Kipling’s style

Stalky & Co (1899) is the first of his books which has made me actively dislike Kipling. Like most Kipling prose books it’s a series of short stories, this time set in a minor public school where Stalky, Beetle and M’Turk are the teenage heroes of various scrapes and japes. I’ll examine at a short passage from the story ‘Regulus’ to try and explain some of the reasons why I disliked it.

The story

In the boys’ Latin class Beetle gave another boy, Winton, the wrong translation of the word delubris. When Winton uses it in class the Latin teacher tells him off. As the boys exit the classroom Winton takes his revenge:

‘Why did you tell me delubris was “deluges,” you silly ass?’ said Winton.
‘Look out, you hoof-handed old owl!’ Winton had cleared for action as the Form poured out like puppies at play and was scragging Beetle. Stalky from behind collared Winton low. The three fell in confusion.
Dis te minorem quod geris imperas ,’ quoth Stalky, ruffling Winton’s lint-white locks. ‘Mustn’t jape with Number Five study. Don’t be too virtuous. Don’t brood over it. ‘Twon’t count against you in your future caree-ah.’
‘Pull him off my — er — essential guts, will you?’ said Beetle from beneath. ‘He’s squashin’ ’em.’
They dispersed to their studies.


What does Kipling’s style tell us?

1. The characters, the schoolboys, use Victorian schoolboy slang – silly ass, hoof-handed old owl etc. Fair enough. It’s the narratorial style I’m interested in:

2. ‘Winton had cleared for action’ – is an abbreviated way of saying ‘as the boys left the classroom Winton cleared a space around him in which to attack Beetle’.

3. ‘…and was scragging Beetle…’ scrag is schoolboy slang, but its inclusion in the same sentence makes that sentence dense with information. It is very compressed, too compressed to understand easily.

4. ‘Stalky from behind collared Winton low.’ Again, this is very abbreviated: presumably this means Stalky attacked, jumped on or tackled Winton, but you have to work on it for a second to get clear in your mind what it means. This pause to register also happens throughout Kipling’s novel, Captains Courageous, which made it a very glutinous read.

5. ‘The three fell in confusion.’ You can imagine this being amusingly expanded by a different writer. Probably they went down in a confusion of arms and legs, formed a squirming, punching mass on the floor etc. Untold elaborations of the situation could have been developed. All are rejected by Kipling, who prefers to use a phrase clipped to an uncomfortable extent.

6. ‘Dis te minorem quod geris imperas,’ Fair enough, they’ve just come out of Latin lesson.

7. ‘quoth Stalky.’ Why ‘quoth’? Said, shouted, quoted, expostulated, yelled. Of all possible words why choose one which my dictionary categorises as archaic? Because the boys like quoting – in fact live to a large extent by quoting – rags and tags they’ve come across, Latin tags, quotes from favourite books (lots of Surtees is quoted in the earlier stories; an entire story, The United Idolaters, is based around the fad for quoting the Brer Rabbit stories), arcane and out-of-the-way vocabulary. The point is that Kipling the narrator is using the same style as the boys, deliberately using archaic or quoted phrases. Why? What effect does it have? Two, I think:

a. It means the narrator’s style is aping his subjects’ style. The effect is to make Kipling complicit in, and embedded part of the world, he is describing. An accomplice to its values. The struggle in his stories is rarely between evenly matched opponents. We know Kipling is on the side of Mrs Hawksbee, the soldiers three or Mowgli a) in terms of action or plot, but b) also in terms of style.

b. Looked at from another perspective, it tends to show that Kipling can’t escape from this boyish point-of-view into adult detachment. (Another element: The Bible was thrashed into him as a boy and Biblical quotes and phraseology are all over his prose like chicken pox. The effect is rarely to add  to his prose depth or resonance, as quotations in other authors might, but to hold it back.) My argument is that such quotations reflect a kind of flight from adulthood, an inability or refusal to write plain English prose as commonly written or understood by people of his time. Given a choice between a) writing a simple declarative sentence which accurately explains what is going on or b) either i) quoting from the Bible or another archaic source or ii) using a clipped or compressed phrase, often slang or technical cant – Kipling always opts for strategy ii.

Kipling’s style is not good at explaining what is going on nor at describing things. I think he’s a terrible stylist. I’ve repeatedly had to turn for help to the excellent Reader’s Guide to Kipling just to understand what’s going on in many of the stories. Important facts, key turning points, moral cruxes are obscured, underplayed or hidden by his compulsive need to compress or obliquify.

8. ‘ruffling Winton’s lint-white locks.’ The boys are fighting. This phrase is schoolboy understatement made of two parts: the gentle, playsome verb ‘ruffling’ is chosen as deliberate irony because the boys are punching and fighting. ‘Lint-white locks’ is, again, ironic, but in a different way; i) a namby-pamby poetic phrase ii) focusing on a side detail unconnected with the actual fight going on. Both are distracting tactics or dislocations, understating and avoiding the reality of the violent fight. Why? Because Kipling assumes his ideal reader will share – or his style coerces the reader into sharing – the same understated schoolboy irony as the boys. We are pushed towards not only witnessing the action but sharing in the values of the participants. But I don’t share their public schoolboy values or tone or terminology, and I resent being coerced into doing so.

9. “‘Mustn’t jape with Number Five study. Don’t be too virtuous. Don’t brood over it. ‘Twon’t count against you in your future caree-ah.” Stalky’s dialogue emphasises that even in the midst of a violent fight the boys don’t lose their addiction to elaborate phraseology and deliberately stylised pronunciation. There is a buried message here and in all similar situations – where a character remains loyal to verbal elaborations even in the middle of crises – which links to the ideological strand in Kipling portraying English public schoolmen as keeping their heads when all around lose theirs. Drake finishing his game of bowls before the Armada etc.

