Kipling’s use of historical material

by Ann M. Weygandt

Department of English, University of Delaware


From a paper delivered at the University of Delaware in 1954. It is reproduced from “Delaware Notes” by courtesy of and with acknowledgments to the University Committee on Publications

In introduction

There is more than one reason why an author’s use of historical material may be interesting to a re- searcher; some of these reasons are valid for him alone; some, he hopes, for others as well. Because I have been a Kipling enthusiast since the age of four, when Just So Stories was read to me, anything that concerns him interests me, and I may be said, in a sense, to have been occupied with Kipling’s use of historical material all my life—or at least since I read Puck of Pook’s Hill at eight, and asked my mother if 1066 was more than three hundred years ago. The world at large, incurious about the details of Kiplingiana, cannot be supposed to share a desire to explore Kipling’s knowledge of history merely because it is his. But even those who have not an early-established devotion to Kipling may feel the detective’s interest in tracing down material in widely separated sources—in discovering, for instance, that “A Doctor of Medicine ” draws upon Culpeper’s Herbal; the Sussex Archaeological Association’s publications ; Antony à Wood’s seventeenth-century compilation, Athenœ Oxoniensis; and modern findings on the way in which the bubonic plague is spread.

The Creative Process

Yet, though the detective interest is, I think, of general appeal, it seems to me that the most important reason for investigating a writer’s use of historical material, and the one that has the strongest claim on the interest of the public, is the light such an investigation casts on the creative process—the way in which it shows the author at work, taking this bit of material and rejecting that, forming his conception of historical characters and blending fact and his knowledge of human nature to make Washington, or Talleyrand, or Henry VII come alive—catching from documents the spirit of an age or a place, and contriving to reproduce it. A study of an author’s methods is always of interest, but the outsider, the literary critic, usually has, if the author deals with the present time, no means of identifying exactly any portion of the author’s material—unless the author obligingly says ” Matilda is a portrait of my Aunt Jenny, and the town pictured is Newark, Delaware.” (I leave aside, for the moment, the question as to whether the best authors of fiction ever give detailed pictures of actual people.) Even though the critic appears to have an advantage when concerned with contemporary material, since he knows contemporary life, and may even know the region or the milieu the author is describing, he is, in a way, dealing with intangibles when he tries to assess his author’s character-drawing. He knows whether he can believe in the people or not, but he does not know much that is definite or specific about the author’s raw material. The critic of a historical novelist or short-story writer can hope to see precisely what his author has done with at least part of his material, and can guess, pretty accurately, why. He cannot, of course, solve the mystery involved in the creation of plot and incident ; guess, with any certainty of correctness, how it occurred to Kipling, for instance, to associate a Sussex smuggler’s adventures with Washington’s reasons for insisting on peace with England in 1793 and 1794; but he can see how the background was built up, and imagine, if he feels brave, what some of the author’s mental processes in working up to his ” inspiration ” were.

A Study of Two Stories

The points I have just made can be illustrated by a study of two short stories by Kipling—” Brother Square-Toes” and “A Priest in Spite of Himself.” But these tales cannot be considered in isolation. They must, in order for us to understand them fully, be allotted their place in the scheme followed in two related collections of short stories, Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies. These books deal with episodes in English history seen in their relation to Kipling’s own villages of Burwash and Rottingdean, Sussex. In the opening tale of Puck of Pook’s Hill, Kipling’s two children act the fairy parts of A Midsummer Night’s Dream three times over on midsummer eve in a fairy ring under Puck’s Hill. If the fairies had still been there in numbers, Kipling tells us, they would have come swarming out, for the children have stumbled on the process for “breaking the hills” ; however, only Puck is left to come, and he promises that in lieu of seeing the People of the Hills, the children shall ” see what they shall see and hear what they shall hear though it shall have happened three thousand year.” First Puck himself tells them the story of Weland’s Sword, made by a forgotten god for a young Saxon ; then a Norman knight who came over with William the Conqueror and was given the manor on which the children live, recounts his adventures. A Roman centurion who paused at Burwash on his way north to Hadrian’s Wall explains how it feels to defend a frontier post without relief. And so on. Finally, a Jewish money-lender sees to it that King John lacks the cash he needs to defy the barons, and that Magna Charta demands that justice be denied to ” none,” rather than to ” no free man.” In the second volume, Rewards and Fairies, the theme is the service rendered to an unthinking and often ungrateful public by a series of men and women —among them Laënnec, the inventor of the stethoscope; Nicholas Culpeper, the astrological herbalist ; Sir Francis Drake; and Queen Elizabeth, in the two stories with which I am now dealing, Washington is the man who is reviled for doing what he knows to be right and best for his country.

