'Do you like Kipling?" asks the colonel on the seaside postcard. "I don't know, I've never Kippled," replies the shopgirl. But most people had, and they made him one of the most popular writers in the land. Remembered mainly for children's fables, he developed an image problem that kept his adult work off the radar for 60 years. The knee-jerk reaction is that he's a celebrator of British imperialism at its worst, so it's easy to overlook a few balancing facts.
Joseph Kipling was born in Bombay in 1865 and moved to England as a child. "Rudyard" was a middle name, after the lake in Staffordshire where his parents courted. The first cousin of the Conservative PM Stanley Baldwin, Kipling considered himself Anglo-Indian, which was common among the British born in India, and he returned to Bombay at 16. Starting work in a newspaper, he set a frenetic pace of writing, producing six volumes of short stories before heading to London, then the US, where he wrote the two Jungle Books. Although he loved Vermont, he made his home in Devon, and later in Sussex, after the growing anti-British sentiment in the US forced his hand.
Even before Queen Victoria had gone, Kipling was being seen as an arch-imperialist with such poems as "The White Man's Burden", although his writings contained ironies, particularly in Stalky & Co, about arrogantly cynical schoolboys.
The patriotic new century saw a leap in popularity. A reflection of his time, Kipling's admiration of India was undeniable. In 1907, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, becoming the first and youngest English language winner, but there was a troubling side to his work. Staunchly anti-Home Rule for Ireland and anti-Bolshevik, he supported the coming world war and secured a position for his son John in the Irish Guards. But the boy was killed in action, after which Kipling wrote: "If any question why we died/ Tell them, because our fathers lied."
He repeatedly turned down a knighthood, was lauded by Henry James and beloved by millions (his poem "If ..." still tops the charts) but times had changed. In later years Kipling's reputation shifted from innovator to old guard, partly because the gold swastika adorning his early books had become stigmatised; Kipling ordered the ancient symbol's removal and condemned the Nazis as early as 1935.
Now, both in England and India, reformation is under way. What cannot be denied is a facility for language that frequently surprises and dazzles, ripe for rediscovery.
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