Paul Scott, 1920–78

As is well known, and tantalising, Paul Scott projected many of the events of his life on to Ronal Merrick, the anti-hero of his most famous work, The Raj Quartet. There are, however, significant differences. 

Scott’s formal education, and the prospects of any higher education, came to an end at the age of fourteen, when his father’s business, as a commercial artist, went bust. This interruption to what would have been a normal upward course of life was a lifelong cause of resentment. He trained as an accountant---a higher clerk. 

On the outbreak of World War Two he was conscripted into the army as a private in 1940. He was shipped out to India, three years later, as an officer cadet, with the scratch army mustered to repel an expected Japanese invasion (including, as it happened, Brian Aldiss). He would be an officer – but not quite a gentleman. ‘Scott’, as his biographer, Hilary Spurling, summarizes it, ‘ended up a captain in the Indian Army Service Corps, organizing supply lines for the Fourteenth Army’s unexpectedly successful reconquest of Burma’. Grocer to Britain’s front-line heroes, that is. His personal life was complicated by his marrying in 1941. His wife, Penny, was a nurse and in later life a novelist herself. There were two daughters to the marriage, both born after the war.

Demobbed, Scott picked up his pre-war trade of accountant, before joining the firm of David Higham as a literary agent in 1950---in which capacity he contrived to vex his most famous client, Muriel Spark (who mistakenly thought he was officer-class born and bred and very snooty). Scott was at the time cultivating literary ambitions of his own – all deriving from his Indian experiences. Johnny Sahib (1952, rejected 17 times) was the first of half-a-dozen post-colonial fictions. All, as Spurling meaningfully notes, deal with 'complicated' male friendship. In 1960 Scott gave up his day job (no small thing – he was now a director of the firm) to write novels. In 1964 ‘he flew back alone to India on a journey which he knew would make or break him as a writer’. It came close to breaking him. He was short of money, chronically unwell (amoebiasis – an Indian infection), undergoing severe marital problems, and drinking like a fish. None the less, he was able, after a few months in the country, to embark on his great chronicle of the decline and fall of the Anglo-Indian empire.

Paul Scott knew that he had a great literary adversary when he conceived his Quartet. Namely the author of A Passage to India. ‘Forster’, Scott said, ‘loomed over literary India like a train terminus beyond which no other novelist could be permitted to travel.’ Scott, however, was singularly immune to the ‘glamour’ of India which had so gripped the young Forster.

Quoted more than once in the Quartet is Emerson’s observation that ‘there is a relation between the hours of our life and the centuries of time’. In awarding the Booker Prize, in 1977, to the dying Scott, for his tailpiece novel to the Quartet, Philip Larkin paraphrased Emerson, ‘Staying On covers only a few months, but it carries the emotional impact of a lifetime, even a civilization’. Scott was not present to hear Larkin’s praise. He died, a few weeks later, in London’s Middlesex Hospital. His wife, Penny, had begun legal proceedings to end the marriage, but colon cancer got there first.