Rudyard Kipling was born in Bombay in 1865, the son of a highly skilled artist and sculptor, John Lockwood Kipling, and his wife Alice (nee Macdonald), who was the daughter of a celebrated Methodist. The Methodist background does not play a large part in Kipling’s life, but his aunts on his mother’s side gave him an entrée into the cultivated English upper class. One of these aunts married Edward Burne-Jones, the famous painter, and another would be the mother of the future Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin. Kipling’s early childhood, though, was deeply unhappy. Like many English families working in India the Kiplings boarded young Rudyard and his little sister, Alice, with a guardian in England so that the children could have an English education. For Kipling their choice of guardian was disastrous. Mrs Holloway was a bully whose treatment of Kipling scarred him for life. He wrote about this dreadful woman in his autobiography, Something of Myself, and especially in a shattering story, “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” which must have horrified his parents when they were forced to recognize what they had done to their son.
Once rescued from the loathsome and sadistic Mrs Holloway, Kipling was sent to the boarding school by the sea that became the setting for his stories in Stalky & Co, and then at the age of sixteen he found a job as a journalist in India through parental connections. In the late 1880s his poems and short stories set in India (and subsequently collected under titles including Barrack-Room Ballads and Plain Tales from the Hills) ensured that when he moved back from India to England in 1889, he was taken up and championed by influential figures in literary London. In 1892 he married an American, Carrie Balestier, the sister of a gifted young man called Wolcott Balestier who was Kipling’s American agent. The marriage to Carrie was part of an extraordinary whirlwind. Kipling’s relationship with Wolcott was close and intensely emotional, but was violently cut short when Wolcott died suddenly of typhoid while Kipling was visiting his parents in India. Kipling immediately sailed back to England, was met by Carrie Balestier and her mother on January 10, 1892, and was married to Carrie just over a week later. The marriage dismayed his parents and astonished his literary friends (especially the distinguished novelist Henry James, who was asked to escort the bride at the Kiplings’ marriage).
Once married, Kipling settled himself in Vermont in the style of a newly naturalized American citizen. This included building a big, impressive home for himself on land acquired from his wife’s family. The oldest and most adored of his children, Josephine, was born in the last days of December 1892. Within a few years of his move to Vermont, though, a disastrous quarrel with his wife’s surviving brother, Beatty Balestier, made American life impossible for him, and the family returned to England in 1896. In the late 1890s he was writing the stories for little children that became the “Just So” stories. (The title came from the insistence of Josephine that the text of the stories should always remain exactly as Kipling told them, “just so,” with no alteration.) The “Just So” stories can be seen as the most perfect and the most individual of Kipling’s books. The whole of the text, prose and verse, and all the illustrations were made by Kipling. The illustrations are remarkably skillful, and remind us throughout that Kipling’s father was a gifted draughtsman and designer.
When the stories were first published, in 1902, the Kipling family had been struck by disaster. A sea crossing back to America in the winter of 1899 caused both Kipling and little Josephine to contract pneumonia. Kipling was by this time world famous, and his dangerous illness was international news. After a tough struggle he rallied, but in the meantime little Josephine had died, shortly after her seventh birthday.
Kipling never recovered from this loss; nevertheless, he continued to work on what would turn out to be his masterpiece, Kim, his beautiful and celebrated novel about an Irish boy in India, which was published in 1901. He also turned increasingly to political affairs, but declined a knighthood and other British public honors offered to him. A great honor that he did choose to accept was the Nobel Prize for literature, which he was awarded in 1907. Despite professional successes of this kind the world was darkening for him, and the grief for Josephine was compounded in 1915 during the war with Germany when his youngest child, his son John Kipling, was killed in action at the age of eighteen. Kipling’s writing deepened following the Great War. It included his famous story about a miracle, “The Gardener” (1926), in which a mother whose illegitimate son was killed in the war is guided by the risen Christ to her son’s grave.
A stomach ulcer that had begun to trouble Kipling following John Kipling’s death was never successfully treated, and he died of it in 1936. His brief, brilliant, and indispensable autobiography, Something of Myself, was published in the following year.
John Batchelor is an emeritus professor of Newcastle University. His previous books include The Edwardian Novelists and biographies of Joseph Conrad, John Ruskin, Pauline, Lady Trevelyan, and the great Victorian Poet Laureate Alfred Tennyson.