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.

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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

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