The Man Who Would Be Good

In a valedictory appeal Rudyard Kipling begged posterity to spare him the attention of a biographer:

If I have given you delight
By aught that I have done,
Let me lie quiet in that night
Which shall be yours anon:

And for the little, little, span
The dead are borne in mind,
Seek not to question other than
The books I leave behind.

The biography “business,” he once complained, was “a bit too near the Higher Cannibalism to please” him. “Ancestor worship” might be all very well, but he hated the way biographers served their subjects up “filleted or spiced, or ‘high.”’ On visiting Wal-ter Scott’s house in Scotland, he felt “vehemently sick” and decided that “when such as he have done their work they should be left with only their works for witness after them.”

Kipling did his best to protect his contemporaries from aspiring cannibals. He confessed to burning his letters from Mark Twain, and it seems certain that his correspondence from Henry James, Thomas Hardy, and Robert Louis Stevenson also ended up on the bonfire. He was disgusted by the trade in writers’ letters—“selling chunks of dead friends”—and told a correspondent in 1921 that he never kept letters, his “view being that friendship is too intimate a matter to share with the public after one’s friends have passed over.”

Pyromania at home was not of course difficult to gratify. But to protect his own life from investigation, he had to seek out and retrieve the letters he had written to others. After his parents’ deaths he indulged in a frenzy of burning, according to his sister, and later he seems to have ensured that his letters to his uncle, the painter Burne-Jones, and nearly all those to his wife were also destroyed. “For more than twenty years,” he observed in 1915, “I have done my best to try and get all such letters and papers into my possession.”

Kipling’s widow continued the process after his death, buying her husband’s correspondence from impecunious recipients in order to burn it, a strategy that was not, however, invariably successful: she managed to obtain the (entirely innocent) letters written to Edmonia Hill in India (which have subsequently disappeared) but not before typewritten copies had been made (which are now at the University of Sussex). The Kiplings’ surviving daughter, Elsie Bambridge, was also a zealous guardian of her father’s reputation—she dismissed the suggestion that a volume of letters might be published—but, realizing that a biography was inevitable, she decided to control it by handcuffing the biographer. When the first aspirant, the second Lord Birkenhead, proved insufficiently respectful, she censored the entire work (it was not published until 1978, when she and he were both dead). His replacement, Charles Carrington, complained in private about her restrictions but managed to publish a fine book in his lifetime—although he admitted in the preface that the influence of Mrs. Bambridge had been so great …

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