The White Rajah was the first book I wrote. Naturally, it has always been my darling – first-borns are like that. But, as with most first novels, it’s unlikely that it’s my best work. This has always worried me. Although The White Rajah was originally conceived of as a stand-alone novel, it ended up being the first of three books narrated by the fictional John Williamson. When people asked me which books they should read first, I always wanted to say Cawnpore or Back Home, both of which were better reviewed and which, I think, were better books. But surely it would be best to start at the beginning with The White Rajah? Except that they might end up being put off the series.
Endeavour are now in the process of republishing all three books. Cawnpore and Back Home are unchanged from the editions published by Accent, but I asked for the chance to make changes to The White Rajah.
When I sat down to read it again for the first time in years, I was nervous. I thought it was going to be an embarrassing experience and that I was now committed to months of rewriting. To my surprise and delight, I found myself really enjoying it. By now, with the trilogy completed, I knew what the book was really about. Because I write fiction that is very closely tied in with historical facts, I have to plot my books very carefully and, because all this was new to me when I started The White Rajah I remember writing a very detailed plot outline before I started. Back then, though, I didn’t even realise that John Williamson was the most important character in the story. I thought it was a story about James Brooke, the White Rajah of the title and a real person.
It’s odd that you can write a book and only afterwards realise what it was about. Rereading it I was able to move the focus at some key points onto Williamson and show how his experiences with James Brooke shaped the man he was going to become in the next two volumes. I was pleased to realise that these changes didn’t take months after all. The basic structure of the plot still worked – it seemed only to need tweaking here and there.
It’s still not the Great British Novel that I wanted to write – what first novel ever is? (All right – I can think of several, but you don’t have to rub it in.) But it is no longer a book that I feel uncomfortable recommending. Some people have given it quite remarkably lovely reviews and I’m happy to recommend anyone interested in John Williamson’s adventures to start here at the beginning.
The young John Williamson meets James Brooke in a London tavern. He’s poor, not long out of Devon with little experience of the world. He can neither read nor write and he is nervous of those he sees as his social betters. From that meeting he sets out on a journey that will take him half way round the world, only to end up back home in Devon, a vastly different person from the young lad we met at the start of The White Rajah. It’s a journey that has him meeting head-hunters in Borneo and a rebel prince in India. Along the way he faces horror and loss and has to come to terms with the things that set him apart from the men he lives and works with before he returns to England and, in a London slum, finds the possibility of some sort of salvation.
I grew very fond of John Williamson. With the new edition of The White Rajah, I hope you will get the chance to grow fond of him too. Wherever you are, you should be able to find the book on Amazon using the universal link mybook.to/TheWhiteRajah.