Something of Myself

(notes by Thomas Pinney)

The writing of the book

The occasion of Kipling’s deciding to write Something of Myself can only be guessed at. He began it on August 1, 1935, at Bateman’s, when he had scarcely six months to live. Perhaps a general sense of the approaching end is all one needs to suppose as a sufficient motive. Our evidence of the book’s progress is almost wholly derived from his wife’s diary, and is meagre enough. When he began, Mrs. Kipling recorded that the autobiography was to deal with “his life from the point of view of his work” – an interesting statement of limitation at the outset. Kipling wrote steadily at the book for a fortnight, and then revised what he had done. He took the manuscript with him on a trip to Paris and Marienbad at the end of August, and after his return continued to work on it all through September. On October 1st an instalment of the book was given to Kipling’s secretary to be typed. Work continued in October, and he is reported as “revising” it on the 21st of that month. After continuing to work on the book through November, he broke off on December 2. He then resumed it in mid-month, when he is reported as revising the typescript (December 16). The last day on which he is reported as working on the autobiography is December 26, 1935, four days from his seventieth birthday. On January 18th he died.


When Kipling died, then, he had been at work on Something of Myself for a period of not more than five months and a few days, and with many interruptions during that time. For a writer so fastidious as Kipling, who was more deeply committed to the arts of compression than to those of expansion, a narrative of such length composed in so short a time could be regarded only as, at best, a draft of his intentions. Yet what he left must have been distinct enough to persuade Mrs. Kipling, always fierce in the defence of her husband’s reputation, that it was close enough to what he had meant to do. At any rate, on some unknown date in 1936 she began to prepare Something of Myself for publication. A contract for the book was signed on October 22, 1936. A typed copy of the manuscript was sent to Macmillan, the publisher, on November 26; Mrs. Kipling returned corrected proofs to Macmillan on December 21; and the book was published on February 16, 1937. Before publication, selections totalling about a third of the book ran serially in the Morning Post, the New York Times, the Sydney Mail, and the Civil and Military Gazette of Lahore, in January and February 1937.

The editing by Mrs Kipling

We learn a little about Mrs. Kipling’s editorial practices from two sources: the correspondence, now in the British Library, between Kipling’s agents, the firm of A.P. Watt, and the publisher, Macmillan; and the correspondence between Mrs. Kipling and H.A. Gwynne, the editor of the Morning Post, now in the Stewart Collection at Dalhousie University. Gwynne was an old friend of Kipling’s, and it is evident that Mrs. Kipling relied on him especially in settling many editorial decisions. “No-one,” she wrote to Gwynne on October 20, 1936, “loved him [Kipling] better or longer than you or has a more thorough understanding of him from the literary side.” Gwynne did the work of making the extracts from the MS to be serialized, and in connection with this he had a chance to see and to discuss with Mrs. Kipling the actual text that Kipling had left behind.

From the Watt and Gwynne correspondence we learn that Mrs. Kipling corrected the proofs for the text of both the newspaper serialization and the book; that she supplied many corrections of detail, including some made after publication; that she sometimes altered or cut out passages; and that she selected the illustrations for the book. What we do not learn is the condition and character of the manuscript that she had to work from, nor whether she made any extensive cuts. If the manuscript survives, its whereabouts are unknown. The corrected proofs were returned to Mrs. Kipling, and it is more than likely that she then destroyed them. All that can be safely surmised is that she had the manuscript before her, and one or more typescript versions containing some correction and revision by Kipling himself.

The letters that passsed between Mrs. Kipling and Gwynne in October and November 1936, when she was working with him on the preparation of the text for newspaper serialization, contain some interesting evidence of her editorial practice. One of her guiding principles was to present Kipling in a way to avoid offence and controversy. Thus she writes on November 3, 1936:

On page 5 [of the galley proofs for the Morning Post] I think I would like you to omit the words I have omitted and substitute those I have marked on the margin. I think the thing as it stands is too offensive, if it is not libellous, and I don’t, above all things, want to have that kind of criticism of the Autobiography. I don’t, in fact, want anything that people can ride off and dispute about.

