The Kent Conference

September 7-8 2007



Ďainít goiní to have any beastly Erickiní:
the problem of male friendship in Stalky & Co.


Carolyn Oulton (Canterbury Christ Church University)

[September 8 2007]


The first question I should address is why friendship should be a problem in a series of stories famous specifically for celebrating it? And following on from this, why it was not evidently a problem for mid-century writers such as Disraeli, in Coningsby, or Hughes, in Tom Brown's Schooldays. The answer lies at least partly in Kipling's determined ridiculing of two famous school stories, Farrar's Eric, published in 1858, and his St Winifred's, published in 1862, which warn against the perils of drunkenness but also what would later be termed homosexual behaviour. We heard yesterday about the importance of quotation in the 'Stalky' stories, and I think Eric in particular stands in a special relation to them. But in order to understand the issues at stake, it is necessary to contextualise the stories in terms of earlier ideals of romantic friendship.

Intense expression of friendship was common among the young for much of the nineteenth century. It was possible for friends to write letters of longing and devotion in terms that would now appear inescapably erotic, without being subject to any such interpretation. For instance, the young William Thackeray could receive letters from a Cambridge friend expressing eternal love for his 'dear Willy' with no suggestion of irony or double meaning. Such passionate friendships were actively encouraged, leading later generations to assume either that the Victorians were hopelessly naive or that they were employing acceptable discourse as a cover for illicit desire.

But neither explanation really holds water. Before assuming that the Victorians knew nothing about sex, we should remember that they often had families of ten or fourteen children. Nor is it plausible to suggest that homo-eroticism was being smuggled into respectable life under cover of simple friendship, when the idea of romantic friendship was applauded by such writers as Sarah Ellis, who published the famous series of conduct manuals for girls. On the contrary, the purveyors of this ideal were deeply conscious of its erotic potential, and for this very reason they were careful to formulate it in such a way that it avoided suspicion.

My research into the literary portrayal of romantic friendship among both boys and girls suggests that it was predicated in very particular terms, and played out according to a tacitly acknowledged set of rules. Romantic friendship, an ideal ostensibly available only to the middle and upper classes, was justified by its emphasis on ennobling influence and moral responsibility. It was understood to be, by definition, transient. It was frequently described as a 'rehearsal' for marriage, in which the young could safely enact extreme emotional states without transgressing the codes of conduct prescribed for relationships between the sexes. It was expected that affection for a friend would ultimately be transferred to a future husband or wife - often in fiction, friends marry each other's siblings. Nonetheless the most extreme expressions of feeling were normally reserved for the dead, whose removal to a more spiritualised plane legitimised a more passionate responsiveness. Otherwise it was usually understood to operate within a carefully regulated context, such as a group of local families (for girls) or school (in the case of boys).

Male friendships formed outside the confines of a previously known and accepted social group are often seen in the literature of the time as subversive. An obvious example is the meeting between the two Allans in Wilkie Collins's Armadale, where the main objection to Allan Armadale's new friend is precisely that he is a stranger. In Henry Jackson's forgotten mid-century novel A First Friendship, the friend of the story's title is presented as suspicious because he is not introduced to the narrator through mutual acquaintances - they meet instead because each has mistaken the other for a brigand while travelling alone by night.

Paradoxically then the ideal is carefully regulated and controlled, in what is in fact the necessary corollary of its apparently unrestrained expression. It could also claim divine sanction, through the biblical story of David, who loved Jonathan with a love 'surpassing the love of women'; this pairing was cited so often in nineteenth century fiction and essays that it has been seen as forming a key motif in ways comparable to marriage itself. Less helpfully in retrospect, romantic friendship also made frequent appeals to the tradition of Ancient Greek pederasty. Astonishing as it may seem in the light of later events, boy love was invoked in this context as a means of glorifying the selfless love of one friend for another. In the wake of later events, this particular argument appears less like a linchpin than a loudly ticking bomb, but it was used by the proponents of passionate friendship as a means of placing it in a revered tradition. This sense of tradition was particularly prominent in the boys' public schools, most famously portrayed in the Rugby of Tom Brown's Schooldays.

While Hughes is often seen as having invented the school story, there are in fact earlier examples of relevance here. Coningsby, published in 1844, is predicated on the central idea that romantic friendship is ennobling. The schoolboy hero initially resists a friendship with a manufacturer's son on class grounds, and while he later responds to Millbank's adoration because he has saved his life and can therefore offer a kind of patronage, the most important lessons he learns are from the mysterious Sidonia, who is perceived as being more and not less aristocratic than he is himself. More critically, Dickens's David Copperfield is likewise concerned with the class implications of romantic friendship. In this novel David initially chooses the wrong friend - the sophisticated upper class Steerforth, as opposed to the solidly middle class, less threatening Traddles. It is apparent from the relationship between David and Steerforth that even by mid-century romantic friendship can be dangerous, and critics have not been slow to point out the erotic tension in their friendship. Steerforth renames David 'Daisy' and is often seen talking to him while in bed, while David in turn dreams of his 'enchanting' friend. But in a strategy that appears with increasing persistence in later texts, David's own purity is registered as a failure to comprehend the signs of Steerforth's predatory interest. The deployment of this theme through a guileless narrator who must nonetheless identify his friend and not himself to the reader, as the source of erotic threat, is masterfully handled, and anticipates the similar strategy employed by Kipling in Stalky & Co. some fifty years later.

