William the Conqueror

(notes edited by Alastair Wilson)


This story first appeared in its two parts in December 1895 and January 1896 in The Gentlewoman (England) and The Ladies’ Home Journal (U.S.A.). The story was illustrated in the latter by W.L. Taylor. It was collected in 1898 in The Day’s Work, and later in:

  • Scribner’s Edition, Volume XIII
  • Sussex Edition, Volume VI, page 187
  • Burwash Edition, Volume VI.

The Story

There is famine in southern India, and European administrators from all departments of the Government of India are being called in to help deliver relief supplies. From the Punjab come, among others, Scott, an Engineer, and Martyn, a Police officer. Martyn’s sister, William (short for Wilhelmina) who keeps house for him, will not be deterred from accompanying her brother, and short-circuits his protestations by telegraphing to obtain permission to the wife of the head of famine relief, who is herself with her husband.

On arrival at the central famine relief camp, they are at once set to work, the men in charge of distributing relief supplies by rail and bullock cart, while William stays in the camp to help with the abandoned children. The work is hard and unrelenting, driving men to exhaustion, but Scott finds time to collect a herd of goats, milking them himself, to feed starving babies.

Throughout this time, Scott and William meet but once: but it is clear that their casual acquaintance from Lahore is ripening to something more. As the famine is brought under control, Scott collapses with fever, and comes back to camp to rest and recuperate, before returning to Lahore. Here he and William declare their love in an understated and under-emotional way. The story ends with Christmas festivities in Lahore, where the British community hold a Christmas ball, such as might have been held in an English country house.

Some publication issues

This is an important story from a special standpoint. Kipling had suffered a lot from copyright “pirates” (particularly in the U.S.A.), but once he had full control of his output, he was able to make equitable deals with publishers. This story is a case worth mentioning.

Mr. Edward Bok, the author and publisher (and, at that time, Editor of The Ladies’ Home Journal), who became a fast friend of Kipling, wrote:

Kipling was and is a notable example of this broad and just policy. His work is invariably submitted in its completed form, for acceptance or declination. (‘rejection’ in English parlance).
[Kipling had met Bok, born in Holland but a naturalised American, the previous year on a transatlantic crossing.]

The following extracts from five of Kipling’s letters illustrate this point.

Kipling to Bok [quoted in full in Pinney (Ed.) Vol. 2, pp. 176-7]:

Washington, Mar: 25 1895
Dear Mr. Bok
Now I think I can talk. I have by me in the rough-draft very much the kind of tale you would be needing for Xmas.
[RK began it on 20 March according to Carrie Kipling’s diary – Pinney]. It deals with a wooing in the thick of a Madras famine – man and girl together working hard among the starving and feeding the abandoned black babies and generally going through deep waters: and it ends with their joyful return to their home province, the Punjab, in time for the festivities of the “Christmas week.” By present reckoning it ought to be between 7-9000 words but I want to cut it as short as possible. [The standard text as collected is 12,151 words.]
The price for all serial rights the world over will be $140 (one hundred and forty dollars) per thousand on delivery of the copy on the understanding that if necessary I can have two revises. If you will let me know when the Christmas number of the LJ goes to press I will send it as soon as I can. For myself I should prefer the tale unillustrated for I have suffered much at the hands of persons who have tried to draw Indian scenery.

[The story was illustrated by W.J. Taylor – Pinney]

I think the tale ought to give your women readers a little notion of a woman’s life where life is rather trying. At all events, I have written with an eye to this end.

Kipling to Bok [not quoted in Pinney]:

Brattleboro, April 11th 1895

Herewith I send you . . . . the copy of the tale I think might do for the [Ladies Home] Journal. If it suits you, as it stands, will you let me know and send me a proof at your earliest convenience.

Kipling to Bok [not quoted in Pinney]:

Brattleboro, April 26th 1895
I have to acknowledge with many thanks your letter of the 23rd instant and cheque for $ . . . . in payment of world serial rights of the tale of William the Conqueror.