I should not like to give the impression that this series of tales is distressingly didactic. It does not read like a collection of tracts, but principles of behaviour can be deduced from it. Kipling tells us in Chapter VII of Something of Myself that it was intended to be ” a sort of balance to, as well as seal upon, some aspects of my ‘ Imperialistic ‘ output in the past,” and points out that his ” underwood [underpinning ?] ” is “What else could I have done?” A character in each story says or implies this somewhere; the idea is that what he has done is his duty, and hence inescapable.

The two stories, ” Brother Square-Toes” and “A Priest in Spite of Himself,” centre around the same Sussex man, Pharaoh Lee, an Aurette from France on his mother’s side, a gipsy on his father’s, and a smuggler on both. His French cousins run contraband across the channel for Pharaoh and his father to pick up and take inland. In January, 1793, Pharaoh’s smack is swamped by a French frigate taking the new ambassador of the French Republic, Genet, to America. (1) Pharaoh, since no other means of escape offers itself, slides into a porthole on the Embuscade (Captain Bompard) and pretends to be a newly pressed member of her crew. (Pretence is necessary, because King Louis has just been guillotined and France is on the point of declaring war on England.) On board he hears Genet explaining to anyone who will listen that he will force the United States to join with France in the war. Pharaoh contracts a fever shortly before the frigate docks at Charleston, and, during his convalescence, acts as the surgeon’s assistant. But his illness recurs, he loses consciousness, and comes to himself looking out at ” a town o’ fine gardens and red-brick houses “—Philadelphia. The smell of lilacs entices him ashore, where he runs after an Indian in a red blanket, and is taken by him to Toby Hirte, a fiddle-playing apothecary who specializes in Seneca Oil and Von Swieten’s pills. Toby buys Pharaoh from the ship’s doctor, partly because Pharaoh fiddles and partly because he knows about pills. He has secured at once an employee, a partner in duet-playing, and a new member for the Moravian Church, to which he takes Pharaoh on the Sunday following his ” purchase.” Early on the Monday morning they start off together for Toby’s sum- mer place in Lebanon. Later Toby returns to Philadelphia to help in the yellow fever epidemic, (2) and Pharaoh goes off to the reservation with Toby’s Indian friends, Red Jacket and Cornplanter, chiefs who know Washington and are very anxious that there be no war between the United States and England. In their eagerness to find out what will happen, they ride from Canasedago in New York to Mount Vernon, Pharaoh going along, and are hiding in the woods when Washington listens to Genet demanding that he join France against England. Washington is non-committal to Genet, but when Genet is gone and only his cabinet remain, they take up Genet’s plea. Washington says that the United States has neither the ships nor other resources for such a war, (3) and that there will be peace with England on England’s terms even if he is burned in effigy in every city in the country. (4) The Indians come up when the cabinet has gone, explain their errand, and announce that they will repeat to their tribe what Washington says. He tells them only to say that there will be no war ; the rest of the talk was not meant for them. This episode concludes the first story.

