Kipling's Biographers

(by Lisa Lewis)

[Jan 16 2008]

After Kipling's death in 1936, and the publication of his autobiography Something of Myself in 1937, the constraints which he and his family had tried to exert over all reporting of his private life would gradually be loosened. Post-1937 there occurred the deaths of Kipling's wife, only sibling, and surviving daughter, leaving no descendants; the inheritance of the estate by the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest; the centenary of his birth; and the temporary emergence (later amended) of his works from copyright. These events have had their effect both on the publication and on the content of the various biographies now in print, or available from libraries.

Something of Myself concealed much that the public wished to know. A biography was obviously needed, but of this the widow was determined to keep control. An appendix to the third edition of Charles Carrington's biography [pp.607-11, Appendix 1, "The Lives of Kipling"] gives an account of the estate's transactions with a number of prospective biographers, beginning soon after the writer's death.

First Mrs Kipling, and after she died their daughter Mrs Elsie Bambridge, planned to commission a writer who would work under strict conditions and would be the only person to have access to the family papers. Hector Bolitho, Taprell Dorling ("Taffrail") and Eric Linklater all one after another withdrew from the project at an early stage. The next contender, Lord Birkenhead, lasted longer, but his book was rejected by Mrs Bambridge under the terms of the contract between them and was never published as originally written. A revised version would appear only after both Mrs Bambridge and Lord Birkenhead himself had died. It was edited by his son, who narrates in an introduction the story of its composition, rejection, revision and final banning for the lifetimes of the two parties to the contract. This introduction also details the draconian terms Mrs Bambridge had imposed on Birkenhead, giving her absolute control over the research, the text and its publication. Charles Carrington, whose age and whose opinions were closer to her own, managed to negotiate a more equitable contract [the Kipling Journal, 198, June 1976, p.15] and his official biography finally appeared in 1955.

This long-drawn out process meant that in the interim other writers tried to fill the gap. Edward Shanks's study was begun in 1936, before the publication of Something of Myself. Though the later chapters draw on that account, it ignores Kipling's childhood, beginning instead with his schooldays as described in L.C. Dunsterville's memoir, and that of G.C. Beresford. Shanks's book is in any case more a critical study organised in periods than a true biography. While admitting that Kipling was "authoritarian", it suggests that "he was so much misinterpreted in his lifetime" that his undoubtedly right-wing politics need to be distinguished from fascism: "his faith did not make him a friend of the modern dictatorships. No one can read his 'A.B.C.' stories, let alone the full range of the Indian stories, without realising how fierce would have been his contempt of the doctrine of a race called to supremacy by something inherent in its blood" (pp.vii-viii). Many post-colonial critics would disagree with this, but Kipling was certainly no friend to Hitler. Shanks correctly points out that he had the swastika symbol removed from his logo after the Nazis came to power. "He is a great artist," says Shanks in the introduction. "He is a political philosopher with a passionate belief in his own conclusions and an unsurpassed power in recommending them to the minds of others. Because he is both these things he is an historical force which we ought to endeavour to evaluate in all its aspects"(p.16) The creative versus the historical Kipling was a theme that would recur and develop in both critical and biographical studies over the next fifty years.

A version of the historical Kipling was presented in 1941, by American writer Nella Braddy. The London reprint of 1945 was part of a series of adventure stories, travel books and biographies 'intended for the older and more discriminating boy or girl.' At least one copy was given as a school prize. Braddy's chief source is Something of Myself, but she also uses the full range of Kipling's works and the published eyewitness accounts of episodes in his life that were then available. These include, beside those already mentioned, his sister Alice Macdonald Fleming's articles in Chambers Journal about their childhood [A.M. Fleming, "Some Childhood Memories of Rudyard Kipling", March 1939, pp.168-73; "More Childhood Memories of Rudyard Kipling, July 1939, pp.506-11]; articles on Kipling in India by E.K. Robinson and Edmonia Hill [Harold Orel, ed., Kipling: Interviews and Recollections, vol. 1 (London: Macmillan 1983)]: E. Kay Robinson, "Kipling in India," pp.67-79; "Mr Kipling as Journalist," pp.84-8; Edmonia Hill, "My Friend - Rudyard Kipling," 91-5; "The Young Kipling," pp.95-107; Kipling's part in the South African War as described in War's Brighter Side by Julian Ralph (London: C. Arthur Pearson, 1901); and the version of the Kiplings' quarrel with Mrs Kipling's younger brother in Frederic van de Water's account [Rudyard Kipling's Vermont Feud (Rutland: Academy Books, 1936)]. This tells the story of the feud from the point of view of Kipling's brother-in-law Beatty Balestier, then a hopeless alcoholic. It is said in Vermont that Van de Water obtained his interview with Balestier by filling the dying man up with whisky]. (Shanks does not seem to have found any of these.) Braddy makes little attempt to criticize Kipling's values, but conforms to the imperialist orthodoxy that was even then dying. She takes the status of the writings as established. If any permissions were granted by the estate, these are not acknowledged. But there is little here that might have disturbed the heirs, except that the account of Kipling's will is seriously misleading.

Hilton Brown's study [Rudyard Kipling: a new Appreciation (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1945)] also makes no acknowledgement to the estate. "I have had access to no documentary sources hitherto untapped," says the author's note. He adds, though, that he had the co-operation of one family member: "I have obtained much first-hand information, some of which I believe to be previously unpublished, from Mrs A.M. Fleming, Kipling's sister." Like Shanks he was concerned to distinguish Kipling from fascists.

The book was not uncritical, but it was written from the viewpoint of a Raj insider. Brown had himself lived in India and written novels about it [His novel Torteval, mentioned approvingly in Frank Swinnerton's introduction to Rudyard Kipling: a new Appreciation, is set in Kerala, a south Indian state never visited by Kipling. It is a Galsworthian saga of a family of British manufacturers and traders, with almost no Indian characters]. Reviewing the book in the Spectator, St John Ervine found it "shallow". Both Ervine and Graham Greene, in the Evening Standard, commented that this "appreciation" was often damaging to Kipling's reputation: "we should beware of our friends," remarked Greene [Quoted, "Kipling and the Critics," Kipling Journal 76, December 1945, pp.19-20].

Writing shortly before Indian independence, Brown objected to Kipling's occasional disparagement, but general neglect, of the Indian middle class and especially of the Congress. Brown asserts that Kipling's version of India is conformist and "immature ... of the hopeless instability of the existing situation and the amazing developments that might lie before India he had no perception; any notion of an Indian India was beyond him" (p.57). He had a boy's fascination with secrets and mysteries: "To be in the know; the desire tormented him; he wrestled with obscurantist mullahs and hocus-pocus fakirs; he sat at the feet of Mackintosh [sic] Jellaluddins who spun intelligible glories out of bazaar squalor and bazaar whisky." This is not surprising, says Brown, since Kipling was a boy when he worked in India, between the ages of 16 and 23: "How much of Kipling's Indian work can be explained, how many misconceptions dispelled, how many inept criticisms rebutted by diligent reflection on those simple facts…. Kipling's interest in India was a boy's interest after all; he was enraptured by the decor and the trappings, the bright living kaleidoscope, all the colours in that wonderful new box of paints"(p.65). The analysis of how Kipling's experience of India affected his ideas, especially as regards the Law he so often propounds, is too long to quote here but still of interest (pp.98ff).

Brown was horrified by the story "The Incarnation of Krishna Mulvaney" (Life's Handicap), calling it an "absolute and shocking howler … where the breach of taste becomes absolutely unendurable" (p.164). Here Kipling, under cover of an amusing tale narrated by his Irish soldier, tells the British reader some less palatable facts about the Raj. A gang of coolies are ruthlessly exploited by a dishonest British contractor; Mulvaney himself intrudes into a ceremony at a Hindu temple and demands money - which he will spend on drink - to go away. Brown calls it "one of the worst stories he ever wrote" (p.164). From a post-imperialist viewpoint, it is certainly unattractive that this story should be presented as a farce. But perhaps Brown was also uncomfortable with such a public exposure of the faults at the heart of the system. Brown is, however, an admirer of the late work, which he sees as "an ascending art, becoming the finer as it became more adventurous, conquering the more brilliantly because it advanced, against far more significant forces, into far more difficult and dangerous country" (p.16). This is still a book worth looking at, but as an account of Kipling's life it has necessarily been overtaken.

