Kipling and Syphilis

The June edition of the Kipling Journal arrived today, including a letter I wrote to the editor about the story ‘Dayspring Mishandled’ (collected in Limits and Renewals of 1932). I suggest that the hidden theme of the story is the subject of syphilis (unmentionable in the family-oriented magazines where Kipling’s work was usually published) . Here is the letter:

Dear Editor,
An enjoyable article by Austin Asche in the Kipling Journal (March 2016) considers stories where Kipling compliments his readers by deliberately leaving us some unresolved issues to ponder. About ‘Dayspring Mishandled’, he asks: ‘Manallace spoke of Vidal’s mother. Castorley said something in reply, and from that hour … Manallace’s real life-work and interests began. What did Castorley say?’
This is a good question, and it is hardly surprising that when reading ‘Dayspring Mishandled’, whose narrator scorns stories that ‘save people thinking’, we are expected to do some work. Austin Asche’s answer, however, is not completely satisfying: ‘Castorley… is painted as a pretty nasty type of individual [….] What he said to Manallace was characteristically vicious and almost certainly included the word ‘whore’ or some equivalent expression.’
Such words might anger Manallace, but would they be enough to inspire a ‘life-work’? The 1890s Bohemian background of the story, and the cheery mentions of the prostitute ‘Kentucky Kate’ suggest an environment with a relaxed attitude to sexual morals. In such a community, would the suggestion, however boorishly expressed, that a woman was unchaste have been so momentous? Surely what Castorley tells Manallace is something that he did not know before, something surprising and shocking. The online New Reader’s Guide points us to answers by other critics, the most suggestive of which is that of Angus Wilson: ‘This fine story is weakened by our not knowing what enormity Castorley said …. Yet if, as I suspect, Castorley declared that her paralysis was syphilis contracted by whoring it is hard to see how a man like Kipling could have written it out, even in 1928.’
Indeed, Kipling could not have made it explicit in the Strand Magazine or McCall’s (both aimed at a family audience) where ‘Dayspring Mishandled’ first appeared in 1928. But he did make his thoughts about the disease clear when acting as Vice-President of the Society for the Prevention of Venereal Disease. He put his name to a letter from the Society printed in the Times of November 22, 1919, arguing that ‘this terrible scourge’ should be combated by making prophylactics easily available. In Something of Myself, he wrote angrily: ‘It was counted impious that bazaar prostitutes should be inspected; or that the men should be taught elementary precautions in their dealings with them. This official virtue cost our Army in India nine thousand expensive white men a year always laid up from venereal disease.’
I would agree that syphilis is indeed at the secret heart of the story, but that Castorley did more than say that it killed Vidal’s mother – which Manallace, who tended her, must have known already. The story repeatedly refers to her ‘paralysis’, a euphemism for tertiary syphilis, often referred to as ‘General Paralysis of the Insane’. I suggest that Castorley, perhaps unthinkingly, revealed that it was he who gave her the disease. We have been told that ‘He, too, for a time, had loved Vidal’s mother, in his own way,’; his way was unlikely to be honourable. The very first thing we learn about her is that she ‘suffered and died because she loved one unworthy.’ Castorley fits that description. Here, surely, is a compelling motive for bitter and protracted revenge; Castorley ruined her life, so Manallace will ruin his.
This may also illuminate the ending of the story, answering that other hard question: Why does Manallace abandon his revenge?
Syphilis is a disease with several stages. First, there is a chancre (a kind of sore or ulcer), followed by a secondary stage with less obvious symptoms. The sufferer may believe himself or herself cured but the disease is still contagious. It proceeds to its two later stages (in which it is not contagious): latent, when it lies dormant for years, and tertiary, when it seriously damages internal organs, causing mental disorders and, eventually, death.
Kipling’s presentation of Castorley’s succession of internal complaints and mental confusions surely hints that he suffered from the same disease as Vidal’s mother. Explicitness is avoided, but Kipling suggests that Gleeag is hiding an uglier truth when vaguely ascribing the death to: ‘Malignant kidney trouble – generalised at the end.’ Such euphemisms were probably customary for doctors speaking tactfully to relatives or friends of the deceased.
While Castorley is dying, Manallace visits him often, and sees at first hand his agonies and delirium. Though we were never told about the agonies of Vidal’s mother’s (like her name, they are kept private) I would suggest that Castorley’s symptoms were like hers, and that Manallace sees the disease subjecting him to a retribution more dreadful even than the one that he had himself planned. (Quite apart from the desire not to give satisfaction to the horrible Lady Castorley.)
Kipling, like other magazine authors of the time, was able to write so that the innocent would not be troubled, but those with a knowledge of the effects of syphilis would pick up the clues. In 1928, many readers would have done so. Those of us lucky enough to live in the age of antibiotics will find the symptoms less recognisable; the story has become more puzzling than Kipling would have intended.

