The Long Recessional: The Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling 
by David Gilmour.
Murray, 351 pp., £22.50, March 2002, 0 7195 5539 6
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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.)

As a journalist in India he was a source of annoyance to a lot of people: Army officers found him ‘bumptious’ and once hissed at him in his club, and newspaper editors predicted he would never make a go of literature. His marriage seems to have been a disaster; Gilmour says he has tried to find something nice to say about Carrie, or ‘the Commandress-in-Chief’, but can’t. A contemporary described her as ‘a fat and dowdy woman who gobbled her food’, and seemingly reliable stories attest to the tyrannical power she exerted over Kipling. One has her interrupting his after-dinner conversations with ‘Rud, it is time you went to bed,’ which he obeyed meekly. Later she would threaten to throw herself out of the window if he didn’t do as she wanted. But one can rarely tell with marriages. Two of their three children died young: one at the age of six on a transatlantic trip, and the other – the only son – at the battle of Loos in 1915, after his father pulled strings to enable him to enlist under-age, and possibly cajoled him into it. ‘It’s something to have bred a man’ was one of his reactions to the loss; but he was also desolated. His third child, a daughter, never produced the grandchild he craved, which must have been doubly wounding for one who believed (as he wrote in ‘The Female of the Species’) that this was woman’s only function. He resented paying ‘super-tax’ to subsidise the idle. During his last years he was constantly ill and in pain, partly perhaps due to the hatred (it was a stomach ulcer), but also to the medicines he was prescribed. All this could help explain Kipling’s personality; except that much of it (apart from the artistic stigma) was the common lot of many middle-class late Victorians, not all of whom became as bigoted and malevolent as he did.

Gilmour thinks he was a child of his time in the 1890s and early 1900s, who then failed to change with the times; but in fact he was always out of place. It is arguable that he was already isolated in Anglo-India, among all the ‘hairy-chested heroes’ (Gilmour’s phrase) of the Army and the Indian Civil Service. It may have been this that led him to seek out the two other ‘Indias’ that he is widely credited with having an uncanny empathy for (though this is also disputed): the ‘ordinary’ natives of his own part of the Subcontinent (mainly the Punjab), and the common British soldier, or ‘Tommy Atkins’. However, he also soaked up the typical prejudices of the British ruling classes there, which first appear – together with the trademark hatred – in his opposition at the age of 18 to the Ilbert Bill, which allowed native judges to try Europeans. That was an early indication of the gulf that yawned between him and the majority ethos of Britain, where the Ilbert Bill originated, but which struck him only when he moved there, in pursuit of literary fortune, in 1889. Thereafter he was always at odds with the real (as opposed to the Indian) Britain, loathing its climate – for ten years he escaped with his family to South Africa for at least part of the winter – and, in particular, appalled by the lack of Imperial feeling he found there.

Gilmour thinks Kipling may have exaggerated this, but then it is fashionable these days to emphasise the ubiquity of ‘colonial discourse’ in Victorian Britain. I think this view is misleading. Kipling singled out certain groups to blame for the tepid Imperial enthusiasm: seditious socialists masquerading as Liberals, long-haired degenerates calling themselves aesthetes, and effete aristocrats playing at being statesmen; but he never made the common contemporary right-wing error of thinking that they were the only non-Imperialists, and that the British working man, for example, was ‘sound’ underneath. In fact, he made little effort to understand British workers, even when they became (European) Tommy Atkinses: Gilmour perceptively points out that there is no First World War equivalent in the Kipling canon to the extraordinarily sympathetic Barrack-Room Ballads he wrote to celebrate the squaddie in India, perhaps because the soldier in Flanders did not usually live long enough for Kipling to get to know him. The workers for the most part seem to have ignored him, if Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes is any guide.* Populism doesn’t necessarily make a person popular, as a story told in a footnote in Gilmour’s book suggests. The ticket collector at Etchingham station sees Kipling trying to jump a queue, and reproves him. ‘Do you realise who I am?’ Kipling asks, indignantly. ‘I know who you are, Mr Rudyard bloody Kipling,’ comes the retort, ‘and you can bloody well take your place in the queue like everybody else.’ No wonder he hated democracy.

He was also a controversial figure in ‘high’ literary and political circles. The seaminess of many of his stories, his fascination with cruelty and sex (especially brothels) and his liberal attitude towards them, the tales based on jungle-heat infidelities, his sympathy for sinning soldiers and ‘fallen’ women, and what Oscar Wilde characterised – approvingly, I imagine – as his ‘superb flashes of vulgarity’ were fuel for his political enemies, and a source of unease even for his respectable middle-class allies. Gilmour gives examples: one is his cousin Oliver Baldwin’s description of ‘Mary Postgate’ (a First World War story) as ‘the wickedest story ever told’; and I can add another: Elgar, sometimes (unfairly) dubbed ‘the Rudyard Kipling of music’, found some of his tales ‘too awful to have ever been written’. Public schoolboys may not have always responded to his inspiration as he would have wished, and not only because of the blasphemy he uttered against their most sacred religion – that line in ‘The Islanders’ on ‘the flannelled fools at the wicket’ and ‘the muddied oafs at the goals’. Alaric Jacob’s autobiography recalls ‘the horror’ he felt on finding ‘an illuminated copy of “If” lying among the jars of Gentleman’s Relish in the first tuck-box I received’ at his minor public school (this is around 1920), ‘put there, through an inexplicable error of taste, by my mother – and the ingenuity I had to use to hide it from my fellows until I could safely burn it in the lavatory’. ‘If’ may have inspired many people (Gilmour even jokes that it might have brought America into the First World War: ‘perhaps the “arid pacifist”’ – Kipling’s description of Woodrow Wilson – ‘finally decided to go to war after reciting “If” at his shaving mirror’); but it could also repel.

