First published in the Civil and Military Gazette on 10 January 1887, and collected in Plain Tales from the Hills in 1888, and in successive later editions of this collection.
This story is well summarised by Norman Page, in “A Kipling Companion”. “A shallow young man who has been disappointed in love meets a married woman – [Mrs Landys-Haggert] – who strikingly resembles the girl who has refused him. After pursuing her because she reminds him of his lost love, he discovers to his dismay that he is in love with her for her own sake. When they part, he tells her ‘very earnestly and adoringly’, ‘I hope to Heaven I shall never see your face again’.”
Kipling himself had been in love with Florence Garrard before leaving England for India in 1882, and had been repeatedly rejected by her. He clearly still felt wounded by the experience nine years later, when – back in England – he was writing The Light that Failed. A letter he wrote from Lahore to a Mrs Maunsell, in England, on 10 June 1887, seems to reflect his hopes for a letter from Miss Garrard. He tells Mrs Maunsell that when he received a letter from her;
“I don’t get many home letters and this particular one was in a hand-writing I knew, unfortunately a good deal too well. Whereat I, suspecting all manner of things the most unreasonable and impossible, opened it in a whirl and found it was …. you. Then I lifted up my voice and swore, for a likeness of face is bad enough, but an identity of handwriting is too bad…”
Later in the letter Kipling offers to send Mrs Maunsell “On the Strength of a Likeness”, which had been published five months earlier. He had started the story by saying, rather knowingly, that “Next to a requited attachment, one of the most convenient things that a young man can carry about with him at the beginning of his career, is an unrequited attachment. It makes him feel important and business-like and blasé and cynical…”.
Louis Cornell (p. 132), who quotes the letter, believes that Kipling was referring to a troubling similarity between Flo Garrard and Mrs Maunsell. He compares Kipling’s position to that of the unfortunate Dicky Hatt in “In the Pride of his Youth” (earlier in this volume) had he married Miss Garrard before leaving England. (This would have been a little far-fetched considering that he was only sixteen when he took up his post on the CMG. Ed.) Andrew Lycett (p. 145) refers to the same letter, and sees Mrs Maunsell as “a strong candidate” as the model for Mrs Landys-Haggert.
See also Angus Wilson (p.156) for his view that Kipling’s early work … is largely marked by his extraordinary understanding of the unfairness of women’s lives, with his sympathy and liking for them. The Light that Failed, however, disappoints Wilson by reverting to what he calls blind self-flattering misogyny.
Some critical comments
Harry Ricketts (The Unforgiving Minute p.99) hears a knowing, ironic narrative voice in Kipling’s opening remark about the convenience of an unrequited attachment, which he thinks probably owes something to Byron, Thackeray and, of course, Jane Austen (see the notes on the text – page 302 lines 1-4). J.M.S. Tompkins (p. 223) finds an echo of Browning in the story.
Kipling was a great admirer of Jane Austen and her works – see “The Janeites”, and the poem “Jane’s Marriage” One cannot help wondering if the titles of some of his books owe something to a sideways glance at hers ? (Sense and Sensibility/ Actions and Reactions etc.)