10. “‘Pull him off my — er — essential guts, will you?” Use of ‘essential’ here is – presumably – either a quote or a fancy elaboration of speech of the kind the schoolboys delight and compete in. Fair enough. As dialogue it is consistent with their characters and values.

11. ‘said Beetle from beneath.’ Again, the reader could have done with just a tad of elaboration and explanation. When you consider it, this sentence has been pared back to the absolute minimum. Why? It’s connected in strategy to the abrupt final phrase, ‘They dispersed to their studies.’ That ends the whole sequence in the short story which is followed by a break in the text. The entire resolution of the fight, how the boys get to their feet, brush themselves down, whether they shake hands or threaten each other – all of this is omitted. We have no idea what happens. Kipling skips it all.

The absolute bare minimum of information is given. Why? Because chaps don’t blab. Whenever any of the trio begin ‘prosing’, one of the others is liable to kick them under the table. And they immediately shut up. Shutting up is a key element of this brutal schoolboy world. And Kipling’s prose narrative echoes the schoolboy code of clipped understatement.


I’ve used this short excerpt to show that, in my opinion, Kipling’s style:

1. enacts and reinforces the amoral public school values of his protagonists

2. coerces the reader, more or less overtly, to take their part, to sympathise with those values

3. goes to some lengths to avoid being a responsive, adult, freestanding style. Instead of simply describing what is there Kipling will use

a. Biblical quotes

b. Literary quotes

c. Schoolboy or military or technical slang

d. Schoolboy understatement

BUT in my opinion, this ethic of manly (or adolescent) understatement seriously cripples Kipling’s style. It means for long stretches there is really nothing to enjoy in his style, except registering the quotes and the brevity. The brevity doesn’t add to the resonance or meaning, as it does in Hemingway: the less said, the more implied. Instead it makes things less interesting to read and sometimes so obscure you don’t know what’s happening. The less said, the less… said.

A detail to add, here. The first sentence of The United Idolaters is, ‘His name was Brownell and his reign was brief.’ This is describing the arrival of a new teacher (I refuse to write ‘master’ since this is to begin to accept the values and world of these posh people). But we are describing a teacher. He doesn’t reign. Using the word reign is an exaggeration. Seeing a teacher’s authority as a (monarchical) reign is to see it from the schoolboys’ point of view, to place vast importance and significance onto something which is utterly trivial beyond the school gate or even in the teachers’ common room. So sometimes Kipling will knowingly, mockingly exaggerate for affect, as well.

e. schoolboy exaggeration

There are other aspects as well which I don’t have space to list. Almost all of them have one thing in common which is they are evasions of telling the thing as it is; they are habits of a mind which is incapable of accepting things straight, but must forever be seeking archaisms, Bible phrases or stories, exaggeration or understatement, avoiding what is there. Is embarrassed by simple statement. Is always hiding, concealing, ironising.

And in Stalky & Co you can see laid bare the sources of this ‘style’ in the coterie mentality, the exclusive slang and verbal mannerisms, and in the amoral sense of superiority of an extremely narrow class of emotionally stunted English public schoolboys.

And, as Kipling makes clear in Stalky, these are the stunted, oblique boys who became the men who went out to run the Empire on which the Sun Never Set… but which they were eventually forced to hand back to its owners.

Other Kipling reviews

Allan’s Wife and Other Tales by Henry Rider Haggard (1889)

29 July 2012

Allan’s Wife and Other Tales is a collection of stories by Henry Rider Haggard about his African hunter hero, Allan Quatermain. The title story is by far the longest, describing Allan’s childhood, upbringing in Africa, and meeting with his wife, and is accompanied by three genuinely short stories, Hunter Quartermain’s Story, A Tale of Three Lions, and Long Odds. They were published separately in magazines in the first flush of Haggard’s success, then collected in this volume.

Allan’s Wife (1889) is a moving account of Quatermain’s sad English childhood (when his mother and three siblings die of fever his father emigrates to South Africa), robust African upbringing, and the adventures which lead to his marriage. Unlike Kipling’s often forced and exhausting knowledgeableness, Haggard’s familiarity with guns and hunting, the South African landscape, and the customs and language of Zulus, Masai, Boers etc comes over clearly and convincingly. Apart from the main narrative arc about Quatermain’s meeting, wooing and wedding his wife, Stella, there are two striking features:

The African medicine man, Indaba-zimbi, accompanies Quatermain from early in his adventures and establishes himself as a voice of ancestral African wisdom, giving good advice and performing miraculous magic at key moments. Their first meeting at a competition with his rival to draw down lightning from an electrical storm is pretty dramatic. Repeatedly he says you white men are clever, but you don’t know everything. Thus, as in all the Quatermain stories, a black African is a key figure, representing wisdom, dignity, cunning and endurance.

The baboon lady Key to the plot is the notion that Allan’s wife-to-be, Stella, and her father, years earlier, had rescued a woman, Hendrika, who’d been captured as a baby and brought up by baboons and who, as a result, had extraordinary climbing skills and could communicate with the baboons (rather like Mowgli the man-cub can communicate with wolves and all the other jungle animals in the Jungle Books). This unexpectedly turns out to be the trigger for the crisis of the story, when she and her baboon army kidnap Stella and take her off to a cave in the hills.

As a footnote, it’s worth pointing out that, even here, there is a Lost World since Stella and her father, deep in inaccessible Africa, have reinhabited mysterious marble houses which they found abandoned by some previous, highly sophisticated, culture. In fact, though short, Allan’s Wife, packs in a load of the tropes and types of incident which made Haggard’s reputation.