In “A Priest in Spite of Himself,” Pharaoh meets Talleyrand selling buttons in the Philadelphia streets, and brings him home to Toby to be fed. From the French émigrés at whose parties he fiddles, Pharaoh learns of Talleyrand’s earlier political career, and his reputation for always wanting to be on the winning side. Red Jacket seeing Talleyrand (in historical fact a famous gambler) (5) throwing right hand against left, decides that Talleyrand is a foeman worthy of his steel, gambles with him, is beaten, and says he is a bad man but a great chief. Talleyrand, who somehow learns of the chief’s visit to Washington, tries to find out from Pharaoh Washington’s reasons for refusing to fight, but neither Pharaoh nor Red Jacket will tell him. Presumably Talleyrand wants to buy his welcome back to France by bringing with him dependable information. He attempts to bribe Pharaoh, and when he finds the boy unbribable, sends him five hundred dollars with no strings attached. The money arrives after Talleyrand’s own departure from Philadelphia. With this windfall, Pharaoh sets up in the tobacco business and, some years later, takes a cargo to England, intending to smuggle it in. He gets into a fight with a French lugger, loses his tobacco and his ship by confiscation, and follows the confiscated tobacco to Paris, hoping for help from the American ambassador. In Paris he sees Talleyrand with Napoleon, appeals to him, is given back his ship and twice the cost of his cargo, and still refuses to betray to Talleyrand Washington’s reasons for desiring peace. Incidentally, he finds that Talleyrand can boss Napoleon, then only—and newly—first consul. The interview occurs a few days after Napoleon’s coup d’état on November 9, 1799.

Locating the Sources

The problem of locating the sources of two such wide-ranging stories as these is formidable. Indeed, to hunt out the sources of any piece of historical fiction may seem at the outset a discouraging, perhaps an overwhelming, task. A researcher who does not regard his historical investigation as an end in itself, can, however, cheer his labors with the memory of two things : because his aim is to study the creative process, he need not trail every historical fact to its lair in the archives, much as he might like to do so ; and, for the same reason, he need not read everything that has been written on the subject he is pursuing. He is, in fact, obligated to judge his author by the material available to him at the date of composition. It may be of some interest to know whether a story is or is not accurate by present-day standards, but if the main concern is with an author’s purpose and method, it is only relevant to know whether he has taken the pains to look up the best source at his disposal. Bibliographies and footnotes in recent publications may lead back to the volumes the author referred to, but it is only through such hints that the latest authorities are useful.

Sometimes internal evidence will prove to the seeker that he has hit upon the source his author employed, but if evidence for the exact source is lacking, investigation can at least determine whether the writer carefully consulted the best level of information he could, the accepted authorities of his day. The researcher need not be afraid to look first in obvious places, however. A quotation from Lafayette in the article on Washington in the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1900) appears the likeliest source for the nickname Kipling makes the Indians bestow on Wash- ington : ” Big Hand.” Lafayette said that Washington had the largest hands he ever saw. (Washington did have an Indian name, Conotocarious, but it meant ” Devourer of Villages,” not ” Big Hand.”) (6)

Though Kipling may sometimes have begun with the Britannica, there can be no question that he usually went much farther. Those following his footsteps must refer to biographies, county histories, archaeologies, guide books, and ordnance maps, as well as national histories, Traill’s Social England, and works concentrating on certain periods.

It is necessary to consult authorities on Sussex at the very beginning of ” Brother Square-Toes.” The children are at the seaside—at their father’s old haunt of Rottingdean, the map-reader can tell by the description of the “little wrinkled waves grieving along the sands up the coast to Newhaven and down the coast to long, grey Brighton. ..” The two youngsters have walked down to the Gap and observed the revenue officer start off on his patrol of the shore. This presumably is happening in about 1910, the date of the story’s copyright. Immediately they hear a man singing about smuggling and Telscombe Tye. Sussex newspapers and guide-books tell us that the Gap east of Rottingdean was a famous place for smuggling in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Telscombe, a few miles away, was equally well- known.(7) So far, so good. But the singer who appears is oddly dressed for a Sussex smuggler, even of the late eighteenth century : “straight, plain, snuffy-brown coat, brown knee- breeches,” — broad-brimmed hat and broad-toed shoes — all very neat. (8) Pharaoh Lee, the French-English gipsy, is wearing the costume of the Moravian Brethren as described by Abraham Ritter in his History of the Moravian Church in Philadelphia. (9) (I cannot help thinking that Kipling much enjoyed the incongruities in this tale.)

His Shipboard Atmosphere

It is not long, then, before we leave our Sussex shoreline traditions to run after other sources. After locating the mine from which Pharaoh’s costume was digged, we find that our next need is a little information about the French navy in the eighteenth century, in its relation with Genet. Where did Kipling turn for this? The shipboard atmosphere is only very briefly sketched ; it may well owe more to Marryat, roughly a contemporary of Genet, and a great favorite of Kipling’s, than to any records of the French admiralty. Kipling does, however, supply correctly the name of the ship that conveyed Genet and that of her first officer—L’Embuscade and Bompard. There are various places where he might have located these ; I shall go into them in more detail when I discuss his sources on Genet. Here it will suffice to say that he must have gone further than the Encyclopaedia Britannica to unearth his facts.

