It has taken a long time to give Rudyard Kipling his due, and even now suspicion lurks in the shadows that he’s politically not correct at all. Didn’t he make himself obnoxious waving the Union Jack? The writings have won through because he was a supreme fabulist, able to turn a particular experience into something universal. But weren’t his fables simplifications that treated readers as if they were children? Anthropomorphic animals? Henry James, a great and unlikely friend and admirer, rather brilliantly perceived how the fables had gone “from the Anglo-Indians to the natives, from the natives to the Tommies, from the Tommies to the quadrupeds, from the quadrupeds to the fish, and from the fish to the engines and screws.”
In the course of his career, he was much photographed with public figures: King George V, Field Marshal Frederick Roberts, Cecil Rhodes, Prime Minister Bonar Law, and Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin (who happened to be his first cousin). His morning coat and top hat are de rigueur but could almost be a disguise. His rigid posture, unsmiling features, and moustache—more suitable for a cavalry officer of that period—mark him out as someone who never quite fits in with the company he’s keeping, and who knows it.
Born in India in 1866, he was a child of the British Empire. In the second sentence of Something of Myself, he makes a reference to “Allah the Dispenser of Events” as though the phrase came naturally, and then moved on to memories of his ayah, Hindu bearers, and Arab dhows on pearly waters. Dispatched to England for his education, Kipling was separated from his parents during his formative years, on his own in the “House of Desolation” as he called it—another phrase that came naturally. “My people,” is how he refers to his absent father and mother. Reprinted here, “Baa Baa, Black Sheep” makes use of his experience of childhood to create a fable about loneliness that wrings the heart.
A few writers like Emily Eden had depicted India in the first half of the nineteenth century as all harmony, color, and discovery. Events such as the Indian Mutiny of 1857 or the assassination of the Viceroy Lord Mayo put an end to the picturesque. Employed as a journalist on his return, the young Kipling had to deal with the reality of ruling and soldiering in India. The subject matter was original. By the age of twenty-two, he had already made the kind of splash in prose and verse that is the stuff of literary history.
Kipling’s observation of his fellow Britons was merciless, so much so that one senior member of the Indian Civil Service thought him “misleadingly derogatory.” He could describe Viceroy Lord Ripon as “an unmitigated bore—a rhetorician whom it would be gross flattery to call sophisticated.” No woman would want to be like Mrs. Hauksbee, his archetypal memsahib, “possessed of many devils of malice and mischief.” Everything about her is a cautionary tale. In contrast, he feels for Indians nothing but tenderness and admiration. A British soldier says of the native who works under him, “You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.” Only someone who had lived and loved the real differences between England and India could have written “The Miracle of Purun Bhagat,” a masterpiece of a story.
Marriage to the American Caroline Balestier brought Kipling to Brattleboro in Vermont. He built a house there and intended to stay put. When Caroline’s unstable brother, Beatty, pursued a quarrel, Kipling left in a hurry as though he’d been run out of the country. Next stop, South Africa, where the Boer campaign for independence was the first serious threat to the British Empire. Kipling perceived another issue. At a time when apartheid was still distantly over the horizon, he urged that the Boers should be repressed because if they were to emerge victors from the war they would install a racist state that persecuted the natives—and so it proved ultimately.
Defending the British government, Kipling was immediately demonized as an imperialist and warmongering jingo quite beyond the pale. Attacking Kipling, Liberals and the massed bands of those-who-always-know-best succeeded in confusing public opinion. The Conservative Prime Minister Salisbury complained, “England is, I believe the only country in which, during a great war, eminent men write and speak publicly as if they belonged to the enemy.” Novel at the time, this phenomenon is now so well established that anyone with intellectual pretensions is likely to feel honor-bound to oppose patriotism, the armed forces, and every other aspect of the national interest.
Kipling was afraid that enemies were bringing about a state of general violence, or what he called decivilization, and he did not spare the nations or individuals he held responsible. For instance, an Irishwoman he encountered “faithfully followed the instincts of her race and spread miseries and discomforts round her.” In the run-up to the First War, he accused the Kaiser of endangering the peace of Europe. In his view, the Germans were turning into Huns. Kipling lived long enough to see Hitler in power. For him, the evidence couldn’t be hidden that cruelty is the likely end of good intentions such as pacifism or socialism. Evelyn Waugh best understood this frame of mind because it was close to his own. Kipling, he summed up, “was a conservative in the sense that he believed civilization to be something laboriously achieved which was only precariously defended. He wanted to see the defenses fully manned and he hated the liberals because he thought them gullible and feeble, believing in the easy perfectibility of man and ready to abandon the work of centuries for sentimental qualms.”
Just after the turn of the century, the Kiplings finally settled in Bateman’s, a house just outside the village of Burwash in rural Sussex. The date 1634 is inscribed over the front door of this Jacobean manor, so dark and hidden that it seems a monument to an owner who couldn’t fit in. Here in the months leading up to his death in 1936, he drafted at high speed Something of Myself. He never had time to revise. A scrupulous and informative editor of this reprint, Thomas Pinney has no less than sixty pages of footnotes clarifying obscurities and rectifying mistakes. He also draws attention to things Kipling omitted, for instance the death of his son, John, killed at the age of eighteen in the First War, presumably blown to pieces by an artillery shell because his body was never found. Kipling makes no effort to get back at his critics, rising above even a mention of Max Beerbohm, the Incomparable Max who caricatured and parodied him remorselessly.
The language is as fresh and immediate as ever. For instance, a tale “slid into my mind, smoothly and orderly as floating timber on a bank-high river.” Lahore is a “growling, flaring, creed-drunk city.” In Stockholm he heard “the blunted grind of the trams.” Once looking out of his window, he saw a man opposite: “Of a sudden his breast turned dull red like a robin’s, and he crumpled, having cut his throat.” Supposedly a blinkered nationalist, he found one English town so “smugly British” that he wanted “to dance naked through it with pink feathers in my stern.”
The ancient Greeks believed that they possessed a Daemon or guardian spirit that was also a taskmaster driving a man to achieve what he could. In this autobiography, Kipling claims to be in the grip of his Daemon, which is as good an explanation as any for the genius that sets him apart but at the very front of the Hall of Fame.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 32 Number 9, on page 68
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