Internal Combustion

David Trotter

  • The Letters of Rudyard Kipling. Vol. III: 1900-1910 edited by Thomas Pinney
    Macmillan, 482 pp, £50.00, December 1995, ISBN 0 333 63733 X

Day after day in the course of October 1907, Rilke returned to the two rooms at the Salon d’Automne devoted to Cézanne’s memory. The letters he wrote to his wife describe his intense admiration for the ‘emptying out of love in anonymous work’ which had enabled Cézanne to render the ‘substantiality’ of the natural world. What finally persuaded him, however, of the essential loneliness of Cézanne’s effort to strip away the preconceptions which separate us from that world was not the pictures themselves, but a quirk of scheduling: ‘the Salon no longer exists; in a few days it will be replaced by an exhibition of automobiles which will stand there, long and dumb, each one with its own idée fixe of velocity.’ The public wanted its preconceptions back in a hurry.

Kipling should have been there. He was having trouble with his Daimler. At the end of September, he decided that enough was enough: ‘the motor goes to her birthplace to have her innards repaired.’ The Daimler was the latest in a long line of idées fixes which included a Locomobile, a Siddeley and several Lanchesters. In each case, the idea of velocity supervened effortlessly on the bitter experience of breakdowns and spills. The second of his Lanchesters smelled like a fish shop and spat boiling water over its occupants. But that did not stop him commending the vehicle to its manufacturers in glowing terms. ‘I am, after three years’ experience, rather a believer in the Lanchester type. It sees to me that in ease of suspension, strength of brake, luggage room and sobriety of appearance, the type embodies many of the things that will be considered essential in the car of the future.’ The example is trivial, but the habit of mind it reveals is not. Velocity was only one of a number of idées fixes which created, by their fixedness, the margin of safety, or room for manoeuvre, without which Kipling’s imagination would not have functioned at all. The result was what Ezra Pound called ‘Kipling’s “Bigod, I-know-all-about-this” manner.’

Henry James became acquainted with the first Lanchester when it broke down outside his house in Rye, in October 1902. The same vehicle conveyed him, a year later, on a return visit to the Kipling establishment at Bateman’s, in Sussex. During this period James became an astute (and mildly pained) observer of Kipling’s idées fixes. He thought Bateman’s, which dated from the time of Charles I, an ‘oddly discordant setting for its owner’s furious modernism and journalism’. But it was one of Kipling’s talents not to be abashed by discordance. In a letter written for publication in Filson Young’s The Complete Motorist (1904), Kipling revealed that for him the main purpose and pleasure of motoring was not convenience, but the ‘discovery of England’: ‘To me it is a land full of stupefying marvels and mysteries; where all the exhibits are alive and real and yet none the less delightfully mixed up with books.’ Complete motoring had turned England into a museum or theme-park. ‘Horses, after all, are only horses; but the car is a time-machine on which one can slide from one century to another at no more trouble than the pushing forward of a lever.’ The smoothness and audacity of the narrative transitions between ancient and modern in Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906) and Rewards and Fairies (1910) may owe something to the stinking Lanchester: or, rather, to the idée fixe of velocity it embodied.

In October 1901, in a letter full of warm and discerning praise for Kim (1901), James had advised Kipling to ‘chuck public affairs, which are an ignoble scene’. It was, however, not chucking public affairs, or not being able to chuck public affairs, which shaped Kipling’s life during the Edwardian years and set the tone of the bulk of his correspondence. Even the award in 1907 of the Nobel Prize for Literature and two honorary degrees failed to deflect him from politics. ‘I had rather a tumultuous year in the way of what is technically called recognition and was disgusted to find how very little of it really touches one.’ What did undeniably touch him was South Africa, where he and his family spent every winter from 1900 to 1908. Kipling’s passion for South Africa became almost as vivid as his passion for India. It was a passion not only for a landscape and a way of life, but for an emergent polity. He referred to the part of the year he spent at the Cape as ‘my “political” time’, and he did not hesitate to enter the ignoble scene of public affairs in support of the Imperial point of view. However, the fruits of his political time were mixed: exhilaration at a war won and despair at a peace lost.

It is appropriate that the first letter included in this volume should complain about Robert Buchanan, who had found in Kipling’s work ‘all that is most deplorable, all that is most retrograde and savage, in the restless and uninstructed Hooliganism of the time’. The Boer War provided plenty of scope for hooligans. The notorious celebrations sparked off by the relief of Mafeking in May 1900 were a world-class example of retrogression. Kipling thought they weren’t savage enough – not, at any rate, in the village of Rottingdean, where he was then living. Rottingdean was instructed to look a bit more lively. ‘Everyone tells me that the London demonstrations were simply marvellous. We had a merry little riot down here – turned out en masse and formed processions and shouted ourselves hoarse.’ Riots in which a liberal or two got hammered were a bonus. From this point of view, a pro-Boer meeting held in Cape Town in January 1902 came right up to the mark. ‘Some of the Sussex Volunteers returned from the front, got on the platform, and – well you can guess what happened. It took the police all the evening to clear up the road, and if there hadn’t been a heavy fall of rain there’d have been a night’s rioting.’

