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The Man Who Would Be Good

In a valedictory appeal Rudyard Kipling begged posterity to spare him the attention of a biographer:

If I have given you delight
By aught that I have done,
Let me lie quiet in that night
Which shall be yours anon:

And for the little, little, span
The dead are borne in mind,
Seek not to question other than
The books I leave behind.

The biography “business,” he once complained, was “a bit too near the Higher Cannibalism to please” him. “Ancestor worship” might be all very well, but he hated the way biographers served their subjects up “filleted or spiced, or ‘high.”’1 On visiting Wal-ter Scott’s house in Scotland, he felt “vehemently sick” and decided that “when such as he have done their work they should be left with only their works for witness after them.”

Kipling did his best to protect his contemporaries from aspiring cannibals. He confessed to burning his letters from Mark Twain, and it seems certain that his correspondence from Henry James, Thomas Hardy, and Robert Louis Stevenson also ended up on the bonfire. He was disgusted by the trade in writers’ letters—“selling chunks of dead friends”—and told a correspondent in 1921 that he never kept letters, his “view being that friendship is too intimate a matter to share with the public after one’s friends have passed over.”2

Pyromania at home was not of course difficult to gratify. But to protect his own life from investigation, he had to seek out and retrieve the letters he had written to others. After his parents’ deaths he indulged in a frenzy of burning, according to his sister, and later he seems to have ensured that his letters to his uncle, the painter Burne-Jones, and nearly all those to his wife were also destroyed. “For more than twenty years,” he observed in 1915, “I have done my best to try and get all such letters and papers into my possession.”

Kipling’s widow continued the process after his death, buying her husband’s correspondence from impecunious recipients in order to burn it, a strategy that was not, however, invariably successful: she managed to obtain the (entirely innocent) letters written to Edmonia Hill in India (which have subsequently disappeared) but not before typewritten copies had been made (which are now at the University of Sussex). The Kiplings’ surviving daughter, Elsie Bambridge, was also a zealous guardian of her father’s reputation—she dismissed the suggestion that a volume of letters might be published—but, realizing that a biography was inevitable, she decided to control it by handcuffing the biographer. When the first aspirant, the second Lord Birkenhead, proved insufficiently respectful, she censored the entire work (it was not published until 1978, when she and he were both dead). His replacement, Charles Carrington, complained in private about her restrictions but managed to publish a fine book in his lifetime—although he admitted in the preface that the influence of Mrs. Bambridge had been so great that her name should have appeared alongside his on the title page.3

So what availed (as Kipling might have put it) all this censorship and cremation? “Not much” is the answer. A good deal of revealing and important material has clearly perished, but the Kiplings must have realized how much remained in remote places all over the world. When a man is hailed at the age of twenty-four as the new Dickens, people are bound to preserve his letters. Marlboro College in Vermont carefully retains his orders for rose bushes.

The family can be forgiven, however, for not anticipating the birth of Thomas Pinney, the world’s leading Kipling scholar, who for twenty years has been hunting down survivors of that frenetic burning. As he noted in the introduction to his first volume, Professor Pinney had by 1990 collected some 6,300 letters drawn from 138 collections and 135 printed sources. Many of them are social notes or business letters and have not been printed: students interested in those rose bushes will need to examine the evidence in Vermont. But more than a third are being published in this magnificent series, which will eventually extend to six volumes—an admirable feat of scholarship that, while thwarting Kipling’s intentions, serves him well and provides an invaluable source for his life. Pinney is the most meticulous of editors, and his annotations at the end of each letter supply information on almost every person, every place, and every event mentioned in the text. Even the most insignificant detail, such as a boat-building yard in Lowestoft visited by Kipling, is not allowed to pass without a request to the Suffolk County Libraries for information on its identity.

Kipling was not a natural letter writer, and certainly he did not set out to write “literary letters.” But their very artlessness and immediacy make them all the more important as a biographical source. He was not courting posterity: he was writing to tell his correspondents what he was thinking and doing at that moment.

The first volume covers Kipling’s life in India, where he returned, after an eleven-year absence, at the age of sixteen, and where he lived for seven years, working as a journalist and publishing his early volumes of verse and short stories. He arrived not of course as a ready-made imperialist but as a wide-eyed Child of the Empire, energetic and inquisitive, intent on exploring the country from his home in Lahore, “that wonderful, dirty, mysterious ant hill.” Alternately he mocked and admired the British rulers; simultaneously he loved India’s “heat and smells of oil and spices, and puffs of temple incense, and sweat, and darkness, and dirt and lust and cruelty, and, above all, things wonderful and fascinating innumerable.” He did not question the imperial presence in India. But it was some years before he preached to a cousin in England about British officers working and dying for the welfare of the natives.

