At the height of Empire, and of the literature of Empire, J.K. Stephen looked forward to a time
When there stands a muzzled stripling,
Mute, beside a muzzled bore,
When the Rudyards cease from Kipling
And the Haggards Ride no more.
The Haggards have ridden rather precariously since the decline of Empire, if at all. But the next few years promise no end of Kipling. When copyright runs out, his work will be published extensively in paperback, and may or may not be read.
Kipling is a writer between readerships: no longer anything like as popular as he once was, but not quite unpopular enough to be included in courses on Modernism or The Short Story. His reputation declined quite sharply during his lifetime; so much so that a Kipling Society was founded in 1927 to restore it. The first issue of the Kipling Journal was devoted to reaffirming the basis of that reputation: the ‘Patriotism Appeal’ of a man who had always written ‘for the honour and benefit of England, praising us when we deserve it, and rating us when we need it’. The founders of the Society supposed that Kipling’s vision of a rooted but technocratic Greater Britain would continue to attract and identify a readership:
So long as men commune with men
Their lips will shrine thy lyric pen.
So long as we have eyes to see,
Thy temple of Humanity
Will rear from Britain’s royal sod
To draw us nearer to our God.
In 1986 Kipling’s readers have eyes for other aspects of his imagination: a tendency welcomed by the Society’s current literature. But the work of commemoration goes on. Somebody is still slipping into the temple of humanity, if only to polish the silver, or donate an Irish sixpence.
The Great Traditions of the academic study of literature have on the whole been framed to exclude technology, Patriotism Appeal and the royal sod. They have on the whole excluded Kipling. Andrew Rutherford’s 1971 Penguin selection tried to smuggle him in by putting the emphasis on the later, more psychologically and artistically complex stories. But as Angus Wilson (President of the Kipling Society) pointed out in his 1977 biography, this won’t really do. You can’t ignore half a career, or the political and literary traditions which shaped the whole of it. Unlike Wells, say, Kipling is not a latecomer to the party who can be relieved of blunt implements at the door and coaxed apologetically towards the drinks.
Nevertheless, canonisation – or at least the bulking-out of an oeuvre which sometimes accompanies it – has begun. An edition of the letters is on the way. Already we have Professor Rutherford’s gathering of previously unpublished or uncollected early poems, and Professor Thomas Pinney’s selection from the early journalism: special reports, feature articles, social notes, reviews and comic sketches written for the Lahore Civil and Military Gazette between 1884 and 1888. Both editors acknowledge the rawness of the work they have printed, but argue that it will change our view of Kipling’s early career.
Professor Rutherford has the harder task, since, as he admits, the early poems should be regarded as ‘digressions’ not only from Kipling’s official duties but also from his ‘main artistic endeavours’. To be sure, they reveal Kipling’s precocity, and the breadth of his reading. ‘It is a body of verse uneven in quality, but of considerable interest, social and historical as well as biographical and literary.’ In this context, however, ‘uneven’ is the estate agent’s version of half-way down a precipice; while the ‘considerable interest’ derives very largely from Professor Rutherford’s meticulous headnotes, rather than from the poems.
The book consists of 117 poems written while Kipling was still at school, and 171 written after he had returned to India in 1882. The Indian poems are irreverent and inexhaustibly facetious:
These are the ballads, tender and meek,
Sung by a bard with his tongue in his cheek.
Sung by a poet, well a day!
Who doesn’t believe a word of his lay.
Rattleton Traplegh was pretty and pink;
Rattleton Traplegh was (only think!)
Sadly addicted to flirting with
Mrs Saphira Wallabie Smith.
The names at least are a minor addition to Anglo-Indian humour: in a Ford Madox Ford novel, one would be a place, the other Head of a beastly Public School for Middle-Class Girls. Kipling was adept at parody. By writing with Tennysonian or Arnoldian grandeur about the realities of Anglo-Indian life, he dramatised not only his literary ambitions but differences of attitude between the British at home and the British in India. Although staunchly Anglo-Indian, he didn’t hesitate to expose social and political lapses, and sometimes drew an angry protest from his victims; the formality and self-evident marginality of verse allowed him to enjoy the role of irritant. But it was not until he settled in London in 1889, and assimilated the rhythms and the fatalistic bravado of music-hall songs, that he began writing poems which claim to represent, to articulate common experiences.
