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Thursday, 2 December 2021

Review: L P Hartley The Go Between

I admire novelists who manage both to take their time in telling a story but also  manage to meet the common expectation of readers that the story should have some pace, however measured,  to which they can respond. Among contemporary novelists, Kazuo Ishiguro pulls it off wonderfully, most obviously perhaps in The Remains of the Day (1989). L P Hartley’s The Go-Between (1953) shares with that book both its retrospective character, a first-person narrator revisiting the past, and a pace which is both leisurely and engaging. That is structurally visible in the short chapters: twenty five of them, including Prologue and Epilogue, which occupy 255 pages in my Penguin edition. The trick, I suppose, is to introduce some significant new material into each chapter - something which Victorian novelists writing for serial publication were almost contractually obliged to do.

Hartley’s book reminded me of What Maisie Knew. It’s true, the first person narrator is telling his story fifty years after the events it chronicles but for most of the time allows this to be forgotten and offers up  to the reader the world of a twelve year old boy who doesn’t fully understand what is going on between the adults around him and - for much of the time - the go-between role in which he has been enlisted. What is going on is a relationship in the same category as that between Lady Chatterley and Mellors, but I got no sense that Hartley was trying to allude to or invoke that literary fact.

Set in 1900, the tone is nostalgic with the usual props of the English countryside, stately houses, public schools, cricket matches, servants, and people who have no work of their own to do - still going strong in fine novels like Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday (2016). Hartley’s Go-Between is also a very fine novel. 

Wednesday, 1 December 2021

Review: Zoë Playdon, The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes


This book is like a novel with an unreliable narrator. Zoë  Playdon assembles a great deal of interesting and important material but she has an agenda which leads her into various kinds of prolepsis: we get the verdict before the evidence  and - like the headline writers at Pink News  - Playdon can never resist a judgmental adjective, as if she fears readers will reach incorrect conclusions without them. The trouble with such intrusive prolepsis is that some readers will conclude that you protest too much, that you are less confident of your conclusions than you would like us to believe.

The larger narrative of the book offers a background survey of a hundred years’ worth of medical and legal theory and practice around questions of intersex and trans sex, much of which was new to me and which is interesting in its own right.  But the core narrative is the story of a Scottish aristocrat and medical doctor, Ewan Forbes, born Elisabeth Forbes in 1912 and who became 11th Baronet of Forbes but only after a 1966 legal challenge to his claim, brought on the grounds that he was female not male and thus disqualified from the baronetcy by laws of primogeniture.

I will try to focus what I think is the main issue. Birth certificates, universally so, at least until recently, require that all newborns be classified by sex as either Male or Female. It’s also known, not least by midwives, that some babies show sexually ambiguous characteristics which may or may not tend to resolve (and then, more or less) into Male or Female over time. But there is no category on the birth certificate (such as “To be confirmed”) to allow for this - a fact which has proved very acceptable to nearly all parents, the great upholders of binary life, who simply want an uncomplicated Boy or Girl. It’s also known that there are invisible sexual ambiguities which will only show up on later and more thorough examination. The standard birth certificate inevitably forces a small number of square pegs into round holes, and vice versa, really quite unnecessarily.

It’s also known that there are communities without benefit of sex clinics, gender identity theorists, education, money, or friends in high places, where there is a higher than average incidence of ambiguity which then partially resolves itself at puberty without the intervention of anything except the passage of time. The best-known case is that of a community in the Dominican Republic where some (provisionally) F children become anatomically much more like M children in the course of puberty. This is a sufficiently common occurrence for there to be a name for those affected: guevedoces which means penises at (age) twelve: see It’s true, these F to M children retain some distinctive characteristics: they never go bald and they do not suffer from the common M problem of enlarged prostates - they do have prostates, but small ones. Both of those facts attracted the attention of Big Pharma which has developed hormone treatments for baldness and prostate enlargement based on genetic profiles of these rural children. They most commonly go under the name of the drug Finasteride which can have unpleasant psychological side-effects.

So here we have a well-studied case of spontaneous transition without chemical or surgical intervention in relation to individuals who would, in consequence, generally be classed as intersex (the old hermaphrodite). The original research was done in the 1970s by Dr Julianne Imperato-McGinley Playdon does not mention it anywhere in her book though it strikes me as very pertinent to the earlier part of her discussion.

