The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling: His Life and Works
The title of Angus Wilson’s long-awaited exploration of Kipling’s life and works is well chosen by an author who himself is a novelist, a searching critic, and an intelligent traveler who knows India and has his own early “colonial” connection with South Africa. Kipling’s “ride” was indeed an exotic one, not only because of a childhood and youth passed between India and England, his sojourns in the United States, South Africa, and, later on, his habit of wintering in Cape Town and in France; but because of the restlessness of his eye and temper. As with many Victorian Englishmen, his mind was the explorer’s: in his middle years it also opened outposts in history, in Roman Britain and Christian Antioch, but also in his clinical studies of illness—illness itself being an inexorable country we are bound to know: its scenery was psychosomatic. Like many of the colonizing kind he became more gaudily English than the English in the sense that Englishness became an extra conscience and a personal cause. That cause was Kim’s, whose passionate cry “Who is Kim?” indicates Kipling’s similar search for an identity within a caste.
The main outline of Kipling’s ride has been established with authority by Charles Carrington, and Angus Wilson acknowledges that debt. He has elaborated the story in lively detail by his own researches, interviews, an exhaustive reading of the works, and his own speculations. The result is a very full and clever book. It shows Kipling as he grows and changes through the phases of his life—Wilson really does succeed in the always difficult task of domesticating the man in the circumstances and fantasies of his daily life and times. If the manner is personal and diffuse, and the narrative circuitous as it moves forward and then goes back to reconsider, this is the habit of a gifted and serious talker. Mr. Wilson is outspoken when he finds Kipling dropping into vulgarity, sentimentality, overdramatizing, or covering up; yet he confesses to a sneaking feeling for Kipling’s philistinism even when he is most fervent in his admiration for the artist and craftsman. He puts Kipling’s imperial afflatus in historical perspective, as he deplores the novelist’s sneers at “the long-haired liberal intellectuals.” Kipling was a hero-worshiper of men of action, especially common soldiers; but he could not match them.
His lasting attraction as a writer is his gift of conveying the magical. It springs from his childhood in Bombay and Lahore, and he never lost it entirely. Even the offensive belief in the supremacy of the white race is a form of projected moral magic, a boyish fantasy perverted by an adult. Kipling worshiped children, and easily and seriously abandoned himself to their private minds. For him, as Wilson says, children create a vast world of magical explorations within a small space as they make their maps of “hazards and delights.” He saw childhood as the sacred age out of which it was painful and shocking to grow: until he was sent back from India to school in England, his own was blissful. The visual quality of Kipling’s prose is not photographic but a perpetuation of the clarity and unquestioning response of the child’s eye; it was this that gave him his unmatched sense of surfaces and place.
He had also the child’s ear, the ear for magic in language, and it rarely turned into adult whimsy. In one of the Mowgli stories—which he wrote long after he had left India—the man-cub has to repeat “the Master Words of the Jungle” he has learned from Baloo. “Master-words for which People?” the seven-year-old Mowgli asks, delighted to show off his good memory of bear-talk, bird-talk, snake-talk. And boasts that one day he will have a tribe of his own. “Now you have nothing to fear,” says Baloo. “Except your own tribe,” mutters the panther under his breath. (We note that Mowgli has had these languages knocked into him by the clouts and blows, called “love pats,” from the panther. The boy deserves them because he is impertinent and swanks: he feels a sensual pleasure in the pains of discipline.)
There is much of Kipling as a man and writer in that talk from the fable of “Kaa’s Hunting.” He spoke Hindi before he spoke English; and the English he inherited was strongly marked by the Biblical cadences he had drawn from his Ulster Scottish and Yorkshire Methodist forebears, preachers uttering their didactic magic, softened though it was by the Pre-Raphaelite tone of his cultivated parents. He became the chameleonlike multilinguist who could enter the talk of common soldiers, engineers, workmen, and the Sussex peasants, or the rhetoric of the public speaker, changing his color as he became for the moment one of them. The gift sprang from what he called his daemon—a very Pre-Raphaelite word—and the daemon was harnessed to Wesley’s “gospel of work.”
Here Mr. Wilson raises a matter that will develop later on. Kipling had little interest in his own ancestry, which may seem strange in one “for whom piety toward the past of mankind, whether historic or pre-historic, and toward his own childhood,” was strong, but Wilson does not think this had anything to do with his dislike of a narrow religion. He writes:
To lay emphasis upon personal heredity would be at once to assert the personal aspect of a man’s identity rather than the group heredities of nation, race, caste and place which are man’s true strengths and loyalties, and to lessen, by leaning upon genetic determination, a man’s reliance upon himself, his absolute accountability….
