Kipling's something of a shadow

Rudyard Kipling
May 26, 2000

Andrew Lycett's life of Kipling has many of the virtues and few of the flaws of modern literary biography. It is judicious, thorough and evenly paced, deservedly giving a fair share of its time to Kipling's often-neglected later years; it is based on direct access to all the relevant archives; it avoids psychoanalysis (the "Higher Cannibalism" that Kipling deplored and dreaded) and ideological bias, not setting out to prosecute or defend Kipling, but to present him in all his complexity and contrariness; it portrays him in historical time without relegating him to one or another historical stereotype. These are all qualities for which lovers of Kipling should be grateful.

But, I am tempted to add, its real use is as a well-constructed narrative and reference work for students. It will bring no one to understand, admire, or love Kipling's work, and in this sense has less value than the most virulent and stupid attack on him, which might rouse a spirit of opposition and inquiry. Lycett is just not interested enough in what interested Kipling to make his imaginative life the focus of his biography.Admittedly this is a formidably difficult task, but it is not impossible. Two decades ago, Richard Holmes's Shelley: The Pursuit offered a model of what literary biography can accomplish if it keeps the writer's subjectivity at the forefront of its concerns. Lycett tells the story of Kipling's life with earnest, methodical attention to everything except what makes the life worth bothering with in the first place. Kipling's "daemon" - the dark, joyous, bitter, compulsive spirit of his art - pops up occasionally in Lycett's narrative like a bit-part player when it should really be the star of the show.

By contrast, Lycett is superb on Kipling's career - on the extended family and social networks that guided his development as a professional writer, on contacts, well-placed friends and patrons, people who knew people and happened to edit a newspaper, or command a destroyer squadron, or own a railway. I have never so clearly understood the extent of the ramifications of Kipling's relationship to the Macdonald sisters, one of whom, Alice, married his father. Another married the painter Edward Burne-Jones; another, Edward Poynter, later president of the Royal Academy and another, Alfred Baldwin, father of the future prime minister. Even in isolation (but it cannot truly be isolated) this family network affiliates Kipling to Wesleyan Methodism, to Celtic "second sight", to pre-Raphaelitism, to Bohemian manners and morals, to the late Victorian literary and artistic establishment and to Conservative politics and their antithesis (his beloved Aunt Georgie, Burne-Jones's widow, hung a black banner outside her home in Rottingdean after the end of the Boer war with the biblical warning "We have killed and also taken possession" and Kipling, a fervent supporter of the war, had to rescue her from an angry crowd).

Lycett's portrayal of Kipling's movements through a world composed of such affiliations is more than competent, it is masterly, almost inspired. Indeed, it is the aspect of Kipling's work into which Lycett's real passion seems to have flowed. He does justice to the crucial importance of Kipling's "seven years' hard" as a journalist in India, and keeps track of his subsequent dealings with agents, editors and publishers; he is equally at home in the different geographical settings of Kipling's life - India, America, South Africa and England, the country he famously described as "the most marvellous of all foreign countries that I have ever been in". Kipling's "life and times" have never been more accurately and informatively delineated, and though the book is ample, it is rarely inconsequential; most of its details are there for use as well as ornament,in a way Kipling would have appreciated. Only rarely do we hear more about some minor figure than we need in order to contemplate the intricate and elaborate tracery of Kipling's worldly passage.

Though Lycett dutifully claims "important biographical discoveries" (as biographers, presumably under publishers' orders, must), there is not much that is genuinely new in this book, and the little he has unearthed makes no significant difference to the broad outline of events in Kipling's life or to our established image of his personality. This does not matter in the least, since the weight of Lycett's achievement lies in its grasp of detail and its fresh synthesis of earlier biographical and historical scholarship. As far as interpretation goes, his major contribution is his dispassionate, convincing assessment of two marriages - that of Kipling's parents, and that of Kipling himself.

In general Lycett writes well, though rather drily, about sexual and marital relationships, and he gives a persuasive account of the strains in what Kipling idealised as the "Family Square" (himself, his parents, and his sister Alice), and of the much more painful and serious difficulties that beset Kipling's own marriage with Caroline Balestier - hard-done-by, devoted and possessive, Kipling's guardian angel and jailer. The story of Kipling's last years under Carrie's thumb is terribly painful and is recounted with unsparing clarity, yet Lycett also makes us understand Carrie's suffering and her enduring sense of isolation and estrangement (after everything written about Kipling's struggle with his sense of identity, it is salutary to remember that he made his wife live more than half her life in exile from her native America).

