They were all drunk

Michael Brock

  • The Letters of Rudyard Kipling. Vol I: 1872-1889 edited by Thomas Pinney
    Macmillan, 386 pp, £45.00, November 1990, ISBN 0 333 36086 9
  • The Letters of Rudyard Kipling. Vol II: 1890-1899 edited by Thomas Pinney
    Macmillan, 386 pp, £45.00, November 1990, ISBN 0 333 36087 7

If it still needs to be proved that Kipling’s realism was highly intermittent, those lines from his last years should do the job. His correspondence was sure to reach biographers and editors in the end. He could hamper, but not stop them. Ever since the launch of the Kipling rocket more than forty years earlier he had been far too famous for his letters to have been thrown away. At 24 he had not been six months in London before the Times had devoted a leader to his work. In that year, 1890, Henry James had termed him ‘the star of the hour’; R.L. Stevenson had pronounced him ‘too clever to live’; and Tennyson had judged him ‘the only one ... with the divine fire’. Nine years later, news of his illness had taken precedence in London over that of the Pope. Professor Pinney has access to some 6300 letters, drawn from 138 collections and 135 printed sources.

These two volumes which end in 1899 contain 459 letters of the 1333 available for the period. The hampering process is evident throughout. Kipling is believed to have destroyed his correspondence with his parents and with Burne-Jones, and most of his inward mail. His letters to his wife and to her mother have disappeared, almost certainly by his wife’s hand; and his daughter, Mrs Bambridge, ordered the destruction of her mother’s diaries. His wife and daughter were, however, custodians in their own fashion. They strove to eliminate the traces of his private life – but the Kipling collection in the University of Sussex results largely from their work. The late C.E. Carrington was allowed to make extracts from Caroline Kipling’s diaries for his biography. Moreover, although the letters to Mrs Edmonia Hill were bought and destroyed, they had been copied, however inaccurately. These copies have survived and are invaluable for Kipling’s last two years in India. All this destruction did not prevent views of Kipling being obtainable from his private writings. It merely ensured that the views obtained would be subject to some distortion.

Professor Pinney’s exemplary editing reduces distortion to a minimum. His prodigious learning, never flaunted, embraces every source, with a few exceptions such as the Balliol College Register and one or two Latin texts. His selection is judicious. ‘I have regarded,’ he writes, ‘any letter that discusses a question of Kipling’s art’ as having ‘a special claim to inclusion ... I have ... tried through my notes to provide a sufficient biographical context for the letters to be read connectedly ... I have not, as a rule, allowed myself to annotate ... the implicit references.’ In one or two cases this admirable restraint seems to have been taken to the point where help is denied to the reader. For instance, writing to Brander Matthews on 13 December 1894 Kipling returned, and commented on, a letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Matthews about ‘A Walking Delegate’. Nothing is said about the Roosevelt letter, although it is included in the first volume of Morison’s Roosevelt Letters and shows vividly how far Kipling’s politics diverged from those of his hero. Professor Pinney should be asked, as he toils at later volumes, to curb his urge for self-effacement.

Kipling was driven by contrasting aptitudes. His journalistic training pushed him one way, the example of his artistic father another; and, for a grandson of Wesleyan ministers, a third pressure – one towards preaching – became at times the strongest of the three. In the outcome, his literary methods did not accord with his aims as an imperialist. These letters suggest, more interestingly perhaps than any autobiography, how far he was in his early days from recognising, still more from eliminating, this basic inconsistency in his life and work. In March 1890 he wrote from London that his business was ‘to get into touch with the common folk here, to find out what they desire, hope, or fear’. By the early months of 1891 he had formed the notion, as he wrote in Something of Myself, ‘of trying to tell to the English something of the world outside England – not directly but by implication ... Bit by bit, my original notion grew into a vast, vague conspectus ... of the whole sweep and meaning of things and effort and origins throughout the Empire.’ To give the British of the 1890s an undistorted picture of an entity as complex as their Empire would have demanded a highly controlled style of writing, systematically acquired knowledge and exceptionally good judgment. Kipling commanded none of these acquirements. In the techniques of broadcasting his message he was a master. His deficiency lay in judging what its content should be.

