Women on the verge
of a cultural breakdown

The case of Kipling’s “Lispeth”.

by Roberto Di Scala (University of Modena and Reggio Emilia)  [all citations are from “Lispeth” in Plain Tales from the Hills, ed. by Andrew Rutherford, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001 (1987)]

“Lispeth” is the opening story in Plain Tales from the Hills (1888) and it may be argued that this positioning of the story in his oeuvre helped Kipling to define and face the problem of the relationship between the colonizers and the colonized.

The main characters of the short story are two women. The first is an Englishwoman, the wife of a Chaplain, and the other is a native girl, Lispeth. In the end, the two figures may be said to represent the conflicting cultures and to become Kipling’s female symbols of the so-called ‘clash of civilizations’ which, therefore, also becomes a clash of femininity.

Lispeth is the daughter of a Pahari couple who entrust her to the Christian Mission of the area when they die. The original name of the baby is never revealed, and the Chaplain and his wife christen her with the name of Elizabeth. Throughout the story, though, it is the Pahari pronunciation of the name, Lispeth, which is used. This name reminds one of the verb to lisp, referring to a child’s imperfect pronunciation of words as well as to the girl’s imperfect mastering of the English manners and socio-cultural code.

Brought up by the English couple, and in particular by the Chaplain’s wife, Lispeth grows up to be a beautiful and virtuous girl. The narrator, however, is uncertain whether this is a result of the girl being educated according to Christian principles: “Whether Christianity improved Lispeth, or whether the Gods of her own people would have done as much for her under any circumstances, I do not know” (p. 7).

Even though Lispeth seems to stick to the Christian principles she was educated into, the Chaplain’s wife can perceive some difficulty in fitting the girl into well defined English schemes. For instance, when she suggests that the girl should learn a “genteel” profession, Lispeth refuses to do so, because “she was very happy where she was” (p. 8). The Chaplain’s wife wishes to “improve” the girl so that, by means of a suitable job, she might be as respectable as an English woman should be. The girl, though, seems happy to be “half servant, half companion” (p. 7) to the woman who, on her part, “did not know what to do with her” (p. 8).

The concerns of the Chaplain’s wife are bound to increase when one day Lispeth comes back from a walk bringing home a wounded man. The girl states her will to marry him: “This is my husband. I found him on the Bagi Road. He has hurt himself. We will nurse him, and when he is well your husband shall marry him to me” (p. 8). The woman “shrieked with horror” (p. 8) as the man is English, a stranded traveller who got hurt while searching for plants and butterflies to study.

While they take care of the man, the Chaplain and his wife try to talk Lispeth out of marrying him. They point out “the impropriety of her conduct” (p. 9), but it is to no avail, as the girl still wants to become the Englishman’s wife. According to Western judgment, it is the pagan side of Lispeth’s nature which is increasingly getting the upper hand.“It takes a great deal of Christianity to wipe out uncivilized Eastern instincts, such as falling in love at first sight” (p. 9): these are the words the narrator uses to ironically comment upon this episode; while, by shrieking with horror, the woman reveals her biases about racial superiority.

Now she has found the man she adores (and, to the Chaplain’s wife, she quite literally does so), Lispeth cannot see why she should hide her feelings. Such fierce, imperishable love of a woman for a man is considered irrational, barbarous and, in the end, dangerous. According to the Chaplain and his wife, Lispeth’s behaviour is typical of the savage natives of the land who, in spite of the efforts of the English, will never be capable of changing their habits and minds. The contempt of the English couple for Lispeth’s behaviour is derived from their fear of miscegenation, i.e. too close a mixing of English and Indian cultures and their representatives.

In order to restrain the possible, uncontrolled reaction of Lispeth when the young Englishman should leave, the Chaplain’s wife, “being a good Christian and disliking anything in the shape of fuss and scandal” (p. 10) asks the man to tell Lispeth he that he will come back to the Mission later on to marry her. The woman justifies her request with these words: “She is but a child, you know, and, I fear, at heart a heathen” (p. 10). The woman thinks Lispeth is still a child and, in her heart’s heart, still a pagan who is “beyond her management entirely” (p. 10).

