THOUGH Rudyard Kipling is enjoying a critical reappraisal, his school stories, Stalky amp; Co (published 100 years ago), are still suspect. Even such a key text in the current renaissance as Craig Raine's 1987 collection, A Choice of Kipling's Prose, included no Stalky.
While Kipling's Indian output is enjoyed for historical insights and his later fiction feted for technical subtlety, Stalky amp; Co remains an unknown quantity, not just for its potentially embarrassing subject matter - the rumbustious exploits of boys in an austere 19th-century quasi-military boarding school - but also for its style: a rather laboured, rollicking English humour.
The book has never been fully appreciated. Since it appeared at the start of the Boer War, contemporary journalistic comment was coloured by South Africa.
With Kipling's reputation as an arch-imperialist, his tales were wrongly regarded by opponents of the war as recruiting manifestos. His most splenetic critic, Robert Buchanan, inveighed: "Only the spoiled child of an utterly brutalised public school could possibly have written Stalky amp; Co ... The vulgarity, the brutality, the savagery ... reeks on every page."
But children - and admittedly that meant boys - loved them. Strange though it might seem, it was a certain type of unimaginative pedagogue who had problems. Grudgingly, Kipling apologised to FW Farrar, dean of Canterbury and former headmaster of Marlborough, who complained that his own priggish mid-19th-century school books, Eric, Or Little by Little and St Winifred's, had been lampooned in Stalky amp; Co.
Kipling told his old headmaster Cormell Price: "Ordained headmasters and people of the Weldon and Farrar types will weep and howl; but we of the genuine congregation will approve." (James Weldon was a former headmaster of Harrow.)
It is easy to understand these reactions. For, disguised as a picaresque school saga in the tradition of Tom Brown's Schooldays, Stalky amp; Co is a wonderfully subversive text.
It tells of three schoolboys, known as Beetle, Stalky and M'Turk and their experiences at "the Coll", an educational establishment based on the United Services College at Westward Ho! in Devon, where Kipling went aged 12. He is Beetle, while the other two main characters are his friends Lionel Dunsterville, who took the traditional USC path into the Indian Army, and George Beresford, a languid Irish aristocrat who became a photographer.
In fictional form, this "resourceful" trio are crypto-anarchists who, when not smoking in their hut on the edge of school bounds or meting out their own brand of rough justice against bullies, are forever twitting authority - for example, leaving a dead cat under the floor-boards of the house supervised by an unpopular master known as King. They create havoc wherever they go, but try to ensure they have a reasonable alibi.
Their ideal is "stalkyism", which means being clever and resourceful.
King was based on WC Crofts, a master with whom Kipling grappled at the USC. Crofts's
histrionic table-thumping style of teaching would not be tolerated today.
He once hurled a copy of Browning's Men and Women at Kipling, who calmly picked it
up and began reading. He told a correspondent that, surprisingly, his youthful readers liked King, the character teachers most loathed. The reason, he felt, was that young people felt they were "getting their money's worth from the long words and laboured sarcasm".
If Stalky amp; Co has any educational message, it is fairly progressive - that children should be allowed freedom to test authority, devise their own ways of coping, and so arrive at a sense of their own individuality. Of course, they will behave like hooligans at times. But they will develop their own "law", based on "God's Own Common Sense", leading to a social cohesiveness that will serve them well in future life.
As for the book's imperialism, it is well hidden. Kipling advocates not the old-fashioned virtues of heroism that carved out an empire, but the intelligence and cunning that are required in the next stage of administering that "white man's burden".
"Rudyard Kipling" by Andrew Lycett has recently been published by Weidenfeld amp; Nicolson at pound;25