Kipling declined on principle to control his writing. ‘When your Daemon is in charge,’ he wrote in Something of Myself, ‘do not try to think consciously. Drift, wait, and obey.’ ‘Good work,’ Dick Heldar tells Maisie in The Light that Failed, ‘has nothing to do with ... the person who does it. It’s put into him or her from outside.’ Kipling did not mean that to apply only to the visual arts. In these years, moreover, he remained ignorant about his own country, and he made little effort to increase his knowledge of the Empire or to keep it up to date. Having left India, after a flying visit, a few days before his 26th birthday, he declined to return. ‘There is much news of Anglo-India in my life,’ he wrote in July 1899: ‘it has all changed. The Curzons wanted me to come out and stay with them – but Viceroys are not exactly my line.’ In England he spent his time in rural Wiltshire and South Coast resorts. In April 1894 he was writing, ‘I do not like London,’ and in June: ‘I know very little of my own country outside London.’ In the following October he reported from Vermont: ‘I am glad to get away to sunshine and dry air. My affection for England is in large part for the Headquarters of the Empire and I cannot say that the land itself fills me with comfort or joy.’ Kipling’s defects of judgment were constantly apparent during the 1890s. His decision to have his brother-in-law arrested in May 1896 led to his humiliating retreat from Vermont. In 1898 he acknowledged the folly of his attack on Harpers over copyright some years earlier, and then in the following year attacked Putnam over a similar issue with still more disastrous results. In September 1898, when Theodore Roosevelt had been nominated for the New York Governorship, Kipling wrote ineptly urging him to become ‘a colonial administrator’. Roosevelt was elected Governor, and became President of the United States three years later.

Kipling made up for the gaps in his knowledge by his amazing speed in acquiring the background material for each story. He was not dependent on a large stock of factual information, ‘On Greenhow Hill’ and ‘William the Conqueror’ would appear in any list of his best stories: yet the Yorkshire background from the first came largely from talks with his father, while the scenes in the famine area for the second were derived from his one and only rail journey through South India.

Kipling’s American friends recognised in his writing the defects of his qualities. They did not suppose that abilities as spontaneous and exuberant as his could be kept unfailingly under tight control. John Hay commented from New Hampshire, after Kipling had paid him a three-day visit in 1895: ‘How a man can keep up so intense an intellectual life without going to Bedlam is amazing. He rattled off the framework of about forty stories while he was with us.’ ‘It is not strange,’ Charles Eliot Norton pronounced in the Atlantic Monthly., ‘that the insistence of his various and vigorous talents should often, during youth, when the exercise of talents is so delightful and so delusive, have interfered with his perfect obedience to the higher law of his inward being.’ In response, Kipling confessed to Norton: ‘I love the fun and riot of writing (I am daily and nightly perplexed with my own private responsibilities before God) and there are times when it is just a comfort and a delight to let out with the pen and ink – so long as it doesn’t do anyone any moral harm.’

A 25-year-old author with his way to make could hardly allow his imperial mission to determine his style in either his writings or his way of life. Where and how Kipling lived from 1892 to 1896 was determined, not by his zeal for the Empire, but by his marriage to an American and by the accident of their bank’s failure during their honeymoon tour. He needed quiet and privacy. Much of his travelling, even in the Empire, was undertaken in search of health. His extensive reading during this period reflected the interests of a literary man rather than those of an imperialist. While he spoke for the men of the new professions, he followed the older models. In literary terms, Kipling was not the ‘man from nowhere’ of Barrie’s phrase. He was steeped in Browning and Tennyson, admired Emerson and Matthew Arnold, and studied Sidney Lanier on metre.

Kipling’s failure to learn about the British Empire, and about the British electorate on which its central direction depended, was not entirely attributable to circumstances outside his control. As the letters make plain, he could not break free, in his views on public affairs, from the Lahore Club. The Liberals and Fabians whom he encountered when he first arrived in London derided his ‘poor little Gods of the East’, as he recorded in Something of Myself Unwilling – and perhaps afraid – to enter into discussion with them, he was ready with pathological reasons for their deviance. In December 1889, when one of the Macmillan ladies told him at dinner that India was fit for self-government and that English Liberals were ‘very much in earnest about putting things right there’, he replied: ‘Oh, that’s not earnestness ... that’s hysteria. You haven’t got enough to divert your mind.’ Reporting nine years later that G.C. Beresford (McTurk in Stalky and Co) had joined the Fabian Society, he commented: ‘He was always a bit of a socialist and he also got a sunstroke in India.’