Kipling to Bok [quoted in full in Pinney (Ed.) Vol. 2, pp 185-6]:

Brattleboro May 11 1895 My dear Mr. Bok:

I am in receipt of your of the 10th instant with proofs of William the Conqueror and very much regret that you did not open the question of a sub-title and the mention of intoxicating beverages before accepting the tale. [Pinney notes: “The Ladies’ Home Journal had a rule against all scenes in which alcohol was drunk, and Bok had asked RK to “moderate some of these scenes” in William the Conqueror. Bok says that he did not insist and presumably RK made no changes.] If you refer to my letter, you will see that I offered you the tale as it stood and on these terms did you accept it.

Had you hinted at the existence of office rules I should never have sent you a M.S. for inspection because, my one theory in regard to my work is that writing to order means loss of power, loss of belief in the actuality of the tale and ultimately to loss of self-respect to the writer. If a man once deviates from this rule (I speak for myself alone) he mis-says himself at every turn and at the last ceases to be the author of what comes from his pen – I am sorry that the tale does not meet all the requirements of the LHJ, but you will see I trust that, having offered you a full inspection, the fault is none of mine.

Kipling to Bok [not quoted in Pinney]:

Brattleboro May 25th 1895

I have today despatched to you the second proofs of my tale. Will you kindly advise me of their safe arrival.

As a matter of interest, there are only two mentions of alcohol being drunk, both in part II, on page 224: a single whisky and soda is nearly spilt, and a bottle of champagne is drunk between four adults to celebrate an engagement. Today, an editor might be more likely to seek to have expunged any references to smoking.

Historical background

Among the great famines of history were the following which affected the territories of the Indian sub-continent and occurred during the period of which Kipling most likely had knowledge.

  • 1861 Famine in North-West India
  • 1866 Famine in Bengal and Orissa; 1,000,000 perished
  • 1869 Intense famine in Rajputana; 1,500.000 perished. The Government initiated a policy of saving life.
  • 1874 Famine in Behar; Government relief in excess of the needs of the people.
  • 1876-78 Famine in Bombay, Madras and Mysore: 5,000,000 perished. Relief insufficient. Known as the Great Famine.

India’s tropical situation and its almost total dependence on the monsoon rains render it more liable to crop failure than any other part of the world, and these on occasion give rise to famine. In fact, famine is virtually endemic in India and is to be reckoned with every year in some part of that vast area. [This was the text of the ORG, written in the early 1960s. Modern communications and international relief organisations are able to mitigate the effects of localised crop failures, but even so, there have been two dangerous ‘near misses’ since the ORG was written, in Bihar (Behar) in 1966 and Maharashtra (the state in which Bombay (Mumbai) stands) in 1970-73.]

Until 1866 the British Government had no settled famine policy, but then the Orissa famine awakened the official conscience, and Sir George Campbell and his commission prescribed the future organisation for famine relief. In 1869, for the first time, the humane principle was enunciated of saving every possible life.
The growth of railway communication, canals and irrigation forms the greatest enemy of famine. In times of famine the function of railways in grain distribution is as important as that of the irrigation canals in increasing the crops. India, nearly always, has enough grain within its boundaries for the people’s needs; the difficulty is to get it to the places where it is needed at the particular moment.

Since, during the first half of the 20th century, five-sixths of the population were dependent upon the land, any agricultural failure became a national calamity. The remedy now [1960] being energetically pursued by the administration is the increase of industries and manufactures throughout India so that dependence on the land shall not be so vital, but the extension of factories and home industries will occupy a prolonged period before its full benefits can be assured or seen. [Some fifty years on, it may be suggested that that point has been reached, though the economic gap between rural India and industrial India remains wide.]

