This interesting novel is set around 1943/44 in a small settlement in rural India, which is dominated by an Army training camp. The soldiers, commanded by Colonel Davis, are awaiting orders to go overseas to fight, probably in Burma. Apart from a number of officers and their families, the main characters are Dr Taussig, a Jewish refugee from Vienna,his wife, Frieda,daughter,Erika and son,Simon.
Essentially this is a traditional romantic story with a hero, Michael Roberts, Adjutant to Colonel Davis, and a heroine, Erika Taussig, who overcome various obstacles to become engaged at the end of the novel. There are objections to the match from all sides. Michael needs his commanding officer’s permission to marry but, although Dr Taussig has been thoroughly investigated and found to be a genuine refugee, there are still those, among them Colonel Davis, who regard him as an enemy alien and possible spy. The Taussigs doubt Michael’s suitability as a husband for Erika. Her father is a warm, friendly person who finds the British very stiff and cold, while her brother, believing that the Jews will be persecuted wherever they go and so must stick together, doesn’t want her to marry a gentile. Michael wonders if it is fair to declare himself to Erika when he might be killed in the war.
In the background to this conventional story is a strong sense of impermanence and change. The title comes from a conversation Dr Taussig has with some pro-Independence Indians, during which he is told that the British are uninvited guests in India and must leave for India to be able to develop. There are references to riots elsewhere and on a couple of occasions soldiers go to help the Police deal with local outbreaks of anti-British agitation; it is all rather low key but contributes to the sense of uncertainty.
Uninvited guests also describes the Taussigs. As Jews they are no longer welcome in Europe and, although they have been in India for five years and Dr Taussig’s practice is growing, life still feels precarious; they have lost all sense of safety and security. Frieda is described thus,
‘ She would not stop working for her family because she had always worked for them and she would never break herself of the habit, but the mainspring in her soul was broken….’
Of course, the most immediate threat to permanence and stability, a constant presence in the background, is the war. They cannot think beyond it. No one knows if the men will return; no one knows what will happen to India.
The writer is very good on social details. She is an acute and acerbic observer of the social scene: the claustrophobic nature of a small encampment; the gossip; the social events where you know everyone already and particularly the sense that your life is not your own. One of the most enjoyable aspects of the novel is the way in which two older army wives, Mrs Davis and Mrs White, act as a kind of Greek chorus, discussing the regiment and their own lives and families, but especially marriage. They are rather narrow-minded, but not unkind. Mrs White describes them as,
“‘..two elderly women wandering over the face of the globe without any roots,very few possessions, carrying our home about in battered tin trunks, dragging up our children, saving no money.'”
Mrs Davis asks what else they could have done,
“‘..we have kept our family life together…we have the affection of our husbands and children.’
‘Do you think we have?’ Mrs White asked doubtfully. ‘I sometimes wonder whether Harold would recognize me if he met me unexpectedly in the street. I don’t believe he has even seen me for fifteen years.'”
Both women are feeling unusually unsettled but accept that fundamentally the life has suited them,although they dream of retiring to a settled life in the home counties. They continue to put the regiment first. They discuss Mary James, the unhappy, malicious wife of a young officer and her constant demands on her husband. While they have some sympathy for her, the older women think she should make the best of her situation; she certainly must not be allowed to distract her husband from his work. But their old certainties are weakening; Mrs White begins to doubt her right to interfere in others’ lives and Mrs Davis, who had assumed her daughter would marry a soldier, now thinks that perhaps it would be better if Antonia found a non-military husband.
They are afraid that Michael will ruin his career if he marries Erika; he is determined to do so,while recognizing that his marriage will be very different to those of his seniors. “Davis and White treated their wives as responsible unit commanders who could be trusted to carry on with their responsibilities without supervision.” Erika does not have the experience for this version of the wifely role. She imagines what he friends will say,
“But Michael you can’t marry this little Jewish girl!…But Michael, what does she know of Army life….She won’t make a good wife at all…why, Michael, she can hardly speak English…why, Michael, she can’t play tennis.”
An appealing quality in the novel is the tenderness which characterizes the happy marriages. Frieda may be grey and faded but her husband still sees the lovely young woman he has loved for twenty-seven years. Antonia contracts cholera, and, in taking her to Dr Taussig for treatment, Mrs Davis goes directly against her husband’s orders. She is very angry with him but their parting when the regiment finally leaves is moving in a typically reserved British way.
At the end of the novel Michael and Erika are pledged to each other but the conventional happy ending is rather overshadowed by the possibility that Michael might die in the war.
The author is a bit of a mystery. She published eight novels between 1939 and 1952. According to Allen J.Hubin’s Crime Fiction:a Comprehensive Bibliography, Parr Cooper is the pseudonym of Kathleen Lewis-Bowen (1911-1981) and there was someone of that name who was married to a Col J.W. Lewis-Bowen. I don’t know if this is the same person but it would fit with the Army setting of the novel.
Kathleen Lewis-Bowen was indeed married to Col J.W. Lewis-Bowen and they were in India for a long time So I think a lot of her novels were based on some of her experiences out there. They were my Grandparents.
How interesting and many thanks for letting me know. It is good to have this confirmation.