Lucinda Elliot

Some Musings on George Orwell’s Essay on Rudyard Kipling – and it’s Relevance to Georgette Heyer

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too.

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;

If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster,

And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make a heap of all your winnings

And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

And never breathe a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

If you can talk with

crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

That is, of course, a 1910 poem by the arch spokesman for the expansionist phase of the British Empire, Rudyard Kipling.

The wisdom in it might astonish many – when I first read it, it astonished me – and that is one of the contradictions to be found in Kipling’s writing. It was written as advice to his son, advocating macho Victorian stoicism.

Incredibly in the modern age, perhaps as a result of reading Victorian and Edwardian writers from an early age, I do still believe in those notions of honour – though from the politically opposite perspective. It goes without saying that I think he should have addressed that poem to his surviving daughter, too: ‘Then you’ll be a woman, my daughter’…

It is tragic that John Kipling died very young – too young to have yet been in the sort of situations Kipling describes, save, undoubtedly, where he met his death during the Battle of Loos in 1915 in World War 1. Unfortunately, it seems too likely that he died very painfully of a facial wound.  His poor eyesight had led to his being rejected from the navy and twice from the army, and he had only been recruited when his father had written to Lord Roberts requesting that he be accepted into the Irish Guards.

It might surprise readers of this blog to see me quoting an advocate of the zenith of British Imperialism, racism and macho ideology.  Yet, his style beguiles; his style beguiles wonderfully. The fact that I don’t agree with any of Kipling’s ideas makes him no less a wonderful example of what George Orwell dubs a ‘good bad poet’ in my eyes, with a genius for concise expression and complete but appealing vulgarity.

Who else could have written, ‘An’ the dawn comes up like thunder’?  That phrase is purely brilliant and wholly coarse.

Georges Orwell’s astute essay on Kipling can be found here

In it, he notes: –

‘Kipling is a jingo imperialist; he is morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting. It is better to start by admitting that, and then to try to find out why it is that he survives while the refined people who have sniggered at him seem to wear so badly.’

On Kipling’s defence of imperialism, Orwell observes:

‘Tawdry and shallow though it is, Kipling’s is the only literary picture that we possess of nineteenth-century Anglo-India, and he could only make it because he was just coarse enough to be able to exist and keep his mouth shut in clubs and regimental messes…’

Orwell, who, unlike many of Kipling’s most dismissive critics, had experienced military action (on the side of the democrats in the Spanish Civil War)and had known such clubs as a member of the Burma Imperial Police, and had read Kipling’s works, notes that, while furiously right wing, Kipling was not, in fact, as uncritical of authority and militarism as is sometimes assumed. While upholding the status quo and the glory of imperialist conquest, he also criticized it realistically:-

He knows that bullets hurt, that under fire everyone is terrified, that the ordinary soldier never knows what the war is about.’

Owell notes that: –

Kipling’s romantic ideas about England and the Empire might not have mattered if he could have held them without having the class-prejudices which at that time went with them. If one examines his best and most representative work… one notices that what more than anything else spoils them is an underlying air of patronage. Kipling idealizes the army officer, especially the junior officer, and that to an idiotic extent, but the private soldier, though lovable and romantic, has to be a comic.’

Orwell observes about enjoyment of the poems of Kipling something which can be applied to other famous writers who are as politically and aesthetically indefensible and as popular as he once was: –

‘At his worst, and also his most vital, in poems like ‘Gunga Din’ or ‘Danny Deever’, Kipling is almost a shameful pleasure, like the taste for cheap sweets that some people secretly carry into middle life. But even with his best passages one has the same sense of being seduced by something spurious, and yet unquestionably seduced. Unless one is merely a snob and a liar it is impossible to say that no one who cares for poetry could get any pleasure out of such lines as:

‘For the wind is in the palm trees, and the temple bells they say,

Come you back, you British soldier, come you back to Mandalay!’

This is highly astute.

