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Essays in Little by Andrew Lang

Part 4 out of 4

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shameless. You may, if your tattle is political, become serviceable
to men engaged in great affairs. They may even ask you to their
houses, if that is your ambition. You may urge that they condone
your deeds, and are even art and part in them. But you must also be
aware that they call you, and think you, a reptile. You are not one
of those who will do the devil's work without the devil's wages; but
do you seriously think that the wages are worth the degradation?

Many men think so, and are not in other respects bad men. They may
even be kindly and genial. Gentlemen they cannot be, nor men of
delicacy, nor men of honour. They have sold themselves and their
self-respect, some with ease (they are the least blamable), some
with a struggle. They have seen better things, and perhaps vainly
long to return to them. These are "St. Satan's Penitents," and
their remorse is vain:

Virtutem videant, intabescantque relicta.

If you don't wish to be of this dismal company, there is only one
course open to you. Never write for publication one line of
personal tattle. Let all men's persons and private lives be as
sacred to you as your father's,--though there are tattlers who would
sell paragraphs about their own mothers if there were a market for
the ware. There is no half-way house on this road. Once begin to
print private conversation, and you are lost--lost, that is, to
delicacy and gradually, to many other things excellent and of good
report. The whole question for you is, Do you mind incurring this
damnation? If there is nothing in it which appals and revolts you,
if your conscience is satisfied with a few ready sophisms, or if you
don't care a pin for your conscience, fall to!

Vous irez loin! You will prattle in print about men's private lives
their hidden motives, their waistcoats, their wives, their boots,
their businesses, their incomes. Most of your prattle will
inevitably be lies. But go on! nobody will kick you, I deeply
regret to say. You will earn money. You will be welcomed in
society. You will live and die content, and without remorse. I do
not suppose that any particular inferno will await you in the future
life. Whoever watches this world "with larger other eyes than ours"
will doubtless make allowance for you, as for us all. I am not
pretending to be a whit better than you; probably I am worse in many
ways, but not in your way. Putting it merely as a matter of taste,
I don't like the way. It makes me sick--that is all. It is a sin
which I can comfortably damn, as I am not inclined to it. You may
put it in that light; and I have no way of converting you, nor, if I
have not dissuaded you, of dissuading you, from continuing, on a
larger scale, your practices in The Bull-dog.


The wind bloweth where it listeth. But the wind of literary
inspiration has rarely shaken the bungalows of India, as, in the
tales of the old Jesuit missionaries, the magical air shook the
frail "medicine tents," where Huron conjurors practised their
mysteries. With a world of romance and of character at their doors,
Englishmen in India have seen as if they saw it not. They have been
busy in governing, in making war, making peace, building bridges,
laying down roads, and writing official reports. Our literature
from that continent of our conquest has been sparse indeed, except
in the way of biographies, of histories, and of rather local and
unintelligible facetiae. Except the novels by the author of "Tara,"
and Sir Henry Cunningham's brilliant sketches, such as "Dustypore,"
and Sir Alfred Lyall's poems, we might almost say that India has
contributed nothing to our finer literature. That old haunt of
history, the wealth of character brought out in that confusion of
races, of religions, and the old and new, has been wealth untouched,
a treasure-house sealed: those pagoda trees have never been shaken.
At last there comes an Englishman with eyes, with a pen
extraordinarily deft, an observation marvellously rapid and keen;
and, by good luck, this Englishman has no official duties: he is
neither a soldier, nor a judge; he is merely a man of letters. He
has leisure to look around him, he has the power of making us see
what he sees; and, when we have lost India, when some new power is
ruling where we ruled, when our empire has followed that of the
Moguls, future generations will learn from Mr. Kipling's works what
India was under English sway.

