Something of Kipling, Sans the Colonialist

Many months ago, I spied a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s autobiography at my parents’ flat in Goa and I was puzzled because I couldn’t imagine my father ever buying a copy of Kipling’s book, unless forced to! It turns out that it belonged to my grandfather, another avid reader. I decided I must read it someday soon.

Well, I have just finished reading it and thought it was an interesting time to be reading a book about an avowed colonialist and supporter of The Empire. When statues of white supremacists and racist leaders are toppling all about us, reading what Rudyard Kipling has to say about himself and his life ought to be quite revelatory.

Unfortunately, Something of Myself for Friends Known and Unknown is anything, but. If, like me, you go looking for Kipling’s beliefs and experiences that shaped his life and world view, you are going to be disappointed. For the book is nothing but a recollection – and a very selective and sketchy one at that – of the parts of his life that he has chosen to share with the reader, leaving out many important stages of his life, as we shall discover later.

He begins with his birth in India in the city of Bombay in 1865, but very quickly boards a P&O Ripon to England to spend the next six years of his childhood in Portsmouth. How his parents came to be in India in the first place and why he was sent away to England at that tender age is not explained. It is as if he is in a hurry to tell us about the next six years that he spends with people he refers to as the Woman and her son. Indeed, these six years were the most harrowing a child could experience in what he calls the House of Desolation because of the severe punishments that were inflicted on him; the only bright spot in his life at the time were the books that his parents sent him to read.

Rudyard Kipling in 1895; Image: Elliott & Fry on Wikimedia Commons

His years at school in England, in contrast, were rather enjoyable it appears. He makes good friends with a couple of other chaps and together they form a trio, engaging in the usual schoolboy activities and antics. He develops a special affinity with his English and Classics Master who is only referred to as C_________ who challenges young Kipling, stretches his mind and makes him realise that “words could be used as weapons” ; from this I inferred that Kipling liked to be intellectually challenged and his mind delighted in these journeys and detours. He himself says:

“One learns more from a good scholar in a rage than from a score of lucid and laborious drudges; and to be made the butt of one’s companions in full form is no bad preparation for later experiences. I think this ‘approach’ is now discouraged for fear of hurting the soul of youth, but in essence it is no more than rattling tins and firing squibs under a colt’s nose.”

He is close to the School Headmaster as well, a Mr Cromell Price, who, when he finishes school, gives him the chance to start and edit a newspaper back home in India. There is no mention of whether Kipling went to University for further studies, and if not, why. Instead, here is Kipling, beginning his journalism career at the age of 17! He edits the Civil and Military Gazette from Lahore (then in India), where his father was director of the Lahore School of Art and Museum. When the paper joins The Pioneer, he shifts to Allahabad where he has more to say about the heat and disease, from typhoid and cholera to dysentery, and the floating corpses in the river ghats than much else.

In all, his observations about his early years in India in a chapter titled Seven Years’ Hard, don’t amount to much, save for the stories about ayahs, coolies and servants. And, of course, the dreaded offering of bribes, which he says happened through notes placed discreetly in fruit baskets. Club life – always important to a Briton – is described with just the relish you’d expect from Kipling, a chance to mingle with other Sahibs. And even if he doesn’t expound on his views about Empire, he simply can’t help himself from using the word “Natives”.

After seven years in India, he tells us of his return to England in a chapter strangely titled The Interregnum. I wonder if it has anything to do with the fact that he leaves out his entire journey back to England via the United States. According to this New Yorker review of a book about Kipling’s years in America, If, by Christopher Benfey, he spent many months travelling through the country on his return, when he even had a chance to meet with Mark Twain. At any rate, back in England his journalism career grows at a fairly good pace: first with Mowbray Morris at the Macmillan Magazine and the St James Gazette, and then with Henley’s help he writes for The National Observer, formerly The Scots.

He describes his joining a literary club, The Savile, where he befriends the likes of Thomas Hardy, Walter Besant, Eustace Balfour, Herbert Stephen and Rider Haggard. And he talks of these years in glowing, almost euphoric terms, as “a dream in which he could push down walls, walk through ramparts and stride across rivers”. However, the good years are interrupted by a bout of influenza, which requires him to take a trip to Italy in order to recuperate. That holiday not being enough to cure him, he travels still farther – to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and back to England, via Bombay and Lahore.

It is now 1892, and Kipling suddenly announces his marriage in London to, well, we don’t really know who. This, in the first sentence of a chapter titled Committee of Ways and Means. If you’re wondering why Committee of Ways and Means, that is how he refers to himself and his wife, Caroline Balestier, as a couple throughout the rest of the book. If that is Kipling being witty, his refusal to name his wife and instead refer to her as simply the Wife, is not. He doesn’t think it necessary to tell us about her or how he met her. She exists only as part of the Committee of Ways and Means.

