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

I’m bad at reviewing short story collections. I want to write about every story!
I’m also bad, it turns out at reviewing Kipling. It’s all just so interesting!
The result of this is a ‘review’ (including a couple of irrelevent tangents, because I take a stream-of-consciousness approach to reviews…) that’s longer than several of the short stories themselves.

But never mind.

However, 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 of Otis Yeere”, “At the Pit’s Mouth”, “A Wayside Comedy”, “The Hill of Illusion”, “A Second-Rate Woman” and “Only a Subaltern”))
Part 2 (continued discussion of the Deodars stories; discussion of “The Phantom ‘Rickshaw”, “The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes”, and “My Very Own Ghost Story”)
Part 3 (discussion of “The Man Who would be King”)
Part 4 (more discussion of “The Man Who would be King”, plus “His Majesty the King”)
Part 5 (discussion of “Wee Willie Winkie”, “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep”, and “The Drums of the Fore and Aft”, plus summation and ‘verdict’)

Do note however that although I’ve put the stories into different parts in that summary, in practice I do tend to call back and forward when themes suggest it, so it’s not done purely story-by-story.

Anyway, there it is.

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

The review strikes back… don’t worry, almost finished now.

“The Man Who Would Be King” is a big topic, because it’s essentially a microcosm of British Imperialism – and it’s important to note, in light of the general sentiment toward Kipling, that he presents all this in extremely problematic terms. He seems willing to approve of the genuine ambition to improve the lot of ‘backward’ peoples, yet he also undermines notions of the irreconcilable otherness of the native, while at the same time suggesting that much evil, as well as good, can come from dragging the native down to the low and conniving level of the British, and questioning how – and in what ways – succesful integration can ever occur. Above all, he locates the causes of imperialism, and of how that imperialism runs it course on the ground, in the psychology of the individual invader as the ultimate self-made man. For all that the British system attempts to eliminate the individual, reducing each man to a surname, rank, and posting, turning barbaric, prejudiced, semi-animalistic humans (like the Rajah of Degumber) (and can I tie in here the earlier discussion of high-school fashion police? Because the criticism directed at the eponymous ‘Second-Rate Woman’, and to a lesser degree at other social failures, particularly in the Deodars stories, is precisely that by failing to keep up with the latest fashions – by failing to conform, by remaining as  a distinct and identifiable individual – she lowers herself to the level of a ‘Thing’ or a ‘creature’: to be uncivilised in even the most minor way is to be an animal, a thing less of pity than of horror and fear. If a woman can wear he supplément incorrectly, what else might she be capable of doing? Referring to somebody by their first name? Eating babies? It’s the thin end of the wedge!)… where was I? The problem with all this darned parentheses is that I come out of them with only the mildest awareness of my surroundings… oh yes, there I am… for all that the British system attempts to eliminate the individual, converting bestial human beings into sublime, impartially rationalistic agents and mechanisms of orderly governance, in the home and in the empire, for all that it seeks to transform flawed people into what are essentially flawless avatars of Empire, through whom the Empire’s will flows into the world, Kipling insists that men and women are always no more and no less than men and women. (In this light I’d draw the attention back to the ghost stories, the pinnacle of unreason, of “The Phantom ‘Rickshaw” and “My Very Own Ghost Story”; it’s also worth pointing out in passing, I think, that “The Man Who Would Be King” is very much framed and presented as a ghost story with no ghosts). Even the great men who expand the bounds of the Empire are doing it only for their own reasons – and they are not always good reasons. Nor, of course, are they necessarily bad reasons. Dravot and Carnehan (and indeed the narrator) are, like many Kipling characters, not easily pigeonholed into moralistic categories. They are portrayed as brave, clever, hard-working (in their own way), and ultimately noble and valiant of heart, with considerable capacity for altruism and a firm (if warped) moral compass; and yet at the same time we never forget that these are deceitful, avaricious, vainglorious, naïve, manipulative, coercive, lustful (in many ways) and potentially extremely brutal men.

And that’s one of the problems of the story, because by the end I really didn’t know who to root for. In some stories, that would be good – in longer stories perhaps, where sentiments can develop more fully and leave the reader conflicted – but here I just felt detached.

Which brings me to the other side of the matter. Because as well as a nexus of themes, “The Man Who Would Be King” is also a story on the page… and unfortunately that side of the thing fails to live up to the other. It’s a tale that grows in power once the reader has finished reading it, or at least a tale that works better in the mind than on the page.

A lot of this is the fault of the structure. As I said above, this is a ghost story, so there is a great deal of attention paid to provenance. As a result a good third or more of the story has passed by, explaining to us the details of who the narrator is and how they came by this story, before we actually come to the events themselves. This first part of the story is actually the best written by far. In fact, parts of it are extraordinary – I’m thinking here particularly of the couple of pages where Kipling autobiographically describes, with both clinical detail and poetically suppressed passion, the life of a newspaperman in India. Strange to say, but it’s both the most artistically sophisticated and the most emotionally unaffected passage in the book, and is almost worth reading the story for by itself. Yet none of this does much to advance the plot.

