Victoria’s Secret

Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet reveals how sex doomed the British Empire.

There are not as many theories about the fall of the British Empire as there once were about the eclipse of its Roman predecessor, but one of the micro theories has always appealed to me more than any of the macro explanations. And it concerns India. For the first century or so of British dominion over the subcontinent, the men of the East India Company more or less took their chances. They made and lost reputations, and established or overthrew regional domains, and their massive speculations led to gain or ruin or (as in the instance of Warren Hastings) both. Meanwhile, they were encouraged to pick up the custom of the country, acquire a bit of the lingo, and develop a taste for “native” food, but—this in a bit of a whisper—be very careful about the local women. Things in that sensitive quarter could be arranged, but only with the most exquisite discretion.

Thus the British developed a sort of modus vivendi that lasted until the trauma of 1857: the first Indian armed insurrection (still known as “the Mutiny” because it occurred among those the British had themselves trained and organized). Then came the stern rectitude of direct rule from London, replacing the improvised jollities and deal-making of “John Company,” as the old racket had come to be affectionately known. And in the wake of this came the dreaded memsahib: the wife and companion and helpmeet of the officer, the district commissioner, the civil servant, and the judge. She was unlikely to tolerate the pretty housemaid or the indulgent cook. Worse, she was herself in need of protection against even a misdirected or insolent native glance. To protect white womanhood, the British erected a wall between themselves and those they ruled. They marked off cantonments, rigidly inscribing them on the map. They built country clubs and Anglican churches where ladies could go, under strict escort, and be unmolested. They invented a telling term—chi-chi—to define, and to explain away, the number of children and indeed adults who looked as if they might have had English fathers and Indian mothers or (even more troubling) the reverse. Gradually, the British withdrew into a private and costive and repressed universe where eventually they could say, as the angry policeman Ronald Merrick does in The Day of the Scorpion, the second volume of Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet: “We don’t rule this country any more. We preside over it.”

In this anecdotal theory, the decline of the British Raj can be attributed to the subtle influence of the female, to the male need to protect her (and thus fence her in), and to the related male need to fight for her honor and to punish with exceptional severity anybody who seems to impugn it. And so we may note with interest that it took one English homosexual, and one English bisexual, to unravel the erotic ambiguities of empire. “After all,” says the district collector Turton in E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, “it’s our women who make everything more difficult out here.” And Paul Scott accepted that he had little choice but to follow the track that Forster had laid down.

I choose the word track with care, since the railway network was (apart from Lord Macaulay’s education system) the most enduring achievement of the British Raj: the most proudly flourished emblem of the unity and punctuality it brought to the nation, as well as the speediest possible method of annexing Indian capital and shipping it to the ports of Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta in order to fuel the English Industrial Revolution. The Indian railways feature by name in Bhowani Junction, one of the most gripping of John Masters’s Anglo-Indian novels, and their imagery appears to have oppressed Paul Scott. According to Scott’s brilliant biographer Hilary Spurling, whose introduction to this handsome two-volume Everyman edition is a jewel in itself, Scott felt that “Forster loomed over literary India like a train terminus beyond which no other novelist could be permitted to travel by the critics.” When Scott deliberately chose a rape as his central event—as it had been in Forster’s Passage—we can see that he ultimately resolved to face the comparison and attempt to transcend it. To borrow the language of “cultural studies,” he did so by exploring the interactions of race, class, and gender, as Orwell had tried to do in Burmese Days, while not forgetting the politics.

In the last of Scott’s tetralogy (A Division of the Spoils), we meet a certain Captain Purvis, who represents the new, brusque British postwar consensus about India, namely that it was and is

“a wasted asset, a place irrevocably ruined by the interaction of a conservative and tradition-bound population and an indolent bone-headed and utterly uneducated administration, an elitist bureaucracy so out of touch with the social and economic thinking of even just the past hundred years that you honestly wonder where they’ve come from … The most sensible thing for us to do is get rid of it fast to the first bidder before it becomes an intolerable burden.”

This no doubt partly represents Scott’s own view, or the view he took as a liberal-minded young officer watching the scenery being dismantled after the defeat of Japan and before the division of the spoils into India and Pakistan. It was obviously high time for the British to leave. Yet there is one last train to be caught, the one stopped in the desert in 1947 by a Hindu mob, who drag a Muslim from the carriage and do him to death beside the tracks. The train resumes its journey, bearing its complement of British officials away from the distressing scene. Sergeant Guy Perron, who has listened to Purvis’s rational rant and who has quarrels of his own with the authorities (and whom I think we are to see as the Scott figure in the story), is hit hard as he watches the former rulers make good their escape, and finds something unpleasantly “greasy and evasive” in the snaking movement of the train that carries them away. The ensuing awful bloodbath of partition took place principally at the railway stations and on the trains, but by then the British could claim that they had washed their hands rather than stained them.

Presented by

Christopher Hitchens was an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

An Ingenious 360-Degree Time-Lapse

Watch the world become a cartoonishly small playground

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

Video

The Rise of the Cat Tattoo

How a Brooklyn tattoo artist popularized the "cattoo"

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In