Kipling was essentially a foreigner in the Britain of his day. One of his purposes in coming to England in the late 1880s was to wake its people up to the great work being done in their name in India. On his way there he got bitten by a broader Imperial bug, that of the ‘white dominions’, centred in his case on Canada, the ‘flagship of the Empire’, as he called it. But he never got to love Britain, save as ‘the Head Quarters of the Empire’; or to understand it; or – arguably – to get it to love India or Canada as he thought it should. He once described England as ‘the most wonderful foreign land’ he had ever been in; and even the ‘wonder’ soon waned. In this context it referred to the country’s ancient history, in which he developed a new interest after his move to Sussex in the 1900s, but mythicised dreadfully, perhaps in order to compensate for the imperfections of contemporary Britain. (His History of England, coauthored with the reactionary Oxford don C.R.L. Fletcher, is rightly described by Gilmour as ‘an embarrassment’.) He described England to Cecil Rhodes – predictably one of his heroes – as ‘a stuffy little place’. Visiting Egypt in 1913, his nose assailed again by ‘the mixed delicious smells of frying butter, Mohammedan bread, kebabs, leather, cooking-smoke, asafoetida, peppers and turmeric’, he felt he had returned to ‘my real world again’. Back abroad – in England – he started plotting openly against the British state, in company with other right-wingers, as a first step towards turning Britain into the properly Imperial polity he wanted. He presented it as a ‘revolt of the English’ (it was over Ulster); but it was an ‘English’ of his (and Fletcher’s) imagining. The truth is that in order to create his Imperial Britain in the early 20th century all kinds of British traditions that he despised or was blind to would have had to be snuffed out and Britain would have needed to be remoulded in the Anglo-Indian image.

Of course Kipling had redeeming qualities. Though some of them were problematic, he was never consistent in his awfulness. Gilmour points out that ‘a great deal that Kipling said and wrote can be contradicted by other things he said and wrote.’ His vigorous defence of the oppressed women of native India – the burqa and all that – may be an example; or it may have been simply a stick with which to beat ‘lesser breeds’. (Actually this is a misreading of the phrase, which as Gilmour points out was originally directed at the Germans.) His Imperialism, Gilmour claims, was not the militaristic and aggrandising sort, but rooted in a sense of ‘service’ to others, and of tolerance towards other cultures and creeds. But it does not make it any less arrogant, or less racist, if the underlying reason for the tolerance was not so much a genuine respect for other customs as a belief that the people who practised them could not aspire to anything ‘higher’. Given Kipling’s strictures on Western (especially American) culture, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on that. Gilmour may also be right to say, in defence of Kipling’s Imperial ideal – though it is an uncomfortable thought – that ‘when all the appropriate qualifications are made, minorities usually fare better within imperial or multinational systems than in nations dominated by the ethos and ethnicity of a majority.’ The recent history of the Balkans has taught us that. On another front, Kipling liked ‘the scale and the enterprise’ of American life – though he also characterised the US as ‘barbarism plus the telephone’ – and greatly admired the swashbuckling imperialist Theodore Roosevelt. (So he might have approved of George W. Bush.) He was a great Francophile, and pro-Muslim. He was wonderful with children. And his attitudes to sex and sin look enlightened to modern eyes.

For Gilmour, however, his ultimate atoning quality is his prescience, especially in predicting the First and Second World Wars, South African apartheid, and the end of the British Empire; though it has to be said that he was by no means unique in any of these. Gilmour seems to believe that in the end this justifies his right-wingery, and even his nastiness.

Pessimists and reactionaries make the best prophets because they are without illusions . . . Prophets, as the Old Testament reveals, say unpalatable things and say them in provocative and unpleasant language. So did Kipling . . . There was an excuse for his bitterness, as there was with Jeremiah: he knew what was going to happen.

Alternatively he might just have struck lucky, or been right for the wrong reasons. His reason for predicting the two world wars, for example, was a belief that the ‘Hun’ was inherently and irredeemably evil. Some of the others who predicted these wars did so on better grounds.

There remains the writing. It is entirely possible to delight in that despite the personality behind it, as one does with Wagner (or Larkin, or Waugh). Many Britons still do, if we can trust a BBC poll that recently voted ‘If’ the nation’s most popular poem: ‘the one most often displayed in people’s homes, framed and illuminated in medieval script, hanging balefully on the wall as an exhortation to self-improvement’ – though I’ve never seen one of these myself. Most people have at one time or another fallen under Kipling’s spell, if only in bastardised Boy Scout or Disney versions. I was bewitched by the Just So Stories as a child, and exhilarated by the music – rather than the content – of much of the poetry. Gilmour is interested mainly in his Imperial politics, but he has some interesting insights into his work, which he thinks is uneven and generally worse the more political it is. On the other hand, if Kipling’s Imperialist agenda did harm his standing as a writer, he should not have minded, holding the views on ‘art’ and ‘real work’ that he did. His influence is impossible to measure, but was certainly much less than he hoped it would be. Hence the pessimism. The important thing, however, is not to be misled into assuming that he was more typical of later 19th and early 20th-century Britain – British Britain, that is, as opposed to Anglo-India – than he really was. If he had been more British-British he would not have needed to hate so much.

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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.

Danny Karlin
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.

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