Lispeth, by Rudyard Kipling

If I ever wrote a book of literary criticism, which I almost certainly won’t, then I’d write it on the short stories of Rudyard Kipling, since I imagine I could make them embody everything I believe in this area (they are easy tools with which to ridicule literary theory; they are easy tools with which to attack the concept of modernism), and besides, Kipling is the one English writer of the c20th who could probably do with some resurrection, being the finest writer we produced in that time. But don’t take my opinion for it, here’s someone else:

Kipling’s last stories were no less tormented and mazelike than the stories of Kafka or Henry James, which they doubtless surpass …

That’s Jorge Luis Borges (Preface to Doctor Brodie’s Report), which is what got me reading Lispeth – since JLB then goes on to talk about Kipling’s early stories, saying he took them as his exemplars for the collection (something I somewhat doubt, knowing both Kipling and JLB), but I shall read the two concomitantly.

Now, the one thing everybody knows is that Kipling was a jingoistic imperialist who represents everything that is bad about the English, their empire and their history, and his works remain justifiably unread. He did, after all, write the poem The White Man’s Burden. But the trouble with this is that it’s very difficult to evidence from his texts.

Edward Said, I seem to recall, in his remarkable work Orientalism – a study of the Occident’s interpretation of the Orient, as a deliberate Foucouldian attempt through language to assert Western power over the Orient – makes only a single mention of Rudyard Kipling, the most widely read writer in the Occident who speny his entire narrative career interpreting the East; – and this mention is in reference to the White Man’s Burden, where he remarks that some people think the poem can be explained away as sarcasm, but these people are wrong. (It is a fine dismissal of a man’s entire work). This lack of interest in Kipling might be because Said tends to connect the Orient with the Middle East (because that’s his own narrow view of things); but it might also be because Kipling doesn’t exactly fit in with his theories, and if your method of literary criticism is to cherry-pick examples, then you’re best off leaving him out. To be honest, if a literary critic can’t find sarcasm in the work of Rudyard Kipling, I’d be very sceptical of his powers generally.

OK, so to Lispeth. An early Kipling, written in 1886, age 20 (everything in Plain Tales from the Hills was written before Kipling was 22). This is a typical Kipling story of the conflict between Occident and Orient in a colonial setting – perhaps a bit more simplistic than he would develop later. The basic plot is this: a character crosses the divide; and crossing the disaster inevitably leads to disaster. The same plot comes up again and again in Kipling: flicking through PTFTH, I see further on we’ve also got the classic, Beyond the Pale. Let us remind ourselves of the opening paragraph of this story, since it describes perfectly what we’re talking about:

A man should, whatever happens, keep to his own caste, race, and breed. Let the White go to the White and the Black to the Black. Then, whatever trouble falls in the ordinary course of things – neither sudden, alien, nor unexpected.

This is the story of a man who wilfully stepped beyond the safe limits of decent everyday society, and paid for it heavily.

He knew too much in the first instance; and he saw too much in the second. He took too deep an interest in native life; but he will never do so again.

Yes, crossing the divide will not merely lead to disaster, it is also frowned upon – as the opening of another story, Miss Youghal’s Sais, demonstrates:

Some people say that there is no romance in India. Those people are wrong … Strickland was in the Police, and people did not understand him; so they said he was a doubtful sort of man and passed by on the other side. Strickland had himself to thank for this. He held the extraordinary theory that a Policeman in India should try to know as much about the natives as the natives themselves.

Crossing the divide, showing any sort of interest in Indian culture – even as a means to better carry out the practice of government – was just not the done thing. (Perhaps, in this last quotation, you can spot some sarcasm creeping in. Well, we’ll find plenty more examples before we’re through. [ed. Please note, this refers to a wider project, and not just this blogpost]). But there is the curious thing about Kipling: in his Indian tales, the white characters can often be delineated into heroes and villains, and the remarkable thing is, the heroes – the characters with whom we sympathise – are always the people who cross the divide; while the villains, whose views and actions anger us, are the very people who believe that the divide shouldn’t be crossed. It’s all very peculiar!

In Lispeth, a character crosses the other way:

She was the daughter of Sonoo, a Hill-man of the Himalayas, and Jadéh his wife. One year their maize failed, and two bears spent the night in their only opium poppy-field just above the Sutlej valley on the Kotgarh side; so, next season, they turned Christian, and brought their baby to the Mission to be baptized. The Kotgarh Chaplain christened her Elizabeth, and ‘Lispeth’ is the Hill or pahari pronunciation.

Later, cholera came in to the Kotgarh valley and carried off Sonoo and Jadéh, and Lispeth became half servant, half companion, to the wife of the then Chaplain of the Kotgarh. This was after the reign of the Moravian missionaries in that place, but before Kotgarh had quite forgotten her title of ‘Mistress of the Northern Hills’.

Whether Christianity improved Lispeth, or whether the gods of her own people would have done as much for her under any circumstances, I do not know; but she grew very lovely.

(The last line is classic piece of Kipling: colonialism will not merely better people’s lives but make the colonized girls more beautiful too. On which again, more later.)

