In Rudyard’s Back Yard

London

‘Do you like Kipling?’ asks the colonel on the 1930’s saucy seaside postcard. ‘I don’t know, I’ve never Kippled,’ replies the shopgirl.

But most people had, and they made him one of the most popular writers in England. Remembered mainly for his children’s fables, ‘The Jungle Book’ and ‘Just So Stories’, Kipling developed an image problem that kept his adult work off the radar for sixty years (and for some, it still does). The knee-jerk reaction is that he’s a celebrator of British imperialism at its worst, so it’s easy to overlook the balancing facts.

Last week I visited Rudyard Kipling’s early 17th century house at Bateman’s in East Sussex, which is now a National Trust property. I have never been in a more ‘English’ feeling home; grand stone fireplaces, wood-panelled walls, rooms which are a contradictory amalgam of austere cosiness. In the study are a beautiful set of the original Jungle Book paintings. One room is finished in golden burnished leather wall coverings representing the tree of life.

Joseph Kipling was born in Bombay in 1865 and moved to England as a child. ‘Rudyard’ was a middle name, after the lake in Staffordshire where his parents courted. The first cousin of the Conservative PM Stanley Baldwin, Kipling considered himself Anglo-Indian, which was common among the British born in India, and returned to Bombay at sixteen. Starting work in a newspaper, he set a frenetic pace of writing, producing six volumes of short stories before heading to London, then the US, where he wrote The Jungle Books. Although he loved Vermont, he made his home in Devon after growing anti-British sentiment in the US forced his hand.

Although he was an early modernist who regarded India as the finest democracy in the world, Kipling was being seen as an arch-imperialist even before Victoria had gone with poems like ‘The White Man’s Burden’, although his writings contained ironies, particularly in ‘Stalky & Co’, about the cynicism of schoolboys.

The patriotic new century saw a leap in his popularity. A reflection of his time, Kipling’s huge admiration of India was undeniable. In 1907 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, becoming the first and youngest English language winner, but there was a troubling side to his work. Staunchly anti-Home Rule for Ireland and anti-Bolshevik, he strongly supported the coming world war and secured a position for his son John in the Irish Guards. But the boy was killed in action, after which the devastated Kipling was transformed, writing, ‘If any question why we died/ Tell them, because our fathers lied.’

He repeatedly turned down a knighthood, was lauded by Henry James and beloved by millions (his poem ‘If…’ still tops the charts) but times had changed. In later years Kipling’s reputation shifted from innovator to old guard, partly because the gold swastika adorning his early books had become stigmatised; Kipling ordered the ancient symbol’s removal and condemned the Nazis as early as 1935.

Matched in the diversity of his writing only by DH Lawrence, Kipling retained little of his former reverence. Now though, both in England and in India, reformation is underway. What cannot be ignored is his facility for language that frequently surprises and dazzles, ripe for rediscovery. ‘Kim’ is an astonishing picaresque novel that shows his passion for India. As one reader put, ‘It’s funny, it’s a thriller, it’s grounded in a good-humoured and tolerant morality.’ Kipling doesn’t question the British Empire, but nor does he condescend to his characters. Orwell was wrong to insult him, and time will enshrine his writing. Below is his house in India.

30 comments on “In Rudyard’s Back Yard”

  1. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    Just So Stories was one of my favourites as a child, and still is.
    I like the poems between the stories as much as the stories themselves.

    Stalky and Co is a more difficult read, in some ways making Tom Brown’s Schooldays and Lord of the Flies seem like pleasant school stories.

    Bateman’s is one of those places I have always meant to visit, but so far haven’t.

  2. Martin Tolley says:

    My dad was not an educated man. He had to leave school at 14. He had a teacher who read him some Kipling’s verse, and my dad loved it. He was captured by the musicality, the rhythm and the rhymes and some of the philosophy (which frequently focussed on the struggles of the ordinary person and poked fun, and worse, at authority figures). I don’t suppose my dad read a single book from beginning to end in his entire life, but Kipling’s words gave him so much pleasure and so many quotations off by heart. Talking to my dad about Kipling helped me to understand my dad. I’m forever grateful for that.

