The late Lord Birkenhead’s life of Kipling has had a wretched history. It had been written very much under the stern supervision of Kipling’s daughter, Mrs. Bambridge, and under a contract that can only be called ferociously possessive of her interests and startlingly indifferent to the author’s. She rejected his work entirely; for thirty years it has been unpublished, and the unfortunate biographer died in 1975, a year before his dragon. Naturally it was supposed the book contained scandals that had upset her, but now that we have the text it is plain there were none; indeed Kipling’s self-punishing habit of shutting the door on himself, as we now see, would guarantee that.
What were Mrs. Bambridge’s objections? Robin Birkenhead, the author’s son, who writes an introduction to the volume we are at last able to read, says she thought “it so bad a book that any attempt at palliative measures such as you describe, rewriting here, and altering there is not feasible.” She later told Charles Carrington, the standard biographer she eventually approved, that Lord Birkenhead’s work was full of amateur psychoanalysis and that being allied to “the Bright Young Things” of the Twenties—a truly ludicrous description, says his son—he could not understand Kipling’s period. Later she said he hated Kipling and his works. Still later, she said she could not remember why she had banned it. Her only supporter was T. S. Eliot who saw only the first draft and said it was too slight. It seems likely too that Mrs. Bambridge had judged from a draft. Of course, she had her right of control in the contract. It must be said that if her terms had been stringent she compensated the unfortunate author though she had to be pressed. The Kiplings were hard bargainers.
Kipling’s reputation was low when Lord Birkenhead set to work in the Forties. The storyteller’s political views were thought disastrous by a generation that hated political bluster, but in 1948 this had no connection with the cynicism of the Bright Young Things of the 1920s. Perhaps Mrs. Bambridge disliked the suggestion that Kipling’s rendering of working-class dialogue was inaccurate and lower-middle-class; that faint social sneer might have irritated. Perhaps she had a higher opinion of Kipling’s late stories—as indeed I have. The obscure “Dayspring Mishandled” does seem to be a successful attempt to exorcise once and for all a marked preoccupation with vengeance. Very readable and often very revealing about Kipling’s character at changing states of his life, Lord Birkenhead is rather literal in his judgment on the works—except Kim—and is not deeply discriminating. Although he is aware of the vulgarities, he never loses sight of the genius.
There are two ways of looking at the vulgarity that angered aesthetes like Max Beerbohm and critics of a quite different generation: it is the obverse side of Kipling’s precocious ventriloquial gift of becoming things, machines …