But then we get the real story, and here I think the changes in the nature of narrative are painfully clear. Because think how this would work these days. A man tells the narrator a story – and we go inside his eyes, as it were. The man talks in a way entirely out of keeping with his normal manner – it’s an established artistic license that narrators, if the stories are sufficiently long, have all the linguistic ability, and garrulousness, of the author, allowing us to see the events almost first-hand. But Kipling doesn’t do that here. Instead, we get more or less what that sub-narrator would actually say. Which means that details are skipped over en masse, events are told in overly dry and matter-of-fact ways, and both the imagery and the emotive impact are far less than they could be. On the one hand, I do appreciate what Kipling is doing. In keeping with what I said above about individualism, he’s continuing to emphasise the individuality of his characters, he’s keeping the focus on his sub-narrator as a person, not letting us forget him to pass on over the the meat of the adventure itself. But on the other hand, it’s problematic as a narrative, because so much of the import and significance of the story is handed over to the reader by an author who seems to be washing his hands of the matter. Rather than cooking us a meal, he hands us a bunch of ingredients and a picture of what the finished product’s meant to look like and says “here, see if you can make anything out of these”. In part, this is an artefact of the era – both older forms of storytelling in general, and that fin de siècle experimentation with limitated perspectives, replacing the Victorian omniscient narrator with personal and embedded narrators (the layers of provenance here reminded me very much of Conrad writing a little later on – and I don’t think it’s entirely a coincidence that both authors, much of whose work is carefully channelled through the persona of narrators, are both at times accused of sharing the opinions of their narrators; I wonder how much of this is our modern unfamiliarity with the distancing conventions both writers employ (in other ways, of course, Conrad and Kipling are probably at opposite poles, no pun intended, having responded to their outcast statuses in very different ways; indeed, the foreword to this edition notes, in mentioning Kipling’s liberal use of the word ‘nigger’, that political condemnation of that word among the intelligensia began from within Conrad’s circle about a decade after these stories were written, although Conrad himself famously used it in the title of his The Nigger of the Narcissus)); in part it is probably a device on Kipling’s part, both to frame what should be a historical or political story as instead a story of the ‘macabre’, a ghost story, and hence a work granted a greater political and ethical licence by his audience, and to firmly ground his demythologising of Empire in the flawed nature of individuals. But whatever the reason, and however much I may understand and sympathise with the stylistic decision, I still find it problematic as a way of telling a story. This, of course, says as much about me as about Kipling: grown used to modern authorial spoonfeeding, I find myself frustrated by a story with such potential that seems not to explore it fully. What is going on here, however, is that I think I’m probably meant to do that exploring myself – not just in the sense of thinking about the things Kipling hints at, but even in the prosaic sense of having to put a lot more work into imagining these scenes than I am used to.

Perhaps this is a good time to point out that the film (1975, written and directed by John Huston, starring Michael Caine and Sean Connery, scored by Maurice Jarre, cinematography by Oswald Morris, nominated for 4 Oscars, and those names alone add up to 8 Oscars and 21 nominations…) is really, really good; which is easy to believe as you read the story, because this is a brilliant story to adapt for film. So how much you get out of it depends on how willing you are to work at it: if you try to imagine how you might film the story, it’s pretty impressive, but if you sit back and expect Kipling to do your imagining for you, it is likely to fall flat, even by the standards of the era.


There’s still a lot that could be said about “The Man Who Would Be King”, which, let’s face it, in style and in content could almost have been written for a history-of-literature syllabus. But I’m bored now, and have written already more digressive paragraphs and superfluous parenthesese than one man should be expected to effluse in a single year.

[Diversion: is the extent to which my ‘reviews’ become rambling stream-of-consciousness meanders through every thought that pops into my head a function of the text, showing how a particular text has incited thoughts in me that are too difficult for me to set in line with gentility and grace and a sense of proportion, or is this instead governed by some exogenous factor? Given just how long it’s  taken me to write this ‘review’, there’s clearly more to it than just diet or overstimulating television, but I suppose that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s all down to the text… interesting, will have to observe the subject more fully in future…]

So, (*sigh of relief*) let’s move on.

“The Man Who Would Be King” is the last of the ‘Rickshaw stories in this collection; the final four stories all come from the collection Wee Willie Winkie. As with Deodars and to a lesser extent ‘Rickshaw, this is a thematic grouping: we’ve had all-out social satire, we’ve had social satire through the medium of ‘macabre’ (or at least creepy) stories, and now we’re onto social satire through the window of childhood.

There are, as I say, four stories in this section: “Wee Willie Winkie” itself, “Baa Baa Black Sheep”, “His Majesty the King”, and “The Drums of the Fore and Aft”. It’s an interesting quartet, because the stories form interesting pairs: “Winkie” and “Drums” are both stories about politics and war, but “Winkie” and “King” are both stories about the naïvity of children, and “King” and “Black Sheep” are both stories, in different ways, about child abuse.

…well, let me clarify that. Because really, all these stories are about child abuse. It’s tempting to think, in fact, that all of Kipling’s stories are about child abuse. But I’ll get back to that. For now, enough to note that while I don’t know just how abusive Kipling’s childhood really was (and now the review I guess comes back to its beginning, because that childhood stops being merely a background curiosity at this point), it’s clear that in his memory it was unambiguously hellish, and it feels as though the abuse he suffered was like a bell struck with a hammer in his early life, the echoes and reverberations of which continue to sound in hollows and on reflective surfaces throughout his life.

“His Majesty the King” is the most simplistic of the stories – it’s about a young boy raised by servants in India, barely communicating with his parents, and in theory it’s about the juxtaposition between the incomprehensible lives of adults, filled with bitterness and recriminations and pettiness, and the relatively carefree lives of children: it’s showing ‘us’ how stupid – and perhaps even evil – we appear to children. But it’s hard to avoid feeling it’s really about how the Victorian system of parent-adult relations is, or at least can be, hideously toxic. His Majesty’s parents (sorry to be repetitive, but note again the lack of personal names. His Majesty does have a name, but he’s mostly just His Majesty. A fine preparation for an adult life in the civil service or the army, where he will again have no name) are not outright evil people, are not really condemned at all, but are… well, my spine creeps at the thought of them. Here’s how the child’s world works:

“At the door of the nursery his authority stopped. Beyond lay the empire of his father and mother – two very terrible people who had no time to waste upon His Majesty the King. His voice was lowered when he passed the frontier of his own dominions, his actions were fettered, and his soul was filled with awe because of the grim man who lived among a wilderness of pigeon-holes and the most fascinating pieces of red tape, and the wonderful woman who was always getting into or stepping out of the big carriage.
To the one belonged the mysteries of the duftar-room, to the other the great reflected wilderness of the Memsahib’s room, where the shiny scented dresses hung on pegs, miles and miles up in the air, and the just-seen plateau of the toilet-table revealed an acreage of speckly combs, broidered hanafitch-bags and white-headed brushes.
There was no room for His Majesty the King either in official reserve or worldly gorgeousness. He had discovered that, ages and ages ago…
…These things were beyond the province of His Majesty the King. He only knew that his father was daily absorbed in some mysterious work for a thing called the Sirkar, and that his mother was the victim alternately of the Nautch and the Burrakhana.”

This is a child who hugged his mother once, and was immediately sent to the nursery as punishment.