The authoritative account for over thirty years was that of Charles Carrington [Rudyard Kipling: his Life and Work (London: Macmillan, 1955)]. As a factual record, it was only with Thomas Pinney's editions of RK's letters and Something of Myself and Autobiographical Writings that it began to be superseded [The Letters of Rudyard Kipling (London: Macmillan, vols. 1 and 2, 1990; vol. 3, 1996; vol. 4, 1999; further volumes in preparation); Something of Myself and Autobiographical Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990)]. Further information was included in the editorial matter in Thomas Pinney, Kipling's India (London: Macmillan, 1986) and Andrew Rutherford, ed., Early Verse by Rudyard Kipling 1879-1889: Unpublished, Uncollected and Rarely Collected Items (Oxford, Clarendon Press 1986.) Carrington's was the long-awaited official biography, commissioned by Kipling's daughter and written under her supervision. With a collaborator, he had originally proposed to write a biography of Kipling in 1937, but had been refused copyright permissions and access to the papers by Mrs Kipling, who was negotiating with other authors. In 1950 Carrington published The British Overseas, including a section on Kipling in which he wrote: "His career is a far more significant episode in the history of the British Commonwealth than in the history of English literature." This, one might think, is both reinforced and contradicted by a later passage in which Carrington says:

to a whole generation, homesickness was reversed by inoculation with Kipling's magic. Englishmen felt the days of England "sick and cold, and the skies gray and old and the twice-breathed airs blowing damp" [sic]; heard the East a'calling; fawned on the younger nations, the men that could shoot and ride; were conscious of the weight of the White Man's Burden; learned to read and talk the jargon of the seven seas; while in the outposts of Empire, men who read no other books recognised and approved flashes of their own lives in phrases from Kipling's verse. [Quoted, the Kipling Journal 224, December 1982, pp.15,17]

Carrington's account of Kipling's life and work in The British Overseas pleased Mrs Bambridge and she consented to negotiate a contract with him. They collaborated closely, Carrington says, adding that he offered to include her name as co-author on the title page. For this reason, the book is often seen as suspect, but Carrington was a professional publisher of educational books, as well as a historian, and his high standards of accuracy make it a valuable work of reference still. His few slips are in matters of small importance. His aim, he writes, was "to keep the book factual, on a low tone, and to deflate the mythology about Kipling, to present a firm basis on which the analytical critics could stage their performance." For the facts and dates of Kipling's life, or at least of his life as publicly led, Carrington can be relied on. The book does not offer psychological insights. This was apparently forbidden in his brief as drawn up by Mrs Bambridge. It was also, she told Carrington, the chief ground of her objection to Birkenhead's draft, which she saw as "riddled with amateur psychoanalysis."

An anonymous reviewer in The Times Literary Supplement praised the book for its "fascinating, readable and expert" presentation of much previously unknown material, but complained that it was "set in the same key" as the earlier books by Shanks and Brown. Carrington, this reviewer felt, was another in the line described by Erskine and Greene as false friends who, leaping indignantly to the defence, failed to "resolve the enigma of Kipling's status in literature ... Professor Carrington hardly seems to understand the serious, as opposed to the trivial and wrong-headed, criticisms which are brought against Kipling's work" [The Times Literary Supplement, 25 November 1955]. The chief problem with Carrington's book, not only for this reviewer, but also for the present-day reader is set out squarely in the preface to the first edition. Its author was of the class and age-group who were formed by Kipling and by others of similar opinions. "I find no other writer,' says Carrington, "who has seen through the eyes of my generation with such sharpness of observation." "I knew from the 'Brushwood Boy,'" he writes, "that a hard conventional exterior might conceal a strange and sensitive inner life." But social attitudes have changed so greatly that the Brushwood Boy's exterior, with its suppression of sex and glorification of violence, now seems not conventional but alien. Carrington, author (under the pseudonym Charles Edmonds) of A Subaltern's War, was one of the witnesses who testified to the horrors of the first World War in which such Victorian attitudes were burned away. Unlike Siegfried Sassoon or Edmund Blunden, however, he was not bitter against Kipling. Indeed, he praises some of the war stories in Debits and Credits as among Kipling's finest work. Detailed discussion of Kipling's politics in the period 1900-1914 was, Carrington records, cut out of his book at the publisher's request as "illustrating my own Tory politics."

The third edition of 1978 includes a number of additions and footnotes. Besides the appendix on "The Lives of Kipling,"' explaining the history of the book's composition, there are three further appendices: one on The Light that Failed, which updates the previously scant information on Kipling's calf-love Florence Garrard; one on "Kipling and the Critics," drawing on Roger Lancelyn Green's Kipling volume in the Critical Heritage series [Kipling: the Critical Heritage (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971)]; and one on "Kipling's Earnings." Unfortunately the paperback edition did not include this new material. All editions include a postscript by Mrs Bambridge with a personal memoir of her father. The bibliography is extensive but unreferenced, the notes rather scrappy.

In the years that followed Kipling's centenary in 1965, his life and works were the subject of a range of books that were not, or not quite, biographies, blending outlines of his life with other material. Seon Manley's Rudyard Kipling: Creative Adventurer (1965) was a version of his life for young readers, told in semi-fictional form. More important were the critical studies of the period, some of which verge on the biographical, though this is not the chief reason for reading them. One does not turn to J.I.M. Stewart's Rudyard Kipling (London: Gollancz, 1966) or to Philip Mason's Rudyard Kipling: the Glass, the Shadow and the Fire (London: Jonathan Cape, 1975) for a narrative of Kipling's life, though like Shanks both writers have organized their critical studies by period, Mason commenting (p.10) that he includes "just enough about the life" to let a reader "understand the stories." Both were minor novelists. Stewart, a best-selling writer of crime fiction, was Reader in English Literature at Oxford. Mason was a high-flying member of the Indian Civil Service under the Raj, and an important historian of British India. This background gave him - like Brown, but with greater detachment so many years later - a special insight into Kipling's writings. This is one of the seminal works of Kipling criticism.

An Anglo-Indian (in the modern sense) academic, Martin Fido, wrote the text for a coffee-table biography, with what is still one of the most comprehensive collections of Kipling and Kipling-related pictures, not always correctly captioned [Rudyard Kipling (London: Hamlyn, 1974)]. The published material available now included A.W. Baldwin's study The Macdonald Sisters, (London: Peter Davis, 1960) and Rudyard Kipling to Rider Haggard: the Story of a Friendship, edited by Morton Cohen (London: Hutchinson, 1965). There was also Dorothy Ponton's privately printed account of her time as governess and secretary at Bateman's, Rudyard Kipling at Home and at Work (privately printed, 1953?). A useful account of the Southsea years could be found in Roger Lancelyn Green's study [Kipling and the Children (London: Elek Books, 1965)]. Reviewing Fido's book in the Kipling Journal (KJ 193, March 1975, p.2), Lancelyn Green objects that Fido has not made use of this new material. Fido makes a brief acknowledgement to Mrs Bambridge and to Kipling's publishers, but there is no evidence that he received any help from these sources beyond permission to quote from the published works. His own part-Indian descent and upbringing in England enabled Fido to comment on the world in which Kipling began to write from several points of view.

Kipling, as we think of him, was shaped by Anglo-Indian official and military society. And this society was predominantly philistine and provincial: deeply racist, anti-democratic, and politically anti-liberal. Kipling, of course, had developed during his boyhood strong reserves of aestheticism, metropolitanism, humanity, friendliness across class-barriers, and generosity, which prevented these vices from corrupting his art. But he was infected by them, and defended them, for they were attitudes held by a society which he knew to be superciliously undervalued by the centres of artistic power. (p.32)
Thames and Hudson commissioned a rival picture-book, though in smaller format and black-and-white only, with a text by the academic and novelist Kingsley Amis, Rudyard Kipling and his World (London: 1975). Amis gives a short, workmanlike account, researched and written by a highly professional writer, but one that adds little if anything to the store of biographical knowledge available. Lancelyn Green, reviewing the book, calls it "a very much better study of Kipling than Fido's" (Kipling Journal 197, March 1976, p.3). It is intended, Amis states (p.114), as "partly a critical essay," which means that the text is enlivened by his sometimes idiosyncratic but always interesting critical opinions. He denies that in Stalky & Co. Kipling is "smarting at the cruel and unfair treatment he had received at the [United Services] College, so much so that he decided to pay back his persecutors with even crueller and more unfair treatment in print." Amis comments: "This is the sort of thing that gets criticism a bad name. Revenge is only one theme of the book among several, and the element of cruelty is in fact mild. When an enemy is defeated, the stress is not so much on his humiliation as on the ingenuity that brought it about" (p.34).

