Back in 1984, Masterpiece Theatre presented "The Jewel in the Crown," 14 hours of great storytelling based on Paul Scott's 1966 opus, "The Raj Quartet," which tells the story of the end of Britain's colonial rule over India, the tumult of independence and the partition of India.
It was one of my favorite Masterpiece Theatre presentations, and for almost 30 years I have lugged around homemade videotapes of those episodes.
For my birthday this year, my daughter gave me a DVD version, which I settled down to watch with great anticipation, only to find that my knowledge about the history of the end of the colonial period in India was seriously wanting. And the DVD didn't offer closed captioning, so all those expository bits of dialogue that helped fill in the gaps were particularly hard to catch.
So back to the source material I have gone.
This may lead to several columns about the four books in the series, since each is more than 20 hours of listening. While quite faithful to Scott's books (even in terms of exact dialogue), the Masterpiece Theatre version by necessity leaves out a great deal of detail and nuance.
The first in the series, "The Jewel in the Crown," opens with Edwina Crane, a missionary teacher in India whose story, like that of the young Englishwoman Daphne Manners, is woven throughout the 2,000 pages of the quartet. Assaults on Miss Crane and Miss Manners, within a few days in August 1942, signal the beginning of the end of colonial rule, as the native Indians begin to more forcefully assert their demands for independence.
Miss Crane, who is superintendent of the missionary schools in Mayapore, is driving 70 miles back from one of her schools, accompanied by one of the teachers, Mr. Chaudhuri, when they encounter a mob in the road. Their car is overturned and Mr. Chaudhuri beaten to death. Threats of physical and sexual assault on Miss Crane don't come to fruition, but she is traumatized by the attack and her colleague's death.
Miss Manners' case is decidedly different. A friendship she develops with an English-educated Indian man, Hari Kumar, turns to a love affair despite their different races, and the repercussions are felt throughout the community. When the pair is set upon by hooligans in the Bibighar Gardens one night, Hari is tied up and beaten, and Daphne is raped. Her efforts to keep him from being drawn into the incident fail, due to the suspicions of Ronald Merrick, the district superintendent of police, whose marriage proposal has been rejected by Daphne.
The story is told in overlapping narratives that are sometimes written in the voice of a key character, such as Lady Chatterjee, in whose house Daphne has been a guest; sometimes through letters, such as those Daphne writes to her aunt; and sometimes in the third person. To separate out one thread of the story would be impossible.
Richard Brown's narration is quite good, although I'm not especially fond of his renderings of the women's voices.
I'm now in full immersion, in a way, and enjoying every minute of it.
AUDIO BOOK REVIEW
THE JEWEL IN THE CROWN: THE RAJ QUARTET, BOOK 1. By Paul Scott. Random House Audio, $45.50. Unabridged, 22 hours, 40 minutes. Narrated by Richard Brown.