Kipling’s school stories

A paper by Isabel Quigly presented on April 7th 2004 at the Kipling Society seminar on “Scylla and Charybdis”, the ‘lost’ Stalky story. Isabel Quigly was Literary Editor of the Tablet for many years. She has taken a special interest in the peculiarly English genre of School Stories, and has pursued this in a critical study, The Heirs of Tom Brown . She edited and annotated The Complete Stalky & Co. for the OXFORD WORLD’S CLASSICS edition (1987).

This seems a good moment to talk about Kipling’s school stories, when a new one has been discovered. A new one, not just unpublished but until recently unread and unknown; in fact, not yet unscrambled from two drafts. This is something very rare in recent literary history, especially considering Kipling’s well documented life. The thrill it gives us may seem odd to outsiders, but everyone here will understand and share it.

What I hope to do now is to set Stalky & Co. in the context of the English school story. The first influential school story was Tom Brown’s School Days in 1857. The genre of school story lasted, I would say, for about a century, the time in which the public schools, in their traditional form, were at their height in influence, prestige, concentration and social narrowness, and at the same time when they fed into the rest of the community in what now seems an extraordinary way, being noticed, admired, followed in a fan-like sort of way and sometimes hated by those who often had little to do with them. Hence the school story, in which not just their Old Boys but outsiders could live vicariously in the rich stew of emotional excitement the real schools provided, since every school story was based on the writer’s own experience of a particular school.

After the Second World War, social changes, new ideas on education and on the needs of adolescents, and the loss of the Empire for which many of them had previously been trained, all
meant that the public schools were drastically changed. They became much more a part of the outside world, they were socially much more integrated in it, their oddities seemed unimportant or absurd, and they no longer had the fierce concentration of their heyday. School then had been cut off as much as possible from the rest of the world, families became so remote that they became almost distant memories, and women and their influence were absent. This made them much less suitable as settings for fiction and less interesting to outsiders.

The isolated community has always been a favourite setting for fiction. Good and evil are thrown together and inescapable: prison, monastery, rural or ferociously private family life have provided similar settings (think of Lord of the Flies or even Wuthering Heights). School was an obviously suitable setting for stories. It tossed together boys from varied backgrounds (though in fact they were always in the upper layers of society) and forced them to settle down, to make allies or enemies, to adapt to all kinds of strange conditions, to make friends, often for life, to suffer privations and overcome loneliness, humiliation, lack of privacy and much else, and to come out of it at the end tempered and (it was hoped) ready for anything that lay ahead.

An amazing number of school stories – full-length novels, that is – were written in the public schools’ heyday, not just dozens but hundreds, many by writers now entirely forgotten, all using the school they went to as a model. Men who had been at public schools often wrote their memoirs in later life and often gave detailed accounts of their time there, accounts that in many cases seemed to take up an inordinate amount of space and retrospective energy. In the nineteen thirties, a time when some of the old myths about school and much else were demolished, Graham Greene wrote:

“Why he [that is, the schoolboy] should feel more loyal to a school which is paid to teach him than to a butcher who is paid to feed him I cannot understand.”

Well, logically he may have been right. But even today, after so much demolition of the old world, he still seems to me emotionally wrong. Few people dislike their butcher or have passionate personal feelings about his meat. Whereas plenty look back on school with bitter antipathy, or with resentment not just for what happened while they were there but for its effect on the rest of life. Others feel, even through mixed memories, something of what an American who looked at the public schools with an anthropologist’s enthusiasm, Edward Mack, called “romantic attachment”. And most would agree with Cecil Day Lewis’s brilliant image of school as “an invisible compost”.