The Sussex atmosphere, as we have seen, was set partly by tradition and more by Kipling’s own knowledge of the coast from Rottingdean to Newhaven. The shipboard days may owe something to Kipling’s first-hand acquaintance with the British navy of his day, as well as to Marryat, and to any further researches Kipling made. Just so, the atmosphere Kipling gives to the Philadelphia of 1793 and the country back of it is partly distilled from Ritter’s book and partly from Kipling’s memories of Pennsylvania—apparently the first countryside in America in which he stayed with friends, so that he thoroughly absorbed the feel of the neighbourhood. We know that he visited Philadelphia on his first trip to America, in 1889, and he was probably there again during his four-year stay in the United States, 1892-96.(10) Most of his associations with Pennsylvania seem to have been of quiet and countrified atmosphere, and he selected from Ritter’s book bits of description that reinforced his impressions. The book is a quaint one—an amateur’s job, not that of a professional historian. Ritter has drawn on the church records for the history of the church before his time, but he uses the book largely as a repository for his memories of his childhood haunts and doings—in which, of course, the church, near which all its members seem to have lived, played a large part. He describes the “plain” costume of the Moravians, the appearance of the church at various stages in its career, and Pastor Meder’s garden. This garden boasted a peach tree from which he, as a child pumping the organ, and sitting by the window in the intervals of the chore, used to filch fruit. He explains that the sermons are delivered alternately in English and German. He tells who lived in every house on the streets near the church, and provides character sketches of many of the people. He mentions the French on Race Street between Second and Fourth near Drinker’s and Elfrith’s Alleys. He refers to Talleyrand’s selling buttons at Second and Driker’s Alley. He tells of Red Jacket’s hymn-singing with Toby Hirte, and describes the musico-medical confusion in Toby’s room.(11)

In all, Ritter’s book is a lovingly meticulous attempt to recap- ture the past. It is written in a rather high-flown, semi-eighteenth century style, despite its date of 1857—and with a sense of humor. Kipling might well have liked it for its own sake. He has drawn on it very heavily in the Pennsylvania portions of Pharaoh Lee’s two tales. He himself says:

“A little history of the Moravian Church in Philadelphia at the beginning of the last century supplied most of the characters that were needed in the tales, and when one got Red Jacket, Toby Hirte, the Moravian connection and the legend that Talleyrand once sold buttons for a living in Philadel- phia all mixed up together, you can see that the rest of the tale marched by itself.” (12)

Citation from the texts will show how much Kipling owes to Ritter’s description of Toby Hirte. I have italicized the relevant phrases and sentences from Ritter:

But here, too, we have a relish for social epicureanism in the person and character of a certain Tobias Hirte. This specimen of the olden time was resident in the second story of the back building of No. 118, just named. He was a bachelor, an itinerant apothecary, a hermit, or a cit, as fancy or convenience might suggest.

His itineracy was not limited to the mere disposing of curatives, nor to the single eye to gain. He was fond of travel. “Liberty and inde- pendence” was his motto; and when mounted on his sorrel mare, with saddle-bags at each side, and a large umbrella, with a handle of unusual length, on the pommel of his saddle, he bestrode the pinnacle of his glory ; and the summer season, from early spring, opened the highway to this enjoyment.

Although vending his compounds as he passed the route of his search, his principal object, for many years, mas a visit to the Indians—Seneca, and several other tribes—with wham he was on the most sociable terms and whose chiefs always called on him, at his hermitage in Philadelphia, when they came.

Amongst these were Cornplanter, the Seneca Chief, and his associate, Red Jacket, both of who\m I have seen in his room in Second Street.

Cornplanter was a noble specimen of our race, in person and purpose, and known to history as a very efficient aid to General Washington. . . .(13)

Thus associated, my subject was facilitated in his gatherings of social, as well as pecuniary wealth, and his sale of Seneca oil made him as popular as his details of Indian customs, manners and peculiarities ; the special purpose of his annual visit being to gather or purchase this oil from the Senecas.