Illustration of Quatermain finding his wife in the cave

Maiwa’s revenge, or The War of The Little Hand by Henry Rider Haggard (1888)

28 July 2012

Maiwa’s Revenge is the third Allan Quatermain novel (in order of writing), and an innovation in the series in that is a) short b) set within a frame narrative – Quatermain is on a shoot at his Yorkshire home with friends and, after bagging three woodcock in flight is persuaded to tell the story of how he bagged three elephants on one hunt. This anecdote leads on to a bigger story which Quatermain tells in the first person in the same fast-moving conversational style as the previous books.

Once again, as in KSM and AQ, the core of the story is the white man bringing war and slaughter to an African kingdom. Quatermain decides to go hunting into the interior of Natal. He pushes on into uncharted territory in pursuit of buffalo, and then is charged by a rhinoceros, only just escaping. On the basis of this feat local villagers ask if he can rid them of three giant elephants which are eating their crop. Again, Quatermain manages to kill all three, though only after some dicey moments. As his natives are cutting the ivory tusks from the dead elephants, a statuesque native girl appears. This is Maiwa and she explains that the area is ruled by the Matuku tribe, led by the wicked Wambe, who lord it over their neighbour tribe, the Butiana, led by the timorous king Nala. Maiwa was coerced into leaving her native Butiana to go and be married to Wambe, since when he has beaten her and then, when her baby by the king was eighteen months old, he brutally killed it by putting it in the “thing that bites”, a steel lion trap. the baby’s hand was severed and Maiwa has kept it ever since as a gruesome spur to revenge.

Now she has fled Wambe’s kraal and come to Quatermain with her tale of woe, carrying a message from a white man, John Every, who Wambe has held prisoner for seven years. In every way, then, Quatermain is incentivised and justified in leading a Butiana attack on Wambe’s heavily defended camp, against overwhelming odds, and attack he does! It is a glorious goulash of imperial cliches:

Thoughts Once again a white man entering an African kingdom brings war and death on a large scale. In all three narratives Quatermain’s arrival prompts civil war and the eventual triumph of his (White) side.  Haggard always makes sure the wars are elaborately justified; that they are righting egregious wrongs: the cruel tyrant Twala is not the rightful king; the cruel queen Sorais is trying to murder her sister; the cruel tyrant Wambe is, er, a cruel tyrant.

1. Forget the sexism or the (surprisingly mild) racism, the repeated message of Haggard’s books is that the White Man is justified in intervening in native affairs, in fighting small colonial wars to establish Peace and Security, to set his choice of king or queen upon the throne to ensure the territory becomes safe for White hunting and trading.

2. And the second message is in the medium itself: his prose is amazingly supple and fluid for the time; compare and contrast with the denser, slower style of literary writers such as Hardy or Conrad or Henry James. Haggard’s prose style itself conveys the attitude of derring-do, stiff upper lip, and thrills and excitement, especially in fast-moving battle scenes. Generations of boys must have been inspired to go off to Britain’s umpteen small colonial wars their heads full of Haggard’s thrilling, vivid descriptions.

“There too on the wall stood Maiwa, a white garment streaming from her shoulders, an assegai in her hand, her breast heaving, her eyes flashing. Above all the din of battle I could catch the tones of her clear voice as she urged the soldiers on to victory. But victory was not yet. Wambe’s soldiers gathered themselves together, and bore our men back by the sheer weight of numbers. They began to give, then once more they rallied, and the fight hung doubtfully.

“‘Slay, you war-whelps,’ cried Maiwa from the wall. ‘Are you afraid, you women, you chicken-hearted women! Strike home, or die like dogs! What—you give way! Follow me, children of Nala.’ And with one long cry she leapt from the wall as leaps a stricken antelope, and holding the spear poised rushed right into the thickest of the fray.

“The warriors saw her, and raised such a shout that it echoed like thunder against the mountains. They massed together, and following the flutter of her white robe crashed into the dense heart of the foe. Down went the Matuku before them like trees before a whirlwind. Nothing could stand in the face of such a rush as that. It was as the rush of a torrent bursting its banks. All along their line swept the wild desperate charge; and there, straight in the forefront of the battle, still waved the white robe of Maiwa.”

As a 21st century adult I am conflicted; the pleasure of the text derives from the schoolboy mentality it embodies and enforces; the battle scenes are thrilling; the stakes are black and white. But since Haggard’s innocent times we’ve had over a century of grotesque wars, starting with the Boer War and going rapidly downhill thereafter. If you stop to consider the bloodshed at the core of all of these stories, the grown-up in you can’t help but be appalled.

Illustration of Allan Quatermain (centre) following bearers carrying ivory down to the coast at the triumphal conclusion of ‘Maiwa’s Revenge’

Frank Kiely @ the Menier Gallery

27 July 2012

To the Menier Gallery on Southwark Street – part of the converted Menier Chocolate Factory, a lovely Victorian building which also houses a bar and restaurant and theatre. The small, light and airy gallery is showing an exhibition of prints by Irish artist Frank Kiely.

He makes prints, mostly of London scenes, based on photographs which he then redraws, thus combining figurative accuracy with an appealing craft element.

His sister showed me round the exhibition, explaining the process of screenprinting and pointing out the many little jokes smuggled into the prints such as the one with a lot of frogs hidden in it, or the frequent references to his three year-old son, Pablo.

All the prints are on sale, some from a few hundred pounds, the big ones for one to two grand.

