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I'm always attracted to fiction about the Indian sub-continent and if it is set in places I've visited, then it's all the more interesting to me. After my recent trip to Northern India I've also started to take a much greater interest in the issues surrounding the Independence Movement of the early 20th Century. So you would suppose that a book set in Northern India in the 1920s would be right up my street. That's what I thought too. A Black Englishman was in a pile of freebies I got from a friend and over Christmas, it eventually floated to the top of the pile.
'A Black Englishman' is the tale of a Welsh girl who marries a soldier, goes out to India and breaks all the taboos by falling in love with a local man. It's set in the 1920s - a time when Indians had come to believe that Independence might come their way in the aftermath of the First World War and the British just weren't ready to let go. The book touches on some of the key events of the Independence movement but in such an oblique way that if you don't already know about those events, such as the Jallianwallahbagh Massacre, you wouldn't necessarily be any the wiser for reading this book.
She throws herself into the relationship with an astonishing degree of recklessness, heading off to Shimla (surely the most gossipy place in British India) to spend time with her lover, dressing in saris and pretending to be a local. Once the lovers are inevitably 'rumbled' by an officer who catches them together, there's sure to be plenty of trouble as they attempt to find a way to reconcile their relationship with their personal situations. She seems to have completely forgotten about her husband, and he, whilst he's not a man to suffer a broken heart, equally isn't the type to let her get away with it. He will have his revenge, no matter how long it takes. Most of the book follows the challenges of trying to maintain an inter-racial relationship at a particularly tricky time in history and Isabel's desire to learn more about medicine.
The Key Characters
Isabel Webb - 23-year old Isabel is the daughter of an upper-class Italian mother who 'married down' with an Englishman. Isabel's sweetheart was killed in the trenches of the First World War and with so many dead men, the choices for a young university-educated woman in search of a husband were poor. She rushed into marriage with Neville Webb, a working class career army-man serving in India. His social inferiority drew the disapproval of her parents - plenty of 'you've made your bed and now you must lie in it' comments but for Isabel the idea of India was so exciting that she married him anyway. On the day she arrives at the army base in the Punjab the base was in turmoil at the murder of an army wife and the suicide of her husband who had shot her. This should have been a warning about the risks of fooling around but was one she chose to ignore.
Isabel quickly learned that the rules of behaviour in the army were every bit as tough for the wives as for the men. She also found that by marrying down she was no longer the peer of the sort of women who would have been her equal back in Wales. She set off to test the boundaries of what she could get away with - visiting the local markets, and riding astride in her jodhpurs instead of side-saddle in a skirt. With her husband already despatched to the North West Frontier, she quickly found herself laid up with malaria and in the hands (quite literally) of the local doctor.
Neville Webb - Isabel's husband is a sergeant in the British Army and army life totally defines who he is and what he does. It gives him free reign to be brutal at times and to ignore his wife for extended periods whilst he's off at the front. He met Isabel after being sent home to Britain to sort himself out and get a wife and it's fair to say his closets are rattling with plenty of skeletons. Was he involved with the dead woman whose body was found on the day Isabel arrived? Who is the mysterious muslim girl in his past? But mostly Neville's job is to go out and kill people and he's good at it. He has a man-servant who's an eerie Pathan tribesman who serves as valet and protector. Neville is sexually voracious, utterly unsuited to marriage and portrayed with a touch of dark violence. (Note - Neville Webb is not a made up name - he was Carolyn Slaughter's maternal grandfather and you can't help thinking there's some family dirty linen being washed in the book).
Samresh - Sam is the doctor - a high-caste, highly educated Kashmiri who was sent to school in England. Eton and Oxford have made him an Englishman but living and working in India has made him a caricature that he calls a 'Black Englishman'. He's caught between the two worlds and like many educated Indians of his period he's pulled between the British whose made him what he is and India, the country of his birth. Sam is the romantic hero - fair skinned, green eyed and handsome - and of course he's a doctor so it's hardly surprising Isabel fell for him? (I'm being a bit sarcastic but at times it's a bit Mills and Boon Nurse and Doctor) If Sam were white he'd be exactly the sort of man Isabel's mother would have wanted her to marry - but he's not and his race puts him beyond the pale.
Joseph - Joseph is Isabel's servant and he's probably my favourite character in the book. He's been serving the British army men and their wives for years and he knows all the rules inside out and is happy to try to train Isabel in the ways of a pukka memsahib. However, he's a loyal and good man who stands by Isabel despite her many transgressions, accepting behaviour that's truly unacceptable and following her through her meanderings around the country. Of all the major characters, he's the only one that really comes out of the tale with honour.
