In 1857, the eighth Earl of Elgin was on his way to punish the Manchu rulers of China for daring to close the city of Canton to British opium traders when he heard about the Indian Mutiny. The anti-British insurrections were confined to North India, especially the Gangetic Plain, from where most of the mutinous sepoys, or Indian soldiers, of the British East India Company had been recruited. But they threatened to undo all that the British had gained in India in the previous hundred years. Elgin immediately diverted his punitive expedition to India and spent a few anxious weeks in Calcutta, waiting for news of British victories, before moving on to deal with the Chinese.

Elgin was a reluctant imperialist. “I hate the whole thing so much that I cannot trust myself to write about it,” he wrote in his diary as British warships under his command bombarded and killed two hundred civilians in Canton. In Calcutta, living in a mansion modeled on Kedleston Hall in England, he wrote of the three or four hundred servants who surrounded him:

One moves among them with perfect indifference, treating them not as dogs, because in that case one would whistle to them and pat them, but as machines with which one can have no communion or sympathy…. When the passions of fear and hatred are grafted on this indifference, the result is frightful; an absolute callousness as to the sufferings of the objects of those passions….

As a police officer in Burma, forced to shoot an elephant he didn’t particularly want to shoot, George Orwell felt acutely the degradations colonialism imposed as much on the oppressor as on the oppressed. Trapped into roles and actions not of his choosing, even the reluctant imperialist, Orwell thought, “becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib…. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.”

But the outraged feelings of a few people do not disturb much the impersonal business of modern empires. A range of influential men in Britain—Edmund Burke as well as John Stuart Mill—spoke up for the victims of the East India Company. But they had little impact on the real rulers of India, whom Burke denounced as “young men (boys almost)” who rule “without sympathy with the natives,” the “birds of prey” who make their fortune before either “Nature [or] reason have any opportunity to exert themselves for remedy of the excesses of their premature power.”

In the decades before the mutiny, these officials of the East India Company had radically disrupted India’s old social and economic order. They had forced skilled artisans and craftsmen to become petty commodity producers while turning India from an exporter of high-quality luxury items into a supplier of raw materials for the Industrial Revolution in England. Their extortionate demands for agricultural revenue had forced an older class of landholders and peasants into debt and destitution.

Confronted with Belgian rapacity and destructiveness in the Congo, the narrator of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness claims that

the conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea—something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to….

The East India Company chose to redeem its presence in India with the idea that it was the carrier of a higher civilization, bringing the fruits of science, rationality, and progress to lesser peoples. But this evangelical spirit of reform, which sought to undermine Indian social and religious customs, only succeeded in further alienating many Indians, particularly those living in the Gangetic Plain. Even a traveler as unsympathetic to Indians as Richard F. Burton, the translator of the Kamasutra, could see in 1856 how arrogant the British had become in India and how hated they were by many Indians. The mutiny, when it erupted, shocked the British, particularly “Cawnpore” (Kanpur), as it was remembered by the British for decades afterward, where Indian peasant soldiers treacherously massacred more than four hundred British men, women, and children after promising them a safe passage down the river to the city of Allahabad.

The British had managed to dominate India primarily through the threat of violence—in 1857 there were 34,000 European soldiers to 257,000 Indians in the British army. The widespread rebellion made them fear, as the first British historian of the mutiny, John Kaye, put it, “those whom we had taught to fear us”; and predictably, the British first sought to restore the balance of terror.


Soon after hearing the first reports of the mutiny, the British had killed hundreds of Indians as part of what an officer in the Punjab called a “prompt and stern initiative” of “striking terror” among the “semi-barbarous natives”—these preemptive killings by the British were carried out well before they heard about the massacre in Cawnpore. Later, as the British regained control, tens of thousands of Indians were hanged, shot, or blown to pieces from the mouth of cannons. The reprisals were widely covered by such “embedded” journalists as William Howard Russell, who had written about the Crimean War and was to report on the Civil War in America. They were supported aggressively by a British public fed on exaggerated stories of rebel atrocities. Even Charles Dickens felt provoked enough to wish that the British would inflict even greater atrocities in return.