  3. Liz Thompson says:

    I read and re read Kim when young. I loved the descriptions of India and the people. Oddly enough, I never came across the Just So stories, Jungle Book, or Puck of Pook’s Hill/Rewards and Fairies till I was fully grown, but when I did come across them, I loved them too. The singer Peter Bellamy set many of Kipling’s verses to music, including his military songs. They’re still available on cd, and both voice and folk-style music set them off beautifully. Kipling knew the life and fate of the British soldier abroad, and the songs reflect both the ethos and the culture of the army at that period in all its brutality and fatalism.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    I used How The Leopard Got His Spots with a primary school class and they loved it. They wanted another one but I don’t remember which one we did. They put the grouped spots on their leopards, of course. I made a tune for the Roman Marching Song and used to walk home to it. I loved the story of the alphabet with all the pictograms. I had to remind myself that The Jungle Book is India not Africa, probably because we don’t think of jungle when we think of India for some reason. Besides, Africa doesn’t have tigers and those were definitely Indian monkeys. Dymchurch Flit. Hal of the Mill (I always think of him sitting on the step and rapping the tail end against it.

  5. Roger says:

    Orwell didn’t insult Kipling: he acknowledged him as a very powerful political enemy and literary rival.
    Kim – and Kipling’s attitude to India – is a bit more complicated than you describe it. The Indian writer T.N. Murari has written a couple of sequels – The Imperial Agent and The Last Victory – imagining his later life.
    They aren’t as well written as Kim, but they are still good.
    Kipling has always had a curious role in English literature – that which must noit be spoken of! – yet Auden – again! – wrote of “horrible old Kipling”, but put him alongside Yeats:
    Time that is intolerant
    Of the brave and innocent,
    And indifferent in a week
    To a beautiful physique,
    Worships language and forgives
    Everyone by whom it lives,
    Pardons cowardice, conceit,
    Lays its honors at their feet.
    Time that with this strange excuse
    Pardoned Kipling and his views,
    And will pardon Paul Claudel,
    Pardons him for writing well.

  6. Brian Evans says:

    I loved Bateman’s but seriously dislike the work of Kipling and his imperialism. It has to do with being in the Scouts and the group leaders having those stupid Jungle Book names. In the 1960s it all seemed so silly and dated. Mind you, being in the Scouts, there was worse than Kipling. Baden-sodding-Powell. I associate them all with war mongering and the terrible people such as Haig and co-sending a million men to the horrors of the First World war. Lions lead by donkeys. And God, those awful “Just So” stories.

  7. Alan Robson says:

    I read, and loved, the “Just So Stories” and “The Jungle Books” as a child — indeed, my original copies of those books still sit on my bookshelves today. But apart from those two books, Kipling largely passed me by. However my first wife was a huge fan and she introduced me to Stalky, Puck and “Rewards and Fairies”. And again, I absolutely loved them.

    “Kim” is praised by everybody, but he’s not for me. I’ve tried half a dozen times, but I’ve never been able to finish the book. I find it easy to put down and hard to pick up again. So it goes.

    There’s a brilliant movie “The Man Who Would Be King” (Michael Caine and Sean Connery) made from the Kipling story of the same name. It’s remarkably similar to the original story, taking very few liberties.

  8. Helen Martin says:

    Oh, dear, Brian! Scouts must have done terrible things to you. I was never too much enthused by Girl Guides, either. It always seemed too much like a competition and they tried to take our tenderfoot badges away because they administered a weird test and we didn’t know things that apparently we were supposed to. I moved away about that time so I just stayed away from the whole thing. You didn’t like the Just So stories because of the rhythm and the addressing the narrator’s Best Beloved? (I’m just guessing.)
    Laurie King does a Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes story about Kim, The Game. She admires the original book and her continuation is very intense. I skip the room with the automatons and the tiger skins because I just shudder. The early parts where they are walking the dusty roads of 1920s India is fascinating with the stopping places and Holmes doing his “simple” magic act. The later parts where they’re doing a spying act is also good and the ending is exciting. Try it, Brian.

  9. Jo W says:

    I have my Dad to thank for introducing me to Kipling’s poems.
    I have two favourites, one of which is Tommy. The other,from which my Dad often quoted, was The Conundrum of the Workshops. “The Devil whispered behind the leaves, ‘It’s pretty, but is it art?'”

  10. Ian Luck says:

    The only Kipling book that I have enjoyed was ‘Puck Of Pook’s Hill’. The settings used in it were bits of countryside around Bateman’s, that Kipling knew well. It has the same pleasantly creepy vibe as ‘The Little Grey Men’ books, by ‘BB’, and ‘Borrobil’ by William Croft Dickinson.

