Kipling the Trickster

Knowingness, Practical Jokes and the Use of Superior Knowledge in Kipling's Short Stories

by John Coates (Author)
©2021 Monographs X, 282 Pages


This book is an exploration of the way in which the characters in Rudyard Kipling’s short stories use superior knowledge, which often involves deception and the playing of practical jokes. There was early critical hostility to the stance adopted by Kipling’s characters, that of a superior knowledge acquired by friendship with a small male circle. This book engages with a long-standing critical tradition which treats the jokes as acts of vicarious revenge or symptoms of supposed defects in Kipling’s personality, instead setting his use of the practical joke in the wider social context of his time.
In this book Kipling’s writing is examined for what it reveals about a complex, self-conscious but powerful range of values rather than what it is supposed to disguise or conceal. Although he endorsed British colonial rule, Kipling was frank about the slackness, endemic rule-breaking and second-rate nature of British rule in India. He also criticised some of the widespread cultural, religious and moral phenomena of his time, which he thought harmful. Many of his short stories contain an implied but serious criticism of Victorian beliefs, from attitudes to death-beds, and schoolboys to Positivism.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Dedication
  • Contents
  • Foreword
  • Introduction: Knowingness, Practical Jokes and the Use of Superior Knowledge in Kipling’s Short Stories
  • Chapter 1 Approaches to Kipling’s Comic Writing
  • Chapter 2 Kipling and Practical Jokes
  • Chapter 3 ‘The God from the Machine’
  • Chapter 4 ‘Private Learoyd’s Story’
  • Chapter 5 ‘Thrown Away’
  • Chapter 6 ‘A Bank Fraud’
  • Chapter 7 ‘Lispeth’
  • Chapter 8 : ‘The Conversion of Aurelian McGoggin’
  • Chapter 9 ‘Watches of the Night’
  • Chapter 10 ‘Three and – an Extra’
  • Chapter 11 ‘My Sunday at Home’
  • Chapter 12 The Imminent Peril and Narrow Escape of the Knowing Narrator
  • Chapter 13 The Knowing Narrator: ‘On the City Wall’
  • Chapter 14 ‘The Village that Voted the Earth Was Flat’
  • Chapter 15 ‘Dayspring Mishandled’
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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John Coates died suddenly in January 2020 leaving this manuscript. In 2014 he suffered a rare neurological illness from which he recovered but which stalked him to the end and from the effects of which he died six years later. I would like to thank Harry Ricketts, Michael Murphy and Criss Sandom for their work in getting the manuscript ready for publication. I would also like to thank The Kipling Society for their financial support and Peter Lang for publishing it. A version of Chapter 6 was published as ‘Deceit and Kindness in ‘A Bank Fraud’’ in The Kipling Journal Vol. 90, no. 363. It would have been a pity if John’s last work had been left unread.

Carole Coates

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Knowingness, Practical Jokes and the Use of Superior Knowledge in Kipling’s Short Stories

A useful consideration of this subject, one of the most unavoidable and intriguing in any examination of Kipling’s work, should deal with two matters. First, it is necessary to show what the existing frame of reference is in which scholars and critics have discussed the topic and how current ways of understanding Kipling’s use of superior knowledge have taken shape. Second, it is essential to define the position and emphases of the present study in order to show how its approach differs from recent and contemporary scholarship. For the latter purpose, it would be helpful to summarise the contents of the book, and to indicate its argument.

Those who have explored Kipling’s interest in and employment of superior knowledge have differed in the terminologies they have employed. Yet, in spite of changes down the years, there has been continuity in the direction, tone and attitude many critics have displayed. One of the purposes of the present study is to question these underlying, persistent assumptions and what they imply.