Reviewing the book in the Evening Standard, Antonia Fraser called it "a splendidly pugnacious essay" and "a very subjective book." John Bayley in the Observer found it "full of original and penetrating judgements." Amis, addressing the Kipling Society two years later, made it clear that this was a book undertaken at the publisher's suggestion [the Kipling Journal, 205, March 1978, p.12]. The more credit to him then, for its high standard in relation to its competitors. In neither of these two picture-books is there much analysis of Kipling's personality.

Angus Wilson was next in the field with a long and thoughtful labour of love, The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling (London: Secker and Warburg, 1977). Wilson, a well-known writer of fiction, was a socialist and homosexual. He was also at different times a librarian, critic and teacher of creative writing. This book approaches Kipling at a deeper level. It was, said Wilson (p.124) "intended to suggest that Kipling's art is suffused with a personal and mysterious despair and apprehension," causing him to invent "a rigid social rule (The Law) to shield the individual (and himself) from a constant nagging anxiety about his ultimate fate."

Wilson had no access to Mrs Bambridge's family papers (she died while he was still at work on the book). Carrington, however, made his notes from Mrs Kipling's diaries available to him, and held conversations with him, not always enjoyed by Wilson - Carrington had small tolerance for dissent. The book is grounded, as one might expect from a man with Wilson's background, in prolonged and far-reaching research. He went painstakingly through the most recent literature in the field, including that rich but hard-to-work source the Kipling Journal [in 1999 a complete index became available, making the information scattered in its pages more accessible]. He also made extensive visits (financed by teaching and lectures) to India, where he toured the Kipling sites, and to the United States, where he studied most of the large and important collections deposited there. Among the fruits of his travels were a series of Indian photographs taken by his secretary and lifelong companion Tony Garrett, and many illustrative items from the Library of Congress: these form a useful addition to the family photographs in the Kipling Papers and at Bateman's, Kipling's Sussex home. Not least of Wilson's assets is his extensive knowledge of Kipling's work. In a review in the Observer, Anthony Burgess commented: "One of the strengths of this study lies in the fact that not only has he read everything, but he seems to know his texts as a pianist knows his repertory; citations are at his finger-tips, not on the shelves" ["White Man's Burden", the Observer Review, 6 November 1977]. Michael Ratcliffe, reviewing it in The Times, called the book "biographical criticism rather than critical biography," since its use of chronology is selective ["Kipling Redux", The Times, 7 November 1977].

Like much of Kipling's own work, Wilson's account well repays re-reading: new insights can be discovered at every return. It illuminates not only Kipling's life and work, but also those of its author. Ratcliffe called it "the most moving book Angus Wilson has written." Wilson's own biographer Margaret Drabble evidently found it a valuable source. Unfortunately there are many small errors, misquotations and misprints. Wilson once told a meeting of the Kipling Society that he never corrected his own proofs, and it shows. Kipling's Southsea foster parents, Pryse and Sara Holloway, are referred to throughout by their fictional first names "Rosa" and "Harry" (a mistake that also occurs in Birkenhead, Fido and Amis). In a quotation from Kipling's best-known novel, "Give him time" becomes "Give him Kim", which makes nonsense both of Kipling's paragraph and of Wilson's reason for quoting it. The story "The Bonds of Discipline", correctly cited on p.208, becomes "Birds of Paradise" two pages later. In the copious and valuable notes, the Carpenter collection is attributed to the Houghton Library at Harvard instead of the Library of Congress. These occasional discords do not detract from a masterful rendering, but students should be warned to be careful in citing the book without checking against other sources, or, in the case of quotations, Kipling's texts. Wilson suggests that Kipling shirked self-knowledge, feeling that:

You must only weave tapestries when an external observation has set up a shape or a story in your mind, don't let the stories grow out of yourself. This belief led him for so much of his life to an off-putting philistinism, a false dichotomy between action and thought. But it also made him the remarkable writer that he is, for in attempting the impossible, a purely externally orientated art, he produced stories in new areas and exploited themes untouched by other writers. Yet it also stood in the way of his developing into one of the greatest writers, because he feared to follow his doubts and anxieties and haunting sense of guilt deep into himself, where their sources surely lay. (pp.341-2).
Because of this judgement, and because Wilson describes Kipling's feeling for his friend (and brother-in-law to be) Wolcott Balestier as "much in love," some later writers have assumed that Wilson has perceived a homosexual tendency in Kipling. But Wilson himself writes:

… various people have suggested that I should look in the Simla stories [in which young men are attracted to older, married women], in "Without Benefit of Clergy" [an inter-racial romance that ends in tragedy], in Kim [where there is at least one homosexual relationship], in Soldiers Three, in The Light that Failed [believed to describe, at least in part, Kipling's relationship with his calf-love Flo Garrard] for the sexual explanation of Kipling's nature. As sexual clues all these stories contradict each other, but apart from that, there is only a surmise for the last, and for the rest no jot or tittle of evidence in any letters or papers I have read. (p.342).
Lord Birkenhead's biography, finally published in a revised form in 1978, [Rudyard Kipling {Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London], also discusses Kipling's emotional life. Commenting on his infatuation with Flo Garrard, Birkenhead calls it "both literary and synthetic." Birkenhead goes on to suggest:

"Perhaps we may discover in this youthful involvement the seeds of his character in maturity, for among the emotions that were later to agitate him so fiercely a capacity for the passionate love of women never seems to have found a place" (p.77).
Earlier Birkenhead reports that, according to Kipling's sister, Flo had died in 1902. But, whatever Kipling may or may not have said to his sister in 1902, Flo would outlive him. As with Angus Wilson's book, it is sometimes necessary to check Birkenhead's facts against other sources. There is good excuse to be made for any slips; according to Robin Birkenhead's introduction, the first draft, completed in 1947, was not revised for about fifteen years, while the next remained unpublished for at least as long, appearing only when the author was no longer alive to correct it. From 1947 the family papers which had been lent to the author by Mrs Bambridge were no longer available. In the 1960s Birkenhead hoped that Mrs Bambridge might be persuaded to withdraw her embargo on publication of the revised version, but she apparently refused even to look at it, abiding by her previous verdict that: "I consider it so bad a book that any attempt at palliative measures such as you describe, re-writing here, and altering there is not feasible." The author's son, who would have known if there had been what he calls "some shameful secret" in it, assured its readers that he did not know why the book was suppressed. He argues that any such secret could have been edited out and the rest allowed to stand. Part of the problem may have been that the "serious criticisms" the TLS reviewer reproached Carrington for failing to address were central to Birkenhead's evaluation; many of them are quoted.

Comparing the two "overlapping biographies," another TLS reviewer, Nirad C. Chaudhuri, commented that together they "are likely to remain the fullest factual account of Kipling's life" [The Times Literary Supplement, 6 October 1978.] With or without permission, the book was thoroughly researched. Beginning in 1945 Birkenhead interviewed relatives, friends, acquaintances and neighbours of the Kiplings who had died before Carrington was able to meet them (p.3). He and his assistant Douglas Rees made notes from Mrs Kipling's diaries (since destroyed) that included material other than that noted by Carrington.

Birkenhead's book was more accessible than the previous biographies for a general reader, with a strong narrative line, believable characters and dramatic scenes. It would be hard to improve on the account of the Kiplings' quarrel with his brother-in-law Beatty Balestier. In the frequent quotations, Kipling, his friends and his critics are allowed to speak for themselves. Two appendices give the text of Kipling's report of his delirium while gravely ill from pneumonia in March 1899, and extracts from the records of the honours and awards that were offered him and refused. Both of these are useful additions to the record. The book also includes a number of family photographs. Robin Birkenhead comments that "there is no doubt something in the book shocked [Mrs Bambridge] deeply." She would have been especially vulnerable in 1947 to criticism of her father's character, politics and literary achievements. Her husband's recent death had left her alone and childless, without any close relatives in the U.K. except a dying aunt. From her postscript to Carrington's book, it is obvious that her father's reputation was of great importance to her. Gossip after her death suggested some of the elements in Birkenhead's book that were especially hurtful. A report in the Sunday Times posited that Kipling's social difficulties as a young man in India had been a stumbling-block. Enid Bagnold, who knew both Kipling and Birkenhead, is quoted as saying, "I remember in particular the introverted self-confession of a young man who was forcing himself to adapt to a code of conduct he felt below his own. I believe that Mrs Bambridge had never seen the material on which this was based and was absolutely horrified when she saw what Lord Birkenhead had written about it" [The Sunday Times, 13 June 1976]. At least some of this remains in the published version as Kipling's "almost animal wariness and timidity" (p.28), his "limitations, his [deficient] educational background and middle-class prejudices" (p.102), and his lack of manners (p.118). Equally hurtful would have been the implication that his early success was due as much to luck as to talent: "a fortuitous triumph of timing" (p.92).