Carolyn Slaughter was born in New Delhi but grew up in Africa. She had written eight other books before 'A Black Englishman' but this book is very personal. For many years her family told her that her maternal grandmother, Anne Webb, was dead but she eventually found out that Anne had been incarcerated in India and British mental institutes for most of her life and finally met her at the age of 81. Anne is the inspiration for Isabel and it's been suggested that 'A Black Englishman' is Slaughter's attempt to give her grandmother the happy ending she thinks she deserved.
Despite being born in India, Slaughter makes a lot of geographical mistakes in her novel, which show really poor research. Isabel stays at a hotel that wasn't built until the 1950s and supposedly enjoyed it for the views of the Qutb Minar which she couldn't possibly have seen from there as it's a 30 minute drive away. At one point she talks of visiting Chandigarh - a city that wasn't built until 30 years after the time in which the novel is set. These details are minor irritations like continuity errors in a film. On their own they wouldn't be enough to ruin a good tale. What does ruin it - for me at least - is the lack of a reason to believe in the love affair and since that's the whole point of the book, it's a serious problem. As readers we are supposed to believe that Isabel will give up everything - her marriage, status, parental love and even her freedom - for a man that Slaughter fails to convince us that Isabel really loves. Is she in love with Sam or in love with the 'idea' of him and the adventure of transgression. The sex is poorly written and the move from sexual dalliance to an all-consuming obsessive love just doesn't read convincingly. We can understand how she got into the affair but not why it carries on.
When you base a story on something within your family history as Slaughter has done, there must be barriers to really getting stuck in. I wondered if it was out of respect to her grandmother that the sex was so superficial and poorly written and the emotions of falling in love were so badly missing. But then after reading up about the author afterwards, I learned that Slaughter was the victim of many years of sexual abuse as a child and wondered if that was the blocker to her writing more convincingly about the topic. If you have issues about intimacy, maybe trying to write a great love-story isn't the best direction to take.
The use of her grandfather's actual name is a clear indicator that this book is at least in part an act of revenge on him for what he did to her grandmother and on the family who hid the truth from her for so many years. But when something happened so long ago and in such different circumstances, is it really her (or our) place to judge blame in a relationship? I think plenty of men - or women - would have felt fairly justified in feeling bitter that their new spouse took their vows so lightly. Fair enough, they wouldn't have all gone as far to punish her but Slaughter is getting muddled between the feelings she has for the real Neville and her semi-fictional characater.
I found some of the attitudes expressed in the book quite offensive but I would accept that looking from my 21st century perspective that might be a little unfair. Samresh is described as a 'Black Englishman' but Isabel admits she's not sure she could love him if he were a dark-skinned Indian who hadn't been educated in England. She has chosen a fair-skinned Kashmiri man who is of far higher class than her army husband so the issues of class and race are very complicated. She's found a man of the right class but the wrong colour whilst her husband had the colour but none of the class.
Isabel isn't an easy character to like. She shows a total lack of concern for others - her husband is forgotten as she races off to Shimla to be with her lover; her lover's family are not even thought of until she's in too deep; her feelings of guilt over his wife and child only really develop once the wife is no longer an issue (I won't say how or why but it's all a bit too convenient a plot-turn); she shows a total lack or respect for the opinion of both her servants and her neighbours and whilst I can understand the latter, her behaviour towards Joseph really doesn't justify his subsequent sense of duty and loyalty to his employer.
I also don't believe for one moment that an Anglo-Italian, even one with a good tan, a dose of Brylcream in her hair and a dab of kohl would ever be able to pass herself off as a local Indian woman. My British-born Punjabi friends with 100% genuine Indian blood running in their veins, can't even pass themselves off as locals when they visit their relatives, regardless of how they dress. Nobody ever thinks they are local.
Despite the slating I may have given it, I did quite enjoy A Black Englishman and it kept my mind buzzing for days afterwards. What I liked were the places and the historical context that formed the background of the story much more than the story itself.
Also posted on www.curiousbookfans.co.uk
Isabel, a young woman in flight from the ravages of the Great War, throws herself headlong into a passionate and dangerous liaison with Sam, an Indian doctor, and Oxford graduate - but their devotion to one another takes them across the length and breadth of India and to the brink of disaster. This powerful and erotic love story combines the urgent and contemporary themes of colonial exploitation, race and sexuality, and compellingly explores the many forms of partition - secular and religious - that infect and endanger the modern world.