Ewan Forbes, the subject of the book, was classified as F on the original 1912 birth certificate and named Elisabeth but very early in life showed tomboyish gender characteristics which were very noticeable. When Elisabeth’s mother examined her child at the age of six she satisfied herself that the child “had a normal female anatomy, and later, she warned him that he might menstruate” (p 18) - though at that time the onset of menstruation would normally occur much later than it now does. As it turned out, at the age of sixteen  Ewan “began to have erections and emissions” (his words, p. 23).

When he was fifteen, his educated , wealthy and well-connected mother had taken him on a tour of 1920s European sex clinics where he was treated with hormone injections (p.23), presumably of testosterone or something similar. All the medical records have been lost. Playdon later comments that this treatment “meant that he did not go through the wrong puberty” (p.46).

Put baldly like that, it looks to me like a case of the fallacy, post hoc ergo propter hoc (After that, therefore because of that). Are we supposed to believe that between the ages of fifteen and sixteen Ewan acquired something capable of “erections” as a result of hormone injections? And “emissions” which would imply the presence of prostate and testes unless the emissions were what would now be called female ejaculation? (Playdon thinks they were and she seems obviously right: see p 185).

Is it not much more likely that mother and son were aware of (belated? continuing?) pubertal changes of an M character occurring before they set off for the sex clinics and that the injections aided a development that had already begun rather than caused it? If so, Ewan would have a lot in common with the Dominican Republic intersex children.

However, later in the book Ewan’s sister Margaret is reported as writing of Ewan that “She had her periods regularly just like every other girl” (p 132) but this was written in a context of personal hostility and is almost certainly untrue. (Upper class people have no problems about lying when it suits them and there is more to come).

When in the context of the contested baronetcy Ewan is medically examined by Edinburgh university Professor Strong at the end of 1966, he is found to have a vagina and a urethra separate from and behind what the medical report describes as a “virilised clitoris” (phallus) which would be regarded as “greatly enlarged” if thought of as a clitoris and “abnormally small” as a penis. Breast development “more resembled the female pattern than the male” - all this at pages 150-151. On this basis, Strong diagnoses a case of female pseudo-hermaphroditism, then a standard category which explained male characteristics by the presence of masculinising hormones in the womb. Ewan is a person who did not really fit into the birth certificate M and F boxes and so the original box ticked was an instance of deeming rather than simple categorisation. Ewan had successfully applied for a retrospective change to the box back in 1950, using medical reports kindly supplied by friends and colleagues and quite possibly suspect as simple favours. But without a great deal of difficulty, he became Ewan not Elisabeth, M not F, and announced the fact with a small ad. in the local newspaper.

Playdon objects to Strong’s diagnosis on the basis that Ewan had begun taking testosterone as a teenager and continued to take it into adult life, it seems regularly.  As a result, Playdon reckons that his 1966 male characteristics are more likely to have arisen from long use of testosterone than from womb facts. In other words, Playdon thinks Ewan is trans in the modern sense rather than intersex. He had set out, originally in the 1920s, with the help of his mother and long before these things were fully theorised, to fit his female body to his sense of male self. In the 1966 legal and medical context, that story would have been less helpful to his claim to maleness than the intersex story, and thus a reason not to advance it. Ewan insisted on his physical and not just psychological maleness, now additionally evidenced by the  sudden and miraculous appearance of a testicle - he faked the evidence. 


When I read the word “testosterone” I always recall that I have a small bit of skin in the game and I will tell the story because it is also about cause and effect.

A feature of schools in my childhood was the annual medical examination by the School Doctor. Either in 1958 or 1959, when I was eleven or twelve (I think eleven), the School Doctor discovered that I had an undescended testicle. My mother, relaying the news to me, said that this had to be dealt with because it could cause problems later - she did not name them, but when much later I looked them up they were identified as cancer and infertility. The treatment would be a course of injections and, if that failed, then an operation. So once or twice a week, my mother took me on the bus to our local GP surgery where a very large syringe equipped with a long needle was pushed deep into my thigh; on one occasion the needle could not take the strain and broke.