After publication of the book, Carrington reported that Mrs Bambridge had told him "she could never accept Birkenhead's analysis of her father's character nor of her own, especially of her childhood" [the Kipling Journal, 209, March 1979]. He added that the published version had cut this passage and substituted a quotation on the Puck stories from his own book (243-4 [sic]). Introducing the quotation, Birkenhead summarises part of Carrington's discussion of the Puck books, evidently without checking against Kipling's texts. Where Carrington writes that in "Marklake Witches" "the reader might suppose himself to be listening to a minor character from Jane Austen", Birkenhead says that the story is written "in the manner of Jane Austen" , which is plainly untrue. A number of themes running through Birkenhead's book might have upset Mrs Bambridge. He finds the humorous writings "vulgar". Kipling's emotional life is presented as timid and wimpish. He is "submissive" to his dictatorial wife - Birkenhead is frequently hostile to Mrs Kipling (according to Carrington, one such passage in particular angered Mrs Bambridge). Lastly, the prophet of empire's political thinking is rejected as "that one-way street of conviction, insight and bigotry."

The authorisation of such a rounded portrait, rather than the hagiography she had commissioned, was evidently too much for Mrs Bambridge to bear. She told Carrington that besides "the amateur psychology" to which she objected, she felt that Birkenhead's age (unlike herself and Carrington, he belonged to the generation that grew up after World War I) made it impossible for him to understand her father. She is quoted in the introduction as saying that Birkenhead "hated Kipling and his works." Certain petty mistakes must also have irritated her. Yet they could easily have been corrected. If she could have brought herself to look at the second version of the book, in a cooler moment, after being gently led through the experience of a biography by Carrington (who could also be critical of her father from time to time), she would not have thought that Birkenhead "hated" Kipling. She would have seen that the stories in Plain Tales from the Hills are called "masterpieces" more than once (pp.97 and 99) and that the Indian stories of 1888-91 are equally praised (pp.122-3). She would have found The Jungle Book stories adjudged "enchanting and immortal ... The mind still wonders at the genius of the imagination that created them" (pp.143-4). She would have seen the final summing-up:

There has been no attempt in this life to ignore his faults and quirks, but when history arrives at her calm verdict she will surely regard Kipling as a prophet of penetrating, if narrow, vision, a man of stainless honour, and a descriptive and inventive writer of God-given genius.
She might not have identified with this book as she did with Carrington's, but she could fairly have agreed to lift the ban on it. Though not really suitable as an official, family-sponsored account, it is a valuable, if not always totally trustworthy, portrait. She cannot have intended the ultimate result of her actions: the scandal of its suppression undoubtedly helped the book's sales.

A decade later, another writer would launch a biography of Kipling on a wave of controversy. Since Mrs Bambridge was dead and the copyrights (for the moment) expired, this was largely contrived. Martin Seymour-Smith, a less popular poet than Kipling, was one of those of whom Robin Birkenhead complained that they insist, against all assurances, in believing there was a dramatic secret in the book that Mrs Bambridge banned. Seymour-Smith was convinced that this would have been spelt out as a love affair between Kipling and Mrs Kipling's brother Wolcott Balestier, whose death precipitated their wedding. In his Rudyard Kipling [London: Macdonald, 1989], what could have been an interesting argument is marred by malice and inaccuracy. This is the more disappointing, since Seymour-Smith, when not ridden by his obsessions, can be a fine critic: for instance, his reading of the ballad "The Mary Gloster" skillfully brings out the ambiguity of Kipling's narrative voices (pp.140-7). The book is under-researched. The bibliography contains only secondary sources; there are no notes. The argument relies on extrapolation from passages in the pre-existing biographies (especially Angus Wilson's reference to "love" for Balestier: Seymour-Smith thinks Wilson, as a "humane" man with "a heart of gold", was reluctant to write of this openly as a gay relationship (p.158)). The Kipling family papers were available at the University of Sussex, just down the coast from Seymour-Smith's home, but only the illustrations seem to derive from them. The Kipling texts that are used are selective: the only uncollected works quoted are those that were anthologised by Pinney and Rutherford, or that are reproduced in other writers' quotations. The sole new material consists of some trivial gossip provided by an ex-employee.

Seymour-Smith's passionate commitment to his theory can lead him into insensitivity. In his account of the Southsea years, he is firmly on Mrs Holloway's side, presenting her six-year-old lodger from another climate as a spoilt brat who deserved all that happened, and who whined about it afterwards. (Carrington thinks that Kipling's own accounts were one-sided and perhaps exaggerated, but this is a long way from blaming the child for his undoubted sufferings). In discussing an early poem about British life in India, Seymour-Smith refuses to accept that the final line "Old men love while young men die" could have any literal sense, since, he asserts, young men do not "just die", they are killed in war. He actually rewrites the poem to convey the meaning he wishes to find (pp.138-9). But in Kipling's experience young men did die "of typhoid mostly, at the regulation age of twenty-two" [Something of Myself, ch. 3]. This can be checked against the annual India Office List of the time, from which the names of junior staff often disappear abruptly.

The book was widely sold by a "hype" campaign in which its unanimously bad reviews were presented as the prejudice of a pro-Kipling ancien regime, personified by Seymour-Smith as "the ardent Kiplingite." The pre-publication secrecy this required deprived Seymour-Smith of a network of research that could have saved him from many errors, and pointed him in more profitable directions in terms of his own argument. Thus, his reading of the story "Mrs Bathurst" depends on the omission of certain information in the text: he seems unaware that this information appears in a sentence in the story as published in the Windsor Magazine [September 1904]. For its absence to be the clou of the story seems improbable when the alteration was made so late. A reading of the story by the present writer [Lisa Lewis, "Technique and Experiment in 'Mrs. Bathurst,'" Kipling Journal 216, December 1980, 36-38]. would have suited Seymour-Smith's argument more comfortably, and was arrived at independently by Nora Crook in her study published in the same year as Seymour-Smith's book [Kipling's Myths of Love and Death (London: Macmillan, 1989) pp.71ff.]. He is looking for coded references to homosexuality. Both Crook and Lewis propose that the apparently irrelevant Boy Niven episode at the start of the story can be read in such a sense.

Seymour-Smith's methods of argument are questionable, consisting as they do of inference piled on unconfirmed assertion. He produces no solid evidence in support of his thesis. Nevertheless the "hype" ensured its widespread dissemination. It was agreed by another writer, Thomas N. Cross, whose book East and West: a Biography of Rudyard Kipling was researched from the 1950s onwards and largely written by the 1970s: only a section on Seymour-Smith's book seems to have been updated. Cross, a psychiatrist and lecturer at Michigan University, failed to find a publisher. He eventually produced and marketed the book himself [Ann Arbor: Luckystone Press, 310 Corrie Road, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 48105, U.S.A., 1992]. Cross did his preparation thoroughly, uncovering some evidence that Carrington had failed to find of Kipling's visit to Beaver, Pennsylvania in 1889 and the (later broken) engagement to Caroline Taylor. He visited Brattleboro, spoke to persons who remembered Kipling, and researched extensively in the Library of Congress. He was an active member of the Kipling Society, contributing articles to its Journal.

Cross's principal thesis is that because Kipling was tended during babyhood by Indian servants, spending more time with them than with his parents, and because he was uprooted at six years old to live with a foster-mother in England, there was a confusion between the various mother-figures in the child's mind. In particular, Cross believes, Kipling was never sure whether his mother was British or Indian. Many writers have suggested that Kipling had identity problems due to his disturbed childhood. Kipling's lines in "The Two-Sided Man" about "two / Separate sides to my head" are often read as referring to himself. But whether the matter is as clear-cut as Cross suggests is debatable.