But once grown up, Lispeth ends up having no place in either culture:

Her own people hated her because she had, they said, become a white woman and washed herself daily; and the Chaplain’s wife did not know what to do with her. One cannot ask a stately goddess, five feet ten in her shoes, to clean plates and dishes.

which is the usual fate of anyone who crosses the divide.

Then one day, Lispeth goes out for a walk and discovers an Englishman, injured after falling off a cliff, whom she brings back to the mission and declares she will marry him once he is recovered. As Kipling remarks:

It takes a great deal of Christianity to wipe out uncivilised Eastern instincts, such as falling in love at first sight.

The family tell the Englishman of her fancy, and persuade him to play along until he leaves. The Englishman is naturally intent on going back Home and marrying an English girl, but he is amused by Lispeth nonetheless:

Being a savage by birth, she took no trouble to hide her feelings and the Englishman was amused … The Chaplain’s wife, being a good Christian and disliking anything in the shape of fuss or scandal … had told the Englishman to tell Lispeh that he was coming back to marry her. “She is but a child, you know, and, I fear, at heart a heathen” … [The Englishman leaves and after a few weeks] … the Chaplain’s wife finding her happier thought that she was getting over her “barbarous and most indelicate folly” … [They tell her he is not coming back and … ] that it was wrong and improper of Lispeth to think of marraige with an English, who was of a superior clay

Lispeth then declares:

“I am going back to my own people .. You have killed Lispeth. There is only left old Jadéh’s daughter – the daughter of a pahari and the servant of Tarka Devi. You are all liars, you English.” …

She took to her own unclean people savagely, as if to make up the arrears of the life she had stepped out of; and, in a little time, she married a woodcutter who beat her after the manner of paharis, and her beauty faded soon.

The Chaplain’s wife concludes:

“There is no law whereby you can account for the vagaries of the heathen … and I believe that Lispeth was always at heart an infidel.”

So they you are, a very simple and good imperialist story in which the English try to educate the heathen but fail because the heathen are deep down just heathens and cannot be converted.

Except – well, except, isn’t it really not that but rather a satire about the English – a satire about English morality? The English are of superior clay, yet it is they who dissemble their feelings, they who lie to the poor young girl who has fallen in love – they who act in a petty-minded, evil manner, while everything Lispeth does is honest and open. If anything, Kipling’s portrayal of Lisbeth reminds me of Tacitus’ Germans: those barbarians who embody every virtue that the Roman society around him doesn’t. (But this isn’t always the case with Kipling, I would add – nor necessarily the case in this story entirely – that he portrays Indians as English anti-particles). Again, neither falling in love at first sight nor beating up your spouse are characteristics which Kipling in actuality considers to be exclusive to the heathen and absent from the Christian West – this is again just bitter sarcasm. One may consider, on the latter, Kipling’s much later, The Record of Badalia Herodsfoot (from Many Inventions), an incredibly violent tale of wife-beating set entirely among those English heathens of London-town, as in:

The voice ceased as the grip tightened, and Tom heaved Badalia against the bed. Her forehead struck the bedpost, and she sank, half-kneeling, on the floor. It was impossible for a self-respecting man to refrain from kicking her; so Tom kicked with the deadly intelligence born of whisky. The head drooped to the floor, and Tom kicked at that till the crisp tingle of hair striking through his nailed book with the chill of cold water, warned him that it might be as well to desist.

The language of imperialism (“heathen”, “barbarian”, “infidel”, “superior clay”) is merely being appropriated by the storyteller to emphasise the fundamentally racist attitudes of society which are the real things which keep people from crossing the divide.

Not bad, I suppose, for a 5 page story.

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2 thoughts on “Lispeth, by Rudyard Kipling

  1. Up until I recently read Kipling’s 1891 short story “Without Benefit of Clergy” my attitude was very much one of seeing Kipling as the poster boy of we love to dislike of colonial literature-this story, about the relationship of a member of the British Raj opened up my eyes to the real power of Kipling to get beyond the stereotype-I commend your courage for praising his work

  2. Hi Mel, and thanks.

    Without Benefit of Clergy is definitely one of Kipling’s finest stories – and perhaps the finest examples of a “crossing the boundary” story.

    Having read half Kipling’s autobiography last night, I feel I should go back a little on him not being a jingoist imperialist and there being no evidence for it. (Indeed, I see now maybe you can not be an orientalist and yet still believe in empire and superiority – an idea which, as it happens, even better undermines the Foucauldian thesis of language as an extension of power). Kipling certainly seems to have a mad hatred of the British Liberal Party, who were in general opposed to Empire / in favour of self-determination, and denounces anyone who’s critical of empire (protesters and the like).

    And I need to read more of his work between the Boer War and the death of his son in the first world war. I’ve only really read his early stuff and his late stuff. See how jingoistic that shapes up to be. After all, a man who’s friends with Cecil Rhodes is unlikely to have such thoroughly admirable views.

    I guess in the end Kipling is one of these annoying writers who doesn’t clearly express his opinions in his works – certainly not in any consistent manner, anyway.

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