Kipling Makes Exceedingly Good

A BBC website story today talked about whether Enid Blyton should lose her English Heritage blue plaque because she was racist.  (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-57517254)  Enid Blyton?  Racist?  Surely not?  They had an example and… oh dear; oh dearie, dearie me.  Ouch.

Further down, and the point of this blog, they mention Rudyard Kipling’s “racist and imperialist sentiments” as being beyond the pale.  Now, I’m currently writing a novel set in the British Raj and it’s soaked through with racism and imperialism.  And sentimentalism.  Well, of course it is; it’s set in the British Raj.  However, the article is a pause for thought.

There’s a scene early on in “The Man Who Would Be King”, the Sean Connery/Michael Caine film based on Rudyard Kipling’s tale, set in a train carriage.  A middle-class, well-to-do Indian gets on and Caine’s character tells him to shut up.

“Thank you, sir,” the Indian says, deferentially, before Caine physically pushes him out of the moving train.

There’s racism in the scene – clearly – but it doesn’t follow that Kipling was racist.  He’s describing things as they were, holding a mirror up to reality.  Considering how things go for Connery and Caine, you could argue that the story is anti-imperialist.  It’s really about people getting above their station: you could easily translate it into two business consultants arriving at an office.  The Man Who Would Be CEO perhaps?

(Hmm, I’ve just looked up Kipling on Wikipedia and he wasn’t exactly that woke.  Perhaps, I guess, you can say he was a product of his time.  I’m not going to back myself into a corner trying to defend him.)

My point is that fiction has to reflect the time it’s set.  (Or be such fantasy that, say, the British Raj was not racist.)  You can’t have anti-slavery Romans, for example.  Spartacus, and all those who claimed to be the great slave revolt leader, did not want to get rid of slavery.  They just didn’t want to be slaves – fair enough – they wanted to own slaves – ah, hang on – maybe even their former masters.  The system, you see, was just the way of things.

So, where does all this leave my characters?

Not throwing Indians off trains, I hope.

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