‘An unpleasant book about unpleasant boys at an unpleasant school’. [Concise Cambridge History of English Literature(Cambridge, 1942), p. 959.]
Comments like this one of George Sampson’s have dogged Stalky & Co. since the stories first appeared in book form in 1899. And this was by no means the harshest. From Wells’s condemnation of the heroes as self-righteous bullies and A. C. Benson’s description of them as `little beasts’ to Maugham’s magisterial `a more odious picture of school life can seldom have been drawn’, [See Kipling, The Critical Heritage, ed. Roger Lancelyn Green (London, 1971), pp. 306-7, 318; A Choice of Kipling’s Prose (London, 1952) p. vi.] the disapproval of Kipling’s contemporaries was made thunderously clear. `Mr Kipling obviously aims at verisimilitude; the picture he draws is at any rate repulsive and disgusting enough to be true,’ wrote Robert Buchanan, his most virulent critic. `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 the book describing 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.’ [See Kipling: The Critical Heritage, pp. 244-5.]
If at this point one feels like saying, with Stalky, something like `Phew!’, there are more recent comments in much the same vein – Edmund Wilson’s, for instance: `a hair-raising picture of the sadism of the English public-school system’ [See Kipling’s Mind and Art, ed. Andrew Rutherford (Edinburgh and London, 1964), p. 21 (from “The Kipling that Nobody Read” in The Wound and the Bow (1941)] – and even today the book can arouse passionate feelings of dislike, resentment, even disgust.
Yet its supporters have been quite as fervent, and its popularity with the young, that only guarantee of a school story’s longevity, has never waned. Intensity and exuberance in the hands of a writer like Kipling can hardly fail to arouse partisan attitudes, and the immediacy of Stalky & Co. is one of the most remarkable things about it. That, and the fact that its outlook, its central characters, its ideals and ideas, still hold lessons for us today. The world it belonged to may have gone, but the points it makes still have relevance to ours, and the exuberance with which it makes them hammers this home.
The school-story genre
Although it belongs to the school-story genre, it is unlike any other school story. Tom Brown’s School Days started a literary industry which produced hundreds of school stories over the next century, all dealing with the self-contained, rule-ridden world of the Victorian – and later the Edwardian and Georgian – public school. Twenty-five years later Talbot Baines Reed with The Fifth Form at St Dominic’s and other books gave the genre a recognizable popular form. His many followers were undistinguished and mostly indistinguishable, and stuck closely to the conventions he laid down. Parallel with their books went a more literary, more seriously intentioned brand of school story, aiming to give a more realistic or more romantic, sometimes a more adult, view of public-school life. Between the two and quite unlike either the popular or the more individual, more ambitious stories came Stalky & Co. It appeared in 1899, exactly in the middle of the genre’s century of life, several stories coming out at various dates after the early ones had appeared in book form, and the whole being collected as The Complete Stalky & Co as late as 1929.
The fact that Kipling was an incomparably better writer than the others (only P. G. Wodehouse, whose earliest books were school stories, can be mentioned beside him) makes Stalky & Co. unlike the other school stories in quality, of course. When a writer of genius takes up a popular genre without condescension or casualness, indeed with the greatest commitment and (jokes notwithstanding) seriousness, and an enthusiasm for the task which is clear in every line, something happens to the genre, it shows possibilities and depths which, in the hands of others, it never seemed to possess. In Kipling’s, the school story managed to cross the often uneasily described division between adult life and boyhood, and between the mature attitude of the writer and the unripe outlook of his heroes (a transition no other school-story writer coped with adequately). For all its `committedness’ of mood, its sense of sharing totally the everyday life and outlook of fifteen-year-olds, looking back on them became not an exercise in nostalgia but a way of understanding and working out what was to come, what they were to grow into.