Obviously, this rule would justify much omission; how often Mrs. Kipling may have applied it cannot now be known. Another principle is stated in a letter of November 5, 1936, as she thanks Gwynne for his labor in cutting the text down for the purpose of serialization:

It has been a terrific job for you, and for me something quite intolerable. This thinking back into the past is not an easy matter for me. I want to be wise and I want to remember everything that he said to me about the Autobiography, and I chiefly want to remember what he meant to change in another and later draft.

This, too, since it privileges merely prospective notions about the book – what Kipling might have done – would seem to authorize considerable changes; but, again, if such changes were made, we have no way to recognize them. Whatever was actually done, it is clear that in principle at least Mrs. Kipling in her role as editor did not feel bound to take her husband’s words as she found them.

Mrs. Kipling had long experience of dealing with manuscripts and proofs, and there is every reason to think that in handling the details of copy she did a careful and capable job. She did not, however, appear to make much effort to check the factual details of her husband’s narrative. As a result, the book as published contains a good many mistakes about times, places, and names. Once it had appeared, she began to receive notes of correction from various sources, and these – or some of these, at any rate – she undertook to incorporate into subsequent printings. There is only one edition of Something of Myself, but the differences in detail between the text of the first printing and the text printed in the Outward Bound and Sussex Editions in 1937 and 1938 – the last texts that Mrs. Kipling is likely to have had anything to do with – are quite considerable.

All of the changes that I have detected have been noted in this edition. Some are trivial, such as the correction of Katzikopfs to Katzekopfs (p. 8). Others are more substantial: Kipling’s attribution of a poem to Wordsworth is corrected to Scott (p. 7); and his “friend Captain Bagley” is re-identified as “my friend Captain E.H. Bayly” (p. 148). In one case, Kipling’s account of his meeting with Sir Edward Grey, the passage was found to be so incorrect that most of it was simply omitted in reprinting. It is highly probable that all of these changes in the published text were made only after Mrs. Kipling had seen and approved them. One may add that not every correction that she sent to the publisher was actually made. The statement that Kipling went to Canada in 1906 (p. 197) she corrected to 1907 in a note to the publisher in November 1936; at the same time, she changed Kipling’s reference to the Duke of Northumberland (p. 215) to Earl Percy (MS, Dalhousie University). For some reason neither correction was made, and the mis-statements are to be found in all printings of the book.

An ‘unfinished text’

We can never be sure, when we are speaking of the things “left out” of Something of Myself, whether they were left out by Kipling himself or were quietly omitted by Mrs. Kipling, the editor. Nor, even supposing that an omission in any given instance was Kipling’s, can we be sure that he would not have supplied it in revision. We are dealing with a text at several removes from what may be imagined as its author’s final intention. It had not been finished, though it is arguable that the book belongs to the class of “complete fragments,” of which Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” and Macaulay’s

History of England

are distinguished instances. It had not been revised as Kipling surely would have revised it – that is, not once, but repeatedly and over a long time; and it had to pass through the hands of an editor, an editor who certainly had privileged information, but who had also the handicap of an intense personal interest in the story that Kipling had to tell.

Emphases and omissions

The very structure of the book tells us pretty clearly, however, that Kipling’s main object was to give special prominence to the first half of his life: childhood; India; early success; Vermont; South Africa; Bateman’s – these are the organizing divisions of the narrative, which ranges beyond their limits only incidentally. Within those limits, as has already been said, Kipling (or the published book) omits almost everything in the way of personal crisis after the years of childhood: there is nothing of Flo Garrard, or of Mrs. Hill, of his courtship, of his illnesses and breakdowns, of his quarrels, or the afflicting deaths of friends, parents, children, to speak only of the merely factual omissions. The omission to describe his interior life is even more obvious. Yet the suffering of his childhood in the ‘House of Desolation’, and the labor of his ‘Seven Years’ Hard’ in India are both brought out clearly. These two parts of his life are made more prominent than any other, while the Kipling of the middle and late years hardly exists as a subject in the pages of Something of Myself. Kipling’s self-presentation thus rather oddly confirms the distortion in the popular idea of his life and work: that the more interesting part of both was complete by the turn of the century, more or less. The older Kipling, if not much of his story is told, is nonetheless
present everywhere in the book as a narrative voice, the personality that sees and judges.

