As the novel begins, the British outpost in Krishnapur, India, is as high a pinnacle of Victorian society as you would find anywhere in London. But unrest is sweeping the country, and a sense of foreboding informs the very first pages. However, the foreboding is of a quintessentially colonial sort: confident in their superiority, the British never waver from their conviction that they can handle whatever comes their way. This blind sense of moral, social, and technological superiority is simultaneously admirable and despicable, and Farrell does a fine job of showcasing its benefits without stinting on its obvious shortcomings.
When the challenge comes, the British gather together in the residence compound of the Collector, the colony's chief administrator. They fortify, they arm, they defend, they ration, they starve, and they die. As the siege wears on, social conventions fall away. Men and women alike begin to be dirty and thin, and the veneer of Victorian manners grows ever more transparent. By the time rescue arrives, the ladies and gentlemen have become nearly unrecognizable. Is it to their credit or to their detriment that they snap back almost immediately to their former selves, thanks to the power of a hot bath, some fresh clothes, and a decent meal? Despite what they have experienced, their core values remain, for better or worse.
This novel can be read as a straight adventure tale, but it is so very much more. There is the question of whether art is useful in the modern world, as worked out in the person and character of the romantic, idealistic poet. There is the tension between science and tradition, and whether being a "fallen woman" is a permanent social condition. There is whether the colony's most eligible young woman can regain her ethereal charms, after being seen dirty and ragged by everyone. And will the Collector, above all a man of duty and reason, realize that the modern inventions of which he is so proud and the dominance they demonstrate are pointless without cultural understanding?
One of the things I like so much about Farrell's approach is that he lets the characters speak and act for themselves, flaws, blind spots and all. At the same time, he uses logical and inevitable events to undermine them. And the man can work a symbol!
As just one example, when the clay walls around the compound threaten to dissolve in the rain, the British are forced to reinforce it with their treasured trappings of civilization. So out to the walls go their furnishings: "tiger-skins, bookcases full of elevating and instructional volumes, embroidered samplers, teasets of bone china, humidors and candlesticks, mounted elephants' feet, and rowing-oars with names of college eights inscribed in gilt paint." Farrell doesn't say the British are foolish to have brought this stuff to India and treasured it enough to evacuate with it into the compound. He lets their foolishness--if that's what it is--speak for itself.
Excerpt:The Collector sat on an oak throne which had been chipped out of the mud rampart for fuel, but had not yet been used, though it had lost one of its front legs. The throne, whose gothic spires rose high above the Collector's head, had been placed on a wooden dais at one end of the banqueting hall. Because of the missing front leg, the Collector had to sit well back and to one side; even so, he sometimes forgot about it and, waving an arm for emphasis, narrowly avoided plunging to the floor; this could have caused him a severe injury since the floor was some way below. The Collector had sat a good deal in this chair over the past few days and it had come to affect his habits of thought. He had found that since the chair discouraged emphasis, it also discouraged strong convictions. . . . So now he was gradually coming to see that there were several sides to every question.