George Simmers, Huddersfield

I could have written at greater length, but Jan Montefiore, the ever-excellent editor of the Journal had only two pages left in the June issue, and she wanted the letter to go into that because it already contained an essay on discussing ‘Dayspring Mishandled’:Kipling and the Psychology of Revenge. This is by Andrew Scragg, and has good things to say about how ‘Dayspring Mishandled’ relates to other Kipling revenge stories. for example, he notes how Manallace’s desire for revenge does not simply go away at the end of the story, but is displaced into a desire to punish Lady Castorley, and he compares this with the way that Mary Postgate’s feelings about the death of Wynn are displaced onto the airman.

He is content to  leave the question of Castorley’s fatal words unanswered:

Kipling offers an opportunity for the reader to actively engage with the story, to fill in the blanks; moreover, if he had explained them, the long descriptions required would have lengthened the story and diluted his intention to explore the effects of revenge, not the causation.

Well, maybe, but I think that Kipling, especially by the time of ‘Dayspring Mishandled’, was a more meticulous and cunning craftsman than this, and did not leave gaps in the work that might look like laziness. Where there is a gap, we are being invited to look more closely.

Anyway, my letter makes this suggestion about the story, but some time or other I want to ponder another of its  puzzles. Manallace’s poem is based on a sheaf of prints torn from ‘an extinct children’s book, Philippa’s Queen‘.

There was a castle in the series; a knight or so in armour; an old lady in a horned head-dress; a young ditto; a very obvious Hebrew; a clerk, with pen and inkhorn, checking wine-barrels on a wharf; and a Crusader. On the back of one of the prints was a note, ‘If he doesn’t want to go, why can’t he be captured and held to ransom?’

So far as I can tell, Philippa’s Queen is book that exists only in Kipling’s imagination, but that list of images seems highly specific. Is Kipling smuggling in a reference to an actual story or poem of some sort? Does this story have any relevance to the one that he is telling. I’ve a hunch that something is being suggested here – but I don’t know what it is.


  1. Jay Lewis Taylor
    Posted June 8, 2017 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

    The story is a Chaucer pastiche, no? Chaucer married Philippa Roet, Katherine Swynford’s sister (and therefore John of Gaunt’s sister-in-law). Philippa’s queen could have been Richard II’s first wife Anne of Bohemia (Chaucer worked at the royal court), or Philippa of Hainault with whom her father came to England.

    • Posted June 10, 2017 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

      Good suggestion. The list of pictures also reminds me of Ivanhoe. But I can’t help feeling that there is some other meaning hidden there. maybe it was one that was private to Kipling.

  2. Roger
    Posted June 10, 2017 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

    A few thoughts:

    Vidal Benzaquen appears in The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat – another tale of revenge. Is she mentioned elsewhere? Are there other loosely connected tales, perhaps, or did Kipling think of them but never write them?

    I’m not persuaded by the argument that Castorley infected Vidal Benzaquen’s mother with syphilis – or that either of them had syphilis at all. There are other illnesses that lead to paralysis. “Paralysis” or “General paralysis” was sometimes a euphemism or concealment for syphilis, true, but it was only because it was often caused by other illnesses that it was an effective euphemism.
    “He, too, for a time, had loved Vidal’s mother, in his own way,”. I’d always taken this to mean Castorley wasn’t capable of love at all compared with Manallace. Someone “mannered [and] bellied” who “was always afraid of being ‘compromised’” was not likely to take the chances that lead to syphilis or propose marriage to someone unrespectable by his new standards when he’d just inherited “an independence”. I’d always assumed – always a foolish thing to do with Kipling, of course! – that it was her husband who was the “one unworthy”. Given Manallace’s feelings, whatever Castorley said would act as trigger, especially given his refusal (possibly welcomed by Manallace) of assistance. Castorley’s “succession of internal complaints and mental confusions” also hints that his wife and Gleeag are poisoning him literally as well as metaphorically.

