Beastliness

Harry Ricketts

  • Rudyard Kipling by Martin Seymour-Smith
    Macdonald, 373 pp, £16.95, February 1989, ISBN 0 356 15852 7

Speculation, Leon Edel remarks in his one-volume life of Henry James, is ‘the stock-in-trade of all biographers’. But if all biographers speculate, some do so more scrupulously and convincingly than others. Edel, for instance, is both meticulous and plausible. The same can hardly be said of Martin Seymour-Smith in his new critical biography of Kipling. In addition to being one of the most lopsided lives ever written – 23 chapters on the first forty years, only two chapters on the last thirty – this is also one of the most incorrigible in its guesswork. Indeed, Seymour-Smith’s claim to have been ‘boldly speculative’ deserves to rank with Biography’s great understatements.

Of the many areas of Kipling’s life exposed to the Seymour-Smith speculation-machine, none are ‘reconstructed’ more fully than his childhood and his sexuality. Seymour-Smith’s handling of these is a reliable guide to the method, approach and worth of the book as a whole. The standard account of Kipling’s childhood goes briefly like this: happy, indulged Anglo-Indian boy is transported at the age of six with three-year-old sister Trix to England, in line with normal Anglo-Indian practice, and left with a Southsea couple, Captain and Mrs Holloway; the parents tragically fail to explain this ‘abandonment’ to the children; and, especially after the death of Captain Holloway, the boy suffers the acutest misery at the hands of Mrs Holloway, an Evangelical of the most hell-threatening type, and of her son, an inventive bully; after five years, when the boy is starting to go blind, his parents return and take him away, leaving his unpersecuted sister in Southsea.

This account derives from Kipling’s story ‘Baa, Baa, Black Sheep’ (1888), the opening of The Light That Failed (1891) and the first chapter of his posthumously-published autobiography Something of Myself (1937), and is supported by his sister’s reminiscences. Most of the previous biographers – Hilton Brown (1945), Sir Angus Wilson (1977), Lord Birkenhead (1978) – have accepted the Kiplings’ version as literally true. Certainly no one, not even Charles Carrington, who takes a less literal view in his official biography (1955), has ever seriously maintained that Kipling made it all up. Not until Seymour-Smith, that is. He has simply decided that the received account is a lie, a self-invented myth, which Kipling later told himself and the world in order to manufacture a suitably damaged childhood and to punish his mother. (His sister incidentally supported the lie in order to grab some of the limelight.) That he can produce absolutely no evidence to back up this counter-myth doesn’t seem to deter him.

Here he is on the question of Kipling’s silence, as a child, about his suffering:

Either he said nothing much, or they [his parents] did not believe him, or they even privately believed that he had been deserving of such treatment. There were perhaps two ‘monsters’ in Southsea during those years.

  There really is a mystery here, unless Kipling deliberately manufactured by far the larger part, if not all, of his sufferings expressly in order to appeal to his mother’s conscience, or perhaps for some other reason. In that case he must already have held very dark secrets indeed in the recesses of his mind. But then his fiction abounds in examples of such darkness. He would, in such a case, have been so keen on a subtle sort of revenge that he was prepared to sacrifice his own happiness in order to enjoy it. And, as we shall see, that is possible. It was the sort of thing people would do to one another in some of his fiction. The other alternative is that Mrs Holloway really was a mistress of subtle terror. That is possible: but, as we have seen, there are serious objections.

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