They were all drunk

Michael Brock

  • The Letters of Rudyard Kipling. Vol I: 1872-1889 edited by Thomas Pinney
    Macmillan, 386 pp, £45.00, November 1990, ISBN 0 333 36086 9
  • The Letters of Rudyard Kipling. Vol II: 1890-1899 edited by Thomas Pinney
    Macmillan, 386 pp, £45.00, November 1990, ISBN 0 333 36087 7

If it still needs to be proved that Kipling’s realism was highly intermittent, those lines from his last years should do the job. His correspondence was sure to reach biographers and editors in the end. He could hamper, but not stop them. Ever since the launch of the Kipling rocket more than forty years earlier he had been far too famous for his letters to have been thrown away. At 24 he had not been six months in London before the Times had devoted a leader to his work. In that year, 1890, Henry James had termed him ‘the star of the hour’; R.L. Stevenson had pronounced him ‘too clever to live’; and Tennyson had judged him ‘the only one ... with the divine fire’. Nine years later, news of his illness had taken precedence in London over that of the Pope. Professor Pinney has access to some 6300 letters, drawn from 138 collections and 135 printed sources.

These two volumes which end in 1899 contain 459 letters of the 1333 available for the period. The hampering process is evident throughout. Kipling is believed to have destroyed his correspondence with his parents and with Burne-Jones, and most of his inward mail. His letters to his wife and to her mother have disappeared, almost certainly by his wife’s hand; and his daughter, Mrs Bambridge, ordered the destruction of her mother’s diaries. His wife and daughter were, however, custodians in their own fashion. They strove to eliminate the traces of his private life – but the Kipling collection in the University of Sussex results largely from their work. The late C.E. Carrington was allowed to make extracts from Caroline Kipling’s diaries for his biography. Moreover, although the letters to Mrs Edmonia Hill were bought and destroyed, they had been copied, however inaccurately. These copies have survived and are invaluable for Kipling’s last two years in India. All this destruction did not prevent views of Kipling being obtainable from his private writings. It merely ensured that the views obtained would be subject to some distortion.

Professor Pinney’s exemplary editing reduces distortion to a minimum. His prodigious learning, never flaunted, embraces every source, with a few exceptions such as the Balliol College Register and one or two Latin texts. His selection is judicious. ‘I have regarded,’ he writes, ‘any letter that discusses a question of Kipling’s art’ as having ‘a special claim to inclusion ... I have ... tried through my notes to provide a sufficient biographical context for the letters to be read connectedly ... I have not, as a rule, allowed myself to annotate ... the implicit references.’ In one or two cases this admirable restraint seems to have been taken to the point where help is denied to the reader. For instance, writing to Brander Matthews on 13 December 1894 Kipling returned, and commented on, a letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Matthews about ‘A Walking Delegate’. Nothing is said about the Roosevelt letter, although it is included in the first volume of Morison’s Roosevelt Letters and shows vividly how far Kipling’s politics diverged from those of his hero. Professor Pinney should be asked, as he toils at later volumes, to curb his urge for self-effacement.

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