In his 1857 novel of school life, the strategy of Hughes, a far less sophisticated writer than Dickens, is to make one token reference to the misery of effeminate boys who are corrupted by their seniors, before moving on to the glories of sport and friendship in the making of manly Christians. In the Rugby of his imagination, the playing of games equips Tom Brown with the necessary credentials, justifying him as inherently 'manly' and so allowing him to form a romantic friendship with the highly spiritualised Arthur - even here, the necessary emotional exchanges cannot take place until Arthur has almost died. But the following year Dean Farrar, himself a schoolmaster, addressed the issue of proscribed sexuality in schools in his evangelical story Eric or Little by Little, of which and its successor St Winifreds or The World of School, it has been said by Richard Jenkyns that:

Only a writer of genuine talent could have produced works as deeply bad as these. Their fetid atmosphere of moral panic and clammy religiosity may seem hardly credible to those who have not read them. The boys are stalked by fearful spiritual perils, signalled in language so impenetrable that the best-brought-up child must have had trouble understanding it.
Clearly finding the issue difficult to approach, Farrar's most direct comment on the issue of lascivious talk and its result lies in the assurance that: 'I hurry over a part of my subject inconceivably painful; I hurry over it, but if I am to perform my self-imposed duty of giving a true picture of what school life sometimes is, I must not pass it by altogether.' He then passes it by altogether. Nonetheless the original edition of the story contained unabashed references to one friend sitting on another's knee, as well as notably emotional expression between the saintly Russell and the eponymous Eric. According to the editor of the latest, 21st C edition, Farrar felt obliged to make about 200 changes in subsequent editions, many of them toning down the arguably erotic content.

By the 1890s, in the wake of sexology, it was considerably more difficult to ignore the possible relation of romantic friendship to erotic feeling or homosexual practice. Indeed Eve Sedgwick has famously characterised this decade as a time of 'homosexual panic'. Edward Carpenter complained that male friendship in particular was over determined, at a time when female romantic friends were still managing to hold their ground. And of course the Oscar Wilde scandal put a real spanner in the works, in the appeal of the accused to the traditions of Ancient Greece and David and Jonathan, as a justification of Uranian love. In appropriating these well known and much invoked traditions to his own ends, Wilde undermined the very basis of male romantic friendship, which rested its claim to purity on the absence not the status of sexualised feeling between celebrated pairs of friends. The problem for writers in the 1890s was to find an acceptable model of male friendship that would both continue the traditions of male bonding and be able to withstand the increasingly insistent over interpretations of the sexologists. Specifically this becomes a problem for Kipling in Stalky & Co., most of the stories from which were published in the 1890s.

In Something of Myself Kipling insists that the United Services College, on which the Coll. of Stalky & Co. is based, was remarkable for its lack of sexual activity among the boys, and remarks acidly that 'if masters did not suspect [cases of perversion], and show that they suspected, there would not be quite so many elsewhere.'

But this was written in 1935, many years after the scandals and retrenchments of the 1890s. The only one of the 'Stalky' stories to make this point in similar language is "The United Idolaters", where the Head points the finger firmly at the public schools by commenting that there has to be 'a tradition in these things'. But again, this story was not published until 1924. What is notable throughout the stories originally published in the late 1890s, after the Wilde trials, is an increased need to confront the issue of illicit sexual practice, in ways that Tom Brown's Schooldays and David Copperfield found largely unnecessary and Eric could not cope with at all.

It is not entirely coincidental that there should be three friends in these stories rather than two. Of course the presentation of a trio at one level simply meets the facts, given that Stalky, M'Turk and Beetle are modelled on Kipling himself and his two friends at school. But it is also suggestive of a pattern in male friendship stories of the 1890s, in which intense bonding between a pair has come to be seen as problematic and all but impossible to represent. Du Maurier could hardly present the level of intense feeling between friends that is so characteristic a feature of Trilby, were it not for the repeated emphasis on there being three young men involved, and even here the passion of Little Billee for his admired friends is stated by the narrator rather than by the character. The famous duo Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, where the implied surveillance of a third party is not available as a guarantee, are held together by the famously clinical detachment of Holmes.

