This novel won the Booker prize in 1973, so I'm a bit late catching up with it. Reading a novel set in colonial India recently made me remember a couple of 'imperial' works I'd missed out on. This is one; the other is The Raj Quartet, a somewhat bigger challenge, four volumes (I've watched the TV series three times, the best television drama of its time).
Mr Farrell sets his novel in 1857, the year of the Indian Mutiny, in the imaginary outpost of Krishnapur in the baking plains of Hindustan. Mr Hopkins, the 'Collector' (as the governor is called, because of his vast hoard of possessions), gets wind of the uprising and offers the expatriate community refuge in his Residency only hours ahead of the first assault by rebellious 'sepoys'. The expats are mostly the families of British soldiers, a few merchants and the managers of the opium farms. There are more women than men: the so-called 'fishing fleet', spinsters from England hoping to find husbands in the Imperial Army. The early chapters of this book are reminiscent of Jane Austen, a 'comedy of manners' moved to a dusty Indian outpost. Even as the bullets start to fly and putrefaction becomes the odour of the day, these ladies fret about the protocol of sheltering with people of lower class and looser morals.