The present state of the question, regarding the topic of this study, results from an unfolding of concerns present in the earliest responses to Kipling as a writer. Those who reviewed his earliest productions were delighted by the new kinds of experience they offered readers, by the presentation of previously little-known Indian and army life. Yet, many critics were troubled or repelled by the tone the new author adopted when offering or commenting upon his discoveries. From the beginning, those who discussed Kipling’s work struck a note of moral disapproval that continued to sound. The commentators accused the young writer of brutality, brashness and cynicism. They reproached him for his precocious worldliness, which questioned that one so young should have had such experiences, or that he ←1 | 2→possessed a pretence of knowledge that could only be a tiresome mannerism. Given the outmoded moralistic tone and language of many of these complaints, they inevitably sound naive, even foolish. Yet, it would be wrong to ignore this revulsion where it occurred, or to dismiss as merely silly the energy with which these writers expressed it. Although subsequent critics found more sophisticated and, for a while, fashionable formulae in which to show their suspicion or disgust, their complaints were often cognate with those expressed in the 1890s and in the years immediately following.

Hostile views of Kipling’s tone often grew from a dislike of the pretence, or the reality of the worldly wisdom the young man displayed. It would be tempting to dismiss Robert Buchanan’s notorious attack as a piece of fossilised spite, or ignorant and dated polemic, if, in more restrained forms, its complaints had not gone on sounding in Kipling criticism. Buchanan’s diatribe against the drunken, bragging, boastful hooliganism1 of Kipling’s fiction and his assertion that the new writer represented all that was ignorant, selfish, base and brutal [240] in human nature reappeared, in more temperate forms, in the discussions of later writers.

Most of the early attacks on Kipling’s work are pertinent to a consideration of his knowingness. Implicit in the accusations of brutal insolence, vulgarity or cynicism was the rage of those whose liberal values, and sensitive humane attitudes, or what they wished to see as such, Kipling dismissed as sentiment and illusion. In these critics’ eyes, it compounded the offence that Kipling rejected their views and perceptions on the basis of his superior knowledge. He not only asserted, but often demonstrated, that he was better informed than they were about the nature of the British common soldier; the inner workings and convoluted, hidden practices of the Imperial Administration; the society life of hill stations, and, most objectionable of all, the motives of men and women, considered both apart from and in relation to each other. After such knowledge, what forgiveness?

The problem posed by Kipling’s superior knowledge and his knowing tone would have been less vexing for some of his critics but for an intractable ←2 | 3→fact. Where it could be checked, his knowledge proved to be accurate and, for many readers, his understanding of human character was overwhelmingly convincing, as well as refreshingly honest. The reviewer of Kim, in 1901, expressed a common view when he spoke of the ‘patient industry, the protracted observation, the thorough knowledge’ [271] that informed the three pages describing the wayfarers on the Grand Trunk Road. The same writer’s view that the traits and motives of the novel’s characters, a ‘portrait-gallery of unusual extent and interest’ [270], were utterly convincing commanded an equally wide assent. The reviewer makes the point with the confidence of one who knows that his readers will agree with him: ‘You do not stop to inquire whether’ Kipling’s characters are ‘true to life. You know they are; you accept them all without question or reservation’.2

Given that it was not easy to dismiss the accuracy of Kipling’s information or, in many areas, his understanding of motive or characters, critics who objected to his knowingness initially adopted moral disapproval as their weapon of attack. However, terms like vulgarity, cynicism, brutal insolence and hooligan viciousness had limited long-term use. It was impossible, in such phraseology, to make a discriminating point about a writer, who, like him or not, was a considerable figure, clearly talented and widely read. In any case, such abusive language soon began to seem dated. It drew its force from a politically quite understandable revulsion against the South African War and against Kipling seen, rightly or wrongly, as the embodiment and spokesman of forces that had driven Britain into an ugly and degrading conflict. Whether such an attitude to Kipling was fair or not, the political heats of 1899 to 1902 which had fed it began to cool. Those whom, for various reasons, Kipling offended required other more sophisticated tools to sap the power he exerted on his readers. From an early point in Kipling’s career, critics began to move from straightforward moral outrage at the young writer’s knowingness, towards varied psychological speculations about the origins, meaning and effects of this feature of his writing. In the long run, this has proved more effective and damaging than the angry cries of the earlier moralists.←3 | 4→

It might be natural to assume that Edmund Wilson’s ‘The Kipling that Nobody Read’ [1941] was the first psychological case history of Kipling. Certainly, Wilson’s essay is notable in, for the first time, employing the then prestigious Freudian methodology and terms of reference. Rather than making a complete break with the past, however, Wilson gathered up and fixed, in a more categorical and ‘scientific’ form, what, for many, was already their preferred mode of seeing Kipling. By moving from a crude moral dismissal of his work towards an ostensibly more understanding account of his emotional life, critics began to find more effective formulae to express their intuitions about and incipient suspicions of Kipling.

