Man of (stolen) letters: was Rudyard Kipling a plagiarist?
Author copied letters from Indian soldiers almost word for word in his 1918 war text, research reveals
Rudyard Kipling once confessed, in an 1895 letter, that “it is extremely possible that I have helped myself promiscuously” from other stories when writing The Jungle Book. Now, more than 120 years after he penned his enduring masterpiece, the Nobel laureate is facing a new charge of plagiarism relating to a later book.
In his 1918 war text, Asia, Kipling imagined himself as a sepoy (an Indian soldier serving under British orders) writing back home from France. New research reveals that he not only had access to censored letters of Indian sepoys, but he lifted whole paragraphs verbatim from them.
One passage, describing a lady of the house where a sepoy had billeted, is virtually identical to a letter written by an actual sepoy. Kipling wrote of an imaginary character: “Of her own free will she washed my clothes, arranged my bed, and polished my boots daily for three months ... Each morning she prepared me a tray with bread, butter, milk and coffee. When we had to leave that village the old lady wept on my shoulder. It is strange that I had never seen her weep for her dead son, but she wept for me. Moreover, at parting she would have had me take a fi-farang [five-franc] note for the expenses.”
A 1916 letter written by a actual sepoy is almost word-for-word identical.
The discovery has been made by Santanu Das, professor of English literature at King’s College London. He said Kipling had changed barely a couple of words: “Otherwise it’s exactly the same.”
Das made the discovery while poring over the letter in the British Library. He did a double take, recognising it immediately from The Eyes of Asia, which he had just been reading. He stumbled across it while researching a book, titled India, Empire and First World War Culture, which was published last week. He said: “Today it would be classed as plagiarism. Those lines are exactly taken from the letters. But the whole idea of plagiarism was very different in the early 20th century.”
Kipling spent eight idyllic years in Mumbai but, like many children from the colonial administrative class, he was separated from his mother and sent off to England. Das said: “Kipling had quite a horrible childhood. He was shipped across to England, and he missed his mother who was in India. The Indian sepoys were having exactly the same situation.
“The passages Kipling is attracted to in the letters are those where the soldiers speak about missing their mothers in India.”
Das acknowledges that The Eyes of Asia is jingoistic and propagandist, but points out that it is “deeply revealing of the complex emotional history of the writer himself”.
During the Great War more than a million Indians served the British Empire, taking part in some of the fiercest battles and suffering terrible losses. More than 1,000 of their letters home have survived and Das identified further passages that inspired Kipling.
Kipling was commissioned to write The Eyes of Asia, his final fictional work on India, as war propaganda. In 1916, the intelligence department engineered a meeting with Kipling on “how best to give intelligence to neutrals at home”. Days later, Kipling was given access to the censored letters of Indian soldiers who had been at the front.
Das said that on the one hand it is propaganda, depicting the sepoy as overwhelmed by the supposed superiority and generosity of the Raj. But he added that Kipling’s use of the letters reveals how much “he really feels for these men”.
Indian sepoy's description of being billeted1. Letter by an actual sepoy:
“She washed my clothes, arranged my bed [and] polished my boots... Every morning she used to prepare and give me a tray with bread, butter, milk and coffee.... When we had to leave that village the old lady wept on my shoulder. Strange that I had never seen her weeping for her dead son and yet she should weep for me.Moreover, at [our] parting she pressed on me a five franc note.”
Letter by Kipling’s soldier:
“She washed my clothes, arranged my bed, and polished my boots daily for three months ... Each morning she prepared me a tray with bread, butter, milk and coffee. When we had to leave that village the old lady wept on my shoulder. It is strange that I had never seen her weep for her dead son, but she wept for me. Moreover at parting she would have had me take a fi-farang [five franc] note for the expenses.”
– © The Daily Telegraph