I should point out here, I think, the thing I mentioned earlier, about equating the Indian with the English, not in order to make a point about the treatment of Indians, I don’t think, but to undermine the sense of dignity of the English. Note the repetition in two successive paragraphs of “wilderness” – but these “wildernesses” are the very peaks of English civilisation! The “wilderness” of organised bureaucracy, and the “wilderness” of fashion and high society: there can be no doubt, I think, that Kipling believes that his society has become lost. Note how Kipling equates the mysteries of the orient for the English, shown in the use of so many words from other languages, with the mysteries of adulthood for children. On the same page we are told about a longstanding grievance between His Majesty’s parents – it is a described as a skeleton, and then we are told that somebody has “trained it into a household god”, an equivocation of the superstitious rituals of the east with the bitter and dehumanising rituals of the west that would probably manage to offend both sides of that equation.

And do note there also how the lives of these “remote and silent people” are effectively dehumanised, deindividualised, by society: they have no life, no identity, beyond their place in society. What a horrifying expression it is, “his father was daily absorbed in some mysterious work”, if you take it literally. Because I think Kipling does mean it, if not literally, than at least very seriously. His father is absorbed into his work, like a rogue liquid is absorbed into a sponge. And again, isn’t this a turn of phrase redolent of religion? There is some god called the Sirkar, and through its mysterious works the individual worshipper is absorbed. The Englishman becomes one with the Empire. His son is left behind.

Anyway, sorry to be fanciful there. I think my point is that, as a story, “His Majesty the King” may not work all that well – both we and the protagonist are both too far removed culturally from what is going on (ironically, time has moved the reader from the side of the adults to the side of the child, as the adult world described here has become increasingly alien (an amusing inversion: if, as I suggested above, their adults behaved like our children, it’s not too farfetched to suggest that our adults behave much like their children)) – but it is nonetheless a fascinating glimpse both into the society of the day and into the perspective of Kipling as an author.

Oh, but I do want to say in passing: the descriptions of the King’s parents may be awful, but Kipling doesn’t condemn them outright. Kipling doesn’t, on reflection, ever seem to condemn anyone outright. I’ll get back to that. Instead, here’s a thought: this is one of several stories in the collection that suggest that the horribleness of social relations forms a knot that can only be cut through with the most terrible weapons – only times of crisis and fear and pain can smash through the elaborate edifices of absorption, “dull, rankling anger” and “savage contempt”. This is again a fanciful thought, but: is one of the reasons Kipling seems so sanguine at times about war and plague and so forth the belief that death, and the threat of death, is the only thing really powerful enough to teach us about what really matters in life? Repeatedly in this collection, death and the threat of death is almost a divine light shone into murky waters.

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

The third and even more rambling part of my ongoing review (plus an irrelevant tangent at the end). P.S. paragraphs schmaragraphs as I believe Daniel Defoe once said…

“The Man Who Would Be King” is a significant departure, both from the ‘macabre’ content of the preceding three Phantom ‘Rickshaw stories and more generally from the setting of all the earlier stories in this volume. Where they have all dealt with the System, and the ruling class that both perpetuates and is tormented by that System, “The Man Who Would Be King” deals explicitly with those from outside the system: those who are ruled, not those who rule. The narrator, a newspaper man, seems the closest we have yet come to Kipling himself; the two main (and note the use of first names!) characters, Daniel Dravot and Peachy Carnehan, are explicitly outsiders, ‘Loafers’. Although the narrator’s attitude toward the pair is not exactly one of admiration, he (and Kipling) does appreciate the epistemic advantages of their situation: “We talked politics – the politics of Loaferdom, that sees things from the underside where the lath and plaster is not smoothed off”. The story sets itself out from the beginning quite clearly as a story that tells us the unvarnished truth.

It’s hard to say too much about the content, however, because it’s one of the few stories in this collection that’s all about the plot. But a few things do spring out at the reader. First, we get the first intimation here as to why exactly the British are here – not the technical, political reason, but the ideological reason. Nobody is actually talking about the child nations and duty of care and raising people up to be better… but we do get a glimpse of the difference the English perceive between themselves and the natives when, early on, Dravot explains his plan to extort the Rajah of Degumber by posing as a newspaperman and demanding money to hush up the Rajah’s treatment of his stepmother – the Rajah, you see, “filled her up with red pepper and slippered her to death as she hung from a beam”. I’m not going to get into how true a depiction of the local petty nobility that is (although I suspect that given their absolute and unaccountable rule, it’s quite a realistic thing to have happened – certainly the equivalent monarchs in Europe had done worse things before modernity set in), but what matters here is that Dravot believes it, and we suspect that the narrator, and Kipling and his audience, whether or not they believe Dravot is correct in his information this time, do believe that this is the sort of thing that Degumber Rajahs do. And it isn’t what the English do – at least not to their stepmothers. The ornate brutality of some later events reinforces that (and now we may also remember the barbaric customs of “Morrowbie Jukes”) – there is a clear sense that the English are more civilised, less mediaeval, than the local alternative at this point. In particular, it is interesting to consider the moral situation of the virtually amoral Dravot and Carnehan as observers of India: while the upper class English overseers of the earlier stories in this collection are amusing themselves with each other’s wives in Simla, it is Dravot and Carnehan, the Loafers, the conmen, who experience the brutality both of British rule and the even worse rule of the petty tyrants of the Princely States. When Carnehan complains that half of India is wasted, because “they” will not allow it to be ‘worked over’, it’s not an abstract half of India – he is attacking the laissez-faire policies of Britain as regards the Princely States, many of which have been allowed to stagnate both economically and politically by an Imperial government that views non-interference with native affairs as more important than either money or morality (a stance we may imagine was typified, for men like Dravot and Carnehan, by the end of the unpopular laws that had seen heirless native states incorporated into British India – with the fall of the ambitious, profit-driven East India Company and its replacement by the more conservative, preservative Raj, expansion, at least internally, came to an end). We may not necessarily agree with the duo’s recommendations for how to deal with the problem of the Degumber Raja, either on a political level (crush the native governments and their systems of aristocratic dignity, religious prohibitions and the caste system and bring in the free market, whether the natives want it or not), or on a personal level (blackmail the sucker), but it’s probably important to notice that it’s only Dravot and Carnehan who want to do anything to improve anything for anybody, even if it’s only themselves – the elites, whether Indian or English, are perfectly happy to turn a blind eye to people stuffing their stepmothers with red hot peppers and slippering them to death as they hang from the ceiling, if it means not having to say anything rude to a Rajah. Perhaps the fatal flaw in the system is that the people who could do something about the Rajah and his kind, whether or not they should and whether or not there is anything they could do that wouldn’t do more harm than good, in this system do not even have to think about doing anything. It is not so much that they adopt a different policy, but that they are able to avoid having any policy at all.

