Beating and berating in Stalky & Co.

(by Neil Cocks)

Stalky & Co. as Isabel Quigley pointed out in her keynote lecture, is one that often arouses quite extreme emotional responses in its critics. The question of violence within the text is one that often seems to focus this extremity. In this paper I do not wish to add my voice to either those critics who wring their hands in horror at the brutality of the text, nor align myself with those whose hands meet in a thunder of applause. Rather than trying to assess the moral worth of violence as it is written in this text, rather than seeking either to condone or condemn, I will instead be asking what violence means for this writing.

More precisely, my interest here is in how questions of violence often may be read as occurring alongside questions of language. Kipling seems to me a writer whose linguistic genius is often utilised to ask questions pertaining to the correct use of language: When is it right to speak? What are the limits of language? When is it preferable to keep silent? How might a noble silence be articulated? Such questions are often articulated at exactly the moments in the text when a discussion of the use of violence is also being introduced. Why this might be, and what meanings this might allow, will be my subject for the next twenty minutes.

To help to define what I mean I am going to begin by discussing two quotations. One is taken from a text situated at the beginning of the C19th School Story genre. The other is from one of the key ‘exemplars of change’ published at the century’s close. These two texts are Tom Brown’s Schooldays by Thomas Hughes and Stalky & Co. by Rudyard Kipling.

The introduction to Tom Brown’s Schooldays, the text in which ‘the school story was born’, includes the following anecdote:

A black soldier in a west Indian regiment tied up to receive a couple of dozen, for drunkenness, cried out to his
captain, who was exhorting him to sobriety in future, ‘Cap’n, if you preachee, preachee; and if flogee, flogee, but
no preachee and flogee too!’ to which his captain might have replied, ‘No, Pompey, I must preach whenever I can
see a chance of being listened to, which I never did before; so now you must have it all together; and I hope you
remember some of it’.


In Stalky & Co. there occurs the following exchange. The headmaster is about to punish the Co. for something he knows them to have done but has no proof of:

I am now going to pay you a tremendous compliment. (The brown one, please, Sergeant. Thanks. You needn’t wait.) I’m going to execute you without rhyme, Beetle, or reason. […] There is not a flaw in any of your characters. And that is why I’m going to perpetuate a howling injustice.

After the beatings that follow, one of the Co. says of the Head, ‘Dearrr man […] No gating. No impots. No beastly questions. All settled.’

The first thing to be noted here is that violence is countenanced in both texts, there is never any question about the morality of the beating. Yet Stalky & Co. seems to demand a separation of speaking and violence, whereas Tom Brown’s Schooldays seems to suggest they should exist together. Stalky & Co. places a child in the beaten position, Tom Brown’s Schooldays ‘a soldier from a West Indian regiment’. Both texts have the beaten demanding or accepting their punishment. Both texts speak about whether to speak.
Tom Brown’s Schooldays has an individual being beaten and demanding a separation of speech and silence only to be silenced by beating and speaking. But the ‘preaching’ we read in the text is concerned with the rights of ‘preaching’ and beating, not the evils of drink. It also should be noted that the sergeant is not the one who gives this speech. The reply to the beaten man’s protest is only one the sergeant ‘could’ have made.
Stalky & Co. seems to give the beaten individuals the last word on the form of their punishment. The punishment is deemed worthy because the Head has separated language and action.
Tom Brown’s Schooldays constructs the beaten as inferior. The language the beaten man uses, demanding the separation of language and violence, has violence done to it in turn. Accent or dialect is constructed as that which indicates a lack of mastery over language, just as there is a hint at a lack of mastery over the individual’s appetite for drink. Accent is constructed as deviation. The spoken language of the Sergeant is, as we have already seen, curiously absent for a quotation attempting to justify preaching. It is reported speech.

The Co. are seen to achieve a kind of equality with their beater, yet they are silenced in the text, as they are beaten, even to the point of visual communication: ‘take that grin off your face’.

