Whispering to the Converted: Narrative Communication in Rudyard Kipling's Letters of Marque and Indian Fiction

By Sergeant, David | The Modern Language Review, January 2009 | Go to article overview

Whispering to the Converted: Narrative Communication in Rudyard Kipling's Letters of Marque and Indian Fiction


Sergeant, David, The Modern Language Review


Letters of Marque is a series of travel articles on the native states of Rajputana, written by Rudyard Kipling late in 1887, shortly after he lei the Punjab-based Civil and Military Gazette to take up a position at its sister publication, the Allahabad Pioneer, an influential newspaper with an India-wide circulation. Despite being the largest unified body of writing Kipling produced in India, the Letters have been until recently the subject of relative critical neglect. However, readings by Gail Chian-Liang Low, Bart Moore-Gilbert, and Mary Conde have gone some way to redressing this, with each of them focusing on how the Letters reveal the ambiguities and tensions in Kipling's relationship with India. (1) These ambiguities are then referred back to the established idea of Kipling as a writer split between an authoritarian imperialism and a part-unknowing sympathy to native life. (2) From this perspective the Letters alternate 'between the affectation of control and a daytime need for surface stability', (3) they show 'the nuanced and ambivalent nature of Kipling's representations of the Princely States and also, by implication, of British India', (4) and are 'permeated with contradictory desires'. (5) In this reading of Letters of Marque I shall demonstrate that Kipling's writing was far more precisely located, and its ambiguities more deliberate and functional, than any of these observations would suggest. The Letters reveal the skill with which Kipling could use his writing to bolster the position of a particular Anglo-Indian ideological milieu, commonly associated with the Punjab, to which he was affiliated. (6) Furthermore, by going on briefly to examine two of Kipling's more critically scrutinized Indian pieces, 'Beyond the Pale' and 'On the City Wall', I shall demonstrate how the Letters might be used to help synthesize their more familiar tensions into a coherent account of Kipling's work through his time in India. The continuities in formal technique provide a model for how Kipling's heterogeneous writings might be construed as a meaningful unity. However, the subtle modifications in that technique can also be matched to changes in Kipling's location and readership. The various nuances and ambivalences in his Indian work profit from comparison with one another, but they are not all of a piece.

Early in the first Letter of Marque the narrator, having outlined his reasons for travelling, summarizes and continues:

For these reasons, and because he wished to study our winter birds of passage, one of the few thousand Englishmen in India on a date and in a place which have no concern with this story, sacrificed all his self-respect and became--at enormous personal inconvenience--a Globe-trotter going to Jeypore, and leaving behind him for a while all that old and well-known life in which Commissioners and Deputy-Commissioners, Governors and Lieutenant-Governors, Aides-decamp, Colonels and their wives, Majors, Captains, and Subalterns after their kind move and rule and govern and squabble and fight and sell each other's horses and tell wicked stories of their neighbours. But before he had fully settled into his part or accustomed himself to saying, 'Please take out this luggage,' to the coolies at the stations, he saw from the train the Taj wrapped in the mists of the morning. (7)

Conde reads this as a straightforward evocation of a 'sense of holiday freedom', (8) as does Low. (9) However, while undoubtedly valid, such a reading does not take account of how carefully the narratorial position is finessed in this passage. The narrator does express a desire to escape from a bureaucratic routine whose demands were a common source of complaint throughout Anglo-India. (10) However, he also takes care to remain affiliated to those still undertaking the labours which he leaves behind. He remains one of the 'few thousand Englishmen in India', even though he is become 'a Globe-trotter'. He is travelling to 'study' the Globe-trotter, but he is also taking pleasure in travelling as one. …

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