It is one of the surprises of literature that these tiny
masterpieces in prose and verse were poured, "as rich men give that
care not for their gifts," into the columns of Anglo-Indian
journals. There they were thought clever and ephemeral--part of the
chatter of the week. The subjects, no doubt, seemed so familiar,
that the strength of the handling, the brilliance of the colour,
were scarcely recognised. But Mr. Kipling's volumes no sooner
reached England than the people into whose hands they fell were
certain that here were the beginnings of a new literary force. The
books had the strangeness, the colour, the variety, the perfume of
the East. Thus it is no wonder that Mr. Kipling's repute grew up as
rapidly as the mysterious mango tree of the conjurors. There were
critics, of course, ready to say that the thing was merely a trick,
and had nothing of the supernatural. That opinion is not likely to
hold its ground. Perhaps the most severe of the critics has been a
young Scotch gentleman, writing French, and writing it wonderfully
well, in a Parisian review. He chose to regard Mr. Kipling as
little but an imitator of Bret Harte, deriving his popularity mainly
from the novel and exotic character of his subjects. No doubt, if
Mr. Kipling has a literary progenitor, it is Mr. Bret Harte. Among
his earlier verses a few are what an imitator of the American might
have written in India. But it is a wild judgment which traces Mr.
Kipling's success to his use, for example, of Anglo-Indian phrases
and scraps of native dialects. The presence of these elements is
among the causes which have made Englishmen think Anglo-Indian
literature tediously provincial, and India a bore. Mr. Kipling, on
the other hand, makes us regard the continent which was a bore an
enchanted land, full of marvels and magic which are real. There
has, indeed, arisen a taste for exotic literature: people have
become alive to the strangeness and fascination of the world beyond
the bounds of Europe and the United States. But that is only
because men of imagination and literary skill have been the new
conquerors--the Corteses and Balboas of India, Africa, Australia,
Japan, and the isles of the southern seas. All such conquerors,
whether they write with the polish of M. Pierre Loti, or with the
carelessness of Mr. Boldrewood, have, at least, seen new worlds for
themselves; have gone out of the streets of the over-populated lands
into the open air; have sailed and ridden, walked and hunted; have
escaped from the fog and smoke of towns. New strength has come from
fresher air into their brains and blood; hence the novelty and
buoyancy of the stories which they tell. Hence, too, they are
rather to be counted among romanticists than realists, however real
is the essential truth of their books. They have found so much to
see and to record, that they are not tempted to use the microscope,
and pore for ever on the minute in character. A great deal of
realism, especially in France, attracts because it is novel, because
M. Zola and others have also found new worlds to conquer. But
certain provinces in those worlds were not unknown to, but were
voluntarily neglected by, earlier explorers. They were the "Bad
Lands" of life and character: surely it is wiser to seek quite new
realms than to build mud huts and dunghills on the "Bad Lands."

Mr. Kipling's work, like all good work, is both real and romantic.
It is real because he sees and feels very swiftly and keenly; it is
romantic, again, because he has a sharp eye for the reality of
romance, for the attraction and possibility of adventure, and
because he is young. If a reader wants to see petty characters
displayed in all their meannesses, if this be realism, surely
certain of Mr. Kipling's painted and frisky matrons are realistic
enough. The seamy side of Anglo-Indian life: the intrigues,
amorous or semi-political--the slang of people who describe dining
as "mangling garbage" the "games of tennis with the seventh
commandment"--he has not neglected any of these. Probably the
sketches are true enough, and pity 'tis true: for example, the
sketches in "Under the Deodars" and in "The Gadsbys." That worthy
pair, with their friends, are to myself as unsympathetic, almost, as
the characters in "La Conquete de Plassans." But Mr. Kipling is too
much a true realist to make their selfishness and pettiness
unbroken, unceasing. We know that "Gaddy" is a brave, modest, and
hard-working soldier; and, when his little silly bride (who prefers
being kissed by a man with waxed moustaches) lies near to death,
certainly I am nearer to tears than when I am obliged to attend the
bed of Little Dombey or of Little Nell. Probably there is a great
deal of slangy and unrefined Anglo-Indian society; and, no doubt, to
sketch it in its true colours is not beyond the province of art. At
worst it is redeemed, in part, by its constancy in the presence of
various perils--from disease, and from "the bullet flying down the
pass." Mr. Kipling may not be, and very probably is not, a reader
of "Gyp"; but "The Gadsbys," especially, reads like the work of an
Anglo-Indian disciple, trammelled by certain English conventions.
The more Pharisaic realists--those of the strictest sect--would
probably welcome Mr. Kipling as a younger brother, so far as "Under
the Deodars" and "The Gadsbys" are concerned, if he were not
occasionally witty and even flippant, as well as realistic. But,
very fortunately, he has not confined his observation to the
leisures and pleasures of Simla; he has looked out also on war and
on sport, on the life of all native tribes and castes; and has even
glanced across the borders of "The Undiscovered Country."