What happened to these boys? How did they apply the lessons learned at school to the world of warfare and imperial administration? These questions are implied throughout the book and answered explicitly in the final chapter. Stalky & Co. is the only school story which shows school as a direct preparation for life. Most others actually make the world outside school seem irrelevant, an anticlimax, an unimaginable void. Kipling, for all his intense feeling for the school atmosphere and the moods of adolescence, shows school as the first stage of a much larger game, a pattern-maker for the experiences of life. This is mainly what makes it unlike the others, with their narrow, school-centred preoccupations and their belief, often implied and sometimes even stated, in the overwhelming importance of this preliminary stage of life, which was actually presumed to outdo the rest in importance. In Kipling, not only is a later life envisaged very clearly at school, but the divisions between school and the world outside are less clearly defined than they are in most other school stories; not just in the sense that the boys make free with the surrounding countryside and hobnob happily with the locals, bilingual in standard English and broad Devon, but in a metaphorical sense: school teaches lessons (obviously), but, less obviously, the lessons are much more than those of the classroom. It teaches the boys how to live; but above all, the boys teach one another.
But Stalky & Co. was unlike the other school stories not merely in quality, or even in form. It was unlike them in kind. It dealt with an odd school, based on the United Services College where Kipling was sent, and it had few of the interests, accepted few of the conventions, of other school stories. The Coll, as it is called in the book, was a raw new foundation set up for boys destined for the army or the colonial service in some form, whose parents could not afford the smarter Haileybury, of which it was an offshoot. Those who came expecting the familiar features of school life barked their shins on the reality soon enough. `The Head should have warned Mr Brownell of the College’s outstanding peculiarity, instead of leaving him to discover it for himself the first day of term,’ “The United Idolators” begins, and this oddity is stressed again and again with a sort of sly pride. Difference, oddity, practicality, even poverty: these made for a certain truculence in Kipling and in the boys he describes, and brought a feeling of modernity and a sense of facing up to the facts of life and of careers that are noticeably absent from other school stories.
King, for instance, a master both disliked and reluctantly admired, keeps `talking round and over the boys’ heads, in a lofty and promiscuous style, of public-school spirit and the traditions of ancient seats’. But Flint, one of the prefects, puts this sort of thing into perspective. `As I told King, we aren’t a public school,’ he says. `We’re a limited liability company payin’ four per cent. My father’s a shareholder too … We’ve got to get into the army or – get out, haven’t we? King’s hired by the Council to teach us. All the rest’s flumdiddle. Can’t you see?’ To mention money, the importance of exams, the need for cramming (`King’s the best classical cram we’ve got’, and therefore must be borne), the non-public-school qualities and even status of one’s own school – all this was heresy in the late nineteenth-century school story.
As for Kipling, who put himself into the book as the central character called Beetle, he was sent to the United Services College almost by chance, because the headmaster, Cormell Price, was a family friend. It was not really his sort of school. He was not really the sort of boy it catered for. As the only boy who wore glasses (and who was almost blind without them), he was the only one there physically unable to do what the others were being prepared for. However boyish and exuberant the mood of Stalky & Co, the future looms over all its action. This or that boy, we are told now and then, quite casually as he enters the story, will die in action in such-and-such a place, within the next three or four years. Danger, initiative, heroism, death: Kipling could write of them all but was not, unlike his schoolfellows, to be involved with them physically, factually. At sixteen he left school for a job on a
newspaper in India, news of his remarkable gifts having gone ahead of him. 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.
Between his imaginative genius and their gifts as men of action – physical and psychological attributes he would never have himself – he was torn throughout his life and perhaps particularly at school; therefore even more so in writing about school, where the two collided most noticeably. The United Services College trained boys to become practical, efficient, brave and effective leaders throughout the Empire, and Kipling envied them their practicality and efficiency, admired their courage and competence (qualities he was to celebrate in all he wrote). His own time at the USC was successful, fulfilled, and apparently happy, his standing high with the other boys, his gifts recognized and encouraged by the headmaster and two other masters who had some influence on his early writing. But he did not and could not fully belong there. The ardour, vehemence, even aggressiveness and violence of his tone when he looked back to his school-days must surely have been a compensation for this, a sign of his wistfulness in the face of the privileged society of ingenious, daring, hardy future rulers in which he spent his curious early and middle teens.
