Ferdinand Mount

A sensitive bounder

Ferdinand Mount

A sensitive bounder
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Kipling Sahib: India and the Making of Rudyard Kipling

Charles Allen

Little, Brown, pp. 426, £

He was a noisy boy from the start. At the age of two, he was taken out for walks in order not to disturb his ailing grandfather and he would march down the main street of Bewdley shouting, ‘Ruddy is coming!’ Or sometimes, ‘An angry Ruddy is coming!’ Despite these precautions, his grandfather died and Kipling’s aunts and uncles believed that Ruddy’s tantrums had hastened and embittered his end. When he left the United Services College at Westward Ho! and returned to India, he quickly gained a reputation in the Punjab Club for boorish and bumptious behaviour. A visiting colonel wanted to thrash him for making disparaging remarks about the Indian Civil Service; two lawyers were so annoyed by his persistent interruptions that they kicked him down the club’s front steps. He didn’t mind who he was rude to or about, from the Viceroy and the C-in-C to the smartest ladies of Simla and South Kensington. When Mrs Macmillan, wife of the publisher, told him that India was now fit to govern itself, he told her that she was suffering from hysteria because ‘you haven’t got enough to divert your mind’. Literary curmudgeons of our day — Sir V. S. Naipaul, Sir Kingsley Amis — seem models of tact and discretion by comparison. Every brigadier and boxwallah from Bombay to Calcutta would have agreed with Max Beerbohm that ‘the schoolboy, the bounder and the brute — these three types have surely never found a more brilliant expression of themselves than in Rudyard Kipling.’

Few of Beerbohm’s drawings have skewered their victim more memorably than the one captioned ‘Mr Rudyard Kipling takes a bloomin’ day aht, on the blasted ’eath, along with Britannia, ’is gurl’. Britannia has swapped her helmet for Ruddy’s bowler, while the beetle-browed Nobel laureate in a vulgar check suit is tootling through his moustache on a penny trumpet. Yet for all his cruel cartoons and parodies, Max felt compelled to admit, sotto voce, that Kipling was ‘a very great genius’, though one who was not living up to the possibilities of his genius. Henry James instantly identified Kipling as ‘the most complete man of genius’ he had ever known. But he too couldn’t stand the public poetry, ‘all steam and patriotism’. And he implored Kipling to chuck public affairs, which are an ignoble scene, and stick to your canvas and your paintbox. There is the truth. The rest is humbug. Ask the Lama.

Why couldn’t Kipling follow the Tibetan Buddhist Lama into a life of contemplation in the Himalayas, as Kim does at the end of that remarkable novel (or whatever you want to call it, because it isn’t like any other novel ever written)?

At times, you feel that Charles Allen too shares this impatience with his noisy, ink-spattered hero. Why didn’t Kipling follow the intuitive, Indian side of his head? Why did he moulder down in that gloomy house in Sussex with a wife nobody liked churning out patriotic verse for a public that had become disenchanted with such stuff? Allen has written copiously on India, Kipling and the Raj in various combinations, but of all his books this account of Kipling’s Indian years is the one he felt destined to write. Like Kipling, he himself is a child of the Raj, or rather an orphan of it, cast out of Paradise at an early age and seemingly abandoned by his parents in an alien land among unknown people. The young Kipling worked for Allen’s great-grandfather’s newspaper, the Civil and Military Gazette, in Lahore, in which many of Kipling’s first and finest stories appeared. In the dining-room of the Allen grandparents’ home in East Sussex there hung two of the ten plaster plaques made by John Lockwood Kipling to illustrate the first edition of Kim, those odd muddy images which, like everything to do with Kipling, have a tang which is quite unlike anything to do with anyone else. Who else ever thought of asking his father to illustrate his novel with photographs of plaster plaques?

With delicious detail and an unfailing command of his material, Allen recounts these brief, intense years which make up the total of Kipling’s experience of India — the five years of infancy at Bombay (even those broken by the trip to England for the birth of his sister Trix), then the ‘seven years hard’, as he called them, up to the age of 24 sweating on local newspapers in Lahore and Allahabad, then a couple of years later when he was already famous, a brief final visit to Lahore. He said goodbye to his ayah, and never saw India again. By the time he finished Kim, he had exhausted his reservoirs of experience. As Allen says, he was pretty much written out at 35. ‘The craftsmanship stayed with him for the rest of his life.’ As T. S. Eliot wrote, ‘There is hardly any poem in which Kipling fails to do what he has set out to do.’ But Allen is surely right in discerning that the spark of genius that gave his writing its sharp, dangerous crackle was almost gone, along with the desire to jolt that had made the best of his early work so electrifying to his Victorian readership.

In fact, Allen seems now and then a little doubtful about the value even of that early work. It is not simply the imperial attitudes that seem out of date; for him the freshness of Kipling’s literary techniques has faded too.

The shock-value of ‘Danny Deever’, ‘Tommy’ and the best of the Barrack-Room Ballads has faded over the years — and the rest have not aged well. ‘Mandalay’ sounds almost maudlin. Kipling’s cockneyfication seems contrived.

