Sunday, February 23, 2014

A different kind of Raj quartet

The Pool in the Desert, Sara Jeannette Duncan

I came across this on the library sales shelves last year.  The Penguin spine caught my eye, and then the back-cover blurb sold me:
Sara Jeannette Duncan was the first Canadian woman to achieve international success as a journalist, novelist, and travel writer . . . First published in 1903, the four novellas in this collection are told with a fine sense of irony and sophistication.  Set against the backdrop of British India these vividly rendered portraits of women who attempt to defy convention are as fresh and provocative today as when they were written.

Any novel from the Victorian or Edwardian era with "women who attempt to defy convention" pretty much has me at hello.

It was only later that I realized I had already been introduced to Duncan and her books, by Barb over at Leaves and Pages.  After reading her posts, I downloaded copies of The Simple Adventures of a Memsahib and An American Girl in London to my e-reader (where they still sit unread).

The four novellas here, which aren't connected, are set at stations in British India, particularly Simla, among the army and Civil Service families.  Duncan herself lived in India for many years after her marriage to a civil servant.  In some ways these stories are like Jane Austen's "three or four families in a country village."  Duncan's focus is the domestic and social ties that bind the British together in India, not the details of colonial administration.  She does include some descriptions of the scenery, particularly around Simla, which made me curious about her travel writings.  Each of the stories is told in the first person, by someone who plays a part in the events she or he narrates, but who is also observing the others involved, with more or less objectivity.  As one of the narrators puts it, in the story that gives the collection its title:
It was there between them - the tenable ground of what they were to each other; they occupied it with almost an equal eye upon the tide that threatened, while I from my mainland tower also made an anguished calculation of the the chances.
I was not surprised to learn that Duncan was a friend of Henry James, who admired her work. The back cover of my edition quotes a 1903 review from The New York Times, which says that Duncan has "the elusive, fine-drawn style of Henry James."

Each of the four stories is very different.  The first concerns a mother whose infant daughter was "sent home" after a serious illness, with only two visits in twenty years. When she arrives for a third time, to bring her daughter back to India, she doesn't find the instant connection that convention tells her should exist between mother and daughter.  Another story involves a young American artist, whose paintings of Indian life enthrall two Simla residents, as does the artist himself.  The third is the story of another American, a young woman traveling around the world, who meets new friends - and an unexpected old one - in Simla.  And the final story is about two women whose friendship is tested when one of them falls in love.

From a reference to "Her majesty" in one of the stories, I suspect that some of them at least were written before 1901. However, except for the references to horse-drawn carriages, they could fit very well in with Paul Scott's Raj Quartet.  I was surprised by more than one character's divorce, which leaves them not ostracized, but in something of an ambiguous situation.  As the back-cover blurb states, the women in these stories are acting and choosing for themselves.  These choices may end in conventional ways, but the lines are often blurred.  In the first story, the mother chooses to remain in India, with her husband, rather than going with her daughter to England.  She leaves her child to be raised by relatives because "I may have been Cecily's mother in theory, but I was John's wife in fact."

I learned from the introduction to this book that Sara Jeannette Duncan and a friend, also a journalist, set out on a round-the-world tour in 1888, a year ahead of Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's historic race.  Like Bisland, they set off westward.  (It was during their visit to India that Duncan met and became engaged to her future husband; she left him behind to complete the trip.)  Duncan later wrote a book about the trip, a novel called A Social Departure, which is now on my TBR list.  I expect I'll be adding more of her work.


  1. I'm a big fan of novellas and I think these sound very unique (and a bit sad?). I'm always amazed at the wonderful things some people find at library book sales - all my library seems to have are mass market James Pattersons and Clive Cusslers.

  2. Oh, wonderful!, another adventurous lady: I worry that I could quite happily read about these women to the total neglect of everything around me!

  3. Anbolyn, I'm always surprised by the variety on the shelves, and I've bought quite a few books there over the years - and donated a lot too. I can never resist stopping to check them on the way in.

    vicki, I saw a reference to a biography about her, in addition to her own books - so my reading list is growing.

  4. Sara Jeannette Duncan sounds fantastic! Happily, The Pool in the Desert is on Gutenberg, so I'm downloading it to my Nook as we speak. :)

  5. Jenny, my e-reader is stuffed with books from Gutenberg, and Google books - most of which I've learned about from blog reviews! Though I'm better about collecting them than reading them.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!