Kipling assumed his role as Imperial Apostle in the 1890s, the period of Pinney’s second volume, when he returned to England to find his countrymen ignorant, complacent, and uncaring about the future of the Empire. Later he extended his message to the United States, exhorting the Americans to “take up the White Man’s Burden” in the Philippines. The verses were not greatly appreciated in the US—though his friend Theodore Roosevelt thought they made “good sense from the expansionist standpoint”4—and more than eighty parodies of the poem quickly appeared in the Buffalo Express, the Iowa State Register, and other newspapers under such titles as “The Brown Man’s Burden,” “The Poor Man’s Burden” and even “The Old Maid’s Burden.”5

As Professor Pinney points out, the Edwardian Age was certainly no “long, golden afternoon of Imperial repose” so far as Kipling was concerned. The third volume (1900-1910), although it covered one of his most prolific periods as a writer, mainly displayed Kipling’s passionate feelings about the Boer War, his conviction that South Africa had been subsequently betrayed by the British government, his disgust for almost all Liberal politicians, and his belief that Britain was unprepared for Germany’s impending attempt to precipitate Armageddon. The role of Imperial Cassandra is protracted into the current volume, although in his most despairing moments he sounds like Jeremiah: the Empire will fall, England will fall, civilization will topple into a new Dark Age. At the beginning he is obsessed with Irish Home Rule and the possibility of civil war. Then Germany dominates, and in 1915 his only son is killed in his only battle.

The most recent volume exhibits many of Kipling’s virtues and nearly all of his unpleasantness. We are shown the loving father and incomparable entertainer of children; we see the devoted son (his father dies at the beginning of the period), the faithful husband, the affectionate nephew and cousin, the writer who refuses to criticize his fellow writers, the friend who remains loyal to his friends unless, like Lord Beaverbrook, they betray a cherished cause. (Beaverbrook’s crime was to support Lloyd George’s Irish Treaty, though Mrs. Bambridge refused to allow Carrington to mention this reason in his biography.6 ) In Kipling’s Manichaean world, friends and relations support the Good, reinforced by ancient idols (Shakespeare and Jane Austen are especially praised here) and a cluster of dead or declining imperialists such as Cecil Rhodes, Alfred Milner, and Theodore Roosevelt. One improbable new hero is Andrew Bonar Law, the melancholy Glaswegian iron dealer who succeeded Balfour as leader of the Conservatives in 1911. Kipling relished Law’s savagery, the violence with which he denounced Liberal politicians as gambling cheats and Gadarene swine. “I love [Law],” he says in a revealing letter, “because he hates.”

In his autobiography Kipling claimed that his childhood sufferings at an English boardinghouse drained him of “any capacity for real, personal hate for the rest” of his life.7 Yet in fact this decent and dutiful man, so honorable in his personal relationships, was a most powerful hater. Perhaps he found it difficult to hate particular persons (especially if he had met them) but he knew very well how to hate people as representatives of ideas and causes he detested. And the dimensions of this last category were vast, including Germany, the Boers, Irish nationalism, trade unions, democracy, free trade, the Indian National Congress, and above all the Liberal government. “There is nothing lower,” he wrote in March 1915, “than an English politician in peace—except the same animal in war.” No one in the Cabinet escaped his sneering, and its leading and most flamboyant members were repeatedly singled out for derision: Asquith was a drunk, Lloyd George was corrupt, Winston Churchill was a “political prostitute” whom it was “impossible to cure…from whoring.”

Kipling was sometimes a remarkable prophet. Long before others, he warned of the Kaiser’s designs, of Hitler’s ambitions, of how the Boers would set up a police state if they ever managed to dominate South Africa. But he was often hysterically wrong. His views on Ireland were peculiarly demented—by the end of 1913 he was actually relishing the prospect of civil war over Ulster—and are hardly illuminated by his jocular confession that he had “a great-great grandfather buried at Ballynamallard in a grim Methody churchyard.” Reading a book on Ireland in 1919 left him “with a sense of confirmed hopelessness and despair—the sort of bored terror one has of a woman of fifty who explains that she has never been understood….” For many years, he remarked, he had hunted “for any data that would present Ireland as a nation,” but he had “never come across any more than records of small caterans killing cattle and destroying their neighbours, and …writing most dreary poems about it all.” The letter contains no clue whether the last comment was intended to encompass Yeats.

The advent of the First World War enabled Kipling to widen his Manichaean vision and share it with millions of other people. He applauded the heroism of France, which (succeeding India and South Africa) was now his favorite country, and he praised the efforts of the Dominions, especially Canada, which he had long admired for its refusal to be bullied by the United States. He also saw much to cheer him in England, notably the fact that the English had at last learned how to hate. The “grumbling and ostentatious pessimism” were heartening, he thought, and indicated that things were going all right. “The English are useless when they are winning for then they conceive it their duty to be conciliatory and polite.”

