The Siege of Krishnapur, the second in J.G. Farrell’s trilogy about the British Empire, is a novel of ideas, full of the mordant humor and irony that characterizes the first book, Troubles. Farrell based his novel on the true-life 1857 siege of Lucknow, during which British residents held out for five months against attacks from Indian sepoys.
As author Pankaj Mishra explains in the introduction, this siege and similar incidents generated at the time a popular romantic genre of fiction, wherein two young English people meet in India just before the rebellion and bravely withstand privation to prevail in the end. In The Siege of Krishnapur, Farrell is among other things satirizing this genre.
George Fleury arrives in Calcutta with his sister Miriam just before news of the first sepoy rebellions. Like Farrell’s protagonist of Troubles, Fleury is an unformed young man, and worse, he tends to the pedantic. He is inclined to the romantic and likes to lecture about the supremacy of feelings and ideas over the new plethora of objects and inventions resulting from the current Industrial Revolution.
In Calcutta, Fleury and Miriam meet another brother and sister, Harry and Louise Dunstable, offspring of one of Krishnapur’s doctors. Harry is a young lieutenant, and Louise is thought to be the prettiest (English) girl in India. Fleury is taken by her, but she spends her time flirting with the young soldiers.
Once the young people reach Krishnapur, it is not long before the rumors of trouble turn into reality. The Collector, who is in charge of the district, has been paying attention, though. The others have been ridiculing him for surrounding the Residency with trenches and sending his wife home to England.
The Collector can’t quite comprehend why the natives would want to attack the British, who in his mind are bringing them the wonderful benefits of civilization. He himself attended the Great Exhibition and has filled his house with some of the marvels exhibited there, including electroplated busts of some of the great poets. (Shakespeare’s head turns out later to make a great cannonball; Keats’ does not.)
Once the British are under attack, there are thrilling yet funny descriptions of the fighting, bravely and innovatively conducted by Harry and the other soldiers, who have limited resources, and incompetently assisted by Fleury. Fleury is continually arming himself with some bulky and impractical weapon. Inside the Residency, the British begin by maintaining strict social levels and having tea parties. Once Fleury and Harry have rescued Lucy, a suicidal fallen woman, from her bungalow outside the compound, the other ladies are horrified at having to share quarters with her, even though they are sleeping on billiard tables.
Many vibrant characters inhabit this novel. The Padre is an Anglican clergyman who endlessly tries to convert his flock’s thoughts into more pious channels, haranging them even in the midst of battle. Dr. Dunstable is so incensed by the more modern treatments of his rival, Dr. McNab, that he challenges him to verbal debates and eventually gets himself killed trying to prove Dr. McNab is wrong about the cause and treatment of cholera. Even when Dr. Dunstable’s death proves Dr. McNab is right, the supposedly rational and enlightened British still somehow believe he is wrong. The Magistrate is so interested in phrenology that he shocks everyone by feeling the back of Lucy’s head to determine its amativeness and is slapped for it.
As conditions in the Residency deteriorate, the true nature of the British rulers of India emerges, petty, jingoistic, and chauvinistic, caring little for the natives, who do not appear much in the novel except as servants or attackers. In one revealing speech, an opium grower rejoices at how much money has been made by forcing the Indians to grow opium and then using it to addict the Chinese. In fact, it was just at this time that the 8th Earl of Elgin stopped to hear about the rebellion in northern India while he was on his way to China to force the Chinese emperor to admit British opium dealers.
The novel tells a great story, while still being full of wit and philosophy.