Born in Bombay in 1865, the son of an artist and teacher, with a minor public-school but not a university education, small, slight, physically unattractive, unusually dark, extremely nearsighted, personally insecure, aggressively trying to make his way in the world and threatened by India and the Indians, the young Kipling accepted the moral justification of imperialism and believed “there has been no civilizing experiment in the world’s history, at all comparable to British rule in India.” In 1888, while still in his early twenties, he published his first collections of stories, Plain Tales from the Hills and Soldiers Three. They immediately established his literary reputation, had a powerful impact on the English imagination, and created the literary image of India that has lasted until our time. His two great themes are the need to defend civilization against brute nature and barbarian people, and the stoic self-sacrifice of the English officials responsible for completing the day’s work. He stressed the frailty in India of health, friendship, social position, marriage, even of houses and the very landscape that is subject to sudden floods and earthquakes.
Forced by the intense experience of his early life into precocious journalism and literature, the young Kipling poured out newspaper copy by day and long letters by night. He was getting unpleasantly bald and felt “an old old man” at the age of 20. His correspondence often contains drawings, poems (including an Indian version of “Humpty Dumpty”), and an extended diary of sixteen pages. Cautious and reserved (“I don’t as a rule care to let men into any part of my life outside the working sections”), and usually adopting a playful tone, Kipling rarely reveals his deeper feelings— even to his fiancée—and does not achieve the passionate intensity and bold revelations of great letter writers like Byron, Keats, and D.H. Lawrence. His letters do not add a great deal to what we already know about the major events of his life from the biographies by Charles Carrington (1955), Philip Mason (1975), Angus Wilson (1977), and Lord Birkenhead (1978). But Kipling traveled widely on newspaper assignments, and his correspondence provides a fascinating account of daily life in northern India—Lahore, Simla, Allahabad—during the height of imperial power. Like Haroun Al-Raschid, Kipling wandered through mysterious warrens and bazaars in search of strange things.
Thomas Pinney has labored mightily, collecting, transcribing, and annotating the people, places, and allusions (mainly to the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, and Victorian poetry) in these letters. He could write an extremely interesting essay about how he found them and tracked down the obscure information needed to elucidate passages like “you shouldn’t ha’ chucked it away on the repeated crambe— which is dumb crambo.” Pinney’s tactful and accurate editing matches the superb standard of his monumental edition of the letters of Macaulay. I have found only one typo (Piccadilly, I.354:3), one slightly misleading annotation (“enjoying Kif together” on 2.187 does not mean “the enjoyment of idleness” but rather smoking the hemp leaves that produce this euphoric state) and one allusion on 2.200 that could use clarification (Kipling’s pigs, Bubble and Squeak, allude to working-class slang for pork sausages fried in batter—their future fate).
Pinney has gathered 6,300 letters from 135 printed sources and 138 collections (especially at the University of Sussex and the Library of Congress). They begin in 1872 when Kipling was miserably unhappy in the House of Desolation that he later described in “Baa, Baa Black Sheep” and end seven days before his death in 1936. A great many of his most intimate letters were destroyed, first by Kipling himself and then by his over-protective widow (only four letters to his parents have survived from 40 years of correspondence). The first two volumes, which print 459 of the 1,333 available letters, supplement the previously published correspondence in the authorized lives by Carrington and Birkenhead, and in the editions by Morton Cohen of the letters to Rider Haggard and by Elliot Gilbert of the letters to his children.
At school Kipling liked pets and practical jokes. In India, where he returned in 1882 to work on the Civil and Military Gazette of Lahore (population 70,000), he emphasized the devastating effect of the climate on both the English and Indian people. Thirty flashes of lightning per minute seemed to disembowel the sky. During the scorchers, the temperature reached an incredible 169° during the day—heating his spectacles and burning a ridge on his nose—and dropped 100° at night. Life was cheap and easily lost during the rampaging epidemics of cholera, typhoid, and plague.
Kipling sometimes took over as temporary editor of the Gazette, the daily newspaper for English residents of the Punjab, and had 70 Indians “to bully and hector as I please.” He wittily disapproved of the “sacred smut” in the epic Mahabharata, of infant marriage and enforced widowhood, and of half-educated natives in the red and black gown of a Master of Arts. But he also, rather surprisingly, believed that the English should respect the customs of the Indians and not attempt to impose Christianity upon them: “it seems to me cruel that white men, whose governments are armed with the most murderous weapons known to science, should amaze and confound their fellow creatures with a doctrine of salvation imperfectly understood by themselves and a code of ethics foreign to the climate and instincts of those races whose most cherished customs they outrage and whose gods they insult.”
He loved hearing and spreading gossip about local scandals and intrigues, satirized a globe-trotting heiress who was so awfully ugly that she had to be exported to India before anyone would look at her, and distanced a fat maiden who wished to marry him. He disapproved of babies, calling them “horrid little brutes,” but became a doting father as soon as he had a child of his own. He wrote vibrant descriptions of Simla, the vertiginous summer capital, “built around the sides of a mountain 8400 feet high” and of the perfumed Moghul gardens of Lahore: “Great sheets of still water, inlaid marble colonnades, and carved marble couches at the edge, thick trees and lime bushes and acres of night blooming flowers that scented the whole air.”