Queen Victoria’s proclamation in 1858 finally ended the rule of the East India Company and made India formally part of the British Empire. But the press coverage given to the mutiny and its suppression had already made India seem a British possession to the British public, which had previously not much cared or known about what most of their peers were up to in India. British control over India until 1857 had benefited only the shareholders of the East India Company. Now, as the historian Charles Trevelyan put it, the mutiny “irresistibly reminded us that we were an imperial race, holding our own on a conquered soil by dint of valour and foresight.”

In Britain in the late nineteenth century, poets, dramatists, novelists, and journalists wrote copiously about Indian brutality in Cawnpore and British fortitude in Lucknow, where British people trapped in the Residency, the official residence of administrators, held out for five months in 1857 against mutineers, disease, and starvation in what came to be called the “Siege of Lucknow.” The image of the Indian darkened; his deviousness set in sharper contrast the altruism and generosity of the British; and the stoically brave Christian soldier emerged as a new model of Victorian masculinity. Maud Diver and Flora Annie Steel were only the more prominent of novelists who worked with these stereotypes in the commercially lucrative genre of the “mutiny novel.”

The rules of this genre, which lasted slightly beyond the Victorian era, were simple:

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.1

When in the early 1970s J.G. Farrell used the siege of Lucknow as a broad setting for his fifth novel, The Siege of Krishnapur,2 the second in a trilogy of novels about the British Empire, he used the basic formula of the mutiny novel, which was then obsolete, while subverting its rules and dissolving its patriotism in irony and comedy. Born in 1935, Farrell was only twelve years old when India became free from British rule. He saw the British Empire unravel in his own lifetime, and become, in the hands of such novelists as Paul Scott and Anthony Burgess, a subject that could be treated not only without sentimentality but with vigorous skepticism and irreverence.

Farrell’s main protagonist, George Fleury, arrives in Calcutta and meets a charming lady called Louise Dunstaple just as news of the first insurrections in the hinterland filters in. Unlike the dashing officers of previous mutiny novels, Fleury is a civilian and a bit of a romantic. He thinks that “civilization as it is now denatures man” (“think of the mills and the furnaces”) and believes that what “was required was a completely different aspect of it, its spiritual…its mystical side, the side of the heart!”

Such views are inconvenient partly because Fleury has been commissioned by the East India Company to write a book “describing the advance that civilization had made in India under the Company rule” and partly because they do not much impress Louise, who seems more keen on flirting with the crudely philistine army men who resemble her brother, Lieutenant Harry Dunstaple.

Fleury and Louise first meet amid the flurry of social events that constitute the life of the British ruling class in Calcutta, the exuberant round of tea parties, dances, and picnics where people work hard at being British, to pretend “as if all this were taking place not in India but in some temperate land far away.”

No Indians are allowed to enter this privileged realm. Nevertheless, the absence of Indian character in a novel set in India, apart from a somewhat effete, not very convincing prince, may seem more striking now than in the nineteenth century. Farrell may have been deterred by the technical problems of rendering Indian speech without turning Indian characters into Cockneys. But his decision to leave out Indian characters seems to have largely stemmed from an honest view of his experience of India.


The diaries he kept during his research trip to India in 1971 reveal that he was bewildered, even “defeated,” by the strangeness of the people and the landscape. Rather than invent some implausible Indian characters, Farrell confined himself to describing the insular British and their claim to rule justly a country they, like Farrell, didn’t, or couldn’t, much understand.

The Collector of the fictional town of Krishnapur exemplifies what Farrell saw as the ambitions and delusions of British rule over India—the elaborate imperial self-deception which is the true subject of The Siege of Krishnapur. The Collector has little knowledge of, or empathy with, Indians. He is content to possess what Conrad called the “idea,” which is really an aggressive ideology of science, rationality, and progress. He is a member of many progressive societies, a fervent admirer of the Great Exhibition, which was held in Britain in 1851 to display scientific and technological advances, and he has “devoted a substantial part of his fortune to bringing out to India examples of European art and science in the belief that he was doing as once the Romans had done in Britain.” These examples include electroplated statuettes of Dr. Johnson, Voltaire, Shakespeare, Keats, and Molière.

