Kipling and Medicine

Mental Illness

(by Gillian Sheehan)
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Depression | Shell-shock | Other forms of shock
Stress due to overwork | Other mental illnesses

[May 13 2004]


If the suicidal attempt by the little boy in "Baa Baa Black Sheep" (1888), is anything to go by, Kipling was, at least at times, very depressed, during the time he spent at Lorne Lodge in Southsea. He was afflicted with depression several times over the years.

In a letter to Edmonia Hill in October 1888, he said “life is a tremendously overrated affair just at present and I’d like to get rid of it for a little time”. He mentioned his “way of sinking genially into gulfs of dark despair”, as if it had happened several times before and Mrs Hill was well aware of it. [Information from Thomas Pinney, editor, The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, Vol. 1, p.265.]

In February 1889, in a letter to Margaret Mackail, he was still depressed, “even to the verge of hanging myself”, and still “down in a gulf of dark despair”. But it was not bad enough to stop or spoil his work. [Information from Thomas Pinney, editor, The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, Vol. 1, p.285.]

There were a lot of suicides in India in the 1880s, and the isolated lives people led there were thought to be responsible for some at least. [Information from Andrew Lycett, Rudyard Kipling, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999, p.139.]

In "His Brother’s Keeper" (1888), two men are working on a canal, sixty miles from any European society. They hate each other, but when one becomes suicidal, the other does all in his power to prevent him committing suicide.

In "Thrown Away" (1888), the Boy, who had taken everything too seriously, shoots himself. The Major, who had cared about him, and found his body, tells the Narrator:

“all his fears about The Boy, and awful stories of suicide or nearly-carried-out suicide - tales that made one’s hair crisp. He said that he himself had once gone into the same Valley of the Shadow as The Boy, when he was young and new to the country”.
Even Mowgli, in “The Spring Running” (1895), was depressed. That was why he went on a long night run and he thought he had left his unhappiness behind in his own Jungle when it came back - “ten times worse than before”. While living in ‘the darkness of Villiers Street’ Kipling himself became depressed after being ill with influenza. The advised treatment was a sea voyage, so he went to Italy, where he was the invited guest of Lord Dufferin at Sorrento. [Information from Something of Myself, p.94, and Harold Orel, A Kipling Chronology Macmillan, 1990, p.27.]

In December 1894, he was so upset at the death of Robert Louis Stevenson that he was unable to write anything for a week. [Information from Harold Orel, A Kipling Chronology, Macmillan, 1990, p.35-6.]

When the Kiplings left the United States in August 1896 and came to England they rented Rock House at Maidencombe near Torquay. In Something of Myself Kipling wrote that both he and his wife became depressed there, feeling: “a growing blackness of mind and sorrow of the heart, that each put down to the new, soft climate and, without telling the other, fought against for weeks”. He wrote that it was the Feng-shui - the Spirit of the house - that was depressing them. He is thought to have used this idea in "The House Surgeon" (1909).

They moved to Rottingdean in June 1897, but when Kipling wrote to Dr James Conland in December that year he complained that he was “hipped and depressed from day to day and this climate does not help to put a man on his legs again when he once feels sorrowful”. The doctor he consulted in London gave him a tonic and told him to stop smoking. This got him out of “the darkness and gloom that had been enveloping (him) on and off since April (that) year”. [Information from Thomas Pinney, The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, Vol.2, p. 327-8.]

Over the years Kipling learnt to cope with depression and gave excellent advice to the students of McGill University, Montreal, in 1907:

“There is a certain darkness into which the soul of the young man sometimes descends - a horror of desolation, abandonment, and realised worthlessness, which is one of the most real hells in which we are compelled to walk. I know of what I speak. This is due to a variety of causes, the chief of which is the egotism of the human animal itself. But I can tell you for your comfort that the best cure for it is to interest yourself, to lose yourself, in some issue not personal to yourself - in another man’s trouble, or, preferably, another man’s joy.