Anyway, the wedding takes place in the middle of a raging influenza epidemic in London forcing him and his wife to leave immediately on a world tour. While in Japan, an earthquake strikes and he is unable to cash his Cook’s cheques, leaving them stranded. (I was reminded of an idea I had for an American Express advert over a decade ago, in which a corporate leader is stranded on an overseas trip and goes incommunicado while his boss and colleagues at HQ fret over his whereabouts at an important business meeting. There, it was a tornado!)

Suddenly, before we know it, we are in America and Kipling and his wife are buying themselves their first cottage in Vermont. In addition, they now start owning horses (one of which is named Marcus Aurelius) and after a while they begin building their mansion, “Naulakha”. Named after a book that Kipling is said to have co-authored with his wife’s brother, Wolcott Balestier. In fact, you can’t be blamed for not knowing that Mr. Balestier was Kipling’s publisher and literary agent because nowhere in the book, does he even mention him.

The Kiplings’ mansion “Naulakha” in Vermont, USA, (clockwise from top left): the study, Kipling in his study and library, the library; Images: Daderot on Wikimedia Commons

While in America, Kipling wrote some of his best-known works, and yet you wouldn’t know it from reading Something of Myself. Instead he chooses to tell us about the “unwholesomely furtive and false aspects of American life at that time”. He writes that administratively, America had “unlimited and meticulous legality”, but hardly any “law-abidingness or any conception of what that meant”.

He shares his views on immigrants who were coming into the country:

“Ethnologically, immigrants were coming into the States at about a million head a year. They supplied the cheap – almost slave labour, lacking which all wheels would have stopped, and they were handled with a callousness that horrified me. The Irish had passed out of the market into ‘politics’ which suited their instincts of secrecy, plunder, and anonymous denunciation. The Italians were still at work, laying down trams, but were moving up, via small shops and curious activities, to the dominant position which they now occupy in well-organised society. The German, who had preceded even the Irish, counted himself a full-blooded American, and looked down gutturally on what he called ‘foreign trash’.

Kipling befriends the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, Professor Langley of The Smithsonian and Charles Eliot Norton, as well as publishers such as Frank Doubleday and Scribners. He writes of trips to the Zoo with Roosevelt who, he says prided himself on his Dutch antecedents, with “not a single drop of British blood” in him. And he slips in a sentence about Roosevelt acquiring Philippines very casually, merely in passing.

Then in a chapter titled South Africa, we have him befriending the likes of Cecil Rhodes and Jameson, and his participation in the Boer War. Kipling and his wife divided their time for many years between England and South Africa. However, there is no real insight we get into Kipling’s world view here either, although we can surmise from his friendships with the likes of Rhodes and Jameson, which way he leaned politically. He describes Rhodes as inarticulate and talks of helping write his statements for him. Kipling even tells us that he was responsible for raising the amount of the scholarships that Rhodes was planning to institute for an Oxford year.

In a penultimate chapter on The Very Own House, we see the Kiplings talk and live effusively, as they discover a new life with the Batemans, a new house that they acquire and acres of garden and orchard land around it and a water wheel for electricity. This time, instead of horses, they discover the pleasure of owning several cars of those days, including the steam-powered Locomobile and the Lanchester.

Rudyard Kipling with his father, John Lockwood Kipling, in 1890; Image: Wikimedia Commons

And finally, in Working Tools, Kipling discusses his trade. He tells us about his writing methods, his study table, and the importance of editing one’s own writing. Strangely, through the course of the book, you come across several instances where he seeks his father out, such as while discussing ideas for Kim, and his mother helps him with his verses. I say strange, because nowhere in the entire book, do you get to know Kipling, the family. He doesn’t talk about his wife or his three children, except to report their births.

And, of course, Something of Myself doesn’t give you a sense of Kipling, the man. No trace of The White Man’s Burden, no mention of his racist, colonialist views. For a book that was written in the last year of his life, it doesn’t even mention the Nobel Prize nor the offer of knighthood.

The last is most surprising. Because the book leaves you with the impression that Kipling was a man who liked to talk about all that he owned. Whether he is discussing his houses or his friends, he seems to talk about them as trophies that he liked to fill his life with.

The book, like Kipling’s life, flits between many countries and houses and leaves you a little breathless, wondering in the end, if this was all that his life was worth.

The featured image at the start of this post is of Mowgli attacking Shere Khan in a rare clay bas-relief by John Lockwood Kipling, Rudyard Kipling’s father, for The Jungle Book 1907; Image: Lee M on Wikimedia Commons

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