Despite this the Co. might be read as possessing a certain autonomy. The boys seem free from adult rules because they can comment on and judge them. There is also an unspoken understanding between Head and pupils, a respectful silence that can allow a beating to be ‘a tremendous compliment’. When the Head does talk to the Co. he uses one of their nicknames; ‘Beetle’. The Head knows the Co. and the Co. know the Head.
Stalky & Co. is often read as a ‘realistic’ text. The critics that do not agree always include a discussion of ‘realism’ in their studies. The Co. are often viewed as ‘real’ boys. Some of the reasons for such a view can be guessed at here; two of the most common are that the boys show a ‘realistic’ pragmatism and the text is written from a Child’s Point of View rather than from an ‘adult’ idea of what that point of view. Critics who argue upon these lines will state that Stalky & Co. is a liberating text, escaping from – in Frank Eyre’s phrase – the ‘perfection of unreality’ the genre seemed to have become stuck in after the success of Talbot Baines Reed.

Yet this liberating realism ends in the construction of The Child who justifies its beating, the certain knowledge that ‘real’ boys love to be beaten and they don’t like people talking about it. The idea of the boys ‘reality’ ‘naturalises’ what might otherwise revolt.
Tom Brown’s Schooldays also ‘naturalises’ punishment. It does so with the use of anecdote, an incident from the ‘real’ world. Yet, as we have seen, that ‘reality’ is only partial. Again, what we read is only what ‘could’ have been said.

The Narrator of Tom Brown’s Schooldays introduces the story of drunkenness, silence and violence as a way to justify his own style. What style is being proposed? Where does violence fit into the idea of writing? If the anecdote is a metaphor for the style of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, then is The Narrator claiming that the attention the sergeant gets through beating is directly comparable to the attention that The Narrator will command over the Reader (claimed to be one just about to enter school) through casting the narrative in ‘a shape in which it will be most likely to get a hearing’? Beating to get attention is thus the sugar in the pill, the act of beating performing the function of entertainment. Writing to captivate is seen as analogous to the scene of violence. The violence of beating and the pleasure of the text both fulfil the same function: to capture in order that the captured may be lectured. To be lectured is not to argue, not to read, not to speak. It is to be a blank, an empty vessel, all ears. It is to be constructed as one is instructed.
Stalky & Co. does not include a discussion of beating, silence and speech in order to justify its style. Indeed, nothing is justified or explained in Stalky & Co. This is a text that speaks of the glory of silence, of the unspoken, the compliment in the lack of words, and speaks of this in an analogous style that claims to offer no explanation and reveals no hidden secrets. Yet despite this the Head himself finally talks in a way the sergeant of Tom Brown’s Schooldays is never allowed to. M’Turk may claim that the Head has the good taste not to lecture yet the whole beating sequence is written as narrated by the Head himself, all other characters being known to be present only through the Head’s reference to them.

The silence that is praised in Stalky & Co., a silence we read as something that marked the key difference between this text and Tom Brown’s Schooldays, is one that is explained, one that is written. And the beating that is administered is not only done so with a ‘beastly lecture’, the beating is conducted in language, language written as speech. What we have here is a textual beating. Did we really expect anything else? The ‘Child’ is absent from the scene, as is the beating ‘it’ endures. The scene of violence is not described; it is inferred through a move that will become very familiar. This move consists of constructing the textual hallucination of violence and childhood existing outside of the text, thereby absenting them from the scene whilst conjuring up the idea of their extra-textual ‘reality’.

In Tom Brown’s Schooldays there is, of course, no ‘real’ beating either. How can there be? The beating is separated from the linguistic response to it as the beating comes from an anecdote of the ‘real’, the response from an ideal, and therefore ‘unreal’, response to that incident: ‘that which ‘could’ have happened’. The beating has its status as ‘real’ stressed, it is written as occurring outside language, in a privileged position of a true, historical, dumb and physical fact.

In Stalky & Co. the positioning of the beating as a part of the ‘real’, a silent excess of the text, performs two functions. The first is that the alleged lack of language used by the adult in beating (which is always an abundance of language) is an attempt by the beater (Narrator/text) not to position itself in the drama. Thus what brings down the rod is justice, or inevitability, or the will of The Child rather than desire.The second is to produce The Child as ‘real’. The ‘real’ Child is known through its physicality, its pain, or rather it is constructed through the way that physicality is written as that which is not written, pain being read as immediate and non-linguistic. Because the text is ‘false’, because everyone knows ‘a beastly lecture’ does not display the knowingness of a silent thrashing, the ‘real’ must be constructed as that which is not the text.

