Peter Stanley – The Devil’s Uncle

Independently published, Australia, 2020
Cover and internal design Rosemary McKenzie

The Devil’s Uncle is the third of Peter Stanley’s Mansergh series, set in British colonial India and whilst indeed part of a series, it can certainly be read as a stand-alone. The exploits of Mansergh from previous novels have some residual effects, not least of which is what we would now call PTSD as a result of the horrors of war.

Barbie talks to Peter Stanley about The Devil’s Uncle

However, when we meet Mansergh in this novel, newly a father, he is sent to Nanda to accompany a visiting classical scholar, Edwin Sanpeer MA, in his quest to uncover the tomb of Bucephalus, Alexander the Great’s famed horse. His Commander in Chief, Napier, is seen at a time of mental and physical decline, his mercurial behaviour often causing alarm and fear in his underlings, but he is nevertheless widely respected whilst also engendering the enmity of some.

The archaeological expedition brings Mansergh (once again as he has had negative experiences in earlier novels) into contact with a very ugly face of colonial soldiering, a group of soldiers under the command of the ineffectual Major Carse and the nasty bullying adjutant Rugely.

To say the behaviour is unseemly downplays the abusive treatment Rugely metes out to everyone in his orbit, including the major’s gentle daughter Fanny and the prostitute he has set up in one of the huts for the rostered entertainment of the troops.

Mansergh is suitably outraged by Rugely’s demeanour. He is a tolerant man and far from judgemental in most areas of life, but finds Rugely’s wanton cruelty appalling. Nevertheless, the quest for the horse’s tomb continues interspersed with dramas in the soldier’s camp. The dig at the supposed tomb generates hostility from the local Muslims for whom it is a religious site and it soon becomes obvious how inept and uninformed the British have been.

The story is delightfully complex both in its plot and its perspicuous examination of human character and behaviour. One of its most pleasing features for me is the language style which Peter Stanley has used, one entirely appropriate not only to the British Raj but also to the era of the story. There is a 19th century formality to it which enables us to feel ourselves very much ‘in’ the time, but which never interferes with the pace or atmosphere of the narrative.

Whilst much of this tale is dark, there is also a great deal of humour to be enjoyed, mostly through the antics of Sanpeer and his ribald language but also in the wry observations of society seen through Mansergh’s eyes. He is a thoroughly likeable character, I find, always fair and kind even when unable to change the circumstances or people around him The entrenched racism of colonialism is ever clear.

Peter Stanley’s expertise as a Research Professor (an historian by trade) means that he skilfully delivers the fiction without transgressing in the factual realm. His understanding of the world of 19th century British rule in India is profound and this enables him to deftly create the story that hooks us as contemporary readers. He is ever sharp in his observations but also compassionate for even the least worthy of his book people. There is a sense here that he allows us all to be human, even the villains in the piece.

That he also allows the purported downtrodden to sometimes prevail over the ruling classes is also a satisfying stroke of literary genius. We all of us like to see a good comeuppance. And we somehow can’t help liking the lovable rogue as a fiction trope, as we see in the Harry Flashman stories. But let me not give away plot secrets.

I highly commend this book for readers with a passion for substantial historical fiction, to those interested in the history of British colonialism in general and in the history modern of India. It is a deep pleasure to read a book in which we learn so much while becoming engrossed in the lives of the book people and the twists of the story.

The series is not yet at an end, I am happy to report, and all the books can be purchased by contacting the author, Professor Peter Stanley, via his academic email address: p.stanley@unsw.edu.au

About Peter Stanley

Prof. Peter Stanley, spent 33 years as a ‘public historian’ – working with the Australian War Memorial (where he was Principal Historian) and at the National Museum of Australia (inaugural head of its Research Centre) before commencing at UNSW Canberra in 2013 as Research Professor.

As a public historian Peter worked across the range of responsibilities of museums; in exhibitions, publications, public programs and education as well as in research.  Ref. https://www.unsw.edu.au/staff/peter-stanley

Thank you to Peter Stanley for my review copy and for a thoroughly enjoyable conversation about the British Raj, the writing of historical fiction and this absorbing book.