  11. admin says:

    The issue of separating the work from the writer is ancient and vexing; I suspect that if I had been born at the same time, my parents would have been strong imperialists and the effect would have rubbed off. ‘Kim’ has an intensity that seems to separate it from the other books. I read TJB at school but it was never a favourite.

  12. Andrew Holme says:

    Stalky & Co. is an interesting book. I read it as a teenager and then later at College when it was reprinted with a spankingly good cover. As well as being good tales I loved the way Kipling inverted the ‘school’ stories of the Victorian and early Edwardian periods. Wodehouse started out writing more traditional school stories which are worth reading alongside Stalky for the contrast. Back in the late Seventies/early Eighties our MP in Westmoreland was Michael Jopling – and you might be ahead of me here – leading to a popular Kendal schoolyard joke of ” are you fond of Jopling?” ” I don’t know I’ve…” You get the rest.

  13. davem says:

    Great post Chris

  14. John Griffin says:

    Liz Thompson – never fond of Bellamy’s voice, but he did sterling work both with material such as Kipling and his own folk opera The Transports (I think it was called that at first). Alas, he went the way of many unhailed creatives, too young, too soon..

  15. MR Ansell P Gifford says:

    The article is mistaken in ascribing a change in Kipling’s attitude towards the War. The fathers who lied were those that ignored the dangers of a coming conflict so that Britain was woefully unprepared.
    But fullly agree as to his wonderful skill in wrting poems and stories. Kim is an amazing tale with its literally transcendental ending. Orwell’s snobbish condemnation of Kipling is quite wrong and has aged far more badly

  16. Liz Thompson says:

    John Griffin, you’re right. A lot of people found Bellamy’s voice difficult. His settings of the Kipling army songs are available by other folk singers, there’s at least one cd by various singers called, I think, The Widow’s Uniform. There three recordings of The Transports, the original, and two more recent versions. I have all three, plus Bellamy’s other recordings, since I don’t find his voice difficult, although it’s certainly unique.

  17. Roger says:

    https://greatwarfiction.wordpress.com/ has some interesting posts on Kipling andWWI.

  18. Kit says:

    I grew up reading not the Jungle Book, but a book called “All the Mowgli Stories” which was exactly as the title said. It was my mother’s book originally, and I really loved it. But I didn’t read anything else of his until I was an adult, and then I set about reading and collecting pretty much everything he wrote. But I think Plain Tales from the Hills is probably my favorite.

  19. Jan says:

    He was a very big Freemason wasn’t he Mr Kipling? (Before he left literature behind and got going with the cakes)

    I really like “The Man who would be King” a really quite unique take on the constant theme of greed and foolhardiness basically. But (and I am pretty sure that I have said this before here on this very blog.) I reckon Michael Caine and Sean Connery were both miscast and each should have taken the others role. Although there is something about Mr Connery that is naturally noble, a kingly presence maybe. One of the most handsome gents of the 20 C perhaps. That could also be it.

  20. Lauren says:

    Thank you for this piece. I’m been championing Kipling for years, after I came across a battered copy of Plain Tales – the stories blew me away with their gimlet observations of what everyone was getting up to in them thar hills. The bad behavior too often gets lost in a sort of Masterpiece Theatre haze. I never have been able to read his children’s stories (my mother assures me I was never a child) but I have loved his adult stories, especially the ghost stories, and the poetry. Interesting about the swastikas being removed from his post-1935 editions; my collection of his poetry from 1885-1926 has the symbols on the cover and I wondered when the practice stopped. I can second the recommendation of Laurie R. King’s The Game. Her Mary Russell series is woefully uneven, but that particular book is entertaining

  21. snowy says:

    Lauren, if you remain interested in the period, may I suggest another book?

    ‘The British in India: Three Centuries of Ambition and Experience’* by David Gilmour, [not that one, this one is a historian].

    While quite thick, not a difficult read, [quite early we discover the tale of a man sent out determined to quell unruly ‘natives’; he didn’t last long, rather unfortunately rammed his elephant into a low bridge]. It avoids the very dull straight narrative by dividing into themes, [though this can become a slight source of frustration, you really feel you want to know more about the woman who ‘gave herself away in double handfuls’].

    After a very slightly man heavy start, the book becomes very good on the impact and role of women, [including the one who had terrible problems with naked gardeners]. Women arrived late and in very, very short supply, [I’ll not detail here the description given of what isolated men in remote parts got up to with particular fruits, but my supermarket experience will never be quite the same ever again!], the section on Military wives is very interesting in several ways.