Harsh judgements

Some aspects of that personality are distinctly unattractive. It is often querulous, given to saying ill-tempered things about the English (“the inhabitants of that country never looked further than their annual seaside resorts”); or about radical politics (“pernicious varieties of safe sedition”); or about publishers (“one cannot get ahead of gentlemen of sound commercial instincts”). He can be unfairly contemptuous, as he is towards Emily Hobhouse, the self-sacrificing humanitarian, or stubbornly and sweepingly hostile, as he is towards the Irish (“their instincts of secrecy, plunder, and anonymous denunciation”) or the Americans (“frank, brutal decivilisation”). About Americans he had to admit some concessions and qualifications. He had, after all, taken great interest in his life in the United States. At one point he speaks of his more than four years in Vermont as an “unreal life, indoors and out” (p. 131), a perplexing enough judgment, but perhaps indicating Kipling’s recognition that not everything in his American experience could be subsumed under “frank, brutal decivilisation.”

There are other unattractive things evident in Something of Myself that we must take as belonging to the personality expressed in the book. Anti-semitism shows up in Kipling’s remarks about “Israel” and its vocation to “abet disorder”, and there is a distinct lack of charity in such incidental remarks as that on Oscar Wilde – “the suburban Toilet-Club school favoured by the late Mr. Oscar Wilde” (p. 219: and what does “Toilet-Club” mean?). Frequently Kipling writes as though the world were largely made up of knaves. An exemplary instance is his account of the turn-about that the Civil and Military Gazette made over the Ilbert Bill when Kipling was a very young and, he says, a very naive newspaperman. After strongly opposing the Bill for a time, the CMG changes its tune. Kipling wants to know why, but is put off with “none of your dam’ business.” When he goes that night to the Club, he is, to his bewildered astonishment, hissed by everyone at the table: “Your dam’ rag has ratted over the Bill.” Then, he says, he put two and two together: his proprietors had sold out for a price. “A few months later one of my two chief proprietors received the decoration that made him a Knight.” And others were being paid for their betrayal too: “certain smooth Civilians” who had “seen good in the Government measure” were somehow “shifted out of the heat to billets in Simla” (p. 51).

It is impossible now to know anything about the “smooth Civilians,” but Kipling’s insinuation about his proprietors is false. James Walker and George Allen, the two chief proprietors, did in fact receive knighthoods, but not until long after the affair of the Ilbert Bill in 1883 (Allen was knighted in 1897; Walker in 1903). Kipling must have known that neither Allen nor Walker had been knighted during his Indian years. He must also have known that the Ilbert Bill, as finally passed, had been gutted: the provision that had raised all the fuss among the English in India in the first place was given up, after which there was nothing to object to. But Kipling says nothing of this. He chooses instead to tell the story of the Ilbert Bill affair in such a way as to make one of his proprietors, at least, seem certainly to have bargained for honors at the cost of his principles. Since Kipling’s re-arrangement of the facts has the effect of “revealing” a conspiracy, it must have satisfied a grim and somewhat perverse wish on his part to discover such things. This is not, perhaps, surprising in a man writing at the end of a life that had been devoted to so many causes by then defeated or discredited, but it is not attractive.

