J. G. Farrell: Empire Trilogy

  • Neil McEwan


Mary Renault reminds us of an historian interpreting facts and bringing the past to life for present readers on the basis of the evidence. Burgess and Nye put us in mind of literary critics for whom facts about the past are seen in relation to the literature, language and legends which have survived. J. G. Farrell resembles a philosopher for whom facts are curious in themselves. Margaret Drabble’s essay on his work comments on the abundance of ideas which obsess the characters and of things which beset them.1 It is the most pervasive characteristic of these novels. Facts for Farrell are made of ideas and of things; he holds up these specimens of the past for inspection, with a kind of wonderment. Objects give reality to facts. A hotel is in charred ruins today because it was burned down in the Troubles of 1921. There are funeral-wells at Lucknow because of the Mutiny. Ideas helped to make the facts, and offered explanation at the time. Farrell has ideas of his own, although he is not doctrinaire. His ruling idea is that man is caught between the irresistible temptations of thought and the recalcitrant nature of the physical world about him. He set his best novels at three points in the hundred years before he began to write and he argued that this distancing gave a freedom to his vision of life. Life, he thought, ‘basically does not change very much’.


British Empire Independence Movement Material Progress British Resident Present Reader 
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  1. 1.
    Margaret Drabble, Things Fall Apart’, in J. G. Farrell, The Hill Station, edited by John Spurling (London: Fontana, 1982) pp. 178–84.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    James Vinson and D. L. Kirkpatrick (eds), Contemporary Novelists, 3rd edn (London: Macmillan, 1982) p. 728.Google Scholar
  3. 11.
    See F. S. L. Lyons, Culture and Anarchy in Ireland 1890–1939 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979) pp. 106–9.Google Scholar
  4. 12.
    Bernard Bergonzi, The Situation of the Novel, 2nd edn (London: Macmillan, 1979) p. 231.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 13.
    See F. S. L. Lyons, Ireland Since the Famine (London: Fontana, 1973) pp. 419–20.Google Scholar
  6. 18.
    See also Charles Townshend, The British Campaign in Ireland 1919–21 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978).Google Scholar
  7. 19.
    Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1931) p. 73.Google Scholar
  8. 21.
    See J. A. B. Palmer, The Mutiny Outbreak at Meerut in 1857 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966) p. 29.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 22.
    See James Morris, Heaven’s Command (London: Faber & Faber, 1973) pp. 230–42.Google Scholar
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    Percival Spear, India (University of Michigan Press, 1961) p. 270;Google Scholar
  11. quoted in Christopher Hibbert, The Great Mutiny (London: Allen Lane, 1978) p. 392.Google Scholar
  12. 34.
    John Fowles, The French Lieutenant’s Woman (London: Jonathan Cape, 1969), Note to Chapter 19.Google Scholar
  13. 39.
    See J. M. Pluvier, South-East Asia from Colonialism to Independence (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1974) p. 178.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Neil McEwan 1987

Authors and Affiliations

  • Neil McEwan
    • 1
  1. 1.University of QatarQatar

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