ZEMINDAR by Valerie Fitzgerald
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Winner of Britain's Georgette Heyer Award, this 800-page first novel resembles M. M. Kaye's The Far Pavilions in its sweep and its setting--India circa 1857 (yes, folks, it's Sepoy Mutiny time again). But, while Kaye's primary model seems to have been the Kiplingesque exotic/military/romantic adventure, Fitzgerald is more ambitious: her heroine is aggressively Jane Austen-ish; the local colors are more gritty than glittery; the love-through-ordeal plotting is less Barbara Cartland than Margaret Mitchell. And the result, though at least 200 pages too long and sometimes infuriatingly slow, is an uncommonly warm and un-foolish historical, far less contrived or sentimental than the norm. The shrewd, unfussy, ironic narrator: Laura Hewitt, 24, who sails to India in 1856 as paid companion to her honeymooning cousin Emily, bride of Charles (whom Laura secretly adores). First stop: Calcutta, where Laura is shocked by the insularity of the colonials--and by inklings that all is not well with the honeymooners. Then north to Lucknow--because the main object of the trip is for Charles to meet his notorious half-brother Oliver Erskine, an ancestral zemindar (land-holder) of great wealth (which Charles would love to inherit). So, after a stay in the city--the native squalor, the alcoholism and gambling among the Anglos--it's on to Hassanganj, the vast country estate where Oliver himself has gone somewhat native (to society's scorn). Thus begins a Pride and Prejudice courtship between him and Laura (who's uncharacteristically dim when it comes to love), while Emily, though pregnant, falls hard for Oliver. . . and Charles starts yearning for Laura. And all the while there are rumors of rebellion--which climax as Emily, near-fatally, gives birth à la Melanie; Laura discovers that Oliver has a native mistress and child; and the pillaging mutineers arrive at Hassanganj. So the novel then becomes an escape/ordeal, genuinely harrowing, until the refugees reach Lucknow--where Emily dies, Oliver says farewell (he must go back to rescue his native child), and Laura and Charles (with baby Pearl) stick together inside the Lucknow Residency during the horrid, sweaty, bloody, hungry siege. Laura nurses, fights, survives, and grieves silently when word comes that Oliver (she now loves him) has died. But when the Relief comes, so does battered Oliver--and so do over 100 unnecessary pages in which Laura and Oliver now stew over the question of whether to live in India or England. Too bad--because if not for that belabored windup (and for a general talkiness throughout the Laura/Oliver romance), this would be a thoroughgoing delight, the GWTW of colonial India. Still, as it is, Fitzgerald's debut is unusually classy, richly textured storytelling: sophisticated in its history and politics (unlike Kaye), unromanticized in its details (opium, frigidity, carnage), and alive with a vivid, near-Dickensian cast of supporting players.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1982
Publisher: Bantam