Myopic British views of Asia
The book opens with Rudyard Kipling’s story “The Man Who Would Be King,” perhaps best known today as the basis for a movie adaptation starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine. Two English vagabonds in India decide to assume the kingship of a secluded tribe of natives. I’ve never been a big fan of Kipling’s writing, and this offering did nothing to convert me. He crams his stories with so much gratuitous local color and slang that the atmosphere becomes more important than the narrative and the prose becomes almost unintelligible. This one suffers from its white-conquerors-over-dumb-natives premise and its rather silly climax.
Next up, “Tajima” by “Miss Mitford” (likely Mary Russell Mitford) is a fable about a ronin, or masterless samurai. All the characters are Japanese, and Mitford treats them respectfully. The story is just OK, its biggest offense being dullness. The best story in the book, which isn’t saying much, is “A Chinese Girl Graduate” by R. K. Douglas. Set in China, it’s about a girl who masquerades as a boy in order to study with male scholars. Imagine if Pearl S. Buck wrote Yentl. There’s a lot of gender-bending disguise along the lines of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Though it defies belief, it’s pretty good as far as fluffy romances go.
It’s all downhill from there. Set in New Zealand, Mary Beaumont’s “The Revenge of Her Race” is a tale of interracial marriage between an Englishman and a Maori woman. Though Beaumont likely thought she was being sympathetic to the indigenous, the story is anything but enlightened, since it’s all about how this native woman hates herself because she’s not white. Morley Roberts’s story “King Billy of Ballarat” is a Kiplingesque accent fest about an Australian aborigine who befriends a young white girl in order to beg for her father’s hand-me-down clothing. The “black fellow” (as he’s referred to in the story) is portrayed as a drunken buffoon, and the prose is so inarticulate I couldn’t even figure out the ending. Lastly, Netta Styrett’s “Thy Heart’s Desire” is a dreary soap opera about a British couple with marital problems. Since its only connection to the East is one use of the word “Persian,” it’s difficult to see why this story is even included in this collection. It’s hard to believe that these dismal entries were the best examples of “Oriental” English fiction that the editor could come up with.
Overall the Stories by English Authors series has been a disappointment, and I am glad to be done with it. This particular volume on The Orient is the worst of the bunch. For those who enjoy 19th century fiction and are looking for good short story collections, I would recommend Scribner’s later series from 1898, Stories by Foreign Authors, which features some of the best writers from various nations in Europe.
Stories in this collection
The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling
Tajima by Miss Mitford
A Chinese Girl Graduate by R. K. Douglas
The Revenge of Her Race by Mary Beaumont
King Billy of Ballarat by Morley Roberts
Thy Heart’s Desire by Nyetta Styrett
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