Paul Scott as a writer to whom "images come first"

Jacqueline Banerjee, Ph.D

[Adapted and updated with permission from the publishers, from Paul Scott, Writers and Their Work series (Plymouth: Northcote House/ British Council, 1999), by Jacqueline Banerjee, Ph.D.

Paul Scott always saw himself as a writer to whom "images come first" (My Appointment with the Muse, 54), and indeed his work is full of of the most haunting images. A jewelled dagger represents the obscure knitting of death with desire (The Chinese Love Pavilion); rotting inside, some stuffed exotic birds suggest lost dreams, the maharajahs, the Raj itself (The Birds of Paradise); a hunch-backed ticket tout at a bullfight embodies the inner demon of a troubled novelist (Corrida at San Feliu), and so on. But it was the twilight of the Raj itself which most fully expressed Scott's artistic vision. In 1972, looking back over his career to date, he told audiences on his British Council tour of India,

My proper answer to the question, "Why do you — as a modern English novelist of serious pretensions bother to write about the time-expired subject of the British Raj?" (and that is what is implied) — is, must be, if my novels are novels at all, "Because the last days of the British Raj are the metaphor I have presently chosen to illustrate my view of life." [My Appointment with the Muse, 115]

What Scott found in this particular historical upheaval was, fundamentally, a way of confronting the feeling of dispossession which he shared with so many of those contemporaries whose very ignorance of India he deplored. Of course, the actual break-up of empire contributed greatly to this feeling; but it went much deeper than that. Scott's ambivalence about his art ("if my novels are novels at all"), confirms that he was writing very much within the larger cultural climate of his times. It was a period in which the sense of fragmentation expressed by the modernists was giving rise to radical questioning of the nature and role of fiction — the kind of questioning which informed Scott's own lectures during the later sixties and seventies. Indeed, it proved to be especially fruitful in Scott's case, bringing him to see the novel not as a vehicle of "definitive experience," but as an "area of creative contact between two people" (My Appointment with the Muse, 84, 89).

The word "presently" which Scott used in the speech quoted above is a reminder that he used other large metaphors, besides the ending of the Raj, to express his artistic vision and make contact with the reader. Until quite recently, these metaphors have been largely to the side of what is fashionable in contemporary literature. For instance, in representing and grappling with the problems of cultural and personal identity, Scott was particularly concerned with the male role. The heroes of his first eight novels are deployed in a variety of situations: they work in army depots, rehearse for jungle warfare, suffer as POWs, dig the parched soil, pour out their souls to strangers at the bar, and so forth. Through such situations Scott explores the various contradictory demands among which men have to negotiate - to act according to ideals, for instance, without sacrificing their individuality or their hold on reality; or to protect freedom and yet forge bonds. Indeed, one of the reasons why the last days of the Raj provided such a compelling metaphor for Scott was because here the older fiction of proud male dominance with all its obligations (duty, responsibility and so forth) had been so powerfully challenged by a newer one (involving sensitivity to others, an acceptance of their autonomy, and a willingness to make new kinds of commitments to them) in a real-life drama of almost mythic dimensions.

Scott's choice of metaphors was by no means random, then, and he liked to see himself as 'a social novelist' (My Appointment with the Muse 127); on the other hand he knew that '[w]riting a novel is like peeling an onion' and that he was revealing in his work aspects of himself that could not be expressed in his daily life (My Appointment with the Muse 141). Chief among these was his anxiety about what one psychologist working in the area of male identity has termed "handicap at love" (Jourard 27). For Scott found that he could not live with the dispossessed, fragmented self. On the contrary, the next step - to restructure it - became the central and fundamental concern of his work, and one in which he successfully involves his readers.

Of postmodern tendencies, this indeed puts him most in line with the postcolonial. But the plight of the brown Englishman of the Raj Quartet, Harry Coomer, does not simply mirror that of new generations of people who find themselves in a whole new cultural situation, either in their own country or amid the ethnic diversity of a newly multicultural west. It also and more fundamentally mirrors that of modern man in general, for whom, as for Scott himself, class, profession and even sexuality would all turn out to be areas of conflict. That is why, in the end, the process of restructuring the identity is one in which matters of race and gender, along with the particulars of place, era and historical change, are all subsumed.

Clarifying Scott's aims and vision as a novelist helps us to re-evaluate his earlier work, as well as to strengthen the claims of the Raj Quartet to be considered one of the major works of twentieth-century (as well as postcolonial and postimperial) literature.


Jourard, Sidney M. "Some Lethal Aspects of the Male Role." Joseph H. Pleck and Jack Sawyer, eds. Men and Masculinity. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1974.

Scott, Paul. My Appointment with the Muse: Essays 1961-1975. Ed. Shelley C. Reece. London: Heinemann, 1986.

United Kingdom Paul Scott

Last modified 24 May 2005