For Dixon Scott, the essence of Kipling’s nature lay in a ‘passion for definition – a spiritual horror, almost desperate, of vagueness – hunger for certitude and system’.3 A ‘dreamer born, in exile’ [311], Kipling was spurred on by an urge to prove his masculinity, to assert that he ‘was not quite the lamb he looked’ [312]. He needed to demonstrate that a ‘certain small, spectacled sub-editor fond of poetry’ [312] could hold his own against the ‘workers, doers, men of action’ [311]. This mask, a ‘dangerous thing […] often’ to ‘the face beneath’ [312], shaped his mind into that of ‘a martinet – incapable therefore of complete imaginative sympathy’ [315]. His knowingness, expressed in narratives written ‘in a hand like an indifferent drawl’ [312], was a form of perfect ‘make-up’ for a little man who felt inadequate. The deception was complete, and the ‘mess rooms were duly impressed’ [312]. However, in compensating for his lack of male assertiveness, the small spectacled man killed his sensitivity. In his assumed identity, he lacked the trustfulness of more suggestive writers, their ‘glides and grace notes’ [313] and the patience with which they were able to deal with the complexity of people and their temperaments. Instead, the insecure little man sought refuge in creating characters who were ‘types and set counters’ in a ‘tangible system’ [314].

Subsequent critics caught up and pursued, along other lines, this notion of Kipling’s emotional inadequacy: he ‘writes with the eye that appreciates all that the eye can see, but of the heart he knows nothing, for the heart ←4 | 5→cannot be observed’.4 For George Moore, the author of this pronouncement, Kipling’s knowingness derives from and is an attempt to disguise his lack of emotional capacity. Whether innately impoverished or self-limited, his thoughts were dominated by the urge to outsmart others rather than be duped by them: ‘“I know a trick worth two of that” is the keynote of his mind. It is the key in which he always writes’ [288]. Moore is puzzled by what he sees as the contrast between the richness of Kipling’s language [‘None since the Elizabethans has written so copiously’ [288]] and the poverty of his sensibility: ‘Not to be taken in is in Mr Kipling’s eyes a sort of north star whereby’ he ‘steers the bark of life’ [288]. Knowingness and the use of superior knowledge in Kipling’s writing amount to a paltry smartness fuelled by an insecure little man’s anxiety that he, rather than others, should win the trick. Other writers agreed that Kipling’s interest in superior knowledge pointed to emotional impairment, while differing as to its nature. For Chesterton, Kipling’s knowingness was that of a cosmopolitan or man of the world who could not make emotional commitments. Kipling’s acquaintance with many unusual facts only induced in him that ‘light melancholy with which a man looks back on having been the lover of many women’. Although widely ranging, Kipling’s superior knowledge could never capture the spirit of places any more than it could reach into the hearts of individuals: ‘He is the philanderer of nations’, a ‘globe-trotter’ without ‘the patience to become part of anything’.5

Long before Wilson pointed to psychological trauma, commentators had picked over many of Kipling’s preoccupations such as the professional competence and justified pride of those with special skills, or the value placed on male comradeship and on practical jokes. In all of these they had sought, and to their own satisfaction discovered, evidence of emotional lack and of compensatory fantasies. Impaired in his capacity to feel with or to relate to others, this damaged spirit yearned, in its timidity, to be accepted by some tough, taciturn, unquestionably masculine group. No Edmund ←5 | 6→Wilson was needed to exploit the possibilities of speculative psychological profiles of Kipling. What was inaugurated before 1914 runs through its present followers, though with new kinds of emphases and terminologies, one of the most potent shapers of the ways in which Kipling is read.