[We also get a glimpse here both of Kipling’s faith and his despair in the power of the free press. On the one hand, we get the impression that conmen are frequently able to make a level blackmailing Indians (and maybe even English) by pretending to be reporters, so the press clearly has a reputation for being able to break controversial stories and cause damage to individuals. It suggests however that the press also has a reputation for corruption. More importantly, though, it suggests that the press (and don’t forget that newspaper reporter was Kipling’s day job at this point) just aren’t present in the forgotten parts of India. They’re known well enough that Rajahs have heard of the names of the papers, but they’re rare enough in person that you can get away with pretending to be the representative one for long periods of time. And if Dravot and Carnehan make a living at this, how many stories are the newspapers not reporting? Even the name of the newspaper, The Backwoodsman, shows the neglect shown to these areas.]

But, stepping back a moment there, what is it to be English in India? “The Man Who Would Be King” is all about identity, and specifically it’s about transgressive identity. One sign of this comes when we see an Englishman speaking Hindustani – not just because he is speaking Hindustani, and not just because he’s doing a convincing impression of being Indian, but because the narrator doesn’t think to mention that the dialogue was in Hindustani until later, or that he (the narrator) even spoke Hindustani. There’s just an expectation that everybody speaks each other’s languages – although there’s a clear sense of difference between English and Indian, it is not an absolute difference. English can become Indian. And more importantly, vice versa, Indian can become English – maybe even was English all along. When Dravot and Carnehan reach remote Kafiristan, they are shocked to discover that the inhabitants are white – whiter than Dravot and Carnehan, in fact – and that they are all Freemasons. As they get to know the locals, and import European knowledge (and specifically guns), they start to see the locals as not merely fair-skinned but as actually “English” (said explicitly, but also shown symbolically by not only bestowing English names on the locals, but specifically giving them the names of individuals the interlopers knew back ‘home’ (home for this pair being not England but, like Kipling, India)). And Kipling doesn’t appear to be mocking them for this – the problem is not that the invaders are naïve enough to think that the locals are like them, but rather the problem is that the locals really are like them. “’We’re done for,’ he said, ‘they are Englishmen, these people”. And giving Englishmen guns is never a good idea. After all, Dravot and Carnehan are English – and they may not be as bestial as the Rajah of Degumber, but they’re still not people it would be good to trust.

[A digression here, because this review is far too short: the idea of white Kafiristan may seem like an absurd ‘Lost World’ Victorian fantasy, but it’s closer to the truth than might be assumed.  Kafiristan is, or was, a real place, and its inhabitants were famous for their pale complexion, as well as for their polytheism. Their sister-people the Kalash, who remain polytheists to this day, claim to be descended from the armies of Alexander, and while this is unlikely to be literally true (perhaps a folk memory of their incorporation into the various post-Alexandrine Greco-Indian and Greco-Bactrian kingdoms and their successors?), the theory was widely reported in Victorian times  and may well have been familiar to Kipling’s more educated readers, only needing to be mentioned in passing here. The idea that the people of Kafiristan might harbour some secret, like a form of Freemasonry, is also not farfetched – at the time of Kipling’s story, only one or two Europeans had ever visited Kafiristan and survived to tell the tale. The idea of Masonry marks hidden on the holy stone, meanwhile, is a clear reference to the Ghaznavid campaigns against the Kafirs, when, allegedly, Ghazni himself, having ‘conquered’ Kafiristan (it didn’t take…) stole their holy stone and took it back to India, only to be told that the secret marks on the bottom of it were incredibly ancient Vedic symbols. Unfortunately for Kipling, it’s possible some modern audiences might not immediately remember all the details of the Ghaznavid campaigns in Central Asia, so I thought that titbit might be worth reminding you of. In any case, the story also harbours a far more recent historical significance – indeed, a cutting-edge geopolitical one for Kipling’s readers. When this story came out, the future of Kafiristan looked grim; only a few years later, the Amir of Kabul was to crush the native armies and compel the surviving natives to convert to Islam, before eliminating ‘Kafiristan’ from maps entirely (some Kafirs were able to flee across the border into Chitral, at the time an independent country, and join the Kalash – soon after, after an extended bout of fratricide and civil war, the British arrived in Chitral to defend the only surviving legitimate prince from the invasion forces of the Amir of Kabul and the Khan of Jandul; with Chitral acknowledging the suzereinty of the Crown in exchange for defence, the area came under British influence, ensuring the continued religious liberty of those Kalash and Kafirs on the Chitral side of the border; to the west, a small minority of Afghan Kafirs stubbornly retained their traditions a few more decades, but were gradually assimilated). Kipling is not, therefore, writing about some far off lost world but about a place at the forefront of current events in his day, albeit a place little was known of – a Victorian North Korea, perhaps. In doing this, Kipling sites his prima facie implausible story in the heart of reality – indeed, the tangential references to the Amir’s armies suggest that Kipling is not merely appealing to current affairs but almost appropriating them. Are we to imagine perhaps that the Amir’s real conquest of Kafiristan was indeed only a consequence of the fictional actions of Dravot and Carnehan?

