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Contradictory Kipling

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her interests and startlingly indifferent to the author’s. She rejected his work entirely; for thirty years it has been unpublished, and the unfortunate biographer died in 1975, a year before his dragon.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, animals, and people alien to himself, an aspect of his bouncing feeling for success, a festive energy. A good deal of it is histrionic. On the other hand, Kipling’s vulgarity is connected with a Puritan compulsion to shut the door on his inner life, a refusal to expose himself to self-knowledge. He replaces that with a curt or grandiose assertion of codes, laws, and sentimental fatalism. He is less militant in this than conventional and self-regimented, less an imaginery soldier than an embittered Salvation Army man blowing a sentimental trumpet.

Yet as a man who was bumptious, rude, and aggressive, especially when he was young, he was also timid, gentle, easily dominated—notably by his mother and his wife—and hagridden by a deep melancholy close to madness that has so often been the worm in the heart of the British nonconformist tradition from which he sprang and that was noted on his mother’s side of the family. One has to go back beyond the horror of the years that he spent in the awful “House of Desolation” at Southsea; that experience marked him, but the natural energies of the gifted boy surmounted the horror. An ungovernable colonial child, he soon learned to assume a tough persona, but his genius fed on the magical India of his earliest childhood.

When we look more closely at this childhood and Kipling’s rapid development in his youth, this “tough” swaggering persona, with its overacted masculinity, seems at odds with his parents’ cultivated sensibility. The home was very literary and open to the arts—in this rather like Conrad’s. His father, the gentle art master and craftsman, was a cultivated man with mystical leanings; the mother was a wit, closely related to the Pre-Raphaelites, who eventually became a privileged figure in vice-regal society, where intellectual gifts were rare. She was determined that her son should be a writer. His talents were cosseted. The famous sonnet about finding a dead canary, written when he was sixteen—which I’m glad to see quoted in this book—is an astonishingly mature piece of work. One does not expect this Kipling to turn into the brash reporter who annoyed the colonial clubs of the Raj when he was seventeen, or the swaggering young fellow who carried on a sarcastic and preposterous row with an Afghan Sirdar who was in prison. Children who have known horror may grow up subject to hate and melancholy and the desire for vengeance, but the other recourse is caustic humor. The comic gift is often genially allied to boasting, inspired lying, and cunning.

Lord Birkenhead’s account of the hard-working, truculent young man’s experiences of low life in India is more explicit than in other biographies. Kipling really did plunge into Indian life, especially the despised life of the bazaars, as no other Englishman seems to have done. His personal aspect was startling: stumpy, swarthy, short-sighted, a loud teller of stories and a wit, he looked like a mature man of forty when he was only a callow twenty-two—the age when Plain Tales from the Hills and his ditties made him famous.

Mature? He became so quickly as an artist, but not as a man. A clever and possessive mother, a protective, imaginative father, himself a craftsman, seem to have set a pattern on which he would always be dependent. Because of his mother he was no more than an unscrupulous flirt with other women. There was a good deal of the misogynist in his character. He was bound to be helpless under the thumb of a very possessive woman in the end and apparently lost his early impulses to cut loose: there is generally something disjointed in the inner life of “the man’s man.”

Lord Birkenhead, like other biographers, is unable to tell us more about Kipling’s certainly innocent passion for the magnetizing Wolcott Balestier, the young American who captivated everyone he met in England: one attraction for Kipling must have been his enterprise and ingenuity as a literary agent in outwitting those Americans who were pirating his work. Here it must be noted that in the 1890s the British were at the height of their regard for Mammon. That Kipling should marry the American’s sister when her delightful brother died suggests that Kipling’s feeling was rather the overflow of grief about the man than passion for the woman, who, from what we can gather, was certainly not magnetic except in the sturdy ability to dominate as his mother had done. A dubious business, Henry James thought at the wedding.

Yet despite all the criticisms—including her daughter’s—of Caroline’s possessiveness and hysteria, the marriage was a success, for Kipling did need protection from time-wasting interlopers; he was a fanatical slave of the pen and childishly incompetent in managing his money affairs or the ordinary things of life. She kept him rich and made him respectable, and he clearly enjoyed social status. Willingly he handed everything over to her. If he was rude to journalists—fatal in America—she was ruder, for as an extremely Anglicized American she became more British than the British. She shared his morbid tendencies. Their many illnesses were a bond. Far more, of course, were the terrible periods of grief they suffered at the deaths of the favorite daughter and their son.

The Kiplings both had neurotic reasons for hating America, which were a good deal connected with the foolish family row with Kipling’s outrageous brother-in-law in Vermont. Ironically he was just the sort of ne’er-do-well who really attracted the gypsy-ish side of Kipling’s character. Until this quarrel which caused them to pick up and go, he loved Vermont and was popular there with the farmers, though their wives were mocking of the side Caroline put on. (I wonder if Mrs. Bambridge saw the text we now have.) He wrote Kim there—his best book—and he was miserable at leaving his delightful house.

Lord Birkenhead is fairly calm about Kipling’s politics, which still ruffle us, and if he has nothing new or imaginative to say, he wrote with intelligent sympathy of a very bristling, divided, and lonely man, who in old age still experienced “the night getting to his head,” as it did in his childhood in the “House of Desolation” and in the insufferable Indian heat. There are certainly no Freudian theorizings here.

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