A first course of injections partly worked and so it was decided to give me a second course, at the end of which it was deemed that my testicle had sufficiently descended. No one told me that these testosterone injections might have side-effects and so I lived a miserable pre-teen existence believing that my semi-permanent state of erection - permanent on bus rides - signified something wrong with me. I was troubled rather earlier in life than Ewan by erections and emissions.

Many years later, I had this thought: I was eleven or twelve. I was undersized and underweight and maybe a slow developer. Perhaps that testicle would have eventually descended of its own accord. Maybe the injections just helped it along. 

Maybe something like that  happened to Ewan Forbes who had begun some physical transition, involving the development of a phallus from a clitoris, before being helped along by testosterone or some other hormone used in 1920s  Austrian and German sex clinics. They did not cause the transition; they assisted it.

This is important because Playdon wants to blur the distinction between inter sex and trans sex and subsume both into a single trans category.This seems a disservice to the small but important group of intersex-born people whose life trajectories are rather different to those of other trans people who often go through the “wrong” puberty with permanent consequences which means that they are not intersex in the traditional sense and that they have a more obvious quantum of characteristics which derive from long residence in their unambiguous birth sex - for example, in terms of bone, muscle and height.


Playdon believes and as an activist has committed herself to the view that the right way to proceed in all cases, intersex and trans sex, is from the individual’s own self-identification. Medical access to hormones and surgery should follow from that, where sought. This may well be the best way of looking at things, since several of the alternatives have proved pretty awful in their consequences, as Playdon elaborates. Doctors have their own weaknesses, and ambitious ones sometimes most of all.

However, it does not follow that self-identification  is all that should be needed in the wider society. There are at least some grounds for thinking that some kind of regulation is necessary, which may vary according to context and so on. Playdon disagrees:

“…the only information about themselves that trans people - or anyone - are obliged to give in a social setting is their name and perhaps their pronouns” (page 308)

Well, at present name and pronoun won’t get you into a pub if you look sixteen; it won’t get you a free bus ride even if you look sixty five; it won’t get you access over the telephone to the state of your bank account; and so on. Unthinking maximalist demands,  accompanied in the recent past by some fairly unpleasant behaviour, seem to express not so much a desire for equality as an excessive sense of entitlement. They have weakened the case transgender activists have been making and must be reckoned part cause of the more recent backlash: see, for example,  Kathleen Stock's Material Girls, reviewed on this site on 24 October 2021.

Thursday, 18 November 2021

Review: E M Forster, Maurice


I hadn’t read this before; it was a disappointment. Its history is fairly well-known: written fairly impulsively in 1913-1914 as a novel which the author knew could not be published, it did not appear until 1971, shortly after the author’s death. It could have been published before then but the elderly author (quite reasonably) did not want the hassle it would create - not so much legal, since there is little in the book which even the most vicious lawyer in the Mervyn-Griffiths-Jones  mould could seize upon, as personal - Forster was Establishment at the highest level: Fellow of King's, Order of Merit, Companion of Honour. The novel can  be summarised as a gay male coming out story with more than a suggestion of a happy-ever-after ending.

In terms of structure and style it is unremarkable, a chronological story told more or less in plain prose.  The author’s effort was presumably focussed on the challenging because fairly novel task of actually writing about male homosexual love and/or sex. He has two shots at it: Maurice’s anguished first affair with fellow Cambridge student Clive is framed by the Platonic ideal of the Phaedo: they do sort of have sex, but not much, and it’s not the important thing. Maurice’s second post-Cambridge affair is thrust upon him by an importunate gamekeeper, Alec, interested in physical sex as the gateway to whatever else might be possible between two men. Maurice decides - very rapidly - that a bit of rough is what he has always needed and throws up his conventional life to embrace a chance which won’t repeat itself; Alec also throws up a life. It’s Bernardine Evaristo stuff, if you will excuse the anachronism.

Over a hundred years on from its composition, this either-or framing in terms of Platonic soul and decidedly non-platonic body can only seem rather dated or, at least, limited. As a result, I guess that for most readers, the novel will present itself as a period piece which reminds us of how anguishing it was to be young and gay - and middle-class -  in early twentieth century England..