It is also I think important for modern readers to note the complexity of many of these situations. It is very easy in hindsight to fall into a simple dichotomy of “British (/European) Imperialists” and “conquered natives”. In reality, however, the degree to which the ‘natives’ were either actually conquered and/or actually native varied considerably with time and place. I’ve already parenthetically noted the complexity of the political situation within “British India”, but it’s important to note also the complexity of the situation outside India too. The Mehtar of Chitral, for instance, at this time independent but allied to the British (until recently he’d been a tributary state of China instead) and within the British zone of influence, later to become sovereign but non-suzerain (indeed, he didn’t give up sovereignty until 1969 (and it may be mentioned here that the ‘elected representative’ of Chitral is still a member of the dynasty, and almost always has been since the introduction of ‘democracy’), was not himself a ‘native’ with respect to his own population – he was the descendent of Timurid conquerers, spoke Persian and made Persian the official language of the state, while most of his populace were (relatively) ‘native’ Dardic-speaking Khowars. (Like many of the ‘native’ Indian rulers, the Mehtars had been in (what was retrospectively defined as) India only very slightly longer than the British). In total, though, there were dozens of linguistic and cultural groups in Chitral alone – Indo-Iranian (the relicts of multiple waves of conquest), Indo-Aryan (nomads migrated up from the south), Dardic, and the speakers of Burushaski, whose language has no known relatives. The only thing keeping the Mehtars from having become emperors rather than only princes was their bad habit of incessantly murdering their own family members for three hundred years in a row. As for the Amirs and Khans of Central Asia, violent conquest seems to have been second nature to them (the particular Khan of Jandul in question was nicknamed “the Napoleon of the Pathans”). I’m not seeking here of course to “excuse” the British for their crimes (both of action and of omission), but rather to re-embed the British in the complex geopolitical situation that actually obtained at the time. The British did not arrive in India in the same way they arrived in, say, Australia – much of their ‘conquest’, for instance (though of course not all) was less a matter of military imposition of a new system, and more a matter of the manipulation and appropriation, state by state and treaty by treaty, of the existing system, large parts of which were never really fully digested. What we see in “The Man Who Would Be King”, in turn, is what the Englishman finds when he ventures outside the walls of ‘civilisation’ – which is to say, exactly the same as he finds inside them. He finds Amirs building their empires over tribesmen; he finds tribe constructing kingdoms over tribe; he finds village struggling to oppress village. Perhaps we could see this as justifying British rule – after all, it’s not different, it seems, from what’s happening over the border. But on the other hand, perhaps we should see this as condemning British rule – after all, it’s no different, it seems, from what’s happening over the border.]

Ethnic identity, of course, is only one part of identity. Perhaps the title says it all, really: this isn’t the story of Englishmen and Indians (or Afghans, or Kafirs), it’s the story of rich and poor, king and subject, the story of a man who wants to change who he is, to become more than he is. Crucially, Dravot’s real ambitions are never made entirely clear – his ambition is clear, but it has no inherent focus. A king, an emperor, a god; a knight, a lord, a millionaire, it doesn’t matter what Dravot might become, all that matters, I’d suggest, is that he stop being what he is, a Loafer and a petty con man and extortionist. I think there’s something quite powerful in that, and I think that one reason this story is so famous is how little that power is hemmed in by Kipling with overt meanings. Dravot and Carnehan are not a mere analogy – they are an image, a symbol of the whole, out of which analogies and explanations can be carved. They are Empire.

Dravot and Carnehan’s expedition to Kafiristan is on one level a simple fictionalisation of the real world Kipling lived in, where men like Dravot and Carnehan were how the Empire often did expand. On the one hand, the reality of the setting is assured by the importance of central Asia in contemporary politics – as noted above, Kafiristan was in the news at the time, and neighbouring Chitral would be brought under the British wing only a few years later. More specifically, the tale is clearly inspired by the career of minor failed businessman James Brooke, Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath, governer and commander-in-chief of Labuan, consul-general to Borneo, and Rajah of Sarawak, who accidentally won sovereign rule of Sarawak and the hand in marriage of the daughter of the Sultan of Brunei using only a small private yacht and six small cannons while attempting to circumnavigate the globe [the story may have had some resonance to Kipling on a personal level too – Brooke, like Kipling, was born and bred in India (indeed, Brooke’s family had been on the continent for more than a century), before being exiled to England for his education, which he did not take well to, and like Kipling he returned to India as a young man to make his own fortune, though he chose the army rather than the newspapers]. This story of the White Rajah, who came to power some forty years before Kipling wrote his story, was legendary by this time, and is twice referenced explicitly by Dravot, once by name and once by use of ‘Sarawak’ as a verb. Brooke’s legend offers both hope and fear to men of Dravot’s generation: on the one hand, Brooke is a symbol of what the lowly man can do if he has the guts and the will, a sort of “British Dream” promising that however oppressed a man may be inside British society, he can still burst out and, out in the wild, rise to any height he wishes; he is, in a way, a promise that all the suffering and indignity of being ground in the gears of the rigid British hierarchical society are worth something, are repayed by giving that man the ingenuity and spirit to put him above any other person in the world, if he but dares to go out into the wild; and yet, as Dravot notes, there are fewer and fewer places where a man can ‘Sarawak’ succesfully. The world is becoming known, and the world is coming to know the British, and even as British society becomes more and more rigid (and the old entrepeneurial dream of industry has been quashed by the solidifying ranks of a new grand bourgeois ruling class) there are fewer and fewer ways to escape it. Brooke himself, after all, was only one of the last of the many adventurers in the East – a Company man who followed in the footsteps of Clive himself (a teenage delinquent and extortionist who rose from the position of an assistant shop clerk to become sovereign ruler of Bengal). In this context, being king is not about ruling over people – Brooke carried out the later portion of his rule from the comfort of a small village on Dartmoor – but simply about being recognised as a king, being allowed to go up to the front of the social queue. The subjects are an afterthought; conquest and Empire are only the extreme margin of the mechanisms of social orienteering that we see in the other stories in this collection.

Which isn’t to say, of course, that the adventurers didn’t care about their subjects – they often prided themselves on bettering the lives of others, and much of the acclaim for them was couched not in the terms of conquerors but in the terms of great philanthropists and liberators: they were not acclaimed for adding to the Empire, but on subtracting from the dark portions of the world, liberating the masses from petty oriental despots, establishing modern trade and the rule of law. Clive, of course, was later repeatedly prosecuted for his personal greed and corruption, and though his conquest may have brought many freedoms to the people of Bengal, and a greater degree perhaps of predictability in government, it also resulted in a dramatic increase in taxation (albeit less out of greed it appears than out of a complete inability to control or even adequately monitor the activities of the local tax collectors), which probably contributed in some measure to a horrendous famine and deaths of millions of people.  The man who was such an undeniable genius in winning an empire, both in war and in diplomacy, was no kind of man at all to rule (Bengal, Clive, and the ambiguity of popular sentiment toward Clive, may thus be seen through the lens of the myths of the British class system – the idea that ‘new money’, those ambitious social-climbing entrepeneurs, ultimately lack the quality of the true aristocracy, the only people really qualified to rule). The subject of much popular ill-feeling, he increasingly fell into depression, became overwhelmed by drug addiction, and killed himself at the age of 49. Brooke faired a little better, but the man so lauded for ending piracy and the slave trade in Sarawak found himself facing a serious investigation into the degree of brutality he had used in doing so, and though formally exonerated the popular clamour would never go away; having appointed and then deposed one successor, he died in Devon (Sheepstor, a farming village with a current population of 53, although a century ago it was a far more bustling place, with all of 95 souls – it’s never been large enough to even be classed as a parish) in a sort of voluntary exile from both Sarawak and from British society. The British public was not unaware of the paradoxes of ‘progress’.