This isn’t how I feel at all. I still shiver when the ballad of ‘Danny Deever’ turns nasty. And I am still stirred by the old Moulmein Pagoda lookin’ lazy at the sea, even if Mandalay is not most people’s destination of choice just at the moment. All those dropped hs and gs are indeed a contrivance, but a magnificent in-your-face contrivance, a rubbing-it-in way of making palpable the soldiers and engineers who built the empire and who for Kipling are not only as good as Gunga Din (and vice versa) but as good as the Colonel’s Lady. What other writer has had Kipling’s ingrained democratic curiosity? In those seven years as a young reporter in India, he was everywhere, annoying the officers’ mess, pumping the sergeants and privates for their experiences on the North-West Frontier, prowling the alleys and brothels and opium dens of Lahore all through the night. He was always scrounging for copy, picking up the jargon of engineers and jockeys and bureaucrats, so that they began to think he must have spent time in their trade instead of just being an inky magpie (for the same reason simple folk imagine that Shakespeare’s so-called lost years were spent as a soldier or a lawyer). At the same time of course he was an intensely literary writer who mastered every metre from the music-hall ballad to the sestina. He might not have gone to university, but at Westward Ho! he read everything from Dryden and Donne to Pushkin and Oscar Wilde.

As for the early short stories, there is nothing like them in English — you would need to go to Maupassant or Lermontov to find any competition. But even the foreign masters don’t change mood with such an audacious flip as Kipling does. At one moment you are reading a light anecdote full of the persiflage that was later to be done so delightfully by Saki and Wodehouse, and then suddenly the characters are plunged into bewilderment and disaster. Within a short space — most of the stories in Plain Tales from the Hills and Wee Willie Winkie are only 2-3,000 words long, to fit a ‘turnover’ in the Civil and Military Gazette — their whole lives are weighed and, well, not always found wanting. Kipling can be charitable as well as pitiless. In ‘False Dawn’, the characters set out for a moonlight riding picnic by an old tomb in the desperate heat. Saumarez, an arrogant civil servant, resolves to propose to the elder Miss Copleigh in the romantic atmosphere, but a terrible dust-storm gets up and in the confusion he proposes to the wrong sister. That is all there is to it, a story Kipling probably picked up in some out-of-the-way Station. Yet ‘False Dawn’ leaves you sweating and the throat parched as if the sand had blown up off the page.

Kim itself switches mood and theme to and fro as casually as Don Quixote, which Kipling took as his model. At one moment it is a spy story, at another a spiritual adventure or a travelogue or the story of an abandoned child. Some people have found it hard to get on with, as I did when I first tried it in my teens. I returned to it about ten years ago and was transported. To this day it is the English novel that Indian writers most often mention with gratitude and affection.

That intensity, that miraculous compression which marks his best work did not come cheap. Under his rowdy front, he had always been abnormally sensitive and inclined to melancholy, and even as an adult was fearful of the dark and hated to be alone at night. Like all the great books for children (like the great books for adults too) the Jungle Books are full of the smell of fear:

Ere Mor the Peacock flutters, ere the Monkey

People cry,
Ere Chil the Kite sweeps down a furlong
Through the Jungle very softly flits a shadow
and a sigh —
He is Fear, O Little Hunter, he is Fear

When Kipling was decanted upon strange foster parents in Southsea, the ‘House of Desolation’ as he called it, he began to have hallucinations and contracted neurotic habits, hitting out at trees as if they were threatening him and running across the room to check that the walls were real. When he went to stay with his Baldwin cousins after five years of maltreatment by ‘the Woman’ as he called her, his cousin Stanley, the future prime minister, said that he was ‘half blind and crazed to the point of suffering delusions’. Now and then biographers have tried to minimise the ordeal he and his sister Trix suffered when abandoned by their parents to the harsh mercies of Mrs Holloway. It has been suggested, for example, that Kipling might have borrowed from David Copperfield the story of being paraded through the streets of Southsea with a placard on his back saying LIAR, but Trix confirms the story and in any case Mrs Holloway might herself have borrowed the idea.

It does not seem so odd to Allen that Alice and Lockwood Kipling should have abandoned their children to two total strangers for more than five years. The same thing happened to Allen himself and thousands of other children of the Raj. Yet I think he rather skates over the behaviour of Alice, the prime mover. She had, after all, plenty of sisters in England whose homes could have offered Ruddy a warmer lodging, especially the Burne-Joneses and the Baldwins, of whom he was so fond. All Allen can report is that there were ‘complications’ which led her to answer the Holloways’ newspaper advertisement. Perhaps she was ashamed of having to ask for her sisters’ charity. It has to be said that Alice sounds an unappealing character, more interested in making a good impression on the Viceroy with her caustic wit.

The remarks of hers about Ruddy which Allen quotes sound patronising rather than supportive. To the headmaster at Westward Ho!: ‘The lad has a great deal that is feminine in his nature and a little sympathy — from any quarter — will reconcile him to his changed life more than anything.’ She felt compelled to apologise to the departing Viceroy, Lord Dufferin, for Ruddy’s poem ‘One Viceroy resigns’ which purported to be His Excellency’s late-night reverie:

I and my husband have been grieved to note from time to time offences which no cleverness, not even genius can excuse. His youth and inexperience in the world in which he does not live are I feel sure the explanation.

