Originally published in 1901, East of Suez was Alice Perrin’s first collection of short stories. Although now largely forgotten, Perrin was one of the most successful authors of her day, commanding larger advances than the likes of Arnold Bennett (much to his chagrin, it must be said). Perrin tells stories of illicit love and betrayal against a beautifully-drawn backdrop of the mystical east, interweaving the supernatural with exquisite details of her characters’ lives. Unlike many of her contemporaries, Perrin handles Anglo-Indian relations with great sensitivity, showing equal humanity in her portrayal of powerful British officials and their more humble neighbours. Through her writing, she depicts the social complexity of colonial rule, never resorting to stereotypes or simplistic representations of the people or the landscape.
Perrin’s Anglo-Indian stories are thought by some to rival the best work of Kipling, and I am inclined to agree. Her economical yet evocative writing style, with its narrative shocks, is well suited to the short story form. Perrin has an unerring ability to lead the reader along a familiar path and then astonish them with an unexpected, and sometimes brutal, plot twist. The good are not always rewarded, and the wicked often escape the sticky end they deserve. Perrin’s endings are seldom happy, but they are always memorable.
In East of Suez Perrin uses ghosts as a form of social critique, making her writing both daring and distinctive. The unruly spirits who inhabit her tales seek to subvert the idea of a neatly ordered colonial society, exposing both its limitations and hypocrisies. Perrin allows the dead to speak, and occasionally to do much more. Her use of the supernatural allowed Perrin to covertly criticise Imperial rule at a time when a more conspicuous attack would have been unthinkable. Her politics are sexual as well as spectral. Many of the stories are quietly feminist, showing the disastrous consequences of men failing to heed the advice of their womenfolk. In ‘The Summoning of Arnold’, the eponymous husband realises his wife’s importance only after it is too late. Major Kenwithin in ‘A Perverted Punishment’ spends the rest of his days in torment after judging his wife too harshly, also losing his friend in the process. ‘A Man’s Theory’ is a terrifying depiction of a ‘rational’ husband dismissing his wife’s concern for their baby as hysteria. My favourite story is ‘The Tiger-Charm’, a satisfying morality tale proving that the white middle-class man cannot conquer everything.
This edition includes many of the original illustrations from the serialisation of the stories in Windsor Magazine and the Illustrated London News. There is also a detailed biography of Alice Perrin, of whom little has been written, and a thoughtful critical introduction from Melissa Edmundson Makala. It’s hard to see why Perrin has been forgotten for so long, but I am very glad to have encountered her.