Thomas Pinney’s meticulous edition of the Kipling letters is a welcome addition to previously published and ongoing collections of letters by other eminent Edwardians, among them Joseph Conrad, E. M. Forster, George Bernard Shaw, and William Butler Yeats. In fact, the Kipling collection has appeared after the publication of notable Georgian letters, such as editions for James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, C. S. Lewis, Katherine Mansfield, and Virginia Woolf.
One reason for the tardy publication of Kipling’s letters is that his correspondents were widely scattered across at least three continents. To assemble the collection from libraries and private holdings throughout the Indian subcontinent, Great Britain, and North America must have been a formidable task, even in the age of photocopies and fax machines. Another reason is that Kipling himself acted to impede future publication of many sensitive epistles. Although most of the writer’s correspondents, according to Pinney, kept his letters—at least after he became a prominent figure in the early l890’s—Kipling destroyed numerous personal letters. After his father died in 1911, Kipling “indulged in an orgy of burning” half a century of the family papers. His sister once testified to what she called “the frenzy of burning any letters or papers connected with his youth.” Later, Kipling destroyed his letters to his uncle, Sir Edward Burne-Jones, at least the “saucy ones,” according to Sir Sidney Cockerell; and he regularly burned most of the letters sent to him. We have no way of knowing whether letters by such notables as Mark Twain, Thomas Hardy, Robert Louis Stevenson, Henry James, or Theodore Roosevelt were consigned to the flames; but we know for certain that Kipling refused requests from biographers for letters and, according to Pinney, “each such request must have reminded him that the only real protection against such curiosity was to destroy the material desired.” Finally, Pinney notes with regret that Mrs. Kipling was, “if anything, an even more dedicated destroyer than her husband.” As a result, Kipling’s output of letters so far reveals little intimate information. Biographers of Kipling will have to read between guarded lines of his correspondence—or seek elsewhere, in the revelations of contemporaries—for a persuasive psychological portrait of his very private character.
Nevertheless, Pinney has had a vast store of surviving letters from which to draw his edition. He has had “in hand the texts of about 6,300 letters in manuscript, copy, or printed form, drawing from 138 collections, public and private, and from 135 printed sources.” Immense though this collection is, it still is dwarfed by Shaw’s lifetime production of 250,000 letters and postcards. Of course, Shaw rarely if ever burned his letters, either for reasons of misguided shame or reticence. Moreover, to give Kipling his due, his India letters might well have smacked of the little indecencies of the barracks- room or newspaper office. Fortunately, his “saucy” production escaped the fate of another adventurer in the Punjab, Sir Richard Francis Burton, whose wife probably destroyed a far more substantial posthumous legacy. (Curiously, Kipling was acquainted with Isabella Burton, and in his letter of October 26, 1887, he describes her as “the wittiest woman in India” and proposes to dedicate his 1888 volume Plain Tales from the Hills to her.)
Allowing for Kipling’s reticence—perhaps hypersensitivity—in the direction of self-portraiture, his letters reveal him in an extraordinarily vivid light. On the positive side, the collection so far will certainly elevate Kipling’s literary standing among critics, who tend to view him from an anticolonialist stance as reactionary sentimental, or simplistic. As his letters prove, Kipling was by no means a one-dimensional figure. Witty, inventive, curious, exuberant, he is nearly always an entertaining writer. Readers might have expected as much. What they are also likely to discover from the letters is a quality of shrewdness, playfulness, sharpness of satirical insight, and generally a fund of good common sense. The total impression of Kipling that one receives in that of a serious, not merely clever, writer, an artist continually experimenting with words as tools of his craft, whether in jotting down extemporaneous (often doggerel) verse or sharpening his vision to render concrete his descriptions of persons, places, and events.
On the other hand, Kipling’s letters will support the negative judgments made by some of the writer’s detractors. Few letters indicate the kind of anguished introspection typical of his contemporary Conrad, who reviewed colonialism in its worst aspect. Prior to the 1890’s, Kipling seemed indifferent to the cause of British imperialism, even to the point of satirizing the ineptitude of administrators. As his fame spread following the...
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