It is unlikely that Kipling intended a particular reference to any of the famines of historical importance listed above, but there is little doubt that he employed his knowledge of the circumstances of one or more of them as his narrative required. [It may be noted that he wrote the story some six years after he left India, while he was living in America, and where he could not stroll across to the Club to ask “Can anyone tell me what happened during the Great Famine of …? His ability to retain facts was remarkable.] It can be taken that the Big Famine referred to at page 181, line 7, was the 1876-78 famine in Bombay, Madras and Mysore mentioned above, which affected a vast area – almost all of Southern India – and was a disaster of the first magnitude as the number of victims shows. The story ostensibly deals with an otherwise unspecified famine in the Madras Presidency.
The Critics

This tale was well covered by modern biographers and critics, as will become apparent. However, we have not found many significant contemporary reviews of individual stories. “William the Conqueror” is an exception. A number of the reviews merely talk about the virtues of the male protagonists, but one writer, George Gerwig, an American academic, writing The Art of the Short Story in 1909 wrote about the heroine (William – short for Wilhelmina):

As we have recorded above, the tale was specifically written for two women’s magazines , one in the USA, the other in Great Britain, and while it was being written, Carrie Kipling recorded in her diary, “He has got the hang of quite a new sort of woman and she is turning out stunningly.” Gerwig wrote:

It was commonly said that Kipling could not draw a woman, yet what could be better in the line of strong, capable, courageous, tender womanly womanhood than William with her quaintly masculine name. He first introduction to us with the scar of honor on her forehead; the suggestion of the trials she has come through in the past; the promptness of her decision to encounter even greater perils in the future; her tact; her resourcefulness – all the qualities which we are made to feel that she possesses place her in the front rank of the heroines of fiction.

We then have to jump nearly 50 years before we find another commentary on the tale. Charles Carrington writes (p. 223):

Rudyard made some progress with his work in Washington. [He and Carrie had gone there for six weeks to recuperate after Carrie’s accident with the furnace at Naulakha.] The last of his Mowgli stories, ‘The Spring Running”, was no sooner finished, in March 1895, than his mind turned to a new task that again marked an extended range of observation. It was a story about ‘a new sort of woman’, wrote Carrie, and ‘she turned out stunningly’. The subject of this story, to which he gave the rather inappropriate title of ‘William the Conqueror’, is the effort made by a group of administrators from the Punjab, when drafted south to deal with a famine.

According to his custom, he painted in the backcloth with a Pre-Raphaelite brilliance of colour and accuracy of detail. The scene was southern India, as he had observed it on his last visit in December 1891, and the climax of the story – as of that Indian visit – was a Christmas party at Lahore. But the feature which has made some readers select this story as a masterpiece is the character of the heroine, a ‘new sort of woman’, a practical, lively, boyish woman with a man’s nickname, a woman with a crop of dark curls growing low on her forehead in a widow’s peak. In several of these respects she seems to be based on the figure of Mrs. ‘Ted’ Hill, whom Carrie Kipling never met. She is presented in the round, as no earlier of Kipling’s heroines had been. The episode that no one forgets is her gleam of vision, when she sees her lover, not as a commonplace civil servant organising the distribution of goat’s organsiing children, but as a demi-god:

…an accident of the sunset ordered it that, when he had taken off his helmet to get the evening breeze, the low light should fall across his forehead, and he could not see what was before him; while one waiting at the tent door beheld, with new eyes, a young man, beautiful as Paris, a god in a halo of golden dust, walking, slowly at the head of his flocks, while at his knee ran small naked Cupids.


Lord Birkenhead considers that all the stories in The Day’s Work are of high quality, ‘the fruit of that sense of sudden accession of power that had come to him at a certain moment in America’. He goes on:

“Mistrust of democracy, particularly of the American variety, is never long absent either from his stories or from his private correspondence … while, as if to counter balance this nonsense, Kipling’s reverence for administrators in difficulties, fighting famine, is the subject of William the Conqueror.

Later on, in discussing Kipling’s falling out of favour with the literary intelligentsia, Birkenhead writes:

And no one is more unsparing than Kipling in his denunciation of corruption and incompetence in Government, undermining the labour of the worker in the field – Finlayson [recte Findlayson] with his bridge, the heroine of William the Conqueror in her famine district, and many another thwarted hero. Dislike of Kipling stemming from this cause was therefore based on a misunderstanding, but there were other, and more potent reasons for intellectual disdain.