It is possible to admire Professor Rutherford’s scholarship, and still wonder why this book has been published. We now have a better edition of poems which will appeal only to the most hardy among the faithful than we do of poems which readers attracted by the prose are quite likely to seek out. T.S. Eliot’s 1941 selection helped to revive Kipling’s reputation. Surely it would have made sense to include the best of the early verse in a new and more comprehensive selection. Why go to such lengths to refurbish and consecrate a lumber-room at the back of the temple of humanity when you are not yet sure how many people will be coming in through the front?
Kipling was 19 when he began to write for the Civil and Military Gazette, and still feeling his way into forms and idioms designed above all to settle his nerves. His sketches of Indian and Anglo-Indian life are a little forced, but eminently – almost presumptuously – readable. Unlike the poems, they were not digressions. They represented the means by which Kipling hoped to establish himself in society: not as an irritant, but as a reliable witness and a shaper of opinion. They will, as Professor Pinney suggests, change our view of his early career.
In his autobiography, Something of Myself, Kipling told a story of exile and return. He represented India as a land of imaginative and emotional stimulus, England as a land of exile where he learnt (through deprivation) the advantages of self-discipline and reserve. Arriving back in India at the age of 16 to take up his post on the Civil and Military Gazette, he knew at once that his original responsiveness had survived intact. ‘I found myself at Bombay where I was born, moving among sights and smells that made me deliver the vernacular sentences whose meaning I knew not ... my English years fell away, nor ever, I think, came back in full strength.’ The English years did persist at Lahore, in the shape of a tyrannical editor who kept him hard at work on routine matters. But he benefited from the discipline: and the productive sights and smells of India were never far away.
Kipling’s biographers and critics have used this story to distinguish between constraint and imaginative sympathy in the man and in the work. The English years stiffened the upper lip; the Indian years encouraged the lower one to tremble sensuously, sympathetically. Anglo-Indian children (the children of British people living in India) were sent home in order to be reminded of their duty to Empire and to stoicism. In Kipling’s case, stoicism and Empire had to contend with an inclination to wander and absorb, an energetic responsiveness. It was the Indian rather than the English years, we are told, which gave him his first subject, his most important territory: and that breadth of imagination found above all in Kim.
There is much truth in this view, and even more convenience. For one thing, it allows us to overlook Kipling’s politics. We can say that the imagination stimulated by the Indian years made the political enthusiasms of the English years a metaphor for more fundamental trials of spirit; or that the indeterminacy of the tales undoes the colonising assurance of the teller. Academic criticism has laundered Kipling by dissociating his politics from his imagination. Professor Pinney certainly wants to keep them separate: ‘when Kipling is rendering the Indian scene for its own sake, delighting in its variety and copiousness, and responding to the individuality of its people, he is very different from the Kipling who writes about India in relation to English purposes and English standards.’ Poor Kiplings. One of them wants to write Kim, while the other keeps making offensive remarks about local customs. What does seem clear is that the man will not be allowed in until he has been relieved of his purposes and standards.
Yet those purposes and standards represented the only way to make sense of ‘the Indian scene’. What else did Kipling have? He couldn’t write about the sights and smells of Lahore until he had discovered what they meant to him, and what he meant to them. The evidence of the early journalism suggests that it was English purposes and standards which created meaning. They made him aware of his own distance from India, and thus enabled him to see both it and himself for the first time.
Kipling proved himself as a reporter while covering the Viceroy’s visit to Patiala, a native state 200 miles south-east of Lahore. One of the four pieces he wrote there begins as an account of the copiousness and variety of the Maharajah’s Palace, and turns into a self-dramatisation. Wandering through a maze of corridors, he comes across five ancient counsellors seated on Persian rugs in a small chamber. ‘As soon as they recognised the presence of a Sahib among them, they rose en masse, and, with the greatest gravity, proceeded to “shoo” me out of their presence as one might “shoo” a strayed fowl. It seems that I had trespassed too close to the ladies, and as none of the five elders understood English, they had adopted this course in order to let me understand that it was as well to withdraw. I took the hint, and managed to rejoin modern civilisation in the shape of the barouche kindly placed at my service by the authorities in the great outer square.’