Chatting with Frank’s sister, I decided I liked the ones which are black and white except for just one coloured object (some have a number of colorised elements). Often these are cars, though there are also buses, a concrete mixer or static objects. The colour draws your eye to the featured image and the best prints all had in common that the image was a) more or less central and b) itself a handsome or striking object and c) rendered in detail. Some of the buses or cars didn’t quite justify the weight put on them by the pictures. But plenty did, like these lovely phone boxes in Leicester Square.

Leicester Square by Frank Kiely

The Joy of Sets or, the Allan Quatermain stories

26 July 2012

What is better than a series of novels which lets you follow the adventures of one or more protagonists over time and space, watching them age and change, and letting you link up scattered incidents to create a fulfilling alternative universe? In our time I’m aware of the Harry Potter series, the Mortal Engines series, the Twilight series, A Series of Unfortunate Events, and there must be hundreds of others, especially if you include detective series like Ian Rankin’s Rebus series or the VI Warshawski series.

After his debut in King Solomon’s Mines (1885), Rider Haggard’s African hunter hero, Allan Quatermain went on to feature in over a dozen novels and short stories. There’s a close parallel with Sherlock Holmes who made his first appearance in the novella A Study In Scarlet in 1887 and went on to appear in three further novels and fifty-six short stories. Holmes’s last appearance was in a 1927 short story, The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place, his publishing history thus spanning 40 years; while Quatermain’s last appearance was also in 1927, in Allan and the Ice-gods, pipping Holmes with a career of 42 years.

As with another series I’m exploring, James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking series, the new reader to Quatermain faces a bit of a conundrum – whether to read the stories in the order they were published in order to experience the author’s changing style and skill – or in the fictional chronology of the character’s life.

The excellent Wikipedia article lists the AQ stories by order of events in the hero’s life, with publication dates in brackets, helping you organise whichever option you choose.

Date            Text
1817                 Birth of Allan Quatermain

1835–1838   Marie (1912)
1842–1843  “Allan’s Wife”, title story in the collection Allan’s Wife (1887)
1854–1856   Child of Storm (1913)
1858                “A Tale of Three Lions”, included in the collection Allan’s Wife (1887)
1859                Maiwa’s Revenge: or, The War of the Little Hand (1888)
1868               “Hunter Quatermain’s Story”, in the collection Allan’s Wife (1887)
1869               “Long Odds”, included in the collection Allan’s Wife (1887)
1870               The Holy Flower (1915)
1871                Heu-heu: or, The Monster (1924)
1872                She and Allan (1920)
1873               The Treasure of the Lake (1926)
1874               The Ivory Child (1916)
1879               Finished (1917)
1879               “Magepa the Buck”, included in the collection Smith and the Pharaohs (1920)
1880               King Solomon’s Mines (1885)
1882               The Ancient Allan (1920)
1883               Allan and the Ice-gods (1927)
1884–1885 Allan Quatermain (1887)

18 June 85   Death of Allan Quatermain

But whichever option you choose you’ll have a problem trying to track down editions of these old books. As usual with older literature (and music), Haggard’s one or two greatest hits (King Solomon’s Mines and She) are available in countless editions, cheap or scholarly, but wander a few feet from the common highway and you are among thorns. There does appear to be one uniform edition of the complete Quatermain novels, by a small publisher, the Leonaur press, though a little pricey. You can, however, download them as Kindle texts from Amazon, or from the excellent Project Gutenberg Rider Haggard site.

Allan Quatermain by Henry Rider Haggard (1887)

24 July 2012

Clutching the book, perched on the edge of my seat, I read on, enthralled by the heroic description of the brave Zulu Umslopogaas defending the entrance to the Palace of the Sun as the priests of the lost civilisation of Zu-Vendi try to storm it in order to kill the sacriligeous Queen Nyleptha who has fallen hopelessly in love with the English hero Sir Henry Curtis, who is away leading her army against that of her rival queen – and rival for his affections – Queen Sorais. Yes – it’s another ripping yarn from the pen of the inimitable Henry Rider Haggard!

After the phenomenal success of King Solomon’s Mines (1885), Haggard went on to write over 60 adventure novels, 14 or so featuring his hunter hero, Allan Quatermain.

Allan Quatermain‘, the sequel to the Mines, opens sombrely with a preface dwelling on the tragic death of Allan’s son, a promising medical student who dies suddenly of smallpox. Aged 63 (!) Allan’s life loses its meaning. He realises he’s fed up of living in Yorkshire off the diamond money. He agrees with his old pals Sir Henry Curtis and Captain Good that they need to return to Africa, to experience the wide open spaces, to go on an adventure.

“After all, as Mr Mackenzie said, it was odd that three men, each of whom possessed many of those things that are supposed to make life worth living — health, sufficient means, and position, etc. — should from their own pleasure start out upon a wild-goose chase, from which the chances were they never would return. But then that is what Englishmen are, adventurers to the backbone; and all our magnificent muster-roll of colonies, each of which will in time become a great nation, testify to the extraordinary value of the spirit of adventure which at first sight looks like a mild form of lunacy. ‘Adventurer’ — he that goes out to meet whatever may come. Well, that is what we all do in the world one way or another, and, speaking for myself, I am proud of the title, because it implies a brave heart and a trust in Providence.”

Some of the ingredients of the boys own adventure are in this quote:

  1. Patriotic flattery: gosh, aren’t we Englishmen spiffing!
  2. Boyish irresponsibility: of the three adventurers none of them has a wife, and Allan is the only one who had a son and he has been conveniently eliminated. They are footloose, and one of the flatteries the genre performs is to persuade its (male) reader that, if only he didn’t have all the entanglements of wife, children, mortgage, job then he, too, would light out for some corking adventure, braving underground rivers, hordes of attacking natives, and nefarious palace plots!

