In an English postcard of the 1920s, a bookish, bespectacled lad and a pretty girl are sitting on a hillside. “Do you like Kipling?” he asks. “Why, I don’t know, you naughty boy,” she replies; “I’ve never kippled.”
A silly joke, but it was the best-selling postcard ever issued in the British Isles. The reason is that Kipling was phenomenally popular. He was, his friend Mark Twain wrote, “the only living person not head of a nation, whose voice is heard around the world the moment it drops a remark, the only such voice in existence that does not go by slow ship and rail but always travels first-class by cable.” Kings, presidents, and prime ministers listened to his advice; soldiers, sailors, and civilians mobbed him when he appeared in public.
Kipling was the best-loved English author since Dickens, and he was loved for many of the same reasons: his mastery of common, even vulgar speech; his amazing rhythmic and atmospheric facility; his sympathy for the virtuous and unassuming lowly against the indolent and self-satisfied mighty. Dickens gave a voice and personality to the largely invisible urban poor, and Kipling did the same for the “Tommy” – the British common soldier – and a range of ordinary Indians, still virtually unknown to the British public after 200 years of dominion. Dickens is obviously the greater genius, but Kipling is not to be patronized. T. S. Eliot praised his verse, while Somerset Maugham and quite a few others have judged Kipling’s best short stories the equal of any in English.
Rudyard Kipling was born in India in 1865. His father was an artist and teacher, his mother was musical, and both were affectionate parents. When he was five, he went to school in England for a dozen years, then returned to work on a newspaper in Lahore, the capital of Punjab. Daily he plunged into the “heat and smells of oil and spices, and puffs of temple incense, and sweat, and darkness, and dirt and lust and cruelty” of northwest India. It was a splendid apprenticeship.
The energetic young journalist produced a stream of stories, sketches, and verses about his fellow colonials. These early books, “Departmental Ditties,” “Plain Tales from the Hills,” and others, were successful and sent him back to the literary metropolis, London, with a budding reputation. There he became a superstar with the publication of “Barrack-Room Ballads” (1892), “The Jungle Book” (1894), “Kim” (1901), “Just So Stories” (1902), and perhaps most of all, “Recessional” (1897), his great poem for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. In 1907 he became the first English-speaking author to be awarded the Nobel Prize.
The second half of Kipling’s life (he died in 1937) was an unusually public one, and this is the focus of David Gilmour’s well-crafted biography. After India, Kipling’s great love was South Africa. He became interested in it during the 1890s, when England, Germany, and the Netherlands were competing for influence there, a contest that ended in the Boer War. Kipling, a fierce partisan on the English side during that short, bloody struggle, afterward began preaching rearmament and prophesying war with Germany. By the time that war came, he was virtually a propaganda machine, excoriating liberals and harrying even conservatives he considered insufficiently bellicose.
As often happens, a stance turned into a mindset. Kipling went from being merely pro-Empire to being anti-women’s suffrage, anti-trade union, anti-progressive taxation, and even anti-democracy – an all-out reactionary. This has cast a retrospective pall over his poetry and fiction, now often dismissed as jingoistic or chauvinistic. But although Kipling ended as a hidebound conservative, he began as an undoctrinaire one. He came honestly by his earliest and deepest political conviction – admiration for the British Empire.
The British soldiers and civil servants in Kipling’s Indian stories and poem’s are, on the whole, modest, competent, earthy, and unideological. They’re not idealists, just decent, practical men, satisfied if they can do more good than harm to the natives, who in turn are good-hearted and loyal but wildly impractical, undisciplined, incompetent, ignorant, and, at least toward one another, violence-prone. “Year by year,” Kipling wrote, the Englishmen of the Indian Civil Service “die, or kill themselves by overwork, or are worried to death or broken in health and hope in order that the land may be protected from death and sickness, famine and war, and may eventually become capable of standing alone. … Yearly the work of pushing and coaxing and scolding and petting the country into good living goes forward.” The is the White Man’s Burden: “the business of introducing a sane and orderly administration into the dark places of the earth.”
Is this idyll of Kipling’s the real truth about British imperialism? No, alas. England went into India for England’s benefit, not India’s: in order to further the commercial interests of powerful groups of Englishmen. Indians who objected were treated harshly. Then is Kipling’s tribute, on the contrary, a brazen lie, a racist slander, a shameless apologia for exploitation and greed, as some of his critics have charged? No, not that either. After all, England’s rulers did at least recognize that a well-administered country is more profitably, efficiently, and safely exploited than a badly administered one. Whatever their motives, they did bring some light, to India and elsewhere, and the “dark places” certainly stood in need of it.
The British did much good in India and much evil; many Englishmen meant well and many did not. Would India have been better off without British rule? History does not answer counter-factual questions. History can only reveal as much of the truth as is available – and that must include Kipling’s truth. It does Kipling no credit that he did not know or acknowledge the grimmer actualities of the British Empire, or its fundamental purpose. But it does him some credit that, as Gilmour reminds us, he glimpsed and articulated its nobler possibilities.