Sahib and Son

J.I.M. Stewart

  • ‘Oh Beloved Kids’: Rudyard Kipling’s Letters to his Children edited by Elliot Gilbert
    Weidenfeld, 225 pp, £10.95, October 1983, ISBN 0 297 78296 7

The dust-jacket of this book reproduces a snapshot of Kipling squatted on the deck of a Union Castle ship while reading or telling a story to a group of absorbed small children clustered around him. In the book itself there is record of a contrasting occasion. On board a P – O ship bound for Egypt, he writes to his daughter Elsie, who is just seventeen, and to his son John, 18 months younger:

I haven’t found anybody interesting yet. There are not many young people and the small ‘Robert’ (who calls himself ‘Wob’) doesn’t mind accepting a box of bricks (bought at the barber’s) from me but he doesn’t want me to help to play with ’em. I tried yesterday. ‘Wob’ stood it as long as he could. Then he screwed up his face, and pointed towards the people walking up and down on the decks, and whispered: ‘You – go – there!’ So I went ‘there’ and as I turned away ‘Wob’ said ‘Good-bye’ and went happily back to his bricks.

Kipling no doubt went back happily to his own concern, the fabricating of a series of travel-letters for a newspaper. Yet there is a hint of hurt in the anecdote about Wob. It is not inadvertent. Little that Kipling wrote is that.

With his own children, and with others, he hungered for intimacy. But he knew them to be elusive. Either, like his elder daughter, Josephine, they died and became teasing ghosts, as in the tremendous story he called ‘They’ or, like John, they survived into a boyhood, a first manhood, only partly visible, touchable within stereotypic garments created by Kipling’s own compulsive ideologies. There is the cult of the stiff upper lip; there are things that sahibs know in their bones and therefore don’t say – except, perhaps, in the final lines of a letter. John doesn’t blub on his first day at school: Good man! He gets his first beating at Wellington: ‘Mother is awfully excited ... I confess I am not unduly agitated.’ He is beaten again: ‘As to the beating that doesn’t matter ... I am only very glad that you didn’t show that it hurt.’ There is a great deal of this – even given, perhaps facetiously, a domestic setting: a cricket stump should be taken to John (shades of Stalky and his friends!) and even Elsie should be squashed, sat upon. But: ‘With dearest love, and counting each day to the hols, Ever your lovingest, Pater’; ‘Your next letter must be care of Thomas Cook – Son, Cairo. Please let it be a full one. You don’t know how one hungers for news of people one loves.’

Of the two deeply loved children, Elsie, the less obsessively cherished, was perhaps the more responsive, standing in for her brother when her brother was no longer there to be corresponded with; a comfort in old age; eventually, as the formidable Mrs Bambridge, the unsleeping guardian of what she considered to be her dead father’s just privacy. John was perhaps not quite so devoted, and as a consequence was wooed with lion’s share of the bricks: a motor-bicycle at 15, a squash court at the same age, a light car shortly after his 17th birthday. A year later he would certainly have received ‘the smartest Hispano-Suiza that can be got’, thereby achieving ‘a bit of enjoyment out of life’, had he not, some ten days after expressing this innocent ambition, met his death during the battle of Loos.

But if Kipling was abounding in gifts to his son, he was even more abounding in counsel and admonition. There is almost a mystery here, since it is hard to see any adequate occasion for the oppressive and surely counterproductive solicitude for John’s scholastic progress which is a keynote of this entire collection of letters. Clearly relevant is the uneasiness of the Kipling domestic set-up. Caroline Kipling – Henry James’s ‘poor concentrated Carrie’ – was to be described by her surviving daughter as permeating the life of her family with ‘a sense of strain and worry amounting sometimes to hysteria’. Kipling himself was subject to phobias and obscure anxieties, and he had to square a confident and aggressive public stance with being a good deal managed, protected and cosseted at home. Something of all this must have rubbed off on John, but what the boy was chiefly subjected to was his father’s gospel of the day’s work.

I do hope you will go up a form this term ... You are quite all right if you will only think; when you don’t think you ought to be kicked. I regret I have not kicked you enough. I’ll look out for the next number of the Captain as I promised.

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