April 16, 2002

Harry's daughter and Rudyard Kipling

I've been listening to Antonia Fraser's History of the Kings and Queens of
on my way to work, which may be the best way to finish something of that scope. Though it does get a little confusing when you're say, in the middle of the Wars of the Roses and you can't turn back a few pages to check who's on which side. I want to get a hardcopy of the book to keep for reference, but doubt I'll ever read it through.

At the moment it's up to Elizabeth I, which started me thinking of Kipling's
depiction of her, in Rewards and Fairies, the sequel to Puck of Pook's
Hill. It's an odd thing, but I always remember the included poem as ending on a
triumphant note. But here's the last stanza:

The Queen was in her chamber, her sins were on her head.

She looked the spirits up and down and statelily she said:
"Backward and forward and sideways though I've been,
Yet I am Harry's daughter and I am England's Queen!"
And she faced the looking-glass (and whatever else there was)
And she saw her day was over and she saw her beauty pass
In the cruel looking-glass, that can always hurt a lass
More hard than any ghost there is or any man there was!

I think I had remembered her declaration of who she was, and her facing straight onto the glass, and had forgotten the last three lines. I still think it would be as true to life, and truer to the character Kipling drew, without the final stress on loss of beauty.

I have never met a woman who doesn't want to be beautiful, and often it's more for ourselves than for anyone else. (Lord knows Elizabeth would have had flatterers enough no matter what she looked like.) But to have been true to the role she was born to, to hold up her head through fear and imprisonment, solitude and statecraft, to be "Harry's daughter and England's Queen", that meant something to Kipling's Bess and also, I suspect, to the historical one. Maybe the "cruel looking-glass" can hurt a woman more than her ghosts or her men (though I doubt it) but nothing it says can't be faced, and faced with head high, if she feels worthy of herself.

Maybe the fault is in Kipling's understanding of women? He understood men, or many aspects of them, and it seems to me his fault may be not realizing that the masculine traits he grasped so well are only a matter of gender, not sex, and that they are not necessarily apportioned by chromosomes. I do think he may have a point when he says that "The Female of the Species is more deadly than the male," but that is specifically about motherhood, and doesn't deal with any of a woman's other roles. He understands workers and explorers and fighters, but doesn't seem to realize they don't have to be men. His women stay home, like the Widow of Windsor and the harp-singing Dane women.

As you can probably tell, one of the things I miss about school is the opportunity to drive home a point in written form, especially when it's something you never get to talk about in everyday life. Those last three paragraphs are just begging to be turned into an English essay.

Besides, the word "statelily" is fun to read.

Posted by dichroic at April 16, 2002 04:59 PM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?