When we ask why Kipling’s sensitive father and intelligent if possessive mother sent him “home” to England at the age of six with his three-year-old sister, to live for years with the awful family of “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep,” the Nonconformist belief in self-reliance and accountability must have played its part, though the Kiplings’ own Methodist beliefs had lapsed. The Victorians had strong reason to believe that the Indian climate was dangerous to children: Mrs. Kipling had just lost a baby when the children were sent off. And there was common talk of the precocious sexual habits of Indians—racial fears are commonly rooted in sexual obsession. Mr. Wilson adds the important note that to be able to afford to send one’s children back to England was also a sign of social status: the clever Mrs. Kipling was out to push her shy husband’s career. At “The House of Desolation” in Southsea Captain Holloway and his wife seemed respectable: the captain was indeed a decent man and his wife’s ferocious manner and Calvinism were not detected.
With his usual sympathy Mr. Wilson does his best to do justice to Mrs. Holloway and brings out more fully than any other account of the episode that I have read the real nature of the drama there. The Holloways were typical of that common Victorian category: the genteel family with the anxieties of people going downhill—poor relations. Mrs. Holloway was jealous of young Kipling who was better connected than her own son and encouraged her son’s bullying; and, like so many children sent home from overseas, the young Kipling was a swank, defiant and rebellious. In short the boy had to adjust himself to a new jungle—the English.
At this time his eyesight began to fail and his terrors doubled. Already he was a child who lived by sweeping metaphorical images, and he spoke of the dark coming into his head. And the dark, as Mr. Wilson says, was suggested not only by failing eyesight and the violent punishment from Mrs. Holloway but by his first experiences of death: his baby brother had died and presently the kind Captain Holloway dropped dead: the one mollifying influence at Southsea had gone.
Angus Wilson rejects Edmund Wilson’s judgment on the lasting influence of the “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” experience as being schematic psychologically, and indeed I agree that Edmund Wilson’s political hatred of imperialism distorted what was elsewhere a penetrating essay in The Wound and the Bow. The influence of Kipling’s schooling at Westward Ho seems to me more important. Once again, the parents made a choice that looked good and was within their means. Westward Ho was a minor public school which would not put the rubber stamp of the great English public schools on the gifted boy; but it was not the roughhouse of Stalky & Co. As so often happens in England the place flourished as an anomaly: intended to train boys for empire-building and the military life, it was run by a progressive crank and intellectual who shared the artistic tastes of the Pre-Raphaelites. His house was full of Rossetti drawings; he was devoted to William Morris and was even radical in politics; he was deep in English, French, and German literature. (In the school debating society he proposed the resolution that “The advance of the Russians in Central Asia was not hostile to British power.” The young Kipling opposed it and got the militant schoolboy chauvinists to defeat it.)
Although Kipling was badly bullied in his first year, the perceptive headmaster allowed him the run of his excellent library. He soon spoke and read French rapidly and even tried Russian for a while; he read Pushkin and—above all—Lermontov, whose laconic manner made a lasting impression on him: all odd experiences in an empire-builder’s school. As for the bullying, as we know from Stalky & Co. he soon had his own elite gang or tribe, who were clever at running the traditional schoolboy secret society, outmaneuvering the bullies and inventing the schoolboy guerrilla practice of cunning and crude practical jokes. Kipling never lost his taste for boring practical jokes as a comic form of vengeance: the story “Dayspring Mishandled” is essentially this. The nasty thing was the cool and sadistic bullying of the “baddies” by the “goodies,” who learned to take pleasure in the pain of others. This is common enough in human nature, but it has too much crude relish in some of Kipling’s stories and (as in contemporary films of violence) has deplorable moral overtones which attract the philistine public. Kipling survived Westward Ho: his physical incapacity for games was an advantage and it also increased his double regard for duty relieved by cunning. Another point Mr. Wilson makes is that at small country colleges boys succeeded easily in going out of bounds illegally among the people of the countryside. The place offered something of the day school’s closer relation to everyday life outside.
