Brittain, Kipling(s), Roosevelt

20 May

Alan Bishop and Mark Bostridge have edited a fantastic volume of wartime letters that were sent to and among Vera Brittain’s intimate circle of friends and lovers — Letters from a Lost Generation: First World War Letters of Vera Brittain and Four Friends (1998).  It’s a fine collection of correspondence marked with a necessary sense of impending loss, given the frequency with which Brittain’s doomed fiance, Roland Leighton, comes up.  His own letters are included as well.

What struck my eye while browsing the volume, however, was a remarkable letter from Vera to Roland in October of 1915, after the Battle of Loos.  This was the ill-starred battle that led to the now infamous death of John Kipling, Rudyard Kipling’s only son; its immortalization in numerous books, articles, a play, and a (reasonably good) TV movie have seen the young Kipling take on a symbolically resonant status.  Much of this is intentionally emphasized — even exaggerated — in the art that surrounds the event, of course; what better image could there be, from the still-disillusioned modern point of view, than that of a bright young men sent off to a war he barely understood at the urging of his famous, wealthy father?  What better than that he should die unceremoniously and immediately, his body vanishing (this is debatable) forever into the mud-soaked hell of the trenches?  They couldn’t have done it better in a novel, and the degree to which a superficial reading of the situation lends itself exactly to the template played up by so many post-war books and poems and plays has made it hard to separate fact from fancy.  My Boy Jack is fine entertainment, but it should hardly be taken as a totally reliable account of these events.

Anyway, this letter, dated October 7th of that fateful year, contains a surprising meditation on Brittain’s part on the death of John Kipling.  It’s like nothing I’ve ever read from a now-canonical author of the war, and offers a perspective that would be very hard to fit into what we’re all supposed to think everyone then was supposed to be thinking.

And so:

Vera to Roland. Buxton, 7 October, 1915.

I could often have wept at the casualty lists that have kept coming in this week – so many officers and most of them so young too. Rudyard Kipling’s son is among the ‘Missing believed killed’. I always feel sorrier when they are the sons of intellectual & brilliant people. I don’t know why I should be, but somehow I always feel that they must mean even more to their parents than those of the more ordinary ones do to theirs…

Amazing — and rather against the grain of how many now feel in an age that persists in seeing Wilfred Owen’s death as tragic while viewing the national grief at the death of Rupert Brooke as quaint and silly.

Three years later, in July of 1918, Rudyard Kipling himself opened up to a friend about a similar matter and about the gulf that the loss of so many young men had left in his life and in the lives of those around him.  He takes as his pretext the death in action of another “son of intellectual & brilliant people” — that of Quentin Roosevelt, former president Theodore Roosevelt’s youngest son.  The younger Roosevelt had joined the air force and was killed in action over France on July 14, 1918.  Roosevelt’s own response to this (and his correspondence with Kipling on that very subject) will likely turn up on this blog later, but for now I’m going to stick to Kipling’s letter to Edmonia Hill:

I see to-day that poor young Quentin Roosevelt has been killed flying.  One doesn’t  mind these things so much for oneself as one does for other people.  I know Kermit and like him immensely but I believe Quentin was a great favorite of his father’s and a most promising man.  His mother will feel it – and more as the years roll around.

Can you imagine such a life as it is with us here now – where there are no young men left among the people one knows, within eight visiting miles of us, every house has lost its son.  Now my second young cousin – younger than John – has just gone out to take John’s place in the Irish Guards, and I’m praying that he’ll get a good satisfactory deep-seated wound that will keep him quiet for six or eight months.

We had a boy staying with us one Sunday night.  He had just recovered from a wound and was off on Monday morning.  By Thursday he was wounded and back again in hospital.  Now he is out once more at the front twice wounded and a Major at the age of twenty-three!  Another friend of mine is a Brigadier General, aged twenty-six! which when you remember the ancient Generals in the East seems revolutionary.

Theodore Roosevelt would not have long to grieve his son — he would die six months later, Jan. 6, 1919.  Kipling would endure with his increasingly estranged wife and daughter until 1936, dying within days of his friend, King George V.  The monarch, as My Boy Jack is at pains to emphasize, also lost a son during this time — though not because of the war.  But that is another post for another day…

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