Was Kipling gay? (Does it matter?), Harry Ricketts

I’m in the middle of writing a biography of Rudyard Kipling who has been a minor obsession of mine for as long as I can remember. When I was a child my mother used to read me the Just So Stories and the Jungle Books, at school one of the masters lent me the poems and Actions and Reactions and at university, where, incidentally, you couldn’t study Kipling as an undergraduate, I did a postgraduate thesis on his short stories. There was also the influence of my father, who was exactly the kind of dutiful, hard-working English army officer Kipling wrote about and much admired, though ironically my father didn’t read Kipling, considering him too literary.

In my biography Kipling is now in his mid-20s, famous and just married. Here is a brief outline of the story so far. Born in 1865, he spent his first six years happily pampered by parents and servants in India and his second six physically and emotionally mistreated by Mrs Holloway, an evangelical woman with whom he was sent to lodge in England. A precociously literary boy (some of his juvenilia are remarkable), he went to a minor English public school which had been set up to educate future army officers and imperial administrators and was later eulogised by him in Stalky & Co. There wasn’t the money to send him to Oxford (nor did he have the necessary Greek), so his parents fixed him up a job on a newspaper back in India. From 17 to 23 he worked as a fulltime journalist whilst also turning out half a dozen books of highly original stories and poems. Arriving in London in the autumn of 1889, he became an overnight success, the biggest thing since Dickens 60 years before. At the moment, he’s 26, is married to an American, Carrie Balestier, the sister of his recently deceased best friend, and is probably the best-known writer in the world.

The section I’ve just finished discusses whether Kipling might have been homosexual. This idea was first put forward by Enid Bagnold, the author of National Velvet, who had known Kipling in the 1920s and casually suggested in her 1969 autobiography that he might have been “a quite unconscious homosexual”. In The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling (1977) Edmund Wilson took the idea a stage further, proposing that, without knowing it, Kipling was probably “much in love” with his best friend Wolcott Balestier, Carrie’s older brother. In 1989 Martin Seymour-Smith published a new biography of Kipling in which he speculated at great length about his subject’s “homosexuality”, claiming it as the mainspring of his personality and confidently asserting that Wolcott was the love of Kipling’s life. As Seymour-Smith no doubt intended, his book caused quite a stir and led to some strident and indignant rebuttals — which did no harm to the sales.

There seems to me no reason why anyone now should feel particularly upped or downed by the notion of a “gay” Kipling. At the same time I think that with someone like him who is not usually considered homosexual you have an obligation to come up with either real evidence (as the lawyers say) or at least some very convincing circumstantial evidence. Otherwise it’s simply an arresting idea but there’s no reason why anyone should take it seriously.

With Kipling the cupboard of evidence is pretty bare. There are no personal diaries documenting secret assignations and affairs, as there are, say, with Roger Casement (the Irish nationalist and “traitor” about whom Vincent O’Sullivan has recently written a play). There are no letters to male lovers. Equally, there is no direct or indirect testimony by his contemporaries that he led any sort of double life. So while it’s clear from their letters and other reliable sources that some of Kipling’s literary friends were homosexual (Henry James, for instance) or were bisexual, like the critic and essayist Edmund Gosse, there’s no equivalent evidence to indicate that he was.

The circumstantial evidence, such as it is, is marginally more promising but still very thin. When he was 20 Kipling was told by an old schoolfriend that their housemaster had “suspected” him of “beastliness” shortly before he left school; he was so incensed that he promptly dashed off a furious letter of denial to another of his old masters. You could, I suppose, argue from this that “the lady doth protest too much, methinks”. On the other hand, perhaps he was just angry at the suggestion. When, 25 years later, Kipling’s own son John was at public school, he earnestly warned him in a couple of letters to give a wide berth to “any chap who is even suspected of beastliness”. Again, this might be significant; equally it could be simply the sort of fatherly advice routinely dished out at the time. When Kipling was 60, the novelist Hugh Walpole (himself a homosexual and, incidentally, a New Zealander by birth) reported a slightly ambiguous conversation the two of them had at a garden party. Seymour-Smith predictably makes much of this encounter, presenting it as one homosexual tipping the wink to another, but, read in full rather than in Seymour-Smith’s carefully abridged version, you have to struggle fairly hard to put this construction on the exchange.

