Light on Kipling

From the Editor of the Kipling Journal

May I take issue with the review by Iain Finlayson of Andrew Lycett's fine new biography of Rudyard Kipling (The Times September 2nd 1999).

Kipling was certainly a complex and highly strung personality, and Finlayson rightly draws attention to some apparent contradictions in his attitudes - though he exaggerates Kipling's alleged tendency to "hysteria", "perpetual panic", "terror of life", and the "horror" at his "dark heart".

Where he is unfair to the biographer is in claiming that Lycett "acknowledges rather than investigates" these contradictions - ie, does not explain them. At the same time he accuses Lycett of perpetrating "a catalogue of people and events", a "wearisome roll-call of minor characters", and "a dead weight of peripheral detail about English political, social, and literary societies", all in sentences [that] flow like thick cream, clotted with solid information that quickly cloys".

But Finlayson misses the point. Kipling's early training as a journalist marked him for life, and much of his writing, especially the enigmatic passages of prose and verse, gains immeasurably when the reader knows against what contemporary encounter to set it. Kipling's friends and relatives, his sometimes uncomfortable marriage, his exceptionally widespread travels, his political alignments, his bereavements, all constitute that background - sometimes an inspiration for his "daemon", sometimes an obstacle.

A remarkable thing about Kipling was his ability to survive disappointments and setbacks, and to write afresh, his fluency undiminished, and his artistry resilient as ever. Lycett's biography stands at once in the front rank of books about Kipling, not only because it is so readable, but because he is second to none in [is invaluable because of] his historical mastery of the multiple background influences which cast light on what Kipling wrote. Thus the aspect of the book which Finlayson finds superfluous will, for the scholarly reader, be one of its main attractions.

GEORGE WEBB, Editor of The Kipling Journal.

Note: the passages in blue were omitted from the version of this letter published in The Times. (JR: On Line Editor)