The Man Who would be King & Other Stories, by Rudyard Kipling (I)

OK, I’ve finally completely crossed the line, in terms of verbosity. My review of this book is longer than some of the stories in it. And really needs to be edited. But sod it. I wrote it, you can read it. If you want. But for the sake of your eyes, your scrolling hand, and the poor electrons, I’m posting this in segments, one bit at a time. More tomorrow.

A while back, I reviewed a book by Oscar Wilde, and noted in some depth how far the popular image of Wilde (the English dandy, the darling of high society) differed from the reality (the Irish nationalist who launched a scathing satirical attack on high society, and along the way was briefly the subject of some half-scandalised popularity for just a couple of years). Or, at least, how it was possible to come at Wilde from a very different perspective from the one we normally, by default, adopt.

Well, this is a collection of stories by Rudyard Kipling. We all know Rudyard Kipling. Born in Mumbai and raised primarily by his parents’ Indian servants, his mother tongue was Hindi, and he spent his early years, every day, listening to Indian folk tales and nursery songs, only resentfully communicating in English with parents, his words ‘haltingly translated’, he says, from his own language. When he was five, his parents wrenched him out of this world, and arranged for him to live with total strangers (who one imagines did not speak Hindi) in England; there, he was subjected to intense physical and psychological abuse, which he later described as a programme of ‘calculated torture’, and which he says he was only able to survive at all thanks to the one month every Christmas he was allowed to spend at his aunt’s house. At eleven, he was rescued from his abusers and instead sent to live at a boarding school, where he was bullied and ostracised. When he left school, he was deemed too stupid to go to university on merit, and although his family was fairly well connected (relatives of his married into the families of various artistic types, and his cousin would later become Prime Minister) he was too poor to pay to attend. So instead he was liberated, and flew back to India, landing in Mumbai, his ‘Mother of Cities’, en route to his destination in Lahore. His years of loneliness had driven up to take refuge in literature, a voracious reader of everything he could find, and his years of abuse had forged in him a talent for lying; together, his erudition and his duplicity equipped him for his glorious career… as assistant editor of a minor local newspaper in Lahore. He was, by now, sixteen.

Wait, is that not how people think of Kipling?

Well, I’m not going to talk about who Kipling was and wasn’t later on in his career, but just about this book, and the author of this book. This is a collection of 14 short stories from early in Kipling’s career. That, it should be pointed out, represents only a tiny fraction of his output at the time. Between the last few months of 1886 and the first few months of 1889, Kipling published eighty short stories (more than one story a week) and that’s not counting his considerable non-fiction output as a journalist. “Prolific” does not begin to cover it. In 1888 alone, he published no fewer than six short story collections. It was a brief frenzy – he left India in 1889 to return to London, via America, and after that, other things began to distract him from writing – marriage, children, a nervous breakdown, the threat of penury when his bank failed, and a series of moves, from India to London to Vermont to Devon to South Africa to Sussex – and his output turned more toward poetry and to longer works. His most famous works were still to come (Barrack-Room Ballads in 1892, The Jungle Book in 1894, The Second Jungle Book in 1895, Kim in 1901, Just So Stories for Little Children in 1902, and Puck of Pook’s Hill in 1906, among others), but he never quite matched again that mad prodigious pouring forth of stories of 1886 to 1888.

These fourteen stories come from his 1888 collections – specifically, they appear to have been culled from  Under the Deodars, The Phantom ‘Rickshaw and Wee Willie Winkie.

Let me break that paragraph off halfway through to bring one salient little fact to the forefront: Kipling was born in 1865. He therefore wrote these stories when he was 22 or 23. I’ll just leave that there.

As I was saying, these stories come from three different collections. I don’t know who combined them, but it was an odd choice – because the stories were largely divided into collections on the basis of their topic and style. In recombining them, the editor has not clearly demarcated where one collection ends and another begins, but nor have they interwoven the three sets of stories among one another. The result is a quite disjointed collection, with the placement of the stories working against the whole, encouraging the reader to see them as repetitious due to the similarities within each (unmarked) section, yet out of place due to the differences between the sections. I have to feel it would have been wiser to mix the stories up a little to produce a more coherent yet unpredictable juxtaposition.

I began this review by talking about Kipling’s own story up to the point of writing these tales, and that Kipling, that bitter and angry victim of an uncaring society – that triple outsider, an English child in India, an Indian to his family, foster family and schoomates in England, and an Englishman again on returning to India, his native language almost entirely beaten out of him – is vividly present in the stories of the first section of this collection, those taken from Under the Deodars. This Kipling is writing in the literary vicinity of Wilde and Jerome, what will become the vicinity of Saki and Wodehouse: it’s that unique and peculiar tradition that personally I’ve come to think of as ‘English Mannerism’, since the traditional ‘Comedy of Manners’ doesn’t really seem to cover it. This sort of writing need not be comic – and even when it’s funny, it’s rarely wholeheartedly a comedy.

