Coming late to Kipling.

Review of Rudyard Kipling, Collected [should read “Selected“] Short Stories, Everyman’s Classics.

Kipling remains a household name in all but the most book-bereft of homes, but how of much of him has the average reader actually read these days?

I don’t know if I’d be classed as an average reader,  but perhaps my experience of him is similar to other people’s. Had I been born at any time up to- say for argument’s sake- 1940,  I would probably have had a keen knowledge of Kipling. For boys and girls growing up in bookish households in the early and mid twentieth century, Kipling was part of the canon: the pick of the poems, Stalkey and Co, The Jungle Books and Kim were all childhood staples.

I am not suggesting that post-war children have not been reading Kipling. Far from it. But I think you could argue that the more general popular disregard of his work has led to fewer children reading him than he deserves.

Growing up in the 80’s, I suspect my own experience of Kipling was more the contemporary norm, in that I did not read Kipling, but knew the name. I remember going to see Disney’s “The Jungle Book” at the cinema around the age of 8 or 9 but perhaps I didn’t make the link. It certainly didn’t occur to me to read those stories, and I don’t remember Kipling being read to me at home.  At some stage a teacher in primary school might have read read my class some of the Just So stories.

Later on in my late teens or early twenties I began an oddly disjointed relationship with Kipling. He still remains popular as a poet, if only for one poem, “If”. I first encountered it around that time when it was voted “the nation’s (i.e. the United Kingdom’s) favourite poem”. However, I was vaguely aware that Kipling was the de facto “poet of empire”, and besides I saw Jim Davidson quoted in the paper as saying “If” was his favourite poem. So that was it as far as I was concerned. If Jim Davidson liked it, then I assumed that Kipling’s poetry was most certainly down at the cheaper end of British culture.

That could have been the end of things.

Except that around the same time, in my late teens, something strange happened. A local bookshop was having a closing down sale, and my mom came home with, among other things, a bargain copy of Mrs Bathurst and Other Stories publish by OUP.  I remember reading the title story as well as another neglected gem called “Proofs of Holy Writ”. The more mysterious and speculative of Kipling’s short stories are not the kind of thing you might expect a teenager to be reading, but I put prejudice aside and took them for what they were (“Mrs Bathurst” is a genuinely enigmatic and compelling story).

But I put the book aside again.  It was only years later, quite recently in fact, that Auden’s line from “In Memoriam W.B. Yeats” on how time “will pardon Kipling and his views” has come true in my case. Everyman books publish a “Collected Stories” of Kipling, which is as good a one-volume overview as you can get at the moment. Kipling wrote a great deal of stories, and there are a lot of selections out there. But if you want only one, or perhaps are new to the writer, then the Everyman is a very good book to have. Bear in mind, though, that the book is a ‘selected’ edition, and not a collected as claimed in the title. As for the actual selection on offer, I’d say it’s representative rather than definitive. Because Kipling was a master story teller who was also very prolific, any editor trying to make a selection is on a bit of a hiding to nothing, in that they’re bound to miss out something that some reader or other would consider essential. However, this is about as good an all-round collection as you could wish for. All the key periods of Kipling’s career are catered for, from the early Indian stories of his Plain Tales from the Hills period, to selections from “Stalkey and Co.” right up to some uncannily good later work. All of this goes to show what an under-rated writer of adult fiction he continues to be, especially in the United Kingdom.

I’ll just pick three examples from among many of the treasures to be found here, in order to convey why I like him so much. First there’s “Mrs Bathhurst” which is a tale of desire, and which  roams right across the British Empire. Then there’s “The Man Who would be King” which is one of the greatest stories written by anyone anywhere ever, and sums up far better than the poem “The White Man’s Burden” the dangerous obsessions with riches, power and prestige that continue to drive would-be empire builders to this day. And finally there’s a late, post- World War I story called “The Gardener” which deals with the emotional aftermath of losing a child in that dreadful conflagration. Even the most rabid anti-Kiplingite would have to admit that it is touching and heartfelt without ever succumbing to sentimentality. In fact here’s a trick to play on your literary friends. Read them “The Gardener” without them knowing who it’s by, and then see if they can guess the author. Kipling’s might well be the last name to spring to mind.

There is plenty more to confound expectation here, as well as stories to shock, delight, make you laugh, make you think, make you smile and to send a shiver down your spine. The settings for a lot of these stories will surprise you too. I can think of very few writers with the sheer imagination to write so convincingly about so many diverse kinds of people in so many diverse settings and epochs. He even tried his hand at a kind of proto-science fiction, an example of which is included. Above all these stories will make you realise that, for all his faults, there is far more to Kipling than “If”, the Jungle Book and his being the de facto poet of Empire. One thing I think any intelligent reader would have to agree is that at his very best he was one of the greatest english writers ever, and in having this book you will have most of his strongest work right there in your hands.

As if to square the circle, my son has recently started dipping into the  Just So stories. He is also the proud owner of a 1930’s edition of the Jungle Books, which we found in a second hand shop. After the reading the first couple of pages he found them irresistible. I think it goes to show that good writing is what matters, regardless of our feelings about the writer. So whether we see Kipling as a deeply dodgy relic of our colonial past, or as a misunderstood genius, it might be worth ‘treating those two imposters just the same’ and putting them aside once and for all, while we get on with the more serious work of judging his works on their individual merits.

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