ELT Press
Peter Havholm . Politics and Awe in Rudyard Kipling's Fiction. Burlington: Ashgate, 2008. xi + 187 pp. $99.95

The basic question Peter Havholm sets out to answer is why much of Kipling's fiction is aesthetically effective when his imperialist and racist opinions were so retrograde. This puzzle has always been central to Kipling criticism. At the outset, Havholm cites a number of critics for whom, as Daniel Karlin puts it, "What is powerful and convincing in Kipling's art is so mixed with what is repellent and sometimes mad in his outlook … that it is hard to make the case for him as an artist without engaging in a defense of his politics." The question regarding Havholm's study is whether he adds anything new to the conversation. Part of his solution to the puzzle concerns "awe," as his title suggests. "Awe" or "wonder" seems to be a close relative of exoticism:

… Kipling's stories please his readers by evoking wonder at human actions whose political, cultural, and biological economies are presented as separate from those in the world in which readers actually live, in two senses. Kipling's stories almost invariably distance readers from actions and passions represented as wondrous: one is invited always to be awed rather than to become involved.… Secondly, many of Kipling's characters and actions are set in dream worlds so that his ideas can work perfectly.

By implication, at least, India as viewed through the rosy-tinted lenses of Anglo-Indian ideology was itself a "dream world."

Havholm provides close, insightful readings of many of Kipling's stories. He usefully contextualizes these readings in terms of Anglo-Indian ideology—"the voice of the Sovereign," as he calls it. He thoroughly illustrates the attitudes and beliefs of the British administrators, businessmen, and soldiers in India, including Kipling's parents, partly by quoting from the journals, such as the Civil and Military Gazette, to which they contributed. Of special note here is his father's brief essay, "A Word on Indian Progress," which Havholm includes as an appendix. Havholm emphasizes Anglo-Indian reactions to the 1883 Ilbert Bill, which, until amended, "would have allowed Indian judges in the mofussil, the country outside the Presidency districts (of Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta), to try" Europeans.

Before the Ilbert Bill controversy, the major event that shaped Anglo Indian ideology was the "Mutiny" or Rebellion of 1857–1858. It crops up occasionally in Havholm's study, as when Kipling himself, writing to Cormell Price, declares: "I can't trust myself to write calmly about [End Page 81] that [Ilbert] 'Bill.' Old stagers say that race feeling has never run so high since the Mutiny. If there should be a rising, the present Government are directly responsible at least so everyone says." The "rising" Kipling refers to is apparently not a rebellion on the part of Anglo-Indians opposed to the Ilbert Bill; he seems to believe that even the slight encouragement the Bill gave educated Indians to think of themselves as equal to Englishmen might lead to something like the earlier Rebellion. That thought suggests in turn just how paranoid Anglo-Indian ideology was when Kipling arrived there as a teenager, in the midst of the Ilbert Bill controversy.

At the heart of Anglo-Indian ideology was a partronizing racism that affirmed British rule as a permanent fixture, because Indians were incapable of governing themselves. Havholm writes: "The Anglo-Indians who taught Rudyard Kipling his political philosophy believed that the Indian people required protection because of their ignorance—and that it was the duty of Britain's servants in India to care for them, care enough to devote lives to learning their infinite variety so that they might best be protected from themselves." So confident was Kipling in expressing this "political philosophy" in "the voice of the Sovereign" that his version of Empire takes on virtually utopian, "dream world" overtones. This is what allows him to bring Kim, as Havholm notes, to such a "joyous" and "loving" conclusion. The danger to India that Kim helps to foil is external to it—the not very threatening meddling on the northwestern frontier of Russian and French agents. Indians themselves are all in accord with Kim's efforts and those of the British Secret Service; besides the Lama, Kim's other loving Indian father figures—Mahbub Ali, Hurree Babu, Lurgan Sahib—are also, like Kim himself, secret service agents. In Kipling's "joyous" novel, there is no friction between Anglo-Indians and Indians; the Mutiny is only a distant memory of a tragic, confused disaster, when a handful of Indian "sepoys" went "mad."

In regard to Kim, the answer to Havholm's main question about art and politics is surely here, in the boyish confidence both of the title character and of Kipling himself, writing in "the voice of the Sovereign." Perhaps it is "awe" that one feels in reading about Kim's enjoyment of the double "game"—the Lama's pursuit of salvation, the spies' pursuit of the Russian and French agents. In any event, despite the Russian and French agents, nothing perturbs the smooth interface between colonizers and colonized. When that interface is perturbed in some of Kipling's other stories—in "The Man Who Would Be King" or "Without [End Page 82] Benefit of Clergy," for example—it's because individual characters, whether Indian or British, step out of the lines drawn by Anglo-Indian ideology. Havholm's scrupulous attention to Kipling's short story "Kidnapped" points to an entire category of people who, as far as Kipling was concerned, were out of line—Eurasians, the products of that taboo but widespread practice, miscegenation. These were the "railway folk," as Kay Robinson called them, "an uncared-for and discreditable excrescence upon British rule in India." Kipling clearly agreed with his father that miscegenation was a tragic mistake.

In light of Anglo-Indian ideology, Havholm reads "Kidnapped" and many other Kipling short stories insightfully. It isn't clear to me, however, that he solves the art-versus-politics puzzle any better than many earlier critics such as Edward Said, Zoreh Sullivan, and Daniel Karlin. Havholm might have considered how that puzzle plays out for other writers. Many Victorian and Edwardian authors were imperialists and racists in one sense or another. Few critics claim that Tennyson's Tory and imperialist politics diminishes his greatness as a poet. Also born in India, Thackeray expresses racist attitudes toward Indians just as blatant and much less sympathetic than Kipling's (see especially The Newcomes). Dickens wrote that "the savage" was somebody who should be wiped off the face of the earth. Carlyle was even more racist, imperialist, and authoritarian than Tennyson, but no one questions his genius as author of some of the most interesting, idiosyncratic prose ever written. W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and several other modernists dallied with Fascism, yet their major contributions to literary modernism are indisputable. The puzzle about Kipling is perhaps magnified not because he was an "awe"-inspiring writer who was also an ardent imperialist, but because, while he had much undeniable talent for storytelling (especially in the short story genre), he often expressed his brand of imperialism in terms of a jingoist and racist (Anglo-Indian) vulgarity. He also often manages to do so, as in Kim, with so much boyish, naive confidence that the ideology does not hamper and perhaps even enhances the story.

Such is the wonder of Kipling. [End Page 83]

Patrick Brantlinger
Indiana University

Share