The Moral Continuum: Paul Scott, The Jewel in the Crown

Like The Once and Future KingThe Jewel in the Crown is something I have gotten around to very belatedly. I have known about it for ages and always meant to read it, but hadn’t, until now. I haven’t even seen the old BBC adaptation–at least, not all of it. (I think I saw some episodes when it first aired back in the 80s, at friends’ houses, as my family had no TV when I was growing up.)

Also like The Once and Future KingThe Jewel in the Crown is a book I thought I knew enough about not to be surprised on actually reading it. And in this case too, I was, after all, surprised. I knew the historical setting and, more or less, the plot, but  I wasn’t prepared for the form of the novel, which turns out to be where much of its interest lies and how many of its ideas are expressed. Though the obvious predecessor to compare it to is A Passage to India, The Jewel in the Crown reminded me insistently of both The Moonstone and The Ring and the Book, both multi-voiced crime narratives that show through telling and tell through showing — people expose themselves through speaking as themselves, and the accumulation of their voices gives us a  complexly layered whole that is far more, and far more interesting, than any single part. All of them are also about crime and guilt and innocence, and how tangled and twisted lives and motives and judgments can be. They all focus on what, in The Jewel in the Crown, are called “areas of dangerous fallibility.”

Nobody emerges truly innocent in The Moonstone, and no one character (except, arguably, the implied author) emerges as authoritative, but in both The Ring and the Book and The Jewel in the Crown there’s a certain status attached to the victimized woman whose story is at the center. As the telling and retelling by other characters roils around–as the possibility of ever seeing clearly, or acting on that clarity, eludes us–eventually it becomes clear that we must hear her speak. It’s interesting how they end up carrying so much moral weight. How do they earn it? In Daphne’s case, partly by being a woman and thus in a complicated relationship to British imperial power. This slight dislocation is not enough, though: not all English women in the novel see, much less act, as Daphne does. Once everything else is explained as fully as possible, there still always remains the mystery of human personality, after all. This, ultimately, is what the novel’s form emphasizes.

One question that inevitably arises reading The Jewel and the Crown is how far the trauma of the Bibighar Gardens can or should be read as a metaphor for other kinds of trauma, violence, and violation in the novel. It turns out that Daphne eventually addresses this question quite directly as she reflects on “the danger to [Hari] as a black man carrying [her] through a gateway that opened on to the world of white people”:

I look for similes, for something that explains it more clearly, but find nothing, because there is nothing. It is itself, an Indian carrying an English girl he has made love to and been forced to watch being assaulted — carrying her back to where she would be safe. It is its own simile. It says all that needs to be said, doesn’t it?

That’s true, but only because by the time we see the event as it happened–as it happened, that is, to her and to Hari–we have seen and heard so much that every word and movement of theirs is hopelessly fraught with everything else.

There’s no question but what The Jewel in the Crown is a novel about a very particular time and place, and that its central incidents mean what they do because of that specific context. At the same time, the diversity of voices in the novel means that, though specific, their experience is not narrow, not altogether foreign. “There are the action, the people, and the place,” as Scott says on the novel’s first page, “all of which are interrelated but in their totality incommunicable in isolation from the moral continuum of human affairs.”

2 thoughts on “The Moral Continuum: Paul Scott, The Jewel in the Crown

  1. Dorian Stuber August 21, 2012 / 10:32 pm

    You’ve convinced me that I absolutely must read this book immediately.


  2. Rohan August 22, 2012 / 11:00 am

    I think you’ll be really impressed. I thought it would be much more straight-up narrative (which could still have been very good, of course) but it is very dense and twisty. I’m looking forward to working through the rest of the quartet.


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