Shop H.E. Bates Online
The Scarlet Sword
Page Count
Word Count
Michael Joseph
John Bull
Publication Year
War, Asia, Religion, Journalism

London: Michael Joseph, 1950; Boston: Little, Brown and Company (An Atlantic Monthly Press Book), 1951. Dust jacket by James Broom-Lynne.
Serialized in John Bull (8 weekly parts, August 19 - October 7, 1950).

Bates fourth novel about World War II was preceded by Fair Stood the Wind for France, The Purple Plain and The Jacaranda Tree, the latter two also being about Asia. It is a fictional telling of the sacking of St. Joseph's Convent in Baramulla, Kashmir by pro-Pakistan Afridi and Pathan tribal soldiers in late October 1947. The novel features a large number of characters, including two priests, a journalist, a Hindu dancing girl, a retired Colonel and his wife, a young Englishwoman and her mother, a nurse, tribal soldiers, and various other religious, medical, and military persons.

Andrew Whitehead (A Mission in Kashmir, New Delhi: Viking Penguin, 2007, pp. 220-226) has identified an account of the incident by British journalist Sydney Smith, in the Daily Express (November 11, 1947) which contains numerous details so closely replicated in the novel that it seems clearly a significant source for the novel; Whitehead identifies several dozen "borrowings of incident, description and on occasion dialogue" from Smith's account, without credit from Bates, although he suggests that the protagonist Crane, a "war-weary British journalist," was "presumably based loosely on Smith. Only loosely, one must suppose, because Crane never once attempts to file a story or reflects on how to make contact with his news editor." As to whether Bates also met Smith (a former RAF pilot) or other persons involved in the incident, there is no evidence; Bates himself visited India and Burma, but not Kashmir, in early 1945. It would not be uncharacteristic of Bates however to take a newspaper account of an event and choose it as a vehicle for his imagination and creativity. In following so closely the actual event, the novel resembles many of Bates's Flying Officer X stories, which frequently were accurate retellings of pilot's experiences.

Whitehead notes that the novel is marred by an absence of context, in which Bates "failed to attempt to understand, or even describe, Kashmiri has more than a walk-on part....While almost all the Europeans in the mission are given the dignity of a name, most of the non-Europeans who took refuge there, and all but two of the attackers, are anonymous. Bates's pages are sprinkled with references to 'a Pathan', 'a Hindu woman', 'two Afridis', 'a young Sikh woman' or 'a dead Kashmiri' — their lives, stories and motives are not explored." Whitehead also notes a number of ways in which Bates departs from Smith's account — the names of most, although not all, characters; different outcomes for various characters; and, most significantly, in ascribing "human frailties and weaknesses, which are lifelike but may not have corresponded to the characters of those who suffered or died at St. Joseph's mission." That, and the lurid covers featured in some editions of the book, caused distress among some persons connected to the event, enough that "there was, apparently, a protest to Bates's publishers, urging that the book either be amended or withdrawn" and possibly inspiring Father George Shanks (the model for Bates's Father Anstey) to write a detailed account in a desk diary dated 1952.

The Times Literary Supplement dismissed the book as having the "flavour of Gilbertian comic opera...having a neglect of characterization, surprising in a writer of Mr. Bates's calibre." Harper's calls it a "marvelously vivid and exciting story" but The Spectator finds "the whole performance falls short of acceptance; one is aware that life has been arranged."


  • Harper's Magazine (February 1951, p. 110, Katherine Jackson, attached)
  • New Statesman and Nation (December 2, 1950, p. 566, Robert Kee, attached)
  • New Yorker (January 13, 1951, p. 82)
  • Saturday Review of Literature (January 27, 1951, p. 16, Nathan L. Rothman, attached)
  • The Spectator (December 1, 1950, p. 630, Sylva Norman, attached)
  • Times Literary Supplement (November 17, 1950, p. 721, attached)
  • Best Sellers (January 15, 1951, pp. 181-182, R.F. Grady, attached)
  • Books on Trial (February, 1951, p. 218, J.C. Lehane, attached)
  • The Freeman (March 12, 1951, p. 382, Alix Du Poy, attached)
  • Illustrated London News (December 30, 1950, p. 1088, K. John, attached)