The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling Analysis

Angus Wilson

The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Rudyard Kipling, man of work, became a kind of Cape Horn against which waves of contradiction dashed ships of literary enterprise. Easily the most misread, misunderstood, even reviled of popular poets and storytellers in the English language, Kipling very much needed the qualified arguments in his defense that T. S. Eliot, Edmund Wilson, and George Orwell set forth in 1941 and 1942. When Kipling’s ashes were placed in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey, January 20, 1936, not a single literary figure was present. That generations of young students and readers of serious fiction were directed away from the politically repugnant apologist and glorifier of British Imperialism, journalistic storyteller, and jingoistic poet, without exposure to “the Kipling that nobody read” (Edmund Wilson’s phrase), is a literary crime for which liberal critics and teachers may need another generation to atone. Although Charles Carrington’s generally appreciative critical biography appeared in 1955 and Kingsley Amis’ favorable but inadequate pictorial biography appeared in 1975, the contradictions in Kipling’s character and work, not always inseparable, have generated controversy down to 1978. Lord Birkenhead’s official biography (completed in 1948 but vetoed by Kipling’s daughter Elsie, who died in 1976) and Angus Wilson’s The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling have aroused the old controversies once more.

Wilson confronts false or exaggerated charges about Kipling’s life and convictions with hard facts and circumstantial evidence, and misconceptions about his poetry and fiction with judicious reevaluations. He infuses all accounts with the novelist-critic’s personal responses to the ways a unique and justly famous, if not demonstrably great, writer’s life affected his work.

Except for lumping together, with some consequent confusion and back-tracking, Kipling’s three sojourns in America, Wilson marches the reader chronologically through Kipling’s life, analyzing the themes and techniques of the poetry and fiction along the way. Removed by his parents in 1871 from a pampered early childhood shared with his little sister in the paradise of Bombay to a traumatic and hellish six years with “Auntie Rosa,” a severely religious foster parent in Southsea, England, and then to the limbo of a second-rate public school, Kipling returned to paradise as a seventeen-year-old reporter in Lahore from 1882 to 1889. Leaving India as his writings were making him famous, he traveled to the Far East and the United States; lived awhile alone in London, tormented by loneliness and unrequited love; and then married Carrie. He settled for three years in his wife’s hometown of Brattleboro, Vermont, where he began several of his finest works; he then returned to live in England, where he lost his beloved daughter Josephine. In England, he reported on the Boer War, of which he vehemently approved as a militant imperialist, and settled in the English countryside at Rottingdean and later at Bateman. He lost his son John in the Great War, which he publicly supported in writings and in various official capacities. Kipling was world famous, although discredited for his unchanging imperialist views in a rapidly changing world; and he grew somewhat melancholy in his later years.

Wilson and most other Kipling revisionists admit the typical charges, but simply moderate them, and further, point to virtues that transcend his faults. He was a chauvinist of the Imperial Dream, anti-German, anti-Russian, anti-American, “dancing himself into a paroxysm of patriotic fury,” as Untermeyer said, but he later became disillusioned, and he was never a Fascist. His work was often too didactic, but almost as a justification of the freedom of his imagination—the imagination made responsible. If his philosophy was patchy, it enabled him, like Tolstoy, to write out of a world view. He loved success, but hated its effects on his private life. Like Twain, he was philistinistic, but hit some targets justly. He was a “racialist,” but not in the way nor to the extreme he is often accused of being, and he was not anti-Semitic. He glorified army life and hurrahed war, but he was one of the few writers to depict soldiers realistically and sympathetically, and he gave us lasting images of the horrors of war. He had a misogynistic streak, yet felt compassion for women. His works lacked love, but “a love of human beings pervades Kim” and some of his later stories. He had a sadistic tendency, and his writings are full of hatred and revenge (“Baa Baa Black Sheep,” one of the few autobiographical pieces), but he was a gentle, shy man, with a sympathetic and compassionate nature whose response to individuals face to face, especially children, was so warm and solicitous he had that rare gift of making people feel he took a genuine interest. Some called his work rowdy, boisterous, brazen, acerbic, violent, or vulgar, but he was also full of gusto, heartiness, and vigor; and an element in the tough Kipling to which Wilson only alludes is the strain of sentimentality, often beneath the surface, that sometimes erupts. Some say he was merely a storyteller, without looking at the later stories. Some say he was not a poet, citing his use of music-hall rhythms in his ballads and his forced use of his poems with his fiction, but T. S. Eliot points out special qualities that rescue Kipling’s verse and poetry, which is quoted nearly as often as Shakespeare. Although his work is generally humorless, wit, farce, and parody can be found in many of his pieces. These are only a few of the attacks and defenses. Wilson will not, however, tolerate unwarranted efforts to whitewash isolated areas of Kipling’s unpleasant public façade.