Kipling’s war work consisted mainly of articles and speeches, but much early effort was expended in complaining about America’s failure to condemn Germany for the invasion of Belgium and in warning friends in the US about the consequences of a German victory. His letters reveal that he wasted little passion on the Austrian and Turkish enemies but directed his hatred exclusively at the Germans, whom he referred to variously as Teutons, Boches, and Huns (a label he justified by recalling the Kaiser’s message to German troops sent to China in 1900 “to remember Attila” and make their name “terrible among the Chinese”). After the death of his son, his language deteriorated. In a letter of 1918, which is not included here, he urged the editor of the Daily Express not to capitalize the word “Hun” and to refer to him as “it”8 ; a year later he concluded that the “Boche” was “Evil Incarnate, and, like all evil, a pathetic Beast.” Kipling ended the war writing a history of his son’s regiment, the Irish Guards, and composing moving inscriptions for memorials and cemeteries all over the war fields. He never deluded himself into thinking it had been a war to end all war. The failure to crush Germany, he believed, almost guaranteed a second world conflict.

Certain admirers have often tried to play down Kipling’s politics, arguing that these were unimportant or misunderstood and in any case did not affect his work. Nirad Chaudhuri, the remarkable Bengali writer, insisted that they were “no essential ingredient of his writings”9—an incredible claim (unless made specifically of the final volumes of stories) which can be refuted by glancing at the contents pages: some three quarters of the forty-five poems in The Years Between, which Kipling considered his most important collection, have political or imperial themes. Even more surprising was the belief of his biographer, Carrington, that he was really neither a Tory nor an imperialist.10

Readers of Pinney’s fourth volume would regard such statements with astonishment—for here we have Kipling paying his party subscriptions, writing speeches for Tory politicians, giving advice on reforming the Central Conservative Organization. He talks about “our Party” and “we” winning an election, and at one moment even admits, “Both parties are in the melting pot and our party is the more stupid of the two but people are getting weary of clever scallawags.” Perhaps Carrington meant to suggest that Kipling belonged to no special strand of traditional Tory thinking, yet that should hardly exclude him from the ranks. British conservatives have been arguing about the nature of conservatism since the eighteenth century—and they still are—but they have generally been tolerant of anyone willing to join them.

As for imperialism, Carrington may have been narrowing the definition to “jingoism,” a charge often though unfairly made. In this volume Kipling provides his own definition of imperialism based upon what he had seen and experienced in India in his youth—“men devoted to burdensome tasks under difficult conditions without much assistance or any immediate hope of reward, working for impersonal ends.” This is his view of the Empire, of district officers in remote places, risking danger and disease, accepting loneliness and separations, dedicating entire careers to the ideals of service and responsibility. It is not the view of the jingoist flag-waver lusting after dominion and imperial grandeur. There is in fact remarkably little triumphalism in Kipling’s work: the “imperialist” verses are usually exhortations to serve, warnings against pride, condemnations of pomp, and reflections on military defeat. Much though he loved the French, Kipling had little taste for la gloire.

During five literary generations,” wrote George Orwell in 1942, “every enlightened person has despised him, and at the end of that time nine-tenths of those enlightened persons are forgotten and Kipling is in some sense still there.”11 One can quibble with the “every” and qualify the “enlightened,” but the judgment was substantially true. After Kipling’s early success, the criticism multiplied—but the public went on buying his books. They do so no longer. “If” may be—as a recent poll suggested—the most popular of English poems, and certainly it is found, framed and illuminated in fake medieval script, in thousands of suburban cloakrooms. Poems like “Mandalay” are also no doubt still recited, but the Jungle Books have been consigned to Disney, and Kim is mainly read by tourists on their way out to India. Much of Kipling’s appeal was to those last generations of the Empire, whose vision he shared and whose pessimism he articulated. But it’s now more than fifty years since the British left India.

Kipling’s current lack of popularity may ironically assist the restoration of his literary reputation. As the people who loved and hated him for his imperialism disappear, assessments of his artistry are easier to make; as people react less passionately to “Fuzzy-Wuzzy” or “The Ballad of East and West,” they can consider more impartially such wonderful late stories as “The Wish House” and “The Gardener”—stories of tenderness and sympathy which easily transcend the superficial misogyny of “The Female of the Species.”

