Distance, Movement and Care

In military and abolitionist reports alike, distance had double significance. Regarded as the major factor behind soldiers’ wayward behaviour, it was also deemed necessary for national safety. In her pamphlet “A Plea for Our Soldiers” (1898), moral purity advocate Ellice Hopkins suggests that distance is responsible for soldiers’ moral immaturity: devoid of the warmth of the familial hearth, they “blunder like blind puppies into sin” (n. pag.). Likewise, in Syphilis in the Army (1907), Herbert Cumming French, War Office Specialist in the Royal Herbert Military Hospital in Woolwich, sees distance as equally detrimental to soldiers’ morale as the new implemented short service; according to him, the new system, “the loss of European women’s society, and climatic conditions, markedly predispose to venery in India” (14). Associated with the loosening of family values, geographical remoteness was considered as a crucial factor in soldiers’ moral degeneration.

At the same time, once they have left the aegis of insular domesticity, the soldiers were regarded as a national hazard. That the soldier’s body was viewed with unremitting fear of contagion is clear from frequent reports describing the physical rottenness of soldier-patients. In his letter to Mr Maurice Gregory, Reverend J. Clough recounts his personal experience with the pain and suffering of chronically ill soldiers. As chaplain to military hospitals in India, he witnessed cases of incurable syphilis. He attended soldiers whose “sufferings were indescribable” as their bodies failed them. “[O]ne detail,” Clough continues, was “that from rotting away of his throat [one patient] was unable to swallow - what went in at his mouth the attempt to swallow discharged through his nostrils - he died.” In another instance, recounted to Clough by a surgeon in China, “a soldier in whom Syphilis actually caused his penis to fall off - This poor wretch was a married man whose wife had been left in England ‘till the war was over’ - that after the disease had mutilated him, the news was received that the wife was to arrive in a few days - the man blew his brains out.”21 In these accounts, male bodies were depicted as sources of pollution and contamination, dangerous to the population of the home ports.

Likewise, the troopships that carried them home were viewed as sites of physical degradation by military surgeons and soldiers alike. Ill-ventilated and usually below the water line, the troop quarters were described as a “pandemonium” (Manning 2009: 39). The ship itself, as an exemplary heterotopia, evinced the ubiquity of the disease. As a counterspace to Great Britain, it reflected various attempts at social orderliness but also undermined their effects. In the 1897 “Medical Report on Cases of Syphilis from India,” Surgeon-Major H. R. Whitehead outlines the dire condition of men returning from colonial service:

No one can imagine a sadder sight than the reception here of a batch of poor fellows suffering from this disease [syphilis], from one of the troopships, utterly broken down in health, hardly able to crawl, covered with scabs and sores, with the foul odour of the disease about them, objects of disgust and loathing to themselves and all around them, their condition is indeed pitiable and shocking. (30)

Whitehead’s description offers a potent image of disintegration that echoes Kitchener’s memorandum: unable to walk and covered in lesions, the soldiers are a disgusting and ‘pitiable’ spectacle. Their smell is the smell of death and putrefaction.22

In this context, Josephine Butler’s concern was not only about the sanitary provisions but also about the morale of the soldiers.23 This same type of anxiety concerning lewdness resurfaced in official policies, which prescribed regular inspections of troops transferred to other stations and shipped abroad. Regular checkups marked their progression. The medical addendum to the Indian Cantonment Act of 1897 required that troops be inspected for venereal diseases prior to their departure from the station as well as on the arrival at the place of destination.24 It transpires from Herbert Cumming French’s report that the shipping of soldiers abroad would be even more closely monitored. The men would be inspected before the embarkation, one day after it, on the seventh day of the sea journey, before disembarking and on the arrival at the new station. In cases of suspicious behaviour, unexpected inspections would take place (H. C. French 1907: 19). Whether the inspections were carried out with this prescribed regularity and whether they in fact brought the expected results is a matter of contention. It is important, however, that they marked the de facto distance between the home quarters and the military destination. Those efforts are a testimony to the fears that they inspired. Temporal immobilization of those who were suffering from syphilis was the only preventive measure that, at least on paper, showed that the army took pains to limit the spread of the disease.

