Just so books, so so letters

The Letters of Rudyard Kipling
August 22, 1997

Right in the middle of the last day's (sham) fighting there appeared an aeroplane high in the air. My people have an ancient and almost inarticulate odd-man who looks after the garden etc ... He saw this great skimming buzzing machine above him and forthwith dropped down on his knees, waved his hat and ceased not to yell aloud with sheer unadulterated wonder and delight, for the space of a minute. He was precisely like a savage seeing a gun for the first time."

The third volume of Kipling's letters brings him into the 20th century. Spanning the decade 1900-1910, they touch incidentally on modernity - on the aeroplane, and on other aspects of technological advance (the wireless, the telegraph, the car). Kipling regarded these as "not beautiful but significant". Characteristically, he immediately adapted them as metaphors for his art. "You might as well have the truth and know that I put you down with those infected with the vice of verbosity," he wrote teasingly to Edmund Gosse in July 1908. "I am not in debt for style to anything or anybody but the telegraph system." Volume three of the Letters also charts Kipling's movements across continents: between England and South Africa, a brief sojourn in Canada, and, latterly, more local trips to Sweden and Switzerland.

The volume opens in 1900 with Kipling en route to South Africa. After his serious illness in New York in 1898, he had been advised not to winter in England, and from 1900-08 Kipling took his family to South Africa for the coldest months of each year. They stayed in a house called the Woolsack on Cecil Rhodes's estate just outside Cape Town. Kipling's first visit coincided with the initial stages of the Boer war, and he spent part of his time as a war correspondent in Bloemfontein. The subsequent letters record his optimism at the outcome of the war, followed by anger and bitterness as the Liberals restored self-government to the former Boer republics. A large part of Kipling's infatuation with South Africa derived from his admiration for strong political figures: first Rhodes and then Alfred Milner and Leander Starr Jameson. But the overtly South African stories and poems ("Private Copper", "A Burgher of the Free State", "The Islander", "The Lesson") are marred by a strident and rasping tone, which is also increasingly characteristic of the letters. Perhaps South Africa's greatest bequest to Kipling was more subtly evident in the landscapes and aura of the Just So Stories.

Following his disenchantment with South Africa, Kipling had a complete volte face about England (hitherto "a stuffy little place, mentally, morally and physically") and looked instead to colonise England for himself and for his work. In September 1902 the Kiplings moved to a 17th-century manor house in Burwash, Sussex. Batemans was to be Kipling's home until his death in 1936. "England ... is the most marvellous of all the foreign countries that I have ever been in. It is made up of trees and green fields and mud and the gentry: and at last I am one of the Gentry!" The Sussex letters reveal Kipling's condescension towards the locals, but his "discovery" of England is accompanied by automobile adventures, which feed directly into some of the finest stories of this period (for example "They"). The trials and tribulations of a succession of "Coughing Janes" also provide some of the more amusing anecdotes in the Letters. Writing to his mother-in-law in 1901, Kipling notes: "The news is Motor, nothing but Motor ... You won't know Brighton or Brighton seafront, so you will never understand the joy of breaking down for lack of fuel under the eyes of 5,000 Brighton Hackmen and about 2,000,000 trippers." Such moments are rare, however, and for the most part the letters are self-conscious and tetchy.

There is some slight relief from politics and bad humour in the letters addressed to Kipling's family in this volume. "My Kiddies are five and seven and I wish I could tell you what a joy (Five Children and It) gave them," Kipling writes to Edith Nesbit in 1903. "You see we have a sandpit in our garden and there was always a chance of the Psammead". At the beginning of the volume, Kipling's only, and beloved, son John features merely as "ripe for spanking". By the end, John has become one of Kipling's most frequent correspondents. But here too the pressure of personal feeling is for the most part internalised, and we are left with the irritating voice of the jolly paterfamilias. Just occasionally, however, we catch a raw edge of emotion. Writing to Cormell Price in 1910, Kipling says: "Oh me but my soul is sore in me. John went back to (school) yesterday and though he bore himself valiantly yet we do not find that the parting gets any easier." The death of John five years after the close of this volume adds a touch of pathos to otherwise sentimental and unexceptional letters. Once again, the contrast between the rather featureless letters and the unbearable pain of the related fictional works, "A Son" in Epitaphs of War, and "The Gardener" in Debits and Credits, is marked.