Sunday, 24 October 2021

Review: Kathleen Stock, Material Girls. Why Reality Matters for Feminism.



This is an excellent book: clear, thorough, convincing and, in context, brave: Kathleen Stock is currently a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Salem but has failed to answer with an unequivocal “Yes” the Witch Question, “Do you believe trans women are women?” (p 142). As a result, trans-activist students (not to be confused with trans-people) are calling for her dismissal: in the pages of Pink News they tell us that they’ve paid their money and don’t expect to have to share their campus space with a transphobe ("No TERFS on our TURF"" reads a banner held by two students,  clearly inspired by their parents' suburban NIMBYism). 

It’s unlikely that many of the protesting students  will read Professor Stock's book, though - to be fair - reading books is not their favourite pastime anyway; the favourites are Salem’s distance learning platforms, Facebook and Twitter. Is that not so?

Stock faces more than a local challenge to be heard. There are now tens or even hundreds of thousands of people in the UK and USA with a direct investment in Gender Identity Theory (or Theories) and careers and future careers are at stake: not only do we have the faculty of hundreds of Gender Studies departments and programmes, together with their students. There are the senior university administrators who have fallen over themselves to adapt to Facebook norms and officially recognise a veritable sweet shop of student gender identities: demifluid and demiflux at Kent, for example. (p. 34. Facebook itself offers seventy-one and counting). If only it were some wonderful prank, like the old US Society for Indecency to Naked Animals (SINNA) which had enthusiastic, donation-offering supporters, and kept going for several years until the founding-prankster decided to ‘fess all. The name should have given the game away since the object of the society was to compel diapers and modesty clothes for cows, dogs, horses, etc. It remains true that if you want to encounter truly wacky beliefs, look to the USA.

Also with skin in the game of Gender Identity Theory are the “charities” which under light-touch UK Charities regulation can function pretty much as cause-promoting commercial organisations with large salary budgets. Stock very pointedly skewers them for misuse of statistics at pages 220-24. These pages ought to make tough reading for those responsible. Why should we regard their Fake News as any different to Donald Trump’s? These pages also remind us of the fact that activist organisations have a bad history of cutting and pasting individual tragedies onto standard issue placards to serve their own purposes, misrepresenting the original history to fit.

Then there are the columnists and commentators and even leading (though not always very bright) figures in major political parties (Labour, Liberal Democrat, Scottish Nationalist) up to their necks in commitments to trans activist demands. None of these people, any time soon, is going to declare that the Emperor Has No Clothes.

Two things.

First, I have never read anything by a Gender Identity Theorist - and I include in that Judith Butler - which has not struck me as flimsy or confused or both, excepting some early work before Orthodoxy imposed its dead hand. As it happened, faculty at what was then the University of Sussex were responsible for some of the most interesting of those early contributions though they labelled it Queer Theory (Jonathan Dollimore, Alan Sinfield, etc).

But it is the current state of intellectual weakness in gender identity theory, and lack of intellectual grasp by students supposedly studying it, which I believe leads to the offence, outrage and punitive reaction to any reasoned criticism. Put on the defensive, the advocates have nowhere else to go; it is as if pointed criticism has punctured a fantasy, not damaged an argument.

Insofar as there is supposed to be some kind of foundation to the claims made about gender identity, then it is usually social construction theories which are invoked. But I find little evidence that they have really been studied, understood, or critically appraised. How many have read, say, Alfred Schütz The Phenomenology of the Social World dating from 1932 but only translated into English in 1967? (Maybe I cite that work because I recall asking my mother to buy me the expensive North Western University Press translation as a birthday present, in 1967. For my own non-technical critique of social constructionism in general, go to )

There is a fall-back position from social constructionism which simply says that people are who and what they feel they are, which in short order reduces simply to what they claim they are. So if you feel you are a woman trapped in a male body, then that’s what you are until you decide to claim, “I’m a woman”  as if it was in the same performative category as the “I do” in the marriage ceremony. Once you say the necessary words,  trans activists reckon that a woman has been born and that we should open any doors hitherto closed. But the claim “I’m a woman” contains no more guarantee of longevity than does the claim “I do”. Likewise, "They/Them" claimed as pronouns may last no longer than this year's Facebook account. Mere declarations, however decorated with the word "performative"  (and who has actually read J L Austin ....), are not always as robust as they really need to be.

