Book Review Of A Passage Of India By E.M Forster Paul Scott and The Raj Quartet

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Paul Scott and The Raj Quartet

Paul Mark Scott was not widely known as a writer until almost the end of his life. Staying On received the Booker Prize in 1977; then a TV adaptation of The Raj Quartet in 1984 ensured the author’s posthumous fame.

Scott was stationed in India and Malaya from 1943 to 1946, which is roughly the period covered by The Jewel in the Crown (1966), The Day of the Scorpion (1968), The Towers of Silence (1971), and A Division of the Spoils (1975). The sequence of novels ends with Indian independence in July 1947 when most of the surviving British characters return to England: though, Staying On (1977) concerns an ageing British couple who have lived all their lives in India and have no other home and nowhere else to go.

Paul Scott was born in Palmers Green, London, where his father worked at home, drawing adverts for clothes magazines, and his mother was a shop assistant. The family was always hard up and Paul left school at 16 to get a job and bring some money home. While articled to a bookkeeper he met Gerald Armstrong, an estate agent, and became his lover. Armstrong introduced him to the works of Oscar Wilde, which remained a memorable influence, and encouraged him to write poetry. E. M. Forster was also on his reading list.

Scot joined the army as a private soldier soon after the start of World War II and became a supply clerk, serving in India and Malaya and travelling through Burma. Before going abroad, he married Penny Avery, a nurse, who had literary aspirations and for whom he wrote poems. Shortly after arrival in India he contracted a persistent form of dysentery which was to dog him for twenty years. His irritable and moody behaviour has been attributed to this complaint, though drink was a contributory factor. His best writing was completed only after the disease was finally diagnosed and cured in 1964, though he continued to drink.

Scott tried his hand at writing plays in London and won a prize in a Jewish playwriting competition. After demobilisation he worked as an accounts clerk for a printing firm then moved to a literary agency where he combined the editing of others’ prose works with the writing of his own. His first novel Johnnie Sahib did not find a publisher until 1952 but it gained the Eyre & Spottiswoode Literary Fellowship Prize shortly afterwards. From 1960 he was a full-time writer – often shutting himself away for days while working on a draft.

‘This is a story of a rape, of the events that led up to it and followed it and of the place in which it happened.’ [from The Jewel in the Crown]. From the opening of The Raj Quartet, we understand that the subject is rape; but not in the manner of Forster’s A Passage To India. The subject is pillage and despoliation and colonial angst. Salman Rushdie complained that The Raj Quartet is a portrayal and perpetuation of colonial myth. Paul Scott would have countered by saying that he tried to show the viewpoint of people living at that time.

Recognition came slowly. In his last years he lived in Hampstead and travelled to Oklahoma where he was visiting writer for two semesters at the University of Tulsa.

His wife left him after one of his drunken rages and sought refuge in a Women’s Shelter. By the date of the Booker Award he was dying of cancer and cirrhosis of the liver.

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