But if the dark hour does not vanish, as sometimes it doesn’t; if the black cloud will not lift, as sometimes it will not - let me tell you again for your comfort that there are many liars in the world, but there are no liars like our own sensations. The despair and horror mean nothing, because there is nothing irremediable, nothing ineffaceable, nothing irrevocable in anything you may have said or done. If, for any reason, you cannot believe or have not been taught to believe in the infinite mercy of Heaven which has made us all, and will take care we do not go far astray, at least believe that you are not yet sufficiently important to be taken too seriously by the Powers above us or beneath us. In other words, take anything and everything seriously except yourselves.”
In "The Tree Of Justice" (1910), Rahere, the King’s Jester, recognises that Hugh is depressed, but there are hints that Rahere is also depressed: he has “a sad priest’s face” and his eyes are “hollow-set”. There is “a stricken sadness of his face when he was not twisting it about”. This is confirmed in the poem "Rahere" (1926), where “a Horror of Great Darkness sunk his spirit, and Gilbert the Physician told him it would pass but return again.

It is not known why Rahere became depressed. In Kipling’s verses Gilbert called it “a humour of the Spirit which aborreth all excess”, but it is possible that he was influenced by the wreck of the White Ship, which sank with all hands in a winter storm on 25th November 1120, on its voyage between England and Normandy. The King’s heir, William, and other members of his family, were drowned; it is said the King never smiled again. Rahere made a pilgrimage to Rome. While there he contracted malaria, and while he was very ill he vowed that, if he regained his health, he would return to England and build “a hospital for the restoration of poor men”. On his way home he saw St Bartholomew in a dream and was told to build a church in Smithfield. (All hospitals at that time were religious foundations). The building of the church and hospital began in 1123 and was completed by 1127 and dedicated to St. Bartholomew. Rahere was the first Prior, and lived until 1143. [Information from Leonard Clarke, The Story of Rahere, Campfield Press, 1977.


'Shell-Shock' was the term used to describe the psychological trauma suffered by men serving on the battlefronts during the First World War. Symptoms were many and varied and included acute anxiety, panic attacks, nightmares, anorexia, insomnia, persistent diarrhoea. Initially shell shock was thought to be the result of physical injury to the nerves, caused by such things as exposure to heavy bombardment, being buried alive, or a form of monoxide poisoning. But then it was recognised that men were suffering the symptoms of shell shock without having even been in the front lines. It became clear that large numbers of soldiers were unable to cope with the general strain of warfare. [Information from Professor Johanna Bourke, Shell Shock During World War One, and Michael Duffy on the same theme.]

Kipling summarised the causes of 'shellshock' in "The Mother’s Son" 1932):

“What with noise, and fear of death,
Waking, and wounds and cold,
They filled the cup for My Mother’s Son
Fuller than it could hold.”
Nobody knew how shell shock cases should be treated. Initially, when it was thought to be due to physical damage to nerves, massage, rest, special diets and electric shock treatment were used. When it was viewed as psychological trauma, hypnosis and rest were thought to speed recovery. But sympathy was rarely given to the unfortunate sufferers; their stamina as soldiers and men had been found lacking; some were regarded as cowards. To add to the burden of shell shock, they felt guilty and ashamed.

In Kipling’s stories, none of his ‘shell-shockers’ are regarded as cowards by their comrades. They are all treated with respect and dignity. In "In The Interests Of The Brethren" (1918), Keede, the Doctor, said he had cured a shell-shocker by giving him the Lodge’s jewels to look after. “He pretty well polished the numbers off ’em, but - it kept him from fighting Huns in his sleep.”

There was no truly effective “cure”. Possibly this was why the priest in "The Miracle Of St.Jubanus" (1930) didn’t want the shell shocked Martin Ballart to be taken to Lourdes. He had come back from the War “blasted, withered, dumb - a ghost that gnawed itself”. Lourdes would have been full of similar ghosts. His cure, truly miraculous, is the ridiculous sight of two altar boys and the unpleasant schoolmaster Falloux all attached to an enormous umbrella, and unable to free themselves. The absurd situation makes him laugh, and restores his speech, and his sanity.

