For years, people who read Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s novels assumed she was born in India. She wrote about swamis, social climbers, duplicitous landlords and other characters from the Indian bourgeoisie who inevitably found themselves colliding with curious visitors from the West.
But Jhabvala was a Westerner herself: a German Jew displaced by war to England, who married an Indian man and settled in his country. She absorbed enough of subcontinental culture to portray it with clarity and comic sensibility in books that earned her comparisons to Jane Austen.
“What cheek, but that’s what I did,” she told an interviewer not long ago of the niche she created for herself in literature and later in film as the primary screenwriter for Merchant Ivory Productions.
Jhabvala, a prolific author who wrote the screenplays for “Howards End,” “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge” and “The Remains of the Day,” died Wednesday at her home in Manhattan. She was 85.
She had been in declining health for some time, said her daughter Firoza.
During an unusually long and fruitful four-decade partnership with Mumbai-born producer Ismail Merchant and his American partner and collaborator, James Ivory, Jhabvala wrote more than 20 screenplays and won Academy Awards for two of them: “A Room With a View” (1986) and “Howards End” (1992).
Although better known for her skillful screen adaptations of works by authors such as E.M. Forster, Henry James and Kazuo Ishiguro, Jhabvala (pronounced JOB-vah-lah) was the author of 19 novels and short-story collections set on the three continents where she spent her life.
Her 1975 novel “Heat and Dust,” about a young Englishwoman’s journey to India to uncover the truth about a family scandal, won the Booker Prize, Britain’s top literary award. Ivory directed the 1983 film version, which critic Vincent Canby called a “haunting, beautiful high-comedy.”
Jhabvala often said that her gifts as a writer came from her chronic rootlessness. “I’m a born outsider,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1993.
She was born May 7, 1927, in Cologne, Germany. Her father, Marcus Prawer (pronounced PRAH-ver), had immigrated there from Poland, where he had been a lawyer; in Germany he ran a clothing business. Her mother, Eleonora, came from one of Cologne’s most prominent Jewish families. Both of her parents were briefly jailed during the Nazis’ rise to power. Ruth was forced to attend a segregated school for Jews and witnessed the destruction of Jewish temples and businesses on Kristallnacht in 1938.
In 1939 she and her family were among the last Jews allowed to leave the country and arrived in England just ahead of the German blitzkrieg. She read “War and Peace” in a bomb shelter and started writing her own stories.
In 1948, her father, unable to bear the grief of having lost his entire extended family in the Holocaust, took his own life. “All my stories have a melancholy undertone. That’s probably why,” Jhabvala, who was 21 when he committed suicide, told the Guardian of London in 2005.
She studied English literature at Queen Mary College in London, graduating in 1951. That year she also married Persian Indian architect Cyrus S.H. Jhabvala and moved to Delhi. She spent the next 24 years in India.
“I only really woke up in India. It was my first experience of plenty, strangely enough, because everything in England was rationed,” she said in the Guardian interview.
She is survived by her husband and three children, Renana, Ava and Firoza, and six grandchildren.
Her first novel, a comedy of manners called “Amrita,” was published in 1955 and a few years later her short stories began appearing in the New Yorker. She wrote so authoritatively about the manners and habits of the Indian middle class that readers “might reasonably suppose … that Ruth Jhabvala is Indian,” critic Anuradha Vittachi wrote in the New Internationalist.
Critics in the West reacted more favorably to her work than those in India, who, according to Jhabvala, dismissed her after learning of her Western roots. “In India,” she told the London Independent in 1995, “people don’t like foreigners writing about them .… I wrote these books; no one read them; no one cared.”
She wrote “Heat and Dust” (1975), her eighth novel, amid dust storms and asthma attacks during what would be her last summer in India. After two decades she found her passion for India had worn thin, largely because she could no longer ignore the dire conditions all around her.
“It’s terribly easy to get used to someone else’s poverty if you’re living a middle-class life in it. But after a while,” she told the Guardian, “I saw it wasn’t possible to accept it, and I also didn’t want to.”
With the money from the Booker Prize she bought an apartment in Manhattan and moved there. Her husband supported her decision and divided his time between India and the U.S. for several years before joining her full time in New York.
As she aged, Jhabvala had realized that she missed Europe, but the “smell of blood” –— the legacy of the Holocaust — kept her away. New York, with its large number of European Jews, had a comforting familiarity. “I met the people I went to school with in Cologne” there, she told The Times in 1993. “Now here they were living in New York, as Americans, in old West Side apartments.”
Her later fiction reflected her new environment. In her 1983 novel “In Search of Love and Beauty,” for instance, she depicted German and Austrian refugees on a spiritual quest in New York.
The move also brought her closer to Merchant and Ivory. In fact, she moved into the building where they lived and shared the same view in apartments stacked one upon the other. She lived there until her death.
“It is a strange marriage we have at Merchant Ivory,” Merchant told the Times of London shortly before his death at 68 in 2005. “I am an Indian Muslim, Ruth is a German Jew, and Jim is a Protestant American. Someone once described us as a three-headed god. Maybe they should have called us a three-headed monster!”
With her first screenplay, based on her 1960 novel “The Householder,” she helped establish Merchant Ivory Productions’ reputation for richly nuanced adaptations of complex novels. She wrote a dozen screenplays for the company before it had its first big commercial success with “A Room with a View,” based on the Forster novel about the struggles of a young woman in the repressive culture of Edwardian-era England.
FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the novel “The Householder” was published in 1963.
Jhabvala found that writing novels enhanced her screenplays while her work for the cinema influenced her fiction. Critics also noticed the creative cross-currents.
“Her dialogue suggests the richness of dialogue read in a novel but has the economy demanded in films,” critic Vincent Canby, who credited Jhabvala with writing “all of the best Merchant Ivory screenplays,” wrote in the New York Times in 1983.
Because she was a talented writer of fiction, she didn’t bow down to the material she adapted, which allowed her to assess its inherent strength and weaknesses with clear eyes, Ivory told the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday.
“She thought that certain books would make wonderful films, like ‘Howards End,’” the Forster novel of families in love and in conflict, according to the director.
“She wanted us to very much make that. She said, ‘Let’s climb a big mountain.’ She had a great feeling for Forster, and I think liked his various points of view, his humor and his humanity, and sometimes his very sharp tone,” he said.
Over the last 30 years, Jhabvala wrote only one original screenplay, the controversial “Jefferson in Paris” (1995), which portrayed Thomas Jefferson’s affair with his black slave, Sally Hemings. Except for “Madame Sousatzka,” a 1988 vehicle for Shirley MacLaine co-written with director John Schlesinger, she did not stray from the Merchant Ivory stable.
She read every novel she adapted at least three times before crafting the screen version. But Ivory noted that Jhabvala’s first drafts were nearly always perfect. “When she adapts a book,” the director told Variety in 1996, “she sees it very clearly for what it is, she takes it apart like a clockmaker.”
Jhabvala often linked her analytical detachment from her subjects to her view of herself as the lifelong refugee.
“I’m not interested in who am I,” she told a Canadian radio interviewer last year. “I’m interested in what’s gone, the disinheritance, what I’ve been able to become or learn or fuse with or not fuse with. A certain freedom comes .… I like it that way.”