Rudyard Kipling and Agatha Christie and British literary racism

Racism is caused by literature, famous footballer says: Blasts Agatha Christie, Rudyard Kipling for perpetuating bigotry | New York Daily News.

I subscribe to a Google alert for “racism.” It was actually just a test run for my job– I hadn’t used Google alerts before so wanted to try it, and as far as buzz words go “racism” is the gift that keeps on giving– but anyway, it’s been like four months and I haven’t turned it off.

Yesterday, after four months of almost daily reminders of the ongoing debate in Europe over racism in football, this came up. I don’t know much about European football, so I couldn’t comment on it much before, but I DO know Agatha Christie.

I think it’s a really interesting point that John Barnes brings up. Britain’s imperial, racist history can be easily found in its rich body of literature, so much of which we still know and love today. It’s the same in American literature: I regularly encounter the N-word in the pre-1960 books I read (most recently, in Henry Miller and William Faulkner) and even when it’s used by black characters or used in what might be an “authentic” manner of capturing period dialogue, it’s really uncomfortable and a constant reminder of what used to be okay, what used to be normal. (Being white.)

Kipling and Christie, as Barnes points out, both make up part of the British cultural landscape which has been complicit in horrific imperial violence and possessing of uncouth racist attitudes. They both represent a complacency of white superiority, British global supremacy, cultural chauvinism. But in that, they aren’t always so different from other writers. And the two served very different functions in British culture.

Rudyard Kipling was the poet of empire, an Anglo-Indian who celebrated British imperialism, and a Nobel Prize winner. His writing—most obviously, “The White Man’s Burden,” the poster poem for the civilizing mission—was almost activist in its stance towards the Empire, actively pro-, practically propaganda.

Take up the White Man’s burden–
Send forth the best ye breed–
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild–
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.

Oh-ho and that shit is just the first stanza. When I first came across this poem in an upper-division undergraduate class on the American Gilded Age (can’t remember, but was probably a tie-in to American empire), naïve and un-historically-informed as I was, I honestly assumed it was a work of satire, a criticism of empire as evidenced by its over-the-top, gushing profuseness. I was made to stand corrected. He’s serious as a heart attack. In effect, he’s saying, “God, it’s really hard being a white guy because we have to go all the way to these inhospitable tropical places, subdue the peoples, and then we have the responsibility to civilize them too! But in the end it’s okay, because we are so brave and selfless for doing it. Aaaaaaaand that’s the British Empire.” (musical tag!)

On the flip side of the Kipling civilizing mission is this musical number from the Disney’s 1967 The Jungle Book. But that’s for another day.

Agatha Christie, meanwhile, was not an active promoter of empire. Her treatment of race was more implicit—a complacent white superiority as well as a staunchly hobbit-like British xenophobia towards all non-British nationals—these attitudes formed the setting for her stories but were not the focus. People point most often to Ten Little N*****s, which was the original title for her famously creepy And Then There Were None. The titular minorities have no bearing on the story whatsoever except that whoever the killer is (no spoilers) keeps removing a single toy figure from the dining room each time someone else is knocked off—in the original story they were little black dolls, were then changed to Indians—the title was duly changed to Ten Little Indians (not quite as offensive) but eventually that was changed to its present And Then There Were None, the last line of the corresponding children’s poem about the N-words/Indians. (God, how disturbing would that be if there was an actual children’s poem of the N-word version! Don’t know if I want to find out.)

But it’s evident in a number of her other books as well (and she has a ridiculous catalogue which I have steadily devoured for the past 15 years but still haven’t even made a dent in). I remember a Greek character, married to a wallflower British sister, who, while charming and pleasant in speech, had a kind a furtiveness to his manner that marked him as permanently untrustworthy to the main characters (not to mention his swarthy complexion!). I can’t count how many times one of the regular witnesses who Poirot/Miss Marple/&tc interview says something to the effect of, “Well, he’s a foreigner, you know” to explain away some defect, some indefinable lack of character. And of course, there are those exotic journeys that form the basis for Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile which invariably have native servants as background characters, who are invariably not-quite-trustworthy, not-quite-human. (Of course, her portrayal of the British servant class isn’t all that much better—you can trust them, at least, but they’re really stupid.)

Agatha Christie novels: devourable, perfect for traveling.

Agatha Christie’s oeuvre, as a whole, serves the function of what Edward Said describes in Culture and Imperialism: a complacent understanding of a world dominated by British imperialism, not unlike Fanny Price’s uncle and his Antiguan estate in Mansfield Park, which Said uses as evidence of empire as background, something taken for granted but simultaneously reinforced. Christie’s work also touches on empire, albeit much later in its lifetime; but, like so much literature, her work is racism as background, xenophobia as background. She wasn’t promoting it, per se, so much as refracting the cultural setting back into the mainstream and, thus, contributing to its longevity. Like most authors, really; she just wrote a whole damn lot. From short story “The Pearl of Price”:

“What is honesty?” demanded the Frenchman.  “It is a nuance, a convention.  In different countries it means different things.  An Arab is not ashamed of stealing.  He is not ashamed of lying.  With him it is from whom he steals and to whom he lies that matters.”

