- Rudyard Kipling by Martin Seymour-Smith
Macdonald, 373 pp, £16.95, February 1989, ISBN 0 356 15852 7
Speculation, Leon Edel remarks in his one-volume life of Henry James, is ‘the stock-in-trade of all biographers’. But if all biographers speculate, some do so more scrupulously and convincingly than others. Edel, for instance, is both meticulous and plausible. The same can hardly be said of Martin Seymour-Smith in his new critical biography of Kipling. In addition to being one of the most lopsided lives ever written – 23 chapters on the first forty years, only two chapters on the last thirty – this is also one of the most incorrigible in its guesswork. Indeed, Seymour-Smith’s claim to have been ‘boldly speculative’ deserves to rank with Biography’s great understatements.
Of the many areas of Kipling’s life exposed to the Seymour-Smith speculation-machine, none are ‘reconstructed’ more fully than his childhood and his sexuality. Seymour-Smith’s handling of these is a reliable guide to the method, approach and worth of the book as a whole. The standard account of Kipling’s childhood goes briefly like this: happy, indulged Anglo-Indian boy is transported at the age of six with three-year-old sister Trix to England, in line with normal Anglo-Indian practice, and left with a Southsea couple, Captain and Mrs Holloway; the parents tragically fail to explain this ‘abandonment’ to the children; and, especially after the death of Captain Holloway, the boy suffers the acutest misery at the hands of Mrs Holloway, an Evangelical of the most hell-threatening type, and of her son, an inventive bully; after five years, when the boy is starting to go blind, his parents return and take him away, leaving his unpersecuted sister in Southsea.
This account derives from Kipling’s story ‘Baa, Baa, Black Sheep’ (1888), the opening of The Light That Failed (1891) and the first chapter of his posthumously-published autobiography Something of Myself (1937), and is supported by his sister’s reminiscences. Most of the previous biographers – Hilton Brown (1945), Sir Angus Wilson (1977), Lord Birkenhead (1978) – have accepted the Kiplings’ version as literally true. Certainly no one, not even Charles Carrington, who takes a less literal view in his official biography (1955), has ever seriously maintained that Kipling made it all up. Not until Seymour-Smith, that is. He has simply decided that the received account is a lie, a self-invented myth, which Kipling later told himself and the world in order to manufacture a suitably damaged childhood and to punish his mother. (His sister incidentally supported the lie in order to grab some of the limelight.) That he can produce absolutely no evidence to back up this counter-myth doesn’t seem to deter him.
Here he is on the question of Kipling’s silence, as a child, about his suffering:
Either he said nothing much, or they [his parents] did not believe him, or they even privately believed that he had been deserving of such treatment. There were perhaps two ‘monsters’ in Southsea during those years.
There really is a mystery here, unless Kipling deliberately manufactured by far the larger part, if not all, of his sufferings expressly in order to appeal to his mother’s conscience, or perhaps for some other reason. In that case he must already have held very dark secrets indeed in the recesses of his mind. But then his fiction abounds in examples of such darkness. He would, in such a case, have been so keen on a subtle sort of revenge that he was prepared to sacrifice his own happiness in order to enjoy it. And, as we shall see, that is possible. It was the sort of thing people would do to one another in some of his fiction. The other alternative is that Mrs Holloway really was a mistress of subtle terror. That is possible: but, as we have seen, there are serious objections.
Is there really a mystery here or has Seymour-Smith merely invented one? Kipling offered his own explanation for his silence in Something of Myself: ‘Children tell little more than animals, for what comes to them they accept as eternally established. Also, badly-treated children have a clear notion of what they are likely to get if they betray the secrets of a prison-house before they are clear of it.’ Seymour-Smith finds this preposterous (‘This cannot be true’) and brushes it briskly aside for the more exciting supposition that perhaps there were ‘two “monsters” ’ in the house in Southsea. But of course he doesn’t really want two ‘monsters’ at all and is soon busily working up hypotheses about ‘very dark secrets indeed’ and ‘a subtle sort of revenge’ until – hey presto! – we suddenly find ourselves expected to pick one ‘monster’, and it is all too obvious which one we are supposed to choose.
This is not to deny that Kipling could have made it all up, just as Mrs Holloway (despite the disbelieving cliché) could have been ‘a mistress of subtle terror’: but why are we offered only two choices? Seymour-Smith is somewhat condescending towards Carrington as a biographer – while sucking up egregiously to Sir Angus Wilson, whom at one point he manages to describe within five lines as ‘sensitive’, ‘truly distinguished’, ‘critically and psychologically knowing’, having a ‘heart of gold’ and ‘humane’ – but Carrington’s unsensational presentation of the Southsea years carries more conviction than Seymour-Smith’s sandcastle of conjecture. Carrington’s view is that Kipling’s version of events is ‘true’ to the feelings of fear and oppression that Mrs Holloway inspired in him as a child, but that this doesn’t mean that to others she mightn’t have appeared a ‘good woman and a good housewife’. In other words, Carrington is open to the idea that Kipling’s version may be intensely subjective – not the same thing as a lie – but this openness does not send him off into Seymour-Smithian suppositions about Harry Holloway, the son, ‘doing things’ to Kipling at night or about the depiction of Auntie Rosa (Mrs Holloway’s fictional counterpart in ‘Baa, Baa, Black Sheep’) being a displacement of Kipling’s vengeful feelings towards his mother. Why Seymour-Smith should entertain such notions has more to do with his theories about Kipling’s sexuality than with anything remotely demonstrable from Kipling’s childhood.
