- O Beloved Kids: Rudyard Kipling’s Letters to His Children
- Little Books, 240 pp.
The Kid in Kipling
Let me tell you a story, O best beloved, of a man who loved his children. Remember that this was a man who was neither crusty nor fusty, nor easy nor breezy, but a man who made his living by his pen and his home in an Empire.
An Empire, best beloved, whose sun was sinking slowly in a ball of fire over Flanders field.
The correspondence of Rudyard Kipling, then. Author of The Jungle Book, of the Just So Stories, of Captains Courageous and Kim. “You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!”
An Imperialist, a warmonger, blind to what was in front of him, the critics say. A Nobelist, a wordmonger, enshrined in Western memory, answer his supporters. All of these Kipling has been, but it is as a father, first and foremost, that he appears in O Beloved Kids.
When we first glimpse the famous author through the letter-glass, it is 1906. Kipling has two surviving children, Jack and Elsie, and one deeply mourned daughter, Josephine (who died of pneumonia in 1899).
Jack, like any well-brought up member of the British Empire, is about to enter boarding school and therefore receives the lion’s share of correspondence. It will not be until 1915 that we leave them.
Now, Kipling’s idea of fatherhood is, as we might expect from the creator of Mowgli and Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, somewhat unusual for an Edwardian gentleman. Not for him the staid exhortations to do the family name proud. As Elliot Gilbert points out in his admirable introduction, Kipling never truly grew up. He has too much Puckishness, too much piss and vinegar to succumb fully to that role.
So like the Just So Stories, these letters are full of rhymes and rhythms and drawings, of teasing and sentiment. He sprays out his trademark roguish humor like so much spattered ink:
I do hope that you will go up a form this term on the strength of your Latin and Mathematics. You are quite all right if you will only think; when you don’t think you ought to be kicked. I regret I have not kicked you enough.
I don’t know whether you saw how near I came to laughing when you protested that it “was no pleasure to me, Sir, to have to say these things”. Of course it was a great pleasure and you thoroughly enjoyed it.
Throughout the book the father strives to provide advice, but is invariably thwarted by the antics of the inner Pan. It is not for nothing that Kipling affectionately calls his son Old Man and his daughter the beastly little girl or the pig Phipps. As with the Elephant Child, there are equal doses of abrasive slapstick and sympathy in Kipling’s treatment of his children.
Plus, like any self-respecting writer or child, he enjoys showing-off with an appreciative audience. Jack and Elsie are his first front, a chance to flex his word muscles,
You are however too old to be suddenly sick at table (as the very young sometimes are), so swallow down your meat, even though it does not meet (that’s a rotten bad pun. I swear I didn’t mean it) with your approval. You are deficient in lime in your carcass, young Sir. Meat will give it you.
and to begin crafting things he’s observed with his reporter’s eye:
The Whybarn’s pig had been floated out of his stye and was running about very clean and washed and very hungry. Colonel Feilden scrubbed his back with the broom which so delighted the pig that he followed Colonel Feilden all about like a dog and kept rushing at his leg in a loving fashion. So the Colonel had to smite him on the nose with the broom handle.
Yet there is also love here, a very deep love. The flow of letters and feeling from dear old Dad never abates. Whenever it’s needed, he’s there to cheer the side or replace lost watches. Josephine’s death had wounded Kipling deeply and it stalks his constant reminders for Jack and Elsie to avoid catching chills. To lose his friends, that would be the worst blow.
Ironic, then, that he was the one responsible for seeing his son through to service in World War I. For Kipling, as well as being a father, was a dyed-in-the-wool patriot. Here he is writing to Jack about the mourning seen for George V:
I won’t afflict you with the moral of it, old man, but it’s a gentle hint to us all to play the game and do our work, for the King did his and died in the doing of it just as much as if he’d been shot on active service.
When Jack’s eye condition threatens his enlistment, Kipling pulls strings to ensure his son can go to the front. There is a certain amount of debate about Kipling’s role in “helping” his son, highlighted by the recent television production of My Boy Jack. Now Kipling was certainly not an innocent in military matters, having seen and reported on the horrors of the Boer War. He was aware that his son’s chances in the trenches were not good. But he was also still that boy who thrilled to the war stories of old campaigners and imagined the glories of the fight. Nor was he the only one. The whole country was energized, objectors viewed with disdain. War might be costly, but it was action, it was a quest to save countries in danger! and the two sides of him, boy and man, struggled mightily in watching Jack go.
Towards the end of the book, we see this not only from Kipling’s viewpoint but also from Jack’s, as he writes back to his father about training and mobilization. The genetic flippancy is here, but with a little less volubility. Jack, too, knew the odds and, like his comrades, has only tempered hopes:
… if I live to get back again I’m going to get myself the smartest 2 seater Hispano-Suiza that can be got & get a bit of enjoyment out of life with it.
Jack gives us the real trenches, the requests for chocolate and the reports on flies and heat. For his part, Kipling retains the same jocular tone: slightly competitive, reporting things he’s seen in France as a war correspondent, showering Jack with ideas about rabbit netting.
As the Battle of Loos approaches, however, there is an urgency in Kipling’s notes that was lacking in the cold bath warnings. The words come thick and fast – Kipling has some pink stories for Jack that he’ll have to save for a chat, Jack notes that he’s about to go over the top and won’t be able to write for a while, then – silence.
Jack’s death in battle at the age of eighteen broke Kipling. He still had Elsie, and his wife, but life was never the same. Before it had been “the Empire” who fought. Now it was his best friend who sacrificed. While he could never turn his back on Britain, he could and did write in Epitaphs of War:
If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.
There are no more letters after Jack’s last ones in this book. Kipling’s boy was gone, and with that, the boy inside him went too.