In matters merely personal he shows a comparable tendency to prefer to see conspiracy or active malice at work when things go wrong, rather than accident, or incompetence, or any of the abundant other reasons for disappointment in an imperfect world. So, in the comic episode of The Times and its publishing the bogus Kipling poem called “The Old Volunteer”, Kipling is unable to take it as the sort of innocent prank that literary jokesters are always trying to pull off: to put over a fake in the name of a famous author on the editors of a prestigious paper. It is hard to see that any more insidious motive was at work behind “The Old Volunteer”. Yet Kipling is determined to see it as a work of malice, and, moreover, of Jewish malice: so he combines paranoia with anti-Semitism in this instance.

Reticence and concealment

These signs of hostility and mistrust are expressed in another way: his combative defensiveness of his private life. His private life was emphatically his private life, not to be known by or shared in by anyone who had not been invited. This is certainly a reasonable and dignified position. But any effort to step over the line that he drew around himself always provoked a furious agitation and deep distress in Kipling, as though not an indecorum merely but a real aggression were threatened against him. His outburst against the reporters of Boston, briefly alluded to on p. 113, is an instance: and that goes back to the very early days of his fame. It is not to be expected that in writing an autobiography – even one restricted, as the sub-title says, to “My Friends Known and Unknown” – he could overcome something so deeply laid in his character.

Indeed, a part of the method of Something of Myself is not just concealment and omission but repeated reminders to the reader that only certain kinds of things are to be talked of. The notification begins with the title – only Something of myself is in question. [According to Lord Birkenhead, the title was given to the book by Lord Webb Johnson after Kipling’s death; Birkenhead also states that Webb Johnson “edited” the book (Rudyard Kipling, New York, 1978, p. 353). I have no evidence on these points beyond Birkenhead’s statement.] This insistence on concealment and omission is continued in most of the chapter titles: not his domestic life but “The Very-Own House”; not the inner history of his books, but “Working-Tools.” The most striking and oblique of these titles are “The Interregnum” and “The Committee of Ways and Means.” The first of these covers the little more than two years between Kipling’s return to England at the end of 1889 and his marriage at the beginning of 1892. These were the years of exciting and rapid fulfilment, when all the energies and abilities laboriously developed during the Seven Years’ Hard in India were suddenly released on an international public. Most men, in looking back on such a period and trying to find a name for it, would surely invent something positive. Not Kipling; it was merely an “interregnum.” But between whose reigns? That of Caroline, his wife, at one end, clearly enough; but whose was the first? his mother’s? Mrs. Hill’s? his Indian employers’? However we answer that question, we are left with Kipling’s judgment that the brilliant years of his first fame were not a fruition, or a harvest, or a conquest, but only a time without a ruler and without a dynastic name.

An even more extravagant reduction and concealment of things is accomplished by the phrase “The Committee of Ways and Means.” This, it develops, is Kipling’s image for his marriage, and it arises from the young husband and wife’s coping with their experience on honeymoon in Japan, when their bank fails and they are left stranded and nearly penniless in a far country. As a metaphor for marriage in its sense of a partnership against the world, it is by no means a bad one. But what a message of invincible reticence Kipling sends to his readers in such a figure!

Descriptive mastery

One can hardly overlook the distortions, the reticences, the bad tempered parts of Something of Myself, since they lie so obviously in the way of the reader. They have their value as contributing to the portrait of Kipling, but they are not what make the book worth reading. It is time now to turn to some of the things that do. One of the first is the descriptive mastery that was always Kipling’s and is found in this, his last work, in fully matured form. Scenes, gestures, impressions are rendered in a way that combines the utmost vividness with the utmost economy; the book is so rich in moments of this sort that one can choose only by a sortes kiplingianae. Open the book to p. 102, and there discover General Booth of the Salvation Army, glimpsed on the pier of the remotest southern port of New Zealand:

I saw him walking backward in the dusk over the uneven wharf, his cloak blown upwards, tulip-fashion, over his grey head, while he beat a tambourine in the face of the singing, weeping, praying crowd who had come to see him off.

