The winner of the 1973 Booker Prize may read as a period piece, but it is a more complex book than it first appears, with conflicting undercurrents of melancholy and nostalgia 

Written by Michael Prodger

Publication date and time: Published

A half century is a very long time in the world of fiction. It was back in 1973 that J.G. Farrell won the Booker Prize with The Siege of Krishnapur, a book that in 2008 was also shortlisted for the 40th anniversary Best of the Booker Prize. The novel tells of the siege of the fictional town of Krishnapur during the Indian Rebellion – the Indian Mutiny – of 1857 and is part of a trilogy in which Farrell peered long and hard at the declining British Empire. The two companion volumes, Troubles (1970), which won the Lost Man Booker Prize in 2010, and The Singapore Grip (1978), look at the Irish War of Independence of 1919-21 and events following Japan’s entry into the Second World War. 

The Siege of Krishnapur was an early manifestation of the prize’s penchant for historical fiction that told a wider tale. Now, 50 years after it first appeared, it reads as something of a period piece itself. When Farrell wrote the book he was in part pastiching Victorian and Edwardian adventure yarns and nodding to the likes of G.A. Henty, whose derring-do stories were hugely popular with boys who would become the empire builders of the late 19th century.  

In this book in particular, the Anglo-Irish Farrell was looking back to a mindset and world that had only recently expired, when the Second World War hastened the end of British hegemony. For Farrell, born in 1935 and growing up in a time when much of the map of the world was still pink, this was live history unfurling. Today, the globe is immeasurably different, as is the nature of fiction. In 1973, postmodernism was still a novelty, the idea of meta-fiction was a head-scratcher, the unities of time and place were less of a plaything, formal experimentation was the exception, and traditional narrative still largely held sway. Farrell wrote of a different age, in a different age. 

It is hard to imagine The Siege of Krishnapur being created today: the cultural mores and sensitivities of the 1970s now look antediluvian. The story, for example, is told entirely from the British standpoint and only one single Indian character – Hari, the English educated son of the local maharaja – is given a role of any prominence in the story. Every other Indian, whether townsfolk, farmers or rebelling soldiers, is part of an undifferentiated mass. Nor does Farrell spend time examining the deeper roots of the uprising, other than the flashpoint of musket cartridges greased with pork fat.  

J.G. Farrell

Not that Farrell was unaware of the complications of empire and the attitudes that underpinned it. Throughout the novel there is a wryness to his comments that suggests more than the story relates. Krishnapur, he tells us in the first few pages, is a city on a bleak plain with ‘nothing that a European might recognise as civilisation’ in the environs. As for the local people: ‘The apathy of the native is well known… he is not enterprising.’ Farrell includes these sweeping dismissals while fully aware of both their currency at the time he was writing about and their absurdity at the time of his actual writing. 

At the heart of the book is a cluster of characters barricaded in a small number of buildings on the edge of Krishnapur and surrounded by insurgents. Each of these figures represents different traits and attitudes and Farrell treats them, as an entomologist might, as specimens for study as the siege tightens. There is, for example, the chief administrative officer, the Collector, Mr Hopkins, a man obsessed with the Great Exhibition of 1851 who sees its many ingenious inventions as proof of the trajectory of mankind towards perfection. The Magistrate, Willoughby, meanwhile is a cynic with radical inclinations. There is the Padre, driven to the edge of religious madness as the siege progresses, and Fleury, a poetical youth newly arrived from England who finds his feyness sloughing off as he turns into a soldier. The progress – and deficiencies – of Victorian science are encapsulated in two doctors, Dr Dunstable and Dr McNab, who, amidst the carnage, foster a furious antipathy over how best to treat cholera cases. 

To offset these men, Farrell includes a group of women, from the beautiful Louise, the belle of Krishnapur, whose sole consideration before the siege is that she has a full list of soldiers’ names on her dance card; the worldly and practical widow Marian; and Lucy, a girl seduced and abandoned by a soldier who is scorned by the other womenfolk. Marriage prospects and feminine propriety remain concerns even as the deaths mounts and the food stockpiles diminish. Early in the book, Fleury notes the effects of India on the women: ‘How true that English ladies do not prosper in the Indian climate! The flesh subsides and melts away, leaving only strings and fibres and wrinkles.’ But by the end, every survivor is just mere sinew. 

The Siege of Krishnapur

It is hard to imagine The Siege of Krishnapur being created today: the cultural mores and sensitivities of the 1970s now look antediluvian

Around these figures, as the days pass and the plight of the Europeans becomes ever more perilous, Farrell discusses grander themes – the civilising mission of empire, the benefits of Western patronage, the nature of the religious disputes of the age, the marriage market and the inert role expected of women, the class system, honour, patriotism and courage. As bullets ping and ricochet and mortars crash, characters’ thoughts drift to divine design or whether true civilisation comes from the heart. The imminence of death frees the mind to speculate.  

