Rudyard Kipling stands, 85 years after his death, as a re-discovered literary giant. His re-discovery is conditional, however. He is viewed as a stunningly versatile writer, with verbal and expository skills which can still amaze us. His tone is timeless, and if read today his ability to convey exactly what he intended is remarkable. In 1907 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first writer in English to be so honoured.
He was a journalist, a short-story writer, a poet, and a novelist. He was born in India, which inspired much of his work. His use of language can be seen in some of the phrases that he has left us. “The white man’s burden”, is probably the best known, for a variety of reasons, mostly bad; but “lest we forget” and “It’s clever, but is it art?” are reminders of his ability to distil an idea into a pithy statement. His reputation as a writer rests on more substantial evidence than a slew of quotable quotes, however.
His stature flows from his breadth and his versatility, his ability to simplify the complex, and his remarkable ability to speak directly to the reader. But his reputation is tied to, and diminished by, his apparently racist, misogynistic, and jingoistic language. His views are undoubtedly those of the society in which he lived, and they also reflect the times, which could be described as being at the high point of Britain’s Empire period.
Is it fair to judge a writer by the standards of a later century? Although a hot button issue for the last fifty years, I want us to see Kipling as a creature of his time, and his work as being deeply reflective of his place in society, and of his sense of belonging to, and pride in, that society. He was writing for the British reader, during Queen Victoria’s reign, and Britannia did rule the waves.
Kipling was Anglo-Indian, a term then used to describe ethnic Englishmen who had lived and worked in India for most of their lives. The term has changed its meaning over time, and it now means Indians of mixed Indian and English heritage. It was a small and self-conscious minority, and although it enjoyed almost unlimited privilege and power, it was figuratively ‘riding the tiger’.
India, after the Rebellion in 1857, and the savage retribution which was rained down upon the Indian population, by a vengeful British Army, had emerged into a period of relative peace, and unprecedented prosperity. The British Government had replaced the East India Company in administering India. But the Empire’s fabric was stretched very, very thin, and the forces of Indian self-determination and rising nationalism were gathering strength. Many felt that it was only a matter of time before the country exploded, again.
Kipling’s oeuvre is dominated by that India. It is difficult to define his relationship with the country, the culture, or the people. There is no single Kipling position on India: In fact each story will differ, and within stories the tone or voice, or even the attitude to aspects of India, will change. And Kipling’s voice was surprisingly nuanced, especially when it described human emotion. He is able to make the specific represent the universal.
To accept that Kipling is writing of and within his time and place does not invalidate his vision. If you read him for the beauty of his language and the style of his writing, but you excise the politics or the social attitudes, you will be in danger of losing the essence of Kipling’s work. You will miss out on the legitimate, and hard-earned ‘insider’s view’, which informs all of his writing. You will also lose a true historical voice.
Of course we are able to read and study Kipling’s work with the benefit of over a century of hindsight. Kipling’s reputation in 1891 was very different to that with which we struggle today. In 1989 Mark Paffard wrote that in 1891 Kipling was seen almost universally as being ‘at the source’, as being able to provide a “tremendous insight into Indian life.”
It is perhaps surprising to us now, but at 23 years of age, Kipling was seen as a second Dickens. He was a prodigy, knowledgeable, patriotic, readable and decent. His accessibility was the very key to his popularity, and allowed him to “persuade, entertain and offer his personal view”. His children’s books, such as “The Jungle Books”, are universally deemed to be classics, and his collections of short stories offer a remarkable range of subject matter, from tales of British soldiers struggling with life in India, to supernatural horror tales. His “Kim” is a spy story with a twelve year old boy as the hero.
Kipling intended to convey specific historical understandings of both the period and the place, and he was highly successful in doing so. His favoured protagonist is a well-loved technocrat, the Indian Civil Service (ICS) man, who stands between chaos and order. He is competent, wise, decent, manly and above all else, protective. He will sacrifice himself, although he often feels neglected and abandoned. He will not complain, but he will criticise from within. He will listen to the demagogues and the liberals, but he knows better, in his heart of hearts, what is best for the country.
It is a difficult decision, reading someone with such a controversial reputation. Should we judge him on our standards, and miss out on a rare artist’s work, or should we approach him, with an interest in his artistry, taken with a good dose of skepticism when it comes to the social commentary. I would read the work, and judge for yourself. I think it is worth the journey. And there is no best place to start. All of Kipling’s work reflects his sublime skills with words and with narrative.