David Eccles. Patrick Welland on J.G. Farrell

Rebellion at the Residency

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In Issue 49, we left Jim Farrell the winner of the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize for his novel Troubles, set in the Irish War of Independence and the first in his trilogy dealing with the decline of British imperial power. But even while writing that book, Farrell had been researching its successor in which he wanted to expand on the theme of capturing people ‘undergoing history’. In Troubles, the doomed Majestic Hotel stands as a symbol of power crumbling under the onslaught of inevitable forces of change. In The Siege of Krishnapur (1973), that role is taken by a British Residency under attack during the Indian Mutiny.

Once again Farrell had difficulty in finding a satisfactory starting-point for his intentions. His epiphany came when in the British Museum he came across a journal of the five-month siege of Lucknow. It was written by Maria Germon, the wife of an East India Company officer, and it recorded how those who had taken security and privilege for granted coped with acute danger, overcrowding, filth, disease and death. Farrell had found his novel’s cornerstone. He went on to read everything he could lay his hands on about the Mutiny, and in writing the novel he cannibalized diaries, letters and memoirs written by those who experienced it, sometimes using their actual words.

What Britain calls the Mutiny, Indians call their War of Independence. The rebellion was rooted in apparent discrimination against sepoys of the East India Company’s Bengal army by a British élite which – unlike the more relaxed eighteenth-century colonizers – increasingly held in disdain ‘native’ religions and culture. Arguably, it was the catastrophic result of a failure of imagination. Horrified Victorians reared to believe that India was a devoted vassal of the Crown saw the massacre of their men, women and children not only as a barbaric bloodbath but as a rejection of Empire’s crusade, sanctioned by a Christian god, to ‘

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About the contributor

Patrick Welland remembers with nostalgia riding a motorcycle to India in 1975. He passed close to several sites of the Mutiny, but he was too self-absorbed to be interested, a failing he now deeply regrets.

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