Massacre in the Boats off Cawnpore. Image taken from The history of the Indian Mutiny / CC
I have always been fascinated by the literature of the British Empire and having read enthusiastic reviews of it in 1973 bought and devoured J. G. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur. Farrell was a Liverpudlion but later lived in Ireland and was to write what became known as the Empire Trilogy: Troubles which is set in Ireland in 1919, The Siege of Krishnapur set during the Indian Rebellion 1857, and finally The Singapore Grip against the background of the fall of Singapore 1942.
The Siege of Krishnapur is set in a fictional British cantonment in India in 1857 against the background of a siege by Indian sepoys. Farrell includes a contradictory cross section of Victorian society with some marvellous characters amongst the blood and squalor. The Collector, who is obsessed by the Great Exhibition and progress, and the Magistrate, a former Chartist whose youthful ideals are destroyed by the siege. Two doctors disagree over the best way to treat cholera and one dies without convincing the community. Fleury, a political young man from England, learns to become a proficient soldier whilst Lucy, a “fallen woman” runs a tea salon for the increasingly despairing community.
The residency at Krishnapur is a microcosm of Victorian England, and the Indians are less integrated in the novel than one might have assumed. Apart from the attempts by the sepoys to destroy the garrison, which are described in graphic detail, there are debates about life, progress, religious beliefs and medicine.
I read the novel whilst I was teaching at RMA Sandhurst, and it seemed a fitting vehicle for my thoughts about an Academy for the training and education of officer cadets set in the Surrey landscape but surrounded by the military bric-a-brac of a departed empire.
Of course Farrell was using the accounts of what really happened at Cawnpore and Lucknow during the Indian Military and its brutal aftermath. Sadly he was drowned whilst fishing on the coast of Ireland and left an incomplete manuscript The Hill Station, which was set in Simla several years after the mutiny.
The Siege of Krishnapur was awarded the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1973, and Farrell used his acceptance speech to attack the sponsors for their business activities. Not a natural supporter of the Conservative Party but a talented, interesting novelist, and I re-read The Siege of Krishnapur regularly – a hard back first edition.
Keith Simpson was first elected to Parliament in 1997. In March 2015 he was made a Privy Councillor and appointed to serve on the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament.