Constructing the Englishman in Rudyard Kipling's Letters of Marque
Conde, Mary, Yearbook of English Studies
Rudyard Kipling's Letters of Marque, subsequently published in From Sea to Sea (1900), were first published anonymously in Allahabad Pioneer from December 1887 to February 1888, and described his travels in the Native States of Rajputana. These letters, a professional assignment, nevertheless have a mood of holiday, and throughout them Kipling, consistently referring to himself in the third person as 'the Englishman', simultaneously celebrates, interrogates, and subverts the notion of his Englishness. In doing so he mourns, mocks, but at the same time pays tribute to the idea of empire.
Rudyard Kipling's Letters of Marque, subsequently published in From Sea to Sea (1900), described his travels in the Native States of Rajputana, states that had never been conquered and absorbed into British India, but which had peacefully recognized British paramountcy. Reprinted with some exasperation because of the activities of pirating publishers, the Letters were originally published anonymously in the Allahabad Pioneer from December 1887 to February 1888. Edmonia Hill, later to become a close friend of Kipling's, wrote to her sister that there was much speculation as to their authorship. At a dinner-party,
When we were seated at the table and conversation was in full swing, my partner called my attention to a short dark-haired man of uncertain age, with a heavy moustache and wearing very thick glasses, who sat opposite, saying: 'That is Rudyard Kipling, who has just come from Lahore to be on the staff of the Pi. He is writing those charming sketches of the native states, Letters of Marque, which the Pi. is publishing.'
Mr Kipling looks about forty, as he is beginning to be bald, but he is in reality just twenty-two. He was animation itself, telling his stories admirably, so that those about him were kept in gales of laughter. He fairly scintillated, but when more sober topics were discussed he was posted along all lines.' (1)
This meeting would in fact have been around the time of Kipling's twenty-third birthday: his 'uncertain age' is reflected in the Letters, which have a wealth of literary and other allusions and an assurance of touch astonishing for such a young man, even if we reflect that he had been a journalist in India since the age of seventeen. The charm and humour of the sketches, again characteristic, as Edmonia Hill found, of both writer and work, are their most striking features. Kipling, who felt himself to be on holiday, writes with an entrancing ease and gaiety.
One critic, at least, claims that Kipling was sent on his travels because his flippant treatment of government news had become a liability to the Pioneer, and it was thought 'safer to put him on the road than suffer him in the office.' (2) Whatever the truth of this, the Letters were an important turning-point for Kipling. Coming towards the end of 'seven years' hard' in India, his transference from the Civil and Military Gazette to its 'big sister-paper' (3) the Pioneer had represented a journalistic promotion. He was never again to be so 'furiously productive', (4) and his Indian travels not only made him aware of the twin aspects of India, the ancient and the modern, (5) but gave him, perhaps for the first time in his life, a sense of history. (6) They may also have 'whetted his appetite for the road'; (7) Kipling certainly subsequently became remarkable for the diversity and length of his travels. (8)
A more negative aspect of the importance of the Letters is suggested by the biographer who claims:
Kipling's attitude to India was torn into two: reverence for the ancient, mysterious and wise, which appealed to the religious, sensual, romantic and imaginative side of his personality; and contempt for its political childlikeness, and lack of capacity for self-government. He was always prepared to love Indians, provided they made no attempts to look after their own destiny. …