As for his abilities as a storyteller, Alice told her son, ‘you know you couldn’t make a plot to save your life’. All in all, Alice strikes me as a social-climbing bitch. And despite his protestations of devotion to ‘the Family Square’, I think it is of his mother that Kipling is thinking when he writes in the last paragraph of his story ‘Baa, baa black sheep’ which describes his and Trix’s life in the House of Desolation:

When young lips have drunk deep of the bitter waters of Hate, Suspicion and Despair, all the Love in the world will not wholly take away that knowledge.

By contrast, Carrie Kipling has had a bad press, which I don’t think she deserves. Only Adam Nicolson’s little book about her, The Hated Wife, makes some amends and shows how she carried Kipling through and what a lot she had to put up with. Most biographers have preferred to ignore Carrie as far as possible and instead sought to ferret out a homosexual or at least homoerotic streak in Kipling, especially in his relationship with Carrie’s brother Wolcott Balestier: the principal evidence being the brutal speed of Ruddy and Carrie’s marriage after Wolcott’s death, and the fact that he changed ‘Dear Lad’ to ‘Dear Lass’ in his poem ‘The Long Trail’. The latter strikes me as no more than the artist’s economy of effort shown by Elton John in substituting ‘England’s Rose’ for ‘Norma Jean’. The wedding was indeed a weird and brisk affair. According to Edmund Gosse, one of the four men who attended the ceremony at All Souls, Langham Place (Alice and Trix were both down with the flu), it was as if Ruddy had been hurried into matrimony, like a rabbit into its hole. At 2.8 the cortège entered the church and at 2.20 left it. Both bridegroom and bride are possessed by a very devil of secrecy.

Henry James, who was giving the bride away, described her as ‘a hard devoted little person whom I don’t in the least understand his marrying’ — and nor one feels can Charles Allen.

Yet the first time Alice set eyes on Carrie, she exclaimed, ‘That woman is going to marry our Ruddy’. She might, I suppose, have meant ‘because she is a hard little American who wants to marry a world-famous young author’. But I think rather that she could see that Ruddy, a fragile character who had always been solitary and was now in a frantic state, wilfully withdrawing deeper into himself, needed someone who could take him in hand and look after him, someone older not just by the two years of the calendar but in terms of being grown-up and capable, the sort of older woman that he had always gone for as a companion, even while he was whoring in Lahore. Allen describes him as ‘locked in an increasingly bleak marriage’ even before the death of his beloved elder daughter Josephine from whooping cough, not to mention the death of his son Johnnie in the Great War. But I very much doubt whether any other woman would have made him happier. He was bleak by nature. And his misfortunes only intensified the way he was. He became obsessively secretive too, he and Carrie holding periodic bonfires of all his papers. His autobiography, Something of Myself, could, as Charles Allen remarks, more accurately have been entitled As Little About Myself As I Can Get Away With.

Yet his self-obliteration, his wilful absence as a person, only enhanced his eerie sharpness of perception. It was partly because he had been away from India for 11 years that he could see how fragile, how absurd, yet how amazing the whole edifice of the Raj was and what a permanent lowering shadow had been left by the Mutiny 25 years earlier. No longer did the British in the sub-continent speak of themselves as ‘Indians’ but as ‘Anglo-Indians’, and for many of the whites the ‘natives’ were now ‘niggers’. The racial divide had become an abyss. He wrote ‘Home’ to his cousin Margaret Burne-Jones:

Underneath our excellent administrative system; under the piles of reports and statistics; the thousands of troops, the doctors, and the civilians of the Indian Civil Service runs wholly untouched and unaffected the life of the people of the land — a life as full of impossibilities and wonders as the Arabian Nights.

The gorgeous apparatus of the Raj might be blown away in a moment and the roles of master and servant reversed, as they are in the story called ‘The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes’, a literal-minded civil engineer who finds himself in the Village of the Dead, which turns out to be a Republic where he has to obey the rule of the Brahmins. ‘The Man Who Would Be King’, perhaps the most famous, certainly the most filmed of all Kipling’s stories, is a hideous parable of the rise and fall of British rule, where a couple of deadbeat rogues, Peachey Carnehan and Daniel Dravot, first terrorise the distant native kingdom of Kafiristan with the power of their guns and use Masonic ritual (to which Kipling was devoted) to inspire awe, then start building bridges and holding councils, before the inevitable mutiny and hideous bloody end.

Kipling was an imperialist, yes, but he was the most apprehensive and morally demanding imperialist who ever lived. And it would be a sad thing if the political correctness of today separated Kipling from his mass readership. How horrified he would be to think that he had become more admired by highbrows than the general public, for there was nothing he abominated more than the society of intellectuals and being forced to

Consort with long-haired things

In velvet collar-rolls,
Who talked about the aims of Art
And ‘theories’ and ‘goals’.

For Rudyard Kipling went beyond the art that conceals art to the art that conceals the artist. And he concealed himself too well for his own good.