Friday, 1 January 2016

Happy 150th Birthday, Rudyard Kipling

by James Priory

Think of Portsmouth and literary childhoods and it is hard not to think first of Dickens, creator of Oliver Twist and David Copperfield, born in 1 Mile End Terrace on 7 February 1812. Less well known but no less significant is the story of Rudyard Kipling, creator of Mowgli and Kim, who spent a large part of his childhood living in Southsea from 1871 to 1877.  These six years would haunt Kipling for the rest of his life and draw him back in later years to revisit the house in which he had suffered: the house still known today, as if Dickens himself had named it, as Lorne Lodge.

But as we mark the 150th anniversary of Kipling’s birth in Bombay on 30 December 1865, it is also fascinating to reflect on whether it was Kipling’s Southsea childhood which made him the great writer he was to become.

Kipling’s parents had travelled to India shortly after their marriage in March 1865 to enable his father, the scholar and artist John Lockwood Kipling, to take up a new post as Professor of Architectural Sculpture at Bombay’s College of Art.  Within a few weeks of their honeymoon near Lake Rudyard in Staffordshire, Alice realised that she was expecting her first child.  Newly established in the exotic world of Bombay, their first child’s name would be a reminder to his parents of the romantic associations of England.

We know from Kipling’s later autobiographical writing that his first childhood in India- as Professor Norman Page once styled it in a lecture delivered as part of the inaugural Portsmouth Festivities in 2000- was an idyllic time: “My first impression is of daybreak, light and colour, and golden and purple fruits at the level of my shoulder.  This would be the memory of early morning walks to the Bombay fruit market with my ayah…”

A photograph of the two year old Kipling on a pony depicts him as an imperial figure, closely attended by servants, who would have included a Roman Catholic ayah or nurse from Portugese Goa and a Meeta or Hindu bearer.  But young Ruddy was also encouraged to enjoy a free and uninhibited life in the markets, gardens and streets of Bombay. He had to be reminded to use English when addressing “Papa and Mamma” in the dining room, such was his absorption into the linguistic and imaginative worlds criss-crossing nineteenth century India.  It was a rich and stimulating time for Kipling and his younger sister, Alice, otherwise known as Trix. 

The idyll was not to last forever.  In April 1871, the family returned to England ostensibly to visit family.  Kipling’s mother was related to the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones, who lived in The Grange, a fine London villa with a garden containing a grotto decorated with shells and fossils, a mulberry tree and briar roses.  Kipling had visited before and would later call it his ‘paradise’ compared with other places in England, though even here he must have missed the open verandas, exotic birds and heat of Bombay.

John and Alice Kipling had lost a third child shortly after he was born in 1870, when Kipling was just four.  No doubt they were anxious that their two surviving children should prosper in a safe climate.  It was also established practice for Anglo-Indian families to educate their children in England. 
Nothing, however, was said about their intentions to the children until October when the time came for their parents to depart for India.  They had found a family called Holloway in Southsea, with whom three-year-old Trix and five-year-old Rudyard would board.  Captain Holloway, a retired officer from the merchant navy, lived with his wife Sarah and their son in Lorne Lodge, at 4 Campbell Road.  For Kipling, this was to be a house of torment and horror.  It would be five years until the children saw their parents again.

Captain Holloway, known to the children as Uncle Harry, appears to have been a genial man.  His wife, referred to as Auntie Rosa, was a severe woman who had little patience for the wilfulness of the young sahib.  After Uncle Harry’s death in 1874, the situation seems to have worsened.  Rudyard- noted by members of his wider family as a child prone to tantrums- was harshly treated by Auntie Rosa.  Reflecting on their experience many years later, Trix recalled “Aunty’s bad temper and unkindness to my brother”, but she also recognised the sense of desertion by their parents:
“We had no preparation or explanation; it was like a double death, or rather like an avalanche that had swept away everything happy and familiar.”

Whilst Trix enjoyed more caring attention from Auntie Rosa, Kipling became anxious and fearful.  Banished to bed and struggling to read without light, he developed acute short-sightedness.  The freedom of Bombay had been replaced by a prison-like existence in Southsea.
Kipling was eventually released from his torment, but only in the spring of 1877, his sister continuing to live with the Holloway family in the town where she would continue to be educated.
The emotional scars for Kipling, however, would last a lifetime, such that he revisited Southsea in 1920, by now a successful and famous man, to confront his memories of Lorne Lodge.  And he would explore the psychological wounds of his experience multiple times in his fiction, most notably in short stories such as Baa Baa Black Sheep and his autobiographical fragment, Something of Myself, but also in some of his most famous works, The Jungle Books and Kim.

Kipling’s creation of Mowgli, the Indian boy reared by wolves in the jungle, owes much to the ambiguous childhood of its author.  Mowgli is rejected by the villagers who throw stones at the boy, convinced that he is the ghost of a child eaten by a tiger.  Struggling to understand whether he is human or animal, Mowgli dances on the skin of Shere Khan and sings a wild Psalm:
“I dance on the hide of Shere Khan, but my heart is very heavy.  My mouth is cut and wounded with the stones from the village, but my heat is very light because I have come back to the jungle.  Why?
These two things fight together in me as the snakes fight in the spring.  The water comes out of my eyes, yet I laugh while it falls.  Why?
I am two Mowglis, but the hide of Shere Khan is under my feet…
..Ahae! My heart is heavy with the things that I do not understand.”
That sense of rejection is a powerful motivator for Mowgli, hardening him to life in the jungle and inspiring revenge when he calls on nature’s forces to help him destroy the village in a scene not surprisingly excluded from Walt Disney’s animated film in 1967.  It will be interesting to see if either of the two new cinematic versions due to be released in 2016, one directed by Andy Serkis, are more faithful to the psychological drama of the original story.

Asked by his sister Trix when he was nearly seventy whether Lorne Lodge was still standing, Kipling is said to have replied, almost as if speaking through Mowgli, “I don’t know, but if so I should like to burn it down and plough the place with salt.” 

In many ways, Kipling’s brilliantly exuberant novel Kim is a fictional imagining of what it would have been like if young Ruddy had returned to Bombay and resumed his childhood in India.  It is tempting to consider that the novel might have found its genesis in Kipling’s Southsea longing for a return to India.  As Norman Page writes, “It was perhaps of such stuff that his dreams during the Southsea years had been made.”

If so, then there was at least some positive artistic legacy from Kipling’s unhappy second childhood.  Kipling himself wryly noted that his creativity and instinct for story-telling had been sharply developed in Lorne Lodge: “If you cross-examine a child of seven or eight on his day’s doings (especially when he wants to go to sleep) he will contradict himself very satisfactorily….I have known a certain amount of bullying, but…it made me give attention to the lies I soon found it necessary to tell, and this I presume is the foundation of literary effort.”

Like Wordsworth stealing a shepherd’s boat and then imaging the mountains stalking him as a child at night, it is interesting to consider the relationship between guilt and the imagination in nurturing some of our greatest creative writers and thinkers. The doubleness which enriches Kipling’s work was in part based on the compulsion to be duplicitous in the house ruled by Auntie Rosa, and in part on the childhood exile he experienced from his native India.  Portsmouth and Southsea occupy a dark place, therefore, in Kipling’s imagination, but also inspired the storyteller to free himself through fiction. 

We can therefore celebrate the 150th anniversary of Kipling’s birth on 30 December 2015, a date which is itself richly ambiguous in being poised at the end and beginning of the year.

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