Then there’s Enid Bagnold’s suggestion, not mentioned by Wilson or Seymour-Smith, that Kipling might have been an unconscious homosexual. This is a potentially interesting idea, I think, but is no good as an argument since by definition it is impossible to prove or disprove. More or less the same goes for Wilson’s hunch that Kipling was “much in love” with Wolcott. If one knew for certain that Kipling was homosexual, then the fragmentary details which survive of his friendship with Wolcott (briefly, they collaborated on an adventure novel called The Naulahka and referred to each other as “brother”) might take on a different significance. As it is, all one can say with any assurance is that they were obviously very close friends but there’s nothing to suggest they were lovers.

Nor does Kipling’s work provide any very useful material to support the idea he was homosexual. There’s plenty of male bonding of course and some soupy praise of mothers. There’s also some blustering distrust of women (lines like “a woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a Smoke” and “the female of the species is more deadly than the male”) but, set against that, from the early “Lispeth” to the late “The Gardener” there is a number of extremely sympathetic studies of women whose lives have been wrecked by men. Of homoerotic writing or idealised descriptions of the male form (often a key witness in this sort of inquiry) there’s very little, about as much as you’d find in most sports writers of a couple of generations ago.

In addition to the question of whether Kipling might have been homosexual, there’s the related question of whether, if he was, this would add anything rewarding to our reading of his work. It makes a difference to how we respond to A Passage to India, for instance, and particularly to the intimate way the Fielding-Aziz friendship is depicted, to know that E M Forster was homosexual and that at the time he felt unable to write openly about the subject of homosexuality. (By 1924, when he published A Passage to India, Forster had already written an overtly homosexual novel, Maurice, but he never tried to publish it during his lifetime.) Similarly, knowing that W H Auden was homosexual adds something to an understanding of his early love poems, with their teasing obscurities and witty evasions and his penchant for using the non-gender-specific “you” and “your” as in “Lay your sleeping head, my love,/Human on my faithless arm”. Though I did try after reading Seymour-Smith’s biography, I can find no equivalent rewards nor moments of sudden illumination in a “gay” reading of Kipling.

So much for Kipling’s past and present. What, more briefly, about his immediate future? He and his wife are about to spend the next chapter and the next three and a-half years (1892-96) as neighbours of her family in a small town in New England called Brattleboro. His two daughters, Josephine and Elsie, will be born there and he will be potty about them. He will also continue to be amazingly productive, publishing a new collection of stories, Many Inventions, a new collection of poems, The Seven Seas, and, more permanently significant than either, the two Jungle Books.

From a biographical point of view, the most fascinating thing about Mowgli’s story is watching how Kipling reworks aspects of his own half-idyllic, half-traumatic childhood to create a kind of improved infancy. When his parents took him to England at 6 and left him with the horrible Mrs Holloway, he felt abandoned, as though he had become an orphan. So too does Mowgli who is orphaned no fewer than three times during the course of The Jungle Book: when he loses his human parents; when he is cast out by the wolf-pack; when he is rejected by the village.

Mowgli becomes, in effect, a kind of “super orphan” but, and this is where the compensatory fantasy comes in, Kipling provides him at each successive abandonment with a host of would-be foster-parents, falling over themselves to look after him: Father and Mother Wolf, Akela the Lone Wolf, Baloo the Bear, Bagheera the Black Panther and Kaa the Python. And not only are all these dangerous wild animals desperately eager to care for Mowgli, they are often also openly competing with each other for his affection and attention — an arrangement equally gratifying and reassuring for Kipling and for the child reader or listener. By contrast, Shere Khan the Tiger is the malevolent would-be foster-parent, the surrogate for Mrs Holloway, the enemy Mowgli must destroy or be destroyed by.

However, although Mowgli triumphs and the Jungle Books instantly became children’s classics, by August 1896 Kipling and his family had quit America for good. The reason? A ghastly, farcical, family feud with Carrie’s bullish younger brother, Beatty, which led to court proceedings and at once became news all over the world. But that, as Kipling used to say, is another story.

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