I say `curious’ because he was curiously unlike the central schoolboy of fiction or of fact in those days; so odd, indeed, that it is surprising, and a sign of the school’s openmindedness, to find him accepted, even admired there. `Anything that Gigger did “went” ‘, G. C. Beresford, the model for M‘Turk, assures us; [Schooldays with Kipling (London, 1936), p. 202.] He also mentions the `Gigger regime’ (Gigger was Kipling’s school nickname, from giglamps, an allusion to the spectacles he wore). Kipling’s high status at school was odd considering what an unlikely candidate for school importance he was. The public schools of the time were aggressively athletic, as book after book (memoirs as well as fiction) makes often wearisomely clear, and Kipling was hopeless at games and made no pretence of enthusiasm for any sport but swimming. The intellectual or cultivated boy, the aesthete, the poet, the swot, was generally despised, whereas the school heroes, or `bloods’ as they were called, were almost invariably athletes, with the qualities that went or were thought to go with athleticism: physical strength, a masterful personality, and good looks. With them, even moral qualities were supposed to march, qualities of leadership, straightforwardness, a clean-cut presence and style of life. The boy the other boys admired and the masters respected was almost invariably a sportsman.
Whereas Kipling (who went so far in identifying with Beetle that he became `I’ in the final chapter, marked with that dark, unattractive and somehow scuttling, squashable name) was the very opposite of all this: brilliant and devious, intellectual and precocious, and very odd-looking indeed – which, in particular, counted at school. His difference from the rest lay not only, or not so much, in his poor eyesight (that on its own would have handicapped him, but made him a figure of pathos, perhaps likely to arouse sympathy) as in his presence and his looks. Small, plump, peering and furry, with a perceptible moustache when he arrived at twelve, a full-grown one in group photographs at fifteen, and a chest that had to be shaved for some minor operation at school, he was anything but familiar-looking or reassuring.
Obviously he was physically mature. He also seems to have been sexually forward, having fallen in love at fourteen and considering himself engaged to the girl for several years after leaving school. This never appears or is hinted at in the Stalky stories, but it does suggest his physical and emotional difference from the others. The patterns of school life in those days were homosexual in the literal sense that they were ‘one-sexed’, that women had no place there, the feminine and domestic qualities no importance. Not that Kipling ever goes into that – `beastliness’ is the word he uses, as others did at the time, for any manifestation of homosexual feeling. But male looks and charm counted, in a single-sex community, and perhaps the monkey-like boy, so adultly furred, so distressingly plain, needed to put an almost hysterical enthusiasm into his memories of school to persuade himself that he belonged among the ordinary others, his cronies rather than lasting, lifelong friends.
As a series of stories, not a single novel with a continuous plot, Stalky & Co. scores over most other school stories because it keeps up interest and emotional intensity in energetic bursts of narrative, each complete in itself, each worked out to make a satisfactory pattern. Most school stories sag because their plots are not interesting or convincing enough to keep up interest or conviction long enough. Stalky & Co. has the same characters
and situations throughout but very different things happen to them in each chapter. Each story, or nearly each one, is a carefully constructed tale of come-uppance, or who it is who
gets it. It is about (on the whole lighthearted) revenge.
The first tale (of the Complete Stalky) is simple enough and serves to give Stalky his nickname. Officially he is Arthur Lionel Corkran, or Corky to his friends. But Corky becomes Stalky when he manages a particularly neat rescue of some silly boys who, unprepared, stumble into trouble with an angry farmer and his cattle; because in USC slang the word ‘Stalky’ meant clever and cunning. In the stories it stands for survival, success against the enemy regardless of what means are used, a sense of power, joy, fun, even dignity in the
achievement of victory. It stands for everything the schoolboy needs in order to keep his end up against authority and the school ethos. And this is perhaps mainly why Stalky & Co.
seemed a disruptive, subversive, and disturbing book to adults when it appeared, and why the young, girls as well as boys, so often find it exhilarating.
Most school stories, certainly the approved ones, were really on the side of the status quo and the conventions of school life. Their passionate devotion to athletics and the athlete, their championing of those with a roaring enthusiasm for what was then thought important at school – rivalries, house matches, matters of schoolboy honour and face-saving – showed that school-story writers (however much they might champion healthy high spirits, even `wildness’) were anxious to be on the winning side, the side that had adult approval. Whereas Kipling makes his schoolboys the winners, while the adults are often discomfited. Mainly these adults are masters, but occasionally a local farmer or a priggish prefect (who in school terms counts almost as an adult) is spiked on the sheer stalkiness of Stalky.