Bonamy Dobrée makes three observations about this tale:

…but what he [Kipling] sought for were the aristocrats. An aristocrat for Kipling was one who, whatever his race, or caste, or caste, or creed, had a full man within him, who kept himself whole, and did not set too much value upon his feelings. . . Those who have his approval are the Ordes and Tallantires of the frontier districts, McAndrew the engineer, the doctors of his later stories, and among women, William the Conqueror in the tale of that name.

Dovetailed with work is a man’s devotion to something outside himself, bigger than he is,, which is not exactly his own job, but one which his fellow-beings have (as a man might put it to himself) demanded of him. This might be called devotion to an outside cause. This we get again and again throughout Kipling’s writings . . . there is ‘William the Conqueror’, where devotion to starving Indian children brings a happier ending.

Dobrée’s third comment comes in a chapter headed ‘Empire’:


Here then, seen as a whole, was a Thing [The Empire] bigger than man’s self for which a man could renounce himself; power had been given to the English but as the runes on Weland’s sword say, speaking of gold, which is power:

It is not given
For goods or gear
But for The Thing

The theme of saving from famine is presented in ‘William the Conqueror’, headed by a quotation from Donne’s “The Undertaking”:

I have done a braver thing
Than all the worthies did;
And yet a braver thence did spring,
Which is to keep that hid.

The voluntary slavery to which the people in that story, including William herself, surrender themselves is not kept hid, it is just accepted unnoticed. All work themselves to the bone, even to a state of collapse, to save as many as possible of the people of the district from starvation, against infuriating odds too, as when the people refuse to eat wheat because they are used to rice. The English helpers had been called from other work, some in districts more bearable to Europeans in the hot season, work which they wanted to do – making dams, building railways, or simply administration – work giving the personal satisfaction of construction.

J M S Tompkins (pp. 2-3) uses the tale as an example:

Much of Kipling’s narrative style is highly condensed. In the earliest published work, what is condensed is often simple in itself; the condensation gives it impact, edge and a spectacular quality. In the later works, what is condensed is complex and the condensation makes for pressure and high vitality at the cost of some difficulty … The Story of the Gadsbys is positively leisurely in its record of the ordinary experiences of the ordinary good fellow, with the ‘soft drop’ in him.

“‘William the Conqueror” extends to two parts and seems to wish to be a novel if it could, but has not got the principle of growth in it. It moves as if the author were consciously practising a long-distance stride to keep himself supple for the course he may one day run. In it, moreover, and in “The Brushwood Boy”, he has tried to find a version of the man-and-maid theme that will suit his range of tones.

Tompkins seems to be suggesting that the story could have been written more tightly had Kipling wished to do so: which may well be the case. But it is suggested that, after Kipling had completed the first draft, and had found that it was unlikely to be within the length which he had suggested to Bok, it is possible that Bok, as editor, said words to the effect, ‘I can’t let you have any more words for the December issue; all the space is committed: how about making it a two-parter?’ Kipling, having acquiesced, would have been under less pressure to write tightly: indeed, he might have had a desire to lengthen the text slightly, to even out the length of the two parts, as might have been suggested by Bok.

Later in her book (p. 158) Tompkins discusses the tale in the chapter headed ‘Healing’:

The theme of healing is not, like that of revenge, one of Kipling’s original themes. It emerges strongly in what I have called the halcyon period of his art, the tales which were collected in Actions and Reactions and Rewards and Fairies, and continues to act as a powerful focus of his imagination until, in Limits and Renewals half the tales are, in one way or another concerned with it.
It is not therefore a development due to the War, though the War gave it a special colouring and stimulated its growth. In so far as it appears at all in his earlier work, it is incidental or consequential. The famine in “William the Conqueror” is the test of Scott’s quality and the setting of his love for a girl who shares his work and his allegiance. When she sees him in the sunset, ‘a young man, beautiful as Paris, a god in a halo of golden dust, walking, slowly at the head of his flocks, while at his knee ran small naked cupids’ – the children he has saved by his ‘absurd’ performances with goats – Kipling can use the simile of the god, not only because of the pastoral grouping, but because Scott has been indeed the preserver of life and restorer of hope. The stress of the tale, however, lies on work and service and the kind of woman who understands their claims, not specifically on the healing.

