Hilary Spurling describes M.M. Kaye's surprising friendship with Paul Scott

M.M. Kaye was characteristically decisive about her ambition as a novelist. She aimed to write a best-seller, and (after specialising for years in reliable romantic thrillers) finally did so with The Far Pavilions at the age of 70 in 1978. The book capitalises on racy plotting and an almost folkloric gift for breathing passionate life into highly simplified characters, combining both with an intimate knowledge of the British imperial India into which Kaye was born, and where she grew up believing herself (like her hero, Ashton Pelham-Martyn) to be an Indian. The Far Pavilions sold over fifteen million copies. Kaye herself seems to have been as surprised as anyone to find she had finally mastered the art of direct access to currents of memory and dream deep within the popular imagination, a phenomenon almost impossible to predict beforehand and not always easy to explain afterwards.

The first to recognise what she had done was her old friend, Paul Scott, author of the much stranger, harsher and at that stage still largely underrated Raj Quartet. The two friends had started writing what Kaye called their ‘Indian historicals’ in 1964. Over the next decade and more, they gave one another unconditional mutual back-up without either ever actually reading a word the other wrote. Scott finished first, completing his sequence of four novels in 1975, but achieving neither commercial success nor widespread critical acclaim until he won the Booker prize with his next book, Staying On, a postcript to the Quartet on a theme suggested to him by Kaye. By this time he was already dying of the cancer that would kill him in 1978, a few months before publication of The Far Pavilions. When I met her almost a decade later, Mollie Kaye told me, as Scott’s biographer, the story of that strange conjunction between two novelists, both staking everything over the same period on works which each knew would make or break their respective reputations.

They had first met in 1951, when Kaye submitted her latest manuscript to David Higham Associates after a ten year gap imposed by marriage and motherhood. It took five more years and several thrillers before she realised that young Mr Scott who looked after her at Highams was in fact the Paul Scott who had written The Alien Sky (‘I should never have thought you’d like it,’ he said when his client asked if she might shake his hand). She admired his work, and trusted him implicitly with hers. When he advised her to drop the Indian book she dreamed of writing, she obeyed, picking it up again only after she had taken his advice to stockpile a couple of thrillers in case of disappointment. The result was Shadow of the Moon, which Scott read in manuscript over a single weekend in 1956. ‘I finished it at three in the morning,’ he told her next day: ‘My wife’s about to divorce me, and you’ve written a bestseller.’ His forecast proved premature but accurate in the long run. ‘She is fundamentally a romantic writer,’ he wrote, analysing Kaye’s strengths and weaknesses a few years later. ‘Her characters are nearly always stock characters but, when she understands them, she fills them full of a kind of catching romantic fire…her English heroes only come alive when they use muscle instead of brain power, and when they aren’t scorched by politics, and fall in love with decent, clean, courageous English women…’

Kaye relied absolutely on Scott’s literary and professional judgement. ‘I feel like some agitated sheep bleating in the middle of a large empty field without you to advise and steer,’ she wrote when he gave up agenting in 1960 to become a full-time writer. Now it was her turn to offer moral and practical support. She answered his questions about the Raj, passed on stories from her own or her family’s experience, and supplied tips and contacts for his return trip to India in 1963. It was Kaye who sowed the seed of Scott’s Jewel in the Crown by introducing him to Neil Ghosh, an Indian educated at a British public school to think, talk and act as if he were an Englishman.

Throughout the years that followed the two exchanged the kind of mutual commiseration, consolation and encouragement only a fellow writer can provide. Each urged the other on as a way of keeping up his or her own spirits. Kaye’s husband, Major-General G.J. Hamilton, DSO (a real-life hero of Queen Victoria’s Own Corps of Guides when he first swept her off her feet in India), spent his retirement acting as fact-checker and specialist adviser to them both. ‘It’s no good, I can’t write like you, and never shall do,’ Kaye said when Scott reproached her for not reading his novels as they came out. She told him frankly that she found the gulf between his work and hers so demoralising she was afraid of giving up altogether (‘So while I am writing a book, I make it a rule to read lightweight stuff, and most of it tripe, because then I feel happily, “Well at least I can write as well as that – or better than this!’). He said it was the finest compliment anyone had ever paid him.  

‘He saw a quite different India to the one I had seen and known,’ she told me afterwards, adding that when she finally caught up with the Quartet, she bitterly regretted not having offered to correct all four books in proof. ‘He never met the real Raj. He got so many things wrong. He even got his snobberies wrong. It was a tragedy that the only person who could have hauled him over the coals didn’t read the books in time.’ What upset her far more than occasionally inaccurate detail was Scott’s treatment of his fictional women – unheroic, all-too-human characters at the furthest possible remove from her own decent, clean, courageous heroines (‘It was a travesty. He did the greatest possible disservice to the British Raj’). But at bottom Kaye knew perfectly well that fiction is not an advertising medium. She was too generous, and too good a writer herself, not to respond to the underlying emotional truth and imaginative power of Scott’s Quartet. ‘I would give anything to write like that,’ she said.

Scott for his part had demonstrated his faith in her by offering to provide her publishers with a professional reader’s report on Far Pavilions, stipulating only that, if he didn’t like it, he would say so (‘Don’t I know it,’ Kaye replied with feeling). His detailed commentary – ‘almost as long as the book itself’ – was full of practical suggestions, all of which she followed except for his insistence that her narrative required a tragic denouement, ‘because it darkens so towards the end’. At their last lunch together, she told Scott that her American publisher had refused to let her change the ending (‘Paul was disappointed in me – funny he should have said that, “it darkens so towards the end”’). The two never met again.

Scott flew off to take up a temporary teaching post in America, where they continued their long, fond familiar conversations by phone and post. For years he had amused and distracted Kaye at low points with messages and poems emanating from his alter ego (‘a tiresome Bengali Brahmin called Scotterjee’) in Mudpore. She responded in kind, thanking him ‘from heart’s bottom’ in letters addressed from Hailshamabad in the Home Counties. When Far Pavilions showed pre-publication signs of spectacular success, Scott, who prided himself on having spotted its potential before anybody else, urged her to spend part of the proceeds on something for herself (‘Buy diamonds!’). All through his emergency cancer treatment, she rang him every day in his American hospital bed in spite of his protests about her phone bills. ‘But, sir, you are telling me to do this,’ Kaye said in her best Indian accent. ‘What d’you mean, telling you?’ asked Scott. ‘Sir, you are telling me to buy diamonds. And every word that falls from lips of Master is diamonds to humble chelah.’

He crowed with laughter. After his death, she missed him bitterly both as friend and mentor. She had understood his essential quality as a writer from the first as clearly as he grasped hers. ‘I still have another Indian book in me,’ she told me sadly, ‘but I shall never write it now that Paul’s not here to discuss it with me