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J. G. Farrell: The Siege of Krishnapur

This is the second in Farrell’s Empire trilogy and he continues his post-colonial mockery of the British Empire, its exponents and its values, while not being adverse to mocking everyone else from colonisers to colonised. As the title indicates, this one is set in India. Krishnapur is a fictitious place but this story is clearly based on The Siege of Lucknow of 1857.

The Indian Rebellion (often known as the Indian Mutiny) was taking place, having started at Meerut. Most (though certainly not all) of the British were complacent about events in Meerut and elsewhere and this is certainly the case in this novel.

In his introduction to this novel, Pankaj Mishra points out that there is a minor genre of novel known as the mutiny novel. The hero, who is an officer, meets the young charming lady, just out from England, or who happens to be in India from before, and falls in love or both come to India in the same ship, and strike a liking on board the ship itself. In India the historical situation is already ripe for mutiny, and the lovers are suddenly pitched into the upheaval. This genre had long since run its course but Farrell revives it for this novel though, as with the rest of the novel and the other two Empire novels, he subverts it. The charming hero is not an officer. Indeed, he is an effete poet and the heroine is certainly not initially attracted to him, though it does, more or less, conform to the other aspects.

Krishnapur, like other towns in British India, is run by a man known as a collector. The collector here is Mr. Hopkins. We would consider him as a decent British Victorian man. He is a married but his wife is unwell, not least because she had a child who had died recently, and she has to leave shortly before the main action starts. Hopkins has the idea that other British people had, that of civilising the natives. He is independently wealthy and at his own expense has statuettes made of the literary great and good, including Shakespeare, Keats and Voltaire, and shipped out to India, to inspire the natives. These statuettes do play a role in this book but not as an inspiration to the natives.

Hopkins also has another interest – progress. He had attended The Great Exhibition of 1851, which showcased British technological achievements, and, ever since, has been very impressed by what it had to offer. He frequently refers to it and the various exhibits, which show the superiority of Great Britain.

Hopkins is one of the few who recognises the dangers of the Indian Rebellion elsewhere. He is warned when chapatis start appearing in strange places – his in-tray, for example. Others have had this, both in Krishnapur and elsewhere in India. Hopkins see it as a threat, while others do not. He arranges for defensive walls to be built around the compound.

There are other key characters. There are two doctors. The first is Dr. Dunstaple, an old-fashioned English doctor, well-liked by all but medically somewhat old-fashioned. Cholera is a key element in this book and the Scottish doctor, Dr McNab, proposes a pathology and treatment which more or less conforms to what is used today, without, of course, the antibiotics, which did not exist then. Dunstaple says the disease is caused by humours in the air and his proposed treatment is not only useless but dangerous.

Dunstaple is married with a son and daughter. His daughter, Kate, is the heroine (if there is a heroine). She is initially attracted to dashing officers before taking an interest in the effete poet, once he proves not be entirely effete. Her brother is a dashing officer, Lieutenant Harry Dunstaple, and is fairly stereotypical.

The effete poet is George Fleury. He has come to India to visit his mother’s grave (she had died twenty years previously), to accompany his sister, Miriam, recently widowed and to write a book describing the advances that civilization had made in India under the Company rule, something neither he nor Farrell believe in.

On the whole, the Indians play little or no role in this book, except en masse. The one exception is Hari, son of the Maharajah, who is your typical stage Indian, mocked for his pretensions, his good but far from perfect command of English and his attempt to be more English than the English.

The English behave as they do in the other books in the trilogy. – detached from reality and the native population, and convinced of their civilising role and innate superiority to other races. They talk about progress all the time. If there has been any progress in our century, it has been less in material than in spiritual matters. Think of the progress from the cynicism and materialism of our grandparents…from a Gibbon to a Keats, from a Voltaire to a Lamartine! says Fleury. I disagree,” replied Mr Rayne with a smile. “It’s only in practical matters that one may look for signs of progress. Ideas are always changing, certainly, but who’s to say that one is better than another? It is in material things that progress can be clearly seen. Rayne is an example of the shameful role of the British in the East, as he is an opium dealer, selling to the Chinese.

It is not just the British who are mocked but also the Indians. Tom Willoughby, the Magistrate – to all intents and purposes the civilian deputy to the Collector – has proposed building embankments to deal with the regular flooding of the river. The Indian landowners, however, are having none of it. The obvious solution is to sacrifice a black goat and the river will go down, as, indeed, happens.

The real problems start following a massacre at nearby Captainganj, with the revolt spreading to Krishnapur. The town is soon under attack by the sepoys (Indians who had served in the British army) and they clearly outnumber the British. However, without the British, they have no leaders and their attacks are often disorganised. We follow the siege in great detail. There is considerable loss of life on both sides, bravery by the British, particularly Harry Davenport and Fleury, cholera, disputes as regards tactics and internal crises, such as the ladies actually having to cook and wash their own clothes.

Fleury continues to pontificate: It’s wrong to talk of a ‘superior civilisation’ because there isn’t such a thing. All civilisation is bad. It mars the noble and natural instincts of the heart. Civilisation is decadence! The Padre, even as bullets are flying around his head, tries to defend the work of the Lord. The British have a tea party without any tea – traditions must go on. Food runs out and people both hoard it and then sell it off at high prices, till the Collector intervenes.

No-one is spared Farrell’s mockery and even the British have to admit that their civilising role has not been a great success. We follow those few that survive into later life but very many die, either of cholera or as a result of the attacks.

As with Troubles, Farrell, tells not only a good story but eagerly points out the flaws of the British Empire and its self-proclaimed civilising role. He mocks religion, capitalism, intellectualism, native superstition, native pretensions towards being English, the role of women, the naivety of the men when it comes to women, art, progress and anything else he can get his teeth into. It is still a very fine book well after its first publication and well after the death of its author.

Publishing history

First published 1973 by Weidenfeld and Nicolson