Commentary Magazine

The Long Recessional by David Gilmour

The Long Recessional: The Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling
by David Gilmour
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 368 pp. $26.00

Rudyard Kipling was as great a writer as any in the English language. His output ranged from novels and poetry, and some of the finest short stories ever written, to a regimental history of the Irish Guards. He could play on every emotion, from majesty to bathos and sentimentality. He seemed to have a special affinity for the imagination of children. Mowgli and Bagheera, Stalky, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, Kim, and other characters are still so much a part of our general culture that some of them have been Disneyfied. Phrases and catchwords, sometimes whole poems, remain as fresh as when he wrote them. And yet he has never received his due.

In part this is because his personality was complicated, a strange and almost manic mixture of reticence and combativeness, of energy and melancholy. In more general terms, he was a conservative, or rather an outright Tory, in a liberal age: a defender of the British empire and of the English-speaking peoples worldwide. Despite his huge gifts, this outlook placed him on the losing side in the ideological warfare of the 20th century. In the eyes of run-of-the-mill opinion-makers, he was a reactionary, a jingoist and imperialist and racist, standing against Utopia and Progress. History itself seemed to be going against everything he valued—so much so that his name eventually became a byword for everything abhorrent to correct opinion. This was a triumph of unfairness.

A few years after Kipling’s death in 1936, the American literary critic Edmund Wilson formulated the party line, arguing that Kipling’s work was “shot through with hatred” and that he had committed one of the most serious sins possible for an imaginative writer by “discard[ing] his own moral intelligence in favor of the point of view of a dominant political party.” This was absurd and false, and yet things went so far and so fast that by 1941 George Orwell—himself hardly open to the accusation of jingoism or imperialism—felt called upon (in an essay in Horizon) to rebuff “the shallow and familiar charge that Kipling is a fascist.” Evelyn Waugh, with intuitive sympathy, put his finger on the essential point about Kipling’s brand of conservatism. Kipling, he wrote,

was a conservative in the sense that he believed civilization to be something laboriously achieved which was only precariously defended. He wanted to see the defenses fully manned, and he hated the liberals because he thought them gullible and feeble, believing in the easy perfectibility of man and ready to abandon the work of centuries for sentimental qualms.

Kipling himself wanted neither honors nor biographers. He burned many of his papers, and his difficult daughter put a ban on the biography that she herself had commissioned. More recently, Harry Ricketts and Andrew Lycett have published biographies that, deviating from the party line, have shown Kipling more in the round. David Gilmour, himself a conservative with literary tastes, and the author of a biography of Lord Curzon, goes still further, presenting Kipling as the public figure he was and rehabilitating both him and his ideas.



Born in India in 1865, Rudyard Kipling was the son of a man who taught arts and crafts at a college in Bombay. His mother’s two sisters had made successful marriages, one to the painter Sir Edward Burne-Jones and the other to Alfred Baldwin, a rich ironmaster whose son Stanley would eventually become a Tory prime minister. As was the custom in Anglo-Indian families, the five-year-old Rudyard was sent home to England to board with strangers for his education. These strangers were unkind, and insecurity began then and there. Kipling’s short story, “Baa Baa, Black Sheep,” is the classic account of a child’s betrayal by his parents.

Returning to India at the age of sixteen, Kipling learned his trade as a journalist on the Civil and Military Gazette, published in the predominantly Muslim city of Lahore. A natural reporter, he erupted on the Anglo-Indian scene with collections of pieces and stories that had originally appeared in that paper. He was no respecter of persons; both in these early works and later he mocked British pretensions while sympathetically portraying figures outside the bounds of polite literature: dutiful officials of the Indian Civil Service or ordinary soldiers with names like Mulvaney and Or-theris and Learoyd, the protagonists of some of his best stories.

