“The First Assault on the Sorbonne” was first published in Paris in L’Information Universitaire of 21 December 1921, translated into French by ‘M.G.’ as “Le premier assaut contre la Sorbonne.” Some nine weeks later on 2 March 1922 it appeared as a copyright pamphlet of 50 copies in the United States published by Doubleday Page & Co., with the French version on the left-hand page and Kipling’s English on the right-hand page. This was the first publication in English, and the only publication until it was collected in the Sussex Edition vol. xxx, and the Burwash Edition vol xxiii. [We are indebted to the distinguished American collector and bibliographer David Richards for these details].
There are two copies of the rare Doubleday pamphlet in the British Library, and another in Yale University Libraty, donated by David Richards. We have not traced the other forty-seven. One of them was among a number of rare items in the Wolff Bequest, which was held in the Kipling Library in the mid-1950s, and is described in KJ 113 for April 1955 by the then Librarian W.G.B Maitland, an Old Boy of United Services College. (He comments that: ‘It is a rather droll story … written in a style slightly reminiscent of The Just So Stories.)
An incomplete cutting of the version published in L’Information Universitaire is to be found in one of Mrs Kipling’s scrapbooks held in the University of Sussex Special Collections, “Stories, Poems and Articles 1910-1930 [and 1892]” ref. 28/7 9. This lacks a few lines which have been cut off at the bottom of the left-hand column, perhaps by Mrs Kipling.
ORG Volume 5, page 2603 erroneously records the first appearance of this piece (Uncollected No. 256) in The Times of 21 November 1921. It is not recorded in The Times Index between 1921 and 1924. The only Kipling reference on 21 November 1921 is the report of the ceremony on 19th November at which Kipling received his honorary Doctorate at the Sorbonne (see below).
A distinguished literary figure, with a more than passing resemblance to Rudyard Kipling, receiving an honorary degree at the Sorbonne, recalls an incident of his youth thirty years before. On a moonlight night, with three riotous companions, he had tried to push down the walls of that august institution, and had had to flee from the gendarmes.
[The piece is written so as to convey the impression of a literal translation from French, as in “‘Teem’ a Treasure-Hunter” (Thy Servant a Dog and other Dog Stories). It also gives a nod in the direction of the waiter addressed as “Nephew of my Uncle” in “Sea Constables” (Debits and Credits), and reflects the flowery language of “Railway Reform in Great Britain”, or “The Butterfly that Stamped (Just So Stories); Ed.]
On November 15th 1921 The Times reported:
The Council of the University of Paris has decided to confer the degree of Doctor honoris causa on Mr. Rudyard Kiping and Sir James G. Frazer, author of The Golden Bough as eminent friends of France. The ceremony will take place at an extraordinary session to be held in the great amphitheatre of the Sorbonne on Saturday next in the presence of the President of the Republic and the Minister of Public Instruction. In the evening the Association France-Grand-Bretagne will jointly give a banquet in honour of the two new doctors.
Kipling made a graceful response to the award, expressing his deep feelings of respect abd affection for France. This is collected in A Book of Words under the title “The Virtue of France”.
Elodie Raimbault, researching at the Sorbonne, writes:
‘In L’Information Universitaire of Wednesday, 23 November 1921, there is a very precise and grandiloquent account of the ceremony during which Sir John Frazer and Kipling received their titles as Doctors Honoris Causa, in the presence of the Président de la République M. Millerand and his Ministre de l’Instruction Publique et des Beaux-Arts (Education and Culture), Léon Bérard. It seems that the distinction was given to Kipling more on account of his support of France during World War I than purely for his literary merits. No other person was honoured on that day. The ceremony was followed by a banquet of 200 persons.
In L’Oeuvre, on November 20, 1921, there is another quite similar account of the ceremony, with a photograph showing Frazer, Kipling and Appell, the Recteur of the Sorbonne.