Once again there is a Quest (cooked up from nothing, a half-baked effort to see if rumours about a white race living in central Africa really are true); again there’s an underground sequence as their canoe is sucked into an underground river, a harrowing trip which lasts for days! Again there’s a Lost Civilisation (turns out the white race does exist) with astonishing architectural and artistic achievements to its credit. There are two gorgeous joint queens (happily for all male readers, rather scantily clad), and a wicked Priest, Agon, who’s jealous of our heroes.

Once again there’s an enormous battle: in King Solomon’s Mines the true king, Umbopa, raises an army which battles forces loyal to the cruel king Twala. The numbers are huge, 60,000 or more. In Allan Quatermain once again, the arrival of the whites leads directly to a massive civil war, after the two joint queens both fall in love with the super-manly Henry Curtis. The slaughter is gruesome and intense. This violence bothers me more than the ludicrous sexism or occasional racism of his texts.

And the hunting. I know the character is a hunter but still, the wanton slaughter of elephants, lions, giraffes, hippopotami and antelope turns my stomach. I’d hazard a guess that that’s the biggest change since Haggard’s day: sexism and racism continue endemic elements of the human condition, but big game hunting is no longer an acceptable sport.

Apparently Haggard referred to the necessity of grip in telling a yarn, the quality which captures our attention in a romance, a yarn, a thriller, the quality people are thinking of when they say they are hooked. And, faults of style or plotting or outdated attitudes notwithstanding, Haggard’s yarns have plenty of grip and, in its closing pages, no shortage of pathos. I welled up at the end. I’ve come to really like Quatermain and I want to read more about him. I am, in short, hooked!

Jacket illustration of ‘Allan Quatermain’

Dickens and the Artists @ The Watts Gallery

The Watts Gallery in the little village of Compton, 3 miles west of Guildford, is dedicated to the memory of the Victorian artist George Frederic Watts (1817-1904). Originally built as a pottery workshop by his energetic wife during the 1890s, a long single-storey building with striking green tiled window arches, the building was converted into a gallery in the artist’s memory after his death. In the late noughties it was closed for a thorough restoration and reopened in June 2011.

Photo of the exterior of the Watts Gallery, Compton

As well as hosting a permanent collection of Watts’s paintings and sculpture the gallery puts on temporary exhibitions. All this summer, in the bicentenary year of Charles Dickens’ birth, it’s hosting an exhibition titled ‘Dickens and the Artists’ (on until 28 October).

First point is this exhibition does not include the illustrations to his novels. Shame. That would be a hilarious and fascinating and memory-jogging thing to see. Fascinating to see how the illustrations evolved and developed from Pickwick to Drood, to see the differences in style between the various illustrators; hilarious to be reminded of so many comic moments from the novels. But no…

Instead you get some of the many portraits of CD painted during his lifetime, a small number of paintings of scenes from his novels (of Little Nell, alone or with her grandfather) and two big, well-known paintings which represent Victorian taste for anecdote and social realism in painting – William Powell Frith’s Railway Station and Luke Fildes’ Applicants For Admission To A Casual Ward.

Various authorities are lined up to support the claim that Dickens’ work is uniquely painterly in concept and depiction. But I think this is wrong. a) Dickens had far more to do with the stage than with the static art of painting. Countless scenes from the novels owe everything to Victorian melodrama, especially the heightened scenes of terror and murder to be found in Oliver, Nickleby, Chuzzlewit. Dickens never painted anything but he was famous for putting on and starring in amateur theatricals throughout his life, and openly lamented not having become an actor. Dickens novels have far more to do with the Victorian stage in their gothic melodrama, sickening sentimentality, farcical humour and clunky plots. In fact, what the exhibition highlights is how few, how very few paintings any Victorian painter made of any scene from a Dickens novel. (The catalogue says there exist some 170 listed works from the start of his fame in about 1840 up till 1900 ie 3 a year. Not a lot given Dickens’s towering reputation). This is because the novels aren’t painterly; they are melodramatic in content and quintessentially verbal in their power.

b) The catalogue to the exhibition highlights various moments in his life when Dickens expressed opinions about art and it is crystal clear that his whole conception of art was very limited, almost incomprehensibly limited compared to a our 21st century view. In fact one of the main rewards of the exhibition is forcing you to drill back into the Victorian age’s idea of art, leaving behind the whole revolution of modern art, leaving behind conceptual art, installations, video art, modernism, expressionism, surrealism, impressionism, drilling right back to an era when all art was figurative and the main debating points were i) whether the artist had chosen an appropriate moment to depict from the well-known myth or historical incident or novel, and ii) having chosen it, whether they had depicted it with force and vividness. The combination of appropriate subject, properly handled, comprised Beauty. That’s it.

And when Dickens’ sense of what was a fitting subject or a fitting way to depict it was offended he became very upset indeed. His most famous comment on Victorian art is the article he wrote in 1850 denouncing pre-Raphaelite paintings included in that’s year’s Royal Academy show – ‘Old Lamps for New Ones‘:

“You come in this Royal Academy Exhibition, which is familiar with the works of WILKIE, COLLINS, ETTY, EASTLAKE, MULREADY, LESLIE, MACLISE, TURNER, STANFIELD, LANDSEER, ROBERTS, DANBY, CRESWICK, LEE, WEBSTER, HERBERT, DYCE, COPE, and others who would have been renowned as great masters in any age or country you come, in this place, to the contemplation of a Holy Family. You will have the goodness to discharge from your minds all Post-Raphael ideas, all religious aspirations, all elevating thoughts, all tender, awful, sorrowful, ennobling, sacred, graceful, or beautiful associations, and to prepare yourselves, as befits such a subject Pre-Raphaelly considered for the lowest depths of what is mean, odious, repulsive, and revolting. “

Dickens is incensed by John Everett Millais’ painting ‘Christ in the House of His Parents’.

