The Conversion of Aurelian McGoggin

(notes edited by John McGivering)


The story was published in the Civil and Military Gazette on April 28th 1887, in the first Indian edition of Plain Tales from the Hills in 1888, and in subsequent editions of that collection. See David Alan
p. 17, passim.

The story

Aurelian McGoggin is a brilliantly clever young official, with a head full of philosophical theories. A devotee of Comte and Spencer, he cannot resist challenging the moral assumptions of his colleagues, questioning the existence of God, and arguing with his elders and betters. He overworks obsessively. Then, in the hot season, India catches up with him, he has a massive breakdown, and for a time is struck dumb. He is much less sure of himself thereafter.


The young men who were successful in entering the Indian Civil Service were joining an elite. The service was highly prestigious and the competition to get in was stiff. New entrants were highly educated, of good intellectual calibre, and probably well versed in the latest academic thinking about governance and society. They then found themselves in a hierarchical and traditionally minded service, in which new recruits were expected to learn their trade, work hard in punishing conditions without complaint, respect their elders, and keep new ideas to themselves. This had been very much the attitude of Stephen Wheeler, the sixteen-year old Kipling’s Chief at the Civil and Military Gazette:

My Chief took me in hand, and for three years or so I loathed him. He had to break me in and I knew nothing.
(Something of Myself pp. 40-41)

Indeed Andrew Lycett (p. 97) suggests that in writing of ‘Aurelian McGoggin’ Kipling had more than a touch of his own early experiences in mind:

Hitherto, like the hero of “The Conversion of Aurelian McGoggin”, Rudyard had been too `intellectually “beany” ‘ and, while not subscribing to McGoggin’s positivism, he had worked too hard and paid the price. He had been finding what old-timers already knew: that it is difficult to be too dogmatic in an India `where you really see humanity- raw, brown, naked humanity – with nothing between it and the blazing sky, and only the used-up, over-handed earth underfoot’ . India had its own rhythms and ways, and one had to learn to adapt.

Certainly, as with McGoggin, Rudyard had discovered that `no man can toil eighteen annas in the rupee in June without suffering’. As the doctor in that story put it, in treating McGoggin (significantly a man – like Kipling, Ed. – whose grandfathers on both sides were Wesleyan preachers), `There are a good many things you can’t understand; and, by the time you have put in my length of service, you’ll know exactly how much a man dare call his own in this world.

[J H McG]

©John McGivering 2012 All rights reserved