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.

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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