Second, from a distance the gulf which supposedly separates Trans activists from their targetted enemy, the TERFs [Trans-exclusionary radical feminists] is just a small piece of disputed territory. As I understand it, most or all TERFs (an unpleasant term, largely applied to older, female Second Wave feminists in ways which sometimes suggest misogyny) are at least fairly accepting of transgender people and are happy to support measures which make life easier for them. They simply draw the line at some very specific areas which over long decades of hard work have been constructed or retained - and with very good reasons - as Women Only spaces: women’s prisons, women’s refuges, rape crisis centres, women only sports, changing rooms, and toilets. (One never hears any discussion of the situation of trans men in these contexts, which must be either because trans men aren’t rattling the door or because admission is allowed because it is felt or assumed that trans men are safe in a way that trans women aren’t - Stock briefly discusses this). 

It is important to note that trans-activists call for self-identification as the sole criterion for admission to Women Only spaces; no evidence of surgery or use of hormones. Likely results are already known from cases like that of Karen White, a self-identified transwoman assigned to  a woman's  prison  who promptly began to sexually assault female prisoners. Back in court, the prosecution was obliged to follow the guidelines and refer to "her penis" in outlining the assaults. Stock discusses this case.


I recall the moment in 2018 when I decisively lost sympathy for trans-activist demands. I saw in the news a photograph of beaming trans woman Rachel Mckinnon having just won a major US and world women’s cycle race. Mckinnon stands with the two females who had come in at 2nd and 3rd . As one of the runners-up, Jennifer Wagner, later tweeted, it “definitely wasn’t fair”. No, it fucking wasn’t fair, but just as in the USA here in the UK we have thousands of middle-class Neville Chamberlain intellectuals ready to declare how wonderful, how inspiring, and any other Pseuds' Corner claptrap which occurs to them as likely to pay the rent. Stock makes rather more polite remarks on this example at pp 87-88. In the current climate, she has little choice but to remain polite though she occasionally allows herself a “bonkers”. I found the photograph deeply dispiriting, as  the display of a hugely misplaced sense of entitlement and as a put-down for female athletes..  You can easily Google it.


Stock focusses initially on a defence of the permanent (life-time) importance of biological sex and of the sex binary, even when all necessary qualifications about intersex persons and so on are added. I found the defence impeccably argued. Then she turns to what one might call the predictive value of knowing a person’s sex which is strong even if there is little biological determination of behaviours - socialisation will do the trick even if nature doesn’t. Either way, it’s important to know how biological males and females differ in the long run. Thus it is (as I discovered when I joined this select class) that 83% of UK speeding convictions are collected by males. (The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority used to classify drivers by “Sex” which they asked me to supply many years ago; they now classify by “Gender” and have switched me - this is what Stock calls GENDER in sense 1; really, it’s just a euphemism (American?) for “Sex”.)

Then she pulls apart Gender Identity theory and sets out her own stall on “What makes a woman?”There follows a very interesting chapter which seems in one way meant as a concession to Identity theory but which would come at the price of conceding that it has an “As If” fictional or imaginary character which is nonetheless important.  

Then we get to the grim bits: the recent history of LGBT and feminist organisations. I think I am entitled to pass over these chapters, and return to my initial recommendation.

See now also my review of Zoe Playdon's The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes, published 1 December 2021





Monday, 4 October 2021

Review: Mark Twain The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn


My last review was of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (1901) and I have now gone on to read an obvious Compare & Contrast novel, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). I was terribly disappointed, for two main reasons.

The novel is narrated by Huck as a series of scenes, more or less improbable. Though there are fine descriptions of the setting and insightful sketches of characters, the scenes don’t really add up to anything bigger and Huck develops less in sensibility than does Kim; it would be wrong to say that his character is static but it is pretty much full formed from the outset.

More importantly, I found the long drawn-out final scenes constructed out of Tom Sawyer’s fantasies almost unendurable. They aren’t funny and (reading anachronistically, perhaps) Tom comes across as the perfect sociopath, utterly oblivious of the consequences of his actions for those who love and care for him - Uncle, Aunt, Jim, Huck. That is one main reason why the phantasmagoria isn’t funny.