The tropes of this genre are commonplace and predictable. The aim is social criticism, and the target is a repressed cult of decorum in which politeness, triviality and superficial wit prevent the discussion of, but do not in fact eliminate, an underlying (both in the individual soul and in society at large) corruption of venality, heartlessness, and moral vacuity. A comic effect is produced by juxtaposing the elegant with the ugly, showing how the important is ignored and the unimportant is inflated; and the writer does this by himself adopting the exact mannerisms he is criticising, with all their flaws.

The outline may be the same, but the execution differs. Kipling’s version of it in these stories is perhaps the most brutal I’ve read – it reminds me more of Saki than of Wilde or Wodehouse, but even Saki  has a touch more mercy and gentleness to him, or at least is funnier. Kipling is… contemptuous. I think he’s also angry.

The subject of most of these opening stories is Simla, the hill town where the apparatchiks of the Raj – and more particularly their wives – retreat to a place of relative cool. Simla, we are told outright, is a strange place with peculiar customs – but in fact it is clear that for the most part Kipling’s Simla stands synecdochally for India, and indeed for society as a whole, merely in a more distilled and studyable form. Four of the stories – “The Education of Otis Yeere”, “At the Pit’s Mouth”, “A Wayside Comedy” and “The Hill of Illusion” concentrate on the relations between men and women, and in particular between male predictability and stupidity and female duplicity and frivolity. “A Second-Rate Woman continues these themes, but focuses more on (again, mostly female) prejudice and triviality, while “Only A Subaltern continues to touch on romantic issues but this time bringing in male points of view and the military context – these latter two stories also up the stakes and show the vanity of all human behaviours and opinions in the face of unescapable death.

Kipling is often considered misogynist; again, I can’t and don’t intend to speak regarding the man as a man or his career as a whole, from beginning to end; but within these particular texts, I think that would be a grave misunderstanding. It is true that to a large extent everything bad in these Deodar stories, other than death and disease, is the result of women, and that women are presented as manipulative and vain creatures; but here, I think, Kipling is being complimentary. The reason, after all, why women cause everything bad is that women cause everything – the men in these stories are barely more than animals, and achieve nothing, cause nothing. The women are able to manipulate them because they’re nothing more than pawns to be manipulated. The women in these stories may often be unpleasant people, but at least they’re people, which the men often aren’t. A clear example of this can be found in “At the Pit’s Mouth”, the shortest and least impressive of the stories, in which the female character is given no name, and referred to only as ‘The Man’s Wife’ – which may seem a hideously misogynistic decision on the part of Kipling, until you notice that the male character is referred to by the narrator only as ‘The Tertium Quid’. He doesn’t even get a real noun! Of the six stories, “Only A Subaltern” is the only story to have a male point of view – Otis and Woman have female protagonists and viewpoints, A Wayside Comedy theoretically has a balanced cast but leans both its screentime and its sympathies heavily toward the women, At the Pit’s Mouth has only two characters, both of which are entirely unsympathetic, but the focus is mostly on the woman, who is described in much more detail, and The Hill of Illusion is a two-handed playlet, a dialogue between a man and a woman, with the woman being by far the more sympathetic.  True, there are things the narrator says that sound quite misogynistic now and then, but then Kipling’s narrator can hardly be taken as trustworthy or admirable. Aside from being quite an unpleasant person at times, he’s also clearly a part of exactly the same society that is being ironically critiqued. And it’s hardly as though he’s never derogatory toward the male characters as well, albeit in a very polite way – consider for instance how we are introduced to Major Vansuythen in “A Wayside Comedy”: “Boulte, the Engineer, Mrs Boulte, and Captain Kurrell know this. They are the English population of Kashima, if we except Major Vansuythen, who is of no importance whatever, and Mrs Vansuythen, who is the most important of all.” And then: “She cared only for one man, and he was Major Vansuythen. Had she been plain or stupid, this matter would have been intelligible to Kashima. But she was a fair woman…”

More generally, it is true that there is a clear and discrete divide being put up in these stories between men on the one hand and women on the other – they are almost different species altogether. But this is only one aspect of the rigidly segregated society that Kipling describes. An even more extreme example can be found in the division between the ‘English’ and the natives – these stories do not feature the natives. Only in the not-quite-the-same-sort-of-story Only A Subaltern do they appear (and quite casually) as people, in the form of the native military regiments that are mentioned (and treated no differently from any other regiments). In all six stories together, there is only one sentence uttered by a native: “Doctor Sahib come”. But that’s the tip of the iceberg: natives are barely even mentioned as humans. Otis Yeere has a brief mention of the natives in another part of India, who are described as little more than irritating, plague-spreading ants. Otherwise, they are referred to with loanwords – always simply ‘the ayahs’ or ‘my ayah’, never with names, so that somebody who doesn’t know all the words may not always know whether somebody is talking about a human being or some other possession (and these Indians may in theory be free people, but they are treated more like slaves, more like unthinking inanimate possessions, than in most stories set in official slave state). [Although it should be said that later stories in the collection suggest that caste is the real issue here, not race, as the possibility of white ayahs is raised, who would be similarly sub-human]. More than that, even – they are so inconsequential that they are not even important enough to mention, save where they directly interfere in the events, which is seldom – there is literally no way to know whether, in a given scene, two English characters stand in complete isolation or are surrounded by a thousand natives, since the Indians will only be mentioned, will only pop into existence, if a European notices them. If an English character needs to hand something to someone, they’ll just hand it to one of the Indian slaves hanging around, and damned be the fact that in the last ten pages of this scene there was no mention that these Indians existed, and that the Indian in question will never be mentioned again. Two English women can be considered in perfect and hermetic privacy, their words entirely secret between they two alone, if only they and fifty-seven English-speaking Indians are in the same room. Perhaps the most extreme example of this is in “A Wayside Comedy”, where we are told the exact count of English inhabitants of a tiny hill station, but there is no mention at all of Indians. I do not know whether Kashima is supposed to be a teeming city or else just two bungalows. If it isn’t English, it doesn’t exist.