[I began this review by irrelevently harking back to my early Oscar Wilde review, so perhaps that justifies a brief tangent: Wilde’s fairy-tale of the Young King is dedicated to the Ranee of Sarawak, the wife of Brooke’s nephew, apparently a remarkably intelligent and strong-willed woman. Not, perhaps, as interesting as the last Ranee, though, her daughter-in-law – the sister of DH Lawrence’s lover, and herself admired by Shaw, she had already tried to kill herself twice by the age of twelve, which will return to relevence later in this review…. As Ranee she gained a reputation for being power-mad and narcissistic, as well as for being somewhat indecorous – on one occasion she shocked the local mores rather badly by being found table-dancing with a pair of prostitutes in a local nightclub, before taking them both back to the palace, allegedly to ‘paint their portraits’ (although despite her reputation for constant ‘smut’, she also described herself as ‘frigid’, saying that she found sex ‘all right if you want kids’, but otherwise ‘ridiculous and awkward’, and she put her happy marriage down to ignoring tradition and making sure never to “like any other husband and wife have ever behaved”, which included separate beds. Her husband the Rajah appears to have seen the advantages of this also – whenever he was getting bored with a mistress, he’d simply send the Ranee to frighten her off in a pantomime of jealousy, thus avoiding the social awkwardness of ever having to break up with anyone himself). Her unconventional behaviour, and the increasingly desparate power struggle to win the succession for her daughter away from her husband’s nephew, against traditional sucession laws (not merely a problem of male-preference primogeniture – the Brookes, respectful of local customs, may have abolished slave-trading, but had never changed the old laws that insisted that women were slaves of their head-of-family, so could not possibly inherit anything (the Ranee was obliged to always walk four paces behind her husband)), contributed greatly to the end of the private Raj – Sarawak was the final conquest of the British empire, annexed in 1947. Her husband, on the other hand, appears to have been very popular, largely leaving the locals to their own devices, banning missionaries from the country, and passing laws to encourage the maintanance of local traditions. Unfortunately, he was also very against headhunting, which brought some opposition; everyone was therefore very happy when the Japanese invaded, since this allowed both Western and Sarawakan views on hunting down random members of rival groups and cutting off their heads to display in your houses to come into a degree of harmony. And I’ll give the last words of this diversion to the daughter of the last Rajah and Ranee. Like her sisters, she had a terrible reputation with men (the lord chief justice summed up local sentiment when he described them as acting, like their mother, “like tarts”, and the three princesses racked up eight marriages between them), in the end choosing to marry not a lord or a plutocrat but an international wrestling champion; in the media spotlight as the celebrity couple of the day they announced their ambition of creating a new country in the Pacific where everybody could be Rajah and Ranee. The young princess expressed a direct and sophisticated analysis of the virtues of imperialism: “I think a country without lots of uniforms and braids is no fun,” she said.]

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

The second installment of the excessively long and rambling review…

In any event, it is important not to confuse Kipling’s ironic non-condemnation for tacit acceptance of either the caste system or the behaviour that enforces it. On the contrary: story after story lambasts the English for their hypocrisy and vanity, their petty dedication to fulfilling all the demands of ‘decent society’. These themes become explicit in “Only a Subaltern”, a rather mawkish story showing how the ideal soldier (yet at the same time a fool as a man) is one who treats everyone as human, ignoring caste distinctions (I use the word ‘caste’ because ‘class’ doesn’t seem adequate to describe the rigidity and complexity of the Hegelian world we see in these stories, and because Kipling appears throughout to be seeking to equate English and Indian customs), and even more so in “A Second-Rate Woman”, in which a socially inferior woman is derogated by her ‘betters’, only to prove a far more admirable and more ‘productive’ person than the useless and ignorant women who have criticised her.

Two quotes may illustrate the sort of behaviour I’m talking about here:

One woman describing the pleasure ones feels when another woman is seen wearing an unfashionable hat: “I felt almost too well content to take the trouble to despise her.”

Or a woman explaining the importance of dress in judging character: “Her dress betrays her. How can a Thing who wears her supplément under her left arm have any notion of the fitness of things – much less their folly?” – yeah, it’s a world in which those who don’t follow all the latest fashion magazines aren’t just lesser people, they’re not people at all.

What these Deodars stories succeed in is hammering home the utter moral decrepitude of the Raj, and by extension of English society ‘back home’. At times, their audacity in doing so is itself impressive, and the reader can sit back in a strange amalgammous mire of disgust and horrified awe, like watching an exceptionally polite and well-mannered pit-bull mawling a three-legged deer in the middle of a dinner party. The problem is, however, that no matter how hypocritical or vain the deer, it’s hard not to sympathise with it. Kipling’s targets are so completely vacuous that it’s really hard to cheer when they’re undermined – they make no attempt to defend themselves against their author. That sort of assault, while amusing at first, while the reader is still startled, soon becomes distasteful, unless the attacker is either extraordinarily graceful (as in Wilde, where readers indeed often are so captivated by the grace of the attack that they forget that it is an attack at all) or is able to contextualise their battle in a broader moral context. Kipling achieves neither of these saving graces. Although it is clear who he is against, it is far less clear in these stories who or what he is for, and what he perceives the difference to be – the effect is thus primarily misanthropic, rather than ideological. More troublingly, although he has his share of great lines, Kipling is here for the most part a ‘talented’ writer rather than a brilliant one – for every glimpse of something great, there’s a faux pas. Much of this becomes instantly understandable when one remembers the astonishingly young age of the author – this is a young man’s voice, almost a teenager’s voice, albeit a teenager doing an extremely good impression of a wise old man, and at times he comes on too strongly, particularly in his attempts at flippancy. Underneath the layers of, as Kipling would have called them, ‘lies’ – the lie of accepting the mannerisms he seeks to undermine, the lie of being a wise literary narrator rather than a barely-adult backwater newspaper clerk trying to impress people – there’s something off-putting puerile here; one gets the impression that while the stories may belong to an american high school circa 1990, Kipling himself would feel most at home on an internet forum, dazzling people with his borrowed erudition, out-cynicising all his playmates in his safely comfortable mockery of the class whose goodwill he depended on financially, like the teenage flame-warrior who knows all the inadequacies of the adult world while still living in his parent’s basement.

