The Far Pavilions - The Writing of a Best Seller

Taken from the promotion pack for the television adaptation of The Far Pavilions (1983)

To write a book is the dream of many, to write a runaway best-seller is something that happens to few but Mary Margaret Kaye, a very proper British lady in her sixties did just that.

The Far Pavilions, a mammoth story of the love of a young British officer for an Indian princess set against the epic sweep of battle and intrigue in 19th century India, took Mollie Kaye 15 years to write and within two years of publication she learned from her publisher that sales were some 15 million. The book, which runs to over a thousand pages, covers 37 years of Indian/British history beginning with the years before the Great Mutiny of 1857 and ending with the disastrous 1879 expedition of Major Sir Louis Cavagnari to Kabul during the Afghan Wars which brought death to Lt William Hamilton VC, a relative of Mollie’s husband Major General Goff Hamilton.  The research alone would have daunted a lesser person but The Far Pavilions is a monument to Mollie Kaye’s love of India, the land where she was born, its people and its history. For the first time a book from a British author celebrated India without concentrating on the family life of the displaced army officer or civil servant.

A small blonde dynamo, reluctant to disclose her age, Mollie Kaye’s energy and enthusiasm seem limitless.  Friendly and gregarious she is a never ending fund of reminiscence and stories of life in India before Independence. The Kaye family, with grandfather, father, brother, uncle, cousins all serving in India, is part of that great tradition of Empire glorified in verse by Rudyard Kipling.  Mollie was born in Simla, the summer hill station, where her father Sir Cecil Kaye worked as Head of the Directorate of Central Intelligence. Like all children of the British Raj of the era Mollie was sent to school in England with her sister Betty at the age of ten, returning to India when she was seventeen. “We only saw mother about once in three years,” she recalls “and didn’t see father for years. It was terribly slow travelling in those days, there was no air travel, you came by ship and train.”

In 1942, Mollie met and married Godfrey Hamilton, known to all as Goff.  Their meeting was in keeping with the romance of Mollie’s book, “It was love at first sight,” she says.  “The Americans don’t believe in love at first sight.  When my American publisher saw my manuscript he said, “but Mollie, people simply don’t do that sort of thing.  They have to get to know each other first.”  What rubbish.  It happened to my mother and it happened to me.”  Goff, an officer in the Corps of Guides had just won the DSO for gallantry on the North West Frontier and while on leave brought a letter of proposal from a friend who wanted to marry Mollie, but, “That was it, messenger and Mollie fell instantly in love,” Goff says.

The marriage was a civil ceremony on the lawns of the British Commissioner’s residence in Dehra Dun and the Hamiltons were one couple among many marrying in the shadow of World War II.  Mollie and Goff spent the next five years in India only leaving in 1947 with Independence.  “India was my home and I left in a flood of tears,” she says.  As the wife of an army officer Mollie continued to move, 22 times, until Goff retired in 1967.

In 1963, Mollie returned to India to research The Far Pavilions and in 1964 when the family were in Germany she began work on the book but having written three chapters discovered she had lung cancer.  “Although it to fifteen years to the time I handed over the finished manuscript a good four and a half years were taken up with being ill.  I had operations and then the children were growing up, getting married and having their own children, so I had to write when I had the time.”

Writing was not a new occupation, Mollie had spent her early years as a painter, and is still an accomplished artist, but she took to writing when she realised she could make more money.  Her earlier books are all ‘whodunits’ and the first, Six Bars At Seven written in the late thirties brought her the then immense sum of £65. Her books with such titles as Death in Kashmir and Death in Zanzibar are all set in countries where her husband was posted and six are now being reprinted by an American publisher.

The success of The Far Pavilions, published in 1978, was staggering impressing both critics and readers.  Among the many words of praise were “fabulous, enchanting, action-packed…” “A splendid achievement…”; “A gleaming tapestry…” but the praise Mollie Kaye treasures perhaps above all others is the words of a Pathan who told her the book “could almost have been written by one of us.” “I take that as a great compliment,” she says, “you never know in a foreign country whether or not you are stepping on people’s toes.”

The characters in The Far Pavilions range from the pukka sahibs of the British Raj and their blinkered wives, to the often despotic Maharajahs, princes, princesses and courtiers of princely India and the grooms, horsemen, maids and ordinary people who make up the vast population of the sub continent.  Most of these people are based on people Mollie once knew.  “I’m firmly convinced,” she says, “that not even Dickens has ever invented a totally original character. I think the Almighty has done it pretty thoroughly and all you can do is to pick up bits that are interesting and put them together to make characters.  Sometimes they are straight from life, like Kaka Ji.  I must say Christopher Lee is playing the part beautifully but my Kaka Ji was about as tall as I am with thin bones and terribly religious, everybody loved him… we used to have long theological discussions.”

The decadent Rana of Bhithor played by Rossano Brazzi is also an amalgam of several people. “The man I knew was a poisonous bit of work,” Mollie says, “he used to chew pan (betel nut wrapped in a bay leaf) all the time.”

Most romantic of all the characters in the book, of course, is the hero Ash, played by Ben Cross.  “Ash is my husband,” says Mollie.  “Goff, largely, is always my hero, but again with a small mixture of people I knew.

“Wally Hamilton is straight Wally because had all the Hamilton papers, even that dreadful verse he wrote.”

Central to The Far Pavilions is the story of the wedding of the two princesses Anjuli and Shushila to the Rana of Bhithor and this is based on a real-life incident.  “I went to a wedding where the bridegroom was twelve and the bride ten,” she recalls. “The Government of India wouldn’t allow child marriages but you could have the ceremony and then the bride returned to her parents until she was old enough to bear children, sixteen or seventeen.  It was tremendous fun, the bridegroom wore a veil as well.

“There had been a tremendous row about the bride price and my Pa had to settle that but it turned out the bride was 26.  She did look a little tall for ten and her parents said, ‘surely you know that with an old maid sister you cannot marry the younger sister first,’ although the negotiations had been for the ten year old.  A great friend told me this was always happening.

“I was in Ulster years later and told this story to another army wife and she gave me the diary of her great uncle. In it was the story of the wedding in The Far Pavilions.  The wife’s great uncle was the Ash figure. The story I used is exactly the same except I switched it round, there was even a Prince Jhoti they tried to kill three times. I switched it around so as not  to pinpoint the royal family concerned. I created Bhithor because real states have real rulers who have real descendants.”

Mollie Kaye’s other novel Shadow of the Moon set in the time of the Great Mutiny and Trade Wind about the Arab slave traders of Zanzibar are also best-sellers.  She no longer has to worry about money but she also has no intention of sitting back and relaxing.  With the filming of The Far Pavilions safely underway she plans to begin writing her autobiography.  “I have led a highly satisfactory life,” she says, “and there are lots of things I want to tell my grandchildren for few people are going to have that sort of life again.  I am already beginning to forget dates and names and I want to set it all down before my memory fails me completely.”

Mollie Kaye is not a lady to sit quietly and let anything fail her without a tenacious fight. She has conquered lung cancer and undoubtedly will emulate her mother, who at 96 years old refused to understand why she could not make the journey to India to watch the filming of her daughter’s historic book.