In Rudyard’s Back Yard
‘Do you like Kipling?’ asks the colonel on the 1930’s saucy seaside postcard. ‘I don’t know, I’ve never Kippled,’ replies the shopgirl.
But most people had, and they made him one of the most popular writers in England. Remembered mainly for his children’s fables, ‘The Jungle Book’ and ‘Just So Stories’, Kipling developed an image problem that kept his adult work off the radar for sixty years (and for some, it still does). The knee-jerk reaction is that he’s a celebrator of British imperialism at its worst, so it’s easy to overlook the balancing facts.
Last week I visited Rudyard Kipling’s early 17th century house at Bateman’s in East Sussex, which is now a National Trust property. I have never been in a more ‘English’ feeling home; grand stone fireplaces, wood-panelled walls, rooms which are a contradictory amalgam of austere cosiness. In the study are a beautiful set of the original Jungle Book paintings. One room is finished in golden burnished leather wall coverings representing the tree of life.
Joseph Kipling was born in Bombay in 1865 and moved to England as a child. ‘Rudyard’ was a middle name, after the lake in Staffordshire where his parents courted. The first cousin of the Conservative PM Stanley Baldwin, Kipling considered himself Anglo-Indian, which was common among the British born in India, and returned to Bombay at sixteen. Starting work in a newspaper, he set a frenetic pace of writing, producing six volumes of short stories before heading to London, then the US, where he wrote The Jungle Books. Although he loved Vermont, he made his home in Devon after growing anti-British sentiment in the US forced his hand.
Although he was an early modernist who regarded India as the finest democracy in the world, Kipling was being seen as an arch-imperialist even before Victoria had gone with poems like ‘The White Man’s Burden’, although his writings contained ironies, particularly in ‘Stalky & Co’, about the cynicism of schoolboys.
The patriotic new century saw a leap in his popularity. A reflection of his time, Kipling’s huge admiration of India was undeniable. In 1907 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, becoming the first and youngest English language winner, but there was a troubling side to his work. Staunchly anti-Home Rule for Ireland and anti-Bolshevik, he strongly supported the coming world war and secured a position for his son John in the Irish Guards. But the boy was killed in action, after which the devastated Kipling was transformed, writing, ‘If any question why we died/ Tell them, because our fathers lied.’
He repeatedly turned down a knighthood, was lauded by Henry James and beloved by millions (his poem ‘If…’ still tops the charts) but times had changed. In later years Kipling’s reputation shifted from innovator to old guard, partly because the gold swastika adorning his early books had become stigmatised; Kipling ordered the ancient symbol’s removal and condemned the Nazis as early as 1935.
Matched in the diversity of his writing only by DH Lawrence, Kipling retained little of his former reverence. Now though, both in England and in India, reformation is underway. What cannot be ignored is his facility for language that frequently surprises and dazzles, ripe for rediscovery. ‘Kim’ is an astonishing picaresque novel that shows his passion for India. As one reader put, ‘It’s funny, it’s a thriller, it’s grounded in a good-humoured and tolerant morality.’ Kipling doesn’t question the British Empire, but nor does he condescend to his characters. Orwell was wrong to insult him, and time will enshrine his writing. Below is his house in India.