Among Mr. Kipling's discoveries of new kinds of characters, probably
the most popular is his invention of the British soldier in India.
He avers that he "loves that very strong man, Thomas Atkins"; but
his affection has not blinded him to the faults of the beloved. Mr.
Atkins drinks too much, is too careless a gallant in love, has been
educated either too much or too little, and has other faults, partly
due, apparently, to recent military organisation, partly to the
feverish and unsettled state of the civilised world. But he is
still brave, when he is well led; still loyal, above all, to his
"trusty chum." Every Englishman must hope that, if Terence Mulvaney
did not take the city of Lungtung Pen as described, yet he is ready,
and willing so to take it. Mr. Mulvaney is as humorous as Micky
Free, but more melancholy and more truculent. He has, perhaps, "won
his way to the mythical" already, and is not so much a soldier, as
an incarnation, not of Krishna, but of many soldierly qualities. On
the other hand, Private Ortheris, especially in his frenzy, seems to
shew all the truth, and much more than the life of, a photograph.
Such, we presume, is the soldier, and such are his experiences and
temptations and repentance. But nobody ever dreamed of telling us
all this, till Mr. Kipling came. As for the soldier in action, the
"Taking of Lungtung Pen," and the "Drums of the Fore and Aft," and
that other tale of the battle with the Pathans in the gorge, are
among the good fights of fiction. They stir the spirit, and they
should be distributed (in addition, of course, to the "Soldier's
Pocket Book") in the ranks of the British army. Mr. Kipling is as
well informed about the soldier's women-kind as about the soldier:
about Dinah Shadd as about Terence Mulvaney. Lever never instructed
us on these matters: Micky Free, if he loves, rides away; but
Terence Mulvaney is true to his old woman. Gallant, loyal,
reckless, vain, swaggering, and tender-hearted, Terence Mulvaney, if
there were enough of him, "would take St. Petersburg in his
drawers." Can we be too grateful to an author who has extended, as
Mr. Kipling in his military sketches has extended, the frontiers of
our knowledge and sympathy?

It is a mere question of individual taste; but, for my own part, had
I to make a small selection from Mr. Kipling's tales, I would
include more of his studies in Black than in White, and many of his
excursions beyond the probable and natural. It is difficult to have
one special favourite in this kind; but perhaps the story of the two
English adventurers among the freemasons of unknown Kafiristan (in
the "Phantom Rickshaw") would take a very high place. The gas-
heated air of the Indian newspaper office is so real, and into it
comes a wanderer who has seen new faces of death, and who carries
with him a head that has worn a royal crown. The contrasts are of
brutal force; the legend is among the best of such strange fancies.
Then there is, in the same volume, "The Strange Ride of Morrowbie
Jukes," the most dreadful nightmare of the most awful Bunker in the
realms of fancy. This is a very early work; if nothing else of Mr.
Kipling's existed, his memory might live by it, as does the memory
of the American Irishman by the "Diamond Lens." The sham magic of
"In the House of Suddhu" is as terrible as true necromancy could be,
and I have a faiblesse for the "Bisara of Pooree." "The Gate of the
Hundred Sorrows" is a realistic version of "The English Opium
Eater," and more powerful by dint of less rhetoric. As for the
sketches of native life--for example, "On the City Wall"--to English
readers they are no less than revelations. They testify, more even
than the military stories, to the author's swift and certain vision,
his certainty in his effects. In brief, Mr. Kipling has conquered
worlds, of which, as it were, we knew not the existence.

His faults are so conspicuous, so much on the surface, that they
hardly need to be named. They are curiously visible to some readers
who are blind to his merits. There is a false air of hardness
(quite in contradiction to the sentiment in his tales of childish
life); there is a knowing air; there are mannerisms, such as "But
that is another story"; there is a display of slang; there is the
too obtrusive knocking of the nail on the head. Everybody can mark
these errors; a few cannot overcome their antipathy, and so lose a
great deal of pleasure.

It is impossible to guess how Mr. Kipling will fare if he ventures
on one of the usual novels, of the orthodox length. Few men have
succeeded both in the conte and the novel. Mr. Bret Harte is
limited to the conte; M. Guy de Maupassant is probably at his best
in it. Scott wrote but three or four short tales, and only one of
these is a masterpiece. Poe never attempted a novel. Hawthorne is
almost alone in his command of both kinds. We can live only in the
hope that Mr. Kipling, so skilled in so many species of the conte,
so vigorous in so many kinds of verse, will also be triumphant in
the novel: though it seems unlikely that its scene can be in
England, and though it is certain that a writer who so cuts to the
quick will not be happy with the novel's almost inevitable
"padding." Mr. Kipling's longest effort, "The Light which Failed,"
can, perhaps, hardly be considered a test or touchstone of his
powers as a novelist. The central interest is not powerful enough;
the characters are not so sympathetic, as are the interest and the
characters of his short pieces. Many of these persons we have met
so often that they are not mere passing acquaintances, but already
find in us the loyalty due to old friends.


{1} The subject has been much more gravely treated in Mr. Robert
Bridges's "Achilles in Scyros."

{2} Conjecture may cease, as Mr. Morris has translated the Odyssey.

{3} For Helen Pendennis, see the "Letters," p. 97.

{4} Mr. Henley has lately, as a loyal Dickensite, been defending
the plots of Dickens, and his tragedy. Pro captu lectoris; if the
reader likes them, then they are good for the reader: "good
absolute, not for me though," perhaps. The plot of "Martin
Chuzzlewit" may be good, but the conduct of old Martin would strike
me as improbable if I met it in the "Arabian Nights." That the
creator of Pecksniff should have taken his misdeeds seriously, as if
Mr. Pecksniff had been a Tartuffe, not a delight, seems curious.

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