Cross, like Seymour-Smith, finds aspects of imperial life hard to understand. The interaction between a British family and their Indian servants has been described by many writers [See e.g. Charles Allen, Plain Tales from the Raj (London: Futura, 1976), pp.21-8, 85-94; Jon and Rumer Godden, Two under the Indian Sun (London: Macmillan, 1966) pp.30-46; M.M. Kaye, The Sun in the Morning (London: Penguin Books, 1992) pp.92-5, 151]. It emerges as in some ways simpler, in others more complex than Cross presents it. Again, Cross considers that Kipling's years at boarding-school were as harmful as those at Southsea, although Kipling himself found them enriching in many ways (it was theories of this nature that Amis described as giving criticism a bad name). Cross was perhaps over-committed to the view that a 24-hour birth mother, performing most of the care duties herself, is essential to a child's welfare.

Like Cross, Meryl Macdonald failed to find a conventional publisher for her 1999 study [The Long Trail: Kipling round the World (Bristol: Tideway House, 1999)]. Macdonald is a Kipling cousin and an authority on his activities as early motorist (or rather car owner), a theme that occupies two of the book's 13 chapters. There is some new material, chiefly from the letters in the papers left by Kipling's headmaster Cormell Price, and from Macdonald's extensive study of the Kipling Papers at Sussex University. Among these, she found an interesting confession made by Kipling in a letter to his daughter in 1931: "All the funny [stories] are written out of the deeps of dejection," which would suggest why many readers (including Hilton Brown and Birkenhead) have found Kipling's farces disturbing. Also given is the text of the unpublished squib "Putnam," hand printed on toilet paper, against a U.S. publisher with whom Kipling was in dispute. The book is well-researched and readable, taking Kipling's travels as a metaphor for his life (the sections are organised under headings that replicate the working of a motor-engine: "Induction," "Compression," "Explosion" and "'Exhaust"). It neither criticises the work in depth, nor handles the political and historical aspects of Kipling's career, except in passing.

The year 1999 saw two other Kipling biographies from major publishers, both of which were widely reviewed and reprinted in paperback. Harry Ricketts's study [The Unforgiving Minute: a Life of Rudyard Kipling (London: Chatto and Windus, 1999), published in the United States as Rudyard Kipling: a Life (Carroll and Graf)], like The Long Trail, deals extensively with Kipling as rootless man, but is less interested in the details of his travels than in their effect on his writing, especially the disruptions of his childhood. In his Preface, Ricketts quotes a letter of 1891 in which Kipling gave five different ways of signing his name, commenting that this suggests:

… something of Kipling's chameleon nature, the ability he celebrated in characters like Mowgli and Kim to cross boundaries and switch identities. At every stage of his life, a number of "Rudyard Kiplings" co-existed in varying degrees of compatibility with each other: devoted son/damaged "orphan," precocious aesthete/apprentice sahib, scholar gipsy/rule-bound conformist, would-be American/Empire Tory, innovative craftsman/fervent jingoist, doting father/bellicose tub-thumper - to mention only a few of the most obvious. In this new life, I have tried to bring out the full range of these diverse Kiplings, so fascinating and at times so frustrating.
Available to Ricketts were the first three volumes of Thomas Pinney's The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, Kipling's diary for 1885 [See Pinney, ed. Something of Myself and Autobiographical Writings] the Kipling and Baldwin family papers at the University of Sussex, the papers of Kipling's literary agent A.P. Watt in the New York Public Library, and the Howard C. Rice papers at Marlboro College, Vermont, including the Mary Cabot memoir [extracts from this were published in English Literature in Transition, 29, 2, 1986, pp.161-218], an important source for Kipling's early married life. Ricketts has also made a few new discoveries: letters and diaries of Kipling's grandmother and aunts in the Worcester Public Records Office, relating to his early childhood; naval and other records extending the background to the Holloways, Kipling's foster-parents at Southsea. The copious notes (there is no bibliography) reveal that Ricketts is also familiar with the secondary literature.

The result does not greatly alter the picture drawn by Carrington, Birkenhead and Angus Wilson. It collates their information and checks with their sources to produce an outline which Ricketts then colours in. The assessment of the Southsea years is just and thoughtful: on the bullying Harry Holloway, for instance, there is this comment: "[Captain Holloway's] kindness towards the boy, though it helped to provide a stabilizing influence, was probably also a source of jealousy. If Rud felt displaced, it is likely that the Holloways' son Harry did too." "Boundary-Crossing" is the title of the chapter on Kipling's life as a journalist in Lahore and Simla, culminating with Plain Tales from the Hills. It concludes that two characters in that book "embodied Rud's central dilemma as an Anglo-Indian. He could know Indian life, but could never fully enter it. It was a dilemma he could only hope to resolve in fiction." The two characters are Strickland ("Miss Youghal's Sais"), a British policeman who specialises in undercover work, and who would reappear, notably in Kim; and McIntosh Jellaludin ("To be Filed for Reference"), once a British intellectual but now a drunken drop-out, living with a Muslim wife in the bazaar. McIntosh (who describes Strickland as "ignorant West and East") has written a version of the Indian novel that Kipling himself was engaged on but would never finish: "Mother Maturin."

It is the early part of Kipling's life that Ricketts covers in most detail. Half the book's length is taken up by the first 30 of his 70 years: his childhood, his time as a journalist in India, his rise to fame and the early years of his marriage in America. These were the years when the splits in Kipling's character opened and developed. The more stable, though not always happier life after he settled at Bateman's - the imperial years, the First World War and the post-war period - are crammed into its final third. However room has been found for some excellent analysis of the late stories and poems, of which Ricketts - an academic by profession - has made a special study, and their claim to be proto-modernist or modernist texts. As a published poet himself, Ricketts is chiefly interested in the verse, which is frequently quoted, though anyone researching this would also need to consult Peter Keating's important critical study (arranged biographically), Kipling the Poet (London: Secker and Warburg, 1994).

Of the book's many reviewers, most (finding no revelations worth headlining) tended to write about their own notions of Kipling rather than what Ricketts says. Several complained that he did not endorse Seymour-Smith's view of Kipling's sexuality. Others wanted more analysis of the works. This seems unjust. As a study of the creative Kipling, Ricketts's account is more factually accurate than, and in some ways as penetrating as Angus Wilson's. This, too, is a book that repays several readings. Ricketts's overall theme of the many different Kiplings is a relevant, if not a wholly original one. The book runs fluently: the "Briefly Noted" column in the New Yorker calls it "irresistibly readable" (the New Yorker, 20 March 2000, p.139). While there is nothing for a voyeuristic reader, sniffing hopefully for scandal, for a reader interested in the Kipling phenomenon this is a useful update on the story. Where the events of Kipling's life are concerned, it will not take the place of Carrington as a work of reference.

That place belongs to Andrew Lycett's biography, Rudyard Kipling (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1999). Lycett, like Carrington, is interested in the historical Kipling, and has researched his subject both widely and in depth. The book is long - over 600 pages - and embellished with sketches by Kipling himself, including two self-portraits on the endpapers. There is a genealogical table, also a full bibliography and copious notes. There is more information in the text than in any Kipling biography to date. Lycett writes in his Introduction:

When I started to consider Kipling as a subject for a biography, I was intrigued by the prospect of his life providing a panorama of Britain's intellectual, cultural and social history. It offered everything from high-minded tittle-tattle at Burne-Jones's open house in London in [the] 1870s and 1880s - where Browning might be found one day, Leslie Stephen, or even Oscar Wilde another - through the gruff military men and their strategies of high imperialism either side of the Boer war, to the critical political adjustments of the 1920s when Stanley Baldwin, with his cousin's help, tried to reposition Conservatism in the face of the grim advances of the dictators. Kipling could not have straddled the nineteenth and twentieth centuries more skilfully if he had tried. Born in 1865, he died in 1936, aged seventy. He is therefore a vital figure if one wants to understand how Victorian turned into Edwardian England and came to terms with the modern age.
As a professional journalist himself, Lycett is also much interested in Kipling's work for and relations with the press. He does not pretend to be a literary critic. His knowledge of Kipling's fiction and verse is comparatively superficial. Kipling's peripatetic life allows Lycett to sketch lives and personalities in a wide variety of power groups of the period through his connections and friendships in London, India, New England, South Africa and Europe. The book's extra length gives space to pursue this material to the very end of Kipling's life. Something of Myself, his dying account of his creative career (of which Ricketts writes "Kipling had lost none of his sheer button-holing power or his daring" (p.387)) receives only a brief mention. Daniel Karlin's review finds the historical aspect of Lycett's book "more than competent, it is masterly, almost inspired" seeing it as a "well-constructed narrative and reference work for students." But on Kipling's writings Karlin finds it deficient: "Lycett is just not interested enough in what interested Kipling to make his imaginative life the focus,"although that, says Karlin, is "what makes the life worth bothering with in the first place" ["Kipling's Something of a Shadow," The Times Higher Education Supplement, 26 May 2000, p.31].