Huck is more it touch with reality but, overawed by Tom, goes along far too much with Tom’s fantasy schemes. They go on for many, many tedious pages and when it is Finally Revealed, death-bed confession style (chapter 42), what has really been going on, the narrative becomes perfunctory when it needs most not to be -  as if all that is now needed to close the narrative is for Aunt Sally to pronounce, “Well, that’s all right then”.

So far from being able to set up a serious Compare & Contrast, I throw up my hands and declare, No contest. Kim is a much better book.

Tuesday, 21 September 2021

Review: Rudyard Kipling, Kim

This is a wonderful novel.

I had never troubled with Kipling before and doubt I could quote accurately a single line of his verse. So I came to this book with only the prejudice that it was likely to be some imperialist tale. But apart from its formal or official framing as a Great Game story, it’s not.

It’s a lyrical novel which celebrates India, land and people - and since it was published in 1901, “India” includes Pakistan and the settings are mostly in what was then the North West and North. It’s also a lyric to its principal characters: the Red Hat lama questing south from his Abbey of Such-zen; the Frontier horse dealer and government agent, Mahbub Ali; Hurree Babu, the man of many parts (some of them over-learnt from the Sahibs); the talkative dowager Maharanee of Saharunpore, careless of her veil but not of the duty of care to others; the enigmatic Woman of Shamlegh, betrayed by the Christians; the small cast of Sahibs playing the great game - Creighton Sahib, Lurgan Sahib; and, of course, centre stage, Kim.

You could say that the lyric to the characters is romanticised; it’s true that Kipling foregrounds the best in nearly all of them. He draws the line only in relation to three minor characters: the unspeakable, nameless pair of Russian spies who appear towards the end and who consign themselves to outer moral darkness with their every word and deed; and earlier on in the novel, the Anglican army chaplain, the Reverend Bennett, whose bit part it is to pose a threat to Kim’s future growth and development - he would send him to an English orphanage - and who is characterised with what I can only describe as relentless venom.

The youthful Kim, no more than a street urchin, struggles with his English - much less fluent than his Urdu - to tell that he is the lama’s chela [disciple] and that:

“…we must find that River; it is so verree valuable to us”

 “But this is gross blasphemy!” cried the Church of England. (p. 96)

Kipling hates Bennett and his prejudices. I read the characterisations, eyes agog, wondering what effect they had on early readers.  And perhaps especially when laid beside Kipling’s small sketches of native women, politely described as “courtesans” and “dancing girls” and about whom he is always positive. They are women of good heart, and that is what matters:

“Naturally, for he was never trained to consider them in any way improper, Kim had passed the time of day with one or two frivolous ladies at upper windows in a certain street, and naturally, in the exchange of compliments, had acquitted himself well”. (p. 130)

The main characters are lax in ways which the Reverend Bennetts of this world would find intolerable. Even the lama, questor after the meaning of life and triumph over the Wheel of illusion, will stretch a point for the Maharanee: she talks too much but she has a good heart and so it comes to pass:

“But I would ask thy Holy One….a charm against most lamentable windy colics that in mango-times overtakes my daughter’s eldest. [As an aside to Kim] Two years back he gave me a powerful spell.

“Oh, Holy One!” said Kim bubbling with mirth at the lama’s rueful face.

“It’s true. I gave her one against wind”. (p. 232)

In case you were (ever) inclined to see the lama as a crusty old bachelor rather too preoccupied with his Quest, Kipling definitively humanises him in just a couple of lines. 

There are other variations on this theme, of which I find the most beautiful this expression of love which Mahbub Ali, the horse dealer, addresses to Kim:

“Thou art beyond question an unbeliever, and therefore thou wilt be damned. So says my Law - or I think it does. But thou art also my Little Friend of All the World, and I love thee. So says my heart. This matter of creeds is like horseflesh …..manifestly a Kathiawar mare taken from the sands of her birthplace and removed to the west of Bengal founders - nor is even a Balkh stallion … of any account in the great northern deserts besides the snow-camels I have seen. Therefore I say in my heart the Faiths are like horses. Each has merit in its own country”. (p. 154-155)

I reckon you could call it a stroke of genius to insert that little note of hesitancy - or I think it does - into a horse dealer’s theologising with the aid of what is to hand, the horses, which are his things good to think with. As for the actual words, imagine them spoken, slowly and deliberately on stage. 