Re-reading Stalky & Co. it occurred to me that all scenes of punishment and violence have something similar to say about language and reality.

The Co. are written as masters of language. They each have their favourite poets, they talk in quotations and they have the ability to use the languages and dialects of other people to their own advantage. A concern with language is evident in the whole text. Yet it is at the specific moment of violence that certain readings of the subject become available.

In the “Slaves of the Lamp” (Part I) the Co. revenge themselves upon a hated master for his punishment of Beetle. Beetle has been punished initially for writing a poem. Stalky incites a local man to throw stones at a master’s window while the master has Beetle and Manders, the boy who has told the tale that led to the discovery of the poem, before him. As the stones fly, the master exits to confront his attacker:

Then did Beetle, alone with the wreckage, return good for evil. How in that office, a complete set of ‘Gibbon’ was scarred all along the back as by flint; how so much black and copying ink chanced to mingle with Mander’s gore […] Beetle did not explain.

Beetle’s attack is upon books and ink. This is the medium of his revenge. Telling his friends of his exploits Beetle cries:

‘Blood on the books and paper. The gum! The gum! The gum! The ink! The ink! The ink! Oh, Lord! […] Ink and blood all mixed. I held the little beast’s head all over the Latin proses for Monday’.

‘Ink and blood all mixed’. It is an important phrase. Ink and blood are always mixed at the scene of violence only in the sense that an idea of textuality, of language or of writing always attends the scenes in Stalky & Co. where the physicality of punishment is being written. We read an example of this in the account of the Head’s beating. In “The Slaves of the Lamp” (Part I) the relationship of ‘ink and blood’ is further complicated by the Head giving the Co. a number of novels after they have joyfully accepted their ‘silent’ punishment. The Head does not express this as a sign of respect, or compensation, or thanks, yet the receiving of texts is shown as a non-textual attempt at communicating any of the above (or something else).

“A Little Prep” concerns the Head saving a boy with diphtheria and thereby risking his own life. The Head tells no one of his heroism, indeed, immediately afterwards he punishes the Co. for breaking bounds. Stalky finds out the truth, tells everybody, and the whole school cheer him. The Head mistakes this for insolence and canes the whole school on the last day. The boys carry on cheering and the Head finally gives up. This is seen by Stalky, who is beaten first, as ‘revenge’. The story begins thus:

The Easter term was but a month old when Stettson major, a day-boy, contracted diphtheria, and the Head was
very angry […] There were no words bad enough for Stetson major, quarantined at his mother’s house, who had
lowered the school-average of health. This he said in the gymnasium after prayers.

The text begins with a performance that displays the silent goodness of the Head’s character by speaking all that he is not. The words ‘not bad enough’ are at once an acknowledgement of a terrible illness and a seemingly cavalier attitude towards it. Feeling is expressed absolutely by its lack.

When the Head is first cheered he is amazed; ‘It was in the established order of things that no boy should speak or move under his eye. He expected the hush of awe’. The Head’s reaction is as follows:

When a Head […] is cheered on his saintly way to prayers, not only by four form-rooms of boys waiting
punishment, but by his trusted prefects, he can either ask for an explanation or go his road with dignity.

The Head, characteristically for this text, asks for no explanation. More importantly, he cannot furnish an explanation himself. His heroic act is not merely covered up with a conscious, modest silence. It is an act that the Head himself is not even aware of. It is, indeed, only at this point of his own heroism, in the whole of Stalky & Co. that the Head does not have an unspoken insight into events: ‘It is not often that I do not understand you; but I confess I do not to-night’.

The Head has to be made aware of the cause of the cheering. When ignorant of the cause of the uproar he ordered a mixed punishment of lines for younger boys and canning for their elders. On learning the truth the Head decides on caning all round, to be administered by himself:

When this news was made public, the school, lost in wonder and admiration, gasped at the Head as he went to his
house. Here was a man to be reverenced. On the rare occasions he caned he did it very scientifically, and the
execution of a hundred boys would be epic – immense.

‘Gasped’ – that wordless exclamation, certainly at a man whose violent justice outweighs cloying emotion and pride, but also at the spectacle of their own punishment. The last day arrives and:

The Head began with Stalky, M’Turk, and Beetle. He dealt faithfully by them.
‘And here’s your journey money. Good-bye, and pleasant holidays. ‘
‘Good-bye. Thank you, sir. Good-bye.’
They shook hands.

