Rudyard Kipling is one of the most well known British writers of the late 19th & early 20th Century – I suspect nearly everyone has heard of something he wrote (“The Jungle Book”, “If–“, “Tommy” …). His reputation as a great writer in modern times has been overshadowed by the fact that he was an apologist for the British Empire with the sort of racist views that that entails. Discussing his life and works on In Our Time were Howard Booth (University of Manchester), Daniel Karlin (University of Bristol) and Jan Montefiore (University of Kent).
Kipling was born in India in 1865 to British parents, and his early childhood seems to’ve been idyllic. He was primarily brought up by an Indian nanny, and in his memoirs recalled that Hindi was his first language – he relates being sent in to see his parents with the firm instruction to remember to speak English to them, and having to laboriously translate it out of the Hindi he thought in.
At the age of 6 he was taken to England where he and his younger sister boarded with a couple in Southsea for the next 6 or 7 years. This wasn’t unusual – it was customary for the children of English families in India to be sent “home” at that sort of age. What was unusual was that he and his sister didn’t stay with family. One of the experts (Karlin?) suggested that Kipling’s mother felt that her siblings weren’t likely to treat her children well. This was a traumatic time for Kipling and not just in contrast with the life he’d left in India. The couple he was living with were abusive, the woman in particular. She firmly believed that Kipling was evil and going to hell, and treated him accordingly. One of the experts said that the only good thing in this time was that Kipling didn’t lose his closeness with his sister, despite the differences in the way the two children were treated.
Kipling was reprieved when he reached his teens, as he was sent to a minor public school (again, as was usual for a child of his social class). He thrived there, and this was the first time during his life when he actually had the opportunity to make friends. While at school he became involved with the school newspaper, which was the beginning of his career as a writer. When he was 17 instead of going on to university he left school and returned to India. He began work as a journalist both reporting news and writing stories for the paper. The experts speculated that this was why the short story was his preferred length – he’d learnt his skills writing to a restrictive word limit and this is what he became best at.
Having made something of a name for himself as an Anglo-Indian writer by his mid-twenties he returned to England with an eye to making a name for himself outside that rather narrow remit. He established himself in London, and began what the experts presented as a calculated campaign to establish himself as a writer. At the time London was something of a literary hotspot, and he met many of the big names of the day – including Henry James who was much taken with Kipling (and vice versa). He published prolifically – both short stories and poems – and was fortunate to write at a time when copyright had been legally codified. Between his constant stream of new material, and his ability to make money from his back catalogue by publishing collections and reprints, he made a lot of money over his lifetime.
Kipling married an American woman, who was the sister of his best friend, and they lived for several years in the US in the 1890s. On the programme they talked about how much Kipling liked America – both the countryside and the people – but didn’t really discuss why they returned to the UK. After he and his family returned it seems that Kipling became more involved in politics, using his writing to deliver political messages. He was a great supporter of the Empire, in a paternalistically racist sort of way (the need to look after the poor savages). In the early years of the 20th Century, after the Boer War, he also began to talk about how the British Army needed to be improved (and better treated). He was one of the members of the establishment who saw Germany as a looming threat that Britain would end up in conflict with sooner or later.
I confess I’d somehow assumed that Kipling died long before the First World War, but this is not the case – he lived until 1936. During the war Kipling was involved in a couple of different ways. He was involved in writing propaganda for the war effort, and then after his son’s death in 1915 he was also heavily involved in the committee that organised the memorials and graveyards for the war dead. He was responsible for the choice of wording on the gravestones and memorials. And for the way the names on the memorials were organised – in alphabetical order instead of by rank, and including the missing-presumed-dead as well as those whose bodies were found (his own son’s body was not found).
This programme felt oddly rushed – in particular we didn’t get to hear much about his work (although a bit more than I’ve recapped here). While writing this blog post I checked the wikipedia article to make sure I had my dates correct, as I usually do, and I noticed that there seem to be several bits of Kipling’s life that are a bit glossed over. I guess it was just a bit of a bigger subject than would easily fit in 45 minutes.