Soldiers came to recognise the symptoms of shell shock among their comrades. Some did not get shell shocked until after the War, when they would find themselves reliving their experiences. This happened to John Marden in "The Woman In His Life" (1928). During the War he had been in the Engineers, and spent many months working underground at Messines. Once when underground “a piece of gallery had sat down on him” and on another occasion “a whiff of gas dropped him over the mouth of a shaft”. He began to see a full-sized red and white bullock dancing in a tea-cup. This was followed by a small dog, “an inky, fat horror with a pink tongue” and he feared that “if It crawled into the centre of the room, the Universe would crash down on him”.

He goes to see a doctor but cannot speak about “the horror, the blackness, the loss of the meaning of things, the collapses at the end, the recovery and retraversing of the circle of that night’s Inferno; nor how it had waked up a certain secret dread which he had held off him since demobilisation”. This was a dread of being buried alive. The doctor gives him a sedative and tells him to divert his mind.

He goes back to his flat and is “prepared to do nothing for a month ... A few men came - once each- grinned at him, told him to buck up, and went on to their own concerns.” Unknown to Marden, his ex-batman, now his valet, realises that he is having hallucinations about a black dog, and instigates his own treatment which is to procure a real black puppy for his master. Caring for the puppy is quite a new experience for Marden and it gradually chases away his hallucinations.

His greatest challenge comes when Dinah, the puppy, gets stuck underground, and he has to crawl along a sandy tunnel, enlarging it so he can get through, to free her. This brings back all his horror of being buried alive; but he survives and saves Dinah’s life and is apparently cured and able to return to his work.

When sent home or to various institutions, many shell shock victims recovered in time. But others continued to suffer for many years afterwards. In "The Janeites" (1924) Humberstall, “a cart-horse of a man” with “the eyes of a bewildered retriever” had been blown up twice and was “liable to a sort o’ quiet fits”. He was slow and forgetful, and “apt to miss ’is gears at times”. His mother and his sister look after him and he is able to work as a hairdresser.

In "On The Gate" (1926) St Peter says the soul of Private R.M.Buckland should be allowed through the Gate at once, as he was probably shell shocked, and that was why he was prepared to prove that there was no God. He wanted St.Luke to see him.

Other Forms Of Shock

These are similar to shell shock but did not occur on the battlefield. In Captains Courageous (1896), Pennylvania Pratt, who had been a Moravian preacher called Jacob Boller, had taken his wife and four children to Johnstown for a Moravian meeting. In the one night they spent there the town had been wiped out in a flood when a dam burst. His family were all drowned:

“His mind give out from that on. He mistrusted somethin’ hed happened up to Johnstown, but for the poor life of him he couldn’t remember what, an’ he jest drifted araound smilin’ an’ wonderin. He didn’t know what he was nor yet what he had bin.”
Uncle Salters had taken care of him since then. Penn said Salters had advised him to go to sea because of his nervous dyspepsia. Disko Troop thought that one day Penn would remember what had happened his family, and the realisation would kill him.

In "A Friend of The Family" (1924), when Margetts’ market-garden was destroyed, and his house damaged, he “went off his rocker an’ walked about starin’ at the sky an’ holdin’ reprisal-meetin’s all by himself”. Acute Anxiety

In Captains Courageous (1896), Harvey Cheyne’s mother had always been of a nervous disposition. She “lived in fear of breaking (Harvey’s) spirit”, and because of this, walked “on the edge of nervous prostration”. After Harvey disappeared and was presumed drowned, she was “broken down ... half mad” and “dreamed day and night of her son drowning in the gray seas”. Her wealthy husband “had surrounded her with doctors, trained nurses, massage women, and even faith-cure companions, but they were useless”. She wanted assurance that drowning didn’t hurt and her husband “watched guard over her lest she should make the experiment”.

Harvey’s father, on the other hand, rarely mentioned his sorrow. But his only son was lost, presumed dead, and his wife “was dying, or worse”, and he was “trodden down by platoons of women and doctors and maids and attendants”. He was “worried almost beyond endurance by the shift and change of her poor restless whims, hopeless, with no heart to meet his many enemies. He caught himself asking the calendar on his writing-desk, ‘What’s the use of going on ?””.

