I like a lot of historical novels but for a lot of them I have a similar objection: The narrator or protagonist has anachronistically modern views. This, of course, makes it easier to identify with and easier to enjoy, but it’s sort of a cop-out. For example, the otherwise excellent Imogen Robertson runs into this problem with her protagonists, Harriet Westerman and Gabriel Crowther. They manage it because she’s a widow used to running her own household and he’s an eccentric, and the minor characters react with appropriate alarm at their breaches of decorum. But the people we empathize with most are people who think a lot like we do today.
M. J. Carter avoids this trap in The Strangler Vine with her narrator, William Avery, a young officer with the British East India Company in 1837. Avery truly believes he’s doing good work bringing order and Christ to the “Hindoos” and “Mohammedans” in Calcutta. He’s the youngest son of provincial gentry, brought up to be dismissive of the poor and awed by the aristocracy, and he follows through on it. Shown the worst of colonialism, he cannot believe that the system is rotten, but blames a handful of bad actors. Independence isn’t even a dream or a rumor: it’s completely inconceivable.
At first, his arrogance and confidence in his innate British superiority makes it harder to like Avery, but it also makes his portrayal more lifelike. On page 1 of The Strangler Vine, he’s a naïve young man trapped in his assumptions, but he grows and learns with realistic slowness that many of his assumptions are false. As he does so he takes shape as a genuinely interesting person. His tutor in this endeavor is an outcast former Company man, Jeremiah Blake, who gets roped into work as a “Special Inquiry Agent” from time to time.
Because Blake speaks the local languages, understands and sympathizes with the grievances of the natives, and is keenly aware of the downside of the Empire, the Company men don’t trust him. But for the same reasons, they need him. He and Avery are sent off on a quest to find a missing poet of significant political importance, meanwhile getting involved in the courts of semi-independent Indian states and persistent bands of dacoits… or are they sinister cultists?
The tension between Avery’s blind belief in the glories of Empire as he’s been raised to understand them and the reality he sees with Blake will take a lifetime to resolve, or at least several excellent novels. Midway through The Infidel Stain – several years later, London, radical Chartists demanding suffrage for all men – Avery is somewhat wiser. But he still hesitates when Blake hands him some unwashed second-hand clothing before taking him into a lower-class pub. “I’ll look like a laborer!” he objects. Then he catches himself: that’s the point, of course, if you’re going to be chatting up someone from a militant labor movement. It’s a tiny moment, but a brilliant one.
The Strangler Vine wasn’t a blockbuster sales hit when it came out in hardcover, but it got good critical buzz: lots of favorable reviews, the longlist on the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, a Washington Post Notable Book and an Edgar Award finalist. It’s now available in paper, and I’m willing to bet that plenty of people who read it this month will be more than willing to pick up The Infidel Stain in hardcover when it arrives on March 29th.