Wilson’s delineation of the many facets, guises, contradictions, and paradoxes of Kipling, private and public, is fascinating. In showing relations between the life and the work, the Kipling biographer has a rather unique task. Unlike many novelists, Kipling very seldom drew on his own personal experiences—the term “self-expression” meant little to him—or on people he knew as the basis for his stories. His direct observations of place details and of the types of people those places produce stimulated his imagination. He must be seen then primarily, Wilson demonstrates in great detail, not as a writer who imagines ways of writing about his own life but as a man whose life was the imagining of other lives.

Implicitly, Wilson gives the lie to two major admonitions with which young writers are sent full of hope out of high schools: write about what you know and go to journalism school. Kipling wrote nothing that was not based on direct observation and research, techniques developed in his early years as a reporter in India, but a proper understanding of his fiction and the ways he develops it argues more forcibly for the contention that what some writers know best is what they imagine. Kipling researched the codfish industry to write Captains Courageous; that novel, as much of his fiction, survives in spite of forced marches on the factual backgrounds, just as the soaring imagination leaves behind the stridently asserted, though profoundly felt, slogans. James Joyce praised Kipling’s “pure imagination.”

Kipling is a paramount example of a writer who set out to become rich and famous, who did everything in a public way to ensure that outcome, but who was from first to last an intensely, some have argued even a neurotically, private person; and he respected the privacy of others. The title of his autobiography, Something of Myself (1936), published posthumously, suggests as much as the book itself tells. Always in the public eye, a famous writer who traveled a great deal and who participated directly in major political events, he was only as accessible as he and his wife wanted to be. At home, Carrie severely ensured his insularity from strangers, some of whom he may have enjoyed knowing, and even from friends. Having consciously earned fame and fortune as a self-made man who never went to the university nor courted the favor of literary cliques, a man who refused many honors, he felt he deserved privacy on his own terms.

Wilson discusses the many elements in Kipling’s life that explain his insistence on the right to privacy. During the six years he spent with “Auntie Rosa” as a child, privacy was impossible, although extremely poor eyesight gave him a negative sense of privacy. In private, he stoically endured family tragedies and his own illnesses, aggravated and magnified by the brutal intrusions of the world press. “The night got into my head,” and he suffered from severe insomnia. The gastric dysfunction that had plagued him for years was finally diagnosed as the type of duodenal ulcer people develop who are made nervous and tense by repressing emotions.

Kipling was a writer of action. He eulogized men of action and denigrated men of words who legislated to men of action. But he came close to war, for instance, only as an observing journalist or in various analogous roles. In Soldiers Three, he imagined three different kinds of soldiers, who, like the three students in Stalky & Co., break all the institutional rules they can, while remaining true to the larger concepts of duty and work, law and responsibility; and in the role of artist, Kipling used his firm, virile, omniscient voice to keep the gypsy, the half-caste, and the demon in those characters under control.

What kept Kipling’s own inner demons domesticated were his various family and home situations. He loved, enjoyed, and was influenced by his mother, a cultivated woman; his father, curator of the museum at Lahore, an artist whose illustrations for Kim are superb; and his sister Trix, who wrote poetry. Contacts with other relatives, especially his mother’s artistic family, had an early and lasting effect on him: his uncle, Edward Burne-Jones was a Pre-Raphaelite painter, whose friend, William Morris, Kipling the child knew well. While continuing always with his first family, he created his own. The death of his little girl Josephine in 1899, of his parents when he was forty-six, and of his son in the war, were successive and severe shocks. He was from first to last an exile at bay, fortified by his tight family relationships. Wilson shows that Kipling had several surrogate mothers (Mrs. Hill, Mrs. Perry) and fathers (Captain Harry Halloway; Cormell Price, his teacher; Mr. Hill) who enabled him to maintain stability during critical phases of his youth. His fiction is full of fathers and brothers.

Kipling roamed the world, as if looking for lost paradise. In various places, for short periods and long, he tried to create little isolated Edens: his parents’ houses in India and England; his own house Naulahka, in the mountains of Vermont; Rottingdean, the secluded fishing village; Bateman in the Sussex countryside; even Brown’s Hotel in London during the Great War; and Woolsack, the little house in Cape Town, South Africa, that Cecil...

(The entire section is 4523 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

America. CXXXIX, July 1, 1978, p. 18.

Choice. XV, September, 1978, p. 876.

Yale Review. LXVIII, Autumn, 1978, p. 110.