The Light that Failed'

The Magazine Editions

by David Alan Richards

The title page of the copyright edition,
from the Livingston Bibliography

The publishing history of Kipling's first novel, The Light That Failed, is a tangled one.

Over two years, four versions of this popular story appeared: in twelve chapters with a happy ending; in fifteen chapters with a sad ending; in fourteen chapters with a sad ending; and in eleven chapters with a happy ending.

The story begins in a paradigm shift at the nineteenth century's end in the publishing world's manner of engaging the reading public.

As noted by Kipling's biographer Charles Carrington, "Light fiction in the late Victorian age was purveyed principally in the monthlies [magazines] which enterprising publishers used for launching new authors and testing new lines of appeal to public taste,...something brisker and livelier than the decorous three volume novels which the circulating libraryies had distributed to the genteel public in the previous generation." The American publisher J.B. Lippincott was a market leader in such ventures, issuing a monthly magazine simultaneously in New York, London and Melbourne (using Ward, Lock, Bowden & Co. as the publisher in Great Britain and Australia), with a complete novelette by a reputed author in every number. Eighteen-ninety was a spectacular year for Lippincott's with its new story format of 50,000 to 60,000 words, beginning with A. Conan Doyle's The Sign of Four, continuing with Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray, and ending on the December newstalls with the January 1891 issue containing The Light That Failed, on pp. 3-97 of the 144-page magazine.

The American publisher S.S.McClure, who was to serialize Kipling's Captains Courageous in his own eponymous magazine in 1897, having paid the author $10,000 for those rights that year, noted in his Autobiography [1914] that Lippincott had paid Kipling only $800 for this 1890 effort.

In the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin is an autograph letter of 11 December 1890 from Coulson Kernahan, the English Editor of Lippincott's (and later author of 'Nothing Quite Like Kipling Had Happened Before', published in London in 1944) to Robert Barr (whose story "One Day's Courtship" was to appear in the same January 1891 issue under Barr's pseudonym Luke Sharp).

Wrote Kernahan:

"We have a banger for our Jan'y No. It is called 'The Light That Failed' & is specially interesting as K's first long novel. His 'nervous English', unrelenting realism & terrible truth to nature are seen at their best in it; and I am inclined to think that like most first novels it is partly autobiographical."

This letter continues with the news (confirmed and amplified in Coulson's later book) that Kernahan had advised James Bowden, the Managing Director of Ward, Lock & Bowden, to double the usual print run of the January issue of the magazine, from 10,000 to 20,000 copies; however, due to Kipling's desire to add a chapter at the last moment, Kernahan in his letter doubts that the issue will appear before Christmas.

Contemporary newspaper comments stated that Kipling first wrote the story with the tragic ending - the blind artist-adventurer Dick Heldar's death in battle - but, fearing this was too sad for public consumption, changed it for the serial publication so that the hero and heroine get decently engaged to be married on the last page.

The first edition of The Light That Failed was a copyright issued prepared in London by Wolcott Balestier, the American working there as agent for New York publisher J.W. Lovell (whose American paperback book edition of the Lippincott twelve-chapter "happy ending" text was delayed to permit the magazine to appear first). Balestier made up six copies, filing one for deposit in the British Museum on 7 November 1890.

In stone-gray wrappers, it has 82 pages and is lettered on the front cover with the types of the title page (in the Kipling bibliographies, Livingston 61, Stewart 81).