And if Disraeli offered unquestioning allegiance to the aristocracy, Kipling followed Dickens's lead in distancing his characters from the more dubious traditions associated with the upper class - his characters stress more than once that they are not actually at a public school at all. Again like Dickens's David Copperfield, the retrospective narrator of Stalky & Co., who finally emerges as the character 'Beetle' himself, conveys the threat of homosexual practice in the school largely in order to highlight his own lack of awareness at the time. He repeatedly shows his own innocence by a failure to interpret, not coded signs, but transparent enough conversation on the subject. He is bewildered by any reference to 'prurient conversation', and both Stalky and M'Turk protect his innocence in a way that essentially feminises him. But while a greater explicitness is found necessary in the 1890s than had been thought of in the 1840s or '50s, the point of the stories is not to exculpate one character at the expense of the others, a point which presents Kipling with a further problem of representation.

Stalky himself is embarrassed by any direct discussion of sexuality, using the term 'beastliness' to denote a particular form of sexual practice among the boys or equally as a vague term of abuse. He turns for help to the famous school stories of Farrar, ridiculing with his friends the aberrations of Eric - 'Let's get to where he goes in for drink' demands M'Turk gleefully in "An Unsavoury Interlude", in order to suggest that such warnings are understood but not needed in their case. And there are moments where he is unable to articulate the threat at all, breaking down altogether in what is supposed to be a humorously ironic denunciation of the pious St Winifred's, 'But this lot' - Stalky rapped the gilded book - 'can't prevent fellows drinkin' and stealin', an' lettin' fags out of window at night, an' - an' doin' what they please. Golly, what we've missed - not goin' to St Winifred's!...'

He recovers himself quickly, but the momentary hesitation serves to emphasise his own purity, even as his acknowledgement of the issue helps by the 1890s to guard him against the arguments of Havelock Ellis that friends can be unconsciously attracted to each other through the enactment of accepted friendship rituals. As if to save him from the need of further comment, Prout makes a significantly silent entry at this point.

Throughout the stories, responsibility for controlling the boys, who of course live in close quarters and with little privacy, falls to the masters. This relocation of moral control from the individual self to the masters ultimately brings into question how incorruptible their purity really is. While Beetle in "The Moral Reformers" has no idea why the masters patrol the dormitories at night, Stalky and M'Turk expound at length on the evils of married housemasters who fail to keep an eye on their charges after lights out. Their language is only just opaque enough to permit Beetle's continuing failures of comprehension, as he 'waggishly' tells the chaplain that he can tell who has walked through the dormitory by the smell of their tobacco:

'Good heavens!' said the Reverend John absently. It was some years [emphasis added] before Beetle perceived that this was rather a tribute to innocence than observation. The long, light, blindless dormitories, devoid of inner doors, were crossed at all hours of the night by masters visiting one another; for bachelors sit up later than married folk. Beetle had never dreamed that there might ba purpose in this steady policing.
It is in this story that the three friends agree to save a younger boy from being bullied, but in answer to the suggestion of making him a study fag, M'Turk answers decisively, 'we ain't goin' to have any beastly Erickin', with the physical contact and sentimental expression of feeling this implies.

If the Stalky stories offer a determined attempt to reformulate male friendship for an anxious age, they are obliged to do so intertextually, in contradistinction both to the manly Christian of Hughes' admiration (Stalky, M'Turk and Beetle are repeatedly characterised as loathing house games), and the morbidity of Farrar's dying saints. It is only in the much later story, "The United Idolaters", that the narrator feels confident enough to dismiss the suspicions of a relentless temporary master without this framework. Only here can the narrator begin to dismantle the assertions of the sexologists themselves, in the opening line: 'His name was Brownell and his reign was brief' before ridiculing Brownell's obsession with the nature of what he terms 'the Animal Boy'. In earlier stories Prout has been quick to accuse an uncomprehending Beetle of causing 'soul-corrupting consequences' with his unseemly talk, and King has issued similar lectures on the evils of 'prurient conversation' In these earlier stories of the 1890s the purpose of their misunderstanding is not to satirise them, but to give Beetle an opportunity of revealing his own naivety.

In the story that completes the series in the arrangement of The Complete Stalky & Co., published as a collection in 1929, it is still important for the trio of friends to be, if not dissolved, reformulated. The duration of intense friendship, even as figured in these stories, cannot extend beyond late adolescence or early adulthood. It is therefore no coincidence that in "Slaves of the Lamp II" Stalky himself does not appear, and his exploits are discussed by a number of ex-pupils of the Coll. who have seen him since.

Only now does Beetle reveal himself as the narrator of the previous stories, and it is he who completes the reworking of Stalky from a dangerously enchanting, Steerforth-like friend, to a more widely accessible public myth, all but denying their personal relationship in the process. 'India,' he tells the company, is full of Stalkies.


[C.O.]


Sources Cited

  • Farrar, Frederic. Eric, or Little by Little.
  • Anstruther, Ian. Dean Farrar and Eric. A Study of Eric, or Little by Little and Its Author, Dean Farrar, Together With the Complete Text of The Book. London.Haggerston Press. 2002.
  • Jenkyns, Richard. "Potter in the Past." Prospect Magazine. 56 (October 2000).
  • Kipling, Rudyard. The Complete Stalky & Co. Oxford. OUP. 1999.



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