Victoria’s Secret

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

Scott’s work on India, which is really a quintet given the coda Staying On, is tense and beautiful in a way that Forster’s is not, because it understands that Fabian utilitarianism has its limits, too. The novels also possess a dimension of historical irony, because they understand that the British stayed too long and left too soon. The date on which it became evident that the game was up is a date that every Indian still knows: April 13, 1919. Maddened by a report of a mob attack on (yes, it had to be) an Englishwoman, Brigadier General Reginald Dyer ordered his soldiers to fire into a crowd in the public square in the northern city of Amritsar. That event was the Boston Massacre or the Lexington and Concord of the Indian revolution. From then on, it was a matter not of whether the British would quit, but of when. Scott understands this so well that he makes the name of that Amritsar square—Jallianwallah—a totem that recurs throughout the books.

But there remains a question of, if you like, etiquette. How exactly do you behave when you want to leave and know you have to leave but don’t want to do so in an unseemly rush? Moreover, how do you conduct yourself when Japanese imperialism makes a sudden bid for mastery in Asia, which means that British rule will be succeeded not by English-trained Indian democrats and liberals, but by Hirohito’s Co-Prosperity Sphere? These are difficulties that Forster never had to confront. (The Amritsar events took place years after the visit to India that inspired his landmark novel.) Scott’s account begins at the precise moment, in 1942, when the British have made the grotesque mistake of declaring war on India’s behalf, without consultation, and when Mahatma Gandhi has announced that they must “quit India” and leave her “to god or to anarchy” (in the circumstances of growing Hindu-Muslim fratricide, something of a false antithesis). Depressed by Gandhi’s failure to take the Japanese threat seriously, the old missionary lady Edwina Crane removes his picture from her wall, revealing:

The upright oblong patch of paler distemper, all that was left to Miss Crane of the Mahatma’s spectacled, smiling image, the image of a man she had put her faith in which she had now transferred to Mr Nehru and Mr Rajagopalachari who obviously understood the different degrees of tyranny men could exercise and, if there had to be a preference, probably preferred to live a while longer with the imperial degree in order not only to avoid submitting to but to resist the totalitarian.

And of course it is Miss Crane, trying to help, who is viciously manhandled by the rioters. And of course it is Daphne Manners, the gawky girl who defies convention so much as to have an affair with an Indian boy, who is gang-raped during the same disorders. Adela Quested in A Passage to India is making up her hysterical allegation about what happened in the Marabar caves, but Daphne is so eager to shield her genuine Indian lover that she refuses to testify about the real rapists who came upon them when they were lying together. And the boyfriend, who is charged with the rape and sent to prison, is himself sexually assaulted by Ronald Merrick during the course of his interrogation. Forster never dared attempt this level of complexity, or indeed of realism.

The ramifications of a small but cruel injustice allow Scott to test the whole fabric of decaying British India. Gradually, we come to understand that the British have betrayed their own promise— of impartial, unifying, and modernizing administration—and are resorting to divide-and-rule tactics. These are best described by Daphne’s boyfriend, Hari Kumar, who notices

the extent to which the English now seem to depend upon the divisions in Indian political opinion perpetuating their own rule at least until after the war … They prefer Muslims to Hindus (because of the closer affinity that exists between God and Allah than exists between God and the Brahma), are constitutionally predisposed to Indian princes, emotionally affected by the thought of untouchables, and mad keen about the peasants who look on any Raj as God.

Poor Daphne, less political and more intuitive, sees where things have gone wrong in a different way:

Perhaps at one time there was a moral as well as a physical force at work. But the moral thing had gone sour. Has gone sour. Our faces reflect the sourness. The women look worse than the men because consciousness of physical superiority is unnatural to us. A white man in India can feel physically superior without unsexing himself. But what happens to a woman if she tells herself that ninety-nine per cent of the men she sees are not men at all, but creatures of an inferior species whose color is their main distinguishing mark?

Daphne’s great-aunt, Lady Ethel Manners, the widow of a former governor, is outraged by Lord Mountbatten’s hasty agreement to partition:

The creation of Pakistan is our crowning failure. I can’t bear it … Our only justification for two hundred years of power was unification. But we’ve divided one composite nation into two.

The Raj Quartet, as these excerpts help to make plain, is not so much about India as it is about the British. To understand how they betrayed their own mission in the subcontinent is to understand, in Scott’s words, how “in Ranpur, and in places like Ranpur, the British came to the end of themselves as they were.”

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Christopher Hitchens is 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.

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