Books: Why did Mrs Kipling keep a toad in her bedroom?

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The Unforgiving Minute: A Life of Rudyard Kipling

by Harry Ricketts, Chatto pounds 25

Do you like Kipling? The obvious answer is, of course, "I don't know, I've never Kippled." A straight "no", however, would be less facetious, and - on the strength of Harry Ricketts's new biography - completely understandable. There's so much about Rudyard Kipling not to like. Take his Sinophobia: "They are terrible to behold [and] ate things without name," he wrote of the Chinese in 1889. Or his anti-semitism: "Kipling is of the opinion that we owe all our Russian troubles, and many others, to the machinations of the Jews," observed his friend Rider Haggard in 1919. Once you add his red-clawed imperialism, his opposition to the Suffragettes, and a slightly pathetic obsession with his schooldays, the picture doesn't look very pretty.

Some people can't bear to read Philip Larkin because of his devotion to Thatcherism and onanism. However, it is perfectly possible to be engaged by Larkin's work without having any particular passion for either. Kipling is a more difficult case. A jingoistic, beetle-browed intolerance sits stockaded at the heart of his writing. Even his deep affection for India relied on the infantilisation of its inhabitants in figures such as Kim and Mowgli.

Not that Kipling's opinions were particularly eccentric. Biographers of Wells and Yeats must negotiate views which modern readers would find similarly unattractive. "Now we are slowly coming back to the Primitives and realising that a lot of what we called civilisation was a name for shirking," snarled Kipling in 1901, a sentiment perfectly attuned with Wells's anxieties about human degeneration as expressed in The Time Machine, or Yeats's ecstatic desire to see soft-bellied civilisation squished in the wake of the Gyres. And while Yeats went gooey over Mussolini, Kipling at least had the decency to remove the swastikas that habitually appeared on the spines of his books - though this probably had more to do with his hatred of Germans than a distaste for Nazi ideology.

Mr Kipling, therefore, makes an exceedingly difficult biographical subject, and Ricketts doesn't help by refusing to take a strong line on the man's contradictions and peculiarities. The book is full of accounts of people cooing over Kipling's charm and thoughtfulness. One young admirer remembers how he "had the gift of drawing people out", and another dubbed him "a Fascinator". But there's a frustrating disjunction between these and the breezy smugness that emerges from Kipling's private writings. For example, the winter of 1891-2 was clearly a time of tremendous emotional upheaval for Kipling. His best friend, a young writer named Woolcot Balestier, died in December 1891. A month after that Kipling married Balestier's sister, Carrie. The friendship with Balestier had been intense, and at least one biographer has suggested that it may have had a sexual element. (Ricketts is having none of this, but doesn't explain why Kipling spent so much of his time hanging out with men like Henry James, Walter Pater, John Addington Symonds and Aubrey Beardsley.) Kipling gave no hint of these turbulent events in his private writing. His surviving letters of the period contain nothing but self-congratulatory gossip.

In other places, this emotional opacity allows Ricketts to do some virtuoso literary detective work. He reproduces a page of his subject's cryptic personal diary, presenting the reader with a string of baffling remarks: "My own affair entirely. A wet day but deuced satisfactory ... Begin to think I've been a fool but aint certain ... Cheerful exchange of telegrams all day ... First period of probation over ... Now to look about me ..." From these entries, Ricketts plausibly decodes the tale of how, in August 1885, Kipling (probably still a virgin) went to a brothel in Simla, then became worried that he'd picked up a venereal infection, consulted a doctor in Lahore and, his mind at rest, went looking for someone to marry. The Unforgiving Minute contains many other such engaging details: Ricketts reveals that Kipling's mother had an aversion to tripe, and that his father's idea of happiness was "a ripe mango in his bath, with a cheroot". Other titbits prove more confusing. Ricketts describes how, as a boy, Kipling would wander around the house at night, and that this was discovered by his parents only "when he crept into his mother's bedroom to give his pet toad Pluto a drink and dropped the water jug". Why, you might ask, did Mrs Kipling keep a toad in her bedroom?

Perhaps the most discomfiting aspect of Kipling's life story is the energy he devoted to mythologising his own childhood through his fiction. Stalky and Co is, fundamentally, a rewrite of Kipling's own schooldays as a triumphant war of pranks against hapless masters. It seems, however, that the most vicious schoolboy scam that Kipling got up to was rubbing bacon fat on the windows of boys he didn't like, and "growing lettuces in a secret cave". Unless you are alarmed by the narcotic effect exerted by lettuces in The Flopsy Bunnies, this doesn't rate as much of an outrage. Most telling of all, however, is the photograph Ricketts reproduces of Kipling aged 16. The school cap is ridiculously small, the collar horribly tight, the Alf Garnett moustache and specs already in place. He looks like a 50-year-old off to a slightly kinky fancy dress party, but he is grinning with a furious air of cocky self-satisfaction.