Rudyard Kipling
Rudyard Kipling; drawing by David Levine

What would Kipling have “done” in one of the insoluble local crises of our time, like that of Palestine or in Lebanon or in Northern Ireland? A story called “As Easy as ABC,” written in 1912, imagines a kind of super United Nations peace-keeping force, which is called out by a report of “rioting and crowd-making” in Northern Illinois. Crowd-making constitutes “invasion of privacy,” the worst possible crime in the society of the future—2065 AD—which Kipling is inventing. Invasion of privacy was what Kipling chiefly complained of in American life—that and casual violence. He had tried to sue his brother-in-law Beatty Balestier for threatening violence when he was living in Vermont. Edmund Wilson made much of that episode in The Wound and the Bow, and it is certainly true that Kipling follows the classic pattern of revenging himself in fantasy for the hurt committed in life.

However the upshot of the story is a peaceful one, for the Aerial Authority can control without killing or injuring, by means of the shock effects of light and sound. A not unsubtle aspect of its plot is that the rioters want to lynch a body of protesters who are proclaiming a new Gospel—it might be Women’s Lib or Trotskyite anarcho-syndicalism—and the crowd is chanting the song of Pat McDonough, a putative Irishman who had enough of Holy Wars and Holy People, and so ordered slaughter in the name of nonsectarianism and antifanaticism. The story suggests that “order the guns and kill” is a counsel sometimes used by the worst people for the best reasons.

This is an example of the unexpectedness that lurks in Kipling as an artist. Like most artists he had a theory about his art and was characteristically voluble about it. He saw himself as possessed by a daemon, who took charge of the pen. In Something of Myself he tells of his first experience of sleeplessness, about the age of puberty, when “the night got into my head” and he wandered about London in the gray time before dawn, when a breeze comes up which he came to associate with the daemon’s visitation. Nonetheless this daemon did not have things all its own way: the requirements of craft took over, and Kipling has a lot to say about how to overlay tints and textures, and discourses on all the paraphernalia of the builder and shipwright. In his later years he used to speak of putting a tale “to drain”—taking it up months or even years later and wiping out sentences with brush and India ink—never using a pen in case he should be tempted to put something else in.

None of this seems in fact particularly relevant to what he produced, though it suggests something about both the exotic nature of his genius and the way he could put on a turn to mislead criticism and inquiry. The very unprivate artist held privacy to be the first of virtues in social and political life, just as his most embarrassing excesses “make a brag of understatement,” as Lionel Trilling put it. But even such a comparatively undistinguished story as the futuristic “Easy as ABC” shows there was a secretive, unpredictable quality in Kipling just as there was in that other public shaman Thomas Hardy, whom Kipling much admired (before settling at Bateman’s in Sussex he tried to find a house near Hardy’s Wessex capital of Dorchester). Both had something childlike about them au fond, though Kipling had none of Hardy’s serenity. This instability in his personality could be said to reflect the precarious state of the British Empire, whose destiny so pre-occupied him; his hysteria was a literary correlative of the loss of will to power.

Philip Mason has found a quotation from Robert Louis Stevenson’s story “The Bottle Imp,” which he uses for his title, and which conveys very well the sense we have of Kipling’s turgid and animistic chemistry. The bottle was of shining glass, “with changing rainbow colours in the grain,” but “withinsides something obscurely moved, like a shadow and a fire.” Mason has used to good effect two standard works, Carrington’s Life and J.M.S. Tompkins’s comprehensive critical study, and he adds some shrewd if unadventurous ideas of his own. By referring the work to the life he shows the importance of each to the other in any study of Kipling, and his long experience of the Indian Civil Service gives him a particular advantage: he well understands both the local problems and the Imperial question mark. This knowledge is meticulous in detail too—he points out how much of Wilson’s case against Kipling’s anti-Americanism is built on getting the date of a story wrong—and he sanely observes that “Wilson never allowed enough for Kipling’s ability to love and hate at the same time.”


“Withinsides something obscurely moved,” but part of the trouble is that it is not really so very obscure. Even the most contorted and enigmatic of Kipling’s later tales are usually making a very simple point, and one that can be all too easily got across. Like other artists of the unconscious—there is a parallel in Dickens—Kipling is not difficult to see through, but seeing through him is not the point. Somewhere in this connection is to be found the influence he exerts over otherwise unliterary people. His Roman centurion in Puck of Pook’s Hill is a bit like James Bond or Sherlock Holmes in that his kind of efficiency appeals to people who are no good at their jobs.