Finally (p. 232), Tompkins remarks on ‘Kipling’s conception of the love between man and woman’:

It is easy to underestimate the part it plays in his work, since after his early tales, he seldom builds a story round it. Moreover in presenting the wife and helpmate his touch is not always happy. Dinah Shadd has to be seen through Mulvaney’s emotional eloquence. Agnes Strickland and Lady Jim

[one of the lesser characters in ‘William the Conqueror’] bear those period marks that do so much more harm to the figure of the domestic woman than to that of her rebellious sister. William bids fair to be a staunch service-wife, as good as gold, identified with her husband’s interests and talking his language.

We are grateful to Mr. Rodney Attwood for drawing our attention to an article by Mr. W.R. Aykroyd in
KJ 171 (June 1971) under the title ‘Kipling and Famine’:

In the 1930’s, when I was living in the Nilgiris Hills in the Madras Presidency, I had interesting talks about famine with Sir Frederick Nicholson, a distinguished I.C.S. official who had retired in Coonoor. He must have been about 85 when I knew him. As a District Collector he had been in the middle of the very serious famine of 1896-97, which affected northern Madras as well as large areas elsewhere in India. Later he had been a member of the Inquiry Commission which reported on the famine of 1899-1900. When I mentioned Kipling’s story he could hardly contain himself. “The impudence of the man!” he said. ”To suggest that Madrassis couldn’t run their own famine!” Local officials, indeed, appear only once in “William the Conqueror”, as “hollow-eyed weary white men, who spoke another argot”. The reader gains the impression that the handful of people specially summoned by Jimmy Hawkins are doing all the work…

… At this point in the story a difficulty which has sometimes hampered famine relief in India arises. The people to be fed by Scott were rice-eaters, and though starving turned away from wheat and millet. ‘What was the use of these strange hard grains that choked their throats?’ They did not know how to prepare or cook them and anyhow did not possess the household utensils needed for this purpose. Most left the open sacks untouched. Some of the disappointed women laid their emaciated children at Scott’s feet. Then Scott’s Mohamedan bearer, Faiz Ullah, full of contempt for the Hindu South, made his contribution. He had collected a few lean goats and added them to the procession to provide some milk for the Sahib’s meals. These goats were being fed on the grains the people rejected. Scott hit on the idea of catching more goats, feeding them up, and giving their milk to the abandoned children. Though Faiz Ullah was reluctant—he held that there was no Government order as to babies and added that to become a goatherd was against his izzat—milking the goats and feeding the babies became part of the daily routine.

We are glad to learn that when Scott reached the end of his outward journey, he found that a rice-ship had come in from Burma, so that his carts could be loaded with rice for the return journey. It was not very clever of Jimmy Hawkins to send out a relief officer with foods that the famine victims would not eat. But the same mistake was made again and again. In a minor famine in rice-eating Orissa in 1888-9, when Kipling was still in India, the people would not eat wheat from northwest India. During the Bengal famine of 1943, I was shown large heaps of millet near Calcutta, rotting in the rain. The millet had proved quite useless for famine relief in Bengal. Within recent decades rice-eaters in India have learned to accept wheat (but not millet) prepared for consumption in various ways. In Madras at the time of Kipling’s famine the people had not the knowledge or means needed for converting wheat grains into eatable forms. Preparing the whole wheat chappatis of north India is a skilled operation and an iron grid is required.

The feeding of the children with goats’ milk continued and Scott noted that some of them were putting on flesh nicely. When the rice in the bullock carts was exhausted, he headed for the headquarters camp on the railway. “William” saw him arrive:

An accident of the sunset ordered it that, when he had taken off his helmet to get the evening breeze, the low light should fall across his forehead, and he could not see what was before him; while one waiting at the tent door beheld, with new eyes, a young man, beautiful as Paris, a god in a halo of golden dust, walking slowly at the head of his flocks, while at his knee ran small naked cupids.’

