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.

This stick-and-carrot letter was sent to John at ten, and throughout his subsequent school career there is consternation and dismay if he drops a place at this or that, injudicious jubilation if during one week or another he goes up. ‘I always said that you had an intellect somewhere up your sleeve,’ the boy is told when 11. But eventually at his preparatory school things don’t go at all well. He is reported as ‘inclined rather to shirk difficulties’, and he isn’t taking much interest in his Greek. (He is, in simple fact, not at all an intellectual boy.) His father, however, has got him into Wellington, a school with strong Service connections, which at that time could be viewed as a very poshed-up version of Kipling’s own now defunct United Services College. Kipling inspects Wellington, and sends John a detailed and enthusiastic description of it:

Pearson’s House seems very delightful. There are about 30 chaps in it. They have each a cubicle to work and sleep in ... They look awfully jolly ... The Head of the House can give you a licking, but Pearson says it happens very rarely ... It seemed to me quite like an Oxford College in miniature.

At this interesting point in John Kipling’s destinies there is a gap of a year in such letters from his father as have come their present editor’s way. Professor Gilbert conjectures that this loss, and a similar and later loss to which we shall come, may be attributable to ‘the confusion of moving’ when John changed schools. It is much more probable that the relevant letters have been suppressed or destroyed because covering periods of difficulty in the relations between father and son which Mrs Kipling or her daughter were reluctant to think of as liable one day to come into public notice. And that even a preparatory schoolboy can turn awkward transpires amusingly at one point in the letters here published. ‘Sorry to hear about the “Children’s Song” – for which I feel I ought to apologise deeply,’ Kipling writes on 28 September 1909. The reference is to the poem that concludes Puck of Pook’s Hill. John has been ragged about it: perhaps because of its general tone (‘Teach us to bear the yoke in youth’); perhaps, on a more ribald note, on the score of

Teach us to rule ourselves alway,
Controlled and cleanly night and day.

And Kipling is right to apologise, the poem being in an uneasy cousinship with the thought of that Mr Raymond Martin, MP, whom Beetle describes to M’Turk as a Jelly-bellied Flag-flapper. But John seems to have husbanded his grievance, for on 3 February 1910 his father has to write to him again. ‘Sorry about the “Children’s Song”. You know that I didn’t write the darn thing with the faintest idea it would be so cruelly used against the young.’ It is not difficult to suppose that in his early terms at Wellington John failed to view the place favourably, whether or not it was ‘like an Oxford College in miniature’. The boy’s mistakes and dislikes would be bound to reflect themselves in his father’s anxiously supportive and admonitory letters, which would therefore do small service to the son’s memory. So if the ladies withheld this section of the correspondence they acted honourably and well. There is no call to fudge up the notion of papers lost in a flitting.

When the sequence is at length resumed, it is on a note of triumph. On 11 February 1912 Kipling writes from Switzerland:

Private. I got a note from Pearson ... asking me if I knew that you were top of the form last week. Pompey [Pearson] is awfully bucked about it. Of course I didn’t tell him I knew and I’ve never let on to him that I think you’re clever but I chortled when he wrote. Do it again, old man. By the way let us know what your skates cost and we’ll send you the money.

John didn’t ever at all notably ‘do it again’ in form. But fortunately there is soon a quite different cause for rejoicing. The circumstances, indeed, appear a little obscure. As with his father before him, defective eyesight prevents John from being much good at games, and he already knows that it bars him from the career he covets in the Navy. But he can run fairly well, and he decides to go in for his house’s Young Cup. Kipling for some reason finds it necessary to write to Pompey to say he’d like his son to do this. To John himself he sends abundant advice. ‘Don’t be confident: don’t take chances: get to work and train soberly and whether you win or lose do it like a Sahib.’ But there is something more:

You can’t afford to lose it if you are going in for the event with the idea of beating Roberts ... You are fifteen and a quarter now and I want to see you in a position where it won’t be possible for you to be beaten. I haven’t the least doubt that you played for the wopping and if it spurs you up both to work and win the Young Cup it will be a good piece of work. Only whatever you do don’t gas and jaw about the way in which you are going to win the Young Cup in order to get even with Roberts. That is vile bad form and hurts your own soul.