Kipling is one more of those English novelists who did not go to the university. That might have taught him to think, but he was not by nature a thinker, he was an image maker. Not much is known about his night prowling in the London streets. Nor is enough known about his prowlings in Lahore when he returned to be a newspaper reporter at the age of seventeen, beyond what can be guessed from his stories. What, the modern biographer asks, was his part in the sexual half-world of London or India? He clearly observed it. Did he participate? No one knows, but one would guess that, at the last moment, a romantic with a strong imagination acting within a stoical discipline would not have done. There is more “magic” in sin if it is not committed. Stories like “Without Benefit of Clergy” may make us doubt; but Kipling was a born watcher and listener. He certainly opposed the closing of brothels to English troops, but that was because he took the part of the lonely British soldiers whom he knew well. His early, mild love affairs sound painfully platonic; and he was certainly mother’s dutiful boy and continued to be so in his marriage. The most important experience in the rootless or gypsy part of his early life, Angus Wilson thinks, occurred when he went up to Peshawar on to the no-man’s land of Kabul:
From this border ride, Kipling’s imagination must have carried remote and terrible sounds…. The horrors came to him, I think, from the visual scene of the passes….
Here, at last, he was in the region talked of in Lahore bazaars, the lawless, treacherous land whence came Mahbub Ali, the horse-dealer, a real live disreputable acquaintance (as well as the ambiguous fictional protector of Kim). Here in an atmosphere of intrigue and vengeance, or power preserved by a brutal, irrevocable jesting justice like that of our Tudor Age, he found a terrible version of Stalkyism. Where the rough and ready practical joke may put things right in the simple, harsh world of boarding schools, torture and prolonged death agonies are authority’s jest in Afghanistan where the slightest threat to the throne may shatter all rule and let loose tribal anarchy. From the bazaars of Peshawar and from talk with those in the Amir’s entourage upon this 1885 assignment come, I think, the cruel teasing death of the blind mullah in “The Head of the District,” and the deathly joke of “The Amir’s Homily,” and at least two powerful neglected poems—“The Ballad of the King’s Mercy” (1889) and “The Ballad of the King’s Jest” (1890). From these we see that those who suffer terrible punishment are not the open enemies of authority, but those who seek to please the King too much, or talk too much, or carry out too easily his cruel commands, or overflatter him.
Angus Wilson believes that Kipling’s stature rests on his fictional India, not only on Kim and the Jungle Books, but on Naulakha, The Barrack Room Ballads, and his Indian short stories. After he left India in 1889 he returned only once for a short time two years later. He had political squabbles with his paper and the authorities, but above all, it was under his mother’s prompting that he left for fame in England and in America. There was an immense gain in the depth of his skills but, Mr. Wilson thinks, at a cost to his poetic imagination. There is indeed a split and an increase in strains and tensions as the master craftsman takes over, as resourceful in his crude popular work as in the best of his compressed and intricate stories: it is a split which has some connection with being torn between his “riding” life and his belief in the family square.
Mr. Wilson’s book is remarkable for its brief or extended comments on pretty well all the Kipling stories as he threads them through the life, and he thinks that modern critics overvalue the late stories, which are compressed psychological or emblematic dramas; he believes the present taste for the late Kipling arises out of literary fashion and our boredom with India. I differ, to some extent, from Kipling’s biographer and critic here. Kipling was hostile to Congress and the changing Indian situation. He was an artist whose India stops with the idyll of Kim. He was incapable of writing a novel, even on an English theme; his mastery would inevitably be in the short story, indeed that was how he began as a prose writer. He is the first English master of that form, which, for many reasons, came to England late. In his stories his talents derive from those of his father the craftsman-teacher in another form.
As they grow older, short story writers tend to repeat themselves as Maupassant or Maugham did; Kipling escaped this by his variety and his boldness with usually intractable subjects and by increasing his difficulties. This last was well-suited to lifting the lid on his personal conflicts. I am with Mr. Wilson in thinking that the terrifying story of “Mary Postgate” is probably one of the finest stories in our language and becomes all the more impressive in our own terrible times. But I find “Dayspring Mishandled” intolerably obscure and mannered, despite its apparent compassion, and think Mr. Wilson has missed the significance of “Mrs. Bathurst,” in which a rough lot of seamen and railway workers in Africa evoke the memory of a kindly woman who ran a bar they all knew and who came—it is suspected—to a ghastly end, seemingly with a lover no one can identify. He complains that Kipling never brings this woman on the scene and gives no clue to the identity of those cindered bodies on the railway line. It is, I agree, maddening not to be told. But the story is marvelously placed; Kipling is a master, even in his single-narrator stories, of making his narrator seem to be neighbored by other voices. In “Mrs. Bathurst” the several talkers are contributing from what they half know and half feel. They don’t really know exactly what happened, but what they are revealing is themselves, and, in the end, what looks like a collective guilt—to what Mrs. Bathurst of their own have they reasons to feel guilt and a horror of inexplicable fate?
