Friday, 27 October 2000

Rudyard Kipling: Life's Handicap (1891)

Edition: MacMillan, 1982
Review number: 665

Rudyard Kipling produced a large number of short stories, including some of his best known writing (The Jungle Book, for example, being a collection of connected tales). They are quite varied, even when dealing with a specific theme, as here: Life's Handicap contains twenty seven stories about the experience of the British in India. Some have dated more than others, but they all have the marvellous sense of atmosphere which is the hallmark of Kipling's writing.

It is often said against Kipling that he was an imperialist, and it is hardly possible to deny it - there are moments when his now uncomfortable assumptions about the superiority of the white man become apparent. Kipling fits into the time and place of his background as well as most people do, and it is rather unfair to expect him to have the attitudes of someone born a century later. The chosen theme of most of his writing makes these background ideas particularly obvious, so that he is something of a sitting target. He is a greater writer than the two others who have survived and who also can be accused of the same kind of unconscious racism (I'm thinking of Buchan and Haggard), and he is much less one sided. He writes about unpleasant Europeans, of British officers who fail, as well as of ones who are as infallible gods to their native servants. His characters, even in the short stories, are more than the stereotypes of cheap imperialist fiction.

In the case of Life's Handicap, I remain slightly uneasy despite the excellence of many of the stories. This is because of the title of the collection, for which the only interpretation I can think of is slightly racist (though possibly just reflective of the social situation in nineteenth century India): that some people have a superior position or an inferior one from the start of their lives, dependent on whether they are Indian or European. It may be a racist idea, but Kipling didn't originate the system, and it was certainly true.

No comments: