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Sunday, April 20

Rudyard Kipling, My Boy Jack, and the Janeite Connection

Spoiler alert. Plot discussed.

My Boy Jack is a powerful film that touched my heart in a way that no movie has in a long while. When I learned that this story about Rudyard Kipling’s son was true, my emotional reaction to the film felt all the more poignant. After the last credits rolled I sat in silence, contemplating the horrors of war and the sacrifices that are still being made by our soldiers and their families today. Tears rolled down my cheeks.

The cast of this film is sterling. David Haig, a character actor whose face was more familiar to me than his name, IS Rudyard Kipling. Not only is his resemblance to the author uncanny, but he worked for twenty-two years to adapt Kipling’s story to stage and screen. David plays Kipling with a fierce patriotic fervor that is both unlikeable (for the author places his son in harm’s way) and believable. The movie is a tragedy in a mythic sense: Kipling’s actions to help his son enlist despite the boy’s poor eyesight ended in Jack's death and haunted the author for the rest of his life.

The love Kipling felt for his son did not deter him from influencing Jack to join the army (images of Rudyard Kipling and Jack at left). This irony was not lost on David Haig, who described the author in this ITV interview:…on one side you had the magical, inventive father, creator of the Just So Stories and The Jungle Books, providing a wonderful environment for a child to grow up in. And on the other side you had the apologist for the British Empire who tyrannically pursued his son’s joining of the army and his involvement in the fighting of the First World War.”

Young Daniel Radcliffe is outstanding as Jack, Kipling’s myopic 17-year old son. As this young actor matures, I hope he will succeed in breaking free from his Harry Potter persona to become an adult actor. His performance as young Jack Kipling is so believable, that one screams
internally “No!” when he leads the charge during battle. Daniel brings both strength and vulnerability to the role, especially in the scene in which, as Jack, he speaks for the last time to his father. Carrie Mulligan, whose acting career began in 2005, continues to grow and impress me as an actress (read her biography in the post below). She holds her own in this ensemble cast as Kipling’s independent daughter, Elsie. The only one of Kipling’s three children to live past the age of eighteen, Elsie, who married George Bambridge, died childless in 1976.

Kim Cattrall delivers a surprisingly restrained performance as Kipling’s American-born wife, Carrie (Caroline Balestier.) Better known for fluffier sex-kitten roles, Kim had to convince director Brian Kirk to consider her to play Kipling’s wife. After the series Sex in the City ended, Kim, who was born in Liverpool, moved to London to play a quadriplegic in the West End revival of Whose Life Is It Anyway? She followed this performance with a role in David Mamet's The Cryptogram. After Brian Kirk saw her serious work and awarded her the role as Carrie, Kim researched the part intensively. Carrie was neither liked by the public nor her in-laws, but Kim found a strength and quiet reserve that lent dignity to the part of the worried mother. She portrays Carrie as a strong person who fought the press and public so that Kipling could have the privacy he needed to write. Yet, despite her bold character, she was a woman of her time, deferring to her husband's wishes.

I’ve read several reviews in which potshots were taken at Kim’s portrayal of Carrie. However, I think it takes courage for an actress aged 50 - one who is known for her beauty and sensuality - to play a stodgy middle-aged Edwardian wife. In real life Carrie was in her 30’s before giving birth to Jack. Thus the 50-year-old Kim is not too old to play 17-year-old Jack’s mother, as some naysayers have suggested. (Image of the real Carrie at right.)

We now come to the Kipling/Janeite Connection. Rudyard Kipling’s admiration for Jane Austen is well documented.

In March 1915, the Kiplings had visited Bath and he re-read the works of Jane Austen there. He wrote to a friend that “the more I read the more I admire and respect and do reverence… When she looks straight at a man or a woman she is greater than those who were alive with her - by a whole head… with a more delicate hand and a keener scalpel.”

In 1923, the author had completed writing The Janeites. The short story, begun the year before, was completed after Kipling’s discussion with critic George Saintsbury, who is credited with first using the term in an introduction to Pride and Prejudice.

However, it was Rudyard Kipling's story 'The Janeites' which made the name famous. The story concerns a simple and uneducated soldier and mess waiter in the trenches who reads Jane Austen's novels so that he can join the 'secret society' of officers who read her. At first Humberst doesn't like her novels, but eventually he becomes a big fan. Ironically, after the war is over, reading Jane Austen reminds him of the comradeship and camaraderie that he found in the trenches. Humberst praises this soothing quality of JA: "There's no one to match Jane when you're in a tight place."”

In an interesting aside, after the first World War, shell shocked veterans were encouraged to read Jane’s novels to help them overcome the horrors they witnessed. After their son disappeared in battle, Rudyard Kipling and Carrie would read Jane’s words together, feeling some solace afterwards.

The fact that Kipling was instrumental in urging his son to fight despite his bad eyesight took its toll on him. Jack went to war in 1915, and was reported missing in the Battle of Loos a mere seven months later. After the war Kipling became obsessed with finding Jack’s remains. For years the author tried to trace him - interviewing survivors and carrying a description of the spectacles John wore on the battlefield. (Jack's grave.)