Orwell had inaugurated a small but honorable tradition, carried on today by Edward Said and Salman Rushdie, of radical writers who admit to admiring Kipling. Of course they all have to condemn him for his politics—in a recent introduction to some of the Indian stories Rushdie announced that “there will always be plenty in Kipling that I will find difficult to forgive”12—but they have generally accepted him as a major writer who both expanded the language and extended the boundaries of literature. Orwell noted that he was the only writer of his time who had added phrases to English, while George Moore asked whether anyone else, except Whitman, had “written with the whole language since the Elizabethans.”13 The range and inventiveness were matched by the versatility. No one coming fresh to the work would guess that the Barrack-Room Ballads had been written by the author of “Gethsemane” or the “Harp Song of the Dane Women.”

Most great writers create their own universe, a world immediately recognizable to their readers. But Kipling created lots of them. He wrote stories of India and Africa, America and Europe, stories of the air and the oceans, tales of science and the supernatural, comedies and histories and wonderful books for children; in time he ranged from the Stone Age to the twenty-first century. Since his death, other writers have roamed at least geographically as far, but his predecessors and contemporaries (except for Conrad) were anchorites by comparison. What did Tennyson know of “the ringing plains of windy Troy”? The “untravell’d world” of his “Ulysses” was much more untraveled by its author. When we read Kipling’s “Gunga Din,” we are confident that the author knows both the Indian Army and the North-West Frontier. When we read Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade,” we realize at once that the poet knows nothing about cavalry and is contemplating the Crimea from his home in the Isle of Wight.

Kipling’s range and versatility have led to charges of superficiality which can to a certain extent be accepted. Perhaps there is something flashy about the dexterity with which he described British society in Simla, the summer capital of the Raj; and certainly he did not confront the dilemmas of imperialism with the earnestness of Conrad in Lord Jim or Heart of Darkness. Yet he was writing about these things in his early twenties; and he was still a young author when he memorably portrayed life in a Massachusetts fishing boat (in Captains Courageous) and the Tibetan Lama in Kim (and no one could have been less like a Buddhist priest than Kipling). But it is in the concise yet complex later stories that the accusation of superficiality breaks down. Many of these, such as “Mary Postgate,” where the protagonist seems to experience an orgasm while watching a German aviator die in the First World War, require several readings before they can be understood. After Kipling’s death his cousin, Oliver Baldwin, described this as “the wickedest story ever written,” and it is still condemned as an example of the writer’s hatred of the Germans. Yet a close reading of the story suggests that the aviator may not have been German at all, that he may not even have existed, and that the bomb with which he is supposed to have killed a child may also belong to Miss Postgate’s imagination. In fact, far from being a piece of anti-German propaganda, the story is a remarkable psychological study of a repressed spinster experiencing fluctuating feelings of love and hate.

Dean Acheson once famously said that Britain had lost an empire and not found a role. The political truth of his remark can be observed in the present government’s simultaneous protestations of Europeanism and obeisance to American foreign policy. And the philosophic truth behind it (illustrating the lack of self-confidence in post-war Britain) can be demonstrated by our attitude to Kipling. The British (and especially the English) have not yet accepted the reduction in their national status, though they try to do so by belittling the Empire and sniggering at its servants. Even the adjective “Victorian,” referring though it does to the greatest period of national consequence, is often used as a term of mockery and abuse, aimed at the prudish, the reactionary, and the old-fashioned. Kipling still embodies this “Victorianism”—at least in the minds of people who only know his reputation and have only glanced at his work. Yet acceptance of his stature as a writer would be a sign of postimperial maturity: when Kipling appears in his proper place in the university syllabuses, Acheson’s remark may be no longer applicable.

  1. 1

    Kipling to Sydney Cockerell, October 6, 1932, Pierpont Morgan Library.

  2. 2

    Kipling to Mrs. Hitchcock, June 27, 1921, Columbia University.

  3. 3

    Charles Carrington, Rudyard Kipling:His Life and Work (London: Macmillan, 1955), p. vi.

  4. 4

    Carrington, Rudyard Kipling, p. 278.

  5. 5

    Kipling Library, Dalhousie University.

  6. 6

    Carrington to Beaverbrook, November 4, 1954, House of Lords Record Office.

  7. 7

    Rudyard Kipling: Something of Myself and Other Biographical Writings, edited by Thomas Pinney (Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 12.

  8. 8

    Kipling to R.D. Blumenfeld, Au-gust 22, 1918, Kipling Papers, Sussex University.

  9. 9

    See his article, “The Finest Story about India—in English,” in Rudyard Kipling: The Man, His Work, and His World, edited by John Gross (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1972), p. 29.

  10. 10

    Carrington to Mrs. Hill, March 17, 1953, Marlboro College.

  11. 11

    Rudyard Kipling,” in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus (Harcourt, Brace and World, 1968), Vol. 2, p. 184.

  12. 12

    Soldiers Three and In Black and White (Penguin, 1993), p. xv.

  13. 13

    Quoted in R. Thurston Hopkins, Rudyard Kipling (London: Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, 1915), p. 194.

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