    [The author has also written a bio of Kipling, but that book, unlike this has the reputation of being a bit heavy-going].

    [* the North American title is: ‘The British in India: A Social History of the Raj’.]

  22. snowy says:

    Jan, I think the casting turns on the last but one scene, the big reveal, [a secret I’ll not let ‘out of the bag’].

    [Mr Connery was wise not to attempt the role; in a ‘syrup’ – imagine the heat, esp. with the all that elaborate face fungus! The sideboards alone must have had their own trailer.]

  23. Jan says:

    I’ll give it another watch Snowy cos I’m a bit of a thicko am not certain what you’re getting at here. Unless its the heads you win tails you lose scene …which it sounds like. But cos memory fails me here will have another look.

    How you doing? You disappeared for a bit.

    I see exactly what your saying about Mr C’s sideburns he looked like he ‘d got his head on upside down in certain scenes. It’s was a John Houston picture wasn’t it the “Man who would be King” at least I think it was. Very different from his usual output but a great film nevertheless.

    When a director who normally makes a particular type of film steps outside his genre its normally worth a watch. Just to see how they get on inside their newly found territory.

  24. Jan says:

    Here you’ll know about this Snows tell us the story about the great dividing hedge of India. Your’e better than me at this sort of stuff. That hedge was a mighty endeavour and very famous in its time. How does a creation like that happen and over time become completely forgotten? Then to become ‘re- remembered and forgotten once more.

    Is it that the border it delineated just became irrelevant or that mores and technology changed – or something even easier to understand like major road building. The partitioning process – the passing if empire. Or a concoction of all these elements.

    We might be entering into a phase of rapid social change just about now. I wonder what we’ll have completely written off and abandoned in rather less than a century?

  25. snowy says:

    The ‘Great Hedge’ itself was only around for 10 years, and the story behind it is drier than a mummy’s bed-socks.

    Matchsticks at the ready?

    It was part of an internal tax border, which began when the East India Co. gained control of the supply of salt for the whole sub-continent and slapped a levy on it. [Salt was very important, India being hot, humid and short of refrigeration at the time]. Tax anything hard enough, smuggling it becomes a lucrative business.

    The border had posts every mile, but people would still nip across in the gaps. A wall was too expensive, patrols ineffective and so a man with a botanical bent ordered the planting of a 10′ deep hedge.

    It never worked properly, Tax it = Smuggling, To fight smuggling costs money = Tax it more, Higher tax = Smugglers can charge higher prices, Rich smugglers can buy off Tax officials = System collapses.

    Salt would remain a source of friction between the people and the government for decades, and would form the focus of The Salt March carried out by Mr Ghandi in the 1930s.

    [There is a whole book about the hedge, but it’s even drier than my precis.]

  26. snowy says:

    As to what we will have abandoned, ‘going to the pictures’ to see a film is looking very shaky at the moment, ban on large gatherings, studios pulling films and home screens getting bigger and better. Probably not going to last.

  27. Jan says:

    that was it Snowy salt! That’s what I couldn’t remember – spending too much
    time @ work.

    How big was this enormous privet? (Cor Spell checker could have right cast me adrift there…)

    Wot sort of hedge was it? this thing…no I’m being idle I’ll Google it. Just going to have some tea not eaten since breakfast.

    Someone said to me that it was a “living precursor” of Mr Trump’s wall and I never got it. I do now. I suppose it’s not just heavy taxing that encourages smuggling its refusing to tax stuff at all and in that way encouraging widespread smuggling……

    Cheers medears

  28. Jan says:

    Maybe it won’t just be films that grow legs on newer ever bigger screen tvs. With more time needing filling then it could be computer games that show real growth.

  29. SteveB says:

    „nor does he condescend to his characters„

    Agree so much with this sentiment, the worst thing about woke-ness imo is the condescension.

    I read recently a book of memories of Indian troops from the war of course much is shameful but there are also many positive things.

  30. Ian Luck says:

    Oh, if only it was Pink Floyd’s D.Gilmore esq. I can see prog rock interfacing territorial disputes: “The Practical Use Of The Twenty Five Minute Keyboard Solo In Border Incursions” by Van De Graaf Generator.
    “Guitar Noodling With Multiple Layered Effects And Loops As A Distraction Technique”, by Robert Fripp.
    “Ambient Video Installation Music To Clobber Chiefs By (volume IX)”, by Brian Eno.
    “Monoped Flute Interludes As A Cover For Ground Assault”, by Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull.
    That sort of thing.

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