Rudyard Kipling

(1865 - 1936)

'The most complete man of genius…
that I have ever known'

Henry James

An Anglo-Indian childhood

Rudyard Kipling was born in the grounds of the Sir Jamsetjee Jeejebhoy School of Art in Bombay on 30 December 1865. His father, Lockwood Kipling, was Professor of Architectural Sculpture at the school and had met his wife Alice Macdonald two years before whilst staying near Lake Rudyard in Staffordshire, hence Kipling’s unusual first name.

His parents considered themselves Anglo-Indians, a term used in 19th-century India to describe British people who were born and spent their lives on the sub-continent. As a result, Kipling’s first language was not English but Hindi – the language of the servants who took care of his initial education.

At the age of five, as was common with many Anglo-Indian children, he was sent to live at Lorne Lodge near Portsmouth in a boarding house for children whose parents lived in India. There he was cared for by a retired Merchant seaman and his wife who subjected the young boy to ‘calculated torture’. He was severely bullied by the couple who were fervently religious; however Kipling claims that it was this torture which fostered his literary beginnings – creating in him an aptitude for lying. After six years at the boarding house his mother Alice returned from India and immediately took him out of Lorne Lodge. He was then enrolled in the United Services College in Devon, a school designed to prepare children for service in the British Army. With his bad eyesight and lack of sporting prowess he did not enjoy the experience and in 1882 he returned to India. Immediately upon disembarking Kipling said his 'English years fell away'.

Journalist and Traveller

Kipling’s father found him a job as a journalist on the Lahore-based Civil and Military Gazette. Since his days at Lorne Lodge he had written poetry and thought up stories, and his new job gave him the opportunity to focus on his writing. A fiercely enthusiastic writer (his study in Lahore was always covered in ink from his frantic writing), he produced verse and stories for the newspaper as well as writing features on Anglo-Indian life. As Kipling travelled India for the newspaper he became absorbed in the local stories – for example, the great gun 'Zam-Zammeh' and its history would be later be immortalised in the opening chapter of his novel Kim (1901). Early Rudyard Kipling books were published throughout the 1880's with his first collection of verse, Departmental Ditties, in 1886, and eight collections of short stories in 1888 including Plain Tales from the Hills and The Phantom Rickshaw and Other Eerie Stories (which contained his classic story ‘The Man who would be King’). Whether it was the hill stations of the Raj or the markets of Allahabad, India would provide an extraordinary inspiration to his work for the rest of his life.

In 1889 Kipling quarrelled with his newspaper's editor and was given notice. Deciding to return to England, he moved into cheap rooms just off the Strand in London. His literary reputation grew as he wrote stories for numerous magazines and periodicals. In 1891 he completed his first novel The Light that Failed, the story of an artist completing his masterpiece as he goes blind. Whilst in London he befriended American literary agent Wolcott Balestier, collaborating with him on a novel, The Naulahka, published in the same year. In 1892, while staying with his family in Simla, he telegrammed Balestier’s sister Caroline ‘Carrie’ Balestier and asked her to marry him. It turned out they had been conducting a secret romance whilst he was in London. She accepted, and they were married in London in January 1892, with novelist Henry James giving the bride away.

Following their marriage Kipling and Carrie went to live in the United States near her family’s home in Vermont, in a house named ‘Bliss Cottage’. It was there in December 1892 that Kipling’s daughter Josephine was born. That year, the most famous Rudyard Kipling book was written, The Jungle Book. Published in 1894, it was greeted with widespread acclaim, not only as brilliant adventure stories but moral touchstones for the Victorian era. A further volume of Jungle Books were published in 1895. Whilst in Vermont Kipling also completed a collection of verse Barrack-room Ballads (1892) which included his poems ‘Mandalay’ and ‘Gunga-Din’.

Poet of the Empire

Kipling enjoyed the rural splendour of New England immensely; however, diplomatic and trade hostilities between the USA and the British had reached boiling point by the 1890s and it seemed likely there would be war. As a result Kipling took his family back to England in 1896.

During a brief spell in Devon, where Kipling’s son John was born in 1897, Kipling wrote his most controversial works, the poems ‘Recessional’ (1897) and ‘The White Man’s Burden’ (1899). These poems, though hugely influential and popular, mark a shift in his writing into the political realm. A staunch supporter of the British Empire and the high ideals of colonialism, Kipling's fame increased, and he would become known as ‘the Poet of the Empire’.

In 1897 he moved his family to Batemans, a huge 17th-century manor in East Sussex. Though it was considered by many (including Kinglsey Amis) as terribly gloomy, Kipling loved the house dearly and it would remain his home for the rest of his life. During this period he also travelled regularly, making an annual trip to South Africa, where he became friends with Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Scout movement. Scout leaders to this day name themselves after characters in The Jungle Books. On a trip to America in 1899, Kipling's eldest daughter Josephine contracted pneumonia and died, aged just seven. His surviving daughter Elsie later wrote, 'His life was never the same after her death; a light had gone out that could never be rekindled.'

By the turn of the century Kipling's literary career was at its peak. His largely autobiographical novel Kim was published in 1901 and his Just So Stories were published in 1902. In 1907 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the youngest ever recipient and the first to speak the English language. With his reputation now secured his writing became even more political as he used his fame to promote causes from Freemasonry and Ulster Unionism to the arms race with Germany. In 1910 he published his most celebrated poem, ‘If…’ cataloguing the qualities necessary to become a decent man, it remains Britain’s most popular poem.

Later life and legacy

Kipling's love for the Empire led to his enthusiastic support for the First World War in 1914. He encouraged his son John to join the armed forces; however he was turned down on numerous occasions (like Kipling, John with his extremely poor eyesight was unsuited for military service). With his political and military connections, Kipling was able to persuade the commander of the Irish Guards to recruit his son. John was sent to France, only to be killed almost immediately in the second day of the Battle of Loos (1915). His body was never identified. In Epitaphs of the War Kipling's post-war collection of short poems he wrote “If any question why we died/ Tell them, because our fathers lied”.

Kipling continued to write after the loss of his son, though less frantically. Though he still extolled in print the virtues of the Empire, after the slaughter of the War, the mood of the nation was irrevocably altered. Kipling became involved in the War Graves Commission, who were to care for the seemingly endless graves in northern France. He chose the words that would be carved on each gravestone: 'Their Name Liveth For Evermore' if the dead soldier was identified, 'Known unto God' if he was not. He also chose the phrase 'The Glorious Dead' to be carved on London’s cenotaph.

Kipling died on 18 January 1936 and his ashes were interred in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey, alongside numerous British literary figures from Tennyson to Dickens.

Since his death, there has been much debate over Kipling's militant enthusiasm for the British Empire. However, few critics fail to praise the quality of his stories and poems, with many great authors, from George Orwell to Jorge Luis Borges, citing Kipling as a key inspiration. Though he remains controversial in his beloved India, the post-Independence Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru always claimed Kim was his favourite book.

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