Christ in the House of His Parents by John Everett Millais (1850)

“You behold the interior of a carpenter’s shop. In the foreground of that carpenter’s shop is a hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-headed boy, in a bed-gown, who appears to have received a poke in the hand, from the stick of another boy with whom he has been playing in an adjacent gutter, and to be holding it up for the contemplation of a kneeling woman, so horrible in her ugliness, that (supposing it were possible for any human creature to exist for a moment with that dislocated throat) she would stand out from the rest of the company as a Monster, in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest ginshop in England. Two almost naked carpenters, master and journeyman, worthy companions of this agreeable female, are working at their trade; a boy, with some small flavor of humanity in him, is entering with a vessel of water; and nobody is paying any attention to a snuffy old woman who seems to have mistaken that shop for the tobacconist’s next door, and to be hopelessly waiting at the counter to be served with half an ounce of her favourite mixture. Wherever it is possible to express ugliness of feature, limb, or attitude, you have it expressed. Such men as the carpenters might be undressed in any hospital where dirty drunkards, in a high state of varicose veins, are received. Their very toes have walked out of Saint Giles’s.”

Because it is Dickens, the review is wonderfully spirited: all his tricks are here: pounding repetition, exuberant description, brilliant pen portraits, sarcasm and exaggeration. And then a hilarious flight of Swiftian satire looking forward to the launch of a Pre-Perspective Brotherhood which rejects the tedious convention of perspective,  to be followed by a Pre-Newtonian Brotherhood which rejects gravity, a Pre-Galileo Brotherhood which denies that the earth goes round the sun, and so on.

His demolition of Millais is entirely characteristic. It echoes the scorn he poured on the reams of religious art he saw in his Pictures From Italy a few years earlier, in 1846. In Art with a capital A he expected to see only the finest moments from religion, history or fiction depicted in an idealised manner. He considered the Hemicycle by Paul Delaroche to be “the greatest work of art in the world”.

Central section of the Hémicycle, 1841–1842 bu Paul Delaroche

Anything less than this Ideal of Beauty Dickens dismissed, sometimes angrily. And as to the connoisseurship and scholarship surrounding art, instead of exploring it, Dickens found it an entertaining target for his satire, or worse. As Nicholas Penny’s essay in the catalogue makes clear, when a Dickens character like art it is always a bad sign; an indication that they are too rich, too selfish and too introspective, like Sir Leicester Dedlock in Bleak House; or are a cold-hearted villain, like Carker in Dombey and Son. There is only one artist in all Dicken’s works, the bullying, spongeing, failed artist, Henry Gowan in Little Dorrit.

In a philistine age, Dickens was a philistine. As in his politics, so in his feelings about art, he shared the common tastes and prejudices of the time. Dickens’ characters inspired remarkably little serious art in their day (book illustrations by the thousand; paintings by ‘serious’ artists, not so many); Dickens himself liked mediocre Academy art and reacted badly to the new, innovatory movements of his day. He was much more at home with the book illustrators who made cartoons of his gargoyles and grotesques.

And Dickens’ work is not painterly; it is wonderfully, bountifully, exuberantly melodramatic, sentimental and above all verbal, literary, made of words.

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King Solomon’s Mines by Henry Rider Haggard (1885)

20 July 2012

Henry Rider Haggard, age 29, was on a train journey with his brother. He was back in England after a five years’ sojourn in South Africa and the two were discussing the merits of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, still wildly popular after its publication in 1883. Henry says, “Oh there’s nothing special about the book, really.” His brother says, “Well I bet you five bob you can’t write something better.” So Henry sat down and wrote King Solomon’s Mines in 12 weeks, for a bet. It was published in 1887 by Cassels, the same firm who had published Treasure Island, and has gone on to become one of the great classics of adventure fiction, and one of the great bestsellers, of all time.

Reading King Solomon’s Mines in 2012 is rewarding on a number of levels:

Identifying with the hero At the simplest level it’s a boy’s own adventure, full of thrills and spills designed to test and exercise and reassure the white adolescent male reader: the men are strong and heroic; they survive extreme physical tests; they triumph against overwhelming odds; some natives are trustworthy unto death; others are cruel savages who must be tamed; there are no white women (‘petticoats’ as Haggard calls them) to distract our heroes; though there are plenty of ‘preposessing’ and scantily clad African maidens! There is treasure beyond counting! Vicariously, the reader experiences all these excitements, and triumphs and lives.

It is fiction at its most primitive: total identification with the Hero Who Overcomes.

The gang Except there isn’t just one hero; it is about a gang with attractive attributes distributed among them. Thus the (male) reader can choose whether to identify with Quatermain, experienced, self-deprecating; Henry Curtis, a lion of man, the pick of the white race, a heroic Englishman; Captain Good, a comedy figure, running to fat, wearing his comedy eyeglass, eternally fussing about his clothes and with a weakness for the fairer sex; or the brave and physically superb Zulu, Umbopa. For some reason the combination of the plucky with the comic, and the idea of a small group of heroes,  reminds me of Tintin (and also because the plot hinges on our heroes impressing the natives by predicting a solar eclipse, as Tintin does in ‘Prisoners of the Sun‘).