While visiting the native state of Pattiala as a mere reporter, he “lived like a prince of the royal blood, with sentries and guards of honour,” and was presented with a silver mounted Remington rifle. When summoned to the house of an Afghan chieftain who had been forcibly detained in Lahore, Kipling was offered bountiful bribes, first £1,300 in currency, then a ravishing Kashmiri girl and three magnificent horses, and finally a bag of uncut sapphires and greasy emeralds—all meant to persuade him to use his influence to secure the old bandit’s release.
Kipling’s antidote to the heat, disease, gossip, repulsive customs, and seductive temptations of India, as well as to the bitter homesickness for England, was work. This took a central place in his ethics. He worked hard on an unfinished and now lost novel, “Mother Maturin,” which distilled his experience in India, “carries a grim sort of moral with it and tries to deal with the unutterable horrors of lower class Eurasian and native life as they exist outside reports.” He was torn between careers in India and England. But when his first stories were published and acclaimed in 1888, he was determined to go “home.” He sailed, the following year, via Burma, Malaya, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, and America (later described in From Sea to Sea), and was suddenly transformed from an obscure provincial into a grand celebrity.
After arriving in London in October 1889, he met in quick succession many notable writers: J.A. Symonds, Andrew Lang, Rider Haggard, Walter Besant, George Meredith, and George Saintsbury. Though he never knew Stevenson (then in Samoa), Kipling was deeply shocked by his untimely death and sickened by the posthumous publication of his letters: “It’s rather like the Pest-cart of old with the bell and candle and the cry:—”Bring out your dead.”” The publisher S.S. McClure asked the fluent Kipling to join “a sort of Literary Supply Association to write tales of adventure suitable for youths”—an organization that inspired the Fictional Supply Syndicate in “Dayspring Mishandled.” Rejecting this unattractive offer, he soon established his apparently jolly routine of work. After bath, breakfast, pipe, and mail, “from ten till four I drive the festive quill across the bounding foolscap and reply to the notes of the pressing publisher. I have lunch at two by my side. At four, new shaven, and in a glossy hat, I go forth to take the air. Generally a desire for tea drives me to Aunt Georgie’s where I am made much of; but I have very many friends at whose houses I am certain of welcome as warm as the food. Also I am much persecuted with dinners. If I don’t dine out, I sally forth at eight to catch a meal in one of the merry restaurants which line the Strand. Then I return and do a little work and a little thinking and go to bed.”
Kipling drove himself too hard and suffered a nervous collapse in January 1890. “I have broken up,” he coolly stated. “My head has given out and I am forbidden work . . . . I knew that the smash would come some day. It’s nobody’s fault but my own.” But he soon recovered and widened his literary circle to include Edmund Gosse, Thomas Hardy, W.E. Henley, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Henry James, who wrote an introduction to the American edition of Mine Own People (1891) and seconded Kipling’s nomination for membership in the Athenaeum. As his fame grew, so did his fury with the American publishers who pirated his books: “It’s simply a piece of cowardly and huckstering sharp-practice to exploit a name that, for the time being, sells.”
After a voyage to South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, and India in 1891, Kipling was recalled to England by the sudden death of his oldest friend and collaborator, Wolcott Balestier. In January 1892 he surprised all his friends by suddenly marrying Wolcott’s sister Caroline. Though he fulminated against the “Yank yahoos,” his wife (like his former fiancée) was American. After his round-the-world honeymoon was aborted by the crash of his bank in June 1892 (“a poor return for three years hard work”), Kipling set up house in Brattleborö, Vermont. He lived there until the violent, scandalous, and humiliating quarrel with his brother-in-law Beatty Balestier (the temperamental opposite of Wolcott) drove him out of America in 1896. He associated New York with “a smell of horse-piss, Italian fruit-vendor, nickel-cigars, sour lager and warm car-conductor drifting down Carmine Street.”
In Vermont Kipling started a family and wrote the two Jungle Books, The Seven Seas, Captains Courageous and The Day’s Work. It is fascinating, during these years, to see the first imaginative germs of his forthcoming books: “the tale of the Thibetan lama and Kim o’ the Rishti,” “a wolf boy (we have them in India) but being caught early was civilized,” “men even lower than Peachey and Carnehan made themselves kings (and kept their kingdoms too) in India not 150 years ago,” “can you lay your hand on a chart of the Newfoundland fishing banks together with any monograph on the cod-fisheries on the Grand Banks as practised by the American fleet?”
In 1898 he began spending winters in South Africa: “nothing less than a new nation in the throes of birth—a nation with resources behind it of which it hardly dreams now.” He formed friendships with Cecil Rhodes and with Theodore Roosevelt, who seemed the very embodiment of his own energetic imperialism. And he learned the effective use of behind-the-scenes influence with powerful men. He persuaded the president of the Boston and Maine Railroad to have his engineers blow their whistles in Brattleboro to warn horse carriages of approaching trains; he convinced President Cleveland to open a local post office for Kipling’s personal convenience; he induced the private secretary of Prime Minister Balfour to get a Civil List pension for the ailing Henley; and Kipling prevailed upon the viceroy to secure a satisfactory retirement and pension for his father. As the popular novelist Hall Caine justly observed: “He has seen everything, he knows everything, and he can do anything.”