Open again to p. 159, to the description of the wide country north of Bloemfontein, in the Orange Free State, where Kipling saw, for the first and only time, a live battle take place, in “a vacant world full of sunshine and distances, where now and again a single bullet sang to himself.”

Then to the left, almost under us, a small piece of hanging woodland filled and fumed with our shrapnel much as a man’s moustache fills with cigarette-smoke. It was most impressive and lasted for quite twenty minutes. Then silence; then a movement of men and horses from our side up the slope, and the hangar our guns had been hammering spat steady fire at them. More Boer ponies on more skylines; a last flurry of pom-poms on the right and a little frieze of far-off meek-tailed ponies, already out of rifle range.

The selection and ordering of detail, and its transformation by a variety of surprising images, all work to create a richly complex vignette with what seems, deceptively, the most casual, impressionistic ease. Open to p. 201, and there find Kipling at the other end of the world, in Stockholm, to receive the Nobel Prize; the Swedish king had died while Kipling and his wife were on their way to Stockholm, and they arrived to find the court in mourning:

Winter darkness in those latitudes falls at three o’clock, and it was snowing. One half of the vast acreage of the Palace sat in darkness, for there lay the dead King’s body. We were conveyed along interminable corridors looking out into black quadrangles, where snow whitened the cloaks of the sentries, the breeches of old-time cannon, and the shot-piles alongside of them. Presently, we reached a living world of more corridors and suites all lighted up, but wrapped in that Court hush which is like no other silence on earth.

Unsympathetic readers may perhaps jib at the last phrase, seeing in it something of Kipling’s notorious “knowingness,” but it is not out of place from a man whose fame has doubtless taken him into more than one palace and who is about to receive the Nobel Prize; and even if it were, it would be only a small deduction from a passage so controlled and yet so brilliant.

Each of the passages that I have just quoted renders something seen in a different part of the world. They point to another of Kipling’s outstanding qualities, fully at work in Something of Myself the quick and sympathetic perception of local life. His move to Sussex in 1902, for example, showed how he could respond to novelty. Sussex opened up an English world he had not known before, and, as Something of Myself shows, he studied its types with affectionate curiosity: the poacher “by heredity and instinct”, and his wife, who would “range through a past that accepted magic, witchcraft and love-philtres”; the “smuggling, sheep-stealing stock” who lived in the village, and who were, most of them, “artists and craftsmen, either in stone or timber, or wood-cutting, or drainlaying or – which is a gift – the aesthetic disposition of dirt.”

He had been equally quick, earlier, to take the feel and flavor of his neighbors in Vermont, who lived in a country whose roads were “sketched in dirt” and whose farm houses were, often, “reduced to a stone-chimney stack or mere green dimples still held by an undefeated lilac-bush.” His view of decaying rural New England mingled clear judgment and sympathy:

It would be hard to exaggerate the loneliness and sterility of life on the farms. . . . What might have become characters, powers and attributes perverted themselves in that desolation as cankered trees throw out branches akimbo, and strange faiths and cruelties, born of solitude to the edge of insanity, flourished like lichen on sick bark. (p. 117)

One can only regret that Kipling never ventured to write those stories about New England that he once hoped to do.

Past and present

One of the strongest and most impressive elements in Kipling’s view of life, wherever he found it, was his sense of how the present is bound up with the past. Sometimes this is based on obvious mementos, as in Lahore, where

The dead of all times were about us – in the vast forgotten Moslem cemeteries round the Station, where one’s horse’s hoof of a morning might break through to the corpse below; skulls and bones tumbled out of our mud garden walls, and were turned up among the flowers by the Rains. (p. 42)

Sometimes the perception is more fanciful, as when he writes of the Sussex workmen who came to dig a well for him that they were “two dark and mysterious Primitives” who had come “out of the woods that know everything and tell nothing.” At its best, this perception of the past in the present, and of the present in the past, raises scenes and characters in Something of Myself to a new level of seriousness and dignity without falsification. In describing a story that he wrote for Puck of Pook’s Hill but later discarded, Kipling suggests how past and present mingled for him:

