Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Jhabvala in 1987
Jhabvala in 1987
BornRuth Prawer
(1927-05-07)7 May 1927
Cologne, Weimar Republic
Died3 April 2013(2013-04-03) (aged 85)
New York City, U.S.
  • Novelist
  • screenwriter
  • United Kingdom (1948–2013)
  • United States (1986–2013)
Alma materQueen Mary University of London
Notable awards
Cyrus Jhabvala
(m. 1951)
Children3, including Renana
RelativesSiegbert Salomon Prawer (brother)

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala CBE (née Prawer; 7 May 1927[1] – 3 April 2013) was a British and American novelist and screenwriter. She is best known for her collaboration with Merchant Ivory Productions, made up of film director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant.[2]

In 1951, she married Indian architect Cyrus Jhabvala and moved to New Delhi. She began then to elaborate her experiences in India and wrote novels and tales on Indian subjects. She wrote a dozen novels, 23 screenplays, and eight collections of short stories and was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the Diplomatic Service and Overseas List of the 1998 New Years Honours and granted a joint fellowship by BAFTA in 2002 with Ivory and Merchant.[1][3] She is the only person to have won both a Booker Prize and an Oscar.[4]

Early life

Ruth Prawer was born in Cologne, Germany to Jewish parents Marcus and Eleanora (Cohn) Prawer.[5] Marcus was a lawyer who moved to Germany from Poland to escape conscription and Eleanora's father was cantor of Cologne's largest synagogue.[6][7] Her father was accused of communist links, arrested and released, and she witnessed the violence unleashed against the Jews during the Kristallnacht.[6] The family was among the last group of refugees to flee the Nazi regime in 1939, emigrating to Britain.[7] Her elder brother, Siegbert Salomon Prawer (1925–2012), an expert on Heinrich Heine and horror films, was fellow of The Queen's College and Taylor Professor of German Language and Literature at the University of Oxford.[7]

During World War II, Prawer lived in Hendon in London, experienced the Blitz and began to speak English rather than German. Charles Dickens' works and Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind kept her company through the war years, and she read the latter book while taking refuge in air raid shelters during the Luftwaffe's bombing of London.[8] She became a British citizen in 1948. The following year, her father committed suicide after discovering that 40 members of his family had been murdered during the Holocaust.[7] Prawer attended Hendon County School (now Hendon School) and then Queen Mary College, where she received an MA in English literature in 1951.[7]

Literary career

Years in India

Ruth Prawer moved to India in 1951 after marrying Indian Parsi architect Cyrus Jhabvala. Her first novel, To Whom She Will, was published in 1955. It was followed by Esmond in India (1957), The Householder (1960) and Get Ready for Battle (1963). The Householder, with a screenplay by Jhabvala, was filmed in 1963 by Merchant and Ivory. During her years in India, she wrote scripts for the Merchant-Ivory duo for The Guru (1969) and Autobiography of a Princess (1975). She collaborated with Ivory for the screenplays for Bombay Talkie (1970) and ABC After-school Specials: William - The Life and Times of William Shakespeare (1973).[9]

In 1975, she won the Booker Prize for her novel Heat and Dust, later adapted into a film.[10] That year, she moved to New York where she wrote The Place of Peace.[9] Her husband also moved to US permanently in late 1980s, and the couple lived on the east coast until Ruth's death in 2013.[11] Cyrus Jhabwala died in Los Angeles in 2014.

Jhabvala "remained ill at ease with India and all that it brought into her life." She wrote in an autobiographical essay, Myself in India (published in London Magazine) that she found the "great animal of poverty and backwardness" made the idea and sensation of India intolerable to her, a "Central European with an English education and a deplorable tendency to constant self-analysis."[12][13] Her early works in India dwell on the themes of romantic love and arranged marriages and are portraits of the social mores, idealism and chaos of the early decades of independent India. Writing about her in the New York Times, novelist Pankaj Mishra observed that "she was probably the first writer in English to see that India's Westernizing middle class, so preoccupied with marriage, lent itself well to Jane Austenish comedies of manners."[12]

