- Boy-Society in Rudyard Kipling's Stalky & Co.
Rudyard Kipling's Stalky & Co., 1899, is an unusual book by an unusual man. It is a public school novel based on Kipling's memories of his own schooldays at United Services College, Westward Ho! Situated at Bideford by the sea, in an out-of-the-way corner of the country, the school was rarely visited by parents, many of whom were, in any case, like Kipling's parents, stationed in India. Abandoned to a rather Spartan world, the boys at Westward Ho! were cast on their own resources and boy-society flourished. The most immediate task facing the boy arriving alone at school was finding a "chum." Stalky & Co. describes how three boy heroes—Beetle, who was modelled on Kipling, and McTurk and Stalky, modelled on two boyhood friends, G. C. Beresford and L. C. Dunsterville—employ "stalkiness," a school-word defined as the capacity for "clever, well-considered, wily" action,1 to defy the traditions of the public school and assert the values of boyhood.
It is paradoxical that Kipling, known later on for his authoritarian politics, should, in this novel about school life, have seemingly approved such a concerted challenge to institutional authority. The boys at Westward Ho! are, after all, being prepared to become part of the imperial machine, and at the end of the book Stalky is pictured leading his troops in India. A partial explanation of this apparent paradox may be found in Kipling's attempt to counteract the effects of the increasing conformity of the public schools on the national character.2 In reconstructing his own memories of boy-life, Kipling found himself examining not only the behavior of the boy at school, but that of the adult in society as well. In Stalky & Co., Kipling sought an antidote for what he saw as the disastrous effects of traditional forms of public school education on the national character, and in so doing, presented a radical and disturbing answer to the question of how individuality might be retained in a world increasingly constrained by the pressure to conform.
Central to the picture of boy-life in Stalky & Co. is Kipling's [End Page 16] belief that in such a world, the boy who wished to retain his individuality at school (and in later life as well) would have to train himself to lead a secret life, in which his real feelings and values were contained. Kipling's three heroes go about this in several ways. One is by refusing to participate in organized games. According to the housemaster Prout (dubbed "Heffy" or "Hefter" by the boys, because of his ape-like build), all "right-minded boys" are eager to join in these games and to defend the "honor of the house." As McTurk knowingly observes in a parody of Prout,
If we attended the matches an' yelled, "Well hit, sir," an' stood on one leg an' grinned every time Heffy said, "So ho, my sons. Is it thus?" an' said, "Yes, sir," an' "O, sir," an' "Please, sir," like a lot o' filthy fa-ags, Heffy 'ud think no end of us.3
Unwilling to allow their pleasures to be restricted or to sham an enthusiasm they don't feel, the boys build a retreat. Stalky & Co. opens with a description of the "right-minded boy" that is in stark contrast to Prout's definition:
In summer all right-minded boys built huts in the furze-hill behind the College—little lairs whittled out of the heart of the prickly bushes, full of stumps, odd root-ends, and spikes, but, since they were strictly forbidden, palaces of delight. And for the fifth summer in succession, Stalky, McTurk, and Beetle (this was before they reached the dignity of a study) had built like beavers a place of retreat and meditation, where they smoked.
Kipling's ideal boy creates a secret place for himself and his comrades, and joins in approved activities only to protect his hidden life. When Prout discovers the boys' hideout, Stalky acquires membership for himself, McTurk, and Beetle in the Natural History Society, an "institution Stalky held in contempt," but...