Many years ago – in 1984 to be exact – there was a brilliant series on TV called The Jewel in the Crown. It was based on four books by Paul Scott which came to be known as the Raj Quartet. As you may know, or even remember, these books were set in India in the 1940s, and dealt with the lives of a collection of mainly upper-class army people who, as the war came to an end and independence dawned for India, were forced to deal with the repercussions of those events and their effect on the quality of their lives. Most people by the end had decided to pack up and leave, to go 'home', even though they may not have lived there for a large proportion of their lives. But there were exceptions: a few people who dreaded the thought of the climate and the reduction in domestic comfort, and decided to stay on. In 1977, Paul Scott took a couple of very minor characters from the Quartet and looked at their lives decades after that decision. The result was Staying On, and the novel won the Booker in 1977.
Staying On focuses on Lucy Smalley and her husband, ex-Colonel Tusker Smalley. They've moved around quite a bit since Partition, but for the past few years have been living in a slightly shabby annexe of Smith's Hotel in the small town of Pankot. Smith's was once the town's only hotel, but it's now dwarfed by the much larger and tackier Shiraz next door, managed by the terrifying Mrs Bhoolaboy, who is served (in every sense) by her mild Christian husband, who is known as Billy Boy by Tusker, his drinking companion.
Tusker is a man of few words – his favourite utterance seems to be 'Ha!' - and Lucy, much more thoughtful and voluble, has struggled for most of her life to get an idea of what Tusker wants and why he wants it. They have a servant, Ibrahim, who Tusker periodically sacks, only to take him back a day or two later. We see quite a lot of the servants – Mrs Bhoolaboy's maid Minnie, who started life as an ayah to a new baby in the Raj Quartet, and the mali Joseph, who takes great pride in cutting the grass, though Tusker, for complicated reasons, pretends he doesn't exist. It's fascinating to see how the servants relate to their white employers, once their rulers – they are under no illusions, but there's obviously still some affection, though perhaps a questionable amount of loyalty. Another important secondary character is Susy, the Anglo-Indian hairdresser and a great friend of Lucy's, though it's only at the end of the book that she is invited to dinner at the Smalleys, a huge step forward in race relations.
Most of the action is told through Lucy's musings and memories. Gradually as the novel progresses we learn the details of the marriage – how impressed Lucy had been by the smart young army officer who came into the bank where she worked, and her visions of an army wedding, with an arch of swords for them to walk through, which in the event, like the rest of her dreams, did not materialise. Now Tusker's health is failing, and Lucy realises she has no idea of what her financial position will be if he dies before her. Much of the latter part of the novel is devoted to her efforts to get him to tell her, and eventually, unable to bring himself to tell her face to face he writes her a long letter which does at least give her the information she wants. It's not much, but it's a letter she treasures, 'the only love letter she had ever received'.
This is an extraordinarily lovely book. It's full of wry comedy but essentially an extremely moving portrait of a marriage in which almost zero communication takes place but in which somehow it's clear that love exists, even if never expressed. Tusker is a brilliant character, infuriating and irascible, obstinate and stubborn but not without a good heart of sorts. Lucy is more complicated, given to stubbornness and irritability of her own, but facing almost insuperable odds in trying to keep the peace in her difficult marriage. We know by the end - before that, in fact - that she will be left a widow, and we assume she will finally go 'home', but despite her misgivings, I think we can be sure that she's going to be OK - she's a survivor.