Plain Tales from the Hills by Rudyard Kipling (1888)

When he was 21, Kipling’s editor at the Indian Civil and Military Gazette, the newspaper he worked on based in Lahore, allowed him to begin publishing a series of short anecdotes, yarns and stories about Anglo-Indian life, under the banner ‘Plain Tales from the Hills’.

When he’d amassed 40 or so, Kipling got them published in book form in January 1888, just after his 22nd birthday. Throughout the rest of that year he published no fewer than six more (slim) volumes of short stories, as well as keeping up his steady output of miscellaneous poems. You can see why the young Kipling burst on the literary scene as a phenomenon.

There had been other memoirists of Anglo-India, but Kipling stands out (apparently) for the sheer range of stories. I’m surprised by how many are ghost stories or tales of the uncanny – while others are social comedies often featuring the imperious grass-widow Mrs Hauwksbee – or rough anecdotes of army life based on the three squaddies who give their name to the volume Soldiers Three – or tales of native life laced with Indian words and phrases which show an amazing range of knowledge and expertise of Indian life.

One consistent thread is that, whatever sphere of Anglo-Indian life he’s describing or satirising, he does so with the boundless confidence in his own knowledge. Almost every sentence is freighted with a cocksure knowingness. He is keen to show us he understands it all, he’s an old hand, he’s knocked about a bit. Whether it’s the precise mechanism of the Martini rifle or the fates of bright young civil servants just off he boat, whether it’s opium addict slang or social etiquette in a hill station, Ruddy’s the man, he’s an old hand, he knows a thing or two.

It’s this this aggressive, showy knowingness which makes such an impression, and was to remain a, maybe the, central feature of Kipling’s style.

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Other Kipling reviews

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