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Not such a dry old stick - facinating introduction to the young Kipling
on 18 January 2009
Charles Allen has produced a superb biography covering the first thirty-five years of Kipling's life. The book concentrates on Kipling's relationship with India, which Allen convincingly argues sustained most of his best work.
Today Kipling can appear an austere figure, a handle-bar moustached Imperialist advocate, with ideas on race beyond the pale of polite society. But Allen shows the young Kipling ("Ruddy") to be so much more interesting and sympathetic than the stereotype suggests.
Allen is excellent on Ruddy's early life in Bombay, his unloved years in Southsea away from his parents, his return to India and work there as a journalist, his development as a writer and return to England to become a literary superstar.
Ruddy trod new ground among writers: for example, he was the first to give a voice to the men rather than the officers in the British army. In India he talked to everyone: from Vieroys to the most downtrodden and his empathy for misfits, outsiders and slackers gave his fiction its wondrous colour and detail.
For me the most surprising elements of Kipling's life include his nocturnal explorings of native India, his visits to Lahore courtesans, his experiences with opium and his depressions. The older Kipling did much to obscure Ruddy's antics from future generations. But Allen is superb at uncovering Ruddy's secrets and they make him so much more of a sympathetic and modern man than I had previously believed.
I have not read any of Kipling's prose since my teenage years when I struggled through the Second Jungle Book. But this book has re-awakened my interest and I shall shortly be reading Kim, which Allen considers Kipling's masterpiece.
Read this book if you are interested in learning more about what made Kipling tick, whether you have got into his works yet or not. Also read this book if you are interested in the Raj. Allen makes this far-away world come alive.