More on Kipling and Syphilis

Some more thoughts on this subject, partly as a response to Roger’s comment on my ‘Kipling and Syphilis’ post of a fortnight ago.

How likely is it that syphilis is a theme of ‘Dayspring Mishandled’?

It can at least be shown that venereal disease was a concern of Kipling’s throughout his career. As I suggested before, in a very late work, Something of Myself , Kipling refers back to his early days as a reporter, and his horror at seeing men suffer, and his anger that

‘official virtue cost our Army in India nine thousand expensive white men a year always laid up from venereal disease.’

It was after he left India that he wrote a story (set on the sub-continent) that treats the disease with a frankness very uncommon for its period.
‘Love o’ Women’ is the last of the ‘Soldiers Three’ stories. It first appeared in the volume Many Inventions (1893). Unlike almost all the other stories in the collection, it did not have a previous magazine publication. Was this because of its theme?
Here’s the summary of the story from the Kipling Society’s New Reader’s Guide:

This tale it set within a frame, in which a womanising sergeant has been shot dead by the husband of a woman he had been making love to. The husband gets a lenient jail sentence, and the wife survives. Mulvaney, himself no mean womaniser in his time, reflects that the luckiest one of the three is the dead man.

Mulvaney goes on to tell the story of Larry Tighe, a big dangerously attractuve gentleman-ranker, who wilfully makes love to many good women, and breaks hearts out of sheer devilment. He moves on to another regiment, and Mulvaney meets him years later, during a bloody campaign on the frontier. There, Tighe takes risks designed to get himself killed— to no avail. He tells Mulvaney that he can no longer get drunk and that he has long ago thrown away a love that was ‘di’monds an’ pearls’. As the regiment returns to Peshawur, Tighe succumbs to the last stages of syphilis. The woman he remembers finds him and takes him to her brothel, where he dies in her arms. She shoots herself dead.

Tighe’s most notable symptom is his unsteadiness:

‘…an’ ivry time he got up afther he had been settin’ down or wint on from the halt, he’d start wid that kick an’ traverse that I tould you of—his legs sprawlin’ all ways to wanst. He wud niver go see the docthor, tho’ I tould him to be wise.’

When Doctor Lowndes sees him stumbling, he orders him to get up without holding on to his comrade. Tighe cannot do that. Both men know what the disease is, though, as in ‘Dayspring Mishandled’, Kipling leaves it unnamed. Mulvaney, telling the story, is ignorant (‘Me not knowin’ more than the dead fwhat ailed him’) and does not hear the word when Tighe utters it.

‘In hospital he sez somethin’ to the docthor that I could not catch.
‘“Holy Shmoke!” sez the docthor, “an’ who are you to be givin’ names to your diseases? ’Tis agin all the reg’lations.”

The symptom of unsteadiness (Locomotor Ataxis) is medically named, approximately:

‘“They call ut Locomotus attacks us,” he sez, “bekaze,” sez he, “ut attacks us like a locomotive, if ye know fwhat that manes. An’ ut comes,” sez he, lookin’ at me, “ ut comes from bein’ called Love-o’-Women.”

This is a strong hint that readers in the know would have picked up. It is certainly a stronger hint than those in ‘Dayspring Mishandled’.
Conan Doyle in Round the Red Lamp (1894) also describes syphilis in a way that makes sense to those who recognise the symptoms, but, because the disease is not actually named, could be read differently by the less sophisticated. In ‘The Surgeon Talks’, he tells the story of a doctor’s self-diagnosis:

He worked like a horse, did Walker—huge consulting practice—hours a day in the clinical wards—constant original investigations. And then he enjoyed himself also. ‘De mortuis,’ of course, but still it’s an open secret among all who knew him. If he died at forty-five, he crammed eighty years into it. The marvel was that he could have held on so long at the pace at which he was going. But he took it beautifully when it came.
“I was his clinical assistant at the time. Walker was lecturing on locomotor ataxia to a wardful of youngsters. He was explaining that one of the early signs of the complaint was that the patient could not put his heels together with his eyes shut without staggering. As he spoke, he suited the action to the word. I don’t suppose the boys noticed anything. I did, and so did he, though he finished his lecture without a sign.
“When it was over he came into my room and lit a cigarette.
“‘Just run over my reflexes, Smith,’ said he.
“There was hardly a trace of them left. I tapped away at his knee-tendon and might as well have tried to get a jerk out of that sofa-cushion. He stood with his eyes shut again, and he swayed like a bush in the wind.
“‘So,’ said he, ‘it was not intercostal neuralgia after all.’
“Then I knew that he had had the lightning pains, and that the case was complete.
“‘Better put this thing straight at once,’ said he. ‘I must make some fresh arrangements. May I use your paper and envelopes?’
“He settled himself at my desk and he wrote half a dozen letters. It is not a breach of confidence to say that they were not addressed to his professional brothers. Walker was a single man, which means that he was not restricted to a single woman. When he had finished, he walked out of that little room of mine, leaving every hope and ambition of his life behind him. And he might have had another year of ignorance and peace if it had not been for the chance illustration in his lecture.
“It took five years to kill him, and he stood it well. If he had ever been a little irregular he atoned for it in that long martyrdom. He kept an admirable record of his own symptoms, and worked out the eye changes more fully than has ever been done. When the ptosis got very bad he would hold his eyelid up with one hand while he wrote. Then, when he could not co-ordinate his muscles to write, he dictated to his nurse. So died, in the odour of science, James Walker, aet. 45

