So Much to Hate
- The Long Recessional: The Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling by David Gilmour
Murray, 351 pp, £22.50, March 2002, ISBN 0 7195 5539 6
Kipling is an easy man to dislike. He wasn’t much loved in his own time, apparently, even by people – schoolmates, for example, and neighbours in Vermont – with whom he thought he was rubbing along well. In his later years he lost many of the friends he had, except the most right-wing ones and King George V, who found Kipling the only literary figure he could get on with at all. He lost them not only because of his own reactionary views, but also because of the mood they put him in – of dark, unattractive pessimism – and the way he expressed them, often with extraordinary viciousness. In 1893, hearing of the death of an MP, he hoped that if he was an Irish Home Ruler he had gone down with the cholera; on being told in 1907 that the Liberal Prime Minister Campbell-Bannerman had had a heart attack, he reacted ‘with joy’; and he wrote a poem in 1918 hoping the Kaiser would die of throat cancer. He also claimed the Liberal Government had killed King Edward VII. David Gilmour, who does the best he can to defend Kipling against his detractors, insists that some of this was not intended ‘personally’, but it is hard to see how that could be.
In fact Kipling comes over as a deeply unsympathetic character in this superb biography – as in most others – because of the hatreds he nurtured throughout most of his life. Gilmour calls the years 1905-14 his particular ‘decade of hating’, but also acknowledges that he had ‘learned to hate long before then’, and was to carry on hating long afterwards. One of his chief complaints about the English (of which more in a moment) was that they ‘did not know how to hate’. ‘I love him,’ he said of Andrew Bonar Law, almost the only politician he had any time for, ‘because he hates.’ The objects of his hatred were many: Liberals, socialists, Irish Home Rulers, the Irish Free State (the ‘Free State of Evil’), possibly the Irish themselves (‘the Orientals of the West’), colonial nationalism generally, educated Indians, missionaries, Germans (he blamed the foot and mouth outbreak of 1919 on a plot by German POWs), the United States, most politicians, artists, intellectuals, democracy, women’s suffrage and cricket.
There may have been private reasons for this. Like many who hero-worship men of action, he may have felt uncomfortable with his own slight, dark-skinned (suspiciously so, some of his more unpleasant critics thought), goggle-eyed, rather runtish appearance. He was impractical and bad at sports. His father was an artist, which ran right against the utilitarian and philistine prejudices of the circles in which he wished to be accepted in India, where he was born and began his literary career. All his life he affected to despise his own calling – writing – in comparison with what he called ‘real work’, and out of fear of being associated with the ‘feminine’ pursuit of ‘art’, insisted that it was nothing more than a ‘craft’. This was why he was able to get on so well with the famously philistine George V; but the tension must have been unbearable. (Edward Elgar suffered from much the same syndrome.) He went through hell at his first English school – christened the ‘House of Desolation’ in his memoirs – where it has been suggested he acquired his interest in cruelty. He claimed to be happier at his secondary boarding school, Westward Ho! in Devon, but it may have bugged him that it was not a proper public school – no uniforms, cadet corps or ‘beastliness’ (homosexuality) – like Haileybury, where he might have gone had his father been better off. (Later he developed a hatred for the proper public schools, too.)
Vol. 24 No. 10 · 23 May 2002
Bernard Porter (LRB, 25 April) is wrong to state that Kipling referred to his first English school as the ‘House of Desolation’. He gave this name to the house in Southsea where his parents brought him from India and left him, at the age of five and in the company of his three-year-old sister; they returned to India and he did not see them again for nearly six years. This may have been a common experience for the children of middle-ranking Anglo-Indian families, but there is every reason to believe that it marked Kipling for the rest of his days. His foster family bullied him physically and mentally; he was (for example) taunted and beaten for months for his clumsiness before it was discovered that he was severely short-sighted (this is the child whom Porter insultingly describes as ‘goggle-eyed’). In ‘Baa, Baa, Black Sheep’ Kipling drew one of the most powerful and harrowing pictures of child abuse in literature, but he also traced his beginnings as a writer to this time. Porter’s mistake, and his failure even to mention the most important event of Kipling’s early life, exemplify the ignorance and incompetence which he displays in his review.
Far from affecting ‘to despise his own calling’ Kipling was a passionate stylist, a lover of literature in both English and French; he was also a consummate professional whose training as a journalist was the making of him as a short story writer. He worshipped Jane Austen and Henry James, and if there was any form of art he despised it was art which (as one of his characters says of a second-rate painter) ‘goes no deeper than the plaster’. Since Porter praises (and I hope misrepresents) Gilmour for ‘perceptively’ pointing out that ‘there is no First World War equivalent’ to the Barrack-Room Ballads, I doubt he can have read the extraordinary stories and poems which Kipling wrote during and (especially) after the war, some of which treat the experiences of physical and psychological wounding with searching tenderness, others of which express the passions of hatred and revenge with a ferocity for which we should have the courage to be grateful. Kipling was (unfortunately for him) in a very good position to write about the war from the standpoint of a parent, a grieving survivor, whose desolation at the loss of his son was increased by never finding his body. His homage to the ‘Tommy Atkins’ of the Western Front took the form, not of the swinging, raucous, radical Barrack-Room Ballads, an outgrowth of their time and place, but of his sober, painstaking and purgatorial history of John Kipling’s regiment, the Irish Guards.
Porter gives a superficial and inadequate account of Kipling’s curious, subtle, savage, contradictory passion for England, which was both his home and his place of exile. Along with D.H. Lawrence (another unbalanced hater), Kipling is England’s greatest and most problematic interpreter, through whose anguished desiring gaze we see further into the roots of Englishness than is comfortable or even at times bearable. He can also be sharply, woundingly funny about ‘awful old England’, whose charms are not always obvious. The impression Porter gives of a sour, petulant, friendless nay-sayer is not the result of observation, but the lazy recycling of a prejudice. Kipling loved England even though (or because) he knew how mean-spirited it could be.
University College London
Bernard Porter writes: It may surprise Danny Karlin to learn that I agree with most of his letter, except of course its tone. I was careless about the boarding house in Southsea, which wasn’t strictly a ‘school’. On everything else I’m sure we could find common ground. I agree about the impact of the cruelty Kipling was subjected to at Southsea. ‘Goggle-eyed’, like ‘runtish’, was intended not as an insult but to indicate his perception of himself. His attitude to his craft was of course ambivalent, as it was bound to be given a great artist who felt he needed to be accepted by philistines. Karlin takes issue with Gilmour’s observation that there was no real First World War equivalent to the Barrack-Room Ballads, but then goes on to explain why this was so. (They were each of their time and place.) I said he was desolated by the loss of his son. Karlin’s version of Kipling’s view of England doesn’t clash essentially with mine, except that I see it as an ‘outsider’s’ one. That was my main point, and – it seems to me – a legitimate matter for debate, but not for insults.