Kipling’s basic appeal is to weakness and not to strength: it is the misfit and the dreamer, not the reticent commander and sundried bureaucrat, who are really welcomed into his secret masonic fellowship. And yet at the same time, which is—or was—part of the complexity of his appeal, he is genuinely admired by judicious persons who can see how much he is hamming it up and how often he gets his facts wrong. He has, in fact, the disquieting ability to edge us out of patronage, either by suddenly shutting off the chance of identifying for the silly and weak, or by disturbing the assumptions of the expert and the strong.

Even in a review, the only way to write about Kipling is to go into details, and Kingsley Amis, although his text seems almost deliberately, if elegantly, perfunctory, a morsel of caviar to go with the lavish champagne of the photographs and reproductions, manages to get in plenty. He makes the point that we often say about authors who draw us into their worlds: “That’s exactly what I’ve always thought”—but with Kipling we can find ourselves registering the much more intimate and less complacent response: “I never thought of that.” This puts a finger on the spot. At his best Kipling can give us, more unforgettably than any other writer, a sense of the difference, the feel of inalienable foreignness, in other cultures, places, societies.

Amis reveres for this quality the brief, early sketch called “Beyond the Pale,” which Philip Mason also admires, while temperately pointing out its numerous absurdities—it records what occurred when an Englishman used secretly to visit a Hindu girl in a house on a quiet back street. Amis calls it “one of the most terrible stories in the language,” which is possibly true; though I personally find a less original one called “The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes” even more impressive. Amis’s views on a fellow craftsman are worth attention. He thinks that the famous tour de force “The Man Who Would Be King” is weakened by what might be called romantic Rider Haggardism (though it would be equally true to say that Haggard’s native seductresses, or for that matter Conrad’s in The Heart of Darkness, are virtually parodied by the strapping virgin who is so reluctant in the story to wed Daniel Dravot.

Amis also objects to “Dayspring Mishandled,” on the surer ground that Kipling’s invented fragment of Chaucer would never have taken in a Chaucer expert. But Kipling was not much bothered, one would imagine, by getting it right, only by rubbing in the suggestion that he had a truer understanding of Chaucer than the scholars had. Like Hardy, Kipling was defensive about academic learning. But I think in any case that Amis ignores the very real and subtle distinction of the story, the subject of which—as so often with Kipling—is the difficulty of escaping from your conditioned self. His world often looks like a sort of fantasy version of Durkheim’s.

The basic irony of the story is that two kinds of social conditioning come into conflict: the revenge compulsion collides head-on with the compulsion of the artist. The hero forges a fragment which he contrives that the scholar who has wronged him shall discover; but when his enemy is delivered utterly into his hands he refrains from consummating his triumph, not through any free and virtuous moral choice—such things do not exist in Kipling’s world—but because as an artist he cannot bear to see such a perfectly accomplished situation collapsed into the bathos of discovery. Like those of other artists who have something in common with him—Nabokov or Borges—many of Kipling’s stories are about art, the simplest being “Hal o’ the Draft” in Rewards and Fairies.

But there is a still more genuinely imaginative involution in this tale (as there is in the even more enigmatic “Mrs. Bathurst,” also depreciated by Amis), for the hero appears to think that his motive is to shield the victim from his wife, a horrible woman who not only has a lover but who suspects that her husband has been taken in, and out of sheer malignancy would like to see him exposed. Male solidarity impels the hero to protect his victim and his memory, after he dies of cancer, by explicit perjury to the widow. The female of the species shall not have the triumph of mocking, now he is in his grave, the doubly deceived male.


How conscious is Kipling of all this? Hard to say, and that is one of his distinctions. We cannot see the ingenious mind at work, as we so easily can with Borges or Nabokov. Ever since the early days of his success, attempts to “show up” Kipling have been compulsive, the most formidable being Edmund Wilson’s magisterially Freudian study. But a truer as well as a safer judgment is T.S. Eliot’s cautiously negative one that he is “a writer impossible to understand and quite impossible to belittle,” a judgment partly explained by Eliot’s other comment that Kipling “remains somehow alien and aloof from all with which he identifies himself.”

