Throughout his career Kipling published a stream of short stories and poems in the numerous periodicals of the time. Every two or three years he brought these together into collections. Many Inventions was published in 1893 and brings together 15 short stories.
The most striking feature is their variety: Kipling roams far and wide, India, London, South Africa; there are comic stories, tragic ones, science fantasy and strange fables. Each contains flashes or more of brilliance, but I don’t think you can point to any of them and say, ‘That’s a masterpiece’. I wouldn’t recommend the book as a whole to a reader new to Kipling. I think the best i.e. the ones which most nearly work or contain the most vivid writing, are The Finest Story in the World, The Record of Badalia Herodsfoot and In the Rukh.
The Disturber of Traffic (1891) Typical Kipling in having a strong frame story, the narrator’s visit to Fenwick the lighthouse keeper of St Cecilia under-the-cliff. After the usual Kipling litany of technical details, Fenwick tells him the tale of Dowse the lighthouse keeper at the Wurlee light near old Loby Toby Strait in Indonesia, who goes mad imagining the sea is all streaky. It takes the sober, sensitive captain of a British Survey ship to talk him off the lighthouse and then take care of him. So much of the surrounding detail is persuasive, including the character of Dowse’s native helper, Challong, but the central portrait of a man going mad doesn’t convince.
A Conference of the Powers (1890) An ironic title for a party of three subalterns, Tick Boileau, ‘The Infant’ and Nevin, who rendezvous at the narrator’s rooms in London and begin drinking and telling tales when the famous novelist, Eustace Cleeve, turns up. Kipling’s purpose is to show how little even the best of contemporary commentators understand about the fighting and sacrifice made by the flower of Britain’s youth to maintain the Empire and preserve the cushy, pampered lives of its civilians.
‘Like many home-staying Englishmen, Cleever believed that the newspaper phrase he quoted covered the whole duty of the Army whose toils enabled him to enjoy his many-sided life in peace.’
‘The Infant’ recounts in detail his campaigns against murderous dacoits in the Burmese jungle and an attack on a village to capture their leader, Boh Na-ghee. Kipling strongly conveys his contempt for civilian liberals and intellectuals, a contempt which was to deepen with the years and seriously damage his reputation.
My Lord the Elephant (1892) 16th of the 18 stories about Kipling’s three archetypical soldiers – the cockney Ortheris, the Yorkshireman Learoyd and the Irishman Mulvaney. Framed by the narrator with the soldiers three listening to an elephant raging in a barracks, the noise reminds them of the time Mulvaney was arrested for punching a soldier and is being walked to clink when an elephant runs amok, scatters his guard and pursues Mulvaney into the courtyard of a carriage maker where the elephant smashes everything. Mulvaney, on the roof, drinks a bottle of brandy then jumps onto the elephant’s head and tries to subdue it as it rampages through the streets by clouting it on the head with his rifle. Eventually the elephant calms down and Mulvaney slides down the trunk to comfort it and they become pals.
In part two Mulvaney is lying sick in bed near the Tangi pass into Burma while the army marches past. Suddenly it becomes blocked when an elephant hauling a massive gun refuses to move. Its mahout or driver says it is looking for its ‘friend’ – none other than Mulvaney – and so various officers ransack the barracks and hospital until Mulvaney is raised from his sickbed to go see his pal elephant, who picks him up and puts him on his back and off they ride. Angus Wilson called this a farce in Kipling’s Laurel and Hardy style, and it’s thought-provoking to realise that Kipling’s stories are appearing just a decade before the first movies began to be shown, and are often aimed at the same not-too-well-educated audience, and display the same vulgar effects.
One View of the Question (1890) A fictional letter from ‘Shafiz Ullah Khan’, agent of one ‘Rao Sahib of Jagesur, which is in the northern borders of Hindustan’ to one of the prince’s ministers. He reports first on the success of his mission to London, then conveys his personal impressions of that city, and finally recommends a course of action for Muslims that will allow them to use the Indian National Congress, and its supporters in a spinelessly democratic Britain, to ease the British out of India so that Muslim rule can be forcefully re-established. Written just a few months after he arrived in London, the story powerfully reflects Kipling’s disillusionment and revulsion from London and England, his contempt for Liberals who he thought criminally ignorant of the plight of the men who toil to maintain the Empire and sustain their cushy existence. Political contempt mixes with misogyny as he singles out female Liberals as barren and childless, and then segues into his well-known contempt for educated Bengalis. But the letter, as a fictional device, is very well done, and the descriptions of hellish, smog-ridden London, its streets full of drunken proles, is very powerful and persuasive.
The Finest Story in the World (1891) The worldly-wise author-narrator (Kipling is just 25 when he writes it) meets a young bank clerk, Charlie Mears, who has mediocre literary aspirations but accidentally reveals an amazing gift – the ability to remember fragments of past lives, as a Greek galley slave, and as a 10th century Viking who voyaged to the New World. The author is quietly taking down these reminiscences at scattered meetings with a view to publishing them and creating a sensation. His plan is foiled by his friend, an educated Bengali, Grish Chunder, whom the narrator chummily despises for being a hypocrite and playing up to the prejudices of his ignorant Liberal English hosts. Chunder a) points out his own Hindu familiarity with reincarnation b) and so predicts that as soon as Mears meets and falls for a woman his gift will disappear. Which is exactly what happens. In some unclear way, the need to breed requires oblivion of former lives. Mears’ gift disappears and the narrator is left foiled and frustrated. Full of powerful details, this is an eerie tale reminiscent of HG Wells or Conan Doyle’s tales of unease; but as soon as the Bengali appears Kipling’s prejudices outweigh the fantasy.