In the introduction he claims that Kipling’s sexuality (by which he means his ‘homosexuality’) is a topic that he ‘had wanted to labour no more than necessary’, and indeed that he has ‘treated’ it at all ‘only in order to explain certain hitherto inexplicable things’. This makes the right noises and may lead the unwary to expect a considered and judicious discussion. After all, there’s no reason now why anyone should feel especially upped, downed or anything by Kipling’s sexual orientation whatever it turns out to be. At the same time, it is reasonable to expect from a ‘homosexual interpretation’ of a figure not usually considered homosexual that the reader should be able to take it seriously.
Just how seriously it is possible to take the kind of tosh contained in the following passage is open to question. ‘He’ is Wolcott Balestier – brother of Kipling’s future wife Carrie – who died young of typhoid and is Seymour-Smith’s candidate as Kipling’s ‘lover’.
Suppose that, knowing he was dying and having nothing more to lose, he told Carrie ... of the nature of Kipling’s friendship for him? Of the nature of their relationship? Of how he, too, felt about Kipling? Perhaps, a decent man at heart, but too ambitious, he confessed to Carrie that he had used Kipling’s ‘unnatural’ love for him, that he had put him into a very bad way, that he had set his life up so that he would never dare to be married for fear of how he would acquit himself, of how he, a man of ‘unnatural’ appetites, could ever care for and protect a wife, in the way in which proper men should? ‘I ruined him, Carrie, but you love him, tell him that you know, that I told you – and that you’ll accept him even so. Would you do that for me, Carrie? Give him children, make him feel normal in the eyes of the World, he’ll change, he’ll put all that behind him.’
There’s a marvellous absurdity about a passage like this which makes one wonder, not for the first time, whether the whole book isn’t really a monumental spoof of this kind of ‘psycho-biography’. (Among many other things there has already been ‘bold speculation’ about Kipling’s ‘idealised homosexual fantasies’, his ‘involuntary emissions’ and even how much good it might have done Mrs Thatcher had she gone to bed with Meryl Streep and/or Arthur Scargill.) But no: the book is clearly not a spoof. Seymour-Smith is being quite serious; he is, he says, aware that ‘some critics and readers will call me “morbid”. I sympathise with them.’ To which one can only reply that ‘morbid’ may not be the only thing he gets called.
This wild conjecturing seems a pity, not so much on grounds of taste (though some of it is distinctly tacky), but because a less fantastically-conducted discussion of Kipling’s possible homosexuality would have had its interest and its value. The problem, as usual, is lack of real evidence. One can point to Kipling’s misogyny, his adulation of young subalterns, his mother-worship, to the ‘male bonding’ in his work and the indisputably close friendship with Wolcott Balestier – and on the basis of this raise the possibility that he was homosexual. But in order to make a credible case, to posit an entirely new reading of him and his work, one needs to produce some documentary evidence.
Trying to offer documentary evidence of T.S. Eliot’s ‘homosexuality’ in T.S. Eliot’s Personal Waste Land, James Miller could come up with very little. In Kipling’s case, Seymour-Smith can offer a little more but not much. It amounts to this: an 1886 lettter from Kipling (21 and still a journalist in India) to Crofts, one of his old masters at Westward Ho!; a scatter of references in letters to his son John at school (c. 1912) about avoiding chaps who engage in ‘beastliness’; a 1917 letter to an unidentified friend about the friend’s son (or nephew?) who has obviously just been expelled from Westward Ho! for said ‘beastliness’; and a 1928 entry from Hugh Walpole’s diary.
Of the letters the most interesting is the first one to Crofts in which Kipling is seething with anger because Dunsterville (‘Stalky’) has just told him that M.H. Pugh, his old housemaster, ‘suspected’ him at school. This discovery, and the shock it caused him, can clearly be connected both to Kipling’s later protestations about the ‘cleanness’ of Westward Ho! and to the unpleasant vehemence with which he wrote to his son about ‘beastliness’. So far so good. But how much further will it really take us – as far as this kind of broad-spectrum hinting? ‘Of course there is no way of knowing whether and/or how Kipling dealt with his sexual frustrations during the years of his apprenticeship in India, or indeed whether he did not yield to the temptations of other boys (or Price – or even another master) at Westward Ho!’ (Price is Cormell Price, the headmaster of Westward Ho! and a close family friend.)
