Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Parallel lines

I think I've said before that I learned more history from historical novels than I ever did at school. One of the things I do remember is the history teacher telling us about the Black Hole of Calcutta, when over a hundred prisoners were locked away in an Indian prison cell four metres square and only twenty-odd of them survived the night. The only problem is that I always linked it to the wrong war. It happened in 1756, just before the Battle of Plassey, but for years I thought it was part of the Indian Mutiny.

In a way that's understandable, because the Mutiny is one of those conflicts that gives war a bad name, stuffed full of wanton savagery, military incompetence, corruption and double-dealing. It also, of course, spawned heroism, stoicism and sacrifice from civilian and soldier alike, and on both sides.

Two of the best novels on the Mutiny are JG Farrell's Siege of Krishnapur and George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman in the Great Game. Farrell's is a tightly corralled tale homing in on a single fictional event, while Fraser somehow manages to get his anti-hero to most of the major battles of that sprawling conflict that enveloped the cities of the north central plain. This week I finally got round to reading a third novel of the period.

I've always been a big fan of Julian Rathbone. He writes superbly crafted, often very funny books normally with a single main character involved in one of the world's great events. His hero is unscrupulous, and never dull, and the stories are prone to eccentric changes of direction that keep the reader guessing. What struck me about The Mutiny were the parallels with the Flashman book, in fact, the devious, philandering villain of Tom Brown's Schooldays even gets a mention. Rathbone skilfully pulls together the roots of the conflict, showing how religion, corruption and exploitation combined in an explosive mix whose potential for damage eluded the complacent rulers of the Raj. He solves the problem of the Mutiny's scale by telling the story from multiple points of view. Expectant mothers Sophie Hardcastle and Catherine Dixon show us Meerut, where the violence began, their children vanish, rescued from certain death by Lavanyah, Stephen Hardcastle's wetnurse. The children somehow reach Cawnpore, where the Indian girl is immediately ostracised, and endure the terrible siege and betrayal. For most of the book, Rathbone deliberately underplays the horrors inflicted on white and Asian alike, but in the massacre that follows Cawnpore the bloodshed is graphic and minutely described, an odd contrast to an event that Fraser conveyed in a single line. There are echoes of Flashman in Lieutenant Farquhar, the shadowy figure who slips with ease between enemy lines, and who along with William Raikes Hodson - assumed by some to be the original inspiration for Thomas Hughes's bullying schoolboy - takes the story to the sieges of Lucknow, Delhi and Jhansi. Like Fraser, Rathbone is probably kinder than she deserves to Lakshmi-bai, the Rani of Jhansi, one of the exotic female leaders of the revolt, but he perfectly captures the claustrophobic atmosphere of the British in India, imprisoned by a caste system almost as rigorous as those of the natives they despised, and the oddly muddled descent into horror of the Indian princes.

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