A lot of ground is covered by Three Continents. We begin in America with a pair of zealous twins, Harriet and Michael Wishwell (pronounced Witchell), 19 years old, both owning and expecting a lot of inherited assets, money and property, and both avid to serve some striking cause. ‘Michael, my twin brother, and I always wanted something other – better – than we had,’ declares Harriet, the narrator, at the start of this long novel. An Indian movement to promote world unity appears to fit the bill. At the centre of this movement are the Rawul, amiable prince of an insignificant Indian kingdom, his opulent consort the Rani, and dishy Crishi, the couple’s – so it is believed – adopted son. Michael, who has met these exciting people on his travels abroad, invites them and their followers to make themselves at home at his flighty mother’s house Propinquity, in upstate New York, which they do with such thoroughness that they end by taking over the house and all in it. Harriet, who, in spite of her brother’s enthusiasm, at first holds aloof from the Rawul’s Transcendental Internationalism and from the movement’s founders, is eventually bowled over by wily Crishi; he takes off his pyjama trousers (Indian) on a beach at midnight, and things proceed to a natural conclusion. This is heiress Harriet’s first taste of ecstatic sex, and it goes to her head. She proceeds to marry him.
Since the mid-Fifties, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala has been scrutinising such inter-racial marriages, as well as examining the importation into India of European attitudes, and vice versa; her earliest novels were domestic comedies set in Delhi, among would-be inhabitants of the modern world, with social practices both traditional and new-fangled getting an ironic airing. To whom she will (1955), for example, concerns the unsatisfactory relations between Amrita Chakravarty (an emancipated girl, and radio announcer in defiance of her mother’s wishes) and weak-willed Hari Sahni, a boy very anxious to go along with everyone’s conflicting plans for his future. A lot of eating, spending and insistent hospitality goes on in this and other early Jhabvala novels, and the author has a good deal of fun with Indian philistinism and pragmatism, where these qualities have an innocent look to them. Even when the novel features a marriage between Indian and non-Indian – such as we find in Esmond in India (1958) – the emphasis is on the native’s, not the incomer’s, assimilation of foreign ways. One persistent theme is the urban Indian’s desire to be urbane.
Another, which soon began to loom large in this author’s work, is the question of ‘how to adapt oneself to the differences between Europe and India’, with continuous by-play signalling the failure of each side to gain sufficient insight into the mentality of the other. At its simplest, we have Indian excitability opposed to English sang-froid, as in the story ‘A Star and Two Girls’, in which Gwen and Maggie, on a world tour, raise a delicate eyebrow at displays of emotion by the Bombay actor who has taken them up. Then there are those hapless Westerners who come to India looking for spirituality, and get dysentery instead. ‘The place is very strong,’ warns Mrs Jhabvala, ‘and often proves too strong for European nerves.’ Not always: some Europeans can immerse themselves in India without going under, like the runaway wife of a government official in the Booker prize-winning Heat and Dust (1975), whose story is reconstructed, and in certain ways re-enacted, though on a less exalted level, by her deserted husband’s granddaughter. Young women succumbing to India generally do so in the arms of some delectable Indian or other: ‘She felt drawn to him by a strength, a magnetism that she had never yet in all her life experienced with anyone,’ we are told of absconding Olivia in Heat and Dust. Actually, it was unnecessary for Ruth Prawer Jhabvala to spell out, and in such novelettish terms, what we might have gathered for ourselves – an odd lapse in an otherwise evocative and compact work. Such romantic entanglements, we can’t help feeling, are better portrayed with detachment and drollery, as in the story ‘How I became a Holy Mother’, which has English Katie acquiring the title hurriedly, and not in a very uplifting manner. In this story, and in ‘An Experience of India’, the narrative tone differs from Harriet’s in Three Continents only in its engaging underlay of humour.
Harriet is one of those narrators who are skilled in self-delusion, who make plain to the reader things they prefer not to acknowledge themselves – in this case, the rottenness of Crishi, who is on the make, and worse. (He is, in fact, a cad whose literary ancestors may include the central figure in Francis Iles’s Before the Fact, and even Geraldine Jews-bury’s Count Mirabeau, who enthralls the heroine of her novel Zöe.) He is cashing in on Western preconceptions about the spirituality of the East. It soon becomes clear that the Rawul’s Transcendental Internationalism – though the Rawul himself may not be to blame – is really a transcontinental smuggling racket, dealing in the unlawful removal of objets d’art out of India. The Rawul’s consort the Rani – not a legitimate Rani, as it turns out, since another, undivorced one exists, living in London in a house bought for her by her rich papa – and Crishi are the prime movers in this irregular business. Michael Wishwell, the first to go overboard for the movement, is also the first to have misgivings, misgivings which build up as the twins, the colourful Eastern trio and part of their entourage leave America for London and then Delhi, where Crishi behaves towards Harriet in an alternately evasive and ingratiating way. Harriet, in her besotted state, is willing to put up with anything, and before the book ends, she has rather a lot to put up with.
A third of the book is allocated to each continent, and in the first – American – section, we learn a little about the history of the Wishwell family, a representative American family with a powerful heritage – full of diplomats, administrators, men of property – that has dwindled, in the present generation, to a pig-headed and irresponsible brother and sister: Michael, with his ascetic and rebarbative personality, and Harriet, who can’t cast off her addiction to a dodgy Indian. It’s true that the previous generation had lost something of all that ancestral enterprise; we meet one or two of them, and are brought up to date with their marital arrangements and rearrangements, all of which smack of impulsiveness. Hardly any of these elders have sufficient common sense to smell a rat when the Transcendental Internationalists land among them: it’s only when things have gone too far to be reversed that they are suddenly recalled to a consciousness of family and tradition, and start pursuing Harriet and Michael all over England and India to remind them of their ancestors’ achievements, family concerns and everything that is held in trust for them. Gallant Sonya, their grandfather’s one-time mistress and second wife, turns up in Delhi talking about the positive side of the American way of life – with charm and reticence – and the judicious uses to which capital may be put, and sticks to the twins even when they (or Harriet at least) would prefer her to take herself off. Michael, whose health and morale have alike deteriorated, is rather inclined to cling to Sonya – behaviour not in keeping with the stern personality he once exhibited. He is going to be one of those for whom India proves too strong. Other casualties of Western rashness, with regard to the East, put in an appearance: the Rani’s ineffectual English husband, her small son with his unsettled upbringing, American Paul, with a gaol sentence behind him and in the throes of fever.
In her last novel. In Search of Love and Beauty (1983), Ruth Prawer Jhabvala had a non-Indian guru who, like the current Transcendental Internationalists, accepted without a qualm the most prodigious favours – money, accommodation, loyal support, personal attentions. It seems, too, that religious or quasi-religious movements of the present are able to tolerate carnal behaviour in their leaders: this is an aspect of cult-enthusiasm on which Mrs Jhabvala has frequently turned a quizzical eye. If India hasn’t determined her literary manner, which remains disabused and unimpassioned, it has affected it, at least in the sense of ensuring that she gets the strongest flavour out of whatever trait is depicted – English bossiness, adolescent eagerness, Indian aplomb, or, for that matter, Eastern worldliness and Western idealism. Three Continents, which I take to be about the dangers inherent in not adopting a properly sceptical attitude to strangers who come proclaiming unity and amity, or in not acknowledging, and guarding against, the strangeness of foreign localities, is both ambitious and engrossing. It steers a middle course between defining the differences between Europe and India – impossible to pin down, in any case – and dispensing with them altogether.