His Private Honour (1891) The ‘Soldiers Three’ again. New recruits join B Company, Mulvaney pulls a sickie and leaves it to the disgusted Ortheris to whip the recruits into shape.
‘The army, unlike every other profession, cannot be taught through shilling books. First a man must suffer, then he must learn his work, and the self-respect that that knowledge brings. The learning is hard, in a land where the army is not a red thing that walks down the street to be looked at, but a living tramping reality that may be needed at the shortest notice, when there is no time to say, “Hadn’t you better?” and “Won’t you please?”‘
It contains a big vision of a truly independent India by which Kipling means an India run by a native white caste:
‘Then I went off on my own thoughts; the squeaking of the boots and the rattle of the rifles making a good accompaniment, and the line of red coats and black trousers a suitable back-ground to them all. They concerned the formation of a territorial army for India,— an army of specially paid men enlisted for twelve years’ service in Her Majesty’s Indian possessions, with the option of extending on medical certificates for another five and the certainty of a pension at the end. They would be such an army as the world had never seen,— one hundred thousand trained men drawing annually five, no, fifteen thousand men from England, making India their home, and allowed to marry in reason. Yes, I thought, watching the line shift to and fro, break and re-form, we would buy back Cashmere from the drunken imbecile who was turning it into a hell, and there we would plant our much-married regiments,— the men who had served ten years of their time,— and there they should breed us white soldiers, and perhaps a second fighting-line of Eurasians. At all events Cashmere was the only place in India that the Englishman could colonise, and if we had foothold there we could, . . Oh, it was a beautiful dream! I left that territorial army swelled to a quarter of a million men far behind, swept on as far as an independent India, hiring warships from the mother-country, guarding Aden on the one side and Singapore on the other, paying interest on her loans with beautiful regularity, but borrowing no men from beyond her own borders — a colonised, manufacturing India with a permanent surplus and her own flag. I had just installed myself as Viceroy, and by virtue of my office had shipped four million sturdy thrifty natives to the Malayan Archipelago, where labour is always wanted and the Chinese pour in too quickly, when I became aware that things were not going smoothly with the half-company.’
The nervous young officer Ouless drills the men all wrong and lashes out in his frustration, ripping Ortheris’s tunic. An officer approaches. Ouless tells the truth. Ortheris lies to save him; later takes it out on Samuelson the Jew. The narrator sees all this and is asked what to do by Ouless. The narrator goes away, comes back weeks later. The company is now transformed, at shooting practice. Ortheris tells him Ouless invited him out to the jungle where they had a fist fight and were reconciled. Everything tickety-boo. Why didn’t Ortheris stand up for his legal right?
‘My right!’ Ortheris answered with deep scorn. ‘My right! I ain’t a recruity to go whinin’ about my rights to this an’ my rights to that, just as if I couldn’t look after myself. My rights! ‘Strewth A’mighty! I’m a man.’
Kipling doesn’t like whiners. Liberals. Socialists. Unions.
A Matter of Fact (1892) A strange sci-fi story in the manner of Wells or Conan Doyle’s tales of awe. Three journalists on a tramp steamer back to England witness a tsunami caused by an underwater volcano/earthquake and then the death throes of a monstrous underwater creature, mourned by its mate. Weird and strange. But part 2 of the story is when the journalists arrive at England, with its lines of ordered villas, its repressed emotion, its common decency, and realise that no newspaper will believe them. Instead the narrator declares he’ll publish it all as a fiction. And hence this story. So a Dahl-ish twist in the tale. The satire on the American journalist and his nation’s credulity and his awe of Winchester cathedral etc is characteristically crude. What stands out is the monster as an early example of science fantasy.
The Lost Legion (1892) A ghost story about a regiment of native troops who rebelled during the Indian Mutiny and so, leaderless, were massacred by Afghan tribesmen. A generation later, when a British army force is sent to capture an Afghan warlord, they approach the stronghold in the night but can hear ghostly horses around them. The watchguards at the top of the valley mistake the approaching silent English troopers for the ghosts of the slain regiment, which they’re used to, and so don’t give the alarm, allowing the English to take the village and capture the warlord. Were there ever any ghosts? Kipling leaves it open… What makes it Kiplingesque is the vehement journalistic opinions dropped at every paragraph, on the ignorance of the people at home about how things are, the public’s outcry at each war, and how murderous warlords are able to exploit this weakness in the British.