Although an itinerant, he was not without homes, seeing that the interim of his travel found him at —what he called—his country seat, in Lebanon, Pa., where he cultivated and enjoyed fruits of all kinds, and the most choice . . . (Ritter, 247- 248).

Ritter winds up his account of Hirte’s country activities with a picture of Toby at the back door of his cabin reading the Democratic daily Aurora, and goes on to give a description of his winter quarters in Philadelphia.Notes


1. ” Brother Square-Toes,” Rewards and Fairies, American Trade Edition, New York, 1910, 157. Louis XVI was guillotined on January 21, 1793. Genet, although he left Paris for Rochefort on January 23, did not sail until February 21, but this information was not readily available when Kipling wrote the story. See Louis Franklin Facio Genet, ” Edmond Charles Genet,” Journal of American History VI, Part II, 1912, 493.

2. Kipling carefully represents Hirte as reading of the fever in the Aurora, in actual fact Hirte’s favorite newspaper. ” Brother Square-Toes,” 170 ; Abraham Ritter, History of the Moravian Church in Philadelphia, Philadelphia, 1857, 248. .

3. In a letter written on June 14, 1793, to Washington about Genet, Henry Lee says he has told Genet that the United States has ” no fleet, no army, no money to authorize us to take a part in the war with effect.” See Jared Sparks, Writings of Wash- ington, Boston, 1836, X, 541.

4. For the burning in effigy of unpopular figures on July 4, 1795, see William Cobbett, Porcupine’s Works, II, London, 1801, footnote on 272-273

5. Whitelaw Reid, ” Introduction” Memoirs of the Prince de Talleyrand, edited by the Duc de Broglie, The Grolier Society, London (1891), I, x; G. Lacour-Gayet, Talleyrand, Paris, 1947, 109-110.

6. Journal of Colonel George Wash- ington, ed. J. M. Toner, M.D., Albany, 1893, 51; The Diaries of George Washington, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick, Boston and New York, 1925, I, 79; Samuel G. Drake, The Book of the Indians of North America, Boston, 1837, Book V, 113.

7. R. Thurston Hopkins, The Kipling Country, New York, 1925, 146-149. For a general discussion of smuggling in Sussex, see E. V. Lucas, Highways and Byways in Sussex, London, 1904, 273-279. 8. Ritter, 145. 9, Anice Page Cooper, ” Rudyard Kip- ling, a Biographical Sketch,” Around the World with Kipling, New York, 1926, 32; Irving E. Mansback, “Some Kipling Backgrounds.” Kipling Journal LXXI, LXXII, LXXIII, October and December, 1944; April, 1945. Miss Cooper refers to this source; Mr. Mansback names it. The bibliography occurs in Kipling Journal LXXIII, 14. Mr. Mansback gives information about historical characters, some of whom are mentioned in ” Brother Square- Toes ” and “A Priest in Spite of Him- self,” but does not attempt to show how Kipling put this material to use.

10, ” How I Found Peace at Mus- quash on the Monongahela,” From Sea to Sea II, Chapter XXXVI. Lowell Thomas, in ” The Boy Who Wrote Like a Man,” the life of Kip- ling which forms a preface to Great Kipling Stories, Philadelphia, 1936, says (p. 41) that Kipling took several trips from Vermont to Philadelphia to look up material for this tale. I have nowhere else seen it suggested that the story was being worked on so early. It is copyrighted 1910. For the identification of ” Musquash ” with Beaver, see Mrs. W. M. Carpenter, ” Kipling Origins,” Kipling Journal LV, October, 1940, 16.

11. Ritter, 49-66 ; 60, 68 ; 169 ; 245, 259, 265, 276, 280; 278; 247; 248-249. 12, Cooper, 32. Substantially the same passage is quoted by Thomas, 41, and Mansback, Kipling Journal LXXI, 4, and footnote (for which see p. 6). Mansback says the quotation is from a newspaper clipping of about 1917 and adds that the letter cannot be proved authentic. The style sounds like Kipling’s, and Cooper’s article appears in a handbook, Around the World with Kipling, issued by Kip- ling’s American publishers, Double- day, Page and Company.