The Plot On board ship to Durban, South Africa, Quatermain, an ageing but hardy African hunter, is introduced to a giant of a man, Sir Henry Curtis and his ex-navy sidekick Captain Good, who are seeking Curtis’ brother who disappeared into the African interior two years previously in search of a legendary kingdom. Quatermain just happens to have come into possession of a map of the route, years earlier, from a dying Portuguese explorer. And so the three team up and set off, accompanied by some ill-fated Kaffir helpers and the striking Zulu, Umbopa, who is to play a key role in the plot. You can read the book, free, on Project Gutenberg.

Tone and humour The text isn’t as dated as you’d expect. It is kept fresh by the rhythm and pacing of Haggard’s plot, moving confidently from one tense action scene to another. And it is written in an open, serviceable prose, very unlike the clotted Latinate phrasing of ‘literary’ authors of the time. The prose is frequently adorned with hilariously over-the-top poetic descriptions of the African scenery or 5th form thoughts about the meaning of Life. And Haggard’s  good humour (English and self-deprecating and often schoolboyish) comes through in every line:

       I shook my head and looked again at the sleeping men, and to my tired and yet excited imagination it seemed as though death had already touched them… All sorts of reflections of this sort passed through my mind – for as I get older I regret to say that a detestable habit of thinking seems to be getting a hold of me – while I stood and stared at those grim yet fantastic lines of warriors sleeping.

       ‘Curtis,’ I said to Sir Henry, ‘I am in a condition of pitiable funk.’

Not as racist as expected Haggard’s attitude to Africans is noticeably sympathetic. Early on he says he’s met plenty of blacks who are true gentlemen and plenty of whites who are not – and many overtly heroic deeds are performed by Kaffirs and blacks. One black servant dies very nobly saving Good from a rampaging elephant. And Umbopa the Zulu grows in regal stature throughout the book. When the adventurers come among the lost people of Kikuana land the black natives are highly differentiated; the king Twala may be a sadistic tyrant, the crone Gagoola an uncanny witch, but the maidens who attend them are courteous and beautiful and other leading Kikuaners like Ignosi are honest and valiant. The point is Haggard depicts blacks as variegated individuals, nothing like the appalling racism found among, say, the Boers of the same time and place.

Imperialism of the imagination Nonetheless, whatever Quatermain’s sympathy for and admiration of native Africans, it is crystal clear that the white Englishmen have an innate superiority over all natives, all women and indeed all other white men. White Englishmen just are naturally superior, why else would the British Empire be the greatest the world had ever seen? Reading this as a white Englishman it is hard to resist the repeated signals in the text as to my superiority. I can smile at its naivety but it still tugs at my imagination. The text flatters me. I can well imagine all women and non-white people finding this pretty tedious, if not offensive. The inscription to the sequel, Allan Quatermain, says it all:

I inscribe this book of adventure to my son ARTHUR JOHN RIDER
HAGGARD in the hope that in days to come he, and many other
boys whom I shall never know, may, in the acts and thoughts of
Allan Quatermain and his companions, as herein recorded,
find something to help him and them to reach to what, with Sir
Henry Curtis, I hold to be the highest rank whereto we can
attain — the state and dignity of English gentlemen.

Women One stereotype which is conspicuous by its absence is there are no white women at all in the book. Scantily clad African women, yes, but no ‘petticoats’, as Haggard puts it. Presumably this reflected the physical reality of the time – reading Kipling’s frontier stories, there was continual warfare with native tribes and the Zulu Wars in South Africa had only just ended. It’s dangerous frontier territory.

But it’s striking how all the screen versions of KSM do include women, as love interest and as ‘terror-prompts’ ie woman cornered by fierce beast/dinosaur/native who has to be rescued by gallant white hero. What does the addition of the Woman In Peril cliche – not necessary in 1885 but indispensable from the 1920s onwards, up to and including Romancing The Stone and Indiana Jones – tell us about the 20th century, and about us?

King Solomon’s Influence The biggest obstacle to reading the text is the fact that I seemed to have read or seen so much of it before. This book has been copied in scores of other novels, films, TV dramas and comics. What must have been extraordinary incidents to its original audience have been worn smooth by over a century of assimilation. Just one example, the treasure chamber is entered by a massive rising & descending stone door; while our heroes are distracted by the chests full of treasure, the wicked crone Gagool triggers the lowering mechanism in order to trap them; she stabs the (prepossessing) serving maid who has accompanied them to the chamber and makes to escape but the dying maiden grabs her foot and so the crone tries desperately to wriggle free even as the vast doorway slowly descends until it gruesomely (and noisily) squashes her to a pulp.

In how many films and TV dramas have you seen a mechanical doorway inexorably descending as a protagonist tries to slip under it to safety? Was this the first time this trope, this meme, this cliche, was ever used?

Stereotypes One of the great pleasures of reading King Solomon’s Mines is in savouring the gorgeous tapestry of cliches and stereotypes. The whole text is built of cliches. Possibly the text could be represented visually as sets of overlapping boxes or diagrams, each containing a plot or character device. They’re like jigsaw pieces laid out at the start of the text, which are then dovetailed together as the plot unravels, with satisfying clicks. Everything about it seems familiar:

  • the brave band of adventurers
  • the Quest to an Unknown Land
  • the plucky native assistants who one by one are picked off in mishaps
  • our heroes almost dying in the desert ie pushed to the limits of human endurance
  • their sudden arrival in a land of plenty and marvels
  • the mysterious carvings on the mysterious road
  • the way they fool the tall, strong blacks who suddenly surround them that they are gods ‘come from the stars’
  • the cruel leader of the lost tribe (Twala) who suspects they are ordinary men after all

On and on it goes, every element seeming familiar as if from a dream, and in fact from hundreds of films, TV series, comics which I consumed avidly as a boy. If Haggard really is the source of these scores and scores of climactic scenes and sensational scenarios, then he’s one of the most influential writers of all time, his adventure memes a permanent part of the pulp imagination of all of us.