Kipling’s story and Doyle’s were as explicit as English fiction on the subject of syphilis got in the late nineteenth century. Elaine Showalter has argued that anxiety about the disease underlies late Victorian Gothic stories like Dracula and Jekyll and Hyde. Maybe – but if so these works are coded so that only those looking for that meaning will find it there.
During the Great War, and at least through the following decade, Kipling took a strong interest in the subject of venereal disease, which was a serious drain on military manpower. As one of the Vice-Presidents of the Society for the Prevention of Venereal Disease he put his name to letters to the Times and the Lancet arguing for the availability of prophylactics, against the moralists who insisted that abstinence was the only solution to the problem. It was during the War that the Lord Chamberlain, guardian of the nation’s theatrical morals, finally gave permission for Damaged Goods, a translation of the propagandist play by Brieux, which warned of the dangers of syphilis, to be staged.
When among doctors, Kipling could speak about the disease, but only indirectly, with hint that medical men would understand, but others might not. In his address delivered to the Students of the Medical School of the Middlesex Hospital (1908) He could praise his audience of professionals by saying:

You remain now perhaps the only class that dares to tell the world that we can get no more out of a machine than we put into it ; that if the fathers have eaten forbidden fruit the children’s teeth are very liable to be affected.

(This is a reference to what is known as Hutchinson’s sign,  a marker of congenital syphilis. Sir Joseph Hutchinson was the first to notice that babies who have inherited the disease have teeth that are smaller and more widely spaced than normal and which have notches on their biting surfaces.)
Among non-professionals, syphilis was an unmentionable disease. In 1932, Sir D’Arcy Power, a celebrated surgeon, was reported as looking back to his early days in practice, when:

moral reprehension was attached to venereal disease, so that it was looked upon as a direct punishment for sexual sin. In his youth it was not mentioned at all in respectable families, nor even spoken of very much among medical students. It was kept secret, and people did not have treatment for it.

Sir D’Arcy thought that sufferers were beginning be more open about the disease in 1932, but it was still a taboo topic in many contexts, and I would be surprised to know that any mainstream British fiction magazine published any story explicitly mentioning syphilis at this time.
In ‘Dayspring Mishandled’, I would argue, Kipling gives us plenty of clues. His silence about the precise name of Vidal’s mother’s disease is itself a clue. He describes symptoms found in syphilis, but this is not quite enough. As Sir Joseph Hutchinson said of the disease: ‘There is scarcely a malady which has received a name which may not be simulated by it.’ Paralysis, Gall stones, kidney failure, could all be symptoms of syphilis, or of something else. But Kipling gives a very strong clue that Gleeag is being euphemistic when he says that Castorley’s underlying problem is ‘‘Malignant kidney trouble – generalised at the end.’
I think that all this shows that syphilis was a theme that interested Kipling throughout his career. It was also a theme that was difficult to write about straightforwardly in the magazines that provided his income. So an elliptical story like ‘Dayspring Mishandled’ was perhaps his only way of dealing with the topic.
Next question: What is ‘Mrs Bathurst’ all about?


  1. Posted July 3, 2017 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

    What was Kipling’s answer to “official virtue”? In some ways he is like Dickens, he portrays the problem with unerring accuracy but offers no way out.

    • Posted July 3, 2017 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

      As a Vice-President of the Society for the Prevention of Venereal Disease, Kipling added his influential voice to their campaign to allow the free sale of the products which, if used soon after intercourse, prevented syphilis from taking hold. The law prohibited the sale of these treatments, except under strict medical supervision, because moralists argued that allowing men to treat themselves would increase immorality.

      I think that Dickens too offered practical solutions to some of the social problems he worried about. For instance, his foundation (with Angela Burdett-Coutts) of Urania Cottage, a home for young girls in trouble.

    Posted February 2, 2020 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

    Incidentally, there’s another short story by Comnan Doyle published at the same time, dealing with hereditary syphilis
    It doesn’t give an accurate pictyre of the symptoms, but it does confirm the extent of concern/obsession with the disease and its effects at the time.

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