Heyer fan blogs tend to publish pictures of her as a young woman; here she is in later life, looking for all the world like the sternest headmistress aiming to give you a dressing down for being seen downtown without your school hat…

When I was re-reading this essay, it occurred to me that much of what George Orwell says of Kipling, arguably applies to Georgette Heyer, that creator of an artificial Golden Era from that most turbulent period of violent social change, the time of the Regency in the UK. She can also seduce the reader into revelling in this wholly artificial fantasy world, so vividly and often humorously portrayed.

This writer, who along with Jeffrey Farnol, arguably created the ‘Regency Romance’, is Kipling’s equal in right wing conviction. She also shares his taent for vivid writing which is skillful enough to give the impression of being effortless (which writing  very rarely is).

It also possesses just that appeal that George Orwell notes in that of Kipling.  Like him, and like P G Wodehouse, she has created a world that never existed, and can beguile the reader into revelling into it.

So addictive do many of her admirers find her works, that they will return to them again and again as comfort reading.

It may seem incongruous to compare the work of a writer of romances with Kipling, the most unthinkingly macho of  poets, and yet they have many similarities both in outlook, and in the nature of their appeal. One appeals to one-sided masculinity in men, one to one-sided femininity in women.

Theirs is the appeal of the security exuded by the aggressive conservative who can write vivid prose. Both can write enticingly, gliding along the superficial surfaces of experience, and can also somehow pass off the preposterous as believable, and can make their visions into a sort of security blanket for those eager for a fix of historical romantic escapism.

I am not saying that there is anything wrong with escapism. I like a bit of it myself. What I am saying is that I have often been slightly concerned at how many Heyer readers seem to assume that because she was very well informed about the lifestyle of the late Georgian upper class, that her beguiling comic vision had anything to do with the historical reality of that age.

Back to that wonderfully analytical George Orwell (though, as a self consciously masculine writer – in fact, an appallingly sexist one -you may be sure that being forced to read historical romances would have featured as torment in his ultimate torture chamber,  Room 101). Here he defines the appeal of Kipling’s verse. It may be my dyslexic brain, but it is easy for me to see how these arguments can be applied to Heyer’s prose: –

‘The fact that such a thing as good bad poetry can exist is a sign of the emotional overlap between the intellectual and the ordinary man. The intellectual is different from the ordinary man, but only in certain sections of his personality, and even then not all the time. But what is the peculiarity of a good bad poem? A good bad poem is a graceful monument to the obvious. It records in memorable form — for verse is a mnemonic device, among other things — some emotion which very nearly every human being can share. ..however sentimental it may be, its sentiment is ‘true’ sentiment in the sense that you are bound to find yourself thinking the thought it expresses sooner or later; and then, if you happen to know the poem, it will come back into your mind and seem better than it did before. ..’


That certainly explains why the poem ‘If’ appeals to me.

Very few people today, apart from outright fascists, think that Kipling’s view of Colonial South Africa, say, was impartial, and to express admiration for his world view would regarded as disgusting.

Interestingly, that unsparing attitude is not extended to Heyer. This may partly be because historical romance and murder mysteries have traditionally been excluded from serious literary consideration.

On Heyer and the frivolous image created in popular understanding of UK late eighteenth/early nineteenth century history, I have been anticipated several times. Here’s one blog post, by the late writer and historian MM Bennets.  here

2 Responses

  1. Orwell didn’t fight exactly on the democrats side, it’s much more complex than that. He fought in the POUM’s side nor, the communist neither the socialist part, but the left wing agrarian political party of Aragón (one province next to the Pirineans in Spain). His own experience and opinion, about the whole Spanish conflict, was expressed on his book : Homage to Catalonia.

    1. Hello, Meri, thanks for commenting. Yes, ‘Homeage to Catalonia’ is a great book; I read it twice; I was particularly struck with his description of the volunteer he meets the day he joins the militia, ‘The face of a man who would commit murder and throw away his life for a friend’. Yet despite the disillusioning complexities of Orwell’s experiences in Spain as a member of an anarchist unit, then as a wanted man, etc,, I wanted to make the point succinctly here that he was fighting for democracy against Franco.

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