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I have to confess that it was Kipling’s short story, The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat, that I didn’t get through in Hensher’s recent compilation of British short stories for Penguin. I’ve found some of Kipling’s shorts impenetrable, or at least too hard a work to do for fun. Yet I can remember absolutely loving The Jungle Book(s) when I was a child, and could recite several of the poems of the ‘camp’ (old meaning assumed, back then) animals. The White Seal was one of the stories included, and I remember that with affection – if not in detail.

Reading H.E.Bates and Frank O’Connor on Kipling though, in their respective histories of the short story form, I can’t help feeling that there is an agenda being brought to (at least) his short stories that goes beyond what one might actually find in them. Kipling is rightly criticised for his support of the Imperialist ethic, and its indivisible racism, but I’m not convinced that the stories, at least, many of the ones that I’ve read, do, in fact, promote that ethic.

Two features of the stories in Plain Tales from the Hills stand out for me. One is that they seem to be very journalistic, by which I mean that they have the quality of seeming to be written by a close observer, which Kipling obviously was. The other is that Kipling quite often seems to be satirizing, not only the characters and manners about which he writes, but the narrators in whose mouths he places the telling.

In these stories at least, and often right at the end, where the ‘meaning’ of the short story is frequently – perhaps always – signposted, Kipling’s narrator makes comments that seem to undermine, rather than underline his ostensible ‘agenda’.

In the story Cupid’s Arrows the dead-shot toxophilist, Kitty, deliberately loses an archery competition, in order not to be given the prize bracelet by her unwanted suitor, Barr-Saggott. At the end of the story, facing the opprobrium of the crowd, and of her ambitious mother, she is whisked away by her young, and favoured lover, Cubbin. The narrator’s comment closes the tale ‘-the rest isn’t worth printing.’ This more than hints at a story that most of us would find more interesting, unless we are of the same cast of mind as the narrator. More starkly, in Yoked with an Unbeliever, where an Englishman is made ‘a decent man’ by his ‘Hill woman’ wife (and saved from his mem-sahib ex-fiance), the closing comment is ‘Which is manifestly unfair.’, which we know it, manifestly, isn’t.

Compare those with the ending of Consequences where Kipling’s formidable Mrs Hauksbee has the last word: ‘What fools men are.’, which it seems to me, we are meant to take absolutely seriously. IThere are a lot of women in Kipling, and rarely, if ever shown in a patronising light. They always have admirable qualities, though they may be abused for it by the men in the story, and by those undermined narrators.

In the first story of the collection Lispeth, another Hill-woman, falls for an Englishman whom she believes she will marry. He, and the people at the Christian Mission where she is nursing him, play along with the idea, until he has recovered sufficiently to abandon her. When the truth is finally revealed Lispeth returns to her original culture, for which the Mission people accept no responsibility, seeing it, not as a reflection of their dishonesty, but of her origins. The story hardly reflects a racist contempt, or even an imperialist one, for the abused heroine.

An odd story in the group is A Bank Fraud, in which a manager, from his own salary, perpetuates the belief that his dying assistant – who has been sacked – is still employed, and will recover. The skin colour of the two men is quite irrelevant to this tale, as is their class. It is their personal qualities that matter. The dying man, it must be said, is no friend to the man who is paying him, and keeping his hopes alive. At the end of the story, again, in the character’s rather than the narrator’s voice, we get the statement: ‘I might have heartened him to pull through another day.’ The protagonist in this story is so explicitly altruistic that we cannot doubt him, even though we might marvel at him.

Over and over again, Kipling points up the human qualities behind the choices people make, and the actions they take, whoever they are, and wherever they come from. At the end of The Bronkhurst Divorce-Case the narrator remarks ‘And my conundrum is the most unanswerable of the three.’ That conundrum is ‘How do women like Mrs Bronkhorst come to marry men like Bronkhorst?’ When we’ve read the tale, we’ll tend to agree with him, I suspect.

Then there is the almost flash fiction, at least by length, of The Story of Muhammad Din. The eponymous hero is an Indian child who strays into the sahib’s house, but whose intrusion, though scandalous to his father, is not resented by the sahib. Kipling always puts the ‘S’ word in italics, along with its memsahib version. The eponymous boy never repeats his mistake, but is met in the garden from time to time. The first person narrator greets him ‘with much state’, but then inadvertently destroys ‘some of his handiwork’, a concoction of ‘six shrivelled marigold flowers in a circle’. The destruction is assumed to be deliberate. Then the child falls ill, and despite the grudging treatment of the sahib’s doctor – grudged by the doctor, it is made clear – he dies. The story ends with the first person narrator encountering the father carrying his son to the ‘Muslim burying-ground’. If there’s condescension here, I don’t recognise it, and I think that if you tried to re-write this story and set it in an English country garden, you would struggle to tell it with more, or even the same degree of objectivity. In fact, I might just have a go at that! Frank O’Connor, in his chapter on Kipling  (in The Lonely Voice), writes of doing something similar with Kipling’s The Gardener, and quotes his own alternative first sentences. But they form an example that illustrates the dangers of such an experiment, rather than the value.

I have read only a small portion as yet of Kipling’s short story output, so might well find all that Bates and O’Connor alerted me to. It seems important to me that I have found other than that in what I have read. Reading someone’s short stories might be a route to knowing them, but before and more importantly than that, it is a route to knowing the stories, and, perhaps oneself.

One of my favourite authors is, or put more correctly, several of my favourite stories were written by, James Joyce, but I have a more than sneaking suspicion I wouldn’t have liked him, nor he me. The ‘singer not the song’ is a symptom of commercialism and its attendant need for celebrity. Not merely ‘the stories’ of a writer, but each story stands alone, to be understood, assessed, and enjoyed on its own merits, within the limits of our capacities as readers.