The story stirs a collective fantasy which has its roots in some memory in their crude and inexpressive lives. Mrs. Bathurst was apparently a decent woman but she was much more the vision of a decent woman. What have these men done in their time to a decent woman? A story which might have been one of sentimental remorse or a revelation of one disgusting man’s sin, or even of her weakness, strikes a blow at each of them, all the more savage because it is gratuitous. That heap of cinders on the track is the common agglutination of a death—and Kipling feared death. The tale is not a mere piece of ingenuity. As in the stories of Jorge Luis Borges, whose remarks on Kipling Mr. Wilson quotes, a tale may very well sway between the laconic and more intricate tests; all Kipling’s stories are essentially tests of human beings under strain. One may justly say that Kipling, like others, practices too intense a compression of novels he cannot write.
The comments on these particular stories come in the middle of the book and are an example of Angus Wilson’s disconcerting leaps out of chronology. Back to life then, and to the questions that have to be asked. The quarrel in Vermont was an unlucky family row with relations, perhaps stirred up by Kipling’s half-American wife. There was a good deal of the severe French bourgeoise in her. Kipling was hot-headed, bursting with Britishness, and she lacked tact: Brattleboro thought the pair were snobs. Up until then he had loved America, except for the violence and the American dislike of privacy—an old trouble between Americans and the British.
The odd thing is that his scapegrace brother-in-law, who was at the heart of the ridiculous trouble, was just the kind of character Kipling was more than half drawn to. But in his Vermont period he was naïvely amazed that Americans were cold about his suggestion of a Pax Anglo-Saxonica. The notion was muddled: it was essentially the ambiguous imperial creed, just as “Recessional” is one of the hymns that can be sung in two voices, the patriotic or the repentant religious warning against bragging. Both voices, Mr. Wilson says acutely, were surely addressed to himself; he knew that he must not be carried away by his popular skills; if he bragged, the powers of his daemon would depart. He was a very superstitious man:
Of course, Kipling meant every word of his Imperial beliefs and gave most of his surface active life to them, but I am sure that the excess of the tensions they produced, his political frenzy in the years 1900-1914, can only be fully understood if one grasps that his fear of anarchy or foreign tyranny, his hopes of a sane, ordered Pax Britannica, a Pax Anglo-Saxonica, or, at last, a Pax Franco-Britannica were also a reflection of the deep inner struggle between the anarchic, romantic childlike force of his creative impulse and the ordered, complex, at times almost self-defeating pressure of the craft he imposed upon it.
On the question of Kipling’s marriage and particularly on the criticisms of the character and behavior of his formidable wife Carrie, Mr. Wilson is very fair. She was certainly very domineering—and like many dominant people liable to hysteria which her prisoner was called upon to calm. She was certainly, once more, a stern mother-figure. He was incompetent with money. She managed his financial affairs, his contracts, his correspondence. She is said to have opened all his letters and to have dictated the replies. Her daughter said she cut her husband off from stimulating intellectual company and indeed she was out of her depth in it. But she fiercely protected his privacy and stood between him and the plague of visitors who descend like vultures on famous men; if Kipling was cut off from his coevals, he was cut off chiefly by his wealth: his friends were the successful and important. She was suspicious by nature, particularly of women, and seems to have felt many people were really after his money. But Kipling appeared to enjoy her rule, for he had been used to an excessive reliance on his parents, even in middle life. Visitors noticed that Rudyard and his Carrie shared the same harsh jokes.
She probably enjoyed hearing that the female of the species was more deadly than the male. Possibly he would not have married her unless he had loved her charming brother first and more spontaneously—he responded most to family affection—and one must remember that he and Carrie had the tragic bond of the loss of their two children and that she nursed her misogynist through his serious breakdowns and his hysterical, baseless, but harrowing dread of cancer. No; brought up in a tough school, Kipling found a tough wife. As for his restlessness—rich and comfortable, the pair who hated the English winter spent five months of the year abroad, especially in France, which he loved.
What is Mr. Wilson’s final judgment on him?
He was a gentle-violent man, a man of depressions and hilarity, holding his despairs in with an almost superhuman stoicism. Manic-depressive does no more than repeat this in big words. I prefer if I must a socio-historical description of long generations of Evangelical belief ending in post-Darwinian doubt.
He feared to know himself, but
[the critic] has to say that this persistent evasion of introspection, of further questioning of the source of the despair and anxiety and guilt that enmesh so many of his best characters in his best stories, does keep him out of the very first class of writing…. Kim, I believe, is great in its own right; and, for the rest, he did so many, many things very well indeed that the greatest novelists never saw to do.