Farrell’s postcolonial cynicism often borders on the burlesque. But it also makes for brisk economy while presenting the moral blindness of some of the characters. Louise’s brother Harry Dunstaple earnestly advises Fleury that “you have to be careful thrashing a Hindu, George, because they have very weak chests and you can kill them….”

Farrell’s characters talk a great deal, and reveal themselves quickly. We know the diverse personalities and opinions of all the major protagonists well before Krishnapur erupts in violence and chaos. Here, for instance, is the opium agent, Rayne, admiring the wealth the British made by forcibly exporting Indian opium to China and turning millions of Chinese into opium addicts:

Opium, even more than salt, is a great source of revenue of our own creation…. And who pays for it? Why, John Chinaman… who prefers our opium to any other. That’s what I call progress.

The Collector thinks this a limited ideal of progress:

It’s not simply to acquire wealth, but to acquire through wealth, that superior way of life which we loosely term civilization and which includes so many things…. The spreading of the Gospel on the one hand, the spreading of the railways on the other…. Both the poet and the Opium Agent are necessary to our scheme of things. What d’you say, Padre?

The padre, a former rowing man at Oxford, is happy to go along with imperialism, as long as the spreading of the railways allows him to spread the Gospel, although he is “afraid that the duties to which the Lord had called him might prove too much for this strength.”

Though widely regarded as an eccentric, the Collector alone has premonitions of an impending assault by the invisible natives. He orders the digging of trenches and the building of mud fortifications. The news that Europeans in a nearby town have been massacred forces the British community of Krishnapur to retreat to the Residency, and to deploy all able-bodied men in its defense.

As it turns out, British fortitude is not shared equally across British class divisions. The Collector’s manservant, Vokins, for instance, lacks

the broader view. He tended only to see the prospect of the Death of Vokins. Although some of the Collector’s guests might have been hard put to it to think of what a man of Vokins’s class had to lose, to Vokins it was very clear what he had to lose: namely his life. He was not at all anxious to leave his skin on the Indian plains; he wanted to take it back to the slums of Soho or wherever it came from.

The attack on the Residency eventually comes in the form of flying musket balls and rash cavalry charges, and is barely resisted by such poorly equipped and inept British defenders as Harry and Fleury respectively. As the attacks continue, and the casualties grow, the British try to keep up their rituals and hierarchies within the Residency. Dinner is as formal as ever; the respectable wives of officials keep a fastidious distance from Lucy, who has been abandoned by her lover; and the debates about the pros and cons of civilization become even more heated.

Though tested by the uprising, the padre remains optimistic:

Our European civilization, which is rapidly uniting all the nations of the earth by means of railways, steam-vessels and the Electric Telegraph, is the forerunner of an inevitable absorption of all other faiths into the One Faith of the white ruler.

The pedantic Fleury, who is learning to kill, and to even enjoy the mechanical aspect of weapons, pursues Louise in his spare time with such declarations as “It’s so important that we bring to India a civilization of the heart, and not only to India but to the whole world… rather than this sordid materialism.”

Farrell doesn’t ever abandon his inquiry into the moral justifications for imperialism. But he also has a comic purpose. He seems to have seen the men involved in imperialist adventures as acting out roles in an unscripted farce. This is why The Siege of Krishnapur never seems ponderous. When during the heat of the monsoons a cloud of cockchafers settles on Lucy, the fallen woman, it falls to the virginal young men, Fleury and Harry, to scrape the black insects off her naked and unconscious body with covers torn from the Bible:

Her body, both young men were interested to discover, was remarkably like the statues of young women they had seen…. The only significant difference…was that Lucy had pubic hair; this caused them a bit of a surprise at first. It was not something that had ever occurred to them as possible, likely, or even desirable.

“D’you think this is supposed to be here” asked Harry, who had spent a moment or two scraping at it ineffectually with his board. Because the hair, too, was black it was hard to be sure that it was not simply matted and dried insects.

“That’s odd,” said Fleury, peering at it with interest; he had never seen anything like it on a statue. “Better leave it, anyway, for the time being. We can always come back to it later when we’ve done the rest.”