In its impersonal continental sense, “school” doesn’t arouse the same feelings. In the English context, having been to a public school in its heyday felt like having been a member of a powerful racial or religious group or an authoritarian political party. To find the same mixture of obsession, resentment and love-hatred that you find in school memoirs or stories you must look at Joyce or Fellini or Bunuel on the Catholic Church, at Silone or Koestler on the communist party, at Philip Roth or Brian Glanville on Jewish family life. Just before the Second World War Cyril Connolly famously wrote:

“Experiences undergone by boys at the great public schools, their glories and disappointments, are so intense as to dominate their lives, and to arrest their development. From these it results that the greater part of the ruling class remains adolescent, school minded, self-conscious, cowardly, sentimental, and, in the last analysis, homosexual.”

At this distance, that may sound grotesque, but as recently as 1971 Francis Hope could write, in a more precise and sociological way,

“The first testing question, whether from prospective employer or potential mother-in-law, is more likely to be “Where did he go to school?” than “Where does he come from?” or “What did his father do?”

So, school permeated life in an often direct and remarkable way. But Kipling, in dealing with school, was a great enough writer to avoid the potholes of the usual Old Boys’ attitudes. His artistic involvement in the affairs of Stalky and his friends was intense, but as he looked back he could recognise and make clear the difference between their world and his later one, even though he could also recall incidents from school that fed and enriched their later lives. The memory of a house pantomime is invoked when, years later, a bugler plays “Arrah, Patsy, mind the baby” to rally the real-life Stalky’s troops, a tune any of his contemporaries would have recognised; and other details from the past suggest a unity and conciseness of memory among those with a shared past.

But Kipling was a great enough writer to put all of this into a proper perspective. He knew very well that school was only a part of his future, and his eyes were those of a man, even dealing with boyish things. He could keep the right distance, and although he could skilfully translate the lessons learned at school into the future, he was never obsessed (like so many of his contemporaries) with school life or school relationships. These lessons were not, of course, merely those learned in the classroom – at which he excelled. His point was always that the boys taught one another, that life, rather than intellectual pursuits, was the goal of schooldays. This is what makes Stalky & Co an adult as well as a boys’ book, a satisfying commentary rather than, like so many school stories, a nostalgic wallow.

So, one of the main threads that runs through Kipling’s stories and makes them unlike the rest is that, however important at the time and however intensely experienced, school is apreliminary to later life, a training in how to live and survive. Many school story writers seemed to take it that public school was in itself a world that mattered, sometimes making the rest of life seem like an anti-climax, a let-down in which no-one was likely to feel as fulfilled or as glorious ever again.

Several things make Kipling’s school stories unlike the rest. First and most obviously, because there is no-one else of his quality producing school stories: his writing is simply on a different level from everyone else’s. P.G. Wodehouse, the only writer who can be mentioned in the same breath, wrote school stories in his early years but, although some of the later wit is already apparent, they were ‘prentice stuff and he grew away from them into more polished adult fiction. The other writers had well known names among them but none came close to Kipling in quality or stature. There was Thomas Hughes who wrote Tom Brown’s School Days and started the whole thing off; Dean Farrar of the famous, excruciating Eric or Little by Little, which Stalky & Co sent up for its mawkishness; Talbot Baines Reed who, with The Fifth Form at St Dominic’s, set off the mainstream school story about twenty years after Tom Brown; Hugh Walpole, who wrote three boy-centred books and an adult one about two contrasted masters; E.F.Benson, now much better known for his Mapp and Lucia books but also the author of David Blaize, a tale in which homosexuality was rather more explicit than it was in the rest; and many well-known others – Alec Waugh, Ian Hay, Shane Leslie, Arnold Lunn, Beverley Nicholls, F.Anstey, Ernest Raymond. In the nineteen thirties, when the school story was in steep decline, came one of the most famous as well as the most over-rated, James Hylton’s Goodbye Mr Chips, whose title rather oddly has entered the language, and to many seems to epitomise the school world.