During these years Kipling did not consort enough with leading British Conservatives to gain an insight into their minds. In his own country far more than in America, he remained an outsider. His British friends were not of the stature of Norton, Theodore Roosevelt, John Hay and Henry Adams. ‘I mistrust politicians when they eat with literary men,’ he wrote in 1896, after dining under Arthur Balfour’s chairmanship. Though fascinated by power he was seldom at ease with the powerful. At 22 he had written that, although the Viceroy had been ‘awfully sweet’ when the Saturday Review praised Plain Tales from the Hills, ‘Simla always makes me savage.’ Perhaps the accusations there that his parents were social climbers had made him wary.

In the 1890s these defects did no great harm. He would have been mistaken to include moult detail in his poems about the Empire. Criticised for his poem on the Canadian preferential tariff of 1897, he replied: ‘When and if there is another edition of my verses, I will do my best to put in Newfoundland’s voice also, but the task is not a pleasant one. If I leave out all reference I am taxed with “injustice”. If I make a pointed reference, as I did in “Our Lady of the Snows”, I am ... supposed to be scaring away immigrants by misrepresenting the climate of the Dominion.’

In 1889, when he was crossing the United States and reporting on his travels to his Indian papers, he took some liberties with his material. The characters ‘met on the road’, he told Mrs Hill, ‘weren’t very interesting; but I had to make ’em so ... A good deal of my good name depends on these letters and I want to make ’em worthy of the illustrations. Aydemi!’ It was the penalty of early fame when international copyright was lax that Kipling could not prevent republication of writings such as this. Those first days apart, he maintained a high standard of literary integrity. His vision of the Empire might be one-sided: but he conveyed it with complete honesty. He would not continue with a line of stories once his Daemon had ceased to guide his hand. He declined to write to order (to the annoyance, in the Diamond Jubilee year, of the Master of the Queen’s Music).

Moberly Bell had the qualities of judgment which Kipling lacked. Usually he was happy to print the latter’s verse in the Times. But he did not use the ‘Hymn Before Action’, Kipling’s melodramatic response to the Venezuela issue and to the Kaiser’s message to Kruger after the Jameson Raid; and in September 1898 he placed ‘The Truce of the Bear’ in Literature (the precursor of the TLS), and not in the Times itself. The ‘vulgarity’ and ‘swagger’ of some of Kipling’s writing brought critical complaints but do not seem to have worried most of his contemporaries. During the Fleet manoeuvres of September 1898 he recited some of his verses at a ship’s concert. The young men who then carried him shoulder high round the quarterdeck had little taste for nice discriminations. Fortunately their loud voices could sometimes be drowned by Indian echoes. The effects of the Lahore Club were not wholly had. There would have been no ‘Recessional’ but for its members’ insistence that white men should not boast.

Kipling’s most serious difficulty did not come to light during the years covered by these volumes. He depended on encountering the incidents which would one day bring his Daemon into play. Once these had been absorbed, they might lie ready but unused for years. Although Kim was not published until 1901, Kipling gave an outline of it in a letter written nine years earlier. Unfortunately, as the best material from his notebooks was used, it was not replaced by entries of equal merit. ‘I’m too respectable now’, he wrote in February 1889, ‘to mix among the lower-class natives as I used to do.’ By December 1897 there was no water in the spring which Hay had seen bubbling just over two years earlier. ‘Nothing has come to me,’ Kipling told Norton. ‘I am not bothering,’ he added. ‘Maybe South Africa will unlock something.’ A few days later Henry James gave one of the most perceptive of his many assessments of Kipling’s work. ‘His talent,’ James told Grace Norton, ‘I think quite diabolically great ... But my view of his prose future has much shrunken in the light of one’s increasingly observing how little of life he can make use of.’

Professor Pinney’s second volume ends in one of Kipling’s worst years. An ill-judged journey to New York in January 1899 brought the death of his daughter, Josephine, and gave him pneumonia which left his lungs permanently weakened. ‘I don’t think,’ he told Henry James in September, ‘I shall ever be quite strong again.’ He might have said the same of the imperialism he had cherished. Stalky and Co appeared in book form a week before the Boer War began. It ended with an invitation to the reader to ‘imagine Stalky let loose on the south side of Europe with a sufficiency of Sikhs and a reasonable prospect of loot’. The Boers put paid to nonsense of that kind in a few weeks. The imperialist heyday in the Nineties had the air of intoxication; and the remark about Kipling attributed to Stevenson applies with particular force to that decade. ‘All the good fairies came to his christening; and they were all drunk.’