“That is the point of view- yes,” agreed Carver.

“Which shows the superiority of the West over the East,” said Blundell.  “When these poor creatures get education-“

So ultimately this all comes down to the age-old question of how much harm works of art and literature from different eras, eras with worldviews out-of-sync with our own to the point of offensiveness, can do to our present. I’m against the erasure of the past, so simply banning or limiting the circulation of important cultural works is out of the question. They just need to be accompanied by an education, an understanding of the historical context and how that has changed then to now. ‘Cause I swear, sometimes reading enough Agatha Christie, immersing myself in her universe, I’ll be nodding along, oh yes, he’s Turkish, he’s a scoundrel for sure.

You know who else Agatha Christie didn’t like? Hippies. But that’s another story for another time.

Here’s a good roundup of Agatha Christie moments, chiefly Orientalist. My lack of familiarity with the titles is further testament to her prolific-ness.

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9 responses

  1. It really isn’t worth the time to try and make a point based upon books written 50+ years ago. The language that they use is going to be different, and the mentality of the people in the books is going to be different.

    If you’re going to complain about the language used in an Agatha Christie novel, why not complain about the smoking in the novels, or how much they drink (invariably when someone passes out in a Christie novel – and usually it’s one of the women in the story – someone is sent for some brandy to help rejuvenate them), or you could complain about all the killing going on in her novels.

    When many of these novels were being written our parents weren’t even alive. We live in a very different era and if you’re trying to argue about something in today’s world by using literature published years ago you’re making a very poor argument.

    1. I think it’s extremely problematic to say that the language of novels from past eras just doesn’t matter. First of all, because our culture, our problems today weren’t spontaneously birthed at some specified point in time, they were inherited from these past eras; times have changed, but that change is not a clean break, and present-day problems CAN be traced back to times that, yes, even predate the birth of our parents. Second, because these books, while old, are not irrelevant; they are still read, still actively a part of our culture.

      Also, identifying and discussing the parts of old novels that today would be considered offensive is not “complaining”. My post, if you noticed, doesn’t advocate that we stop reading books like these, rather just posits that it’s worthwhile to discuss the problems instead of ignoring them or making excuses for them.

      You’re right that we could “complain” about other parts of the novels– like smoking– but that wasn’t my aim with this discussion. That’s a separate discussion. And one could argue that it’s one with less impact, less urgency to present-day problems.

      Overall I’m a little dismayed at any argument that says the past and its context just don’t matter. I did my degree in history, after all!

      1. I apologize if the tone of my original reply came across as offensive. I was in no way trying to insinuate that you personally were objecting to the language used in the books, rather that the football player whose argument was the basis for this article came across that way.

        The entirety of my reply was meant to be more sarcastic in tone, and upon re-reading it I can see that it didn’t come across that way at all.

        I agree that it’s wrong to dismiss the past, but I would argue that it’s more of a crime to try to analyze the past using modern sensibilities. In no way do I think that Christie was trying to promote racism in her writing, she was simply using the language of the times (much like Twain in Huckleberry Finn, which the article mentions).

        There is also going to be a lot of change with what will be discussed in the future looking back on the literature of today (as well as movies and TV shows).

        In the article the football player suggested a different curriculum specifically designed to go against racism. Educating people about why it was wrong will go a long way towards fixing the problem. Ignoring the past and changing the curriculum so that it no longer includes books from that era won’t fix anything.

        Once again I apologize for the tone from my original reply and for any offense I may have caused.

      2. Adam– it’s alright! There was some miscommunication but I think in the end we mostly agree. I just think it’s interesting to address the ways in which art from the past conflicts with our present understandings or otherwise makes us uncomfortable, and important to make sure we know why. To keep attitudes like those from surviving, resurfacing etc. But definitely so long as they have other value we should keep reading them. I appreciate your engagement on the topic :)

  2. Its always important to look at works from the past and see how and why parts don’t fit in with what we believe today. I’ve read Agatha Christie only recently, and I was a little shocked to see how freely her characters spoke ill of foreigners and non white people. I was never sure whether this was Christie sharing their feelings, or whether she was just trying to be true to English attitudes at the time. Through the works of Agatha Christie and Rudyard Kipling you can see that Great Britain has long been a great colonial power with a great colonial mindset. Unfortunately, this colonial mindset is inherited by newer generations, and a sense of white superiority comes with it, as that was how colonial action was often sold to the public.

