So Much to Hate

Bernard Porter

  • The Long Recessional: The Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling by David Gilmour
    Murray, 351 pp, £22.50, March 2002, ISBN 0 7195 5539 6

Kipling is an easy man to dislike. He wasn’t much loved in his own time, apparently, even by people – schoolmates, for example, and neighbours in Vermont – with whom he thought he was rubbing along well. In his later years he lost many of the friends he had, except the most right-wing ones and King George V, who found Kipling the only literary figure he could get on with at all. He lost them not only because of his own reactionary views, but also because of the mood they put him in – of dark, unattractive pessimism – and the way he expressed them, often with extraordinary viciousness. In 1893, hearing of the death of an MP, he hoped that if he was an Irish Home Ruler he had gone down with the cholera; on being told in 1907 that the Liberal Prime Minister Campbell-Bannerman had had a heart attack, he reacted ‘with joy’; and he wrote a poem in 1918 hoping the Kaiser would die of throat cancer. He also claimed the Liberal Government had killed King Edward VII. David Gilmour, who does the best he can to defend Kipling against his detractors, insists that some of this was not intended ‘personally’, but it is hard to see how that could be.

In fact Kipling comes over as a deeply unsympathetic character in this superb biography – as in most others – because of the hatreds he nurtured throughout most of his life. Gilmour calls the years 1905-14 his particular ‘decade of hating’, but also acknowledges that he had ‘learned to hate long before then’, and was to carry on hating long afterwards. One of his chief complaints about the English (of which more in a moment) was that they ‘did not know how to hate’. ‘I love him,’ he said of Andrew Bonar Law, almost the only politician he had any time for, ‘because he hates.’ The objects of his hatred were many: Liberals, socialists, Irish Home Rulers, the Irish Free State (the ‘Free State of Evil’), possibly the Irish themselves (‘the Orientals of the West’), colonial nationalism generally, educated Indians, missionaries, Germans (he blamed the foot and mouth outbreak of 1919 on a plot by German POWs), the United States, most politicians, artists, intellectuals, democracy, women’s suffrage and cricket.

There may have been private reasons for this. Like many who hero-worship men of action, he may have felt uncomfortable with his own slight, dark-skinned (suspiciously so, some of his more unpleasant critics thought), goggle-eyed, rather runtish appearance. He was impractical and bad at sports. His father was an artist, which ran right against the utilitarian and philistine prejudices of the circles in which he wished to be accepted in India, where he was born and began his literary career. All his life he affected to despise his own calling – writing – in comparison with what he called ‘real work’, and out of fear of being associated with the ‘feminine’ pursuit of ‘art’, insisted that it was nothing more than a ‘craft’. This was why he was able to get on so well with the famously philistine George V; but the tension must have been unbearable. (Edward Elgar suffered from much the same syndrome.) He went through hell at his first English school – christened the ‘House of Desolation’ in his memoirs – where it has been suggested he acquired his interest in cruelty. He claimed to be happier at his secondary boarding school, Westward Ho! in Devon, but it may have bugged him that it was not a proper public school – no uniforms, cadet corps or ‘beastliness’ (homosexuality) – like Haileybury, where he might have gone had his father been better off. (Later he developed a hatred for the proper public schools, too.)

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[*] Reviewed in the LRB by Stefan Collini (13 December 2001).