Much later, at the end of the tale, Mahbub is touched by jealousy at Kim’s role as the lama’s disciple - Mahbub has known Kim since he was ten years’ old. The conversation then goes like this:

I am not altogether of thy faith, Red Hat - if so small a matter concern thee”.

“It is nothing” said the lama.

"I thought not. Therefore it will not move thee, sinless, new-washed, and three parts drowned to boot [Hurree Babu has recently saved him from the River], when I call thee a good man - a very good man" (p. 309).


It would, I guess, be an understatement to describe India at the turn of the twentieth century as a patriarchal society, whether on its native or colonial side. But Kipling manages to find a character high in the hills “where women make the love” and pay the compliments (p. 276), the Woman of Shamlegh-under-the-Snow, wife of many husbands and willing to add Kim to the tally. Kim as colonial orphan grew up native until reclaimed by St Xavier’s and now lives as native, by profession, but the woman sees something else in him and speaks eloquently and movingly to it:

“Once, long ago, a Sahib looked on me with favour. Once, long ago, I wore European clothes… I was Ker-lis-ti-an and spoke English. Yes. My Sahib said he would return and wed me - yes, wed me. He went away - I had nursed him when he was sick - but he never returned. Then I saw that the God of the Kerlistians lied, and I went back to my own people….Thy face and thy walk and thy fashion of speech put me in mind of my Sahib….Yes, once I made music on a pianno in the Mission-house at Kotgargh (p. 285).

At parting, Kim’s response to her passionate declarations is to kiss her on the cheek (“practically unknown among Asiatics” p. 287), and to reveal - against all the rules of the Great Game - half the secret of his identity, “Thank you verree much, my dear” (p. 287). The whole chapter - penultimate in the book - is deeply moving.

Kim, for his part, shortly after  makes his own self-understanding clear. Late in the story, the lama says “thou art a Sahib” and Kim rebukes him:

“Thou hast said there is neither black nor white. Why plague me with this talk, Holy One? Let me rub the other foot. It vexes me. I am not a sahib. I am thy chela and my head is heavy on my shoulders” (p. 293).


The dowager Maharanee of Saharunpore is something other. From behind her half-veil she is the life and soul of the party but always alert to everyone’s needs and her capacity to address them. As the bachelor lama acknowledges, “She is a woman with a heart of gold, as thou sayest, but a talker - something of a talker” (p. 294) - and not all the talk is fit to be printed. Kipling towards the end of the book allows himself a small authorial intrusion of intriguing ambiguity. Kim opens a speech thus, “Mother, I owe my life to thee…..Ten thousands blessings upon thy house …” indignantly rejected because she wishes to be thanked as by a son not a priest. Kipling gives the rejection thus: “The house be unblessed! (It is impossible to give exactly the old lady’s word)”  (p. 299). Well, it may seem obvious that unblessed has replaced damned but surely by 1901 only the Reverend Bennetts of this world would have objected. In which case, likely alternatives were indeed impossible to give exactly. On past performance, one has every reason to believe that the Maharanee could swear like a trooper and that is part of her charm. It’s as a feisty woman that she is given a recurrent place in the story. Everyone is going to end up liking her. Patriarchy, no doubt, but the Maharanee’s views on that subject are, of course, impossible to give exactly.


Quest novel;  Comedie Humaine; Bildungsroman; Spy story … all those things and more (the wonder of the te-rain…), though the spying seems more like a device for creating meetings in which the main characters can develop and be developed, Kim first among them. But that would be another review.



Quotations taken from the 2012 Penguin English Library edition, as illustrated at head of review








Monday, 30 August 2021

Afghanistan? Reviews of several books

If you type Afghanistan into the search bar above you will be taken to half a dozen long reviews of serious  books about the War in Afghanistan which were published here in 2012 - 2013 and thus written (both books and reviews) without the benefit of hindsight.