Kipling’s stories were unlike all of these. For one thing, they were short stories, a very different brand from the novel. They took incidents in a single time and place, with the same characters, able to keep up interest in a way the full-length school story often couldn’t. Most of these full-length stories sag because it is hard to sustain interest in what is often a long-winded plot in a small situation. Whereas Kipling’s stories are energetic outbursts concentrating on particular moments and making particular points with much wider implications than the story itself might suggest because he, unlike the lesser practitioners in the genre, can see beyond the immediate and connect with other worlds.

For another thing, the school he dealt with (his own) was unlike most others at the time, with attitudes very different from theirs. It was an off-shoot of Haileybury, for parents who couldn’t afford Haileybury’s fees. Founded only a few years before Kipling arrived there, USC was housed in a row of seaside boarding houses at Westward Ho! in Devon. So it had little of the romantic setting expected from school stories: no ancient buildings or ivyclad cloisters, few traditions and a far greater sense of reality and understanding of money than were usually found in school stories. “We aren’t a public school,” one of the boys says. “We’re a limited liability company paying four percent. My father’s a share-holder too … We’ve got to get into the army or – get out, haven’t we? …All the rest’s flumdiddle.”

And Kipling’s position in a school responsible for getting its boys into the army or the colonial services was an odd one. He was an outsider in a school that was also something of an outsider in the school world of its time. With his terrible eyesight he would never have got into the army. Nor was he any good at the sports that were so important to schoolboys of his day. In fact, it was remarkable that he did so well at school and ended up highly regarded by the other boys, when he was an intellectual and a brilliant success at school work, and neither athletic nor goodlooking. In the newly found story he describes the character called ‘Beetle’ (who is, of course, himself) as “fat and unhandy” and the fact that he wears glasses makes him instantly recognisable as the only boy in the school to wear them.

Living among boys who were training to become practical, efficient, brave and effective leaders throughout the Empire, Kipling couldn’t belong to their world, and the vehemence and even aggressiveness of his tone as he looked back on his schooldays must surely have been at least partly a compensation for that, and a sign of something like wistfulness in the face of the privileged society of Stalky and others like him. Throughout his life he was to be torn between his own imaginative genius and the gifts of men of action, and at school the two collided most noticeably. He was very much in a minority, though it didn’t seem to embitter him or make him resentful of the daring, hardy future rulers among whom he spent his early and middle teens. Perhaps significantly, though, they didn’t remain lifelong friends.

The real Stalky went on to become a general and remembered the schoolboy Kipling in his memoirs many years later, but although they met briefly at Bateman’s it was not a reciprocal, lasting friendship, more a case of cronies temporarily in the same boat. A charming paragraph in the newly discovered story makes clear how that came about, through a sharing of their early miseries and needs. Nearly all the stories have a theme which no doubt could be explained in terms of Kipling’s outsideness in his school world. Today, the theme might be called Oneupmanship (a word unknown, of course, in his day). The young triumph over the adult, the boys over those in authority, the clever over the solid and dull, the decent (usually) over the wicked. Pretentiousness is pricked, cheating denounced, boy values seem paramount, while adults who deserve respect (the headmaster and the chaplain among them) are given their due. Most of the Stalky stories are cheerful and even goodnatured, but they appalled some of Kipling’s contemporaries.

I have collected and enjoyed some of the rude remarks directed at the stories, and even today some of them continue to appall.

“An unpleasant book about unpleasant boys in an unpleasant school”, “mucky little sadists”, “little beasts”, “a more odious picture of school life can seldom have been drawn”, “repulsive and disgusting enough to be true … only the spoiled child of an utterly brutalised public could possibly have written Stalky & Co … it is simply impossible to show by mere quotation the horrible vileness of these three small fiends in human likeness; only a perusal of the whole work would convey to the reader its truly repulsive character … The vulgarity, the brutality, the savagery … reeks on every page.”

And so on and so on. Of course, as we all know, Kipling arouses extreme reactions, but after all that I feel like saying, with Stalky – “whew !”.

Isabel Quigly, April 7th 2004.