The recognition of Kipling as a Sahib generates in the narrative the stylistic markers of cultural difference: the French idiom, the inverted commas, the simile, the dapper acknowledgement of trespass, the expansive double-edged irony of ‘modern civilisation’. Kipling discovers himself and India in relation to English (or European) purposes and standards. He discovers himself as a writer: learns what a writer does, how a writer gains some sort of purchase on his material. This plunge into the Indian scene kindles small ironies rather than large sympathies. A rhetorical distance establishes and holds the distance between cultures; the writer himself is held by that distance.
A year later Kipling investigated the milk supply of Lahore, thought to be a source of typhoid. He took his purposes and standards with him. His report imitated the narratives of the English sanitary reformers who had written about the slums of Manchester and London. (One of his jobs on the Civil and Military Gazette was to epitomise Blue Books: according to his editor, Kay Robinson, he did his best to convert them into ‘interesting and picturesque narratives’.) The reports and essays of the English reformers tended to follow a pattern: departure from a police station, descent into the slums, a chronicle of filth and rot and miasma. They all dramatised the distinctness of the investigator. Kipling’s is no exception. ‘An Englishman parading the bye-ways of a native town, in company with a policeman, is an object of the liveliest curiosity, not to say suspicion.’ As the Englishman descends into the native town, his narrative descends into the vernacular. ‘Within three feet of the rank was located a hulwaie’s shop, and the proprietor thereof, wrapped up in his rezai, sat upon the shop-board waiting the morning supply of milk which the gowalla was even then drawing.’ Among the exotic milkmaids he finds what his English narrative had led him to expect: filth, rot, miasma. ‘The second room – stall, stable, or cess-pit – was pitch dark, and the unwary explorer sank over ankle deep into the foul compost that lay thick on the floor, and was nearly suffocated by the fetid stench inside.’ The filth belongs to Lahore, the modes of description and self-dramatisation to an English (or at least a European) narrative. Eventually the explorer staggers out into the fresh air and into the French language. ‘The details have been sketched as lightly as possible; but any one who knows the manners and customs of the Punjabi will be able to fill them in à discretion.’ They have the manners and customs, we have the discretion.
Kipling was later to write in the same terms of the slums of Calcutta, in ‘City of Dreadful Night’. Forming an ‘amateur sanitary commission’ of one, he explores ‘just such mysterious, conspiring tenements as Dickens would have loved’. The narratives of sanitary reform had produced a knowledge of the slums by asserting at every step the difference between us and them, rulers and ruled, colonisers and colonised: they make mysteries, we make choices. At once political and literary, Benthamite and Dickensian, these narratives helped Kipling to imagine ‘the Indian scene’, and his own place in it.
There were other narratives, of course. Kipling often represented himself as an innocent abroad: a role studied from Sketches by Boz, perhaps, or the early journalism of Mark Twain. The spectacle of military discipline and military technology, for example, always provoked attacks of acute innocence. ‘How it’s done, the civilian’s mind cannot tell.’ On such occasions, Kipling appears as a ‘mere outsider’ or an ‘unprofessional observer’. The role makes his presence felt, while at the same time enlarging our perception of the prowess of Empire. Thus he will play the Twainian loafer in order to register the efficiency and dedication of Englishmen repairing a railway-line; or the Twainian ‘country cousin’ in order to compare the miseries of travel by dak gharri with the miseries of travel by stage-coach in the American West (the passage seems to allude to Roughing it). Like the sanitary reformer, the innocent abroad is a self-dramatisation to be tested in and against ‘the Indian scene’.
Kipling developed as a writer not by transcending these strategies, but by discarding the ones which didn’t work and adapting the ones which did. Innocence would not run an Empire, and there were good political reasons why he should set a limit to his unwariness. The reasons become apparent when, posing as an Enthusiastic Excursionist, he enters the ‘evil-smelling enclosures’ of the Lahore horse-market and interviews a crooked dealer. Whereas Twain’s innocence of horse-flesh had led to the purchase of an unmanageable Genuine Mexican Plug, Kipling was not going to allow himself to be fooled by an Afghan bandit; he doesn’t buy. Too great an unwariness would only encourage mystery and conspiracy. Too many Enthusiastic Excursionists, and there would be no more Empire. When the market and the dealer reappear in Kim, one is merely ‘turbulent’, the other a British spy.
