How the righteous stories were made. By John Batchelor. Yale University Press; 240 pages; $ 25 and £ 18.99
ALREADY, IN HIS By the mid-1930s, Bombay-born writer Rudyard Kipling had begun to polarize audiences. In 1901, satirists claimed that “the British Empire had been placed under his responsibility” as a precocious child, “and he is still there.” By 1910, writes John Batchelor, the uncompromising imperialism that Kipling developed alongside his friendship with colonial pillager Cecil Rhodes meant that “his reputation was and would remain damaged.”
Yet novelist Henry James, another friend, believed that the master craftsman who wrote “Kim”, “The Jungle Books” and some of the finest shorts of his age was “the most complete genius man I have never known ”. TS Eliot defended his verses and called him “the greatest Englishman of letters of his generation”. More recently, Bombay-born Salman Rushdie has dubbed Kipling “a writer with a storm in him” who “creates a mirror storm of contradictory answers”.
Today he is an avatar for debates about Britain’s past and a case study for reconciling admiration and judgment. Critics and readers are concerned about the paradoxes of an author who, in a poem, thanked “Allah who gave me two separate sides to my head”. This ingenious, versatile and empathetic literary magpie, once a teenage journalist in the colonial region of Lahore, has become “a voracious observer of the world”. Nonetheless, his allegiance to British imperialism “dragged him into an explicitly racist script.” How could the shrill jingoist and the shape-shifting magician share the same brain? Like Kipling himself, Mr. Batchelor lets the big picture emerge from small details.
Fluent, engaging and gently erudite, his story centers on the making of “Just So Stories”. These 12 “alternate creation stories” were originally intended for Kipling’s beloved daughter, Josephine, who died at the age of six in 1899; they were published in 1902. He combined text, drawings (see photo) and design in an enchanting whole that young readers still appreciate.
This empire trumpeter sort of stems from the aesthetics of the arts and crafts of late Victorian Britain. Her uncle by marriage was the august painter-designer Edward Burne-Jones. Her father was John Lockwood Kipling, an artist with Pre-Raphaelite connections who ran the Mayo School of Arts in Lahore (now Pakistan’s National College of Arts) and researched traditional Indian skills. As Mr. Batchelor says, in “Just So Stories” and elsewhere, Rudyard has been meticulously attentive to the presentation of his work.
With their talking animals, wonderful transformations, and fairy-tale incantatory voices, the “Just So Stories” utilize imagery and mythology not only from the youth that Kipling fondly remembers, but other faraway places he has. visited, from South Africa to New England, Australia to the Amazon. Several tales, including “The Elephant’s Child”, “How the Leopard Got Its Spots” and “How the Camel Got Its Hump” revolve around acts of rebellion and disobedience, with discoveries – and the punishments – that follow. Kipling sympathizes with the adventurers but portrays their sometimes painful comeuppance.
For his part, Mr. Batchelor views the stories as “jewelry-like works of art.” His analysis addresses the main themes of Kipling’s life and work, from his “fluid and protean” sense of identity to his infatuation with Rhodes and his Pre-Raphaelite heritage. Most importantly, there is Josephine’s “deep and lasting” grief that permeates the narratives with a subtext of mortality and loss.
But he stumbles when he says that the “Just So Stories” are “a text from which the concerns of empire are successfully excluded.” Kipling’s brand waving the flag of globalization, a cultural eclecticism that mixes fascination and condescension, his gift for identifying with both underdogs and overlords – these traits surface in his fables, deepening and obscuring them. Even here, what Mr. Batchelor calls the “obvious split” in Kipling “between creative writer and political writer” never really holds. These “separate sides of my head” are eternally locked together. ■
All images are courtesy of Yale University Press
This article appeared in the Books and Arts section of the print edition under the title “His Best Beloved”