Setting in Paul Scott's Works

Jacqueline Banerjee, Ph.D

Scott's second novel, The Alien Sky, dispenses with the officers, havildars and orderlies of his debut novel, Johnnie Sahib and replaces them (for the first time in his work) with a gallery of colonial sahibs, memsahibs and their neighbours and acquaintances, who include Eurasian girls and a maharajah, all in a hill station setting. His third novel, The Mark of the Warrior , develops the leadership theme explored in Johnnie Sahib more powerfully inside the jungles of Burma and India. These treacherous, claustrophobic spaces play a major role in the narrative. His fourth novel, The Chinese Love Pavilion is also partly set in India. And so on. Scott would continue to mine his Indian experience throughout his writing career. Why, and to what effect?

True, India gave him appropriate images for his preoccupations with leadership, and the personal and cultural dilemmas which troubled him. In this sense, perhaps, as a maharajah says about his own small piece of India in The Alien Sky, '[s]piritually of course it might be anywhere' (140).

Yet consider the following passages for The Chinese Love Pavilion, spoken by the charismatic brian Saxby to the susceptible young hero, Tom Brent:

Does one acre please you as much as another? Don't you carry in your mind's eye a kind of perfection of landscape your actual eye is always searching to match? ... Find it, come close to it, there'll be no other quite to come up to it. And your mind's eye being what it is it's just as likely you'll preconceive its whereabouts as not. That's why. That's why India for you. (47)

Did Scott himself feel an attachment to, even an obsession with, the subcontinent, which underlay and went beyond the conscious co-option of suitable material?

Against the kind of lurid exoticism which pervades the Malayan chapters of this novel, India takes on a delicate beauty all its own:

On flat endless plains distant and minareted towns glimmered like mirages, and yellow mud-walled villages loomed and were gone, hidden in the dust to crumble away invisibly behind us, forgotten. As the sun fell to the western edge of such plains the violet pigment of its rays would settle low in the air like the lees of wine leaving the sky above us as clear, as pink as sea-shells.

This shimmering, evanescent landscape provokes some anxiety: '[it] was a land's land, too vast, too beautiful to harbour well the designs men sought to carve upon it' (50). When Tom gives up trying to cultivate a strip of land leased from an Indian prince, there is the feeling that Scott himself is daunted by the task of continuing to work this particular soil. Yet, of course, India drew him back, and he found ways of 'carving his designs' upon it after all.

Approached from this angle, his next novel, the highly self-conscious Birds of Paradise, takes on yet another layer of meaning. Consider the central image of captivity here (the stuffed birds in their huge cage), in relation not only to the maharajahs and the Raj itself, but also to Scott's own need to control his Indian material, and his self-doubts as a novelist.


Scott, Paul. The Alien Sky (London: Heinemann, 1978).

_____. The Chinese Love Pavilion (London: Heinemann, 1978).

United Kingdom Paul Scott

Last modified 26 July 2005