The devastating effects on the Kiplings of the death from pneumonia of their six-year old daughter Josephine in 1899 and of their son John at the Battle of Loos in 1915, are given due prominence, but Lycett does not neglect the third, surviving child, Elsie, whose childless marriage and melancholy, obsessive old age as the final jealous protector of her father's privacy brings the book to its impressively dour conclusion.

And yet, despite these considerable qualities, the book leaves us with nothing more of Kipling the writer than a silhouette. Lycett fails to get inside Kipling's creativity, and fails to convey both what it was like to read him in his lifetime, and what it is like to read him now, and how we got from there to here. The rapture with which Kipling's genius was greeted by Henry James needs as much accounting for as Orwell's exasperated appreciation, or T. S. Eliot's qualified homage. Like the bridge in his great story "The Bridge-Builders", Kipling's art is both massive and fragile, defying the flood of unreason yet conscious of its precarious hold in the flux of time. The main character, the engineer Findlayson, is an indomitable imperial builder in the first part of the story and an opium-crazed witness to a conclave of the Indian gods in the second. The division of the story corresponds to Kipling's abiding sense that he had "two sides to his head", but what bridges the gap between them? Kipling the artist is a bridge-builder beyond Findlayson's ken, master of a material both abstract and concrete, namely language.

Kipling loved words with a physical love, attributing to them every quality of sensuous beauty, and like many lovers he took the beauty of what he loved as symbolic of something beyond itself and as imbued with magical power. This supreme craftsman was awed by the mystery of his craft; this most knowing of writers (whose knowingness grates more than any other of his defects knew also how to be a child, how to play with words like the pebbles and bits of broken glass with which his alter ego, doomed little Muhammad Din, fashions his "magnificent palaces" in the most poignant of the Plain Tales from the Hills .

It is symptomatic that, in a book distinguished for its accuracy and respect for matters of fact, Lycett should make so many small but disrespectful errors about Kipling's work. It is not true, for example, that Dravot's "native wife bites him in a dispute" at the turning point of "The Man Who Would be King".

In fact Dravot never gets to marry the girl, who bites him when they are first introduced and does so because she has been put up to it by Dravot's priestly enemies. It is not true that the narrator in "On the City Wall" is asked by the prostitute Lalun "to help an old man with a gold pince-nez " make his way out of the city during a religious riot; Lycett is mixing up two separate characters here. It is untrue to say that Kipling's geography in "Mandalay" is faulty because "Moulmein had no 'road to Mandalay' where 'the old Flotilla lay'"; surely Lycett must know the passage in Something of Myself in which Kipling comments on this very point, making it clear that he knew exactly what he was doing. It is not "the ordinary midshipman's command of language" that Kipling praised in his pamphlet "A Fleet in Being" and emulated in naval stories such as "The Bonds of Discipline", but the language of "seaman-gunners, artificers, cooks, Marines... ship's boys, signalmen, and the general democracy". Lycett, who is very good on social class in Kipling's non-literary life, should know what a crucial distinction this is; I presume he is not using "ordinary midshipman" as a synonym for "ordinary seaman" ("the sort of sailor you find in the middle of the ship").

It is not true to say that Mary Postgate, in the story of that name, is a governess; she is a lady's companion, who becomes passionately devoted to the boy her employer adopts at the age of 11. (This sounds like the most pedantic of my examples but is in fact the one with the widest-reaching consequences, as the first and last paragraphs of the story demonstrate.) Doubts about Lycett's literary-critical judgement come to a head with his description of "The Bull that Thought" as one of Kipling's "most cheerful late stories" in which "a lively playful bull... taunt(s) his matador tormentors", unless "taunt" has a hitherto unknown meaning (as in "gores and tramples to death"). Last, but not least heinous, is Lycett's synopsis of "Dayspring Mishandled", in which he states that Manallace conceives his elaborate revenge plot against his rival Castorley "when the two men meet during the war" without explaining what Castorley did at this meeting to provoke Manallace's implacable hatred-a detail without which the story is almost exquisitely meaningless.

I would not make so much of these slips if Lycett did not himself suggest that he is indifferent to the very concept of "the literary". Early in the book he remarks: "One problem with writers' lives is that, with hindsight, the details of their reading assume too much importance, especially with a character like Rudyard whose autobiography was dedicated to showing how he came to write as he did - and to not much else." Much else may certainly be found in Lycett's book, but it is rash of him to invite comparison with Something of Myself , Kipling's posthumous masterpiece of self-making, to which even the best biography can only stand as a supplement.

Daniel Karlin is professor of English, University College London.

Rudyard Kipling

Author - Andrew Lycett
ISBN - 0 297 81907 0
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price - £25.00
Pages - 659

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