Much as Kipling admired Twain, he could not afford the levelling devices of ‘Western’ humour. In his early sketches, Twain created the figure of the Unreliable, a yobbish newspaperman who turns up at parties looking ‘hungry and vicious’ and intending to commit bad behaviour. The Unreliable eats and drinks a lot, insults people, and dances a quadrille with eight inches of codfish sticking out of his pocket. Twain can enjoy this disruption of the fragile gentility of Carson City without being held responsible for it; he simply observes. In ‘A Friend’s Friend’, published in the Civil and Military Gazette in 1887, a similar figure performs similar feats, and then bursts into tears for good measure. But Kipling’s narrator is not amused. He regards the whole performance as an insult to himself, and takes an elaborate revenge. The Anglo-Indian Unreliable is plastered with meringue, rolled up in a carpet and tossed into a passing bullock-cart. Kipling was determined to protect the fragile gentility of Lahore against carnival. If there is any carnival here, it is in the vengeance, not in the disruption.
Kipling the Reliable protected English standards by acknowledging and reproducing the special skills and vocabularies which embodied colonial authority. Writing about Amritsar Fair, he displays a sudden familiarity with horse-flesh. ‘Badly formed weak hocks, ditto feet, and a want of bone below the knee – the old established faults of the Indian horse – were visible everywhere.’ The knowingness creates a (faintly ludicrous) narrative presence; it also seems to ensure the safety of the various English buyers ‘walled up’ by the dense crowds. Kipling may have learnt the political and rhetorical value of expertise from the members of his Club. ‘In that Club and elsewhere I met none except picked men at their definite work – Civilians, Army, Education, Canals, Forestry, Engineering, Irrigation, Railways, Doctors, and Lawyers – samples of each branch and each talking his own shop.’ The definiteness of such talk enhanced the definiteness of the work and of the men. Kipling, an unenthusiastic rider, chose to be reliably definite about horses.
But these sketches do not simply assimilate the special languages of the engineer and the horse-trader. They create a special language of their own: a certain literariness, the writer’s ‘shop’. The claim staked in Kipling’s account of the Jubilee celebrations at Lahore in 1887 is at once literary and social. ‘Over the city itself played a pale golden light turning the darkness into deep violet; such a light as one sees at night playing over Brighton from far away on Lewes Downs.’ In theory, the comparison should bring more vividly before us the spectacle of Lahore. In practice, it creates a tiny autonomous fiction, a scene patrolled by the observer on Lewes Downs. This fiction demonstrates the writer’s particular and characteristic skill; it does what the doctor and the engineer know they would not think of doing. But the fiction must not set him apart completely. So it evokes a feeling shared by doctor and engineer, an Anglo-Indian identity. The Lewes Downs do indeed seem very far away.
There are other trademarks, of course: literary allusion, metaphor, and some of Kipling’s larger-than-life puns. A group of notables posing for a photograph is held ‘in uneasy camaraderie’. Kipling’s sister said that he had a camera in his brain. Here he seems to want to be in front of the lens as well as behind it. The pun itself is a kind of camaraderie: it makes a place for the writer among the picked men at their definite work.
In Plain Tales from the Hills, stories written for the Civil and Military Gazette between 1884 and 1887, these notations of expertise supersede the innocent abroad. The social hierarchies and racial separations of colonialism generate an answerable style, a detached and commanding narrative voice which broods on the pathos of distance: between black and white, home and abroad, innocence and experience, men and women. These stories have dispensed with the services of a narrator whose sentimental and veterinary education might reconcile separate worlds, might dramatise growth or assimilation. The writing reproduces hierarchy and separation, then begins to feed on them with un-ideological abandon, until finally it differentiates even where ideology would prefer to reconcile. Beyond a certain point, the style no longer answers.