"Tonie Holt described how the author carried out hundreds of interviews with his late son's comrades, building up a detailed picture of his last moments. He believes that it is through this research that the claim that John's remains are in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission can be disproved. Not only is the rank on the gravestone wrong - Kipling's promotion to Lieutenant had yet to be announced in the London Gazette - but the remains were found some two miles from where he fell, at a feature called Chalk-Pit Wood.

The devastated father threw himself into his work, becoming a prominent member of the commission. He took part in the creation of the pristine rows of Portland stone graveyards, which now honour Britain's fallen, selecting the Biblical phrase "Their Name Liveth For Evermore" as a fitting epitaph." (My Boy Jack? The Search for Kipling's Only Son, A New 3rd Edition - 2007)

The tragic irony of Kipling's search for Jack was that by this time his career was in decline. “His work failed to strike a chord with a generation traumatised by the memory of the slaughter of the trenches.” He died in 1937, twenty-two years after Jack disappeared.

Watch My Boy Jack, Sunday, April 20th on Masterpiece Classic at 9:00 p.m. Click here for details.

“Have you news of my boy Jack?”

Not this tide.
“When d’you think that he’ll come back?”
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.
“Has any one else had word of him?”
Not this tide.
For what is sunk will hardly swim,
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

“Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?”
None this tide,
Nor any tide,
Except he did not shame his kind—
Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.

Then hold your head up all the more,
This tide,
And every tide;
Because he was the son you bore,
And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!

Update: This link leads to an MP3 file of a song recorded in 1917 and based on the poem.

Sources for this review:

Six Degree of Austen Adaptation Separation

David Haig as Rudyard Kipling enjoys several degrees of Austen adaptation separation:
  • Two Degrees: Played as Bernard the Groom in Four Weddings and a Funeral, and as Sophie Thomspon’s (One Degree) husband. Sophie played Miss Bates and Maria Rushworth. Other actors included Anna Chancellor (One Degree, Caroline Bingley) andHugh Grant (One degree, Edward Ferrars)
  • Three Degrees: David Haig played with Aileen Atkins (Two Degrees) in the Sea; she played opposite Kate Beckinsale in Cold Comfort Farm, and Kate played Emma (One degree). Aileen also costarred in Cranford with Judy Dench (One Degree, Lady Catherine de Bourgh.)

Kim Cattrall, Carrie Kipling
  • Two Degrees: Stars with Carrie Mulligan who played Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey.
  • Three Degrees: Stars with Daniel Haig (see above) and Daniel Radcliffe, (see below.)
  • Four Degrees: Starred with Cynthia Nixon in Sex and the City. Cynthia played a maid of all work for Mozart in Amadeus, and costarred with Simon Callow, Emanuel Shikaneder in the film. Simon played Mr. Beebe in 1986’s A Room With A View, costarring Maggie Smith(one degree); Gareth in Four Weddings and a Funeral, costarring David Haig and Sophie Thompson; and in Charles Dickens, costarring Kate Winslet.

Daniel Radcliffe, John Kipling
  • Two Degrees: Through his Harry Potter costars - Emma Thompson, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Daisy Haggard, Robert Hardy - all of whom played Austen characters.
  • Three Degrees: Costarred with Geoffrey Rush in the Tailor of Panama; Geoffrey costarred in Shakespeare in Love (two degrees) with Gwyneth Paltrow (Emma, One degree.)

Carrie Mulligan, Elsie Kipling
  • One degree, as Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey. For other suggestions, read the post by Laurel Anne below.

  • Posted by Ms. Place


dyckczechin said...

Such a wonderful,moving,sad story.. So interesting, I've researched Rudyard Kipling and his life... Thank you for such a great story.... Joan

Linda Merrill said...

I'm still weeping over this movie. I thought Kim Catrall was excellent - not a hint of Samantha. I also thought she looked very beautiful. Daniel Radcliffe was wonderful as well, and it bodes well for his future career that he's so able to take on a very mature emotional role. Thanks for your recap!

Anonymous said...

I cried during the movie, and cried again when I read the poem in your post. Thank you for giving us the background to this story.

Anonymous said...

I found the scene when Kipling recited the poem "My Boy Jack" particularly's a demanding scene to film I suppose because if not done wth just the right amount of restrained emotion, it can easily turn into a contrived act. But David Haig is so poignant and natural here.

Anonymous said...

I have this Tivo'd & can't wait to watch.

Don't forget...Daniel Radcliffe also portrayed the young David Copperfield before he was Harry Potter. This also features the actress who plays Harriet in the Kate Beckinsale Emma...Maggie Smith...& I think, someone else but I haven't had my tea yet! :)

Anonymous said...

Carrie Mulligan was Kitty Bennet in the 2005 P&P too!

Anonymous said...


Diletta said...

Anyone knows howto get in touch with the composer of the movie Adrian Johnston?
The soundtrack is really great.