We can’t belittle, in fact, because we can’t quite understand, as we can understand a much more clever and forthcoming genius like D.H. Lawrence. Kipling may well be a sphinx without a secret, and the impression that something in there “obscurely moves” may be caused by no more than his peculiar sort of writer’s block, his inability to become what James thought he had it in him to be—“the English Balzac.” (That title is better deserved by James himself, who understood England and the English much better than Kipling did.) His rather touching desire was to write a “veritable three-decker, out of chosen and long-stored timber,” a huge novel that was presumably to be a kind of exotic human comedy—“worthy to lie alongside The Cloister and the Hearth.” It seems an amazing aspiration, but Kim does have something in common with Reade’s novel. As for The Light that Failed, gripping though it still is, it certainly plays into Wilson’s hands. Nothing moves obscurely there. And yet when Kipling is at his most sentimental or ebullient, the feeling still persists that something odd and interesting is not far away. That remains the daemon’s secret.

Philip Mason points out how often the early stories, like “The End of the Passage” and “The Return of Imray”—surely, too, even “Love-o’-Women,” which he excepts—depend on grotesque implausibility. No detective reader could possibly take seriously “The Return of Imray,” yet it is a totally convincing and compelling tale because Kipling was master of the appearances of realism. None of his realism seems quite real today—the details are as suspect as the dialogue—but the compulsion remains, at least in part. And in “Mary Postgate,” one of his best and most notorious tales, improbability itself is set to work, for this is one of the earliest examples of a genre which in our day has become totally familiar: events that may be taking place in actuality, or only in the protagonist’s mind.

“One mustn’t let one’s mind dwell on these things,” says Mary, a sentiment discreetly emphasized by repetition. She is a governess, turned out to grass as her employer’s companion, and when the young nephew is killed flying in the early days of the war (nephews have an equivocal status in Kipling, which is the point of “The Gardener”) she has a nervous breakdown. But being Mary (“I’ve no imagination I’m afraid. As Wynn says, I haven’t the mind”) it takes a strange form. The play on mind is Shakespearean—“Postey doesn’t mind,” says Wynn, after an unfeeling jest at Mary’s expense. Wynn’s many effects are to be burned after his death, and when Mary is doing this she finds a German air-man in the shrubbery who has apparently fallen from a plane, and she watches him die while with closed eyes, “she drew her breath between her teeth and shuddered from head to foot.” A gruesome touch is that in spite of her sheltered life she recognizes the onset of death and knows, too, the difference between its preliminary symptoms and the final spasm. She then has a bath, and is found by her employer relaxed and “quite handsome” on the sofa.

The tale touches the nerves of war, love, sex, neurosis, and repression—not surprising that it was denounced then; rather odder that this should still happen today. The reason may be that Mary’s act is racially and socially conditioned, however sexually individualistic, and Kipling is interested in sex only as a social phenomenon. Intellectuals today may tolerate any kind of cruelty and violence, and connive in it, provided it is the gratuitous act of the alienated consciousness, and I suspect that it is not his cruelty that repels the contemporary bien pensant so much as his insistence on the disciplines of the pack, its condemnations and retributions. The story is not willfully macabre, and it seems likely that no one but Kipling could have pulled it off, for no novelist could less be suspected of doing it either “for art’s sake” or as a self-consciously objective study in sadistic neurosis à la Truman Capote. Mary is a good woman, whose unfulfillment in peace is as noble and useful as her fulfillment in war is hateful and degrading. Kipling’s fine sense of, and respect for, such persons is shown by the nurse of another story about neurosis, “In the Same Boat,” who says: “I don’t need anything, thank you, and if I did I shouldn’t get it.” Socially an interesting remark, if distinctly old-fashioned today.

Kipling appends some verse at the end of “Mary Postgate” (a device which Wilson rightly called “tasteless”) about “how the English began to hate,” as if he were deliberately suppressing the tale’s impersonal intimacy and returning to his pack persona. Their assertiveness is a way of covering up, and confirms our impression that he is apt to be uneasy about his best things and breezily confident about his worst ones, perhaps because they never give anything away except what Kipling wanted to, such as the fact (in “A Habitation Enforced”) that he was an Anglophile, “something which,” as Amis points out, “a real Englishman cannot be.”