But before we get too offended on that issue, we should remember that these Under the Deodars stories are stories about English society, not about Indians, and the narrator is the sort of bigoted and hidebound Englishman that the stories are busy condemning. One can’t help but wonder if the blindness to the natives is part of that criticism. It’s probably important to mention that the same year that Under the Deodars came out, Kipling also published In Black and White, a collection of stories about the lives of Indians, half of them told by Indian narrators. Now, I haven’t read those stories, and I can’t say how generous they are, or how patronising – but even if, in the worst case scenario, reading those stories were to give a picture of a racist Kipling, it would still be a picture profoundly at odds with the Indian-blind narrator of these stories, and this juxtaposition (supported by knowledge of Kipling’s own life) makes it impossible to take the complete absence of Indians from these stories at face value. To me, this does indeed suggest that the decision to whitewash these particular stories is meant to be conveying something about the society Kipling is satirising.

But in any case, it doesn’t stop there. No, every element of this society exists to divide and segregate. Perhaps the most extreme example is made clear in “The Education of Otis Yeere”, when two women comment about different men, dividing them between men who are in the military service and men who are in the civil service. Let’s re-iterate that: these are all men who are of the same respectable class, and of similar respectable income, and who live in close proximity, and who together form an isolated class – an isolated class against the more numerous Indians, an isolated class against the more numerous lower-class English, and in these stories an isolated class against the no more numerous but far more resourcefull womenfolk of their society – and yet they are divided rigidly between military and civil men, who have their own subsocieties that rarely mix. Everybody in this society has their place, and everybody knows their place.

If there’s one setting that Kipling’s India could be compared to for the benefit of the modern reader: imagine an American high school. Not a real one – I’ve no idea what those are like – but one of the ones we see on TV and in film. The men are all jocks, simple-minded like bulls, barring the occasional hopeless creep; the women scratch each other’s eyes out over the slightest deviation from allotted fashions and tastes, and concoct elaborate plans to woo some man, or set up or break up some couple, for no particular reason other than boredom and a sort of petty megalomania. Crowds of younger children flow around Our Characters in a nameless, numberless unmentioned out-of-focus mass, only given names if they’re relevant to the plot, which they rarely are unless they’ve been given a message to convey or something. Everybody has their place – their gender, their year, their subjects, their social caste. The only difference is, the rulers of the world in Kipling’s Simla have less emotional maturity and more venomous prejudice than the worst high school homecoming queen.

It’s a fascinating historical-sociological-literary question. Why are Kipling’s characters children? Is it something that Kipling has imposed on them? Certainly, it’s hard to read these characters and not hear the bullied and unhappy literature-geek Kipling at his boarding school, getting his own back with mocking caricatures. On the other hand, what everyone can agree about Kipling, even his enemies, is that he’s a writer with a fantastic power of observation. Those who knew his India loved his work because it was real; those who didn’t know his India loved his work because it was tantamount to having these experiences first-hand. So perhaps Kipling’s history is biasing him – certainly I think it shapes his moral approach to his characters – but we should be wary of ascribing everything to personal fancy. Chances are, this really was, more or less, barring some dramatic license, how people behaved. In which case: why? Is it that people were just more childish back then, not yet fully ‘civilised’ by modern developments in culture? Is it perhaps that the Hegelian caste system and the omnipotent imperial power simply mimicked the situation that children encounter in schools? Or is it, one wonders, because modern education was developed as a way of growing Victorians in allotments, a way of producing the exact same people we see in Kipling’s stories, and that even a century later, when society has changed, our schools are still churning out people who would be better suited to life in Simla?


3 thoughts on “The Man Who would be King & Other Stories, by Rudyard Kipling (I)

  1. […] as a result of the length of the review, I split it into five parts: Part 1 (Introduction, literary context, first look at the Under the Deodars stories (“The Education […]

  2. rottingham says:

    American high school. Haha, brilliant!

  3. rottingham says:

    (Um, that wasn’t meant to sound bitterly ironic at all, just in case. I was genuinely amused by the comparison. Sorry.)

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