Author of ‘Heat and Dust’ who wrote scripts for fun

Ruth PrawerJhabvala: 1927-2013

Oscar-winning screenwriter and award-winning novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Oscar-winning screenwriter and award-winning novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala


The writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who has died aged 85, achieved her greatest fame late in life, and for work she had once dismissed as a hobby – listing “writing film scripts” as a recreation in Who’s Who . Her original screenplays and adaptations of literary classics for the film producer Ismail Merchant and the director James Ivory achieved box-office and critical success. The trio met in 1961 and almost immediately became collaborators, as well as close and lifelong friends.

Merchant proposed that they make a film of Jhabvala’s novel The Householder (1960). Over the next five decades, she wrote 23 screenplays. Collaborations included adaptations of EM Forster’s A Room with a View (1985) and Howards End (1992), for both of which Jhabvala won Academy Awards; and Henry James’s The Bostonians (1984) and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1993).

She was a brilliant storyteller. Her work darkened towards the end of her life. Her vision was bleak; her tone austere. But her supply of complex characters and subtle, vivid scenes was inexhaustible and she caught the ambiguities of human behaviour and the pleasures of the senses in precise, perfect words.

Her dozen novels and eight collections of short stories (and other stories published in the New Yorker and elsewhere) won Jhabvala the admiration of the sternest critics of her time. Her literary awards included the 1975 Booker prize for her eighth novel, Heat and Dust .

The wit, economy and detachment she achieved in her fiction also played in her personality, and there, too, they masked contradictory qualities. Her second novel was entitled The Nature of Passion (1956); there was a passion at her own core, too. For writing, certainly. “The only three hours in the day I’m really alive,” she said of her morning’s work. She wrote and published until the end: a new short story of hers appeared in the New Yorker last month.

She had been born in Cologne into a patriotic German family of assimilated Jews.One day in 1934 they sat on their balcony and watched the Nazis parade pass. That night, her parents were arrested, then released. Her father, Marcus, a solicitor of Polish parentage, could not get her mother, Eleonora (nee Cohn), to leave Germany until April 1939. Then, they went to Britain with their son, Siegbert, who later became professor of German at Oxford, and Ruth. The rest of Marcus’s family – more than 40 people – died in the Holocaust. In 1948, when he found how they had been killed, he took his own life.

Jhabvala never wrote of her early life. She never spoke of it in public until 1979 when she received the Neil Gunn international fellowship and gave a public lecture in Edinburgh. Great writing such as Gunn’s, she said, seems to come from the writer’s “ground of being”, an inheritance rooted in “tradition, landscape and that inexplicable region where childhood and ancestral memories merge”. She herself had “only disinheritance” of this.

“I stand before you as a writer without any ground of being out of which to write: really blown about from country to country, culture to culture till I feel – till I am – nothing.” She spoke without self-pity: “As it happens, I like it that way.”

The refugee found her home in the limitless world of literature. She wrote “furiously” through her childhood; within days of arriving in Britain, she was writing in English, and graduated in English literature from Queen Mary College, London University.

In 1951, she married Cyrus Jhabvala (“Jhab”), a Parsee architect she had met in London, and they went to live in Delhi. She plunged in “total immersion” into India – the jasmine, the starlit nights, the temple bells, the holy men, the heat. She bore three daughters, wore the sari and wrote of India and the Indians as if she were Indian. But her passionate love for India changed into its opposite. By 1975, she found she could no longer write of it nor in it. So she moved to the US.

So she changed continents three times in her life and entitled her tenth novel Three Continents in 1987. In the latter part of her life, her daughters’ marriages (to Indian, American and English men) meant they were on different three continents too, while Ruth and Jhab would divide their time between two. Her husband and daughters – Renana, Ava and Firoza-Bibi (known as Poji) – survive her. Her brother died last year.