Life in the United States

Jhabvala moved to New York City in 1975 and lived there until her death in 2013, becoming a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1986. She continued to write and many of her works including In Search of Love and Beauty (1983), Three Continents (1987), Shards of Memory (1995) and East into Upper East: Plain Tales From New York and New Delhi (1998) portray the lives and predicaments of immigrants from post-Nazi and post-World War Europe. Many of these works feature India as a setting where her characters go in search of spiritual enlightenment only to emerge defrauded and exposed to the materialistic pursuits of the East.[12] The New York Times Review of Books chose her Out of India (1986) as one of the best reads for that year.[8] In 1984, she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship.[14]

In 2005 she published My Nine Lives: Chapters of a Possible Past with illustrations by her husband and the book was described as "her most autobiographical fiction to date".[6]


Her literary works were well received, with C. P. Snow, Rumer Godden and V. S. Pritchett describing her work as "the highest art", "a balance between subtlety, humour and beauty" and as being Chekhovian in its detached sense of comic self-delusion. Salman Rushdie described her as a "rootless intellectual" when he anthologized her in the Vintage Book of Indian Writing, and John Updike described her an "initiated outsider".[6]

Jhabvala initially was assumed to be an Indian among the reading public because of her perceptive portrayals of the nuances of Indian lifestyles. Later, the revelation of her true identity led to falling sales of her books in India and made her a target of accusations about "her old-fashioned colonial attitudes".[4]

Jhabvala's last published story was "The Judge's Will", which appeared in The New Yorker on 25 March 2013.[15]

Merchant Ivory Productions

Main article: Merchant Ivory Productions

In 1963, Jhabvala was approached by James Ivory and Ismail Merchant to write a screenplay for their debut The Householder, based on her 1960 novel. During their first encounter, Merchant later said Jhabvala, seeking to avoid them, pretended to be the housemaid when they visited. The film, released by Merchant Ivory Productions in 1963 and starring Shashi Kapoor and Leela Naidu, met with critical praise and marked the beginning of a partnership that resulted in over 20 films.[16]

The Householder was followed by Shakespeare Wallah (1965), another critically acclaimed film. There followed a series of films, including Roseland (1977), Hullabaloo Over Georgie and Bonnie's Pictures (1978), The Europeans (1979), Jane Austen in Manhattan (1980), Quartet (1981), The Courtesans of Bombay (1983) and The Bostonians (1984). The Merchant Ivory production of Heat and Dust in 1983 won Jhabvala a BAFTA Award for Best Adapted Screenplay the following year.[9]

She won her first Academy Award for her screenplay for A Room with a View (1986) and won a second in the same category for Howards End six years later.[10] She was nominated for a third Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay the following year for The Remains of the Day.[4]

Her other films with Merchant and Ivory include Mr. & Mrs. Bridge (1990), Jefferson in Paris (1995), Surviving Picasso (1996), A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries (1998) (the screenplay for which she co-authored with Ivory), The Golden Bowl (2000) and The City of Your Final Destination (2009), adapted from the eponymous novel by Peter Cameron and was her last screenplay.[9] Le Divorce which she co-wrote with Ivory was the last movie that featured the trio of Merchant, Ivory and Jhabvala.[17]

In an interview for the British Film Institute, British actor James Wilby claimed that Jhabvala refused to write the screenplay of the 1987 film Maurice despite being "the normal writer" for Merchant-Ivory films. Wilby surmised that Jhabvala may have been uncomfortable with the central subject matter of the film, based on a posthumously published novel by E. M. Forster, which depicted a gay relationship set in Edwardian England. Ivory was reportedly "quite upset" by Jhabvala's decision, given the fact that their friendship was "incredibly close."[18] For her own part, Jhabvala apparently did provide notes for Maurice,[19] but claimed she didn't wish to write the screenplay, as the novel was "sub-Forster and sub-Ivory."[20]

The Merchant-Ivory duo was acknowledged by the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest collaboration between a director and a producer, but Jhabvala was a part of the trio from the very beginning. She introduced the composer Richard Robbins, who went on to score music for almost every production by Merchant-Ivory beginning with The Europeans in 1979, to the duo after meeting him while he was the director of Mannes College of Music, New York.[21] Madame Sousatzka (1988) was the one film she wrote that was not produced by Merchant-Ivory.

