Rudyard Kipling is a writer closely associated with the period of the British Empire. Certain elements of his writing strangely reflect the nature of a world wide empire centred on a small set of islands. For example a recurring theme in Kipling's work is the transformation of a small space into a big world. Similarly Kipling writes about identity, always a vital consideration for any imperial power, when the struggle between an empire and its colonies is essentially a battle of identities. In his most accomplished novel Kim, Kipling wrote about a young orphan who leaves a life on the streets of Lahore to become a British secret agent. Kim is a master of disguise and is given to musing on his identity: "He looked at his boots, ruefully. 'No, I am Kim. This is a great world, and I am only Kim. Who is Kim?' He considered his own identity, a thing he had never done before, till his head swam" (P158 - 159).
Rudyard Kipling was born on 30th December 1865 in Bombay. The house in which he was born still survives at the J.J. Institute of Applied Art. Rudyard had idyllic memories of his early life, but this happiness ended abruptly when he and his sister Trix were sent to England and left with paid guardians. At the time this was fairly typical practice amonst families living overseas, serving to ensure a British education. Nevertheless the household selected wasn't a good one. The guardians were unknown to the Kiplings, and had been found through a newspaper advert. In 1871 Rudyard and Trix suddenly found themselves in a house in Southsea in the care of Harry and Rosa Holloway. Harry was a pleasant man, who stood up for young, headstrong Rudyard against his bullying wife and son. But when Harry died in 1874 Rudyard was left unprotected. Occasionally Rudyard and Trix would visit their uncle and aunt, Edward and Georgie Burne-Jones in London. Their house in London was a haven of happiness, and the door knocker of their house eventually made its way to the front door of Bateman's, the house in Sussex where Rudyard lived in later life from 1902.
Meanwhile back in India Rudyard's parents, Lockwood and Alice, had been getting on. By 1875 Lockwood had become principal of the Mayo School of Industrial Art in Lahore. Soon after this Edward Burne-Jones alerted the Kiplings to their children's unhappiness in Southsea, and Alice returned to Britain to take them away from the Holloways. Rudyard was then sent to United Services College, a boarding school designed to create future army officers. Here Rudyard had a happy time, engaging in various minor rebellions against the school's benign authority, and decorating his room with china and fans. This period inspired his novel Stalky and Co. In 1882 Rudyard left school and sailed for India to take up a job with The Gazette in Lahore. An ensuing seven year stay in India had a great impact on Kipling. His experiences in Lahore, in the British mountain top retreat of Simla, and in Allahabad, fed into his fiction, inspiring the writing of Kim. Back in England from 1889, Rudyard was busy writing, and was at least partially accepted by the literary establishment. Kipling then married an American woman, Caroline Balestier, and moved with her to the United States for four years. He built a house called Naulakha - an Indian colloquial term for a fortune - high in the Vermont Hills. The house can still be found on Kipling Road. Kipling wrote The Jungle Book during his time here. Returning to England in 1895 following a quarrel with Caroline's brother, the family lived at Rottingdean, which was used as a base for much travelling, particularly to Africa. African journeys provided material for the Just So stories. This happy period came to end on a trip to America in 1899. Both Rudyard and his daughter Josephine developed pneumonia, Josephine dying from the infection.
Reflections in the pond at Bateman's
In 1902, the inconvenience of tourists seeking out a view of the famous author brought about a move to Bateman's in Sussex. Here Kipling wrote, played with his children, went motoring, which he loved, and engaged in publicity work for the Royal Navy. And yet even in happier periods the insecure Kipling was worrying about what the future might hold for Britain. He had hated 1897's jubilee celebrating Queen Victoria's sixty years on the throne. To Kipling Britain's self congratulation seemed to ignore the fact that all hopes and securities rest on thin ice. From these feelings came the poem Recessional, which contains the famous lines: "Lord God of Hosts be with us yet, lest we forget, lest we forget."
Sadly Kipling's fears were not unfounded. Europe was soon to be convulsed by World War One. His son John was killed in 1915 at the Battle of Loos. Rudyard felt the deepest of pain and remorse at his death, particularly as he had pulled strings to get his son into the Irish Guards after initial rejection because of poor eyesight. After the war Kipling did much work with the War Graves Commission. In the post war years Kipling wrote less, found his reputation falling, and suffered increasing stomach pain. He died in Nice in 1936.
The pond at Bateman's - holy water or pleasant garden pond?
By 1936 the time of empire was coming to an end. Britain had to find a new identity, to replace the identity it had during its time of imperial power. Kipling being identified with the old period became deeply unfashionable. This brings us back to Kipling's own ambivalent attitude towards identity. As a writer he had spent his life looking at his experiences, creating poems, short stories and novels out of them; and yet he had a real fear of knowing himself, opposing, for example, any attempt to study his genealogy. Perhaps Kipling instinctively knew that all identity rests on illusions, and disappears if investigated too closely. Kipling's character Kim doesn't know who he is, and thinking about his identity makes his head spin. Kim looks after a Lama, a Tibetan holy man who is somehow wise in his naivety and downright silliness. The Lama is on a mission to find a holy stream which will free him from the wheel of life. This search spans the whole of India but the holy river seems to be no specific river which can be identified. The Lama ignores sellers of Ganges water who hawk their wares on trains. Eventually it seems that the holy river cannot be found in one place, only because it is found everywhere. Holy water seems to spring out of the ground at the feet of the person seeking it. The Lama comes to this insight at the book's conclusion, after a nasty bang on the head. You have to wonder if Kipling's poor old Lama isn't simply seeing things after the knock. And yet there is wisdom in his groggy vision of a universal holy river. The Lama has a shifting identity, as wise or deluded; the river he looks for has a similarly shifting identity. While Kipling did not like such uncertainty, in Kim his best work, he seems to come to terms with it.
"This is a great world, and I am only Kim" says the young boy, but somehow in not being able to decide who he is, Kim has a chance to transcend his individuality, just as his priest tells him he must seek to do. Rudyard Kipling was a man of his time, and some aspects of his life and work may grate today, but in Kim he left behind the limitations of a specific time and place and found a kind of transcendence.