This comes in the same letter in which John’s second recorded beating is mentioned: the one in which he is congratulated for not showing that it hurt. So the story is not, perhaps, very obscure after all. John’s position in the school is too low-down for his years (which explains the week in which he came top). So he is still liable to be caned, and Roberts – presumably Pearson’s Head of House – canes him. But John, if he can’t clearly see a ball, can run. He trains hard, and does in fact beat Roberts for the Young Cup. It is a perfect Stalky story, and Kipling writes its coda: ‘I sat at table and lit a cigarette and did a private gloat ... I’m not an unkind man at heart so I only say I’m sorry for Roberts. It was a well-calculated and nice little revenge.’

There is no record of any further success gained by John at Wellington. Instead, his work goes rapidly to pieces, and he seems to take against school at large. His father’s high hopes continue for a while, but are companioned by anguished apprehensions, as here:

I have a notion that you are going to shoot up all round in every direction. Life’s a dam’ interesting thing, my son, and I want you to have a good life. But you won’t if you don’t dig out. I’ve just met a youth who is a slacker. My gawd, such a slacker! He gave me cold shudders at the thought that you might grow into such another. Now I must get back to my work. Dearest love from us all ...

In June 1912 Kipling had written, ‘I’d give a deal if some day I could see you head of your house’; a year later he is facing the possibility that John may be ‘superannuated’ – the term used for expelling a boy unable or unwilling to move normally up the school. It seems to me highly improbable that any English public school would have sacked a son of Rudyard Kipling on such a score, and Kipling probably knew it. But John has been otherwise troublesome. He has jibbed at going into camp with the OTC. He has been shirking games and hanging around the school tuck shop instead. (Professor Gilbert explains that this means a ‘refreshment’ shop.) From his talk his father has gained the impression that he goes about ‘rather despising the Coll’. To do this is a bad error. ‘A man who has done a good deal can enjoy the luxury of despising his associates: but a man who hasn’t must not try that game.’ Finally, John has written a letter that ‘grieved Mother a good deal’.

But Kipling has another, and distinct, worry about school life in general. He firmly believed that the ‘moral tone’ of the United Services College had been exceptionally sound, and he ascribed this largely to the fact that his beloved headmaster, Cormell Price, followed Dr Thomas Arnold in seeing to it that the boys always went to bed thoroughly tired out. That masturbation is the immediate gateway to every form of decay of mind and body and the occasion of ‘manifold early death’ had been announced to ‘Younger Members’ of the University of Oxford in a sermon by the great Dr Pusey in 1861, and it had been going strong as parental and pedagogic doctrine ever since – often, no doubt, with darker thoughts of other juvenile sexual experiments intermixed. These letters are full of the fear of this. ‘A good friendship with a good chap is a fine thing,’ John had been told when at his preparatory school. But now:

What really bothered me most was not being able to have a last jaw with you. I wanted to tell you a lot of things about keeping clear of any chap who is even suspected of beastliness. There is no limit to the trouble possible if one goes about (however innocently) with swine of that type. Give them the widest of wide berths. Whatever their merits may be in the athletic line they are at heart only sweeps and scum and all friendship or acquaintance with them ends in sorrow and disgrace. More on this subject when we meet.

It is, I suppose, inconceivable that John didn’t find that last announcement extremely disagreeable. But there is more of the same thing. Just short of his 16th birthday he is in the school sanitorium with nothing much wrong with him. He gets this:

Do be careful, and tell the other chaps to be careful, about their behaviour (you know what I mean) during these few days. Pompey evidently don’t think that sanatoria (when one is well) are good for the morals. I dam-well know they ain’t. So I entreat and exhort and command you to hang on to yourselves ... Bless you and keep straight.

Horror is surely piled on horror here. That his father should claim to remember what happens in sans! That he should have been fingering over the subject with Pompey! That he should be capable of the grotesque absurdity of ‘tell the other chaps’! John is apparently reduced to silence. The next letter from his father to have survived is dated two months later.