Stalky is unlike other school-story heroes because he is indeed heroic, as the boyish Tom Brown and his imitators never are; he is outsize in cleverness, in leadership, in improvisation, and these qualities, which he learns and then hones with endless patience and practice at school, are going to stand him in good stead later, in amazing feats not just of dash and courage but of deviousness and ingenuity. ‘Stalky stalked,’ one of his friends says admiringly in the final chapter. `That’s all there is to it.’
When one of the book’s critics [Robert Buchanan, see Kipling the Critical Heritage, p.245] complained that the boys were `not like boys at all, but like hideous little men’, he had a point. Kipling’s biographer Charles Carrington remarked that in Stalky & Co. he shows `a world of work like manhood, not a world of play like childhood’.’ Stalky’s school successes scored over others, although put across in the language of young uproariousness, are exactly like the imperial successes we hear of in the final chapter. In undermining the alliance between his two enemy groups, the Khye-Kheens and the Malots, he uses exactly the same ruses that he used at school to undermine King or the prefects. Even the song from the house pantomime – `Arrah, Patsy, mind the baby’ – is played on a bugle to rally troops and sort out allies from enemies. Details of school life and language are vivid after fifteen years and used with effect to describe, to make images of, the present. If this is adult life, working life, imperial life, then school life prefigures it exactly.
Stalky and his friends M‘Turk and Beetle have few of the usual schoolboy interests – sporting success, the prestige of being prefects, cheering at house matches or even achieving (as Beetle is well able to achieve) academic success with the likes of King. (Unless, as happens in “The Propagation of Knowledge”, they achieve it in a roundabout way by sharing the results of Beetle’s wide reading among several boys, and thus teasing the unsuspecting King.)
What concerns them is their private, even secret life, sometimes led in defiance of authority, as when they find a cliff-top hiding place where they read, smoke, and escape the pressures of communal life; sometimes in laudable or at least harmless pursuits, like writing poetry (in Beetle’s case) or producing the house pantomime; but most often in keeping their end up and quietly – or not so quietly – gloating over the downfall of their adversaries.
No one discovers what ruses they use or even that they have used any at all, except their friend the chaplain, who sees round them all too well, and the headmaster, a great man who knows everything. The others merely know that, if Stalky is thwarted, something happens, someone else suffers for it. Stalky and Co always have alibis, unshakeable excuses, a look of injured innocence if accused. King’s study is wrecked by a drunken villager, and no one can know that Stalky enraged him into wrecking it. When the three are turned out of their study, Prout’s House is mysteriously disrupted (how? All anyone knows, except the chaplain, who guesses, is that it happens). Accused by King of being unwashed and smelly, they make his House stink to high heaven by sliding a dead cat in between attic floor boards and the ceiling below. In a notably nasty chapter two bullies are tortured as they tormented their young victim. A prefect too big for his boots is humiliated before his fellows by being accused of immoral conduct, Stalky and Co having got a village girl to kiss him in public. And so on. It is (though the word had not then been invented) purest oneupmanship in action.
Some of their ideas for these ruses come from books. Galton’s The Art of Travel gives them `the bleating of the kid excites the tiger’, which suggests that bullies may be lured by the noise made by their victim. Mrs Oliphant’s Beleaguered City gives them an idea for misleading Prout. Isaac D’Israeli’s Curiosities of Literature is a mine of miscellaneous information which can be spread among his friends by Beetle for the confusion of King. Viollet-le-Duc shows him how a house is built and therefore where a dead cat may be stowed. But, as with Stalky’s military manoeuvres in India, the best results come from the application of experience, the pattern of repeating something already done: in “The Propagation of Knowledge”, for instance, a boy tells how a sapper uncle of his discovered that the colonel examining him on field fortification had a passion for the Lost Tribes of Israel, and by interested discussion on the subject with the old fellow got top marks in a subject he knew nothing about. The boys seize on the idea when they face an outside examiner in English Literature, who, they discover, is much taken with the Baconian heresy (that Bacon wrote the works of Shakespeare), which they have been swotting up to annoy King. When the examiner finds they can discuss it with him all goes smoothly, and they pass with flying colours.
