Daný van Dam submitted her PhD on postcolonial neo-Victorianism in July 2016, at Cardiff University. She is co-editor of a special issue of the online, peer-reviewed journal Assuming Gender on the topic of ‘Consuming Gender’, see http://www.assuminggender.com/p/call-for-papers.html (if you’re interested: the proposal deadline is 16 October 2016). She’s also one of this year’s BAVS ‘Consuming (the) Victorians’ conference organisers. Daný is currently setting up a new research project on non-English-language neo-Victorian writing. More information on her work can be found at https://cardiff.academia.edu/DanyvanDam.
Since neo-Victorian fiction started receiving more critical attention in the late 1990s, there have been certain texts that critics continually refer to – what we can consider neo-Victorianism’s canonical works. John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969) would be one example of these, as are A.S. Byatt’s Possession (1990), Sarah Waters’ three neo-Victorian novels (Tipping the Velvet, 1998; Affinity, 1999; Fingersmith, 2002) and Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White (2002). The neo-Victorian genre has certainly grown exponentially since the turn of the century and criticism has opened up to include a wider variety of material (including neo-Victorianism across different media, as earlier posts on this blog have also shown). This obviously leads to critics being unable to discuss or reference every text, film, web series, and so on. Still, many texts and authors will ring a bell with active readers and researchers of neo-Victorianism, even if they don’t occur much in critical writing. Not all, however. In this blog-series on neo-Victorianism’s overlooked authors, I introduce a selection of neo-Victorian works that somehow haven’t appeared on the neo-Victorian radar. In this first blog, I turn to the late 1970s to discuss M.M. Kaye (1908-2004).
M.M. Kaye (the initials stand for ‘Mary Margaret’ and she was nicknamed ‘Mollie’) was the daughter of Cecil Kaye, an Intelligence Officer in the Indian Army, and Margaret Sarah Bryson. Serving in India was a family tradition: her grandfather and brother did so too, as did the man she later married. Kaye was raised in India but sent to boarding school in England at ten. When her father was called upon to help revise some treaties with the princely states in 1926, Kaye happily went back to India. Her parents wanted her to marry an Indian officer but Kaye refused. When her father died and she was left with a small income, she had to leave for England again. Here she worked as an illustrator of children’s books. When she illustrated a novel for adults at one point, she found it so badly written that she felt induced to try and create something better. The £64 cheque that she received for this first novel (Six Bars at Seven, 1940) was enough for a ticket to India. Here, she encountered Godfrey John (Goff) Hamilton (1912-1985) and despite his being married, it was love at first sight. Kaye embarked on an affair with Hamilton and bore him two daughters, on in 1943 and one in 1946 (the couple were married in 1945, after Hamilton had divorced his first wife).
After submitting her first book to be published, Kaye continued writing. She has work across genres, from children’s fiction, to a series of detective novels based on the locations where her husband was stationed (Death in Kashmir, 1953; Death in Cyprus, 1956; Death in Zanzibar, 1959; and several others), to the books I’m discussing here: her two epic novels about India, Shadow of the Moon (1957, rev. 1979) and her most popular work, The Far Pavilions (1978).
I can’t remember exactly where I first came across a reference to Kaye’s work – I think it was in a footnote somewhere and if so, apologies to the author of the footnote for not remembering. As I was looking for a text to analyse for my PhD chapter on Victorian British-colonial society abroad, I ordered The Far Pavilions. The book surprised me because of its modern voice – while it was published in the late 1970s and written over almost two decades before that, the novel’s protagonist was a character struggling with many of the same issues that can be found in more recent books about mixed cultural identities. Both novels are detailed and lengthy works: Shadow of the Moon is about 600 pages long, The Far Pavilions more than 950 (in my Penguin re-editions from 2011).
The Far Pavilions, a reference to a mountain range in the north of India, follows the life of Ashton Hilary Akbar Pelham-Martyn, a boy born to English parents but, upon their death, raised by his Indian foster mother as her son Ashok to keep him safe from violence against the British at the time of the 1857 Indian Mutiny (or First Indian War of Independence). Only when she dies, too, she tells him about his English heritage and charges him to find his father’s family. They take the now eleven-year-old Ashton to England where he goes through the public school system to prepare for his return to India as a part of the army. Although his superiors are one the one hand pleased to have an officer who is able to pass for a native inhabitant of the region, they also worry about his loyalties. Throughout the novel, Ash himself also struggles with his mixed identity. Although he has travelled to England and has learnt to be a Sahib, he is also still Ashok, son of Sita, “for having been a child of this land [India] for eleven years I am tied to it by something a strong as the tie of blood, and shall always be two people in one skin – which is not a comfortable thing to be” (156).
When Ash returns to India, he joines the Guides. While his ability to pass for a native of the country is useful to the Guides, it is also seen as a risk, for they constantly worry whether he is about to turn traitor. An army Major, though described as being rather more prejudiced towards the local people than most officers, is distrustful of Ash and his ability to ‘go native’:
there’s something fishy about the feller […] Speaks the lingo a sight too well, for one thing. Mind you, I’m all for bein’ able to speak it well enough to carry on out here, but that doesn’t mean one need speak it so well that one could pass for a native provided one was blacked up […] hobnobbin’ with these people on equal terms don’t do us any good as a race. (497)
Kaye’s other neo-Victorian novel, Shadow of the Moon, doesn’t read as much as a present-day novel as The Far Pavilions does. It, too, is concerned with the difficulties of having an identity that cannot easily be linked to one country and one culture. While Pavilions focuses on the contrast between England and India, Shadow’s protagonist Winter de Ballasteros is from an English-Spanish background, emphasising the fact that she doesn’t have a unified national and cultural grounding (as opposed to Ash, whose identity represents a nature versus culture debate). One of the society matrons explicitly highlights the difficulties of Winter’s looks when it comes to British society in India: “Her father was a Spaniard, you say? It is a pity that she should be so sallow – and have such very black hair. And those eyes! I fear such colouring will be misunderstood in the East. It is almost oriental, is it not?” (118)
Like The Far Pavilions, Shadow of the Moon includes a love-story but where in Pavilions, Ash’ eventual relation with the Indian princess Anjuli is employed to further contrast different cultures, most of the narrative of Shadow is focused around Winter’s love life – her first choice of husband, Conway Barton, who turns out to be a debauched and violent man, and the man she falls in love with and is able to marry after Barton dies, Captain Alex Randall. Shadow also makes more sensational use of the Indian Mutiny or War of Independence than Pavilions does: in Shadow of the Moon, the Mutiny pervades the entire novel and drives much of the plot, while in The Pavilions it is described in a few pages, mostly important as the impetus for Ash’ ayah to take the English boy and make him her son Ashok.
While Kaye’s novels are, obviously, fiction, her love and knowledge of the country permeates the narratives, making them highly enjoyable reads with a critical twist. In the way she describes her protagonists’ struggles with their mixed identities, we read Kaye’s own experience of such a situation. I can highly recommend The Far Pavilions, both for entertainment and critical purposes. Shadow of the Moon is slightly less tightly structured and includes fewer of the ironic comments about race and ethnicity that Kaye makes in The Far Pavilions. If you like The Far Pavilions, though, Shadow of the Moon is also worth a read.
Keep an eye out for next week’s blog about neo-Victorianism’s overlooked authors.
 Biographical information taken from: Amit Roy, “Mary Margaret Kaye”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography online (http://www.oxforddnb.com/, 1 August 2016); and from Veronica Horwell’s obituary of Kaye, published 4 February 2004 for The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/news/2004/feb/04/guardianobituaries.india, 1 August 2016)