memoirs of times long past: M.M. Kaye’s (partial) autobiography

Kaye’s memoir is in fact a trilogy–The Sun in the Morning, Golden Afternoon and Enchanted Evening–and it should come as no surprise to anyone who’s read her three romances, The Far Pavilions, Shadows of the Moon and Trade Wind, that the three volumes of her autobiography come to well over 1,000 pages.

The description for this one’s going to be brief, despite the books’ combined length: the three books together are a memoir of growing up in the end of the British Raj, specifically from 1908 to 1940 as the official British presence in India was coming to an end. Born in India, Kaye spent her first ten years in India–her father was a minor official in the British diplomats corps–and the family returned “home” to England after World War I ended and transoceanic travel became safe once again for civilians. Kaye glosses over the years of her adolescence spent in England and picks up again upon their family’s return to India. After the death of her father shortly before his intended retirement, Kaye and her mother return to England for a few years but realized that neither woman is happy away from the country they love, and would prefer India even without their beloved ‘Tacklow’. (The fact that the cost of living is sufficiently lower in India to permit them to live comfortably on their pensions doesn’t hurt; the £1, 5s Kaye received as the surviving child didn’t go very far even in the 1930s.) Both women augmented their pensions with selling their paintings, although in Kaye’s case, the sale of her books eventually eclipsed anything she might have hoped to earn from her illustrations and sketches. The third volume ends when she is still in her early thirties, as World War II was beginning and she accepted the proposal of one Goff Hamilton.

She admits in the beginning that she has a very good memory, and didn’t realize until late in life that not everyone was so blessed (or cursed depending on your point of view); this gift of memory shows very well in these books. Written decades after the events in them, the amount of vivid detail is truly phenomenal; I can’t remember events from a week ago so well as she does those from her earliest childhood. Being present at the launching of the Titanic is one thing–that would be impressive even to the preschooler that she was at the time–but the inclusion of a myriad routine details of her childhood and adolescence make this a valuable description of life in the Raj in the teens, twenties and thirties. It’s not a complete history of the time period and place, nor is it even particularly unbiased, but then what autobiography ever is? This one in particular is the recollections of an old woman looking back with nostalgia on what she remembers as an idyllic childhood, adolescence and young womanhood.

I’d say that this shouldn’t be any library’s first or only book on the Raj, or even its fourth or fifth given the memoir’s age and inevitable bias, but for large collections or areas where there’s a great deal of interest in the subject, yes. In that last case, get this book. Please get this book, or rather these three books. It’s very much a period piece, a description of coming to maturity in a time long gone and in a place very few people living today experienced. As with other M.M. Kaye fans, I’m disappointed that she decided to end with her marriage to Goff Hamilton, when she was in her early thirties; she lived for nearly another sixty years, and I’d dearly love to know what happened then! (Given that she and he remained married for most of that time, I’d hazard a guess that “happily ever after” played a fair part in that subsequent life.)


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