A story of imperialists

Submitted by Anon on 16 May, 2009 - 1:59 Author: Rosalind Robson

Rosalind Robson reviews Radio 4’s dramatisation of J G Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur (Sundays 3pm)

I very much enjoy historical novels but JG Farrell’s Booker Prize winning book (part of a trilogy about the British Empire) had until now, escaped my notice. This story, one episode in, was so cracking I went straight to Amazon to get my copy.

Set in a fictional garrison town, events are loosely based on the 1857 rebellion against the British East India Company by sepoys (Indian soldiers). In the first episode the rebellion begins and the British residents come under siege. The story will be about what happens to a motely crew of civil servants, business men, and thier female relatives — the sons and daughters of the Victorian bourgeoisie — as they come under pressure from the people they so carelessly and often brutally rule.

The many aspects of Victorian culture that are portrayed here come at you thick and fast (maybe the result of the condensing of the novel). But, as I say, I enjoy historical detail in the fictional context and this was no exception — the story covers the Great Exhibition, phrenology, the siege of Sebastopol, opium eating and much more.

This is not a story of the structures of Empire so much as an examination of the ideas and characters of the imperialists. One theme is the meaning of capitalist civilisation at the time, with its emphasis on machines and materialism; it is abhorred by Mr George Fleury (a “poetic type”, a throwback to an earlier, Romantic era). Pity then that Mr Fleury is such a inarticulate weakling. Another theme is the contrasts between the different female characters. Two women so far are in their different ways the “new women” of mid-19th century Europe. They have minds of their own — a shocking thing at the time.

A great story. Catch it if you can.

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