Colonialism had to explain the point of colonies, to the colonisers if not to the colonised. It had to persuade young men and women to spend their lives, and often to risk them, on the frontiers of Empire. British Imperialism, as Kipling might have learnt from Trevelyan’s Competition Wallah, which he read on the boat out, conceived service in India as a rite of passage. ‘The real education of a civil servant consists in the responsibility that devolves on him at an early age, which brings out whatever good there is in a man.’ Rites of passage would transform innocence into experience, and thus demonstrate the moral utility of the frontier and its intimate connection with the homeland.
Such rites of passage became the staple of popular fiction. In John Buchan’s The Half-Hearted, a cynical and lethargic young man is persuaded to use his knowledge of the Indian frontier to help foil an invasion, and the challenge transforms him. ‘Life was quick in his sinews, his brain was a weathercock, his strength was tireless.’ Appetite restored, eyes spinning, he is in good shape to take on a Russian army single-handed (single-handed is how many of these heroes end up, for regeneration often seems to involve the loss of a favourite limb). Other frontiers provided the same kind of opportunity. In Conan Doyle’s Tragedy on the Korosko, a group of tourists in Egypt is kidnapped by Dervishes, and the experience transforms one of them, a cynical and lethargic lawyer: ‘he had begun to find himself – to understand that there really was a strong, reliable man behind all the tricks of custom which had built up an artificial nature.’ (Another candidate for transformation – he reads Walter Pater – is not so lucky, being despatched by a Mad Mullah on page 140.)
Kipling was less sanguine. His early stories show innocence broken rather than transformed, and Britain separated from the British in India by irreconcilable differences of perception. Rather than an educable unwariness, they dramatise what George Moore identified as Kipling’s major anxiety: ‘not to be taken in’. The political necessity of hierarchy and separation has become an imaginative necessity which installs the narrator in commanding solitude and undoes the reconciliations imagined by frontier-myth.
Frontier-myth does not receive separate treatment in Imperialism and Popular Culture, though it certainly helped to shape both, and indeed crops up here and there in the excellent essays edited by John MacKenzie. These essays argue that there can be no understanding of Empire without an understanding of its pervasive symbolism, its reproduction in cultural form as music-hall song or children’s story or broadcast. We will never know what Empire meant, and still means, until we describe and analyse the ways in which images of its magnificence were produced and distributed.
It may not, of course, have meant anything at all, or anything very much. Wells said that nineteen out of twenty Englishmen knew less about their Empire than they did about the Italian Renaissance. In 1951, 59 per cent of those interviewed in a survey could not name a single British colony. One man suggested Lincolnshire. John MacKenzie and his colleagues are properly tentative when it comes to measuring the effect of Imperial propaganda. But the evidence they present does suggest that there is an effect to be measured. One of the most attractive features of the book is the way they allow the evidence to speak for itself.
Imperialism sometimes reinforced the subjection of those it had conquered by presenting them as a spectacle. In 1899, a group of black warriors appeared in a show called ‘Savage South Africa’, at a Greater Britain Exhibition in the Empress Theatre, Earl’s Court. When not re-enacting their own defeat in the Matabele Wars of 1893 and 1896, the warriors lived in a ‘Kaffir Kraal’ which drew large crowds of spectators. Many of the spectators were women, and their attendance provoked a hysterical campaign in the press (‘it has become notorious that English women have petted and pampered these specimens of a lower race in a manner which must sicken those who know the facts’). The sick-bag circulated even more rapidly when it became known that the leader of the tribesmen was to marry an English woman. Ben Shephard’s informative essay on this episode shows very well how popular entertainments and popular journalism acted as a focus for Imperial and racial attitudes.
Other contributions show that these attitudes were not unmasked by the carnage of the First World War, but survived up to and even beyond the Second. John MacKenzie is equally informative on the way the BBC under Reith used the appeal of Empire to establish its own status and popularity. Jeffrey Richards writes about images of Empire in British and American films of the Thirties, Stephen Constantine about the Empire Marketing Board, whose activities ranged from a pamphlet on ‘The Behaviour and Diseases of the Banana in Storage and Transport’ to John Grierson’s documentary about the herring fleet, Drifters (‘a very good show,’ the Public Accounts Committee conceded, ‘but does it make a man eat extra fish?’). A recipe for the King’s Empire Christmas Pudding – Canadian flour, South African raisins, Jamaica rum, and so on – was a major success.
