RUDYARD KIPLING by Frederick (Lord) Birkenhead
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Now in print 30 years after it was commissioned and written--Kipling's daughter forbade its publication--can a balanced, readable, sympathetic, but uninspired biography find an honorable niche beside Angus Wilson's tour de force, The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling? Perhaps it can--and not only because of the inclusion here of quotes from friends and relations who weren't around to talk to Angus Wilson. Unlike the official biographer (C. E. Carrington, 1955), Lord Birkenhead is anything but reverential; nor does he fall in with the Kipling-loathing that proved so popular in the Thirties and Forties. Writing in 1948, amid some pro-Kipling backlash, Birkenhead remains even-tempered and eclectic in his capsule assessments of the work, praising the ""descriptive and inventive writer of God-sent genius"" while recognizing ""frequent lapses into an abyss of vulgarity and bad taste"" and characters ""inclined to melt rapidly in the mind."" As for Kipling's xenophobic, racist politics, Birkenhead laments the ""one-way street of convictions, insight and bigotry. . . ideas petrified in marmoreal permanence,"" but he shows that Kipling was no slavish idolater of British rule, advising that the imperialist exhortations are ""always less offensive when carefully analyzed than at first sight."" And many of the distortions in life history that Wilson won praise for correcting are likewise corrected here: melodrama is avoided in the telling of young Rudyard's traumatic years as the temporary foster-child of strangers (""it is essential not to overstate the effect of this ordeal""); Kipling is seen as ""childishly reliant upon his wife's management,"" but Caroline is no tyrant, more often an exhausted stoic; and something of a case is made for linking the older Kipling's ""asperities"" to a torturous medical history. The late Lord Birkenhead may have been neither the incisive critic nor the imaginative psychologist that Angus Wilson is. But from boy-wonder of India journalism to toast of London to sullen Vermonter to restless traveler and remote celebrity, Kipling is given a fair shake, with careful counterpointing of divergent views. And all in a genial, straightforward style both calm and lively--with only an over-fondness for extended quotation to slow down Rudyard's strange ride, here not so marvelously strange but absorbing just the same.

Pub Date: Nov. 29th, 1978
Publisher: Random House