The result of stress due to overwork

In "In The Pride Of His Youth" (1887) Dick Hatt has secretly married before taking up a job in India. For two years he works very hard, saving every rupee that he possibly could, to pay for his wife’s passage out to join him. A baby is born, but dies. He had never seen the baby, his son, “not being officially entitled to a baby, he could show no sign of trouble”. His wife blames him saying that if she had had more money for care of the child, or if they had all been together in India, the baby need not have died. Then she writes to say she is going off with another man; that she will never forgive him (for keeping her waiting so long, for letting the baby die, and for enjoying himself in India). He hands in his resignation and when he is then offered promotion and a greatly increased salary he:

“burst into a roar of laughter - laughter he could not check - nasty, jangling merriment that seemed as if it would go on forever. When he had recovered himself he said, quite seriously, ‘I’m tired of work. I’m an old man now. It’s about time I retired. And I will.””
He is only twenty three. The head of his establishment thinks he is mad. So does the Narrator. He was exhausted from overwork and very depressed. But they didn’t do anything about it. He disappears.

George Chapin, the American millionaire in "An Habitation Enforced" (1905) is more fortunate. When he collapses suddenly from overwork his doctors advise him to go abroad and to do no work whatever for at least two years. But having to go away and drift about Europe depresses him very much. He feels his life is over and fears his wife will never respect him if he does not work “like the others”. They are both miserable until they come to stay at Rocketts Farm, in the Sussex countryside, where they have peace and quiet, unhurried meals, fresh air, and time to be together, and a joint interest in the old house Friars Pardon, which they buy and renovate.

Other Mental Illnesses

In "The Disturber Of Traffic" (1891) John Dowse lives a lonely isolated life on a lighthouse at the end of the Flores Straits in the Indonesian archipelago. The currents there run so swiftly that the water has a streaky appearance. He thinks the ships passing through the Straits are causing the streaky water. Then he begins to feel that the streaks are inside his head. Somehow he has to stop them. He tries to do this by arranging several light-buoys to give the impression that the channel is blocked by wrecks. He is eventually taken off the station, naked and mad, and later recovers, and becomes a wherry-man at Portsmouth where the tides run crossways. Dowse's illness doesn’t fit into any definite category, possibly he had an obsessive compulsive disorder; but Kipling invented his symptoms for the sake of this powerful story.

In "The Tree Of Justice" (1910), an old man, in the dress of a pilgrim, “one-eyed and frail as a rush” who had been a pilgrim for many years, turns out to be King Harold who was believed to have died at the Battle of Hastings at Senlac, in 1066. He was “well known by repute as a witless man that journeyed without rest to all the shrines of England”. He was able to tell them precisely that he had spent forty years, less three months and nine days, walking from shrine to shrine. “He was childish through great age.” He didn’t want to tell what had happened to him after the Battle of Hastings, saying he had been stoned too many times for telling that tale. But it was obvious that he remembered a lot about the battle.

He is called a madman in the story. He was old and tired and slow, but I don’t think he was mad. He had found a niche, possibly the only one, in which he could survive, and he survived as a pilgrim for forty years.

In "An Error In The Fourth Dimension", (1894), Wilton Sargent, a wealthy American who lived in England, got his butler to stop an express train when he needed to get to London quickly. This caused him a lot of trouble with the railway company who thought he was mad when he said he would buy the line. They sent a psychiatrist to see him who thought he had a persistent delusion of wealth and was unable to follow a chain of connected thought. The psychiatrist went on to say; “What a marvellous world he must move in - and will before the curtain falls. So young, too, - so very young !”

The psychiatrist must have thought Sargent was having delusions of grandeur, (general paresis of the insane), which is associated with tertiary syphilis, and was surprised because he was so young. (He was in his early to middle thirties.) In fact he was simply a victim of cultural confusion.

General Paresis of the Insane (GPI), is a chronic spirochaetal meningo-encephalitis, the spirochaetes being in the brain. The onset is usually insidious, occurring ten years or more after primary syphilitic infection. Untreated general paresis is fatal within two years or so of it’s onset. [Information from JC Houston, CL Joiner, and JR Trounce, A Short Textbook of Medicine, The English Universities Press, 1966, p.273.]

Depression | Shell-shock | Other forms of shock
Stress due to overwork | Other mental illnesses