i felt bereft when I reached the final book in The Raj Quartet series by Paul Scott.
Division Of The Spoils, published in 1975, depicted the final years of British rule in India and the birth of a newly-independent state. 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 tetralogy, 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.
Some of the main characters : the Layton family, Hari Kumar (unjustly imprisoned for rape) and – the villain of the saga, Maj./Lt. Col. Ronald Merrick – are shown embarking on a new phase of their lives. But we’re left with questions about the future for the Indian nation itself, with only an uneasy truce in place between Muslims and Hindus.
Return To Pankot
Fortunately Paul Scott returned to the setting of his quartet with Staying On, published in 1977. It gave me a much welcome opportunity to return to the small hill town of Pankot that featured in the Raj Quartet.
It is now 20 years after independence. Only one British couple remain in Pankot: Tusker and Lucy Smalley who were minor characters in the earlier novels. The sun has set on the “golden years” of their time in India as members of the British Raj .
Tusker’s retirement from the British Indian Army and his subsequent career in administration for a maharaja left them with limited funds. These have been further eroded it transpires, by a stint of gambling.
Life After The Raj
By the time we meet them in Staying On they are living in straightened circumstances in the Lodge, a small annex of Smith’s Hotel. It was once the town’s principal hotel but is now overshadowed by the brash new Shiraz Hotel.
The Smalleys are, just like Smith’s Hotel, 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 behaviour. But such currency no longer matters in the new nation, in which it is the entrepreneurs and money makers, not the army and the civil service 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 people whose years are lived always on the fringe because they never quite ‘fit in’.
When I first read Staying On more than 20 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.
Staying On is a much quieter novel than the Raj Quartet.
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 Layton or Daphne Manners and Hari Kumar experience in The Jewel In The Crown.
Staying On is a delightful end to Scott’s epic about India and its fight for independence against a ruling class determined not to let go of their power. I loved the way Scott mixed in familiar characters and locations from previous novels, yet showed that life had changed. Though it doesn’t tackle the same big issues or focus on highly dramatic events, this novel still provides an interesting perspective on the Colonial experience.
Staying On by Paul Scott: End Notes
About the book: Staying On was published in 1977, two years after the final book in the Raj Quartet series. The tetralogy had not been universally acclaimed; Scott faced accusations that he had written caricatures of the British in India and those who served them. By contrast, Staying On was named as winner of the Booker Prize in 1977.
About the author: Paul Scott was born in England. In 1943 he was posted as an officer cadet to India, ending the war as a captain in the Indian Army Service Corps, Despite being initially appalled by the attitudes of the British, by the heat and dust, by the disease and poverty and by the sheer numbers of people, he fell deeply in love with India.
His writing career began in earnest with his first published novel in 1952, going on to achieve moderate success. The crowning glory of his career was winning the Booker Prize in 1977. Sadly he did not have long to enjoy the 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.
Why I Read This Book: I first read Staying On in the late 1990s but decided to read it again as part of my Booker Prize project.
This review was posted originally in 2012. This updated version incorporates biographical information about the author and an updated image of the book cover . Formatting has been changed to improve readability.
Beryl Bainbridge made it to the Man Booker prize shortlist a record five times but never succeeded in winning the award. The Bottle Factory Outing, her fourth novel was one of the shortlisted titles in 1974 but was beaten to the prize by Stanley Middleton’s Holiday.
Bainbridge’s story is set somewhere in London in a small Italian-run factory which bottles wines and some spirits. Freda and Brenda are two members of the workforce , working alongside some middle aged Italians who clean and label the bottles for despatch. The pair share a workbench by day and a miserable bedsit room by night. They also share a bed though they build a wall of books to ensure there is a clear demarkation of space on the mattress.
They are an unlikely pair of women to hitch up together. They have little in common either in their backgrounds or their attitudes to life.
Freda is one of those people who seem born with a bigger pair of lungs than the average human being. Loud and fearless, she has aspirations to be an actress or, failing that, to marry someone rich. Brenda is her complete opposite, dark haired and completely passive, the kind of girl that will never say no to anyone in case they are offended. Her one moment of bravery it seems was to leave her husband, a drunkard much prone to urinating on the doorstep of their home in the north of England and to set up alone in London.
Freda is a girl with dreams. She comes up with a plan for the entire team to take off for a day out in country. It will, she hopes, give her the opportunity to capture the heart of the manager, Vittorio. Brenda has more pressing concerns – how to avoid the amorous intentions of her fellow worker, the lecherous Rossi.
Their day of freedom fails to live up to all their expectations. It’s starts with the non appearance of the van they’d booked as transport and gets steadily worse because instead of a wine-fuelled picnic in the grounds of a stately home, they have to enjoy their repast on a patch of grass near the road. It all ends in in tragedy.
The Bottle Factory Outing is a novel inspired by Bainbridge’s own experience of working in a bottling plant. At times offbeat, the humour is mingled with moments of poignancy particularly in the final scenes as the workers gather at a bizarre party in the factory attic.
The front cover blurb says Grahame Greene considered The Bottle Factory Outing to be ‘outrageously funny and horrifying.’ Funny yes with some scenes that are pure farce but I couldn’t find anything remotely ‘horrifying’ within these pages. It struck me rather as a story that ripples with pathos. All the workers in this factory have dreams that sustain them through their mundane lives; they long for something to relieve that monotony but ultimately those wishes and desires come to nothing.
I enjoyed Bainbridge’s economic style of writing and warmed to these two women but the novel ultimately failed to live up to its promise. The black humour and the poignancy ultimately became as unlikely a pairing as Freda and Brenda.