One of the images produced and distributed by the popular culture of Empire was ‘Rudyard Kipling’. People who hadn’t read his books knew them by way of quotation and paraphrase and film. The man himself was always at hand to advise the BBC (about the King’s broadcasts, it is said), or the Boy Scouts, or even the Empire Marketing Board. In 1924, he named the streets in the Empire Exhibition at Wembley: Atlantic Slope, Dominion Way, Craftsman’s Way.
That was the older Kipling, the author of psychologically and artistically complex tales. The younger Kipling, although more closely involved in the production of Empire, had proved less amenable: how much less we can gather from John Springhall’s essay on the glamorising of colonial warfare by artists and correspondents. The hero of The Light that Failed (1891) has no illusions about this. ‘You’re sent out when a war begins,’ he tells a famous correspondent, ‘to minister to the blind, brutal, British public’s bestial thirst for blood.’ The sentence was removed from later editions of the novel, perhaps in recognition of the British public’s thirst for Kipling as well as for blood. But his imaginative distrust of reconciliation survived. A correspondent caught up in a battle in one of the Sudan campaigns gouges out the eye of an attacker, then calmly wipes his thumb on his trouser-leg. After the battle, he sits down ‘to work out an account of what he was pleased to call “a sanguinary battle, in which our arms had acquitted themselves”, etc’. What excites Kipling is the sheer distance between frontier and homeland; the reality of one cannot be known unless it is translated into the fantasies of the other, and thus destroyed. His stoicism is itself a frontier-myth of a kind, and was undoubtedly perceived as such. But it doesn’t sit any more easily with the propaganda of militant Imperialism than it does with the effortless mediations and assimilations of Kim.
One of the books Kipling reviewed for the Civil and Military Gazette was Hobson-Jobson: ostensibly a glossary of colloquial Anglo-Indian words and phrases, but in fact, as he points out, an encyclopedic survey of ‘all things connected directly or indirectly with the East’. The connecting, however, was done by Western minds. ‘Considering the long intercourse with India,’ the editors remarked, ‘it is noteworthy that the additions which have thus accrued to the English language are, from the intellectual standpoint, of no intrinsic value. Nearly all the borrowed words refer to material facts, or to peculiar customs and stages of society, and, though a few of them furnish allusions to the penny-a-liner, they do not represent new ideas.’ Hobson-Jobson provides more evidence of the exercise of power through language than of mediation and assimilation.
The British in India seem to have adapted or deformed the native vernaculars as a way of controlling a strange environment: not in order to listen, but in order to make themselves heard. They expected to spend their working lives in India and then to return home. Settlement and integration were anathema, while the home to which they returned was often one they could hardly recognise. To an unusual extent, their identities depended on what they could take with them wherever they went: ideology, language, dressing for dinner. Unwilling to confuse territories, or to confuse races, they confused languages instead. They would own both and belong to neither. The mixing of languages, the small creative pressure which shifts the meaning of a term or introduces it into a new context, would assert their definite and reliable presence.
‘Hobson-Jobson’ was the British soldier’s version of a Mohammedan chant (Ya Hasan! Ya Hosain!), and perhaps served to blunt its strange extremity. The application of the term ‘goddess’ (from the Malay gadis, ‘virgin’) to ‘the young women of the land’ perhaps bantered away some of their strangeness. On the other hand, when Anglo-Indians transformed ‘baboo’ from a term of respect to a term of contempt, or when they measured the amount of ‘dark blood’ in someone’s veins by the number of annas in the rupee, they were demonstrating that they could enforce meanings as well as taxes.
Hobson-Jobson must have proved invaluable to the new arrival, since he or she was joining a community of words (a community of displaced words). It will offer the historian and the sociolinguist a glimpse of the English purposes and standards which enabled Kipling to make sense of India. One or two of the entries might even come in handy in academic debate:
BANCHOOT, BETEECHOOT. Terms of abuse, which we should hesitate to print if their odious meaning were not obscure ‘to the general’. If it were known to the Englishmen who sometimes use the words, we believe there are few who would not shrink from such brutality. Somewhat similar in character seem the words which Saul in his rage flings at his noble son (1 Sam. xx 30).