Lycett's approach to the works is well illustrated by the section (pp.211-6) on the early novel The Light that Failed. He looks in detail at the circumstances of the novel's composition and the autobiographical elements in the plot; the political and military situation involved is explained; eyewitnesses among Kipling's friends who could have given him scenes and descriptions are identified, as are the probable originals of the war artist who is the principal character. The blindness that terminates the artist's career is mentioned only in passing, though it is central to the novel and the obvious reason for its title. The many literary allusions, spelt out by Ricketts in the corresponding section of his book, are here ignored. In examining Kipling's texts, Lycett's interest is not literary analysis, but placing them in period context and making deductions (some more plausible than others) about Kipling's emotional life at the time of writing. On the young woman who inspired the anti-heroine in The Light that Failed, Lycett provides much fresh information. His research shows Flo Garrard to be a far more positive personality (and a better artist) than Maisie in the novel. The illustrations include two cartoons of her by Kipling, a cartoon of her own, and a self-portrait, all previously unknown.

Lycett similarly expands our knowledge of other women in Kipling's life. There is a photograph of Mrs Isabella Burton, the original of Mrs Hauksbee in Plain Tales from the Hills. Lycett has been able to use a privately-held collection of letters to this lady, revealing her as Kipling's active muse from 1885 to 1888, a seminal period for the writer. He finds the Kipling parents' marriage more stressed and difficult than their son portrayed it, involving as it did one long and several short separations and a tendency on both sides to engage in at least half-serious flirtations outside it. For Kipling's wife, he has had access to the newly-released Dunham papers [Marlboro College, Vermont], including her letters to her family, enabling him to show her as a more complex character than she is usually allowed to be. Lycett does not hide her faults - indeed his account of their life in the 1920s and 30s brings out the full extent of her neurotic angst - but he is aware (as Carrington refused to be) of the trials that did so much to exacerbate her condition. The Balestier family, he suggests, was already "dysfunctional" before Kipling met them (p.219). The flight from Vermont exiled her from her home and family; two of her children then died young. A self-pitying letter to a friend (quoted p.334) suggests that, in devoting herself to the management of her husband's affairs, she felt she had had to suppress much of her own personality: "I would not marry a literary man for worlds, they are always doing too much and one can only give them help by being hopelessly dull, so they may relax their minds and rest themselves in the security of one's stupidity." A previously unpublished photograph of her cuddling baby Josephine shows the maternal side that Kipling would draw on for Mother Wolf in The Jungle Book and Teshumai Tewindrow in Just So Stories. Some later family photographs illustrate the ties and tensions between the couple.

On Seymour-Smith's theory that Kipling was homosexual, Lycett said in a speech to the Kipling Society: "For the record, I felt that this was unlikely: and everything that I have since discovered indicates that, on the contrary, Kipling was heterosexual, though not necessarily particularly active or successful." [the Kipling Journal, March 2000, 27-8]. Ricketts (pp.86-7), commenting on Kipling's explosion when he discovered that his housemaster had suspected him of pederastic tendencies, suggests that: "given the contemporary stigma against homosexuality - and in the absence of hard evidence as opposed to conjecture - there is no reason not to believe that Rud's outrage was perfectly genuine."

However, Ricketts quotes (p.369) Enid Bagnold as wondering whether he was "a quite unconscious homosexual." Seymour-Smith, if he were still alive, would claim (as he did in his lifetime) that the reason there is no evidence of Kipling's homosexuality is that the Kipling family must have destroyed it - since they are known to have destroyed many private papers, he argued, there must have been something in them that they saw as discreditable, and for Seymour-Smith that could only have meant one thing. The reviews of Ricketts's book show that a number of people believe that, however illogically arrived at, Seymour-Smith's theory was correct.

Such a belief is posited, but not asserted, in Adam Nicolson’s life of Mrs Kipling, The Hated Wife [London: Short Books, 2001]. The publishers, a new company, were evidently anxious to stir up controversy in advance, hoping to build demand for their imprint. Six months before publication, an article in the Observer [Amelia Hall, “The Cruel Side of Kipling”, 26.11.00, p.10] described Nicolson’s book as one of “the first wave of titles” in a series of “Short Lives” “which will offer highbrow texts in novella-size formats.” The article claimed that the book would reveal Kipling as “a callous husband who drove his wife to despair and abandoned her when she suffered a nervous breakdown.” This is nowhere stated in the published text. Nicolson is quoted in the article as making further remarks along these lines, some of which do appear in the book, others seemingly part of an interview, the agenda of which is clear: Kipling is to be demonised, his wife presented as his victim. Certainly what the book describes is a less than ideal marriage. But Nicolson suggests that, if Kipling’s wife was “hated,” it was by his relations, acquaintances and commentators. The nearest thing to a villain in this narrative is not Kipling but his mother, with whom Carrie never got on. Her mother-in-law trouble, however, was not dramatic enough to sell a book, let alone a whole series of them.

Nicolson has made good use of the Dunham papers and has also had access to Rees’s notes from Carrie’s diaries, compiled for Lord Birkenhead. This enables him to quote widely from her letters to her mother and sister and to extract from her diary some material Birkenhead did not use. But the Balestier family and their origins is one of several areas in which there is more detail to be found in Lycett than here. For the life and death in battle of Carrie’s much-loved son, Nicolson has drawn on Tonie and Valmai Holt’s account in My Boy Jack? The Search for Kipling’s only Son (Barnsley: Leo Cooper, 1998). Himself a resident in the Burwash neighbourhood, Nicolson is able to describe Bateman’s and its surroundings in vivid detail and to trace Carrie’s embattled relationships with her servants and the villagers. Addressing the Kipling Society, he would argue that her “atrocious behaviour” to them “stems from an unbalanced nature (and all the Balestiers were slightly mad in their different ways) exposed to repeated and devastating strain.” Of the marriage, he suggested that “If Kipling hadn’t married Carrie Balestier, he would have married someone else of the same nature: strong, controlling, reliable and loyal” [the Kipling Journal, 299, September 2001, p.36].

What Nicolson skilfully brings out is the interaction of two contrasted and vulnerable temperaments; Carrie’s problems with her own family (also emphasised by Lycett); her failure to adapt to life in the English countryside and her increasing isolation. This last is exaggerated: she was certainly unpopular in Burwash, but had, as Lycett points out (p. 488) at least one close friend in Lady Edward Cecil, later Lady Milner, living not far away at Great Wigsell. She had met this friend in South Africa, where the Kiplings wintered from 1898 to 1908. Carrie helped to design a house there, The Woolsack, which according to Carrington was her favourite of all their homes. There she enjoyed mixing with the circle of rich, powerful and talented men and their wives surrounding Cecil Rhodes, on whose estate The Woolsack stood. Within his assigned limits (less than 100 pages) Nicolson finds no room for these happy interludes. He concentrates rather on the deaths of her two children, the personal isolation caused by the Kiplings’ reticence on the subject, her illnesses and her problems with the staff and the estate. The overall portrait, though gloomy, is not of a victim but of an awkward, neurotic woman, who lacked the imagination to join her husband in his private world, and who desperately strove for total control over a situation to which she could not adapt, in a domestic role for which she was ill-suited. The blurb on the back cover describes Mrs Kipling as “one of the most loathed women of her generation.” Blurb writers are licensed to exaggerate. She has had a bad reputation over the years, and a portrait from her point of view was worth writing. Nicolson, a professional writer and journalist, has done this well, within the limits set by his publishers.

Kipling’s politics are not within Nicolson’s brief. David Gilmour has devoted a whole book to them: The Long Recessional: the Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling [London: John Murray, 2002]. In his introduction, Gilmour suggests “a curious imbalance” in previous accounts of Kipling’s life, largely because the authors were unwilling to go too deep into this controversial area. Gilmour claims that his book is the first “to chronicle Kipling’s political life, his early role as apostle of the Empire, the embodiment of imperial aspiration, and his later one as the prophet of national decline.”