Other themes are less dramatically but no less exuberantly introduced. In “The United Idolators” an entire community is stirred almost to mass hysteria by a craze for a particular book, – Uncle Remus – its slang and oddities, its fetishes and characters. In “Regulus”, we learn what school stories very seldom tell us, that school work may be vigorously done and sometimes even enjoyed, that a little Latin may actually `stick’ and the master may therefore feel his uphill task is worthwhile. In “The Flag of their Country”, we see adult falsity disgusting the young, when an MP the boys nickname the Jelly-bellied Flag-flapper talks of forbidden subjects like Honour and Patriotism, matters too close to their hearts and too delicately felt to bear talking about.
All this – the choice of theme, the intricacies of plot, the treatment – is so far from the form or content of most school stories that it seems another genre, certainly part of another world. Hardly surprising, when one considers that at Beetle’s age of fifteen or so Kipling was already a prolific poet (published, albeit reluctantly) and an omnivorous reader in French as well as English, with the run of the headmaster’s library. As nephew of two famous contemporary painters (Burne-Jones and Poynter), he had intellectual friends in London and a stimulating out-of-school life when he wanted it (including a cultural trip to Paris, much enjoyed) and was, as his biographer Charles Carrington puts it, `a rebel and a progressive, which is to say, in 1882 – paradoxically – that he was a decadent. His friends, his teachers, were liberals,’ Carrington goes on; `his tastes were “aesthetic”, the writers he most admired were the fashionable pessimists.” Then his headmaster and hero, Cormell Price, was anything but a mainstream Victorian pedagogue: not in orders, like most headmasters then, not even a strong churchman, and anti-Establishment enough to organize a Workmen’s Neutrality demonstration in Islington to protest against Beaconsfield’s imperialism.
Kipling’s study-sharers, too, were readers if not intellectuals like himself. ‘Stalky’ a fanatic for Surtees, `M‘Turk’ for Ruskin, with the aesthetic interests this implied (he was the study decorator, the acknowledged expert on visual matters). L. C. Dunsterville, the original of Stalky, and G. C. Beresford, the original of M‘Turk, both much later wrote books about their schooldays and their friendship with Kipling. Beresford’s account is long-winded and uninspired and (although his drawings of `Gigger’ and others in the book are naturally interesting) adds little to what we know from Kipling. But Dunsterville’s exploits in the army provided a remarkable example of stalkiness in real life and justified all that Kipling felt and said about the school’s capacity to train boys for the future; in Dunsterville’s case, a very particular future. Kipling himself wrote about the school – the `real’, not the fictional, school – six years before Stalky & Co. first appeared, in an essay entitled “An English School”, first published in 1893 and later collected in Land and Sea Tales for Scouts and Guides; and in Something of Myself the chapter called “The School Before its Time” has more to say about it. The discrepancies between `real life’ and fiction closely based on memories of it, and between Kipling’s own memories and those of his friends, are, for the enthusiast, fascinating to follow in detail; and there is plenty of detail available. What is clear from both the real-life accounts and from Stalky & Co. itself is that the atmosphere of this unusual school, or at least of Stalky and Co’s Study No. 5, must have been remarkably unlike that of the average public school of the time. For one thing, there were none of the usual compulsory parades, uniforms, bands, flags, and propaganda; there was no obvious militarism in spite of the school’s army connections; and there was no fagging.
Nor was either school – the real one or the fictional Coll which, physically, was exactly the same – in size and shape and general appearance like the conventional public school. No elms or quadrangles or spaciousness, no ancient buildings or ivy-covered walls.
`Twelve bleak houses by the shore’ Kipling called it in his dedicatory verses to the book; in other words, a row of seaside boarding houses, which had been adapted for this purpose. He seems to have enjoyed stressing its difference from other schools, its roughness and even scrufFmess, the untamed boy material it was given to work on. In atmosphere and effect he made it tougher and coarser than it need have been, noisier, more violent, deliberately more excitable. Why was this, and what was Kipling trying to say by using what Andrew Rutherford has called `a sophisticated Philistinism, a deliberate brutality of speech [which he suggests] is one of the most unpleasant features of Stalky & Co. [Kipling’s Mind and Art, p.183.]