While Farrell leavens the action – physical, emotional and psychological – with such musings, he does so with humour too. Sometimes the comedy is broad, as when the first skirmish of the siege sees the young soldier Harry knocked over not by a bullet but by a flying brick to the groin; at others, it is more nuanced or more surreal. A stuffed tiger’s head mounted on the Collector’s wall ‘stared at him with dislike’ – a metaphor for India itself. When the embattled garrison is reduced to firing cutlery and assorted scrap metal from their canons, for want of balls, they find that the head of a metal bust of Shakespeare has proved the most efficient projectile because of his baldness: while the head of Voltaire couldn’t be rammed into the barrel, Shakespeare’s shiny and aerodynamic bonce ‘scythed its way through a whole astonished platoon of sepoys’. 

By the end of the book, any survivors of the horrors have had their illusions thoroughly stripped from them. Not only the fact that ‘The fiction of happy natives being led forward along the road to civilisation could no longer be sustained’, but the consoling idea of culture itself is shown to be a sham; ‘It’s a cosmetic painted on life by rich people to conceal its ugliness,’ says the disillusioned Collector. While events have proved that the assertion that ‘women are weak, we shall always have to take care of them, just as we shall always have to take care of the natives’ is demonstrable nonsense in both parts. 

Farrell’s final conclusion, about the siege and about empire itself, is elegiac. The mass of Indians, indeed the land itself, was indifferent to the British presence. The suffering of the besieged, ‘all our reforms of administration’ and the manners, customs and laws imported from Victorian Britain where a Queen with ‘bulging blue eyes and a vigorous appearance’ sat on the throne meant nothing.  

The Siege of Krishnapur is a more subtle and complicated book than it first appears with conflicting undercurrents of melancholy, disapproval and nostalgia, but then its author was a complicated man. Farrell was born in Liverpool to an English father with Irish ancestry and an Irish mother with English ancestry. The fact that many English readers took him to be Irish while Irish readers thought he was English perhaps helps to explain why his reputation declined after his death in 1979 at a mere 44 years of age. 

The Relief of Lucknow 1857 by Thomas Jones Barker

Farrell was, however, an accidental novelist: he was studying law at Oxford and on his way to a rugby blue when he contracted polio after a game. Months of recuperation followed, iron lung and all, and he never fully regained the use of his right arm. It was during these boring and bitter days, he said, ‘that I started writing and doing some thinking’. Fiction was the outcome, including The Lung (1965), about a man like himself who contracts polio.  

Friends remembered Farrell as charming, self-contained and with a sometimes menacing edge. He had numerous girlfriends, who were not always treated well, but he never married. One of his girlfriends was a call girl – and acquaintance of Christine Keeler – with whom he had a long and friendly relationship: she was the model for Lucy, the fallen woman, in Krishnapur. Nevertheless, his gregariousness was counterbalanced by an urge towards the solitary. 

Some of those complications came to the fore during his Booker Prize acceptance speech. Farrell used it to castigate a host of personal bêtes noires: according to his biographer Lavinia Greacen: ‘Jim had a go at privilege, public schools and the Royal family, before turning to overpaid chairmen and executives, and finally rounding on Booker’s exploitation of low-paid workers.’ Although the previous year’s winner, John Berger, had also taken aim at Booker’s colonial business affairs, this form of public attack was not the done thing, and – unlike Berger – Farrell kept the prize money. 

In 1979, Farrell bought an isolated cottage on the Sheep’s Head peninsula in the extreme south-west of Ireland; it was the first home he had owned outright. Far from London life and its dinner parties he worked at his writing, grew vegetables and took up fishing. It was while casting from a rock that he was washed into the sea by a freak wave. A local woman saw him in the water and later commented that he didn’t seem to struggle, which led some people to suspect suicide, but Wellington boots full of water and his damaged arm may have meant he knew there was no point in fighting.  

In his mid-thirties, Farrell told a girlfriend that: ‘I’m the most ambitious man you’ll ever know’ and lamented that Tolstoy had finished War and Peace by the age of 38 while he had yet to publish his first successful work, Troubles. But by the time of his shockingly early death, Farrell’s own achievement with the ‘Empire Trilogy’ was substantial. With the ‘Raj Quartet’ by his fellow Booker Prize winner Paul Scott, The Siege of Krishnapur and its fellow volumes were pioneering works of what is now known as post-colonial literature. It is unlikely that Farrell would have appreciated the term, since it implies both an agenda and a genre. For him, theme, story and characters were intertwined.  

In Troubles, he has a character say, as if with an intimation of the author’s own brief life: ‘People are insubstantial. They never last. All this fuss, it’s all fuss about nothing. We’re here for a while and then we’re gone. People are insubstantial. They never last at all.’ It may be true of people, Farrell even, but not of his books. 

J.G. Farrell