While Lycett’s account of the historical Kipling is panoramic, crowded with figures and details as it surveys all the circles through which, at different times, Kipling moved, Gilmour focuses on the man himself, his opinions, their effect on his writing and its reception by the public. Reviewing the book, Lycett suggested: “Calling this book a biography stretches the point,” since it adds little to the “basic life.” But Lycett acknowledged that: “His meat is in his brilliant teasing-out of the political content in Kipling’s fiction, verse, letters and other pronouncements” [ Sunday Times, 3 March 2002]. Here is a lucid and readable account that does not offer fresh revelations, but explicates and clarifies what was already known, using much additional evidence in the form of uncollected newspaper articles, speeches, letters and poems. Gilmour has visited and ransacked all the major collections, as well as the papers of Kipling’s contemporaries. The wide-ranging bibliography shows a thoroughness that lends authority to the book’s pronouncements on Kipling’s career as imperial bard.

The book is divided into four parts: “Child of Empire,” “Imperial Apostle,” “Cassandra’s Dominions” and “Jeremiah’s Laments.” In the first, Gilmour traces the source of Kipling’s political beliefs to his formative years in India, both as a child, and more particularly his “crucial experience” there (p.6) in late adolescence and early manhood. He would write to a friend that, from those days onward, “the Empire was of the fabric of my physical and mental existence” [Pinney, Letters, vol. 4, p.574]. It was there that he acquired a lifelong distrust of politicians, especially Liberal politicians, whom he, his father and their friends saw as making hasty and ill-informed judgments that undermined all that was positive in British rule. After leaving India, he was concerned to show British administrators there as dedicated and hard-working. Later, in Vermont, he found it necessary to defend the Empire against the opinions of his American neighbours. In doing this, Gilmour points out, he came to strike a note of “almost uncritical admiration” (pp.77-8).

Gilmour perceives the poem “Recessional” (from which the book’s title is derived) as the major turning-point in Kipling’s career. This poem, written as a warning against the complacent self-glorification of the British at the time of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, was hailed by his contemporaries as the voice of sanity. From that time onwards, Kipling was the acknowledged (if unofficial) “Laureate of Empire” (p.123) and spokesman for its personnel. A quotation from Mark Twain shows Kipling’s fame as such that his “voice is heard around the world the moment it drops a remark” (p.124). The final two chapters of Part Two show his increasing involvement in South African affairs, as friend and confidant of the British rulers there.

From this position Kipling launched himself as preacher and prophet, calling for the measures he saw as essential to preserve the Empire’s mission and its power. Part Three traces his active entry into politics as supporter for such causes as imperial preference (as against free trade) and universal military training. Gilmour goes on to describe the twists and turns of his campaigns, with some of the reasons for their failure. Unfortunately, it is shown, politics as “the art of the possible was a notion that Kipling was never able to assimilate” (p.277). As a result, he tended to see politicians as spineless self-seekers who did not dare take the measures he demanded. His impassioned diatribes succeeded in offending large sections of the public.

Of his political beliefs, Gilmour writes: Kipling was not a philosophic Tory. He was no Burke or Hume or Bolingbroke. Abstract ideas had minimal appeal for him; so did most theories and doctrines. Even his scepticism did not manage to provide a philosophical framework, as it had done with Salisbury and other Tory thinkers. Kipling’s political ideas were innate, intuitive, passed on by [his father] or formed by experience. He was an extremist in politics, but his hatred of “isms” made him seldom doctrinaire (pp.241-2).

He took violent dislikes to individual politicians such as Winston Churchill, whom he would continue to denounce for the rest of his life, even though, in the 1930s, they were lonely supporters of the same cause - resistance to Hitler’s Germany. Gilmour makes much of this irony, stressing that the dislike was one way only: Churchill was one of Kipling’s great admirers.

Kipling is portrayed as a “Cassandra”, and after World War I a “Jeremiah”, in that many of his warnings came true. The two world wars did break out, at enormous cost. Irish independence followed the first, Indian independence the second. The global surge of British power inexorably drained away. Gilmour concludes by suggesting that, despite the apparent failure of his warnings, Kipling’s influence helped to avoid the catastrophe of military defeat: “The spirit of Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain owed much to Kipling. From Churchill, the new Prime Minister, to the non-commissioned officers and the ranks, he had remained an inspiration.” Sir Lewis Namier is quoted as saying that, when the crisis came, “it was the Kipling imperialists who were called in to bring back to us the creed of an older generation.” Gilmour adds, “They duly brought it back, they used it to win the War and, although they were unable to preserve the Empire for long, they kept their country alive” (p.311).

Though all this is brilliantly shown, there are moments when one might have reservations about Gilmour’s verdicts. Kipling’s attacks on the Boer regime in South Africa and the Liberal politicians who empowered it were intemperate, even wild; but it would indeed – as he forewarned – lead eventually to apartheid. In showing the prophetic element of these attacks, however, Gilmour neglects to point out that Kipling had little knowledge or understanding of the black Africans for whom he sometimes tried to speak. His campaign against Home Rule for Ireland, which was even more intemperate, is condemned; but the point might have been made that the dissolution of the United Kingdom could only lead to the loss of empire, which was Kipling’s principal fear. If Ireland went, India must eventually follow.

That Kipling’s vision of empire was expressed “at a certain cost to his art” (pp.75-6) has often been argued. Some of Gilmour’s other verdicts on the works are more surprising. He concentrates largely on the poems, justifying this in his introduction by pointing out that the prose has had the greater share of critical attention. It is also true that many of the political pronouncements were made in verse, but there does seem to be an element of personal taste at work. Judgments of the prose works are often peremptory and controversial. “Bertram and Bimi” is “the most repellent story Kipling ever wrote” [p.92], though Leonard Woolf thought it one of his best [Anne Olivier Bell and Andrew McNeillie, eds., The Diary of Virginia Woolf, vol. II (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1981) p.191n.]. The Light that Failed is “a disastrous attempt to write a novel,” though for Lionel Trilling “if one ever fell in love with the cult of art” it was partly because “one had … read The Light that Failed literally to pieces” [Andrew Rutherford, ed., Kipling’s Mind and Art, (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1964) p.87]. Thy Servant a Dog (1930), usually dismissed by critics, is “a delightful book” (p. 284). On the poems Gilmour’s judgment is surer. Many would agree that “Gehazi” is “one of the greatest of all hymns of hate” (p.231), although not necessarily that the sentiments in it were justified (p.234). T.S. Eliot might have concurred that the poems in Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies include “some of the gentlest and most delightful that he ever wrote” (p.175), since there are more of them in Eliot’s A Choice of Kipling’s Verse [(London: Faber and Faber, 1941)] than there are from any other Kipling volume. Four poems from A School History of England [C.R.L. Fletcher and Rudyard Kipling (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1911)] are among “Kipling’s finest poems on England and on national themes” (p.177). Three of these were selected by Eliot, and the fourth is “The Glory of the Garden”, which shares with “If – “ the distinction of being illuminated and popularly sold for framing.

A number of poems are quoted at length or in full, including two little-known pieces. One is an anonymous denunciation of the War Secretary, Haldane, in the Daily Express of 7 December 1914 (pp.210-1), though the grounds for attributing it to Kipling are not given. The other is “The Song of the Coin” of 1907, unpublished but better authenticated, comparing the state of the Empire to a late imperial Rome: “dazed and old, / Smitten blind and stricken cold, / Bartering her sons for gold” (p.230).

Though Gilmour may not be the greatest or most reliable of literary critics, his book is a major contribution to the field of Kipling studies. Matthew Sweet’s review in the Independent on Sunday called it “a fair-minded and frequently surprising narrative of Kipling’s intellectual (and anti-intellectual) development, and of his engagement with the increasingly polarised politics of his period” [“An Apocalyptic Bounder,” “Life etc.”, 3 March 2002, p. 15]. One of the chief problems for modern readers is that perceptions of the British Empire have changed so greatly since Kipling’s day: attitudes that were commonplace to his original readers are now seen as barely comprehensible. Gilmour has gone a long way to explain the impulses that drove him and to place them in the context of his times. The Times Literary Supplement gave the book a cover and a major article by Tom Paulin, who called it “an important act of cultural reclamation” [“The Imperial Theme,”, 8 March 2002, p.4].

