I wanted to know, is Kipling readable? Is there something more to him than jungle stories or a colonial apologies? And what is he like as a craftsman? He was immensely popular once, but that doesn’t necessarily make him an interesting writer. More than enough junk has climbed the best seller lists and has long been forgotten for good reason. However, as certain fiction styles have ossified into best practices, it is good to look back and see the approaches writers of other days used. His first collection of short stories Plain Tales from the Hills seemed like a good choice for two reasons: it was published early in his career and would show him possibly less guarded; and two, the stories are less well know and wouldn’t merge with the various film versions of his works I’ve seen over the years. And, of course, I like short stories.
Taking these issues one by one. The issues with colonialism are certainly there and it is worth noting that the stories are rarely about Indians. The world of these stories are of the civil servants who exhibit all the concerns of late Victorians: class, social standing, reputation, and money. When Indians appear it is often in a transgressive story where the British have entered into a world they don’t belong, one that is indecipherable to the westerner. He returns twice to the character of a police officer who has learned the ways of the Indian under class, knows how to disguise himself and speak in their slang. He, though, is looked at as a freak who needs civilizing, in other words, needs to get married to change his ways. What we never see is exactly what he does amongst the people he is so capable of being with. Kipling appears to understand from a distance what life is like for these people, but is in no ways close enough to describe it like he does the British. Of course, there is always a subtlety to this: the best way to know a people is to be among them. Several times Kipling suggests this in his stories, but that knowledge comes at a cost of loosing oneself amongst the other. With Kipling, though, you are never sure if he is conscious of this dichotomy or it slips through.
For the British citizen and Kipling’s readers in Britten, the real danger was not the Indians, it was not being able to withstand the life in the colonies. The idea that the life in the colonies was harder and more difficult than that of Brittan is present throughout the book. It isn’t just the heat and food, it is the chance that one might loose one’s Britishness. Going native, or more to the point, letting one’s side down is the issue. It also points towards and ideal type of Englishman, who is strong enough to keep himself inline. Early on there is a story about a young man, probably a dandy, who kills himself because he can’t take life in India. The narrator and a friend do the only thing they can do and bury him and tell everyone he died of a fever. They send his parents a letter that praises his life. They will know nothing of the truth, one these two men of the Empire have had to do to keep Brittan content. Empire is a messy business and only certain men are called to it. Kipling is often noted for his ability understand the life of the average Brittan in India and render it in fiction, and that is his strongest element in these stories. The colonial enterprise is never questioned, but the hardships on the individual are often right at the surface.
Still, Kipling is writing about a mostly British world and his preoccupation with what seem like drawing room romances played against the Raj can get a little tiresome. Women in his stories are often interested in the petty, gossipy side of life. His portraits are not crude, but the lives of women are limited, not only by the times, but a little more insight into their actual lives. For example, there are a series of stories about two women who hate each other and both kenive to undo the machinations of each other. The narrator even notes how one, who was always self centered, helped a young man and beat the other woman at her own game. It is that sense of constant game that sours on the women, and gives the sense of a narrator winking at the audience, look how petty these women are. There are exceptions, of course, and in Three and – An Extra he describes a woman who on loosing her baby goes into grief and her husband begins to look at another woman. The wife through her maneuvers (feminine wiles might be the narrator’s choice) at a dance one night, wins her man back. The sensitivity to the situation is quite perceptive and shows him at his best. The story does, like many of them, end on a whimsical note: ‘Take my word for it, the silliest woman can manage a clever man; but it needs a very clever woman to manage a fool.’
As a short story writer he proposes some interesting challenges to the modern read used to the well wrought story with an epiphany. Certainly, these are stories, but you might also call them tales, little vignettes. The stories originally appeared in an Indian newspaper and can’t be more than 3000 words. It gives them a brevity and economy that is refreshing. While all the stories are in first person in the sense that the narrator makes himself known to the reader, and occasionally is the primary character of the story, the narrator is describing events at second hand, which means the stories lean more towards summary than detailed action. It may seem limiting to be writing about events from an unprivileged narrative position, but it gives Kipling room to play with the narrator. You are never quite sure what the narrator believes. Are there the occasional criticisms of British life in India? Take a line like this: “She was a Miss Tallaght, and men spelt her name ‘Tart’ on the programmes when they couldn’t catch what the introducer said.” Is this supposed to be taken as evidence of her lowly standing, or an example of how bad the men are, or something else? Another trick he employs is to start on a short tangent and stop midway through and say, but that is a story for another time. Occasionally, he actually returns to tell the story. All these touches make for a richer stories and the shifting of the narrative and the narrator throughout the book makes Kipling’s writing surprisingly interesting.
A note on the edition. In addition to the fine introduction which notes how the book was put together with an eye towards explaining India to Brittan, the notes make quite clear where Kipling, later in life, began to remove elements that suggested his characters had more contact with natives and had taken on more of their ways. In The Gate of a Hundred Sorrows, he takes what are the confessions of a British subject and opium addict and changes it to a non British character; thus, he limits the notion that an Englishman could descend into such a disgraceful life. This is the most egregious example, there are little changes throughout that show the younger Kipling, Kipling the journalist in India, had a wider vision and a freer sense of decorum, before he became the defender of Empire.
In all, Plain Tales from the Hills, despite it’s problems, has a surprising liveliness to it that marks Kipling as an interesting writer. I might not recommend reading all the stories cover to cover, they can get a little claustrophobic and you may need to read a little Orwell to counter balance, but they are certainly better than one would suppose.