Without any of the various more recent psychological vocabularies, Max Beerbohm’s criticism and parodies show that it was possible to make damaging insinuations about Kipling’s emotional and sexual nature. Like Castorley reviewing one of Manalace’s books, in ‘Dayspring Mishandled’, Beerbohm dealt with Kipling’s work ‘showing an intimacy of unclean deduction (this was before the days of Freud) which stood as a record’.6 Although they are well known, it is worth touching on Beerbohm’s attacks, for what they suggest about Kipling’s knowingness that so offended some of his contemporaries.

Obvious in two notorious instances, but recurring on other occasions over many years, Beerbohm’s virulent and obsessive assaults on Kipling’s reputation have puzzled several commentators. Carrington’s remark typifies a frequent response: ‘Max was, as a rule, gentle, except when he touched upon one topic’, that of Kipling’s writing and his public standing which ‘he set himself to destroy’.7 Indeed, it is hard to connect the author of a delicate fantasy like Zuleika Dobson, a touching evocation like ‘A Clergyman’ or ‘Number 7, the Pines’ with its quietly amused picture of Swinburne and Watts-Dunton in old age, with the ferociously malevolent parodies of Kipling. In Carrington’s view, while not affecting Kipling’s standing among the general public, Beerbohm’s attacks over thirty years had ‘no small degree of success among literary coteries’ [404]. If for no other reason than this, Beerbohm’s treatment of Kipling would be worth trying to understand.

However, there are other factors in these attacks that make them significant. Deeply wounding, because knowing where most effectively to strike, Beerbohm’s reviews, caricatures and parodies are the most damaging of the emotional characterisations of Kipling. They go further than any other writer before 1914 in suggesting that Kipling was emotionally ←6 | 7→sick and, possibly, sexually disordered. Beerbohm’s denigration began an open season on speculation about the psychological recesses of Kipling’s nature. This was all the more subtly destructive than Edmund Wilson’s later account for not being dependent on outmoded Freudian theories.

There are various explanations for Beerbohm’s malevolence. A remark by one of his recent biographers is suggestive: ‘Why did Max do it? I’ll let those who love to spy out unconscious motives do so on their own.’8 This comment implies a distaste for prying into hidden, perhaps unknowable, aspects of a writer’s personality, but it also suggests that Beerbohm did have something to conceal in the way he responded to Kipling. Ostensibly, Beerbohm’s own statements on the affair are clear, and the reasons he offered seem plausible enough. In conversation with S. N. Behrman he described Kipling as a ‘very great genius’ who was ‘debasing his genius by what he wrote’. As Kipling’s ‘publication increased, so did’ Beerbohm’s ‘derogation’. Although knowing, through mutual friends, that Kipling was pained and shocked by what he wrote, Beerbohm who ‘meant’ and ‘wanted’ to ‘stop’ felt that he ‘couldn’t’.9 He acknowledged the compulsive nature of the vilification in which he had engaged. The tense silences in his exchange with Behrman, while admitting this, suggest that Beerbohm was disturbed, perhaps guilty, about his own actions.

His dislike for what he thought was Kipling’s relish for the ‘ugly word, the ugly action, the ugly atmosphere’ and his contempt for the ‘triple odour of beer, baccy, and blood’10 in Kipling’s fiction were real enough. Political differences, too, might have played a part in forming Beerbohm’s attitude. Although generally reticent about politics, he was not simply the polished stylist and aesthete most accounts portray. Beerbohm’s savage set of cartoons attacking the South African war, ‘The Second Childhood of John Bull’, reveal a capacity for political anger. Years later, just before the First World War, Beerbohm, alarmed by the current situation, sent a letter to A. G. Gardiner, the editor of The Daily News, then the Liberal newspaper ←7 | 8→of widest circulation. He offered Gardiner unsolicited advice on how to improve his paper’s effect, on whom he should fire and which writers to keep in post. For this apparent intrusion Beerbohm offered the excuse that he shared Gardiner’s political views.11

