Life's Handicap.

By Rudyard Kipling

Printed: 1970

Publisher: Heron Books.

Dimensions 10 × 21 × 3.5 cm

Language: English

Size (cminches): 10 x 21 x 3.5

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Item information


Brown leatherette with gilt title and decoration on the spine. Gilt decoration on the front board.



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A book deserving to be read

‘Life’s Handicap’ is a collection of short fiction by Rudyard Kipling. The ‘Handicap’ of the title refers to a race in which disadvantages are imposed upon the more able competitors, and advantages granted to the less able, in order to equalise the chances of success. Kipling is therefore comparing life to such a race. The book was originally published in 1891, and including the author’s Preface (which is a story in itself) it contains twenty-eight short stories plus one poem, ‘L’Envoi’, which brings the total number of pieces to twenty-nine.

Three of the longest stories feature privates Learoyd, Mulvaney and Ortheris – Kipling’s ‘Soldiers Three’. For the reader, the hurdle to be jumped is that Kipling writes their dialogue in the native dialect of each character – a Yorkshireman, an Irishman and a Cockney, respectively. Although you do have to be able to mimic these accents in your own mind in order to get the best out of them, Kipling repays this effort by delivering three stories of substance, richness and humour. These are ‘The Incarnation of Krishna Mulvaney’ (one of Kipling’s funniest and most colourful), ‘The Courting of Dinah Shadd’ and ‘On Greenhow Hill’. In my view, that last one is better than the Brontes and Hardy combined – and briefer, too. In my experience, it is habitually the case with Kipling’s ‘Soldiers Three’ stories that in return for the effort which he obliges the reader to make with the dialects of the characters, he will deliver some of his best and most richly textured tales. That is the ‘quid pro quo’.

It is not infrequently the case with Kipling that some of the shortest-of-short stories are also amongst the most effective. As examples of these, ‘Little Tobrah’ (not a happy tale), ‘The Limitations of Pambé Serang’, ‘Through the Fire’, ‘Namgay Doola’ – the list could go on – are all well worth reading. This collection also includes ‘Without Benefit of Clergy’, a fine story which packs as much material into its twenty-two pages as might ordinarily fill a novel. At one point, I found myself wondering if this story was actually about the relationship between Britain and India – with Britain in the place of ‘Holden’ and India being represented by ‘Ameera’ – or perhaps even the relationship between Kipling and India, for that matter. While reading this story, it also occurred to me that when compared to the history of India, the story of the British Empire therein is a very brief and transient affair (albeit an intense one) not unlike the house and relationship which are shared by Holden and Ameera. Given this, I thought that ‘Without Benefit of Clergy’ was a very prescient story. After all, in 1891 the Empire in India still had a lot of mileage and traction left in it.

There is one story in this collection – ‘Georgie Porgie’ – about the betrayal of a Burmese woman by a British imperialist which ought to make even Kipling’s critics stop and think for a moment.

Also, and in all seriousness, who else can you turn to in English literature to find a story – ‘The Finances of the Gods’ – which credibly features the principal Hindu deities among its main characters? There is only the Bombay-born Rudyard Kipling…

So do I have any criticisms to offer? Yes, I do. One or two of Kipling’s supernatural stories strike me as being a bit wooden and creaky at this remove – a bit ‘nineteenth century’. But then again, a story like ‘Bertran and Bimi’, which might be said to deal with the sinister rather then the supernatural, has lost none of its ability to shock the reader (so be warned). And although I have no doubt of their sincerity, nor of the literary panache with which (for the most part) they are carried through, a few of these tales are little more than propaganda for the British Empire in India. I am thinking in particular of ‘The Man Who Was’ and ‘The Head of the District’. Although seasoned with much good writing and local knowledge, that second story does occasionally stray into territory which I had previously thought the exclusive preserve of ‘Carry On up the Khyber’.

One has to acknowledge that too often in these stories Kipling represents the native population of India as being childlike, unsophisticated and even, in places, primitive. This is to airbrush out of these stories the history and culture of India itself. Although the second half of the book is much better, in this regard, than the first half – being more focussed upon Indian, Afghan, Malay and other characters – neverthless this tendency of Kipling’s is marked enough in ‘Life’s Handicap’ for this reader, at least, to have noticed it.

On the other side of things, within a rather wooden story of the supernatural like ‘At The End of the Passage’, Kipling does manage to show us the privations and the desperation of Empire – of lonely and underpaid men in far-flung outposts, administering native populations who outnumber them by many thousands to one, and who could despatch the ‘one’ at any time with a knife between the ribs or poison in the food. Men with no-one else to turn to and no hope of salvation if things should go suddenly wrong. And that is before you factor in the risks posed by diseases like cholera, the frequent outbreaks of which pepper the stories in this book. Kipling conveys the strain upon mind and body of being in that situation, year after year, with perhaps a meagre government pension to look forward to at the end of it. If you ever make it that far. Frequently, in Kipling’s stories, these are doomed men. Men who have accepted their fate long before it finally catches up with them. Men who already know that they are ‘going out’ – like the proverbial lightbulb. Suicide is not uncommon among the ‘Sahibs’ in Kipling’s stories, nor is death from physical and mental breakdown.

Yes, one feels sorry for these fellows and their desperate privations; right up to the point at which their native servants enter and dress the table for dinner, cook and serve the food, and then clear away the things afterwards before doing the washing up. Very sorry indeed. The servants will be back later on to set up and prepare their beds for the night.

It is also worth noting from ‘The Mutiny of the Mavericks’ that the Irish regiment of the title will turn up ten years later within the pages of ‘Kim’ – for the Mavericks are the regiment of Kim’s father. Within the pages of ‘Life’s Handicap’ they are a very rough-hewn collection of characters indeed. But although ‘The Mutiny of the Mavericks’ is not without its marked element of propaganda, I did not find Kipling’s treatment of these soldiers to be condescending. Rather, he introduces us to them face-to-face and on the level. And his understanding of their lifestyle, attitudes and habits rang fairly true to me. Given Kipling’s childhood experiences at Southsea, it came as no surprise to me that he was familiar with this hard side of life and the equally hard characters who inhabit it. And although it may not be on a subject which is to every reader’s taste, there is some very fine prose writing towards the end of this story, as the regiment prepares for and moves into armed conflict.

I have to say that I really dislike the story called ‘The Mark of The Beast’. Although I take its point about the wisdom of respecting local religions, I found the story itself to be wooden, in places unintentionally funny, and ultimately rather unconvincing. To be fair, even its author concedes that it is a ‘rather unpleasant story’. The real mystery is why it appears to be amongst the most frequently reprinted of Kipling’s tales. And these same criticisms could also be applied to ‘The Return of Imray’. Although, on the plus side, I have to say that I found myself itrigued by the character of Strickland – one of Kipling’s recurring fictional characters – who features in both of these stories.

There is at least one excellent animal story in this collection, ‘Moti Guj – Mutineer’, which (aside from the serious amounts of alcohol consumed by the characters) might serve as a forerunner to the kind of stories with which Kipling would later fill ‘The Jungle Books’.

Although I think that Kipling’s flaws are on display in ‘Life’s Handicap’, I have to say that taken as a whole it remains an excellent collection of short fiction and one which deserves to be back in print.

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