How Rudyard Kipling became a master of imperial gothic

Kipling is associated with sentimental children’s fiction or tub-thumping racism, but his best fiction captures the horrors of empire, acted out by colonisers and subjects alike.

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Rudyard Kipling was one of the most remarkable writers of his, or any, generation. Writing brought him fame when he was still in his early twenties: not since Dickens had a British writer achieved so much renown so rapidly. Henry James called him “the most complete man of genius… that I have ever known”. After his death, TS Eliot described him as one of the “great verse writers”, while Somerset Maugham considered him the only British short-story writer worthy of comparison with Maupassant and Chekhov. Orwell remarked that Kipling was “the only English writer of our time who has added phrases to the language”, such as “East is East”, “The White Man’s Burden” and “The female of the species is more deadly than the male”. He was the first Briton to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, “in consideration of the power of observation, originality of imagination, virility of ideas and remarkable talent for narration that characterise the creations of this world-famous author”. He accepted the prize in 1907 at the grand old age of 42.

Kipling’s reputation went up like a rocket but came down like a stick. For Auden he was “horrible old Kipling”. Orwell noted that “during five literary generations every enlightened person has despised him”, adding that “nothing could exceed the contempt of the New Statesman” for Kipling’s writing and politics. Edward Said described Kim (1901) as “a master work of imperialism… a rich and absolutely fascinating, but nevertheless profoundly embarrassing novel”. Said may have helped put Kipling back on to academic syllabuses, but today if he is considered at all it is from a post-colonialist perspective: Kipling is rarely more than a case study in the culture of imperialism. Notwithstanding the continued appeal in Hollywood of The Jungle Books (1894-95), Kipling’s talent is rarely acknowledged without a simultaneous apology for his politics. The toxicity of his reputation remains strong – so much so that in 2017 a sotto voce recital of one of his most famous poems, “Mandalay” (1890), by the then foreign secretary Boris Johnson was enough to cause a minor political scandal.

Kipling’s fate, to be remembered as the laureate of empire but without a secure place in the literary canon, is undeserved. But it is not difficult to see how it has come about. His verse is easy to mine for evidence of racism and misogyny, although many of his most problematic poems are dramatic monologues: the narrators of “Gunga Din” (1890) or “Fuzzy Wuzzy” (1892) are no more identical with Kipling than the murderer who narrates “Porphyria’s Lover” (1836) is actually Robert Browning (a poet, incidentally, much admired by Kipling).

Kipling’s supreme talent in verse and prose was to adopt perspectives other than his own – “to think in another man’s skin”, as he put it. And not just men: his extraordinary imaginative sympathy took him into the minds of women, children and animals. In one story, “The Ship That Found Herself” (1895), he turned the parts of a cargo ship sailing from Liverpool to New York into characters, and in another he did the same with steam locomotives. Typecasting Kipling as an apologist for empire therefore obscures his versatility and variety. Few writers could work as confidently in genres ranging from the ghost story to historical fiction; his work for children alone ranges from the school tales of Stalky and Co (1899) to the bedtime fables of the Just So Stories for Little Children (1902).

Kipling’s imperialism was not, however, incidental to his writing. By his own admission his literary project was also a political one, which he summed up in one of his most famous lines of verse: “What do they know of England who only England know?” Like Orwell after him, he recognised that most British people neither knew nor cared what was being done in their name in nearly a quarter of the world’s territory, so he sought to bring the reality of imperial rule to the firesides of urban and suburban Britain. And to Kipling’s mind, the reality was neither wholly good nor wholly bad: empire was a responsibility, a burden, that demanded integrity and sacrifice.

Kipling’s most famous poem, after the much-memorised “If…” (1910), is probably “Recessional” (1897), his commemoration of Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Kipling sought to burst the bubble of jingoism – “all our pomp of yesterday” – and remind his contemporaries that prosperity and security were founded on the blood and sweat of the empire’s servants. “Lest we forget – lest we forget!”: the poem’s refrain continues to remind us of the sacrifices that sustain our livelihoods, but today the context is different. “Recessional” is a study not of martyrdom but of the need for humility in an age of imperial hubris.

The popular images of Kipling as the author either of sentimental children’s fiction tailor-made for cartoons and musicals or of tub-thumping racism in cockneyfied dialect fail to do justice to the unsettling originality of much of his best fiction. This is not merely to note his career-long fascination with the supernatural, mysticism and irrationality. Some of his earliest stories, written and set in India, are rich in the horror of encounters between colonisers and subjects. In “The Man Who Would Be King” (1888), for example, two reckless adventurers are taken to be gods in the remote land of Kafiristan; after they inadvertently demonstrate their humanity, one is executed and the other is crucified – he survives, but ends the story in an asylum. This, though, is mild compared to “The Mark of the Beast” (1890), Kipling’s most gruesome story. Even today this tale of sacrilege, demonic possession and cruel violence casually meted out by Englishmen on Indians still has the power to shock.

In this “imperial Gothic” mode Kipling revealed the horrors of empire, acted out by colonisers and subjects alike, but he was also a master of closely observed social satire. The volume that made his name, Plain Tales from the Hills (1888), targets the Anglo-Indians who ruled a vast and populous land, decamping each summer to the comparative coolness of Simla, where they filled their days with gossip, brandies-and-soda and extramarital affairs. These stories are marked by ironic detachment, an astonishing economy of expression, and above all a vivid rendering of a life that is both strange and familiar. Turning the pages of Plain Tales from the Hills, Oscar Wilde wrote in “The Critic as Artist” that “one feels as if one were seated under a palm tree reading life by superb flashes of vulgarity”.