Kipling, of course, actually did know a fair amount more of the world than most internet commentators – to re-iterate, he migrated back to India and his newspaper job when he was only 16. It’s understandable, then, that he’s so certain he’s the smartest man in India, and certainly smarter than all his characters. And yet there’s that element of not taking his characters seriously as characters… and of not taking his audience sufficiently seriously as people who have most likely heard all this before and to impress whom Kipling will need more than a little flippant superiority.

And yet. Yes, there are problems in these stories, but there is promise as well. Two stories in particular stand out, and I think it’s no coincidence that they’re the stories where Kipling is least present. “A Wayside Comedy” is a beautiful little slice of hell, delicately preserved in a petri dish, the story of how six people who get on well with on well with one another are only inches away from misery. In its small setting and cast, it strips away much of the superfluous scenary of ‘British India’ and becomes simply a study in human relations. It’s impressive precisely because there is no hero and no villain – something could be said for and against each of the six characters (three men and three women). Their characters are both realistically conflicted and also realistically ambiguous. It may not be a classic of literature, but in it’s horrid little way it’s a lovely story.

That’s even more true of “The Hill of Illusion”, a really memorable piece. This is perhaps Kipling stripped back to the bare minimum, stripped back to what he is really good at: observation and a sense of dramatic potential. It’s a playlet, which means that the sum total of all the narrator’s intervention is to write ‘HE:’ or ‘SHE:’ at the beginning of each line. It’s a two-hander, one man talking to one woman, and there’s hardly anything in the way of incident. Instead, it’s just two people talking about the situation they’re in, exploring all the possibilities of their situation. Unlike the ironic prose, this feels like something that comes naturally to Kipling. There’s no affectation here: it’s a real moment, between real people, and though the details of the situation and its consequences may be of the period, it’s an ultimately timeless story of the nature of humanity – and the extent to which it can fuck things up for itself. Because this is a merciless little story – whenever the reader thinks they’ve found some comforting raft, it’s ripped apart from under them. It reminds me of nothing so much as those wonderful, horrible argument scenes from plays and films in the ‘60s and ‘70s, in which this marriage or that friendship dissolves in the course of scene. Like those scenes, it’s harrowing for the reader.

Following on from the six Deodars stories, we have four stories from The Phantom ‘Rickshaw (yes, Kipling is that guy, the guy who both knows that “’rickshaw” should always begin with apostrophe (because the Japanese was originally jinrikisha) and is pedantic enough to insist upon it; it’s not even as though anybody might have complained, since it was Kipling himself who popularised the word in English  – yes, Kipling uses proper apostrophes even with words that only he knew). Where Under the Deodars was social satire, The Phantom ‘Rickshaw is theoretically a collection of macabre tales. I say ‘theoretically’, however, for two reasons: first, because one of the stories isn’t really macabre except in the sense of being horrible, and second because whatevever it says on the frontispiece Kipling’s main interest here is still the inadequacy of society. All the macabre does here is give him an excuse – and it’s extremely welcome.

There are four of these stories. Two of them are a contrasting pair of ghost stories – one serious, one jocular. The third is a strange, nightmarish story (which I have a feeling may have inspired Ballard at some point iirc, though I haven’t looked it up) based on a purported (and not at all unbelievable sociologically) traditional custom in some parts of India. And the fourth is “The Man Who Would Be King”.

All four are more than worth reading. The weakest of the four, “My Very Own Ghost Story”, is largely intentionally weak, because it is slight – the ghost story genre is invoked very competently, but mostly to laught at its conventions, and the whole thing primarily feels like an excuse to get the reader to experience second-hand an aspect of the Indian experience (in this case, the decrepit, under-utilised little inns that measured out the road network through the country). “The Phantom ‘Rickshaw”, on the other hand, is a ghost story that plays by the rules, and as a Victorian ghost story it’s a fine example of the form. Tropes and techniques that often seem clichéd and unbelievable in lesser hands seem natural when Kipling uses them. But it’s also more than a ghost story – the ghost story may be the excuse, but underneath it’s yet another social satire, and, as always, at root it’s a matter of the relationships between men and women, and how society categorises them.