I went off at score – not on Parnesius, but a story told in a fog by a petty Baltic pirate, who had brought his galley to Pevensey and, off Beachy Head – where in the War we heard merchant-ships being torpedoed – had passed the Roman fleet abandoning Britain to her doom. (p. 187)

The imagined Baltic pirate reminds us that the Roman retreat from Britain opened the way for the German invasions that followed, just as the allusions to merchant ships being torpedoed remind us that the Germans had only yesterday been repelled from those same shores: scenes 1,500 years apart become versions of each other.

It is appropriate that Kipling devotes by far the most extended discussion of his literary work in Something of Myself to the two collections of stories about the English past, Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies. In these, despite the fact that they are historical fictions, his most personal experience is to be found. The stories belong, many of them, to the small patch of England that he had elected to live in; they are told to his own children, who, he hoped, would inherit not only the place that he had made for them but the special understanding and sympathy that he had for it. A number of them are stories of artists of different kinds and hence fables of his own experience, and they express the living connection between past and present that is, I think, at one of the deepest levels of his imagination.


In his presentation of himself as an artist, Kipling does not talk about the imagination. He emphasizes instead the element of craftsmanship, and the link between the artist in literature and the artist in all sorts of crafts: stone cutters, masons (he was, we remember, a reverent Mason from an early time), hedgers and ditchers, horsedealers, ship captains, soldiers, and anything else demanding a secure knowledge of how to do something. He did this not in any spirit of self-deprecation but out of a real pride in the sense of craft and commitment. The line he drew between those who were the real thing and those who only played at it was unyielding: as he wrote of his hard-earned status as a newspaperman in India, “the difference … between me and the vulgar herd who `write for papers’ was, as I saw it, the gulf that divides the beneficed clergyman from ladies and gentlemen who contribute pumpkins and dahlias to Harvest Festival decorations” (p. 69). Like a good craftsman, he paid special attention to his materials: “I made my own experiments in the weights, colours, perfumes, and attributes of words in relation to other words, either as read aloud so that they may hold the ear, or, scattered over the page, draw the eye”. (p. 72)

His ‘Daemon’

At another level, Kipling chose to speak of himself as the servant of a “Daemon” in his art: the Daemon was something apart from him, a “not-self” who used Kipling as the channel of an invention and expression that Kipling himself was powerless to account for. This is the ancient Socratic notion of the artist, who may be the instrument of power but who is without knowledge. Kipling would not have objected to the somewhat condescending view of the artist that the idea implies. He appears to have been unaffectedly modest in the face of his gifts at the same time that he was genuinely proud of his participation in a craft. The two attitudes are not contradictory but complementary. In Kipling’s’s late story, “Proofs of Holy Writ”, Shakespeare, preparing to translate Isaiah for the King James Version of the Bible, announces that “I wait on my Demon!” But he is shown throughout the story as a shrewd master of his craft.

Kipling the artist and Fra Lippo Lippi

We come closest to Kipling’s intimate idea of himself as an artist, I think, in his identification of himself with Browning’s Fra Lippo Lippi, an association that runs like a leitmotif through the earlier part of Something of Myself. If Kipling could not say, as Fra Lippo does, “I was a baby when my mother died / And father died and left me in the street”, his case was close enough; and in Mrs. Holloway he had an equivalent to “Old Aunt Lapaccia”, under whose hard tutelage Fra Lippo learned to read the signs of the world:

Why, soul and sense of him grow sharp alike,
He learns the look of things and none the less
For admonition.