Selected filmography

Year Title Other notes
1963 The Householder screenplay, adapted from the novel by Jhabvala
1965 Shakespeare Wallah screenplay
1969 The Guru screenplay
1970 Bombay Talkie screenplay
1975 Autobiography of a Princess written by
1977 Roseland story and screenplay
1978 Hullabaloo Over Georgie and Bonnie's Pictures written by
1979 The Europeans screenplay, adapted from the novel by Henry James
1980 Jane Austen in Manhattan written by, inserted libretto "Sir Charles Grandison" by Jane Austen
1981 Quartet screenplay, adapted from the novel by Jean Rhys
1983 Heat and Dust screenplay, adapted from the novel by Jhabvala
1984 The Bostonians screenplay, adapted from the novel by Henry James
1985 A Room with a View screenplay, adapted from the novel by E.M. Forster
1988 Madame Sousatzka screenplay, adapted from the novel by Bernice Rubens. Directed by John Schlesinger
1990 Mr. & Mrs. Bridge screenplay, adapted from the novels by Evan S. Connell (Mr. Bridge & Mrs. Bridge)
1992 Howards End screenplay, adapted from the novel by E.M. Forster
1993 The Remains of the Day screenplay, adapted from the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro
1995 Jefferson in Paris screenplay
1996 Surviving Picasso screenplay
1998 A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries screenplay, adapted from the novel by Kaylie Jones
2000 The Golden Bowl screenplay, adapted from the novel by Henry James
2003 Le Divorce co-written by James Ivory, adapted from the novel by Diane Johnson
2009 The City of Your Final Destination screenplay, adapted from the novel by Peter Cameron

Awards and nominations

Academy Awards

Year Category Film Result Ref.
1986 Best Adapted Screenplay A Room with a View Won [22]
1992 Howards End Won
1993 The Remains of the Day Nominated

Golden Globe Awards

Year Category Film Result Ref.
1992 Best Screenplay Howards End Nominated [22]
1993 The Remains of the Day Nominated

British Academy Film Awards

Year Category Film Result Ref.
1983 Best Adapted Screenplay Heat and Dust Won [22]
1986 A Room with a View Nominated
1992 Howards End Nominated
1993 The Remains of the Day Nominated

Writers Guild of America Awards

Year Category Film Result Ref.
1986 Best Adapted Screenplay A Room with a View Won [23]
1992 Howards End Nominated
1993 The Remains of the Day Nominated
Screen Laurel Award Won

Other awards

Personal life

In 1951, Prawer married Cyrus Shavaksha Hormusji Jhabvala,[25] an Indian Parsi architect and, later, head of the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi.[16][1] The couple moved into a house in Delhi's Civil Lines where they raised three daughters: Ava, Firoza and Renana.[16][1] In 1975, Jhabvala moved to New York and divided her time between India and the United States. In 1986, she became a naturalized citizen of the United States.[9]


Jhabvala died in her home in New York City on 3 April 2013 at the age of 85. James Ivory reported that her death was caused by complications from a pulmonary disorder.[26][27][28] Reacting to her death, Merchant Ivory Productions said that Jhabvala had "been a beloved member of the Merchant Ivory family since 1960, comprising one-third of our indomitable trifecta that included director James Ivory and the late producer Ismail Merchant" and that her death was "a significant loss to the global film community".[29]

Literary works

Novels and novellas

Year Title Other notes
1955 To whom she will : a novel Published in the United States as Amrita
1956 The Nature of Passion
1958 Esmond in India
1960 The Householder
1962 Get Ready for Battle
1965 A Backward Place
1972 A New Dominion published in the United States as Travelers
1975 Heat and Dust
1983 In Search of Love and Beauty
1987 Three Continents
1993 Poet and Dancer
1995 Shards of Memory

Short stories and collections

Year Title Other notes
1963 Like Birds, Like Fishes
1968 A Stronger Climate
1971 An Experience of India
1976 How I Became a Holy Mother and other stories
1986 Out of India: Selected Stories
1998 East into Upper East: Plain Tales from New York and New Delhi
2004 My Nine Lives : Chapters of a Possible Past
2008 The Teacher "The Teacher". The New Yorker. Volume:84. 28 July 2008
2011 A Lovesong for India: Tales from East and West
2013 A Judge's Will "The judge's will". The New Yorker. Vol. 89, no. 6. 25 March 2013. pp. 88–95.
2018 At the End of the Century: The Stories of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Critical studies and reviews of Jhabvala's work