Ricketts, Lycett and Gilmour between them give us the most fully rounded picture yet available of this deeply complex man. A comparison of the three books brings out the problems for Kipling biographers. Which is more important? The man whom Ricketts calls “not only a wonderfully varied and subtle writer, but something rarer – a writer who, when things get tough, can be guaranteed to see you through long days and longer nights”? Or the historical figure and friend of great men; the writer whose influence (as Carrington and Gilmour both suggest) affected the mindset of generations? Question marks still hang, not over the basic facts of Kipling’s life, but their interpretation: over his divided emotional nature and its relation to his writing, and the way in which he clung to beliefs that seem irreconcilable with his profounder insights. Are the splits in his personality best explained by his upbringing: British descent and Indian childhood, the trauma of separation from his parents, his education at a school whose purpose was to turn out army officers not creative writers? Did they derive, as post-colonial theory would suggest, from the contradictions and fears inherent in a colonial society? Or were they, as Seymour-Smith and Cross believed, due to unresolved emotional conflicts hidden from the world and even perhaps from himself?

That there should be room for so many recent accounts, all widely reviewed, shows that here is still an important and controversial figure. Fresh evidence regularly emerges, as the descendants of his friends and enemies sell off their family papers. What Carrington’s Times Literary Supplement reviewer called “the enigma of Kipling’s status in literature” remains unsolved: history’s “calm verdict” , foretold by Birkenhead, is yet to be brought in.

Philip Mason, in the introduction to his book Kipling: The Glass, the Shadow and the Fire, explains that the sub-title is a quotation from a short story by R.L. Stevenson. He compares Kipling to the eponymous “Bottle Imp”, a powerful creature confined in a glass prison, which in this case was a social system “binding him within a surface that reflected back his immediate surroundings but beneath which something far more important was astir.” Unlike Stevenson’s imp, however, “in Kipling it is what is below the surface that is best.” It may be that the reason Kipling has attracted so many biographers is the challenge of trying to confine the glass, the shadow and the fire – his life, his character and his works – within one set of covers.

In Rudyard Kipling: a Literary Life [Houndmills, Palgrave Macmillan 2003] Phillip Mallett was required to do something like that. The book is one of a series of Literary Lives of which the general editor writes:

This series offers stimulating accounts of the literary careers of the most admired and influential English-language authors. Volumes follow the outline of the writers’ working lives, not in the spirit of traditional biography, but aiming to trace the professional, publishing and social contexts which shaped their writing.
Mallett edited Limits and Renewals for the Penguin Classics series [1987], and also a collection of critical essays called Kipling Considered [Houndmills, Macmillan, 1989]. In his introduction to Rudyard Kipling: a Literary Life, Mallett writes (p. ix):

This biography is intended, like Kipling’s autobiographical Something of Myself, to look at the life of Rudyard Kipling from the point of view of his work … My first concern has been with Kipling’s public rather than his private life. But I have, necessarily, described turning-points, drawn connections, made inferences, while being mindful of the obvious truth that even for the best-documented lives the evidence is partial: even for one’s own.
While there is no new biographical information, Mallett has read widely in the field and provides a fair summary, setting Kipling in the context of his times. His critical comments are shrewd and interesting. Some of his judgements are contentious, but it is noticeable in Kipling studies that no two critics ever agree what is and what is not the finest work.

There are one or two minor flaws. Mallett is too hard on the morality of The Naulahka, the novel that Kipling wrote in collaboration with his friend Wolcott Balestier: the hero’s plan is not to steal but to buy the fabulous necklace (Mallett is not the only one to make this error) (p. 73). The list of stories in the index is confusingly organised. But all in all, this is a solidly grounded, well researched and useful textbook.

Jad Adams’s Kipling [London, Haus Books, 2005] is a popular version of the life, evidently aimed at a readership who enjoy biographies but have no specialist interest in their subjects. Both blurb and introduction describe Kipling’s work as “richly biographical”. Like Martin Seymour-Smith, Adams looks in the writings for Kipling’s sexual orientation, but his findings are quite different. Adam sees the writer as fixated on older, strong-minded women, connecting this with a longing for his mother during the childhood years of exile at Southsea (p. 41).

A further suggestion (p. 16) is that Kipling’s short sight affected his mindset, so that he was acutely perceptive of “the minutiae of life” but “when dealing with the big issues” he saw only “a distorted, blurred picture,” thus accounting for the lack of political vision revealed in the verse. The theory of “a short-sighted personality type” is apparently not original, but no source for it is given.

Adams’s research, though sufficiently thorough for its purpose, was chiefly in secondary sources. The notes refer to Something of Myself, the first four volumes of Pinney’s edition of the letters, and a small selection from the Kipling Papers at the University of Sussex (mostly Trix Fleming’s letters and the notes from Mrs Kipling’s diaries); but apart from these cite only previous biographies and Orel’s Interviews and Recollections, with one or two other published texts. For the critics, Adams relies on Roger Lancelyn Green’s Critical Heritage.

Adams’s reading of the stories is superficial, resulting in some careless slips. Kim is not the son of “a nursemaid of indeterminate race” (p. 140): Kipling expressly states that “Kim’s mother had been Irish too.” In “Wireless” (Traffics and Discoveries), the radio operator does not “receive … Keats’s poem” (p. 149), it is only the pharmacist who does so. In “As Easy as ABC” (A Diversity of Creatures), the international fleet does not “incinerate” part of Chicago (p. 152). The “inconceivable blaze of suns in the making” disperses the crowds with intolerable light, not fire. It is only a provocative statue that is incinerated. There is also the odd non-literary mistake. Mrs Kipling and Elsie would have been surprised to learn that their war work in 1914 was “sewing socks” (p. 168) rather than knitting them.

A major flaw is that everything after World War I is dismissed in ten pages as the chapter “The Angry Last Years”. Of the late great stories, a few are mentioned but receive no analysis. Perhaps Adams finds them too difficult, or perhaps he simply ran out of space. The theory that Kipling suffered from “mental imbalance” during and immediately after the war (p. 175) appears sound, but there are signs in his stories of the 1920s that, though ill and unhappy, he did recover his sanity. Adams seems only interested in his fears and hatreds of the time.

The book is elegantly produced and highly readable. In the introduction, Adams suggests that:

Kipling’s work is now so well known that many people who have never read any Kipling think they have (p. 2).
He then sets himself to correct the false impression such people are apt to have. Interestingly, in his final paragraph he concludes:

It was very noticeable while writing this book that of the librarians, journalists and others I came into contact with in London, it was black people with roots in other countries who wanted to talk about Kipling and spoke of his work with affection. For the whites he was just another Dead European Male in the literary canon. For those who came from Commonwealth countries, Kipling was one of the few canonical writers who had something to say about what gave them the lives they have. Kipling the literary chameleon is still crossing barriers (p. 197).
Since the general tenor of the book is to defend Kipling against his attackers, perhaps it will inspire some of its readers, whatever their colour, to sample the poems and stories for themselves.

Charles Allen, author of Kipling Sahib:India and the making of Rudyard Kipling, [London: Little Brown, 2007], is uniquely qualified to write about Kipling’s Indian years. He is the great-grandson of Sir George Allen, co-founder of the Civil and Military Gazette and the Pioneer, who gave Kipling his first employment and so founded his career. As the author or editor of several books on the British in India, Allen has a background knowledge and many Indian contacts that enable him to contextualise events and explain them to his readers. For the first half of Kipling’s life, this book will be essential. The book is elegantly produced , with several fine colour plates and a great many drawings by Lockwood Kipling

But it is flawed by Allen’s insistence that after 1901 Kipling “lost” his Daemon of inspiration ( p.xviii), that “the spark of genius that gave his writing its sharp, dangerous crackle was almost gone” (p.4) “sparking only fitfully” (p.xvi). While it is true that the later work has never sold so well as the India writings, most serious Kipling scholars would dispute Allen’s final summing up:

Of the poetry, “If—”, “The Glory of the Garden”, “The Smugglers”, “The Way through the Woods”, “My Son (sic) Jack” and perhaps half a dozen more poems continue to be loved and valued. Of the fiction, if we exclude his writing for children there are plenty of well-crafted stories but very little that really holds the imagination except in fits and starts…[p.364].