Kipling’s Anglo-Indians are the main topic of an important new edition of mostly early stories, edited by the veteran Kipling scholar Thomas C Pinney. The Cause of Humanity brings together 86 stories, some of which have never appeared in previous collections, and most of which have been inaccessible to all but the most well-resourced scholars. Sixty-eight of these stories were first published in the Civil and Military Gazette of Lahore, where Kipling worked on his return to India in 1882 at the age of 16, or in the Allahabad Pioneer, where he worked from 1887 to 1889. Although Kipling was extraordinarily well connected – one uncle was Edward Burne-Jones, and he was close to his cousin Stanley Baldwin – the family was not wealthy, hence Kipling being set to work as a journalist in the Punjab when still a teenager.

This short-sighted young man had learned how to observe human frailties when separated from his parents as a child, during six years of oppression at a ghastly lodging house in Southsea. Eventually, opportunities arose for him to place short pieces of fiction, unsigned, in the Gazette. Many of these, collected here, are ephemeral works engaging with now thoroughly obscure issues of Raj governance (the then viceroy Lord Dufferin appears in a fair proportion of the stories) or fleeting political controversies. Some show the emergence of a remarkable new talent, experimenting with form and perspective, speaking in voices that were not his own. And some are miniature masterpieces, cut from the same cloth as Plain Tales from the Hills.

Take “The Unlimited ‘Draw’ of ‘Tick’ Boileau”, first published in the Gazette’s Christmas Annual in 1885 when Kipling was only 20. Boileau, christened “Tick” “because he was never out of debt”, arrives in the 45th Bengal Cavalry and immediately shows up his fellow officers by his effortless facility at billiards, riding and music. Disliked in the officers’ mess, he disappears on leave for three months and returns a changed man, haunted and withdrawn. After several weeks he is finally persuaded to reveal that he had fallen in love while on leave in Kashmir: he proposed marriage during a ball, only for his new fiancée to die that night of heart failure. But he has discovered that she died just before he proposed: he had become affianced to a ghost. His fellow officers, chilled to the bone by his story, treat him with newfound sympathy. It is only after he disappears to Lahore that they find Boileau’s script, “carefully written out… from beginning to end, with stage directions for himself about yelling and looking half mad”.

This was the first of several stories in which Kipling used an elaborate practical joke to anatomise the jealousies, ambitions and weaknesses of Anglo-Indian society from an insider’s point of view. From the first sentence – “He came to us from Naogong, somewhere in Central India; and as soon as we saw him we all voted him a Beast” – we are addressed in the distinctive voice of the Indian Army officer, immersed in the rituals of the regiment, impatient with strangers, but adept at spinning out a smoking-room story of mischief and manipulation.

Another practical joke is the subject of “A Scrap of Paper” (1886), but this one is more unkind. An officer stationed in Assam manages to escape a writ with the help of a junior subaltern of a “native regiment” who takes his place when the writ is served; far from being received with gratitude, the subaltern is then fooled by his English colleagues into thinking he is being prosecuted for impersonating an officer. Although the subaltern is eventually let into the joke, there is more than a touch here of the casual cruelty evident in “The Mark of the Beast”: the subaltern’s “terrible two and a half hours” of his undeserved punishment, in which he “tasted all the bitterness of arrest, trial and imprisonment”, are vividly realised.

As Pinney admits in his useful introduction, not all of these stories reach this level of quality. But taken together, we see the development of a professional writer, who by 1888 was turning out nearly three pieces per week, filling space in his newspaper and often reflecting the passing issues of the day, but also honing his craft and collecting material. They remind us that a talent such as Kipling’s, albeit in his case maturing at an astonishingly early age, does not emerge from a void. His “seven years’ hard” as a journalist in India taught him his famed economy of expression and brought him into worlds he would otherwise never have known – of railway engineers, cholera outbreaks and “communal riots under the shadow of the Mosque of Wazir Khan”.

The fruit of that training can be seen in the masterpiece of the collection – the title story, unpublished and written in 1914, long after Kipling had left India and become a partial recluse in the depths of East Sussex. Its subject – an anecdote about the First Balkan War told to a motorist with a flat tyre by a passer-by – is far from the matter of the Raj, but it shows the techniques honed in the Gazette and Pioneer. There is the clear, individual voice of the internal narrator, utterly distinctive and rich in idiom. There is the grotesque, unforgettable subject: a mission on board a merchant ship to the Balkans to retrieve corpses to supply British hospitals with anatomical “subjecks”. And there is the political enquiry encoded in the fable, in this case into anti-Semitism: the narrator has witnessed the aftermath of a massacre of Jewish inhabitants on an island, and he and his accomplices feel unable to retrieve the Jewish corpses, taking only those of the Gentiles killed in the confrontation. Like the best of Kipling’s fiction, it is compelling and disturbing in equal measure, its horrors vividly realised but – unlike those of “The Mark of the Beast” – accompanied by a sense of humanity.

Although clearly a draft that remains rough around the edges, “The Cause of Humanity” is so technically accomplished – in its handling of point of view it has something of a story by James or Ford or Conrad – and contains so much suggestive material that one wonders why Kipling suppressed it. Pinney speculates that the outbreak of the First World War may have made him think its subject unsuitable. Whatever the explanation, we should be grateful it is now in print. Like many of Kipling’s later stories it may lack the raw energy of his early Indian fiction, but it displays instead a technical sophistication that ranks him with his most progressive contemporaries.

This fascinating collection lays bare the early development of Kipling’s art, before giving us a single, powerful glimpse of where it would take him. 

Andrew Glazzard is a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. His latest book is “The Case of Sherlock Holmes” (Edinburgh University Press)

The Cause of Humanity and Other Stories: Uncollected Prose Fictions
Rudyard Kipling. Ed by Thomas C Pinney
Cambridge University Press, 436pp, £19.99

This article first appeared in the 02 November 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Great War’s long shadow