Anthologies and encyclopedias


  1. ^ a b c d Watts, Janet (3 April 2013). "Ruth Prawer Jhabvala obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved 6 April 2013.
  2. ^ Kaur, Harmanpreet. "The Wandering Company: Merchant-Ivory Productions and Post-Colonial Cinema" Archived 10 June 2013 at the Wayback Machine, Projectorhead Film Magazine, 10 January 2013.
  3. ^ "Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (1927–2013)". Outlook. 3 April 2013. Archived from the original on 9 April 2013. Retrieved 6 April 2013.
  4. ^ a b c Childs, Martin (4 April 2013). "Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: Author and screenwriter who won two Oscars and the Booker Prize". The Independent. Retrieved 6 April 2013.
  5. ^ Merchant, Ismail (9 April 2012). Merchant-Ivory: Interviews. Univ. Press of Mississippi. p. 94. ISBN 978-1-61703-237-0. Retrieved 4 April 2012.
  6. ^ a b c d Jaggi, Maya (19 March 2005). "Brave new worlds". The Guardian.
  7. ^ a b c d e "Ruth Prawer Jhabvala". The Daily Telegraph. 3 April 2013. Retrieved 4 April 2013.
  8. ^ a b Liukkonen, Petri. "Ruth Prawer Jhabvala". Books and Writers. Finland: Kuusankoski Public Library. Archived from the original on 9 February 2007.
  9. ^ a b c d e Raw, Laurence (2012). Merchant-Ivory: Interviews. University of Mississippi. pp. xix–xxii. ISBN 978-1-61703-237-0.
  10. ^ a b "Novelist, Oscar winner Ruth Prawer Jhabvala dies". Mint. 3 April 2013. Retrieved 6 April 2013.
  11. ^ "Cyrus Jhabvala".
  12. ^ a b c "Passages to India". The New York Times. 18 July 2004. Retrieved 6 April 2013.
  13. ^ "Between The Lines: Love and loathing in India". Mint. 5 April 2013. Retrieved 6 April 2013.
  14. ^ "Ruth Prawer Jhabvala - MacArthur Foundation". Retrieved 19 January 2019.
  15. ^ Rothman, Joshua (3 April 2013). "Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's stories". The New Yorker. Retrieved 3 April 2013.
  16. ^ a b c "She came, she saw, she wrote". The Hindu. 4 April 2013. Retrieved 6 April 2013.
  17. ^ "In Remembrance: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala". Lambda Literary. 4 April 2013. Retrieved 6 April 2013.
  18. ^ Hugh Grant and James Wilby on Maurice, Merchant Ivory's gay love story | BFI Flare, retrieved 27 April 2020
  19. ^ "Interview: James Ivory on Restoring "Maurice"". The Moveable Fest. 2 June 2017. Retrieved 27 April 2020.
  20. ^ Larson, Sarah. "James Ivory and the Making of a Historic Gay Love Story". The New Yorker. Retrieved 27 April 2020.
  21. ^ "Richard Robbins obituary". The Guardian. 13 November 2012. Retrieved 6 April 2013.
  22. ^ a b c "Ruth Prawer Jhabvala". IMDb.
  23. ^ a b c d "Ruth Prawer Jhabvala". Merchant Ivory Productions. Retrieved 6 April 2013.
  24. ^ a b c "Ruth Prawer Jhabvala". British Council. Retrieved 6 April 2013.
  25. ^ Journal of the Indian Institute of Architects vol. 29 and 30, ed. S. Kumar, 1963, p. 41
  26. ^ Schudel, Matt (3 April 2013). "Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, novelist and screenwriter, dies at 85". The Washington Post. Retrieved 3 April 2013.
  27. ^ Gates, Anita (3 April 2013). "Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Screenwriter, Dies at 85". The New York Times. Retrieved 4 April 2013.
  28. ^ "Oscar-winning screenwriter of 'Howards End' and 'A Room With a View' dies". Entertainment Weekly. 4 April 2013. Retrieved 6 April 2013.
  29. ^ "Ruth Prawer Jhabvala Dead: Oscar-Winning Screenwriter And Novelist Dies at 85". Huffington Post. 4 April 2013. Retrieved 6 April 2013.[permanent dead link]
  30. ^ Online version is titled "Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and the art of ambivalence".

Further reading