His prose, certainly, stands a third or a fourth reading, as his verse does not. Even in a world which Henry James and Mr. Conrad have taught to study motives and atmospheres with an almost scientific carefulness, Mr. Kipling’s “well-hammered anecdotes,” as Mr. George Moore once described the stories, still refuse to bore us.
At the same time, they make a different appeal to us from their appeal of twenty or twenty-five years ago. In the early days, we half-worshipped Mr. Kipling because he told us true stories. Now we enjoy him because he tells us amusing stories. He conquered us at first by making us think him a realist. He was the man who knew. We listened to him like children drinking in travellers’ tales. He bluffed us with his cocksure way of talking about things, and by addressing us in a mysterious jargon which we regarded as a proof of his intimacy with the barrack-room, the engine-room, the racecourse, and the lives of generals, Hindus, artists, and East-enders. That was Mr. Kipling’s trick. He assumed the realistic manner as Jacob assumed the hairy hands of Esau. He compelled us to believe him by describing with elaborate detail the setting of his story. And, having once got us in the mood of belief, he proceeded to spin a yarn that as often as not was as unlike life as A Yankee at the Court of King Arthur. His characters are inventions, not portraits. Even the dialects they speak—dialects which used to be enthusiastically spoken of as masterly achievements of realism—are ludicrously false to life, as a page of Mulvaney’s or Ortheris’s talk will quickly make clear to any one who knows the real thing. But with what humour the stories are told! Mr. Kipling does undoubtedly possess the genius of humour and energy. There are false touches in the boys’ conversation in The Drums of the Fore and Aft, but the humour and energy with which the progress of the regiment to the frontier, its disgrace and its rescue by the drunken children, are described, make it one of the most admirable short stories of our time.
His humour, it must be admitted, is akin to the picaresque. It is amusing to reflect as one looks round the disreputable company of Mr. Kipling’s characters, that his work has now been given a place in the library of law and order. When Stalky and Co. was published, parents and schoolmasters protested in alarm, and it seemed doubtful for a time whether Mr. Kipling was to be reckoned among the enemies of society. If I am not mistaken, The Spectator came down on the side of Mr. Kipling, and his reputation as a respectable author was saved.