So much for the enemy within. But what about the enemy without? Had the ‘wily Boer’ been hammered hard enough? Kipling had his doubts. The letter that commends the Sussex Volunteers on their exertions also suggests that the British had fought the war like a Sunday school picnic rather than a military campaign. ‘Sherman would have wound it up in six months,’ he told an American correspondent in February 1901, ‘but we seem to delight in stopping to caress the enemy.’ The optimism produced by eventual victory did not last long. When the Liberal Administration which came to power in 1906 set about restoring self-government to the former Boer republics, Kipling gave up hope. ‘Isn’t it a holy mess? Less than 5 years after a big war the enemy are given control of the revenues and administration of the conquered country!’ A letter of July 1908 speaks of his recent emergence from a ‘trough of blank, bloody pessimism’. But it also hints at the sustenance to be found in blank, bloody pessimism when it characterises the writer as an ‘itching nonconformist’: someone resigned to perpetual opposition.

Kipling’s political dismay, evident throughout these letters, rests on and is continuously nurtured by an idée fixe. In South Africa, he found, it was the same old imperial story: betrayal of the men in the field, the pioneers and the proconsuls, by the incompetence and corruption of the government at Westminster. The work of years, he told Edmonia Hill in June 1906, had been thrown away for a ‘whim’ of the English electorate. ‘You know how civilians in India have to grin and bear the wreck of their administrative hopes now and then. Imagine a whole sub-continent going in fear and distrust of its own people at home; and you get some notion of it.’ The dismay is a self-important dismay, and its self-importance resides in the miniature excess of the emphasised pronoun. Mrs Hill already knows how ‘civilians’, whether in India or in South Africa, are betrayed. That particular idea has been well fixed. But the idea is not the point. Or not the whole point. The point is the performance which, by means of the line written under a pronoun, overrides – such is the urgency of the message it bears – the conventions of ordinary language. Kipling himself bristles in that mark of the pen. Mrs Hill will find him there, will acknowledge him there. Since she knows the story of betrayal already, her entire attention will be for the emphasis, for the man himself.

Many of Kipling’s most compelling letters are letters which tell people what they already know, and do so by disavowing their own medium, the written word. ‘If I could only get at you for twenty minutes I could make you see a thousand things I can’t set down.’ The person not got at sufficiently in this case was H.A. Gwynne, editor of the Standard, and one of Kipling’s closest political allies. Most of the thousand things would not have been news to him. Like Mrs Hill, he was to be made to see, not the things themselves, but the man who had seen them. The function of this rhetorical excess was to bind together the community of itching nonconformists. In Anticipations (1902), H.G. Wells contemplated with equanimity the likely disappearance of a number of institutions Kipling might have been thought to cherish, including ‘permanent monogamous marriage’. But he also waxed sardonic on the subject of cavalry generals of the old school, and that was enough to ensure sainthood.

I am immensely pleased that you are in the game too. After the idiots have done rowing and swearing and prevaricating they’ll begin to take stock of the situation. Then they’ll call you and me hysterical liars and a few other choice names and they’ll do about 5% of the things they ought to have done years ago and pat’emselves on the back for another three generations.

The jocular abbreviation (‘pat’emselves on the back’) is the equivalent of the emphasised pronoun in the letter to Mrs Hill. The nonconformists have in effect agreed to attend to each other’s itches. In the letters, outbreaks of jocular abbreviation usually mean that one prophet is semaphoring to another across a vast tract of political wilderness.

Of course, Kipling’s self-importance did not rely on rhetoric alone. He had a truly remarkable eye for the supervisory role. Whenever the chance arose to tell someone how to do something, he seized it. When he reported that his ‘real work’ during the summer of 1900 had been connected with a rifle-club, he didn’t mean that he himself was, after hours of practice, ready and able to pot the marauding Hun. Far from it. ‘Can you imagine me in corduroy clothes and a squash hat with the club ribbon round it in charge of a firing-party of four on the ground? An hour of standing above the rifles, with one eye on the targets and the other on the men (some of ’em have queer notions about shooting) is rather an experience.’ It’s amazing they didn’t strangle him with his own club ribbon. Similarly, the unfortunate Gwynne had barely got his backside onto the editorial chair at the Standard before he was being told how to do his job. ‘The business of an editor is, as you know, not to write but to get the men who can, brigade them and edit them.’ This begins to look like Kipling’s ultimate fantasy (and ultimate margin of safety): to brigade the men who brigaded the men.