    My own guess is that “His output apart, [Manallace] was genuinely a man of letters” means that the only time he has “chewed his label off” is in his Chaucer forgery, and that he cannot reveal that he wrote it without destroying people’s recognition of its quality as art. Equally, Castorley’s only saving-grace is his dedication to and knowledge of Chaucer and Manallace cannot bring himself to destroy the only aspect of the man that is worthwhile or discredit the only work he has done himself that is worthy of his own talents. In the end, the two of them are bound together by their service to art and Manallace cannot betray that.
    Finally, what he sees in Lady Castorley and her hatred of her husband and her adultery with Gleeag is a reflection of his own feelings and doesn’t like what he sees and that too helps paralyse his will.

  3. Posted June 27, 2017 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this thoughtful response, Roger. The Vidal Benzaquen question is interesting. Why should Kipling bring in a character from another, unconnected, story?
    One possibility is that mentioning ‘Dal is shorthand; it means that Kipling does not have to say much about the mother’s character. The daughter was attractive, instinctive, sensual; we are maybe meant to assume that the mother was the same.
    One other thought – maybe off-beam. Benzaquen is a Jewish name and there have been several distinguished Jews with that surname. In that list of plates there is mention of ‘a very obvious Hebrew’. If Manallace was very struck by the pictures because in them he could read the narrative of his own life, does the a ‘obvious Hebrew’ correspond to the Benzaquen who is Vidal’s father?
    In ‘The Village that voted the Earth was Flat’ there is no reference to ‘Dal Benzaquen’s race that I can see, but Bat Masquerier is Jewish; it is the deep offence he takes at Ingell’s snit-Semitic sneer (asking if he lives in Jerusalem) that sparks the revenge plot.
    Has Kipling hidden a back-story that he is inviting us to decipher? I wouldn’t put it past him.
    On the question of syphilis, I am writing another post, looking at Kipling’s treatment of the subject in other writings. It should go online today or tomorrow.

    • Roger
      Posted June 27, 2017 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

      There’s another possible connexion with the “sheaf of prints torn from ‘an extinct children’s book, ‘Philippa’s Queen‘” which inspires Manallace.

      In “The Eye of Allah” in “Debits and Credits” the mistress of the artist John Otho, who dies in childbirth is described in his painting of her as the Virgin:
      “‘You’ve made her all Jewess,’ said the SubCantor, studying the olive-flushed cheek and the eyes charged with foreknowledge.
      ‘What else was Our Lady?’”
      which fits in with the idea that there was an outside source – picture, poem or story or possibly a real woman – that Kipling was referring to in both stories. Elsewhere too, perhaps, though nothing comes to mind at once.

      How careful was Kipling’s proof-reading? The list of prints from “Philippa’s Queen”: “an old lady in a horned head-dress; a young ditto; a very obvious Hebrew” could very easily be changed to “an old lady in a horned head-dress; a young ditto, a very obvious Hebrew” which matches “The Eye of Allah” even better. After all, Judaism descends through the mother.

      I may be back with more on Castorley and syphilis – the way syphilis might or might not be mentioned, discussed or alluded to in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century is fascinating in itself, and the way in which we now understand or misunderstand those possible references makes it more complicated. I also think that Lady Castorley and Gleeag and Manallace’s unreliability as observer and narrator with those two have a more direct involvement.

      • Posted July 3, 2017 at 8:40 am | Permalink

        Kipling was careful enough with proof-reading, and tidied up some punctuation when the story was revised for Limits and Renewals. That semi-colon is there in the Strand magazine original publication, and stayed there – so I think we can say that Kipling wanted it there.

        The trouble with getting a potent idea like the syphilis one is that one starts seeing confirmation of it everywhere (a bit like Castorley with the Chaucer fragment). But I’ve been looking at the poem ‘Gertrude’s Prayer’ (appended to Dayspring Mishandled’ in Limits and Renewals.
        There are these two lines:
        All evil thing returneth in the end,
        Or elseway walketh in our blood unseen.

        Is this a reference to syphilis staying in the blood, then manifesting as the tertiary stage after years, even decades? If not, what is it about?

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