Such lack of mobility, however, was regarded in negative terms by soldiers themselves. In his short story, “Love-o’-Women,” Rudyard Kipling associates the arrest of movement with the ravages of locomotor ataxia, a disorder linked to the third stage of syphilis at the time. According to Gould’s Student Medical Dictionary, locomotor ataxia is a symptom of tabes dorsalis, spinal sclerosis, and is characterized by a lack of coordination of muscular action (1900: n. pag.). In Kipling’s story, the main symptom of the disease is the broken constitution of Larry Tighe, the eponymous “Love-o’-Women,” a friend of the embedded narrator, Terrance Mulvaney, who recounts the latter’s life. Like in New Woman fiction, here, the syphilis sufferer is portrayed in terms of racial degeneration: he is “an impertinent Irish-faced ape” (1912: 302). Yet Kipling’s short story goes beyond this popular evocation and describes, through the eyes of a fellow soldier, the constitutional changes that the disorder brings about. Tighe is both “all twisted” and “stiff as a ramrod” (302). He moves as though “he was bein’ kicked behind” (305). While he manages to hide his deteriorating physical powers, the doctor’s diagnosis - the naming of the disease - forces him into the patient’s role. After that, he no longer manages to summon his body to act like a cog in a military machine. After the diagnosis, he is described as “cripplin’ and crumblin’ at ivry step,” his hand on his comrade’s shoulder and “his right leg swingin’ like a lame camel” (312). When recuperating in a hospital, he can no longer perform simple actions like buttoning his shirt (313). Nursed by his friend, “Love- o’-Women” nonetheless withers “like beef rations in a hot sun” so that, when he visits his “wife,” a woman whom he ruined, he looks like “a dead man walkin’ in the sun, wid the face av a dead man and the breath av a dead man, hild up by the Power, an’ the legs an’ the corpse obeyin’ orders” (320). Tighe’s suicidal attempts failing, he dies a slow and painful death, as his suffering cannot even be attenuated by alcohol.

Next to Kipling’s characteristic preoccupation with the realities of soldiers’ lives, recounted in the journalist-like vernacular style, two concerns become apparent in the short story: his obsession with the army as a privileged site of ordering and his interest in imperial mobility granted by the new means of mass locomotion. With reference to both issues, syphilis is regarded as a powerful force that immobilizes, disturbs the reigning order and is irrevocably associated with technological modernity. When the doctor explains to Mulvaney the meaning of his disease, he links it to the railway: “They call ut Locomotus attacks us [... ] bekaze [ ... ] ut attacks us like a locomotive” (314). Kipling’s enthusiastic reception of new technologies and their anthropomorphic character in his works are here linked with the negative sides of modernity and technological progress, leading to disorder (Welz 2003: 343). Interpreted with reference to its role in the colonial project, the locomotive - the empire itself? - is associated with the ravages of syphilis. The disease turns Tighe’s body into a corpse, immobilizes him and contributes to the loss of his senses. By that, it also renders him useless to the army. Tighe seeks death in the field thus endangering his companions. He can also no longer perform his role as a soldier as the armour of his body crumbles and he is left encased in a body of pain. He is emasculated by syphilis (Welz 2003: 308).25

Importantly, unlike in military and abolitionist reports, in Kipling’s story, domesticity is not associated with geographical parameters but with interhuman proximity. Here, the apparent contagiousness of a soldier suffering from syphilis is gone. Tighe’s close relationship with Mulvaney is a relationship of care. Although Mulvaney has always feared Tighe, instead of going back to his newly-wed wife, he stays to nurse his friend. Caring and emotional intimacy are taken out of the narrow circle of middle-class proper domesticity and expanded over tabooed relationships with the fellow soldier and a prostitute. While this attachment eases Tighe’s sufferings, the invalid’s final journey to the brothel, the abode of his wife “Di’monds-an’-Pearls,” is constructed as his return home. Even though the woman blames him for degrading her to the status of a prostitute, an accusation expressed in evocatively geographical terms (“You taught me the road. You showed me the way,” Kipling 1912: 320), she opens her arms to welcome the dying soldier. Yet this seemingly idyllic reunion of two lovers - his realization of his faults and her forgiveness - has bitter overtones. As the narrator runs to fetch the doctor, the woman shoots herself. Buried on a civic cemetery thanks to the generosity of a doctor who had earlier refused to come to the brothel for fear of losing his reputation, they are united in one grave but also no longer to be feared. The contagion (presumably) both carried in them is gone. At the same time, their faith prompts the doctor’s act of compassion and changes his life as he runs away with another man’s wife. Kipling’s short story combines powerful emotion with a deep moral message and an unprecedented exploration of exceptional altruism towards the victims of syphilis.26

It is hard not to sense eugenic overtones in this ending, which immobilizes both characters far away from the native shores of Britain. Enveloped in narratorial empathy, the life and death of “Love-o’- Women” offer another tale in which distance plays a significant role in keeping the borders of the British Empire untouched. Importantly, the story, if only fleetingly, addresses official concerns over the health of the returning soldiers. Like these, the medical establishment in British military hospitals and abolitionists alike endorsed a policy of confinement as a means of suppressing the presumable contagion associated with the soldiers’ return home.

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