Once the man has left, Lispeth still clings on to her belief that he will return, and, as months pass without any news from her dearest, she becomes impatient to such an extent that the Chaplain’s wife decides she must tell her the truth:

The Chaplain’s wife thought this a profitable time to let her know the real state of affairs – that the Englishman had only promised his love to keep her quiet – that he had never meant anything, and that it was wrong and improper of Lispeth to think of marriage with an Englishman, who was of a superior clay, besides being promised in marriage to a girl of his own people. (pp. 10-11)

In the end, the situation is made clear. The girl cannot aspire to marry the representative of a superior race, though, as a matter of fact, the term race is not itself used. In its place, clay is utilized, i.e. the clay God shaped man and woman with. The idea of a human creation in different degrees of importance is, by and large, the representation of the ideas expressed by social Darwinism, as well as one of the main justifications for the English presence in India. Furthermore, the girl is told that the words spoken by the Englishman have no value as “he had never meant anything” (p. 10).

At first, Lispeth won’t believe the Chaplain’s wife because the man “had said he loved her, and the Chaplain’s wife had with her own lips asserted that the Englishman was coming back” (p. 11). Lispeth is still convinced that the words spoken by the English are the truth. The girl had voluntarily chosen to truly believe in what she had been told. Now she has been presented with the real state of affairs:

“How can what he and you said be untrue?” asked Lispeth.
“We said it as an excuse to keep you quiet, child,” said the Chaplain’s wife.
“Then you have lied to me,” said Lispeth, “you and he?”
The Chaplain’s wife bowed her head, and said nothing. (p. 11)

The silence of the woman is not an admission of guilt: it is the expression of the attitude of an adult who regards it as absurd to give a child explanations which they won’t understand. The English woman, facing the Indian woman, averts in silence the confrontation with the truth. Lispeth, silent in her turn, leaves the Mission to come back attired as a women of her tribe. She has stripped herself of the garments which were the most obvious external symbol of the old Christian world she had belonged to for so long. Now the girl is free to return to her origins, free to be herself and born to a new life:

“I am going back to my own people,” said she. “You have killed Lispeth. There is only left old Jadéh’s daughter – the daughter of a pahari and the servant of Tarka Devi. You are all liars, you English.” (p. 11)

The lies of the English have killed Lispeth. The very name, Lispeth, itself proves to be only a lie, as it should be Elizabeth, but never is. At the same time, the girl can no longer be what she used to be, christened with a name imposed by the same liars who have deprived her of it by killing her. There is only left Jadéh’s daughter, whose real name has never been revealed. The girl is now a servant to the local goddess of dawn, the most suitable deity for the dawn of her new life. She goes around dressed in the “infamously dirty” (p. 11) robes of her own people. She goes back among her peers. “She took to her own unclean people savagely, as if to make up the arrears of the life she had stepped out of” (p. 11). Once again, the negative connotations of these lines must be judged in the light of the irony on the part of the narrator, who thus comments upon the final remark of the Chaplain’s wife:

“There is no law whereby you can account for the vagaries of the heathen,” said the Chaplain’s wife, “and I believe that Lispeth was always at heart an infidel” Seeing she had been taken into the Church of England at the mature age of five weeks, this statement does not do credit to the Chaplain’s wife. (p. 11)

It has been said that language is the instrument the two women use to define their personal clash of civilizations.

In fact, Lispeth uses the same kind of language as the Chaplain’s wife, i.e. a language which does not resemble that used in the English versions of the Bible (in particular, King James’s), which, instead, is the kind of English Kipling has his native characters speak. This may be explained by the fact that Lispeth was raised within the Mission for a long time. Therefore, there is no need for her to use a language marked by solemnity and old-fashioned constructions. What is different in the English that Lispeth and the Chaplain’s wife use is just the way they use it. Lispeth is more direct, and she does not makes use of the kind of rhetorical artifices which would remind one of typical genteel mannerisms. Lispeth can only tell what she feels the way she feels it, and this is what, according to the Chaplain’s wife, characterizes the girl as a socially inferior creature.
When speaking, Lispeth goes straight to the point, aiming at the real meaning of the words she utters. Her final accusation to the English – that they are all liars – is valid for their language as well. Once Lispeth is metaphorically dead, she does not want to have anything to do with the language of lies any longer.

The Chaplain’s wife, on the other hand, adopts a peculiarly genteel manner when she speaks. She always mitigates her judgments by using expressions such as ‘I fear’, and long, complex linguistic structures, as when she expresses her resentment for the final change in Lispeth: “There is no law whereby you can account for the vagaries of the heathen, … and I believe that Lispeth was always at heart an infidel” (p. 11). How many words she uses to express a rather simple concept (“heathens are unpredictable” ), so that even her final judgment (“Lispeth is an infidel” ) seems wrapped in a veil of virtuous and Christian displeasure.

