- Paul Scott: A Life of the Author of The Raj Quartet
"Wouldn't it be marvellous, though, if some producer decided to make a film of the Jewel?" wrote Paul Scott in 1966 upon the publication of The Jewel in the Crown, the first of the four novels comprising the Raj Quartet, which dramatizes the turbulent last years of the British in India. Although commercial and critical success eluded him during his lifetime, Scott's wish was fulfilled five years after his death. In 1983, Britain's Granada Television serialized the Quartet as the vastly popular series, "The Jewel in the Crown," which was shown in over seventy [End Page 794] countries and won Scott an international readership of millions. Concurrent with the commercial triumphs was a burgeoning of Scott scholarship in the 1980s. And now Hilary Spurling has written the first literary biography of Scott, motivated perhaps by the recent acclaim of the Raj Quartet (as the subtitle of her volume indicates) and indirectly spurred by what Salman Rushdie terms the recrudescence in modern Britain of "Empire-revivalism."
Quoting Scott's view of the impossibility of objectivity and historical veracity in biography writing, Spurling admits in her Preface to Paul Scott that "[her] judgment was entered before [she] began": her very choice of subject betokened an empathy with the life she was to narrate. Neglecting recent ideological commentary upon Scott's works—his underlying "orientalism" despite his protestations to the contrary; his recourse to racial stereotypes and cliches; his foregrounding of Britishers' narratives at the expense of stories of Indians in books set in India—and ignoring the larger postcolonial debate regarding the effects of "benign" racism such as Scott's, Spurling reads the latter's poems, plays, essays, and novels strictly from the inside, from within the middle-class British milieu that engendered them. Although her political and critical judgments of Scott may thus be faulted for being partial, Spurling's skill as a biographer in sympathetically reconstructing Scott's life as a man and writer is unquestionable.
Her keen eye for detail, her narrative fluency, and her psychological perspicacity and tact, combined with her meticulous and extensive research, make Spurling an exceptional biographer. Traveling not only in England but also to India, Tasmania, and the United States in search for her material, she draws upon Scott's published works, correspondence, and collected papers and upon conversations with his family, friends, literary and business associates, and students to create a riveting narrative about the writer and his age. Investigating the reasons for the neglect of Scott's work during his lifetime, Spurling uncovers among the postwar British a resistance to admitting the end of their Indian raj and the decline of the Empire more generally, twin themes that occupied Scott throughout his career. The lack of recognition, Spurling establishes, compounded by a troubled personal history created an intensely divided and tormented man. Scott's all-consuming literary ambition conflicted with his job as an accountant and later as a literary agent, but once he undertook writing full time, he was faced with penury. Torn between his domineering, possessive mother and his self-effacing, sensitive wife, he was under additional stress as he struggled to reconcile his homoeroticism with his life as a family man. But perhaps his greatest, and psychologically most debilitating, challenge was to accommodate his literary daemon to an intransigent reading public. Faced with repeated failures in his personal and professional life alike, Scott turned to drink, to violent self-hatred, and to psychological abuse of his wife and two daughters.
Although Spurling's biography can be read as the archetypal artist's story—that of obsessive commitment to art exacting a heavy toll on private life—Paul Scott is of particular interest, I believe, to three groups of readers. To those smitten by the Raj Quartet, Spurling's book provides a rich hunting ground for locating real-life correspondences for fictional characters ; to those seeking a portrait of mid-twentieth-century literary Britain, her work offers a wealth...