Review: Staying On – Paul Scott
Staying On is a quiet coda to the more epic approach Paul Scott took in his Raj Quartet series in which he depicts the final stages of the collapse of imperialism in India and the birth of a new independent nation. It’s a process that Scott once described as ‘the British coming to the end of themselves as they were’. For many of the key figures in the quartet, the new order did indeed force them to question their own attitudes and beliefs. Only a few chose to remain once they were no longer in charge of the country.
With Staying On, Scott moves us forward 20 years after India’s independence. The action is located in the same small hill town of Pankot that featured in the earlier novels and makes reference to some of the same buildings and areas. He introduces several new characters (both Indian and British ) but he makes a few others reappear — most notably two of the minor characters from the Quartet – Tusker and Lucy Smalley. The last British couple remaining in Pankot, their world has shrunk as their fortunes have declined. Tusker’s retirement from the British Indian Army and his subsequent career in administration for a maharaja have left them with limited funds which have been further eroded it transpires, by a stint of gambling.
By the time we meet them they are living in straightened circumstances in the Lodge, a small annex of Smith’s Hotel which was once the town’s principal hotel but is now overshadowed by the brash new Shiraz Hotel. The Smalleys, like Smith’s Hotel, are adrift in the new India. They try desperately to cling to the old order with its esteemed values of the family and tradition and its strict codes of behavour. But such currency no longer matters in the new India, in which its the entrepreneurs and money makers who hold sway.
The Smalleys are an ill matched pair. He is brusque, irascible and prone to spontaneous irrational actions; she is loquacious, a romanticist who believes many of the young English officers she has met over the years, were secretly attracted to her. Lucy Smalley has never forgiven her husband for deciding — without consulting her — that they would ‘stay on’ in India after he retired from the army. As her husband’s health declines, she becomes increasingly worried about her financial status when he dies. But her pleas for information are unanswered and in place of real conversations with her taciturn husband she creates imaginary dialogues in which she shows a male visitor the delights of Pankot and introduces him to local society.
What Scott brings to life is that despite the feelings of frustrations, anger and disappointment that encircle the Tusker’s marriage, there is still an affection that has endured. Staying On is in essence a tale of loss; of unfulfilled dreams and years lived always on the fringe, never quite ‘fitting in’. When I first read this novel about 15 years ago, the comic storyline of the larger-than-life Mrs Bhoolabhoy and her henpecked husband seemed to dominate the novel. I felt the domestic nature of the plot made the novel feel rather lightweight in comparison to the Raj Quartet. But reading Staying On again, the poignancy of Lucy’s story came more to the forefront. How could I not feel sorry for a woman who has
‘a faraway look in her eyes as if looking back into places she’s walked in her long-ago shoes.
It’s true that Staying On doesn’t tackle the same big issues as the Raj Quartet or focus similarly highly dramatic events. Gone are the questions around loyalty to one’s birth nation and community versus loyalty to an acquired social group like the regiment. Gone also is the question Scott poses in The Jewel in the Crown (the first of the quartet) about the personal and socio-political consequences that arise when individuals try to cross the racial divide. There are certainly no dramatic events in Staying On like the rape in Jewel in the Crown, or the massacre on the train in Division of the Spoils. In fact the main drama of Staying On is dispensed with in the very first page where we learn that Tusker has died while Lucy is at their hairdressers. And yet there is one theme that seems to tie all five novels together – the ability of human beings to connect with each other; whether across class or across the breakfast table. Lucy and Tusker have as much of a divide between them as Ronald Meyrick and Sarah Leighton or Daphne Manners and Hari Kumar experience in The Jewel.
The recognition that Scott earned with Staying On — most notably the Booker Prize in 1977 — is in stark contrast to the muted enthusiasm which greeted publication of the Raj Quartet and the accusations that he had written caricatures of the British in India and those who served them. Sadly he did not have long to enjoy the Booker success . In the year he won the award, he was diagnosed with cancer. He was too ill to attend the prize giving ceremony and died five months later.
If you want to learn more about Paul Scott, take a look at this Short Bibliography