‘With sorrow and tears, and one eye on the British taxpayer at home, who insisted on regarding these exercises as brutal wars of annexation, the Government would prepare an expensive little field-brigade and some guns, and send all up into the hills to chase the wicked tribe out of the valleys…’
In the Rukh (1893) This is the proto-Jungle Book story, the first story about Mowgli, which is completely at odds with the later tales and so is omitted from many editions of the Jungle Books. It opens with a characteristic tribute to the hard work of the dedicated British Officers of the Woods and Forests Department of British India and introduces us to Gisborne of the W&F who has fallen in love with the forest and his fat Muslim butler, Abdul Gafur.
‘If he drew anything, it was to make a purchase from the Calcutta Botanical Gardens, or to pay a ranger’s widow a sum that the Government of India would never have sanctioned for her man’s death…’
Solid chap, Gisborne. Also solidly paternalistic. He forgives his fat Muslim butler for stealing his pay. This is discovered when the mysterious spirit of the forest, Mowgli as a reincarnation of Pan, appears out of the rukh or jungle. Muller, the big German head of the Forestry Service, recognises Mowgli for a child of the jungle raised by wolves.
‘…for he is before der Iron Age, and der Stone Age. Look here, he is at der beginnings of der history of man — Adam in der Garden, and now we want only an Eva! No! He is older than dot child-tale, shust as der rukh is older dan der gods. Gisborne, I am a Bagan now, once for all.’
This may be the most powerful story in the set, marred only a little by Kipling’s prejudices in favour of the wonderful British administrator and the untrustworthy native – but soaring above them is the power of the conception of the child of the jungle.
‘Brugglesmith’ (1891) = Brook Green, Hammersmith. An Ealing comedy in which the narrator, after chatting with M’Phee, an engineer on a boat moored in the Pool, is suddenly cast adrift with an incorrigible drunken Scot as company, who follows him ashore, to a police station, throws himself in the river to qualify for a hot toddy, escapes the river police to catch up with the narrator outside the High Courts, and then drunkenly throws his river blanket over a policeman. They meet Dempsey, a copper Kipling knows, in Charing Cross, who listens to the full story and bursts into laughter, and allows Kipling to wheel the drunk in the handbarrow ambulance through clubland, through Knightsbridge, and on to Brook Green, where he encourages him to ring his bell till it breaks, then encourages two policemen to arrest him.
Kipling’s preference for low life, for soldiers over officers, for workers over toffs, for the police constable over any higher authority. Reminds me of his long night-time roams around Lahore, his prying into all aspects of native life, which put him in very bad odour with the authorities in India, but made him the man he is.
‘Love-O’-Women’ (1893) 17th of the 18 stories about the Three Soldiers. Part 1 the trial of Sergeant Raines who murders Corporal Mackie for having an affair with his wife. Ortheris is a key witness; Mulvaney is a guard, done in some detail. Then in part 2 Mulvaney tells the story of one Larry Ellis, a famous philanderer, known as ‘Love o’ Women’. When the Tyrone regiment goes on patrol in the Khyber, Mulvaney realises he’s trying to get himself shot by the enemy Pathan, then back in barracks the doctor diagnoses him with a wasting illness. He struggles back to Rawalpindi more dead than alive where he arrives at the brothel where the woman he ruined – Diamond and Pearls – lives, and there, after being reproached by her, he expires. Mulvaney goes to get the doctor and when he returns they find the woman has shot herself. And that’s what lies behind Mulvaney’s comments on the Mackie trial which we’ve just seen. The guard is roused and they march Raynes off… Feels like a brave attempt to deal with sexual relations, with adultery, affairs, the cost of philandering in terms of disease – syphilis – and lives ruined – Diamond and Pearls become a prostitute. But it somehow lacks conviction. French writers like Zola or Maupassant could deal with this area because the French had a long tradition of frankness about sex. All British authors languish under the shadow of the national squeamishness, greatly exacerbated by the total Victorian ban on the subject.
The Record of Badalia Herodsfoot (1890) Badalia is a denizen of the very rough Gunnison Street in the East End. Abandoned by her violent husband, her small daughter dies, but she finds purpose in advising the various squabbling charities trying to help the poor. She creates a copybook and scrupulously records the donations. Her drunken husband returns and kicks her to death for refusing to hand over the charity money. His lover Jenny comes and drags him away. On her deathbed Badalia exonerates her husband and advises Little Sister Eva to marry the curate. Extremely harsh, bloody and realistic. And the woman is the undoubted heroine. The frank depiction of multipartnering counters the rather sentimental treatment of sex in of ‘Love o’ Women’. This and In the Rukh are the best stories.
Judson and the Empire (1892) The first of Kipling’s many naval stories. A slightly impenetrable long story about Judson, captain of a riverboat, which is sent on a hush-hush mission to Mozambique where they lure a Portuguese gunboat onto a shoal, then scare rebels fighting in a township into submission. I think there’s a civil war going on between the Portuguese settlers although a British expeditionary force has also arrived. Peace breaks out and the jolly Portuguese governor is happy to have dinner with them all. I think this is meant to be a comic tale, and one which emphasises the pragmatic, harmless nature of British imperialism, but I found it hard to follow.
The Children of the Zodiac (1891) A strange parable of the children of the Zodiac who become human and learn to accept their mortality. The message seems to be – Do your duty and don’t fear.
Other Kipling reviews