Lispeth

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Lispeth is a short story by Rudyard Kipling. It was first published in the Civil and Military Gazette on November 29th 1886; its first appearance in book form was in the first Indian edition of Plain Tales from the Hills in 1888, and it later appeared in subsequent editions of that collection. The tale is an interesting example of Kipling's attitudes to different races and cultures, which is less simple than many accounts of his beliefs allow.

The story is set in Kotgarh, a valley about 30 miles from Simla, the 'summer seat of the British government of India'. It is the home of Sonoo and his wife Jadeh, who, after the maize fails and bears raid their opium poppy field, turn Christian. Lispeth is their daughter, and "'Lispeth' is the Hill or pahari pronunciation." Cholera kills Sonoo and Jadeh, and Lispeth becomes servant/companion to the Chaplain's wife at Kotgarh. She grows very lovely, "a stately goddess, five feet ten in her shoes". One day on her walk ("a little constitutional" of 20 to 30 miles says Kipling, with fine irony and huge admiration of the hill people) she finds an unconscious Englishman whom she carries back to the Mission, announcing that she has found her husband. This scandalises the Chaplain and his wife, and they "lectured her severely on the impropriety of her conduct".

The stranger, a traveller hunting plants and butterflies, recovers, but enjoys prolonging his convalescence by flirting with Lispeth, although he is engaged to an English "girl at Home". He is told of her matrimonial plan, and is amused; on leaving, he takes the Chaplain's wife's advice to say he will return to marry Lispeth. (The wife is a "good Christian" and hates scandal. On the other, ironic, hand, Lispeth "being a savage by birth, [...] took no trouble to conceal her feelings.") Of course the Englishman does not return, and after three months of Lispeth's waiting and weeping, the Chaplain's wife tells the truth, saying "it was very wrong and improper of Lispeth to think of marriage with an Englishman, who was of superior clay..." "Then you have lied to me," says Lispeth, and reverts to her own people, marrying a wood-cutter "who beat her after the manner of paharis." "'There is no law whereby you can account for the vagaries of the heathen,' said the Chaplain's wife", which shows the ambivalence of Kipling at the end of a story in which the 'native' is shown as honest, simple and admirable, and it is the Christians who are the hypocrites and liars. It is not quite as simple as that: Kipling also suggests that he has heard this story from Lispeth herself, who "when she was sufficiently drunk could sometimes be induced to tell the story of her first love-affair" - which may seem a rather patronising 'European' attitude to 'the natives'.

All quotations in this article have been taken from the Uniform Edition of Plain Tales from the Hills published by Macmillan & Co., Limited in London in 1899. The text is that of the third edition (1890), and the author of the article has used his own copy of the 1923 reprint. Further comment, including page-by-page notes, can be found on the Kipling Society's website, at [1]