

Scott also discusses some of the challenges of writing: “I do not have any theory about it (the Novel), only a problem which is resolved in a theory about each novel as I come to write it. It is a question of attempting always to bite off more than you have yet proved to yourself you can chew . . . For myself, the act of writing a novel is an act of asking questions, not answering them. My curiosity is more valuable to me than are my transient assumptions.” We learn more of how he disliked being compared to Kipling and particularly Forster (whose Passage to India he found lacking in depth). Some of the research he conducted, into the Indian National Army for example, which worked with the Japanese in World War II, is revealed to be quite extensive. The portrait of the man also becomes fuller in Volume II. We read Scott’s letters to his two daughters and learn of his paternal concern and affection. Conscious of the need to support himself and his family, he begins to approach contacts about working in publishing once again.

The first novels of The Raj Quartet were received respectfully but quietly and did not bring the lifelong vindication he hoped for, yet it seems clear that Scott knew he was producing the best work of his life. In many ways, the letters show that Scott’s problem was that he was never a critical darling. He was neither an enfant terrible nor a radical innovator; one gets the sense that the establishment’s regard for him was mild, and that when finally he produced exceptional literature, it continued to view him as an unexceptional, middle-class, mid-list worker bee. His writing life was long on struggle and short on thrills. On a 1972 trip to India, he writes his wife Penny, “My room here has 2 beds, 2 wardrobes, dressing table, writing desk, sofa, 2 armchairs, several coffee tables & a refrigerator that is kept stocked with boiled drinking water. Also bathroom. So you can imagine it is quite large! It also has six large windows. Excellent & cheap laundry service, so have no smalls problem.” One can’t imagine his contemporary Kingsley Amis writing home about the laundry service. Yet it is just this care and concern about the ordinary domestic side of life that allowed Scott to explore territory that many male writers missed; for example, when he has Sarah Layton’s mother Mildred discover her daughter’s pregnancy by noticing that she has not used her allotment of sanitary napkins for months.

As the last of the Raj novels begin to attract their due, Scott was asked by the University of Tulsa to be a writer-in-residence. His relief and gratitude for the $12,000 they offer him is almost heartbreaking. (In fact, he was at times more appreciated in the States than at home: the University of Texas at Austin provided Scott with much-needed income by purchasing his manuscripts. The University of Tulsa later purchased his correspondence.) He begins a short novel, Staying On, based on two minor characters from The Raj Quartet, about a British couple who remain in India after independence. With its publication the establishment acknowledges Scott at last; he wins, to his immense delight, the Booker Prize. Based on letters to his daughters and others, one gets a sense that finally he enjoys the late success and feels a true sense of accomplishment. But, as if Fate were playing a joke in very poor taste, he is stricken with terminal cancer. Back in the U.K., he is cared for by his wife, Penny, with whom he has reconciled, and dies in 1978.

Haswell has done much to perpetuate scholarly interest in Scott by publishing these two volumes. For readers who are not scholars, the end of Volume I and much of Volume II will be of greatest interest. One is left with an impression of how much actual labor and difficulty were required to craft four of the last century’s enduring literary works; it is impossible not to be struck by how much sacrifice Scott made for his art. And one also comes away with an appreciation of how literary fads, snobbery, and political correctness can cause a writer to be overlooked and underappreciated. The Booker committee awarded the prize for Staying On, which is a beautifully crafted novella, but it overlooked the true masterpiece, The Raj Quartet. Scott’s vindication is that readers continue to embrace the four novels today. If anything, there remains more to be written about him and his work. One hopes that Haswell, or someone inspired by Behind Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, will produce a book for the general reading public about the genesis of the Quartet and its characters.

Published on October 10, 2013