This is really the climax of the story. The scene appealed to the American artist, W. L. Taylor, whose picture appeared in the Ladies’ Home Journal of January, 1896, with the sub-title “Walking slowly at the head of his flocks”. Taylor accentuated the god-like bearing of Scott, as seen through the eyes of “William”, sitting at the entrance to her tent. The black cupids are there and a few capering goats in the foreground, while behind a cloud of dust suggests a large flock. There is no indication that Taylor had ever seen India, and the same can be said of a later artist [J. Macfarlane] who contributed a rather similar, but less dramatic, illustration to The Kipling Reader (1908). Very different is a wood-cut by Rudyard Kipling’s father, John Lockwood Kipling, in the 1899 Scribner’s Edition of The Day’s Work. Lockwood depicts the routine daily feeding of milk rather than the entry into the headquarters camp. A row of real Indian bullock carts is shown as a background, and in front is a mother attempting to feed an emaciated child on the milk provided by an obstreperous goat. Scott comes in between, apparently reading a document, and not looking like a god. The process of transferring milk from the udder of a goat into a child’s mouth is largely ignored by Rudyard; one gets the impression that he had no idea how it was done. Neither, perhaps, had Lockwood, but Lockwood’s woodcut suggests that at least he was aware of difficulties…

…Kipling had a remarkable gift for mastering the technical aspects of subjects he wrote stories about, or rather for mastering these sufficiently to satisfy readers without specialised knowledge. Among such subjects are marine engineering, bridge building, the life of the jungle he wanted. Famine can be included in the list. In Lahore he must have met officials eager to describe famine in their own districts. A single train journey through the Madras Presidency, and a look at some place names on a map of India, provided the scenario for a story about famine. But he should not have allowed Scott to pick up even broken Tamil in a few weeks, Tamil being among the most difficult of human languages for a European to learn.

As one would expect, the broad tableau of Indian famine is convincingly sketched—the land dried up in the baking heat, the dead cattle, the wailing mothers and emaciated children, the burning of corpses. On the other hand, Kipling did not know how the Famine Code worked, though he mentions it several times with an air of familiarity, One of its main features is the establishment of public works where men can earn enough money to enable them to buy “the amount of food sufficient to keep healthy persons in health”. These are first established on a “test” basis and the numbers applying for employment provide an index of the extent of hunger and indicate the need or otherwise for an official “Declaration of Famine”. In “William the Conqueror” there is no mention of famine relief works until Scott sent in a report recommending the repair of a broken-down reservoir. Useful works on which famine victims can be employed are usually hard to find. Jimmy Hawkins might have been better advised to use a skilled engineer from the Punjab Irrigation Department on this aspect of famine relief, instead of sending him off to distribute wheat and millet to rice-eaters.

Other technical imperfections in “William the Conqueror” could be mentioned. But against these must be set the fact that the story makes an original contribution in the field of applied nutrition. Infants and young children have exacting dietary needs, imposed mainly by the speed of growth in early life; in particular, they need abundant protein. When the food supply of a community is drastically reduced, as in famine, this age group suffers most: together with the old, it has a large share in the increased mortality which the emergency imposes. Travellers in Ireland during the terrible famine of 1845-47 noted that few children were to be seen out of doors; the children were dead or dying and any still surviving were skeletons. But it is only recently that the vulnerability of the very young in times of shortage and famine, and the need to supply them with specially nutritious foods, have been fully realised. No particular attention was therefore given to children in famine relief operations; this applies to Joseph’s famine in Ancient Egypt, meticulously described in the Book of Genesis, and to the Indian Famine Code. Faiz Ullah was right in saying that there was no Government order as to babies.

During the last 30 years, however (1940-1970), the provision of foods for children has become one of the most prominent aspects of famine relief, and also of many undertakings to improve nutrition in poor countries in normal times. Milk in the form of skim milk powder has been distributed in large quantities by United Nations organisations and non-official agencies such as Oxfam and Catholic Relief Services. Frequently, for purposes of child feeding, the skim milk powder is mixed with other foods such as wheat flour, soya flour and groundnuts. The value of the supplementary food or food mixture depends mainly on its content of good protein. In the threatened but averted famine emergency in Bihar in 1968, relief agencies and the government distributed protein-rich preparations on such a scale that the children were said to be in a better state of nutrition after the emergency than in normal times.

