J. G Farrell had written about 50,000 words of a novel set in 1870s India when he died. He’d gone fishing off rocks near his home in Bantry Bay, Ireland, was caught by a freak wave and drowned.
He had intended the novel as a continuation of his Empire Trilogy, a series which dealt with the political and human consequences of British colonial rule. What he left behind was tantalisingly short; 19 chapters of a first draft together with rough notes that captured his ideas about plot developments and key themes. It’s these first chapters that today form the basis of what has become known as The Hill Station, edited and published under the direction of his close friend John Spurling.
The book is set in Simla (also known as Shimla) which in the early 1870s was considered the summer capital of British India. Its location in the foothills of the Himalayas was a huge draw for British soldiers, merchants, and civil servants who wanted to escape from the ferocious heat of the plain. The place became somewhat of a pleasure dome with a whirl of distractions from garden fetes and picnics to polo games and cricket tournaments.
Though wives and children also made the annual migration to the hill station, the mix of large numbers of bachelors and unattached women gave Simla a reputation for romantic intrigue and adultery.
The first few chapters dive headlong into this world with the arrival at Shimla of Doctor McNab, his wife and their niece Emily. The doctor has been to the hill station previously and doesn’t much care for the place. It’s the girl’s first visit to India however, and she excitedly reacts to every sight on the long train journey to Kalka, the final stop on the rail line.
Emily is looking forward to the social whirl of Simla and the chance to make new friends. She’s also secretly hoping she will pick up a few admirers during her stay. The blue- eyed lieutenant she met on the train looks very promising. So does another train acquaintance; Mrs Forester, a seasoned Shimla visitor travelling with her young son.
Mrs Forester’s frequent references to her husband’s position in the government are meant as a clear signal that, by association, she is a step up from the McNabs. Nevertheless she takes Emily under her wing, inviting her for sight-seeing trips and to afternoon soirees where she gets to meet eligible young bachelors.
Emily’s attempts to find romance and social acceptance form the basis of the three principal plot lines in The Hill Station: the hypocrisy of the Raj; a clash over religious principles and tension between religion and science.
Tarnished World Of The British Raj
It’s through Emily that Farrell points up the hypocrisy and double standards of the Raj.
The girl has a tendency to think herself a bit above others including her aunt and uncle. While she has grown fond of the McNabs she nevertheless thinks they ” lacked that little touch of aristocratic ampleur in their attitude to life.” And she bemoans the fact that by association with them she would find herself isolated from making friends “of her own kind.”
But all is not as it seems in this society that she thinks is so charming and distinguished.
Mrs Forester turns out to be, not the glittering member of a glittering class, but a woman with a stain on her character who has returned to Simla from a liaison., to “brazen it out.” And the people with whom she associates act more like harlots than respectable wives and mothers.
Dr McNab is the one figure who sees through the pretence of Simla. This sensible man of the plains views Simla as ‘a factitious England’, a stage set with houses that bear names like Rose House and Oakdale and people stride about in their tweeds. The Bishop’s half-timbered house set amid perfectly manicured lawns and an oak grove complete the illusion of a “Merrie England.”
Storms On the Horizon
In the second thread of the novel. the idyll of this British outpost is put to the test; challenged by a poor, frail Anglian priest. The Reverend Kingston newly returned to his parish in Simla is determined his church will follow the old rituals of incense, kissing the Prayer Book, and lighted candles on the Communion Table. His plans put him at odds with the Bishop. They also cause outrage amongst the Church of England stalwarts in the parish. The more extreme of them, supported by rabble-rousing soldiers, cause havoc at his services with their clamour of ‘No Popery!’.
We know from J G Farrell’s notes that a third plot line concerning belief was to become the main driver for the remainder of the novel. The clash over the Reverend’s “stubborn defence of Ritualism … and martyrdom” would escalate and see a pitched battle at the church gates, Dr McNab, who claims he knows nothing about religious matters, is dragged reluctantly into this storm . He has a more personal issue about belief that’s occupying his mind.
The Doctor had arrived at the hill station planning to (finally) write a treatise on Indian medicine. He’s been working on this for years (do I detect shades of Casubon in Middlemarch?) but becomes distracted by the idea that there are underlying non medical causes for disease. investigation of the unexplained effects of religion on the human spirit.
The gruff, sceptical non believer has always held to a scientific belief for the origin of diseases such as cholera. But he’s now facing a growing conviction ( based on instinct rather than evidence) that “all things were one, that everything was connected, that an illness was merely one of many fruits of an underground plant in the community as a whole.”
Unfortunately the book ends just at the point where the three thematic plates have been set to spin and the narrative feels it’s getting into its stride.
Part of me is glad that The Hill Station wasn’t completed. I didn’t have a lot of interest in the pages which see the Reverend and the Bishop debate theological and liturgical issues so if there was to be much more of that I think I’d end up doing some skimming. The character of McNab (who incidentally also featured in The Siege of Krishnapur) was shaping up to be far more interesting but we’ll never know how prominent a part he would play in the novel as a whole.
With only 150 pages available, I don’t think we can judge how successful the novel would have been. It has some characteristics that I enjoyed in Farrell’s earlier work, particularly the way he comically undercuts his characters’ views of themselves and their world. Was it worth reading? On the whole yes but only if you’ve already read some of Farrell’s earlier novels, particularly The Siege of Krishnapur and are a completist.
The Hill Station by J G Farrell: Footnotes
In the introduction to this edition John Spurling, explains that he wasn’t at all certain Farrell would have welcomed publication of his incomplete and unrevised text, Nevertheless Spurling felt it deserved to be published because it was a curious and gripping story. The title had not been determined by the time of Farrell’s death. At the top of chapter 16 of the manuscript, he had written what looked like a possible title “The Doctor of Confusion”. The Hill Station was chosen because Farrell had often referred to the book as his “novel about the hill station.”
The edition published by Phoenix, an imprint of orionbooks contains an essay by Spurling which connect the themes of The Hill Station with other books in the Empire Trilogy. There are also contributions by Margaret Drabble and Malcolm Dean and the text of The Indian Diary, notes that were written when Farrell was travelling through the country in 1971 as research for The Siege of Krishnapur.
The Hill Staton was book number 11 in my #20booksofsummer2021 project. I’m also counting it as book number 15 in in my #21in21 personal challenge (to read 21 books from my TBR that were acquired before 2021.