Meetings with triumph and disaster

The much-loved books he left behind transcended their author's miserable life, and morose personality.
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The Independent Culture

Rudyard Kipling by Andrew Lycett (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25, 657pp)

Rudyard Kipling by Andrew Lycett (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25, 657pp)

ALL LIVES are more or less unsatisfactory, written as well as lived. Lives of the living suffer from incompleteness; those of the dead from the fact that all that effort, whether it results in success or failure, leads but to the grave. In the case of creative artists a complicating factor is the relationship between the person and work. Kipling, personally the most reticent of writers, did not want to be "biographised", entreating his readers "not to question other than /The books I leave behind."

Never was there a more apt illustration of D H Lawrence's injunction to trust the tale, not the teller. Kipling the writer is altogether more admirable than Kipling the man, and it is a relief to turn from any life of him to the poems, stories (particularly the Indian ones) and to his masterpiece, Kim.

That said, Andrew Lycett has produced a thoughtful and thorough account of Kipling's life and times, the emphasis on the latter being particularly welcome. The most satisfactory part deals with the Indian years, in so many ways his best and most productive time. Lycett goes more fully into Kipling's relationship with Isabella Burton, the dedicatee of Plain Tales from the Hills, than any previous biographer, but in general adds little to an already familiar picture of a dyed-in-the-wool reactionary, not to say racist, redeemed by his "daemon" - his extraordinary capacity to transcend his prejudices in his best work.

The facts of Kipling's life are well known. A spoilt and sunny infancy in Bombay was brought to a sudden end when he was shipped home and left at Southsea in the unloving care of a Mrs Holloway - the equivalent in young Rudyard's development to the blacking factory in Charles Dickens's. When finally rescued from Mrs Holloway and her odious son Harry, he was sent to the new Westward Ho! public school, named after one famous novel and responsible for another when Kipling later transformed his experiences there into the larky Stalky & Co. Lycett dwells at some length on Kipling's unrequited love for Flo Garrard, which lies behind the depressed and depressing The Light that Failed, and on Flo's lesbianism and later life as an indifferent painter.

Return to India and hard work as a journalist on, first, the Civil and Military Gazette and then the Pioneer helped Kipling to put this failed love affair in perspective, though it continued to haunt him for some years. Considering the amount of his work which is based on his Indian experiences, Kipling spent remarkably few years in that country, though he later referred to his time there as "seven years' hard". But these were the years in which he first revealed his precocious talent and went on to achieve phenomenal success. He was still in his early twenties when he returned to London in 1889, via south-east Asia, the Pacific and the US, his fame having gone before him.Kipling made various attempts to escape the straitjacket of celebrity, seeking anonymity or an alternative way of life in different countries or parts of this country - the US, South Africa, even Torquay - before coming to rest (more or less) in Sussex. He became an increasingly isolated figure, the more so after his marriage to the American Carrie Balestier, whose funeral bak'd meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables, so to speak. The most one can say about this marriage is that it endured and, if Carrie contributed to Kipling's growing isolation, she also ensured that he had the peace he needed for his work.

The loss through illness of their first-born, Josephine, in New York in 1899, and of their only son John in the First World War were tragedies that seemed to drive them further into themselves, rather than together. Both suffered a great deal from illness, real or imagined. Judging by the number of servants who couldn't wait to give their notice, Bateman's, their house in Sussex, could not have been a happy home.

Lycett struggles gamely to inject some liveliness into Kipling's later years, but the facts defeat him. The public side of Kipling's life - his hobnobbing with the rich or famous, his right-wing activity - makes pretty dull reading. The author seems to be going through the motions in the later chapters of the book, doggedly chronicling ephemeral events that would have been better summarised.

Lycett's style occasionally grates, as when he injects journalistic jargon into his otherwise serviceable prose. Of a Western-educated Indian in one Kipling story he writes, "he cannot hack it in an outside world that has moved on since his glory days". He uses such phrases as "a raft of complaints". I like the idea of "a convicted imperialist", but I think he means "convinced", and on page 240 it should be Arthur, not Alec, Waugh. He also has a confusingly back-to-front way of telling a story in which the punchline precedes the facts, so that you're momentarily disorientated, thinking you must have missed something.But these are quibbles. Lycett gives us a warts-and-all Kipling, yet manages to retain our sympathy; he is less successful with Carrie, though he tries hard to do her justice. If, in the end, the essential Kipling escapes his net, as he has escaped every other biographer's, that is because he is only to be found in the work. The man remains the enigmatic figure pithily described by T E Lawrence in a letter to Robert Graves as "a very wonderful fellow and a very mean fellow".

Tony Gould's history of the Gurkhas, 'Imperial Warriors', is published by Granta