Grimms Tales in the Raj

The first book we will be discussing at our forthcoming Summer School is Paul Scott’s Booker winning novel, Staying On, which concerns the Smalleys, an English couple, who have remained in India after Independence.  They feature very briefly in Scott’s earlier sequence of books collectively known as The Raj Quartet and some of the more central characters from those books make brief appearances in the later one. However, much as I would have liked to, I haven’t had the time to re-read those highly complex novels.  Instead I have had to ‘make-do’ with the next best thing and enjoy a nightly feast of entertainment as I’ve worked my way through the Thames Television adaptation,which took its title from the first of the four books, The Jewel in the Crown.

Initially, my principal reaction was just how well the serialisation had held up.  People with more technical know-how might recognise it as almost thirty years old, I don’t know, but as far as I was concerned, simply as a viewer it is as good as anything we would find on our screens today.  It is, inevitably, less complex than the books.  Scott’s way of working with time would not translate easily to a fifteen hour format with a week between each episode, although there is some use of flashback.  Nevertheless, I think it is remarkably true to the spirit of the original.  But, what has changed over time is my reaction to the events portrayed and the characters concerned.

I still loathe Ronald Merrick with all of my being.  In part, of course, this is due to the magnificent performance given by Tim Piggot-Smith, a performance which I think has, to a large extent, defined his career. I have no idea how he feels about the experience, but I would have thought being so closely associated with the part must have been something of a double-edged sword.  I know I can’t see him on stage or on screen without the ghost of Merrick informing the way I interpret the character he is playing.  It even hovers around him at poetry readings, adding a sinister inflection to the most tender of love poems.   However, this time round I find I have at least some understanding of what motivates the man.  I think particularly of a scene where Col. Layton, having just returned from POW camp in Germany, has been met by his daughter Sarah and Merrick.  Into the picture walks the heart-stopping Charles Dance as Guy Perron, an all round goodie I should say, for those who haven’t read the books.  None of them know Guy, he has no call on them, unlike Merrick who, whatever his motivation, has been around when help was needed, but it is Guy that Col. Layton (another good egg) immediately warms to and begins to bond with.  Why?  They went to the same school, dear old Chillingborough.  I hadn’t noticed this before.  Or if I had I’d put it down to the fact that anyone with any sense would prefer Perron.  But there is more to it than that.  It is the recognition by one man of another from the same tribe and by implication the ostracism of the outsider.  I don’t like Merrick, but I do begin to understand.

This shift in my perspective has led to more positive reassessments as well though.  For example, I am far more aware of the dilemma in which Sarah Layton finds herself.  Sarah, probably the most self-aware and self-critical character in the novels, used to annoy me to a certain extent.  She clearly knew that the British were finished in India and that she was going to have to return to England, but equally it was obvious that she had not only the financial wherewithal, but also the intellectual ability to make a place for herself there.  Why then was she so uncertain of what she wanted and what returning home might mean?

Well that’s just it Sarah is self-aware and she has the intellectual capacity to realise that she is at a point of what Prof Rabkin, talking about the Grimms’ Tales I’ve been studying this week in another place and for another purpose, calls ‘temporal disjunct’.  He speaks of the Brothers trying to reach back to a time before the Germany they knew, a Germany consisting of small disjointed city states, to a Germany that culturally could rival the purity and antiquity of Ancient Greece and Rome.  They are trying to rediscover the culture that they believed existed as part of their country’s discontinuous past.

The point of temporal disjunct which brings into being that discontinuity is a moment at which something occurs that means your life will never be the same again.  On a personal level that might be something instantaneous, such as a birth or a death, but where a country is concerned it is likely to be a much longer process.  Certainly in India’s case it would have to be seen to date from at least the Indian Mutiny, and, although many would assume that it would come to a resolution with Independence, it might well be argued that following partition it is still on-going.  For many of the British in India at the time in which the sequence is set their own temporal disjunct is bound up with that of the country and Sarah is aware enough to recognise this.  Unfairly, I expected her to be able to make a leap from one life to the next without really appreciating the tension and uncertainty of being caught in that long drawn out moment.  I’m glad to find that I have more sympathy with and understanding of her position now.

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8 thoughts on “Grimms Tales in the Raj

  1. Hmm. It’s interesting how you made to connection between the “temporal disjunct” of two different stories. I love how things like that pop out when you’re thinking about them…often these are things I wouldn’t notice until they are pointed out in another context. 🙂

    1. Rachel, this is what I enjoy most about any form of learning, the moment when two things that you would never for a moment have thought of linking come together and illuminate each other. I think it is the most exciting aspect of study.

  2. Alas, I know what you mean about Tim Piggot-Smith. I loved that series, and he looked the epitome of my idea of Ronald Merrick. I also loved Geraldine James.

    I did read Staying On years ago, but I think I may by now have jumbled it up with two of Jane Gardam’s book, Old Filth and the sequel.

    I reread The Jewel in the Crown a few years ago, but didn’t go on to the other books. I should get them out again!

    1. It seems so unfair, Frisbee. TP-S was at Stratford for a couple of seasons before the serialisation (as were Charles Dance, Alan Rickman and Ian Charleson, now that was a heart-stopping combination!) but I hardly remember what he did because it has been swamped by Merrick. And yes I would agree with you about Geraldine James. I’m only sorry that I’ve never had the chance to see her on stage.

  3. I remember Jewel in the Crown being broadcast but I was too young at the time to be allowed to watch it – I’d love to catch up with it if it’s stood the test of time. I was going to say that we so rarely have those long-running adaptations of classics on the television, but then I remembered Downton Abbey, which isn’t quite an adaptation, but similar in scale. I don’t like the way that adapatations tend to be squeezed into two or three episodes these days, which I guess is necessary for budget constraints but means a plot point per cut scene, which I find hopelessly confusing!

    1. You would easily pick up a copy of the DVDs. But you’re right about the squeezed quality of many adaptations these days and I certainly can’t see anyone being willing to put out the money that must have been spent on ‘The Jewel in the Crown’. I certainly wouldn’t see that as squeezed, but it is ‘rearranged’. Scott works very much with flashbacks and juxtaposing relevant elements from different parts of the story. This is much more a chronological presentation.

  4. What an interesting discussion! I recently rounded up all the volumes in the Raj Quartet: you’ve bumped them up on my TBR list.

    1. I think you’ll really appreciate these, Rowan. The novels are more complex than the television adaptation would lead you to expect and they throw up some very interesting juxtapositions that force you to think about the real cultural conflicts going on which are nowhere near as clear cut as it would be easy to make them seem.

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