To the best of my knowledge, the earliest reference to giving milk to children in a famine is to be found in “William the Conqueror”. Two kinds of milk are given: goats’ milk and “condensed” milk. Goats’ milk contains 3.7 per cent of protein and 4.8 per cent of fat, and would be an excellent food for starving children—provided, of course, that they got more than a few drops of it. There is no indication in the story of any shortage of supply. On the other hand, ‘William’s’ condensed milk could not have gone very far. The Nestlé Company informs me that in 1890 a large tin of condensed milk cost sixpence, which means 150 tins for 50 rupees. Calculations show that this quantity of condensed milk, diluted with water, would be about enough for 20 infants for 25 days…

…Where did Kipling get the idea of “milk for children” in famine? It is unlikely that anything of the sort should have been suggested in an official document, or even in the correspondence columns of the Civil and Military Gazette, Mr. C. E. Carrington, author of the admirable biography ‘Rudyard Kipling, His Life and Work’ has suggested to me that he might have got it from his father, as well as much else about famine in “William the Conqueror”. Lockwood was in Vermont when The Day’s Work was conceived and he inspired its title. He has nothing to say about famine in his own book, Beast and Man in India, but must have heard much about it during his years of service. He was a well-informed and sympathetic observer of the Indian scene: it may be significant that he chose the milking of a goat and the feeding of a child as the subject of an illustration.

Whatever its merits and demerits, “William the Conqueror’”is a highly readable story. The manly heroine, said to have been drawn from a lady well-known in North India, is a consistent character. But the reader is left to speculate why she was called ‘William the Conqueror’ and why a story about famine in Madras was named after her.

Angus Wilson refers to this story three times:

All the south of India was dead to Kipling: a sleeping, outworn world that took no part in the defence from Russia of the civilisation that the English had brought to India. He never saw Madras, and only glimpsed South India from the train on his last visit in 1891, as for four days he travelled up from Ceylon to Lahore.

One long story, written much later when he was living in America, for American readers [three-and-a-quarter years, in fact], embodies his impressions of those four days. But its real importance in his great fictional India is to show how fully he realised that the real basis of Indian life was not bridges and roads and railways, not even military defence, not certainly the private agonies of lonely whites, still less the gothic distress of opium dens, but the growing of food for the vast peasant population.
That he should have laid ‘William the Conqueror’, his only story of Indian famine, in the south is, in part, accidental because the terrible Madras famine of the late seventies was still much talked of when he was in India. But it is also because he wants to show the young pioneer Punjab not only guarding the old lazy rotting South India from invasion but coming to its succour when famine strikes. It is an absolute refutation that Kipling saw only the frills of Indian life.”

Later on, in discussing, briefly, Kipling’s relationship with Caroline Taylor, sister of Mrs. Edmonia (‘Ted’) Hill, with whom he had lodged in Allahabad, and with whom he had voyaged from India to San Francisco in 1889, Wilson wrote:

Shortly after the break with Caroline, Aleck Hill [Mrs. Hill’s husband] died very suddenly. Kipling maintained a correspondence with Ted until her death in the 1920s … But it was friendly rather than intimate. [He never addressed her as other than “My dear Mrs. Hill”.] … Whatever her boyish charm, so new to him in Allahabad in 1888, may have contributed to William, the Anglo-Indian heroine of “William the Conqueror”, which he wrote for the American Ladies Home Journal in 1895, the fire of his admiration had been satisfactorily and safely transferred to her unmarried sister Caroline and it died away with the end of his understanding with Caroline.

Later again, ruminating on the origins of the character ‘William’, Wilson comments:

The years from 1893 to 1895 are richly productive years for Kipling. They produced on of the most splendid of the Indian administrative stories, “The Bridge Builders”, and all the great Mowgli stories. At last, by 1895, the Indian vein seems to be wearing a little thin. “William the Conqueror”, a tale of famine in South India, is only a pale reflection of his previous tributes to the administrator engineers Orde and Findlayson.
It was written for the American Ladies Home Journal to introduce a new type of heroine to them. Yet curiously it seems more like a tribute not to the memsahibs but to the intrepid, easy-going, boyish American girls he much admired – to the memory of Ted Hill, it is said, but I wonder if it is not a tribute to his own wife’s staying power and guts, for if Carrie’s figure was far from boyish, she had (as Henry James and her father-in-law had both seen) a man’s courage and tenacity that had already served Kipling well in a financial emergency where a more feminine Victorian girls would have been helpless.