The great debate in late-19th-century Anglo-India concerned the future of the Indians. Kipling believed with passion that they should remain Indians, and not be taken out of their own culture to become mimic Englishmen. The task of the British was to keep the peace between and among communities that were evidently unable to do this for themselves. In his work, he explored and admired the diversity of these communities. The hero of one of his most moving stories, “The Miracle of Purun Bhagat,” is the prime minister of an Indian princely state, holder of a British knighthood, feted by high society during a visit to fashionable London. Resigning his powerful position, Purun becomes a Hindu holy man and hermit but is able to use his intelligence to save nearby villagers when a landslide threatens to destroy them. What comes through in this story is an overwhelming tenderness toward Purun and his people. No less discriminating a critic than Nirad Chaudhuri was to hold that Kipling’s Kim (1901), a book composed for children, was the finest story ever written about India.

A celebrity already in his early twenties, Kipling returned to London where he met the men he felt himself to be pitted against. There were, of course, some—including Joseph Conrad and Henry James—who acknowledged his greatness at once; James referred to him as “that little demon of genius.” But this was also the heyday of aestheticism, epitomized by Oscar Wilde in literature and, in painting, by Kipling’s uncle Edward Burne-Jones and his circle. The fashion immediately provoked him to satire: “But I consort with long-haired things/ In velvet collar-rolls, /Who talk about the Aims of Art,/And ‘theories’ and ‘goals,’/ And moo and coo with womenfolk/ About their blessed souls.”

True, Kipling gave his enemies something to go on. He could write unselfconsciously that the “fuzzy-wuzzies” of the Sudan were first-class fighting men, or pen lines that might have been self-parodies: “There’s a regiment a-comin’ down the Grand Trunk Road” or “Ford, ford, ford o’ Kabul river,/ Ford o’ Kabul river in the dark.” To Max Beerbohm, a fastidious master of mockery, Kipling was an “Apocalyptic Bounder who can do such fine things but mostly prefers to stand (on tip-toe and stridently) for all that is cheap and nasty.” More than anyone else, Beerbohm helped to ground the eventual liberal campaign against Kipling in aesthetic snobbishness, caricaturing both him and everything he stood for as essentially vulgar.



Here is where Gilmour begins his counterattack. He concedes that, to Kipling, imperialism was something static, and to that extent patronizing. But the essential truth perceived by Kipling was (as Gilmour puts it) that minorities in countries like India fared better within an imperial or multinational system than in nation-states dominated by the ethos and ethnicity of a majority. Kipling also understood something else: if the British withdrew, Muslims and Hindus would be at each others’ throats—as it has proved.

Few people in the Victorian and Edwardian eras had the imagination to sense the impending end of the British empire, or the wider horrors to come. Kipling was an exception, and Gilmour has no hesitation in calling him a prophet, one who proved right time after time. Thanks to his American wife, Carrie Balestier (“a hard devoted little person whom I don’t in the least understand his marrying,” observed Henry James, who gave her away), he spent some productive years in Vermont and made a number of staunch American friends. It was to some of these, including Theodore Roosevelt and Cameron Forbes, governor of the Philippines, that he addressed his famous exhortation to take up “the white man’s burden.” If the British could no longer keep the world’s peace, then the United States would have to undertake this thankless task. It would come as no surprise to Kipling that American soldiers are now fording the Kabul river.

Cecil Rhodes, a true imperialist, first introduced Kipling to South Africa and built a house for him there, where for many years the writer spent his winters. The 1899-1902 war between the Boers—the old Dutch inhabitants of that country—and the British brought to the surface two of Kipling’s permanent preoccupations: the unreadiness of the British army to face any serious test in the field and the malign purposes of Germany, whose hand he detected manipulating the Boers. Free from any romantic notions about war, he understood that power brings responsibility, and responsibility often entails soldiering. He was outraged by the generous accommodation finally reached with the Boers, foreseeing, as Gilmour underlines, that the way was now open for Boer supremacy and—eventually—apartheid. Similarly, to give way to Sinn Fein terror in Ireland, Kipling believed with perfect acuity, would in the end unravel the United Kingdom.