So far, we have seen how the Chaplain’s wife regards Lispeth as a child, and considers her behaviour typical of a very young person. Also, Lispeth’s speech reminds one of the way a child makes use of language: no artifices, no mediation, just plain talk. Metaphorically, Lispeth is a child, and though she is seventeen when she meets the stranded Englishman, for the Chaplain’s wife she is still the child whom she has nurtured (and, as a native, whom she has educated). The Chaplain’s wife seems sometimes torn between being a mother to Lispeth and being her instructress, that is to say, between her most instinctive feelings as a woman and her most institutionalized sense of duty as a representative of the Mission and, first and foremost, of the English.

The woman’s main concerns about the girl are mainly focused on her looks and on the manners she should adopt, though, in the end, it is the “uncivilized Eastern instincts” (p. 9) that the girl assumes. As a consequence, the woman refers to the girl’s spontaneity and ingenuity as negative characteristics which are typical of a lower and pagan culture. Lispeth is therefore no longer depicted as a child (such peculiarities being positive in a child), becoming, instead, a heathen and infidel creature. Though such terms as heathen and infidel both refer to the same semantic field, that of infidelity, etymologically speaking they are different and, therefore, they play a distinct role within this short story.
Heathen is the modern form of the Anglo-Saxon hæþen, which in turn derives from the Germanic adjective indicating someone who lives in the countryside, a savage. The use of the term, particularly from a Christian point of view, can be compared to the use of the adjective pagan, derived from the Latin paganus, which at first referred to someone living in the pagus, the countryside, the rural district, and was opposed to the miles, a member of the army; this term was later used, in the Latin of the Church, to describe someone who was not a Christian or Hebrew (and who, in the beginning, was an adorer of idols and deities). The adjective infidel entered the English language in the second half of the fifteenth century through the French infidèle, derived in its turn from the Latin infidelis, a term referring to someone who had no faith in God, someone who believes in no deity. From a historical point of view, the adjective mainly refers to someone belonging to a different religion, and in particular:

a) for a Christian, it refers to a Muslim;
b) for a Muslim, it refers to a Christian;
c) for a Jew, it refers to a Genteel.

Etymologically, infidel is related to fides, to the idea of religious faith and to whatever involves not having faith. Even though the two terms, heathen and infidel, may be considered as synonyms, Kipling uses them according to a well-defined pattern, and Lispeth is associated with paganism according to the English usage of the time, which Kipling does not entirely subscribe to. The passages in the story where the Chaplain’s wife voices her disdain for the pagan side of the girl are ironically presented, so as to, in a way, mitigate this judgment.

At first, the Chaplain’s wife defines Lispeth as a heathen, and, on a second occasion, calls her an infidel.. The difference in the etymology of these words throws light on the change of emphasis in her representation of the girl. As a pagan Lispeth is linked to the cultural and social codes of her own people, and such people have a lower status on the basis of the English social and cultural codes of the time. In other words, Lispeth’s people are not civilized, i.e. they do not inhabit a civitas, a city / town, as they are savage inhabitants of the pagus, the countryside. The negative connotations characterizing the savages are increased when Lispeth also becomes an infidel, who betrays Christianity by going back to her own people and their gods. Once Lispeth is metaphorically dead, the girl comes before the Chaplain’s wife in the “infamously dirty” (p. 11) clothes of her tribe. No longer a servant to the English woman, she is now “the servant of Tarka Devi” (p. 11), the goddess of dawn.
“It takes a great deal of Christianity to wipe out uncivilized Eastern instincts” (p. 9) comments the English woman, and Lispeth, by pursuing her “barbarous and most indelicate folly” (p. 10) is completely lost to the Chaplain’s wife. Anyway, “being a savage by birth”, she could do nothing other than go back to her own roots, thus joining the terms heathen and savage in a shared etymological origin.

Furthermore, on the grounds of the judgment of the Chaplain’s wife, Lispeth’s decadence increases as the pagan girl becomes an infidel, betraying the religion she was nurtured with, and failing to demonstrate the faithfulness which the woman expected in return for her education.

In the end, we may say that the clash of civilizations is not resolved, and the same may be said of all of the stories which make up Plain Tales from the Hills, and, indeed, of the whole of Kipling’s life. From this point of view, it is entirely appropriate that “Lispeth” was chosen as the opening short story of Kipling’s first official collection of Anglo-Indian tales, since this very story, with its ever growing tension, derived from an unresolved clash of civilizations, sets the course for the rest of his literary production.

[R. di S.]