Kathleen Erickson - Vice President
Published December 1, 1991 | December 1991 issue
By Hilary Spurling
W.W. Norton & Co.
Imperialist empires have been rising and falling since the beginning of civilization. Perhaps what will distinguish the fallen empires of the 20th century is that it seems unlikely theyor others in their placewill rise again. It is as if the 20th century has seen the end not only of its historical share of fallen empires, but the end of the very concept of empire and imperialism.
How does this happen? How does a political structure that has endured centuries and been the modus operandi of nations as culturally diverse as Imperial Rome and Victorian England and even (although Lenin would certainly deny it) the Communist Bloc, cease to be?
As vast as the causes of such a phenomenon must be and as extraordinary as the end of imperialism is in its impact on governments, military organization and national economiesits most poignant effect is at the level of day-to-day human experience. And to understand the impact of the end of imperialism, from the individual perspective, one could do no better than to read Paul Scott's Raj Quartet: four novels that tell the story of the end of British rule in India.
But to read the Raj Quartetpublished (1966-1975) just a generation after the fall of the British Rajis to wonder at Paul Scott's vision. Hilary Spurling's Paul Scott: A Life of the Author of the Raj Quartet answers many questions Raj readers are likely to have regarding Scott.
Paul Scott was born in 1920, the son of a mother and father whose positions within the English class system were tenuous, at best. Paul's father was a commercial artist, descended from a line only marginally secure within a society which, as Spurling notes, could cast out a family guilty of no greater an infraction than taking meals in the kitchen. His mother's antecedents were even less secure; she knew real hardship as a child, and her marriage represented a step up the social ladder.
The worldwide depression of the 1930s weakened the rung of the ladder to which young Paul's family clung, and when his father's business in suburban London provided too little income to support Paul's continued education, he took work as a junior clerk in an accountancy firm. This was a bitter experience for Scott; he had aspired from an early age to a future in the arts, and this Dickensian turn of events darkened his world view in a manner that was to stay with himand influence his writingfor the rest of his life. It also established another life-long pattern: the tension between being a breadwinner and an artist.
History intervened in Paul's life again with the advent of the Second World War. Most significantly, for Scott and his readers, the war took him to India, where Scott observed "...a society so hidebound and ingrown that it treated the imminent collapse of Western civilization as an unwarranted intrusion on its own comfort."
Particularly, we understand from Spurling's biography how Scott came to see what the end of empire and imperialism means, in human terms, to both the rulers and the ruled. Spurling relates an experience Scott had at an airport in Malaya, where he met an elderly Englishwoman who had been in a Japanese prison camp. Scott offered to carry her bag onto their plane, and Spurling quotes Scott's retelling of the woman's refusal: "No, no. It's because people like me always had our bags carried for us that what happened to us happened."
What isn't clear from Spurling's biography is how Scott rose above his upbringing and family precedents to become the post-imperialist man who wrote the Raj Quartet. To what forces did Scott owe his character?
The facts Spurling presents about Scott's background suggest that Scott's character owed nothing to time, place or birth. Spurling does, in her analysis of the complexity of Scott's character, provide a clue as to the development of his conscience. It would seem that the psychological process by which negative forcesin Scott's case guilt and fearfossilize into something hard and fine, was very much the source of Paul Scott's personal virtues. Spurling lays Scott's guilt at the door of his [ultimately] suppressed homosexuality, while his fear flows from the financial insecurity of his youth that continued throughout his adult life. In turn, his humility about his own shortcomings caused him to be tolerant where others were concerned. He became a true aristocrat, judging individual merit on such species-sustaining and culture-indifferent qualities as intelligence, wit, compassion and talent.
Scott's ability to be compassionate at the individual levelto see the personal tragedy of a "memsahib" reduced to carrying her own luggage late in lifeat the same time he could personally despise and professionally savage the class system that produced such a womanwas critical to the depth of characterization he achieves in the Raj Quartet. Only an author who knew from personal experience how mixed is any one individual's goodness or evil, could create heroes as human and villains as capable of provoking sympathy as are the heroes and villains of the Raj Quartet. That Scott embodied essential elements of himself in the two principal male heroes in the Raj as well as in the Quartet's principal villain (perhaps the most finely drawn villain in English literature), is a monumental tribute to Scott's fundamental understanding and love of the human condition.
Scott's death in 1978 came at a time when both his personal and professional lives were achieving something almost like equilibrium. He died of cirrhosis of the liver and colon cancer, not surprising when one considers that by Scott's own reckoning his normal daily consumption of alcohol and cigarettes was a quart of vodka and 60 to 80 cigarettes.
Spurling closes her life of Paul Scott by quoting Scott in saying, "The major problem...in fact and fiction, past and present, was the actual business...of living with other people." It was Scott's natural ability to approach a resolution of the problems of living with other people without carrying a jot about their race, gender, or class that makes him a natural citizen in the post-imperial age.