Criticism of his own country and its people was never far from Kipling’s mind or pen. He admired engineers and sailors and the few politicians, like Joseph Chamberlain and Lord Milner, who shared his anxiety about the vulnerability of the empire. Conversely, he held in contempt the many who claimed privilege without responsibility, glib politicians, the upcoming socialists (“soccers,” in his disparaging idiom), and indeed anyone who failed to do his duty, or let others down, or professed to know better than the men doing the real work. His most resonant poems are warnings to the British to mend their smug ways lest they find themselves “at one with Nineveh and Tyre.”

His usual procedure was to write to the handful of like-minded editors he knew, cajoling them into editorializing as he advised or into publishing his latest poem. There is in much of his verse a rhetorical quality that made him a public orator. As Gilmour testifies, the British, ever accommodating, were prepared to hear Kipling out, and even to regard him as a national figurehead, especially after he became England’s first Nobel laureate in literature in 1907—on condition that they be allowed to carry on as complacently as before. So much for the power of literature.



Between the victory of the Liberal party in the general election of 1906 and the end of World War I, the Conservatives were out in the cold. During that period, Kipling’s angry identification with the Tory rump, and his grim but accurate forecasting of a coming war with Germany, condemned him to the status of a has-been and a diehard. There would be a personal price to pay, too. Campaigning for recruits, Kipling felt it was incumbent on his only son John to enlist in the Irish Guards, nearsighted and underage though the boy was. John was killed on almost his first day in action, and his body was never found. “But who shall return us our children?” is the haunting refrain of a poem commemorating him. Another of Kipling’s war poems contains a couplet of heartfelt bitterness: “If any question why we died,/ Tell them, because our fathers lied.”

Between the wars, his cousin Stanley Baldwin became prime minister. Kipling rightly criticized him for indolence and lack of foresight. Worse than the misguided “soccers” were Tories who lacked the courage of their convictions or failed to read the signs of the times. The second world war, he thought, had begun on the day the first ended. The rise of Hider fulfilled his nightmare vision of Germany. “This is the midnight,” he warned in a poem in 1932. By the time of his death four years later, it seemed that no heed whatsoever had been paid to anything he had said or striven for.

To liberals, the prime struggle of the 30’s was between Communism and fascism. For Kipling, Gilmour observes, the struggle was instead between Germany and Western Europe, “between barbarism and civilization.” Winston Churchill shared this view, and Gilmour detects similarities between Churchill’s great speeches and the prose rhythms of The Jungle Book (1894). Intriguingly, however, although by conviction a Churchillite in almost every respect, especially where India and the empire were concerned, Kipling did not much care for the man. (His memory was long: Churchill had criticized Lord Milner and others of Kipling’s friends, and had switched parties.) Gilmour nevertheless concludes that the very survival of Britain in the crucial year 1940 owed much to the spirit of Kipling as epitomized by Churchill.



The timing of The Long Recessional could not be better. At a moment when conservatism in Britain is at a very low ebb intellectually and morally, and the independence of the country may yet be surrendered voluntarily to the rising European empire, it is most unexpected, but very welcome indeed, that justice should be done to Kipling. He was not wrong about the perils of British complacency. And was he wrong in his essential ideological belief that if some peoples cannot manage their affairs peacefully, then other peoples may have to do it for them?

War, civil war, dictatorship, and failed states have in numerous instances succeeded the British and other empires. Many a country formerly within one of these empires is nominally independent today but in no sense free, and constitutes a danger to itself and to others. The United States seemingly has no choice but to assume the responsibility that comes with power, to enforce the peace, and, if need be, to remake dangerous states. What if Kipling was right, and imperialism is a term for the defense of civilization? This book suggests that he may yet have the last word.


About the Author

David Pryce-Jones, the British novelist and political analyst, is the author of, among other books, Betrayal: France, the Arabs, and the Jews (Encounter).

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