One Christmas many decades ago a relative had given me a trio of Signet Classics: Animal Farm, Lord Jim, and The Jungle Book; and I don’t think that she had ever cracked them open herself because she had failed to remove a trial packet of antidepressants included in at least two of the titles. This past weekend a dear friend presented me with a door stopper of a tome entitled Rudyard Kipling’s Tales of Horror and Fantasy, with an introduction by Neil Gaiman and edited by Stephen Jones.
In the odd coincidences of literary appreciation, Borges is one of my favorite writers and his favorite writer was Kipling. Borges, who had learned English at home, had found encouragement for his English in reading Chesterton, Stevenson, and Kipling; and it is ironic that Kipling is the one of the three who has suffered the most in literary decline of these three authors. Kipling has been consigned to the ashes of literary notoriety and obscurity for his colonialism, jingoism, and for coining that unfortunate phrase, ‘the white man’s burden.’
I’d like to draw attention to one Kipling short story, “The Gardener,” and try to acquit the man of two of those charges. As for ‘burden,’ I can only say that Kipling was a man of his era, when even rational people believed in phrenology and the superiority of certain races based on the hokum of bumps and indentations on the human skull. One can only speculate what science we have today will be dismissed as ridiculous and superstitious in the future.
Neil Gaiman also admires “The Gardener.” He wrote a telling statement that sums up the Kipling reputation: “…a fan letter arrived at DC Comics, for me, and was forwarded to me. It was from three young men who wanted to know how I could possibly have listed Kipling as a favorite author, given that I was a trendy young man and Kipling was, I was informed, a fascist and a racist and a generally evil person. It was obvious from the letter that they had never actually read any Kipling. More to the point, they had been told not to.”
‘Told not to’ is the turnkey phrase.
“The Gardener” appeared in McCall’s Magazine in April 1925. The simple synopsis is this: a spinsterish aunt, Helen Turrell, adopts her nephew after her brother, the black sheep of the family, is killed in a freak accident. The adopted child tries his aunt’s nerves while he grows up, but they develop an emotional bond; and like any mother she frets and worries about him, more so when he signs up for the war. The lad disappears into the machinery of carnage and we read that the grief-stricken aunt crosses the Channel to find his burial spot, which she does find, but not until after she meets a woman commissioned to take photographs of the final resting places of the war dead for those back home in England and not before she meets the gardener, the caretaker of the “merciless sea of crosses.” Twenty-one thousand dead.
Though the story appeared in print in 1925, Kipling had lost his son Jack in The Great War at the Battle of Loos in 1915. We forget that World War I mechanized slaughter: it introduced the Hotchkiss machine gun and the flame-thrower: the 1915 Battle of Loos has the dubious distinction of being the first battle in which poisoned gas was used. Jack Kipling’s body was never recovered and in “The Gardener” Kipling alludes to the extremity of hope ‘missing in action’ held out to families since it implied that no body could mean ‘unaccounted for’ and there was the sliver of possibility that their son or brother was not dead. In modern parlance, we would say that MIA lacks ‘closure.’ I would rather cite author James Ellroy on the matter: ‘Closure is bullshit.’ Ellroy’s mother was brutally murdered in 1958 and, as Kipling had borne the news of his loss, Ellroy bore the news of his with stoicism. There is a difference, though. Kipling was a grown man, famous already, when he received the news, whereas Ellroy, a child, received the news at home from a police officer with a photographer in tow ready to capture his reaction for a magazine. ‘Closure is bullshit’ indeed.
In “The Gardener” Kipling takes the subdued route in memorializing his son. The rector’s wife suggests that it would have been different “if he’d been killed in Mesopotamia, or even in Gallipoli.” In other words, Loos was just another killing field and not some grand heroic effort that Churchill could or would immortalize. Kipling is saying, This is no Dulce et Decorum est. In fact, I find it curious that Kipling chose to make his main character a woman instead of a man. He makes the aunt the conduit of grief and loss and not some father or brother; and she bears the loss with typical British reserve. Kipling is sympathetic to the cost women paid in sending sons off to war. As to the charge of Kipling as jingoist or war hawk, there is no background noise in “The Gardener”, as there is in Hemingway’s war stories, where the reader hears Brits in the background saying, ‘Good show,’ or ‘We’ll send the Gerrys running.’ In “The Gardener” there are clear criticisms of war.
As I was reading the story, I was taken with the fluidity of the prose, these long sentences that Kipling used to carry me into the story without the usual misdirection or confusion that often comes with subordination. Kipling’s choice of diction betrays his craftsmanship and his quiet polemic against war. Take for instance his use of the word ‘manufactured.’ I cite every instance of the word.
“I’m being manufactured into a bereaved next of kin,” she told herself, as she prepared her documents.”
“So Helen found herself moved on to another process of the manufacture – to a world full of exultant or broken relatives…”
“…the battalion…was put down near the Salient, where it led a meritorious and unexacting life, while the Somme was being manufactured.”
To be ‘manufactured’ is passive, suggestive of a lack of volition, and here, in every instance, it is a process of conversion of life into death and loss; and the question for the reader is, What is the outcome, the thing made? The obvious answer is death, but I believe Kipling is also suggesting the fodder of propaganda. To aid and abet war requires ‘manufacturing consent.’ As you journey with the aunt you can’t help but be appalled and disgusted that she is crossing the sea into the tourism industry of death, where she hears which hotels are best to visit and which ferry to take to the cemeteries. “They’ve put bathrooms into the old Lion d’Or.” How convenient. And Auntie Turrell will act as confessor to the lady with “commissions.”
I find the greatest irony about Kipling is outside of the text, in an observation Borges made about Kipling’s library. Alberto Manguel, who read Kipling to Borges, conveys this anecdote in With Borges that “he [Borges] would tell visitors that Kipling’s library (which he had visited) curiously held mainly non-fiction books, books on Asian history and travel, mostly on India.” Kipling, we should remember, was born in Bombay.
In the recent novel Kipling & Trix Mary Hamer informs us that the six-year old Kipling and his younger sister Trix were sent from India to live with a family in England. While it is speculative and imaginative fiction that earned Hamer the Virginia Prize (after Virginia Woolf) in 2012, Kipling and Trix were victims of deracination and the psychological repercussions haunted Kipling and his sister for the remainder of their lives. In retrospect we are aghast at the fact that Kipling received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1907 but we are quick to forget it was a young Kipling who stalked Mark Twain in 1889 for an interview and that seventeen years later, it was Twain praising Kipling. That Twain’s reputation is tarnished with charges of racism is another delicious irony.
I would be remiss not to point readers to the 2007 BBC film My Boy Jack with Daniel Radcliffe as Jack and David Haig as Kipling. Haig, the author for both the stage and the screen productions, played Kipling in both. Radlcliffe has proven himself to be a fine actor and Haig is the best British actor of his generation (my opinion). While many readers know Kipling’s poem “If,” which was dedicated to the young Jack Kipling and modern students are often asked to memorize (that or “Invictus”), I ask that you listen to another Kipling poem in the closing scene of the movie. He composed it for his son Jack, “Not this tide.”