Kipling kept his head when replying to feminist

Rudyard Kipling's If, the most popular British poem of the last century, which came to embody the cult of the stiff upper lip…

Rudyard Kipling's If, the most popular British poem of the last century, which came to embody the cult of the stiff upper lip, could have been very different indeed if the feminist Marie Stopes had had her way.

Stopes, the famously overbearing author of the first modern sex manual, Married Love, wrote to the equally grouchy poet in 1925 asking him to change the last line from "And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!" to the less elegant "And you will lead the race o'er ground you've won".

Stopes wanted the line altered to encompass women so she could use it to inspire the nurses in her new family planning clinics. Just in case Kipling might have been a little hard of understanding, she underlined her every reference to women.

"She was an underlining sort of person," said Elizabeth Inglis, the manuscripts librarian at Sussex University, where the letter goes on show next month.


Kipling gave her proposal short shrift. He took a dim view of Stopes's lifestyle - she believed it was every husband's duty to satisfy his wife and bullied her own husband into accepting her many lovers - and was not keen on her clinics.

Meryl Macdonald, a cousin of Kipling's who has written a new biography of him, The Long Trail, said he would probably have been astonished by the sheer gall of the woman.

"It's telling that he replied to her in a single sentence," she said. "I am sure he said a few words privately. Contrary to what a lot of people think, he was very open to criticism of his writing, remarkably so in fact. It was his drawing which he got a bit crotchety about."

Kipling's reply is the model of restraint, proving he heeded his own poem's advice to "keep your head when all about you/Are losing theirs . . ."

He wrote: "If a precedent of this kind were established we might end by sanctioning the change of every line."

Stopes's response to his refusal is not known, though she was not normally a woman to take No for an answer.

A fanatical believer in eugenics, Stopes campaigned to stop the poor and the disabled having children, and accused her only son of committing a crime against his "country, his family and his children" by marrying a shortsighted woman.

When he refused to dump Mary Wallis, his childhood sweetheart, she boycotted the wedding.

It wasn't the only indignity Harry Stopes-Roe suffered at his mother's hands. She also was convinced trousers damaged the genitals and made him wear skirts as a child.

But he later insisted that his unorthodox upbringing did him no harm: "What happened in my childhood was a long time ago and I am prepared to laugh at it now."