Kipling on Kipling

His autobiographical writings reveal the boy beneath the man

BORN in Bombay in 1865, Rudyard Kipling grew up in the years that the British Empire reached its fullest height, made his name in the last two decades of the Victorian era, became the first Briton to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907, and lived on until 1936, by which time his imperialist sentiments and bluff style of writing were long out of fashion in literary and academic milieu. But his colorful stories and robustly rhymed poems continued to hold broad popular appeal. Even after his star had waned, voices were raised on his behalf. The British novelist and critic Angus Wilson, who had no use for Kipling's racism and anti-Semitism, offered an insightful and appreciative biographical study, ``The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling,'' in 1977, and the following year there was a biography by Lord Birkenhead. Just before he died, Kipling himself had written an autobiography, which was published posthumously (in 1937), heavily edited by his widow: ``Something of Myself.''

To say that self-revelation was not Kipling's strongest suit is an understatement. But it also gives the somewhat misleading impression that the author of ``The Jungle Book,'' ``Captains Courageous,'' ``Kim,'' ``Danny Deever,'' and ``Mandalay'' was too reticent to write expressively and directly when the subject was himself.

It's true that his best works are the opposite of introspective: They are excursions out into the world. And it's also true, as Thomas Pinney shows in his introduction to this collection, that Kipling's autobiography omits much of what must have mattered most to him: the girl who was his first love; the married woman who served as his friend and muse during his formative years as a writer; the details of his courtship of the American woman whom he married; the quarrel with his wife's family that drove him back to England from Vermont. ``Something of Myself'' proved an accurate title indeed.

The ``something'' that Kipling chose to describe, however, includes much that is of interest: his schooling in England, his apprenticeship as a journalist in India, his travels, and his thoughts about writing as an art, a craft, a way of making a living in the world, and a way of living in the world of imagination.

In addition to ``Something of Myself,'' Pinney has included two brief articles, ``My First Book'' (1892) and ``An English School'' (1893), providing further accounts of Kipling's education and his venture into literary life.

The volume concludes with a previously unpublished diary that Kipling kept as a journalist in India in 1885: a terse record of hard work, discomfort, and difficulty that is anything but the kind of reflective diary kept by someone like Virginia Woolf.

But when Kipling chose to do so, he could write powerfully about his more private emotions.

The experience that continued to exercise the strongest hold on his imagination was that of being separated from India and his beloved parents at the age of five and sent (as was the custom among colonials) to England to receive his education. Kipling and his younger sister Trix were boarded with strangers. For him, the experience in this home was so horrible as to make the time he later spent in boarding school seem a positive joy and delight.

Kipling describes his stay in the place he calls ``The House of Desolation'' in ``Something of Myself,'' draws on it in his novel ``The Light That Failed'' (not included in this collection), and makes the most memorable use of it in his previously unpublished illustrations to it. It is a story well worth reprinting.

With brilliant concision and dark shades of irony, Kipling evokes the very depths of childhood misery and adult injustice that he experienced in his fall from being the beloved, indulged firstborn in a large colonial household to being the unwanted ``black sheep'' in the house of a moralizing evangelical woman and her bully of a son.

No less remarkable for brilliant conclusion and irony is Kipling's insight into the mind-set of loving parents about to send their children halfway around the world to live with strangers:

``Mamma's own prayer was a slightly illogical one. Summarized it ran: - `Let strangers love my children and be as good to them as I should be, but let me preserve their love and their confidence for ever and ever. Amen.'''

Only the second half of this prayer is answered, and when one considers that Kipling's much-loved mother Alice chose not to send her children to live with relatives for fear of possible familial ``complications,'' one recognizes the psychological acuity of Kipling's understanding of the possessive underside of the most tender parental love.

Kipling's father was a professor at the School of Art in Bombay. Two of Alice Kipling's sisters were married to artists (the third was the mother of the future British prime minister Stanley Baldwin). As a child, Kipling cherished his escapes from the ``House of Desolation'' into the happy, artistic household of his mother's brother-in-law, the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones.

Yet, for all his early love of art and his passion for escape into the world of literature, Kipling grew up to become the ``manly,'' outgoing antithesis of the 1890s aesthetes: the hard-headed working writer who championed the cause of the ``tommy'' - the ordinary British soldier charged with shouldering the burdens of empire without reaping the benefits of power or personal glory.

Although nothing he writes in his autobiography quite captures the strange blend of opposites that makes his work so compelling, the bluntness of Kipling on Kipling cannot completely disguise the more enigmatic boy beneath the man.

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