    1. It’s true– though I’ve been reading her for so long, and her worldview so comfortably fits with other literature of her era, that it took me a while to realize how shocking some of it was! It remains though that her most famous hero WAS a foreigner, and while Hercule Poirot could be a weirdo he was also the protagonist and through his eyes you could see how the stodgy British were reacting to him… anyway there’s more to talk about there so I might do another post later :)

  3. The fact that we find things in Kipling that offend our contemporary sensibilities is about as surprising as finding out that Ayatollah Khamenei disagrees with several sections of the catechism of the Catholic Church, don’t you think? The more difficult questions, for me, are: Can Kipling serve as a corrective to our modern liberal prejudices? To what extent can we empathize with his attitudes? (Recall that he was born eight years after the Sepoy Mutiny.) And do his sentiments, even when unacceptable to us, grant him a degree of insight that we’re unable to achieve? (Put differently, why are so few books today as delightful—especially to Indians—as Kim?)

    The gold standard here is George Orwell’s essay on Kipling:

    And yet the ‘Fascist’ charge has to be answered, because the first clue to any understanding of Kipling, morally or politically, is the fact that he was NOT a Fascist. He was further from being one than the most humane or the most ‘progressive’ person is able to be nowadays. … [B]ecause he identifies himself with the official class, he does
    possess one thing which ‘enlightened’ people seldom or never possess, and
    that is a sense of responsibility. … A humanitarian
    is always a hypocrite, and Kipling’s understanding of this is perhaps the
    central secret of his power to create telling phrases. It would be
    difficult to hit off the one-eyed pacifism of the English in fewer words
    than in the phrase, ‘making mock of uniforms that guard you while you
    sleep’. … He sees clearly that men can only be highly civilized while other
    men, inevitably less civilized, are there to guard and feed them.

    Say what you will about Kipling, his attitude toward imperialist ideology in general and the Empire in particular was the opposite of complacent. Read through Recessional or The Gods of the Copybook Headings and see if you can detect an ounce of complacency.

    As you say, Christie’s charming Little Englander mentality is something entirely different. It reminds me of Enid Blyton, whose books were peppered with insular editorializing of the following sort: “But Suzanne was French. She hadn’t quite the same ideas of responsibility that the British girls had.” Back then, the wogs apparently did begin at Calais! If you ask me, the rubbing out of this distinct, introverted, ironic, hypocritical, punctiliously fair, occasionally bigoted, and achingly English culture—lovingly described by Orwell in England Your England—is nothing short of a tragedy.

    1. Of course it isn’t surprising, when you take the time to consider it. The problem with problematic cultural representations is that many people don’t and instead accept them as part of the aforementioned background. Regarding Kipling, maybe “complacent” wasn’t the best word to use for him, as his humanitarian imperialism was probably very carefully considered– I mean he was a pretty smart guy and all!– however, I feel that, again, promulgating that kind of worldview in the form of mass-consumed literature, often on topics ostensibly divorced from politics, produces a complacency in the masses, or encourages it, at the very least. And for me, finding a “corrective” as you call it for modern sensibilities in Kipling-era literature is really troubling– to accept Kiplingism to its full extent is to accept all of the horrors that British imperial politics brought into being. I’m not going all end-of-history and saying we’re necessarily doing so much better, but revisiting a(n) *historical* outlook that to my mind really didn’t work out so well for humanity isn’t the answer.

      And I reiterate– NOT campaigning for the censure of objectionable literature over here! I hope I’ve made it clear that I love Agatha Christie books, for all their ridiculous quaintness. It’s just worth *pointing out* and historicizing her very particular insular early 20th century British worldview.

      1. As a devout Gramscian, I of course agree with you and wossname (the football player) about the role of culture in transmitting ideology, though probably not about which ideology is, in fact, hegemonic. But taking Kipling’s views as a corrective doesn’t mean adopting his ideas wholesale. It means using them to highlight the excesses and blind spots of your own views.

        And even though I’m not advocating “Kiplingism,” I don’t think accepting it requires consenting to the negative aspects of the Empire, any more than supporters of Barack Obama need to accept the killing of Pakistani children.† Really Existing Regimes are always messier than ideologies. (Just ask your neighborhood Marxist.) In any case, as Kwasi Kwarteng pointed out in an excellent new book, the animating ideology of the British Empire by and large wasn’t the mission civilisatrice; the level of decentralization meant that decisions were largely driven by the personal idiosyncrasies of imperial officials.

        Apropos Christie, I wasn’t talking about censoring (or even censuring) her so much as the disappearance of the England that could produce someone like her. If I’m allowed yet another Orwell reference, it’s the England whose destruction he chronicled in Coming Up For Air.

        † Whether Kipling himself is complicit in British crimes during the Raj is a harder question. But as I tried to convince you in Paris (and as Elie Kedourie argued in detail), the horrific fallout of independence in many former colonies can with as much justice be laid at the feet of the Westerners who agitated for rapid decolonization.

        (I’ve typed “Kipling” so much now that it sounds weird in my head. Kipling kipling kipling kipling.)

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