Conclusion There are so many superficial reasons for objecting to King Solomon’s Mines (the casual racism, the sexism, the violence) that there is, ultimately, no point objecting. Either you buy into the conventions of a genre or you don’t. If you know you’re going to see an adventure movie, don’t be upset if it features strong heroes, cowardly baddies, damsels in distress in exotic foreign locations populated by unreliable locals. The interest is in feeling Haggard shape and develop the stories, stereotypes and cliches which were to help form the popular imagination of our culture. Without Allan Quatermain – no Indiana Jones.

Illustration of ‘King Solomon’s Mines’

The Lost World genre

18 July 2012

King Solomon’s Mines pioneered the ‘lost world’ genre in Britain.

The British public had been reading about recent discoveries – in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, in Assyria, Schliemann’s Troy, and the lost empire of Greater Zimbabwe. Haggard’s novel was the first in English to exploit the mystique and romance surrounding these discoveries and to invent a fictional lost civilisation for dramatic purposes (Jules Verne’s Journey To The Centre of the Earth, 1864, has a claim to priority for Continental literature).

Countless others have followed suit: Kipling soon after in The Man Who Would be King (1888), HG Wells’ In The Country of The Blind (1904), the first of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan novels (1912), Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World, from the same year which introduced the idea of dinosaurs surviving in a freak enclave, a meme which has led a healthy career in popular culture up to and including Jurassic Park (1993) its imaginatively-title sequel, The Lost World (1997) and Peter Jackson’s fabulously preposterous King Kong (2005).

I suppose the Lost World is itself part of a larger genre which is the the New World, where the narrator is introduced to an entirely new culture and slowly learns their customs. Almost every travel book would be included from Utopia (1516) and Gulliver’s Travels (1726) onwards. What distinguishes Lost World romances from these earlier fables is the earlier ones are nearly all moralistic or satirical in intent. They have a point, an aim or design on the reader. The Lost World romances exist purely to entertain.

The Lost World genre was at its most popular during the era of High Imperialism, 1870-1914. Though it continued to thrive thereafter (James Hilton’s Lost Horizon of 1933 introduced the key phrase ‘Shangri-La’), it was affected by the thoroughness with which discoverers and cartographers were filling in the gaps on the world map. Some if the teenage energy of the genre was redirected into the burgeoning genre of science fiction. Here the borders were infinite, and the topos of a small band of explorers arriving in a new world to be shown its customs etc can be recycled ad infinitum, from HG Wells’s First Men In The Moon (1901) to Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012).

The obvious question is, Is any of this for grown-ups? Or for the grown-up part of our minds? Probably not. They are for the teenager in all of us, and probably teenage boys more than girls. None of the main works in the genre are by women writers, partly because the tales are designed to move from one perilous situation to another, in which the immature male mind can fantasise about danger and rescue, success against the odds. The continual need to prove their physical prowess doesn’t seem to occur to women as much as men.

Lost World image by Sorin Bechira

Henry Rider Haggard (1856-1925)

17 July 2012

Henry Rider Haggard (1856-1925) virtually invented the late-Victorian ripping yarn. His most famous books are King Solomon’s Mines (KSM) and She but he wrote over 70 novels, 14 or so featuring the action hero, Allan Quatermain.

Haggard was one of 10 children born to a Jewish barrister living in Norfolk. Considered a duffer he was sent to Africa in 1875, aged 18, to make his fortune, his parents scraping him a job as assistant to the secretary to the governor of Natal. He was not only present in Pretoria in April 1877 when the British annexed the Boer Republic of the Transvaal, it was Haggard himself who raised the Union flag and read out much of the proclamation when the official in charge lost his voice.

In 1880 he married and in 1882 returned to England to settle in Norfolk and study law. He didn’t like it, and moved to Hammersmith in 1885 to concentrate on his writing. His first book, King Solomon’s Mines, was an immediate bestseller and he never looked back.

KSM introduces the hero Allan Quatermain, a slight but hardy African hunter, who meets a giant of a man, Sir Henry Curtis, and ex-navy sidekick Captain Good, who are seeking Curtis’ brother who disappeared into the African interior two years previously in search of a legendary kingdom. Quatermain just happens to have come into possession of a map of the way there, years earlier, from a dying Portuguese explorer, and so the three set off, accompanied by some ill-fated Kaffir helpers and a striking Zulu, Umbopa, who is to play a key role in the plot.

Haggard joined a select band of 1880s authors who were pioneering short, punchy fiction with gripping characters and sensational plots, often set in the exotic lands opened up by Imperial conquests. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island had appeared in 1883 and Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation, Sherlock Holmes, was to make his debut a few years later in A Study In Scarlet (1887), Kipling’s Plain Tales from the Hills, exotic in location if not gripping in plot (1888).

Portrait photo of Henry Rider Haggard

Rider Haggard fans point out that without Allan Quatermain there’d have been no Indiana Jones (Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981), although the films of Haggard’s novels have been mostly poor. There are film versions of KSM starring Paul Robeson (1937), Stewart Granger (1950), Richard Chamberlain (1985) and Patrick Swayze (2004), and numerous spin-offs including The League of Extraordinary Gentleman (2003) where Quatermain is played by an ageing Sean Connery, and bastardisations, eg the Michael Douglas movies Romancing The Stone (1984) and The Jewel of the Nile (1985). All of these films feature women as love interests. The original novels do not.

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