Many critics have remarked on the apparent lack of self-criticism that goes with meticulous insistence of craftsmanship, and the fact that his best things can be found cheek by jowl in the same collection with “negligible and unpleasant” ones. “The Tie,” a companion of “Dayspring Mishandled,” is a triviality about a fraudulent contractor of the 1914 war who is only saved from violence at the hands of some young officers by the old school tie he is wearing. Conditioning tells, in fact—an object lesson explosively if unintentionally satirical in effect, though it was presumably intended at the time to be merely genial and admonitory. But such things may strike us all the more for this reason, whereas the Puck or Jungle Book series, where allegory is specific and methodical, are lacking in the secret dynamic: they are parables consciously intended to be read on more than one level.

The knowledge in the best tales is in an odd relation with the author; Kipling has no Lawrentian intelligence to place and define from a position of isolated integrity. Light in fact does not come from outside—it dawns within the locked compartments of prejudice and fear which the daemon makes us enter—and it is arguable that the more apparently awful the stories the further they reach in our hearts and minds, if we let them.

One of the Plain Tales from the Hills, as “awful” as “The Tie” but written about forty years earlier, makes much the same point, and forces us in the same way to participate in the society described. A young Englishman in the Indian Civil Service is determined to marry a Portuguese Eurasian girl, and is “saved” by his colleagues, who kidnap him before the wedding can take place. The narrative has a gruesome equability. The Eurasian is both good and beautiful, and the pink and white English girl who will be chosen for this promising young man is a nonentity. But things are as they are, and the relation between Kipling’s gleeful portrayal of the situation, and his cool understanding of it, is charged with his special kind of disturbing vitality.

Just how much so can be shown by a comparison with Somerset Maugham. In so tricky a theme Maugham’s enlightened views are as repellent as his detachment. Maugham annoyed colonials who afterward found in his stories themselves and the tales they had told him: but Kipling must have embarrassed his contemporaries in India very much more, and more subtly. For they had taken tacitly for granted what he now exuberantly assumed in print, and the demonstration was more unsettling than any satire, especially to the community his art set out to celebrate and put on the map.

Kipling’s involvement here is not so unlike that of Tolstoy’s in War and Peace. Tolstoy’s enthusiasm for the manners and style of his class and kind goes together with penetrating analysis, and is more lyric and epic to the extent that Tolstoy’s is by far the greater genius. But the Rostovs’ ball, or the great reception for Bagration, show Tolstoy as emphatically on the side of a way of life as Kipling is. Kipling knew Anglo-India was ephemeral, and Tolstoy was celebrating the old Russian byt, which in 1865 was passing away. Ironically its maintenance depended, in both cases, and as those involved must obscurely have realized, on not being publicized in this way. The bad old days and ways depend upon privacy. We know that Tolstoy’s peers privately resented his magnificent prowess, and we may assume that Kipling’s had the same reservations about his praise for the work they were doing. In both authors there is the same demonstration of the injustice of the world, and the same secret upholding of it.

Kingsley Amis calls Kipling the best short story writer in English. One can agree with that, just because it is such a spot judgment, and because a more laborious and academic critic would have made reservations. Both he and Philip Mason tell the facts known about Kipling’s life with sense and shrewdness, avoiding speculation and quite prepared “Not to question other than / The work I leave behind.” Indeed there is little else they could do. Kipling covered his tracks well, and we shall probably never know the inside story, if there was any, about his relation with that charming, talented American boy Wolcott Balestier; and why after his friend’s death Kipling abruptly married Balestier’s sister Carrie, whom Lockwood Kipling called “a good man spoiled” and Henry James “a hard devoted capable little person whom I don’t in the least understand his marrying.”

Amis’s book has a revealing photograph of the “elderly youth” Wolcott, reproductions of the remarkable portraits of Carrie and Rudyard by his cousin, Sir Philip Burne-Jones, and a photograph of the young genius at Westward Ho, already complete with mustache. The pictures of India and of the Kipling house at Brattleboro, Vermont, whose building is one of the few episodes in his life which Kipling comprehensively described in Something of Myself, give the book an increased value. In some ways we get a clearer image of him from the camera, the instrument that plays a macabre part in his story “At the End of the Passage,” than we are ever likely to do from critics and biographers.

This Issue

April 15, 1976