Rudyard Kipling is probably best remembered today as the poet who spoke for what the British Empire, and the people of Britain during his times, considered their best virtues and values. Others may remember him for his colourful tales of a young boy raised by animals, The Jungle Book, or his adventure novel Kim or his many excellent tales of the uncanny. Lesser known is his collection of school stories, Stalky & Co.
We’ve discussed British school stories before; they range from the very moralistic to the light and entertaining ones like PG Wodehouse’s early works. These stories mainly deal with good boys — a bit unruly perhaps, but with their heart in the right place. When we are shown a less than exemplary boy, he is either painted as a total villain or a figure of ridicule, like the Fat Owl, Billy Bunter. Kipling’s school stories are different.
Stalky and his friends M’Turk and Beetle are the scourge of their masters, forever finding ways to go out of bounds and engage in all sorts of illicit fun including camping out on a nearby private estate. They are three rugged, self-reliant and resourceful boys, holy terrors who always manage to get out of every scrape they wind up in, or to wreak elaborate and dramatic revenge on those who have done them wrong. Some of the masters are frankly terrified of them while others look upon them as nothing less than public enemies.
Contemporary critics were appalled by this book, so different from the idealised stories of school life they were used to. One called it ‘an unpleasant book about unpleasant boys at an unpleasant school’ while another deplored its ‘vulgarity...brutality...savagery’. And yet, it is a realistic picture of British school life with its capital punishment, its strict rules and the secret lives of the schoolboys with their complex caste systems, loyalties and rivalries. It doesn’t soft-pedal grim facts — the boys are often sneaking out to have a smoke, and they think nothing of shooting rabbits, or even cats if there are no rabbits to be had — I was quite appalled at this and threw the book across the room when it happened! The boys are not very interested in studies or, even worse, sports, which are sort of a religion to other writers in this genre, including Wodehouse. However, they love reading and sometimes read books of a surprising sophistication, such as the works of the art critic John Ruskin.
Despite the poor cat’s fate, this book won me back. First of all, it is well-written. Kipling was a superior writer to most of the people who wrote the goody-two-shoes school stories his characters rightfully scorn. His language is lively, gritty and well paced and his dialogue catches the exuberance and rich flow of slang used by schoolboys, although their specific slang will seem strange and even old-fashioned to you! And the boys are not essentially bad (although they are violent and at times brutal) — they are simply boys, out to have a good time and impatient with the stodgy rules imposed on them by authority figures. To put it simply, Kipling knew what he was writing about, and he presents such a frank, realistic picture of the hilarious exploits of a band of ingenious, devilish schoolboys that it is hard not to be entertained by the audacity of the boys and the many vivid details that bring life in a school over a century ago to life.
Kipling’s tales of Stalky and his friends are well worth reading for the way they bring us face to face with the ideals and attitudes of more than a century ago. As you read these stories, you can think about how attitudes to education, and general social values have changed since Kipling’s times, and in which ways things have changed for the better and how they may have also partly changed for the worse.
Either way, it is an interesting step outside our modern comfort zone and an entertaining read.