It begins as a commination:

Curse you,     why have you not written?

Confound you  ”      ”       ”    ”       ”     ?

Damn you         ”      ”       ”    ”       ”     ?

And it concludes: ‘I wish I didn’t miss you as much as I do, old man. You were such a huge nuisance at times but I seem to have got fond of you in some incomprehensible way ... This is just a scrawl of affection from Your loving Dad.’

In the letter preceding the unfortunate one about sanatoria Kipling had hoped ‘that a good talk between us two will clear up many of our present difficulties.’ The hope seems not to have been realised, since the family censorship operates again, and there is a second yearlong gap in the letters. During these 12 months John was removed from Wellington and sent to an Army crammer in Bournemouth; war was declared, and he immediately offered himself for a commission; rejected, perhaps on account of his poor sight, he tried to enlist as a private; at this point his father intervened with a direct appeal to Lord Roberts, who at once nominated the boy to his own regiment, the Irish Guards. John reported for duty at Warley Barracks on 14 September 1914. He was a temporary Second Lieutenant, and just 17 years and four weeks old.

The letters resume a fortnight after this date with one of the few specifically directed to Elsie. Kipling is in a state of ecstasy, and John is already a seasoned officer, skilled in the command of men:

Saturday came John in full canonicals by the 5.44 ... It was a changed John in many respects but all delightful. A grave and serious John with an adorable smile and many stories of ‘his’ men ... I am immensely pleased with our boy. The old spirit of carping and criticism has changed into a sort of calm judicial attitude. Evidently he gets on well with his men – he talks to ’em when he can, which is one of the great secrets of command ... We talked and we talked, and we talked – this grown-up man of the world and I.

Elsie is bidden to get busy, as her mother has got busy, with socks and shirts for the family hero.

And now comes a big change in what it has been judged that we should know. From monologue we move to duologue. From this point until the end of his life, the majority of John’s surviving letters home are here printed. Professor Gilbert is a little apologetic about them, as chiefly revealing ‘a taste for motor cars, music halls and elaborate dinners’. But these at least cease to be prominent when, on his 18th birthday, John reaches France. It is socks and shirts – and chocolate and the Strand magazine – that are important now. ‘A pair of my ordinary pyjamas’ and ‘that stiff hair brush of Dad’s’ would be welcome, as would ‘a really good pair of bedroom slippers (fluffy – warm with strong soles)’. There are a few unconvincing hints of amorous interests, and to these from this ‘grown-up man of the world’ Kipling tries to respond: ‘the best dictionary for French,’ he writes, ‘is a dictionary in skirts’; and he has ‘picked up several unwritable pink stories’ for John’s private ear. About what is going on in the front line, and of what may be one individual or another’s fate there, John says little. A sahib doesn’t prattle. Nor does he strike an attitude, calling attention to the tight-lipped chap he is. He talks a little about what is immediately within his view, makes his reasonable wants known, sends his love. These letters do John no discredit, but they are the product of a strikingly undeveloped mind. As one reads them, one’s thought goes back over the whole volume and one realises how entire was the doctrinaire philistinism within which he was brought up. Nothing intellectual, imaginative, speculative, aesthetic has ever been suggested to him in the whole series. If his father has ‘never so much enjoyed himself before’, it is because he has been shown some sort of mechanical contrivance. ‘Quite one of the most interesting men I have ever met’ will prove to go round building dams or to be the keeper of a zoo. ‘For goodness sake tell me what books you’d like for Xmas’ is a question that seems to expect no very eager reply. Almost the only books specifically mentioned are Marryat’s novels. An old chap called Parley, encountered on a Cook’s steamer running down the Nile, knows them by heart.

In the light of all this one comes to find a certain dignity in John Kipling’s last letters. He does show up as in some measure the son of a man of genius. He accepts, that is to say, as much as he has been permitted to understand of his father’s vision of life and notion of manhood, and he subscribes to these faithfully as he writes – finally within sound of the weapons that will destroy him.