The Towers Of Silence, the third of Paul Scott's Raj Quartet, is very much a novel about women. Set in India in the 1940s, the war impinges on almost every aspect of their lives, but they experience conflict largely second hand via the consequences for their male associates. Their lives are changed because those of their men folk have been affected. But it is the internal conflicts, as these women strive to maintain normality within the abnormal, that provide the book with its real substance, its real battleground. And these are no mere domestic fronts. There are conflicts of interest, prejudices, especially in the realm of social class and ascribed worth, that shed real blood.
Here are just a few of the women involved. Mildred Layton and her two daughters, the long-suffering Sarah and simpler Susan, have John, husband and father, detained as a prisoner of war in Europe. Susan's new husband, the rather dull and inexperienced Teddy, has been killed in action on the Burma front. She bears his child, tentatively and premature. There's Mabel, Mildred's rather off-beat step-mother-in-law who occupies Rose Cottage, the well appointed residence that really would be put to better use if it housed the rest of the family, allowing them to vacate the less-than-adequate, if not actually demeaning government issue where they currently reside. And then there's Barbie Batchelor, Mabel's housemate of some years. She's an ex-missionary, a teacher of young children, parlour maid class, of course, now put out to the pasture of retirement, pasture that just happens to be the laws of the favoured and evied Rose Cottage.
From the previous two books in the quartet, the two Manners characters, Daphne, who was abused in the 1942 Mayapore civil unrest, and her aunt, Lady Manners, still figure large in events. The fall-out for the now ex-policeman, Ronald Merrick, still troubles, pursues him, in fact. Daphne died in childbirth, so he believes the case died with her. No-one else seems to think so. Intriguingly the surviving child is also a girl.
But it is Barbie who emerges a the book's focus. Her friend and colleague, Edwina Crane, opened the sequence of novels. She was also attached in the 1942 riots, and then later she committed suttee, her mind allegedly disturbed by what had happened. It was an act that Barbie could not and still can not understand, provoking her to question whether her life devoted to bringing Indian children to God might just have been mis-spent. Sarah Layton will still talk to her, but Mildred hates her. And so when...
But then this is all plot, and the reader wants this to unfold anew from the book, itself. Let it be said that the characters of The Towers Of Silence interact in remarkably complex ways. But what is actually said is only ever a small part of a much bigger story. It was Lawrence Durrell who described the English having a hard and horny outer shell, but soft at centre, exploring the world via sensitive antennae called humour and prejudice. And this description fits the way in which the colonial British in India have become a caricature of a society that no longer exists in the home country. Change is inevitable, and when it comes it is likely that those left rootless by it will be laid out on a tower of silence, the place where Parsees leave their dead to be picked to bones by raptors, where all the fleshed-out airs and graces of class will fall away.
Paul Scott's novel is sensitive, but analytical enough to have a vicious streak. It is full of rumours and, of course, prejudice, especially in the way that its characters deal with anyone suspected of having lower social status than themselves. And if you are a colonial British in India, that's just about everyone, despite the lack of obvious future that the way of life might claim.