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Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Just So Stories’

Image from Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Just So Stories’

Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Just So Stories’
British Library Add. MS 59840, f.35
Copyright © The British Library Board
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Rudyard Kipling told his children gloriously fanciful tales of how things in the world came to be as they are. He wrote them down for publication as the Just So Stories in 1902, just three years after the tragic death of the daughter for whom they had first been invented. During the 20th century, generations of children were tucked into bed with readings of highly imaginative and wildly improbably explanations such as how the elephant got his trunk.

Who was Rudyard Kipling?

Joseph Rudyard Kipling was born in 1865 in Bombay, during the ‘British Raj’, the era when the subcontinent of India was part of the British Empire. His father was an artist, who also taught at the city’s School of Art. When he was only five, Kipling and his sister, Alice, were taken back to England and left with foster parents in Southsea, where he attended a small private school. The colourful sights and sounds – and freedoms- of India were sorely missed. Kipling hated his foster home, which he later referred to as the “House of Desolation”.

At 12 he was sent to boarding school in Devon. The headmaster there was a friend of the family and encouraged Kipling’s interest in writing. Four years later he was back in India and working in Lahore as a journalist on two newspapers. In his spare time he penned poems and short stories. These were first printed in the newspapers, and then published as books. Through his travels all over in India, he absorbed knowledge of Hindu customs and ways of thinking, though his experience of British colonial life remained central to his disposition.

By the time Kipling returned to England in 1889, he was already a successful author, specialising in stories of heroism and masculine fellowship. Three years later he married the sister of an American friend and moved to Vermont, where his two daughters were born. There he wrote his first books for children: the two Jungle Books.

After a few happy years in America, a legal dispute with his wife’s brother led Kipling to bring his family back to England. Tragedy struck early in 1899 when his beloved first daughter, Josephine died of fever. At the same time Kipling moved to a secluded 17th-century house called Batemans in the Sussex village of Burwash, where he lived until his death in 1936.

What are the ‘Just So Stories’?

Kipling entertained his own children and those of his friends by inventing ingenious explanations of such questions as ‘How the Camel Got His Hump’ and ‘How the Leopard Got his Spots’. In 1902, he wrote them down for publication as the Just So Stories.

They are written in an amusing grand style, peppered with long, and delightfully unlikely, invented words - a comical exaggeration perhaps of the formal ways of speaking Kipling heard in India. Each story includes a short poem, and the first edition features Kipling’s own illustrations.

Throughout the book he addresses the reader as “Best Beloved”, reinforcing the intimacy of story-telling and recalling the first ‘best beloved: his lost daughter, Josephine. Though his writing for adults fell from favour, Kipling’s children’s book were popular for much of the 20th century and the Just So Stories became a favourite across the English-speaking world.

Why was Kipling important?

Kipling’s reputation was at its height during the first decade of the 20th century. He was offered the honour of a knighthood in 1899 and again in 1903. Both times he refused. But he did accept the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907. The citation listed the qualities that gave his work such popularity in his own day. It praised his ‘virile humour’ in books and poems that “brought India nearer to home than the opening of the Suez Canal”. Kipling, it said, did more than any other “to draw tighter the bonds of union between England and her colonies.”

After the First World War, however, the tide of history relentlessly swept aside Kipling’s colonial vision. Values extolled in his writings for adults soon seemed out of tune with the times. Political critics came to see him as old-fashioned at best, contemptible at worst. In the early 21st century, distance lends a less emotive view, and Kipling is now recognised as one of the most authentic voices of the life and character of the British Empire.

What was the British Raj?

‘Raj’ means ‘rule’ in the languages of India. The British Raj refers to the years between 1858 and 1947 when the subcontinent of India - today’s India, Pakistan and Bangladesh – was a part of the British Empire.

The joint destiny of England and India began in 1600, the year the East India Company was established by royal charter to exploit trade between the two countries. A private army was built up to protect the Company’s interests. By the 18th century, the power of the Company had grown to a point where it challenged the authority of the British government.

Citing widespread corruption and abuse of power, Parliament passed a Regulating Act in 1733, which set financial restrictions on the Company and imposed a Governor-General of India. In 1858, the British government assumed total control. 18 years later, Queen Victoria was crowned Empress of India: the ‘jewel in the crown’ of her empire.

Despite resentment and prejudice, the close association of the two cultures for more than two centuries left an indelible mark on the language and lives of both. During the 20th century, the growth of a strong nationalist movement brought British rule to an end. India and Pakistan gained their independence in 1947.

How did the manuscript come to the British Library?

Kipling’s works were housed at Batemans, his Sussex home. In 1940, four years after Kipling’s death, his widow bequeathed a collection of his notes and drafts, known to the family as ‘the file’, to the British Museum Library, later the British Library.

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