In 1907 and 1908 letters recording the award of the Nobel prize and of honorary degrees to Kipling at Durham, Oxford and Cambridge act as a reminder that he was at the height of his literary powers in this volume. Still only 35 at the beginning, Kipling already had a prestigious literary reputation, and his publications included Plain Tales from the Hills, Barrack Room Ballads and the Jungle Books. The enormous success of his fund-raising poem "The Absent Minded Beggar" had already linked Kipling's name with the Boer war, which broke out in 1899. Kim was published in 1901, and was followed by the Just So Stories, Traffics and Discoveries, Puck of Pook's Hill, Actions and Reactions and Rewards and Fairies. Writing to Gosse in 1910 Kipling insisted: "I am not a critic and to the best of my recollection, have never directly criticised the work of any man in my profession ... This is of course a question of temperament and training..." Even so, it is remarkable how few references there are to books and writers in the decade covered by this volume. What exists is hardly noteworthy. Congratulating Sarah Jowett on The Tory Lover in 1901, Kipling writes: "What interested me is the amount of work - solid, laborious dig, that must have gone to its making". To Gosse of Father and Son he enthuses in 1907: "The delicacy of the psychology, the inferential revelation of the milieu, and above all the wonderful realisation of your father have given me very deep delight ... I have a notion your book will undamn some tides of revolt in some darklingly Christian homes." Replying to a question from Gilbert Murray who was translating Euripides's Electra and had consulted Kipling about the death of Aegisthus: "When a man's head is being cut off as a rule he belches a little as it were; making a sticky clammy sound ... a man of Anglo-Saxon extraction when suddenly wounded to the death often emits an expression of impolite bewilderment upon regarding his injuries and before he falls. Such a one, pierced to the vitals, might well say no more than damn and forthwith pass to his account."

Such moments are, however, rare. As Kipling's editor Thomas Pinney points out, politics and the noise of politics fill a large part of Kipling's life after the Boer war, and throughout this volume. Kipling was increasingly drawn to men and women whose interests were political rather than artistic, beginning with Rhodes, Milner and Jameson. Intractable and extremist, full of the "Blooming British Cant"he himself decries, Kipling's letters are increasingly characterised by bitterness, aggression and dogmatism. There is little evidence of the extraordinary magnetism, the sensitivity and equivocation of Kipling's finest writing. Only occasionally does he register real feeling, as when he writes of his parents: "They grow old - a disease for which there is no remedy"; or to his close friend James M. Conland: "Write me ... What you do; how you feel; what Harry's doing and anything and everything else that touches yourself - because I love you"; or to Edmonia Hill after a family bereavement: "I know of no real loss that does not wake up and cry aloud at unexpected times".

As in the previous two volumes, Pinney's editing of volume three of the letters is meticulous and lucidly succinct. However, his skilful organisation of rather dismal and disparate material into three topographical narratives (South Africa, England, the Continent) only barely conceals the tedium of this volume. It may be that more intimate or interesting letters were culled and burned by Kipling before his death (and/or by his wife afterwards) in their unusually assiduous purging of personal correspondence. From the evidence that survives, it is more likely, however, that Kipling's inimitable art lies in his fiction and poetry, and that unlike his contemporaries - Virginia Woolf, Henry James, Arnold Bennett - he was, quite simply, not a remarkable letter writer.

Sandra Kemp is research fellow in English, University of Westminster.

The Letters of Rudyard Kipling: Volume Three, 1900-10

Editor - Thomas Pinney
ISBN - 0 333 63733 X
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £47.50
Pages - 482

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