As the situation deteriorates inside the Residency, Farrell’s descriptions acquire a surreal edge:

The smell, which was so atrocious that the butchers had to work with cloths tied over their noses, came from rejected offal which they were in the habit of throwing over the wall in the hope that the vultures would deal with it. But the truth was that the scavengers of the district, both birds and animals, were already thoroughly bloated from the results of the first attack…the birds were so heavy with meat that they could hardly launch themselves into the air, the jackals could hardly drag themselves back to their lairs.

The heat grows more intense and bodies killed by cholera or the mutineers fill up graves. But the tea parties go on, if without tea; birthdays are celebrated, and meals of horse flesh consumed in the cramped quarters of the underdressed women. The rituals of courtship, too, go on. Fleury continues to pursue Louise and Harry falls for Lucy.

Long-cherished beliefs, however, are beginning to weaken inside the Residency. It is becoming clear that “India itself was now a different place; the fiction of happy natives being led forward along the road to civilization could no longer be sustained.” The Collector wonders

how it could ever be that the hundred and fifty million people living in India could ever have the social advantages that made young people like the Fleurys and the Dunstaples so delightful, so confident, and so charming…. Would Science and Political Economy ever be powerful enough to give them a life of ease and respectability?

As the mutineers press closer, the Collector’s electroplated statuettes of European geniuses are beheaded, and the heads deployed as cannon fodder:

The most effective of all had been Shakespeare’s; it had scythed its way through a whole astonished platoon of sepoys advancing in single file through the jungle. The Collector suspected that the Bard’s success in this respect might have a great deal to do with the ballistic advantages stemming from his baldness.

The head of Keats with its luxuriant metal growth is not as effective; and it is not surprising, given the changing view of progress inside the Residency, that Voltaire’s head gets stuck in the cannon.

Weak and exhausted, the padre thinks he was mistaken to praise the Great Exhibition, the “Vanity Fair of materialism.” The Collector, too, remembers with regret the

extraordinary array of chains and fetters, manacles and shackles exhibited by Birmingham for export to America’s slave states…. Well, he had never pretended that science and industry were good in themselves of course…they still had to be used correctly. All the same, he should have thought a great deal more about what lay behind the exhibits….

“Feelings,” the Collector is convinced by the end of the siege, are “just as important as ideas.” But his conversion to a quasi-Bloomsbury ethic is less dramatic than Fleury’s new and unqualified regard for the go-getting Victorian civilization. By the end of the siege, Fleury has “discovered the manly pleasures to be found in inventing things, in making things work, in getting results, in cause and effect. In short, he had identified himself at last with the spirit of the times.”

“Ideas make us what we are,” Fleury asserts when years after the siege he runs into the Collector. But Farrell gives the last word to the Collector. In his old age he has the melancholy awareness that “one uses up so many options, so much energy, simply in trying to find out what life is all about,” and that, in the end, there is not much that one can do to change it. Intellectual knowledge, or its inferior form, technical know-how, is not enough. In any case, a people or a nation is shaped not by ideas but “by other forces, of which it has little knowledge.”

“There exists no great English novel,” V.S. Naipaul once wrote, “in which the growth of national or imperial consciousness is chronicled.” But such a novel could not have been written when success of every sort attended the British venture in the world and novelists, even liberal ones like Dickens, embraced the as-sumptions of national and imperial superiority.

The Victorian faith in science, rationality, and progress, which first the Collector and then Fleury uphold, was to be badly mauled on the battlefields of the First World War. Its collapse partly gave E.M. Forster the confidence in A Passage to India (1924) to accuse the British in India of having an “undeveloped heart.” But it took another world war and the disastrous partition of India before British novelists could properly examine the complacent attitudes fostered during the high noon of empire.

As Paul Scott described in what now seems one of the great works of postcolonial literature, The Raj Quartet, the British had made India a part of a noble idea about themselves. But there was not much Conradian sense of duty in sight as the British packed their bags after hurriedly dividing India and as hundreds of thousands of Indians killed and displaced each other. With the partition of India, “the British came to the end of themselves as they were.” Scott evoked the grubby last days of an imperial fantasy, the discarding of a tattered mask. It was Farrell’s achievement to describe how tentatively the mask was first worn—in a sophisticated novel of ideas that is also an entertaining comic adventure.

This Issue

July 15, 2004