We read the formal exchange of words, the mutual physical and consensual contact of hands, but the beating is absent. The word ‘faithfully’, a word applicable to servant as well as lover, is balanced against the ‘scientific’ manner of the beatings described above. There is a display of logic, of coolness, a lack of emotion, or personal desire. But, like the cavalier attitude to the illness the Head would risk his life to prevent, these words communicate precisely their opposite, that which is not said. Yet only to an extent: ‘when the boys awaiting their turn cheered, the Head gave it up in despair, and the remnant flung themselves upon him to shake hands’.

What is the status of the term ‘despair’ here? Are we to read it as its opposite or not? This is unclear. What is clear is that although the Head orders the beatings, neither they, or their termination in a scrum of affection, are seen as projecting the desires of the Head, rather the collective desire of his pupils.

When Stalky is punished at the beginning of the story by the Head for breaking bounds it is the master King who punishes them. We read that:

King enjoyed himself most thoroughly, for by virtue of their seniority the boys were exempt from his hand, save
under special order. Luckily, he was no expert in the gentle art.
‘Strange, how desire doth outrun performance’, said Beetle irreverently, quoting from some Shakespeare play.

King is not the master of that which is termed, both ironically and not, ‘the gentle art’. That is precisely because of his enjoyment. It is also because he is seen as both inexperienced in and starved of his longed for activity. His beating ends prematurely. It is also because his enjoyment is dependent on the permission of The Head. Also, of course, it is because the boys despise being beaten by him.

Just before the Head is forced to give up his beating because of the enjoyment of his victims, Stalky declares that ‘Desire don’t outrun performance – much’. The performance is impressive, as are all the ‘performances’ of the Head. They are a mastery of the surface, never revealing that which is underneath, unlike the far too evident ‘enjoyment’ of King. Yet the ‘desire’ is not denied. It simply does not outrun, or escape from, the performance that encases and enables it.

In “The Moral Reformers” there is contained probably the most famous of Stalky & Co.’s scenes of punishment. Again, we find it has something to say about language and ‘reality’. In this story the Co. are asked by the Padre to stop a spate of bullying. Two older boys are bullying a younger. The Co. trick the older boys into thinking they are about to play a game of ‘cock-fighting’ with the younger, fragile Beetle. This involves all parties being trussed up before they fight. Hoping for an easy game they agree. But the Co. untie Beetle and begin a prolonged torture of the two bullies, both violent and humiliating. Turning to the descriptions of these tortures we read that;

Brush-drill was dealt out for the space of five minutes by Stalky’s watch. They (the two men) could not
even writhe in their bonds. No brush is employed in Brush-drill.
The torture of the Key – which has no key at all – hurts excessively. They endured several minutes of it.
They were corkscrewed, and the torture of the Corkscrew – this has nothing to do with corkscrews – is keener than the torture of the Key.

These are names that have no relation to anything described in the text. The words refer to something outside the boundaries of the text, actions not contained within it. We could say that what they refer to is conjured up in the imagination (which is not viewed as a text in itself) or we could say that what is referred to is physically outside the text, in the ‘real’. It is something un-read, unambiguous, present.

The punishment ends with the tortured being reduced from men to children:‘Sefton cried like a twelve-year-old with pain, shame, wounded vanity and utter helplessness’.

The torture makes for pure physicality, and this pure physicality, this outside ‘realness’, is associated with The Child. The torture changes their physical characteristic, before their torture we read that ‘their moustaches were beyond question impressive’, In torture, when these impressive items are to be removed by razor, we read of ‘the thin-haired first moustache of youth’.

I think we can read a number of moves in this mixture of blood and ink that we have read elsewhere. The text posits an absolute ‘reality’ outside of itself by drawing attention to the failure of the text to offer complete meaning. There is an absence in the text and it is this that precisely marks an idea of ‘presence’. In the same way that the Headmaster’s spoken performance is that which enables us to read his unspoken truth, so to the read text enables us to read that which is not language, that which cannot be contained within the boundaries of the text. Just as the Head’s ‘performance’ does not wholly outrun his ‘desire’, so too the covering text does not quite cover that which it cannot hold.