Seymour-Smith himself concedes that ‘no one can know the answer to such questions’: but there is a limit to how many unanswerable questions you can ask, how many unsupported/unsupportable speculations you can raise, and still keep your credibility as a biographer. One the evidence of the letters, one can certainly argue that Kipling strongly disapproved of homosexuality but this in itself is hardly evidence that he was consciously (or unconsciously) homosexual.
This leaves the entry in Hugh Walpole’s diary. As evidence, it is by no means unequivocal, but it is undeniably more promising than the letters. It is given the full treatment:
when asked by Hugh Walpole – a lifelong paedophile who had offered himself to Henry James (who answered Si vieillesse pouvait) – what he thought about the row concerning the banning of Radclyffe Hall’s monotonous, courageous lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness, [Kipling] answered, in Walpole’s words, that there was
too much of the abnormal in all of us to play around with it. Hates opening up reserves. All the same he’d had friends once and again he’d done more for than for any woman. Luckily Ma Kipling doesn’t hear this – but she’s had her ear at his keyhole for so long that, without hearing anything, she nevertheless suspects and turns her dull eye on to me as much as to say: ‘Now the moment you’re tiresome you go, so if you want to stay with him you’d better behave.’ Nor do I blame her. She’s a good strong-minded woman, who has played watch-dog to him so long that she knows now just how to save him from any kind of disturbance, mental, physical or spiritual. That’s her job and she does it superbly ... so she takes him, wraps him up in her bosom and conveys him back to their hard-chaired home. He is quite content.
It is significant that Carrington cuts the critical parts of the remarks about Carrie ... when he quotes from this passage of the vain but good-hearted Walpole’s diary. He was probably aware that Elsie Bambridge [Kipling’s surviving daughter] would not have read Rupert Hart-Davis’s biography of Walpole, where it was first quoted. The above quotation (especially the word ‘suspects’, which reinforces other evidence, and of course the odd sentence beginning ‘All the same he’d had friends once ... ’) seems to speak for itself: in those days of oppression homosexuals recognised and appreciated one another, even if they muted that recognition in deference to custom. By that time Kipling was probably ‘not homosexual’, but if he was anything sexual at all, and it is hard not be be, then he would dwell emotionally in homosexual memories.
First we’re given the ‘witness’, that ‘lifelong paedophile’ Hugh Walpole (wasn’t it young men he went for rather than children?); then the strategic use of the anecdote about Henry James (in another version of which the Master utters the much less Jamesian ‘I can’t, I cant’). Presumably this is all included to set up a suitable ambience for a scene in which, as Seymour-Smith sees it, one homosexual writer introduces the topic of censorship with reference to a currently banned lesbian novel and is semi-covertly tipped the wink of recognition by another writer who is ‘probably “not homosexual” ’ by then but may be dwelling ‘emotionally in homosexual memories’.
If Seymour-Smith is so certain that the diary extract depicts this kind of scene, why does he cut the beginning of Walpole’s remarks? What Walpole wrote was: ‘I asked [Kipling] at luncheon whether he approved of censorship (apropos of this tiresome stupid Well of Loneliness). No, he doesn’t approve of the book. Too much of the abnormal in all of us to play around with it ... ’ It is hard to avoid the suspicion (to use one of his favourite words) that Seymour-Smith cuts and adapts this because the original doesn’t create quite the impression he’s after. It is admittedly a minor point that he substitutes his own opinion of The Well of Loneliness (‘monotonous, courageous’) for Walpole’s (‘tiresome stupid’): but the discovery that Kipling didn’t ‘approve’ of the novel is more significant. What makes the omission damaging is that it deliberately disguises the fact that the promising remark ‘Too much of the abnormal in all of us to play around with it’ was made in the context of this lack of approval and might well have been an impersonal generalisation rather than a fragment of personal confession. This is not to forget the ‘odd sentence’ or Ma Kipling’s ‘suspicions’, which, according to how reliable we consider the now ‘vain but good-hearted’ Hugh Walpole, are worth consideration. What we make of ‘All the same he’d had friends once and again he’d done more for than for any woman’ will depend on what exactly we imagine Kipling said and how we imagine he said it.
It does seem to me that the diary extract lends some support to the idea that Kipling had what one might call a homosexual sensibility and that he himself was aware of this. To argue more than that on the evidence currently available is to impose late 20th-century attitudes and expectations on a period which had different attitudes and expectations about homosexuality. There is also something distinctly anachronistic in the sensationalist (often prurient) way in which Seymour-Smith presents Kipling’s ‘homosexuality’. A remark like ‘Doing his marital duty, was he not sodomising (O shameful thought!) Wolcott?’ reintroduces precisely the tone of voice that the last twenty years or so have been trying to discard.While claiming on the one hand that no one need feel outraged at the idea that Kipling was homosexual, he simultaneously reinforces the notion that to be homosexual is abnormal. Seymour-Smith’s life of Robert Graves was respectful, sympathetic and engrossing; his book on Kipling is not so much a critical biography as a poor relation of Flaubert’s Parrot or Anthony Burgess’s highly speculative novel about Shakespeare, Nothing Like the Sun.