Saturday, 21 July 2001
Rudyard Kipling: Stalky and Co. (1899)
Review number: 882
Few of Kipling's fictional stories contain much of an autobiographical element, despite his frequent use of the first person. In this collection of stories, the school and some of the characters are based on his own experiences; Beetle, in particular, is a self portrait.
The Devon boarding school portrayed in the book is basically a factory for producing future officers of the British army to serve in the colonies, and is by modern standards a violent place, with bullying and savage corporal punishment. Yet Kipling's evident nostalgia for his time at the school infects the reader, who senses the intensity of the friendships and the enjoyment of the experiences, which mainly focus on triumphs over the more petty minded masters. The success of his treatment makes a modern reader quite uncomfortable, especially when he seems to have fond memories of bullying. The way that his schoolboys rebel against authority was controversial at the time, but much less so now. Times have changed.
The reader is also made aware, more deliberately, of a different dark undercurrent. Sprinkled throughout the stories are notes about the future deaths of the boys; they are destined to die young in the service of the British Empire. (One of them, interestingly, is going to be shot by his own men, a less glorified death than the others.) Kipling's point is presumably that the Empire was maintained at a human cost; despite his reputation as a jingoist, this is not the only place where he showed an awareness of this. Few today would deny that there was a human cost, though the focus has canged so that we would think about what it meant to the colonised rather than the coloniser.
Stalky and Co. is one of the most uncomfortable of Kipling's books to read, and this is a measure of the author's talent, as he glories in what is to us unpalatable and almost brings us to feel we appreciate it too.