Partly, of course, it was for dramatic effect, the effect achieved with less artistry by children’s comics, by all knockabout narrative. High spirits and excitement arouse a response in the reader and many readers of all ages and certainly both sexes have been moved, like the velvet-suited hero of a once-famous school story, The Bending of a Twig, to a partisan passion for Stalky’s doings and to shouting `Go it, Stalky!’ as he does, if only to get back at authority. Partly it is an excuse to mock, not the boys Kipling approved of, who went through the system and came out on top in the Empire, but the prigs and conformers, those who lacked the aggressive, extrovert qualities he admired, who cheered at house-matches and behaved like the good boys of mainstream school stories. But partly, as I have suggested, it may have compensated for his own sense of inadequacy in a community where he could not belong, being psychologically an outsider, an artist in the wrong place, and physically incompetent: `trained as an officer who could never have a regiment, a ruler with no one to rule, an artist who must on no account betray his emotions,’ as Philip Mason puts it.[Kipling: The Glass, The Shadow and the Fire (London 1975) p. 310. ]
And clearly, for all its loud-mouthed, even knockabout qualities, the writing in Stalky & Co. is on a very different level from that of other school stories (as it could hardly fail to be, coming from Kipling’s hand). Edmund Wilson called it `from the artistic point of view, certainly the worst of Kipling’s books: crude in writing, trashy in feeling, implausible in a series of contrivances that resemble moving picture “gags” ‘ [Kipling’s Mind and Art, p.23.] But his dislike of it made Wilson blind to some of Kipling’s finest descriptions of natural scenery (the sea, above all) and a fluent, intensely observant style that is anything but crude in its use of detail and of certain aspects of boy behaviour, seen not exactly from boy-level but with a persuasive understanding of boy nature.
Of course Stalky & Co. was selective, as public school itself was selective in taking boys out of their natural surroundings and subjecting them to one of the most artificial disciplines and rule-ridden systems ever devised as a training of the young. It took, as school took, only certain parts of a boy’s nature, spirit, and personality. The domestic, the familial, the feminine, the humdrum, everyday, uncompetitive aspects of his being were all discarded and life was lived in dramatic, highly charged, competitive circumstances where keeping one’s end up mattered supremely and the lonely, uncomfortable eminence, the responsibilities and urgencies and decisions that would be part of an administrative or military life in the empire (or indeed anywhere else in the world, away from home) were all foreshadowed.
School was like that, in Kipling’s day, and Stalky & Co. reflected the reality. Self-respect, a proud reserve, a decent degree of loyalty, keeping one’s mouth shut when necessary: these counted. “If..” put it all (and rather more, morally speaking) into phrases that have been hated (because seized upon by the wrong people) or loved (when they have no such barnacles of feeling attached to them). The selectiveness of Stalky & Co., like the moral selectiveness of “If..”, was a direct result of the age – its taboos, its restrictions, even its schools – but because Kipling’s gifts always took him, sometimes despite himself, beyond these restrictions, his pin-hole view of the world from Stalky & Co. opened out on to an immense panorama of life and experience beyond school: asking questions, giving answers. ` “Prove it,” said the Infant. And I have!’ These are the book’s last words, Kipling’s truculent, triumphant boast that he had made his point, that what he called rather oddly his `tracts’ and `parables’ (the words have religious overtones, of course) indeed proved all kinds of things about the nature of his society, even the future world as it was going to be.
