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Images of Rape and Buggery: Paul Scott's View of the Dual Evils of Empire

By Haswell, Janis E. | Studies in the Novel, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Images of Rape and Buggery: Paul Scott's View of the Dual Evils of Empire


Haswell, Janis E., Studies in the Novel


Over the course of twenty-five years, from 1952 to 1977, Paul Scott published eleven novels that deal with Imperial England. Building on firsthand experience of the Raj while stationed in India during World War II, on subsequent visits to India, and on research of primary documents as well as histories, Scott dedicated himself to unraveling the enigma of those two conflicting yet related ideologies-patriarchal imperialism and liberal humanism-that mark the Raj experience. Yet Scott's Raj Quartet has been criticized for hearkening back to the rhetoric of Commonwealth literature and reromanticizing the "white man's burden." His vehicle, so the accusation goes, is his rape script that unifies the sequence of the four novels. However, a careful examination of his depiction of sexual and racial violence reveals that Scott's use of rape and buggery is far from stereotypical, and his purpose more complex than a nostalgic longing for irretrievable grandeur.

Salman Rushdie, Jenny Sharpe, and M. Keith Booker(1) see Scott as fueling the rise of Raj revisionism in the 1970s and 80s, when conservative members of Parliament like Enoch Powell advocated severe limits on immigration from former colonies. For Booker, Scott's novels show a degree of longing for bygone days (p. 120). This "Raj nostalgia," Sharpe argues, marks "a mourning for the loss of empire that masquerades as self-criticism, a resurrection of the civilizing mission from its ashes" (p. 144). Does Scott in fact help to generate "the artistic counterpart to the rise of conservative ideologies in modern Britain" (Rushdie, p. 130)? Certainly it is apost hoc fallacy to suggest that Scott (who died in 1978) actually cashed in on the movie boom of the 1980s, when David Lean filmed Gandhi and Granada Television produced The Jewel in the Crown. Scott published his first novel, Johnnie Sahib, in 1952. Six of the eight novels published before the first volume of the Quartet in 1964 deal with the British imperial experience in some way, twenty to thirty years before such projects were popular or profitable.

Not only does Scott's attention and his writing pre-date any renewed interest in the Raj, his novels were themselves marginalized by the artistic, cultural, and political mood of the 1950s and 60s. The reason, he believed, was "a kind of MIASMA ... an infectious or noxious emanation"(2) that enveloped the English during the post-war years after Indian Independence in 1947. They wanted only to forget that imperial experience, to put it and the moral quandary it represented behind them. As Scott points out, "when things are going badly, British insularity quickly promotes a passionate belief in the efficacy of everybody looking after his own" (Muse, p. 94), which helps explain the reactionary, conservative caps on immigration into England from the former colonies of the empire.

But the subject that the English didn't want to face was for Scott precisely the subject they needed to face if they were to achieve the self-knowledge necessary to break out of such insular blindness. He believed that "India ... [is] the place where the British came to the end of themselves as they were" (p. 48) and so entered into "territorial fragmentation and dangerous racial memory" (p. 31). According to Scott, the 1950s and 60s were a period of disenchantment, and age of an "uncharitable" and restive culture "because our old reforming impulses bore fruits that turned out sour" (p. 37). A fissure developed between their self-image and their reality: "Free and broad of speech, mean of heart. Radical in protestation, reactionary in performance. Active in thought, lazy in habit. Satirical in style, pedagogic in manner. Tolerant on the surface, violently disposed underneath." The English were "alive enough to know that they are not living, but pondering, seeking new definitions of almost every aspect of human exchange."

The reception of Scott's novels bears out this perception of post-war England.

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Images of Rape and Buggery: Paul Scott's View of the Dual Evils of Empire
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