However, disgust with Kipling’s politics and his ‘brutal’ tone do not sufficiently explain the nature of Beerbohm’s denigration. There is something in the line he took about Kipling that invites further enquiries. Beerbohm’s insinuations about Kipling’s emotional life and his sexuality point elsewhere. His review, ‘Kipling’s Entire’, of the dramatised version of The Light that Failed by a lady writing under the name of George Fleming, [14 February 1903], speculated that the name Rudyard Kipling itself was the ‘veil of a feminine identity’ [245]. Beerbohm uses this apparently whimsical notion as a vehicle for an attack on Kipling’s conception of masculinity, of comradeship and, above all, of knowingness. At root, all these are the products of Kipling’s insecure, overwrought sense of his own male identity which, desperately, he must continuously assert. This is why in his fiction, Kipling portrays men ‘in an essentially feminine manner, and from an essentially feminine point of view’ [245]. Such male figures are ‘feverishly imagined’ [245] by a writer obsessed with ‘the notion of manhood, manliness, man’ [246]. In other writers’ work the ‘virility is taken for granted’ [246], the male characters are men and ‘there’s an end of the matter’ [246]. However, in many women writers, and in Kipling who shares their characteristics, men have to be acutely conscious of their manhood, demonstrating it by being ‘laconic, taciturn, as becomes men’ [246]. Ordinary males have no such insecurities. In real life men are not like that, Beerbohm remarks, adding sharply: ‘At least, only the effeminate men are like that’ [246].

Someone as generally calm and benign as Beerbohm appears to have struck out, in this case, because of pain Kipling had caused him. From the content of his attacks, the distress Beerbohm suffered had to do with sexual and emotional issues, with concepts of masculinity and the way it was asserted. We might explain, or close, the subject by stating that Beerbohm was suggesting that Kipling was a homosexual because he himself was one. One obvious problem with this suggestion is that there is no evidence that ←8 | 9→Beerbohm was homosexual and some information, apart from his two happy marriages and other relationships with women, that he was not.

Perhaps more to the purpose, a substantial reason to reject the notion that Beerbohm’s accusation was one of repressed homosexuality is that it clouds the issue with anachronistic associations. At the time Beerbohm produced his review and parodies, categories like homosexual and notions of repression were not current, if they were available at all. Using such categories to describe his attack raises connotations in the minds of readers now, which make it sound less damaging than in fact it was. Accused of being homosexual, repressed or otherwise, someone nowadays would probably respond with an amused denial, or the question ‘so what?’ The notion that Beerbohm’s attack is concerned with homosexuality and repression limits, localises and particularises what he says too much. He was not concerned to pin a sexual label on Kipling but to demolish his way of seeing and imagining the world.

Although the anger Beerbohm felt certainly did relate to issues of sexuality and representations of manliness, manhood, man, his resentment was on others’ behalf rather than his own. One clue to his attitude may be found in a letter of 1895 to Wilde’s lover, Robert Ross, half-jokingly imploring Ross not to see Beerbohm’s friend Reggie Turner while Beerbohm was away in the USA. He also asks Ross to keep Wilde’s other more famous lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, away from Turner as well. Beerbohm’s reason for these requests is significant, ‘I really feel that Reg is at a rather crucial point of his career and should hate to see him fall an entire victim to the love that dare not tell its name.’


X, 282
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (June)
Kipling Practical Jokes Superior Knowledge John Coates Kipling the Trickster
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2021. X, 282 pp.

Biographical notes

John Coates (Author)

John Coates, MA (Jesus College, Cambridge), PhD (Exeter), spent two years in the US teaching in colleges and in the UK lectured at the University of Hull until his retirement. He was an acknowledged expert on G. K. Chesterton, having written two books (1983, 2002) and numerous articles on him and given papers at international conferences. His main area of scholarship was late Victorian and Edwardian literature, as his books on Walter Pater (2011) and Rudyard Kipling (1997) affirm, but he had the ability to treat skilfully and sensitively an astonishing range of different writers. His book on Elizabeth Bowen (1998) is an example of this. He published more than a hundred papers in journals such as Shakespeare Survey and Comparative Literature. He died suddenly in January 2020, leaving the manuscript of this book.


Title: Kipling the Trickster