This hallucination of a knowable, but unreadable, ‘truth’ that the limitations of the text grant access to cannot be maintained, however. There is always, as we have already seen, the idea that these silences are written, and spoken, are read, in short, are textual. This ambivalence may be read in Beetle’s anguished cry against the beaten bullies:

And you went out of your way to catch him? Don’t I know it! Because he was an little awful beast, eh?
Don’t I know it! Now , you see you’re awful beasts, and your getting’ what he got – for bein’ a beast.
Just because we choose.

Beetle has been bullied in the past, and this is thus no ‘scientific’ punishment, the logical end to a crime that we so often read in Stalky & Co.. The beaters do not conduct themselves in silence. Beetle shrieks revenge in the excitement, Stalky taunts and goads. Most importantly questions are asked again and again, and they are a torture in themselves, one that, however, can be named: ‘no boy can stand the torture of one unvarying query’. Yet it is the ‘method and silence’ of the attacks that equally unsettle the beaten.

Thus the Co. torture through language, they seem to forget their own rules of a good beating. Yet the beating they administer is one that does not include the silent understanding and emotion that characterises their beratings by the Head. Yet, to an extent, silence and violence are also separated from speaking in the torture of Sefton. Throughout the torture the actual physical punishments are carried out in silence, as we have read. The mixture of blood and ink is never more ambivalent than in this sequence, but I think it is indicative of a problematic movement of terms that is everywhere evident.

The last chapter of Stalky & Co. again stresses the textuality of the text. Now a man and an author, Beetle meets up with some old school friends and tells us that what has just been read issued from his pen. In this final meeting between the boys, a meeting that is read as occurring in writing, there is one individual absent. Stalky is still fighting in India. No one is sure where he is. Tales are told of his heroism. In the final instance Stalky is shown to be that which is not contained in the text, that which breaks the bonds of writing, that which truly lives. There is a threat that this placing of Stalky beyond a given boundary may not be permanent:

India’s full of Stalkies – Cheltenham and Haileybury and Marlborough chaps – that we don’t know
anything about, and the surprises will begin when there is a really big row on.’
‘Who will be surprised?’ said Dick Four.
‘The other side. The gentlemen who go to the front in first-class carriages. Just imagine Stalky let loose on the south side of Europe with a sufficiency of Sikhs and a reasonable prospect of loot. Consider it quietly.

Stalky may break the boundaries that separate the violence of Empire from the safety of Europe. Is Stalky to bring ‘reality’ to the text with his return? This is not clear. Is it the threat of mixing ink and blood that we have seen residing within what seems a move towards a clear separation of text and the ‘real’, or is it simply the threat of blood being everywhere? It is significant that what is being postulated occurs at a time after the text’s closure, an event outside its boundary.
‘Quietly’. That’s how ‘this’ must be considered. A word pertaining to silence but necessarily not wholly of it. A very Stalky word. The critical response to this ‘quiet’ text is instructive. Ignoring the perilous nature of the ‘real’ the critics incorporate both Stalky & Co.’s attack upon language whilst ignoring the importance that language has in this attack. Thus we read that ‘School was like that, in Kipling’s day, and Stalky & Co. reflected the reality’. Stalky & Co. does not ‘reflect’ reality, at least not in that way. We read that ‘Mr Kipling obviously aims at verisimilitude; the picture he draws is at any rate repulsive and disgusting enough to be true’. However, critics read the text, they must read it as ‘real’. Yet whilst the text gains the status of ‘real’, however ‘reflected’, the critics are keen to point out, with Stalky & Co., that a textual ‘reality’ is no reality at all. Thus we have an account of Kipling, who is Beetle, having to write the story to compensate his exclusion from the ‘real’ life the story is sourced in. Writing is viewed as a supplement, secondary to a detached, pure and unselfconsciously physical ‘reality’:

Danger, initiative, heroism, death: Kipling could write of them all but was not, unlike his school fellows, to be involved with them physically, factually […] If he was not to have the military glory of some of his friends (the model for Stalky himself ended as a general), he could at least be their chronicler.

Stalky & Co. can never be real, according to its own logic – as ‘reality’ is always constructed as that which can never be held within it: And so the supplementary relationship between ‘blood and ink’ goes unstably on…

Neil Cocks, April 7th 2004.