August 1942. World War II is reaching its apex, with the conflict consuming almost all of Asia and Europe. In Southeast Asia, the Japanese have driven the British army out of Burma and are threatening India, where Britain's beleaguered forces find themselves facing an increasingly hostile Indian populace tired of decades of unfulfilled promises of freedom. On a dark monsoonal night in the town of Mayapore, amid an outbreak of anti-British rioting, a gang of Indian men rape a young British woman. Through this rape, we are introduced to a cast of characters engulfed and subsequently carried away by the storm of events. Paul Scott's The Jewel in the Crown is part historical novel, part mystery, part love story, part allegory. But to reduce it to any of these elements is to miss its irony, poignancy, and beauty. Full of complex characters and rich in atmosphere and symbolism, this is a novel that works on many different levels.
The events unfold through the eyes of a varied cast of characters--both British and Indian--united by their inability to escape the straightjacket of race and social roles, no matter their class, education, or political views. This is particularly excruciating for the rape victim and the young Indian man accused of the crime. These two are drawn to each other by their alienation from the roles they are expected to play. Englishwoman Daphne Manners finds herself increasingly estranged from her countrymen, while Hari Kumar, an Indian who has lived in Britain for all but two years of his life and is so anglicized that he doesn't even speak Hindi, can't abide his native land. Their struggle with the identities and constraints that society imposes on them and the manifestations of their conflict form the core of the novel, providing the timelessness and richness that make it one of the great novels of the 20th century.
The Jewel in the Crown, originally published in 1966, is the first of the Raj Quartet, the sweeping epic that looks at the collapse in the 1940s of British rule in India. It was followed by The Day of the Scorpion, The Towers of Silence, and A Division of Spoils. --Jonathan King