A Gentle-Violent Man

The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling: His Life and Works

by Angus Wilson
Viking, 370 pp., $15.00

Rudyard Kipling
Rudyard Kipling; drawing by David Levine

The title of Angus Wilson’s long-awaited exploration of Kipling’s life and works is well chosen by an author who himself is a novelist, a searching critic, and an intelligent traveler who knows India and has his own early “colonial” connection with South Africa. Kipling’s “ride” was indeed an exotic one, not only because of a childhood and youth passed between India and England, his sojourns in the United States, South Africa, and, later on, his habit of wintering in Cape Town and in France; but because of the restlessness of his eye and temper. As with many Victorian Englishmen, his mind was the explorer’s: in his middle years it also opened outposts in history, in Roman Britain and Christian Antioch, but also in his clinical studies of illness—illness itself being an inexorable country we are bound to know: its scenery was psychosomatic. Like many of the colonizing kind he became more gaudily English than the English in the sense that Englishness became an extra conscience and a personal cause. That cause was Kim’s, whose passionate cry “Who is Kim?” indicates Kipling’s similar search for an identity within a caste.

The main outline of Kipling’s ride has been established with authority by Charles Carrington, and Angus Wilson acknowledges that debt. He has elaborated the story in lively detail by his own researches, interviews, an exhaustive reading of the works, and his own speculations. The result is a very full and clever book. It shows Kipling as he grows and changes through the phases of his life—Wilson really does succeed in the always difficult task of domesticating the man in the circumstances and fantasies of his daily life and times. If the manner is personal and diffuse, and the narrative circuitous as it moves forward and then goes back to reconsider, this is the habit of a gifted and serious talker. Mr. Wilson is outspoken when he finds Kipling dropping into vulgarity, sentimentality, overdramatizing, or covering up; yet he confesses to a sneaking feeling for Kipling’s philistinism even when he is most fervent in his admiration for the artist and craftsman. He puts Kipling’s imperial afflatus in historical perspective, as he deplores the novelist’s sneers at “the long-haired liberal intellectuals.” Kipling was a hero-worshiper of men of action, especially common soldiers; but he could not match them.

His lasting attraction as a writer is his gift of conveying the magical. It springs from his childhood in Bombay and Lahore, and he never lost it entirely. Even the offensive belief in the supremacy of the white race is a form of projected moral magic, a boyish fantasy perverted by an adult. Kipling worshiped children, and easily and seriously abandoned himself to their private minds. For him, as Wilson says, children create a vast world of magical explorations within a small space as they make their maps of “hazards and delights.” He saw childhood as…

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