At the banquet Kipling gave a further address, expressing his hope that after the barbarism they had faced in the Great War, Britain and France would continue to stand together. He concluded:
… One cannot resume a broken world as easily as one can resume a broken sentence. But before long, our sons who have spent themselves in suffering and toiling to abolish the menace of barbarism, will recover also from the menace of moral lassitude; and will re-establish together the foundations of the peace of the world, not on pious dreams or amiable hopes, but on those ancient virtues of logic, sanity and laboriousness with which her history and her own indomitable genius have dowered France.
This address is collected in A Book of Words under the title “A Thesis”.
The missing translator
One person was missing from that glittering occasion: Louis Fabulet, first translator of Kipling into French, was not invited and he protested in a letter to the Mercure de France published on December 15, 1921. This letter is quite impressive; Fabulet claims that no one in the Sorbonne would ever have read Kipling were it not for his work:
‘… la Sorbonne n’a pas songé que je pouvais désirer voir M. Kipling sur le siège d’or où, grâce à moi, elle l’a fait asseoir (…). C’est moi, et bien moi, qui ai signalé Kipling à la France.’
[‘…The Sorbonne did not think that I might desire to see Mr Kipling seated on the golden throne where, thanks to me, they honored him. (…) I, and I only, brought Kipling to the attention of the French.’]
In the article by Blaise Wilfert-Portal, “Des bâtisseurs de frontières. Traduction et nationalisme culturel en France, 1880-1930” (in De la traduction et des transferts culturels., C. Lombez et R. von Kulessa eds. Paris : L’Harmattan, 2007), this incident with Louis Fabulet is explained in detail.’ [E.R.]
Kipling and France
From his early teens Kipling had a lifelong affection and respect for France and the French people, which came to be warmly reciprocated over the years.
His first visit was to the Paris Exhibition of 1878, in the holidays from the United Services College – see Max Rives’ notes on Souvenirs of France.
Charles Carrington (p. 28) writes of this experience:
Lockwood gave his son a free pass to the Exposition, which was not yet open to the public, and a franc or two daily to buy his lunch at a cheap restaurant. Rudyard ran wild in Paris, playing at paper-chases in the Tuileries Gardens with an English friend, a Christ’s Hospital boy in blue cassock and yellow stockings.
Mostly they prowled in the back premises of the Exposition, talking to the workmen in school-boy French, and exploring among curiosities and art treasures, all the more alluring when half-disengaged from their wrappings. How things were put together, and what they looked like in the workshop, interested Rudyard most of all…
He did not learn how much France and the French way of life meant to him until, in middle age, these boyish memories of his first visit gained their significance.
Rudyard was in Paris again for the Exhibition of 1889-1890 by which time the Eiffel Tower had been built. As he recalled in Souvenirs of France (p. 12):
I must have made other friendships also – else how did I come to assist at that moonlight pas de quatre in front of the Sorbonne ? A glance into the future would have shown me that I was to be a Doctor of that learned Institute, but I needed all my eyes to watch a gendarme who desired to attach himself to our company merely because we sang to him that Love was an infant of Bohemia ignorant of the Code Napoleon.
Roger Lancelyn Green in ORG suggests that the story is a fantasy based in an actual incident, reminiscent of Francois Rabelais (1494-1553), the celebrated French writer, who was famous for his satire, and grotesque bawdy jokes and songs—hence ‘Rabelaisian’. See Max Rives’ notes on Souvenirs of France.
Andrew Lycett (p. 210) refers to this visit to Paris as a reunion with Florence Garrard, one of Rudyard’s early loves, whom he met at Southsea where they were both boarders with the Holloways.
In 1915 Kipling wrote a series of respectful articles on France at War and thereafter in peacetime he was a frequent visitor to France, making many tours year by year in his Rolls Royce. His affection for France and the French people is well expressed in such tales as “The Bull that Thought” (Debits and Credits) and “The Miracle of St Jubanus” (Limits and Renewals).
Kipling turned down the offer of various honours, including a knighthood, and declined to become Poet Laureate, although he accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1909, and accepted a number of academic honours. We have listed these on a separate page .
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