David Gilmour writes of the work of the British administration in India in positive terms, quoting in particular Kipling’s words to his cousin Margaret Burne-Jones, in a chapter entitled “A Sense of Empire”. It seems worthwhile to quote Gilmour’s words (and Kipling’s) at length since they give expression to Kipling’s feelings which he held to the end of his life, and which form the basis for “William the Conqueror”:

His first major endorsement of the Empire had come at the end of 1885, half-way through his Indian years, in two long letters to his cousin Margaret Burne-Jones. In the first he explained that, living in a country where people starved from ‘purely preventable causes’ or ‘were in native states hideously misgoverned by their rulers’ own folly’, a journalist could do a worthwhile job by alerting the public – and the administration – to the problems of a particular district and hammering away at them until something was done.

‘There’s no finer feeling in life’, he told her, ‘than the knowledge that a year’s work has really done some living good, besides amusing and interesting people, for a Province that you are generally interested in and love.’ Margaret’s reply has been lost, but a sentence which he flung back at her in his second letter –‘Do the English as a rule feel the welfare of the natives at heart?’ – provoked a passionate response.

If you had met some of the men I know you would cross out that sentence and weep. What else are we working in the country for[?] For what else do the best men of the Commission die from overwork and disease, if not to keep the people alive in the first place and healthy in the second[?] We spend our best men on the country like water and if ever a country was made better through ‘the blood of martyrs’ India is that country. I couldn’t tell you now what the men one knows are doing but you can read for yourself if you will how Englishmen have laboured and died for the peoples of the country . . . have you ever heard of a ‘demoralized district’; when tens of thousands of people are panic stricken say, with an invasion of cholera – or dying from famine?
Do you know how Englishmen, Oxford men expensively educated, are turned off to ‘do’ that district – to make their own arrangements for the cholera camps; for the prevention of disorder; or for famine relief, to pull the business through or die – whichever God wills. Then another man, or may be boy takes his place. Yes the English in India do do a little for the benefit of the natives and small thanks they get.

In the Indian tales Kipling wrote in Britain and America, the imperial accent is placed on service not dominion … but his major works of the period make it plain that conquest and annexation were no longer part of his imperial scheme. The British were in India now for a moral purpose, for the good of the native inhabitants, whom it was their duty to lead through example to a safer and more prosperous future. From Vermont in 1896 he even felt able to claim that there had been ‘no civilising experiment in the world’s history, at all comparable to British rule in India’.

Almost uncritical admiration for the administrative services was displayed in a series of post-India stories such as “The Head of the District”, “The Tomb of his Ancestors”, “The Bridge-Builders”, and “William the Conqueror”. All paid tribute to their protagonist as a model of courage and responsibility . . .

Late Victorian imperialists liked to stress the importance of ‘the strong man ruling alone’ … Kipling also believed in ‘the strong man’ with energy and initiative, governing in his twenties half a million people and 4,000 square miles, a man bound to the laws of civilisation but unfettered by codes and regulations and orders received through a telegraph wire. Several men in his later stories exhibit [the] relevant qualities, living solitary lives, receiving little praise for their work, often falling sick and sometimes dying from disease and overwork. They are well-drawn and fairly accurate portraits of ICS officers, but the very similarity of the characters , their work and their sense of duty, tends to diminish the quality of the fiction. By 1895 Kipling had so lost the scepticism with which he used to describe Anglo-India that he could not only produce Scott, the indefatigable famine worker in ‘William the Conqueror’, but also describe a meeting with his future wife in a gush of sentimentality.

Here Gilmour cites the passage we have already seen above in Carrington and Tompkins, about Scott being ‘beautiful as Paris’. [Ed.].


©Alastair Wilson 2009 All rights reserved