Stalky himself is interesting as a period piece, though not attractive to modern readers; or rather, as heroic material, unacceptable today. It took an empire not just to contain him but to provide scope for his energy and qualities. When he first appeared, many people refused to accept the idea of such a man (for one has always to think of him as an adult, at least in importance and intention) being not merely useful but indispensible to the Empire. Hence some at least of the outcry. `The Stalky ethos was raw, practical, and unsentimental,’ Janet Adam Smith writes, `and it shocked a good many patriots and loyal Old Boys.’ Newbolt, she says, `celebrates the solitary hero, honourable and brave . . . Kipling celebrates the ingenious and crafty hero, working with others in a vividly realised situation-to do his job. Newbolt’s poetical heroes tend to die, nobly; Kipling’s prose ones to survive, craftily. Kipling’s were more use to the Empire.’ [See her essay “Boy of Letters”, in Rudyard Kipling: the Man, his Work and his World, ed. John Gross (London 1972) pp. 16-17]
Fictional or factual, Stalky also needed the imperial world to survive in, its ideas and attitudes to uphold his behaviour. The very adjective `imperial’ applies to him because to function at all such a man needs devoted followers, childlike admirers to whom he seems godlike, unquestionably right. At school, the study-sharers provide (as a rule, and on the whole) this ungrudging approval and obedience. Later, his Sikhs do the same: to them, he is `an invulnerable Guru’. Now a guru is oracular and mysterious, a numinous presence with almost miraculous powers; he is not a power-sharer, a consulter of others. In other words – though the words are too modern for the context – he is in no way a democrat. Devious, circuitous, cunning Stalky may be, but he never really gives way. Impossible to imagine him in committee, with give and take, discussion, bargaining. Disliking authority, he is a sharp adversary to those above him, as well as an autocrat, kindly but immoveable, to those below. His nature is suited to war, or the occupation of a hostile country, or guerilla tactics; not to everyday life, peace, domesticity, the prosy, law-abiding present.
Perhaps T. E. Lawrence was the last full-scale Stalky, and to him as to other Stalkies retirement from violent action and leadership proved a pathetic anti-climax. Others, more obscure, were thrown up by the Second World War, and peacetime cramped, even crippled their spirits after it. Today such men have no place, no devoted followers or blind admirers, certainly no simple Other Ranks to idolize them. Just as the schoolboy hero declined from the attractive, merry, unintellectual Tom Brown to the thick-headed louts of the later school stories, who actively hated intellectual pursuits and debagged the aesthete or the artist whenever they had a chance to; so the exuberant Stalky characters of fiction declined into the ugly right-wing toughs who were Sapper’s heroes, and in real life today’s Stalkies have dwindled into the pathetic mercenaries who turn to dubious causes for adventure and gain. The century which began with so dashing a future for them, so broad a world in which they could operate, has no place for them now.
With Stalky, M‘Turk and the others, Kipling-Beetle was at school over a hundred years ago. Clearly one cannot apply today’s attitudes to ideas and behaviour of the eighteen-eighties, and because Stalky’s attitudes may seem to foreshadow those of today’s right, as those of his headmaster, Kipling’s beloved `Uncle Crom’, foreshadowed those of the left (this should not be forgotten) it does not mean that either can be judged by modern criteria. Kipling was conjuring a world where many of our ideas had little place, and the qualities that world nurtured may seem largely irrelevant to ours. Yet in his day they seemed self-evidently valuable and desirable, and he put them forward without self-consciousness in “If..”. Light-heartedly though seriously, Stalky & Co. put them forward as well, in a rather more indirect form, and festooned with a few others less admirable, more high-spirited (gloating, rough justice, and revenge).
Steven Marcus has described well the modern reader’s dilemma when faced with such a world, and such apparently superseded qualities:
The point to be grasped [he writes] is that among and alongside all these bad attitudes which seem calculated to outrage the values that most educated people today affirm – values which can be roughly summed up in the term liberal democracy – there exist other attitudes and values whose absence from contemporary life we all feel and are probably the worse for. The values are described by obsolete words like honor, truthfulness, loyalty, manliness, pride, straightforwardness, courage, self-sacrifice, and heroism. That these virtues exist as active and credible possibilities in the world of Stalky & Co., and that they seem not to in ours – or, if they do, appear almost solely in corrupted forms – must give us pause. Such a fact may serve to remind us that the moral benefits, conveniences, and superiorities of modem domestic societies have not been acquired without cost. Part of this cost seems pretty clearly to have been paid by a diminution in the older masculine virtues … In the moral life of history there are apparently no gains without losses. Few books urge us to confront this contradiction more barely and boldly than Stalky & Co.. [Introduction to Stalky & Co.. (New York, 1962), reprinted in Kipling and the Critics, ed. Elliot L. Gilbert (New York, 1965), p. 152.]
Isabel Quigly, 1987.