“The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes”, on the other hand, is nothing conventional at all. It’s peculiarly modern in nature, almost a science fiction story, as the English narrator finds himself in what at first appears to be an utterly inexplicable and hopeless place, and has to puzzle out both where he is and how to escape. On the one hand, it’s the sort of story one imagines would make an author like Kipling popular – a dramatic excuse to educate us about the (possibly fictional, or at least exaggerated; possibly not) customs of one of the dark places of the Earth. But as well as being unusual, it’s also a story with hidden depths. As in “A Wayside Comedy”, Kipling takes the miniature hell he shows us as a microcosm of the world, and the insanity of those who dwell in it; at the same time, he takes the isolation of the setting as an excuse to show us the fundamental bestiality of man when deprived of civilisation. Now again, I haven’t read much Kipling, and I don’t know how racist he is in his later work; but I do wonder, reading this, whether people haven’t misunderstood him. Because if he does see the European and the Indian as fundamentally morally different, and I’m not sure that he does, I think that this story may show us why: because Kipling does not see human beings as fundamentally nice people. He’s not out to revel in the joys of human potentiality in all its diverse forms, because he thinks human potentiality is frightening and inhuman. ‘Civilisation’, and even more so civilisation in its most refined, European form, is perhaps a way, for Kipling, to neuter and domesticate humanity (perhaps the problem is not that he sees non-Europeans as lesser, but that he sees them as greater, purer, and hence more threatening, more in need of controlling?). But if Kipling is racist, this isn’t the best story to show it. Because here, all men are equal in their impotence. The vanity of the English protagonist, that leads him to think himself better the natives he finds himself trapped alongside, that leads him to insist on certain behaviours that validate his social superiority, is undermined – more than undermined, explicitly and cruelly mocked, both by the narrator and by the characters – and in particular is held up against the behaviour of a Brahmin character, Gunga Dass. The narrator, and presumably the audience of the day, look down on the Brahmin, who thinks so highly of himself but is ultimately no different from the lower-case Indians around him, but that vanity exactly parallels the behaviour of the narrator himself, and I do not think that this is unintended. Interestingly, the Brahmin shows us something we very rarely see in colonial literature – the native who not only hates the European but who is actively contemptuous of the European character as an inferior, and not because he’s ignorant of Europeans but because he knows too much. It’s one thing to see the subject populations portrayed as jealous of their rulers, or as resentful (with or without cause), but it was very rare I think for the Victorian reader to be invited to look down into the eyes of a member of the ‘child races’ and see a more knowledgeable, more intelligent man looking back with contempt and disdain, attitudes that do not merely oppose the imposed order but that deny that it exists at all. I suppose it could be said that there is something racist about Kipling that a part of his vision of hell (for this is hell in spirit, even if not literally) is that an Englishman could be pushed down so far that he is even below an Indian; but then again there is something cosmopolitan about him that, unlike many of his contemporaries, he is able to envisage such a thing at all – and of course, this is not necessarily Kipling’s hell, but merely the hell of Morrowbie Jukes. It’s important again to remember that the author and the narrator are not the same person, and while Kipling’s characters always present themselves as reliable and good, we don’t always have to take them at their word (indeed, “My Very Own Ghost Story” is something of an explosion of the idea that we should trust Kipling’s narrators). (Going back a moment: the narrator of “The Phantom ‘Rickshaw” is certainly racist, horribly so, even by the standards of Kipling, explicitly considering Indians not as human beings but as inanimate objects without souls… but then he’s also highly misogynistic, and we see where that gets him. Indeed, the narrator not being a very nice person is really the whole point of the story!) And it’s tempting to wonder whether this portrayal of how Indians ‘really’ see the English once the usual power dynamics are removed is perhaps autobiographical: remember, in his early years, Kipling was raised by Indians, and only presented to his English ‘family’ for meals and other ceremonial occasions. Kipling, unlike most of his characters at least in these stories, spoke Hindi [ok, technically he spoke ‘Hindustani’, I don’t know whether his dialect was closer to Urdu or to Hindi] – he’d no doubt heard some of the things that servants say when they think their employers cannot hear or understand them.

So, in “The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes”, we’re invited to see the distinctions between the races as as façile as the distinctions between the castes; the English, indeed, are merely one more caste. And it’s worth repeating that Kipling time and again seeks to undermine English customs by analogising them to Indian behaviours: ordinary English society, it is hinted, is a baffling and vain labyrinth of superstitions and rituals no more rational or ‘civilised’ than the behaviour of the people they rule over. Take, for instance, the opening paragraph of “Only a Subaltern”, where we see an English family in England happy at the news that their son has passed an exam: “and there was joy in the house of Wick where Mamma Wick and all the litte Wicks fell upon their knees and offered incense to Bobby by virtue of his achievements”. Or the ‘diagnoses’ of the doctor in “The Phantom ‘Rickshaw”, who is ultimately no different from a witch-doctor; or even just the system of naming we see in that story, where we are introduced to (and, by the way, what the hell sort of a start to a story is that!?) “Ricketts of Kamartha” and “Polder of Kumaon”; or later, when the (educated, articulate, and presumably English) narrator mentions his theory that Pansay died because “there was a crack in Pansay’s head and a little bit of the Dark World came through and pressed him to death”. If the English rule of India (and it should perhaps be mentioned at some point that even to talk of India and its ‘rule’ by the English is something of a misconception: India was at the time divided into a dozen semi-autonomous ‘Provinces’ ruled jointly by Westminster and local British authorities, and around 700 princely states that acknowledged British suzereinty yet maintained their own sovereignty (i.e. made and enforced their own laws independently) – many of these, particularly the smaller ones (some were only tens of square miles in area, more a personal estate than a nation) later chose to privatise their governments, with the government of a nearby Province doing the actual ruling, while some of the larger or more remote princely states were de facto independent in all but name; in addition, there were of course areas of rule by other European nations, particularly the Portuguese; British India at the time only directly ruled about half the subcontinent) was predicated on the idea of the Englishman as the rational, Enlightened man of the future, naturally more fit to rule than the backward, superstitious, ritualistic Indian men of the past, Kipling torpedoes that justification time and again.

Incidentally, the naming customs are quite interesting. Leaving aside the rather mediaeval idea of naming the ruling class men after the locations they have power over, it’s striking how taboo the personal name is in these stories. Women get away with having their own names, among friends and lovers… but men are almost entirely devoid of them, to the extent that when we actually do hear one, it seems almost obscene. Indeed, Kipling charmingly has to explain at one point why he’s used the name “Ted” when writing from a woman’s point of view: “Ted – because she called him Ted…”. It should be pointed out that she’s having sex with Ted regularly, and is in love with Ted, but even after we know these things, it still tells us something new, Kipling suggests, that she actually has the temerity to call him ‘Ted’. Indeed, the whole of the story may ultimately be about the fact that she calls him ‘Ted’. This intolerable, degrading personal touch is in a way what shatters the carefully constructed impersonal rigidity of their society; everything falls apart because a man is ‘Ted’ to somebody, where he is “Kurrell” to everybody else. If he is ‘Ted’, after all, he is a person, not merely a nexus of political, social, legal and economic duties. It feels almost dirty to hear people calling him ‘Ted’, embarrassing, as though you’re in a play and one person can’t get in character and insists on calling people by their real names. The personal in Kipling’s world is not perhaps prohibited – indeed, these stories have their roots in the personal, and often their function in displaying how the personal can never be eliminated, that the whole of society is by its own measures ‘corrupt’, riddled through by personal behaviours – but the personal is something that is to be kept private, secret, encrypted, and when it escapes or becomes visible to others, all hell breaks loose.

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?