In 1907, no one would have thought it necessary before the end of the century to do more than mention Rudyard Kipling’s name in order to gain instant recognition of one of the English-speaking world’s most accomplished short-story writers, the author of “Kim,” one of the earliest and best novels of Indian life, and the two “Jungle Books.” For it was in 1907 that Kipling received the Nobel Prize for Literature. But Kipling always has presented something of a problem to literary historians. He was, after all, born an Anglo-Indian, not quite out of the top drawer, and his American wife was not an heiress. Beyond these disadvantages, he believed in the imperial dream, though not uncritically, and after his son’s death in 1915 in the war that he had, without effect, been warning his country against, he withdrew for many years from public life.
Considering the Kiplings’ wish for complete privacy in personal matters and their penchant for destroying, usually by fire, any letters they thought too revealing, Thomas Pinney’s achievement in these first two volumes of a projected set of four is in itself remarkable, quite apart from the persuasive pictures they provide of Kipling at home--but never completely at home--in a variety of places where he would settle--but never completely settle into--during his peripatetic life.
Pinney makes it clear that he is not compiling the “Complete Letters.” He has wisely ignored what he calls “social notes” and obligatory letters of introduction as well as letters that repeat material already touched upon. Out of a total of 1,333 letters available for these first volumes, 459 are included. If this seems a bit grudging, one should remember that letter-writing has declined since the turn of the century, when a letter was really a letter, its pages often running into double figures.
Pinney’s second remarkable achievement is his meticulous annotation of obscure phrases, running from schoolboy slang to unusual words in several languages, as well as his identification of dozens of little-known individuals, especially the lesser figures in the Anglo-Indian society of the day. But what gives one ultimate confidence in Pinney’s judgment is his willingness to admit bafflement from time to time, either from illegible handwriting or unknown references or, and this is most frequently the case, inaccurate copies made from originals no longer extant.
In his teens, Kipling already was composing letters in forms of the period’s popular society verse and publishing an occasional piece in the local paper. And we have here the first, though dimly realized, woman to figure romantically in his life, Florence Violet Garrard, whom he met in the summer of 1880, when he was not quite 15 years old. By the time (1882) he returned to join his parents in Lahore, India, where he was to work on the staff of the Civil and Military Gazette, he considered himself as engaged to her. Pinney judiciously suggests that most of the warmth came from young Kipling, and the engagement was broken off in the summer of 1884, when he was not yet 19.
Perhaps this is as good a place as any to comment on (without pretending to understand) Kipling’s relations with women, for he has frequently been labeled a misogynist. The letters provide little to clarify his intimate life, but the most engaging ones of this period, when he was beginning to establish a local reputation with the publication of “Departmental Ditties,” “Plain Tales from the Hills” and “Soldiers Three,” are written to two women: his English cousin, Margaret Bourne-Jones, and, more importantly, Edmonia Hill, an American woman married to an Englishman, Samuel Alexander Hill, a professor at Muir College in Allahabad.
The letters to his cousin are frank and full of banter as he gives her lively, often satirical accounts of Anglo-Indian “society.” But the letters to Mrs. Hill, whose literary advice he requested and trusted, are written in a different tone. She not only “Americanized” him by recommending authors such as Bret Harte and Mark Twain but also probably provided a safely married focus for his emotions with nothing further demanded or expected. It was with the Hills that Kipling left India in 1889 to make his name as a writer in London, with Edmonia’s encouragement, traveling with them through Japan and later, after seeing some of the West, rejoining them in Mrs. Hill’s Pennsylvania home.
Mrs. Hill’s sister, Caroline Taylor, became a member of the party on its way to Liverpool, and the day after they landed there, Kipling and Caroline announced their engagement. Caroline and the Hills continued on to India while Kipling, remaining in London, quickly established his reputation with his republished Indian stories, attracting the attention and friendship of important editors and the established writers from Sir Walter Besant to Henry James. But early in 1890 the engagement with Caroline was broken off, again with no comment, though possibly on religious grounds.
From this point, Kipling’s letters record his travels and his growing impatience with the English for not understanding the importance of their imperial ventures. He finds himself one of a circle of men admiring a young American, Wolcott Balestier, who had come to London as a literary agent and gained easy entry into London’s literary society, together with his sister Caroline. After the publication of “The Light that Failed,” Kipling set out on an imperial tour, visiting Cape Town, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia before arriving in Lahore. Within a few days he learned of Balestier’s death and left for London, arriving on January 10, 1892. On Jan. 18, he married Caroline Balestier.
Kipling began his American residence in Brattleboro, Vt., the Balestiers’ home, with great enthusiasm, praising the bracing air, the sunshine and the naturalness of his neighbors. He knew of American writers through Edmonia Hill, and his letters to Charles Eliot Norton form an attractive group in which Kipling comments informally on both family and public events.
It was in Vermont that Kipling wrote the two “Jungle Books,” and where the Kiplings’ two daughters were born. Family life agreed with him until he quarreled with his brother-in-law, Beatty Balestier, and foolishly brought suit against him, only to be humiliated in the courtroom. After this, America was intolerable in Kipling’s eyes, and the family returned to England where their son, John, was born.
The following year, Kipling, restless, returned to the empire, visiting Cape Town and meeting Cecil Rhodes. Back in England, he enjoyed taking part in the Channel Fleet’s maneuvers. Not quite willing to give up America, he took his family on a stormy winter crossing to New York. The children were stricken with pneumonia and the older daughter, Josephine, died.
In addition to the personal detail and the lively accounts of Kipling’s work and his travels, a tantalizing thread runs through these two volumes. As early as 1885, Kipling began to consider writing a novel centered in India, to be called “Mother Maturin.” At times it seemed to be close to completion, almost ready for serial publication. At other times he was dissatisfied with it. The reader is never sure of its exact state or what it will include. Pinney suggests that part of it probably was used in “Kim” (1901), and we may learn more about it in the third volume of this elegantly edited series.
The second volume ends with the Kiplings’ return to England in time for the publication of “From Sea to Sea” and “Stalky & Co.” Pinney gives us an inviting detail when he notes that Kipling hired his first automobile on Dec. 8, 1899. His passengers are waiting.