At school Kipling discovered the Browning of Men and Women, the collection in which “Fra Lippo Lippi” first appeared; and in describing the experience of that discovery at the end of his life in Something of Myself, he again claims kinship with Fra Lippo Lippi: “a not too remote – I dare to think – ancestor of mine” (p. 34). The opening lines of the poem stand at the head of the third chapter of Something of Myself, the “Seven Years’ Hard” of the Indian experience. The scene in Browning’s poem is of the discovery by the town guard of the unclerical Fra Lippo returning to the Medici Palace late at night after a revel in the city:

I am poor Brother Lippo by your leave.
You need not clap your torches to my face.

Kipling did not have to explain himself for his unseemly conduct, but, like Fra Lippo, he wants to explain the hard conditions of his apprenticeship and to justify his art by an appeal to his experience. The apologia of the priest would be a parallel to that of the journalist.

It is remarkable that Kipling identifies himself in each of the three formative phases of his life – childhood, school years, and Indian apprenticeship – with Fra Lippo. And so, when he has proven his abilities in India and has the pages of The Week’s News opened to him without restriction, he describes his response in the boast of Fra Lippo:

‘Twas ask and have,
Choose, for more’s ready!

Fra Lippo, as Browning presents him, was the founder of artistic realism, intent on portraying the world and the flesh and the devil in all their variety and color, to the scandal of his churchly employers: “give us no more of body than shows soul”, they say. But Fra Lippo cannot be restrained from painting all that he sees, not out of a wish to scandalize but from a conviction of the good of the world: “it means intensely and means good” is his defence of whatever it may be that he renders. It is doubtful that Kipling, even the young Kipling, would have given an unqualified ‘Yes’ to the peculiarly optimistic tenets of Fra Lippo’s realism. But he shared many of the assumptions that lay beneath the dominant realistic practice of the high Victorian age. And he quotes with approval, in Something of Myself, the aesthetic credo of “Fra Lippo Lippi”:

If you get simple beauty and naught else,
You get about the best thing God invents.

It is in the figure of the artist especially, rather than in the idea of art, that Kipling saw his closest relation to Fra Lippo: both were keen observers, sharpened by personal suffering; both delighted in the variety of the world; both were exhilarated by the act of offending against official notions of decorum; both took the most intense pleasure in the exercise of their art; both knew they possessed a talent far beyond the ordinary, and that it should not lie buried. Kipling could hardly have put it more modestly when he hoped to be recognized as among the remote kindred of Fra Lippo Lippi: he was close kin – and from the upper branch of the family.

Playing the cards that were dealt by Fate

Kipling’s subject in Something of Myself was his “working life” only. What idea did he have of that as a whole? The only explicit venture that he makes towards answering this question is curiously passive. “It seems to me”, he announces in the opening sentence, “that every card in my working life has been dealt me in such a manner that I had but to play it as it came” (p. 1). His part, then, was only to know the rules of the game being played; and if he had good cards, then that was to be ascribed, with tranquil piety, to “Allah the Dispenser of Events”.

Games, and the idea of playing, are, in fact, quite prominent among the figures that run through Kipling’s work. The polo match in “The Maltese Cat” is a perfectly serious version of working life; the manoeuverings between boys and masters in Stalky & Co. make up an elaborate game; the picaresque experiences of Kim are all an apprenticeship that will qualify him to take part in the game of Imperial politics – the “great game.” One could name many other such versions of game-playing to be found in the stories and poems. Card-playing, however, is not very frequent, nor does it provide for Kipling the sort of game that can be elaborated into a figure of the moral life. That he should choose it to represent his own working life is no doubt a determined understatement, intended to make clear at once that there was to be no boasting, no self-congratulation, in his version of his own accomplishments. In this respect, it fits readily with Kipling’s dependence upon his Daemon, who, like good luck in a card game, cannot be compelled but only waited for. The figure of the cards recurs in Something of Myself, but it is not really insisted upon. His years of obscure toil in the provincial remoteness of the Punjab were evidence, Kipling says, of “how discreetly the cards were being dealt me” (p. 68): only thus, he thinks, could he have learned his trade with so little risk of being hurt or spoiled. When fame does come, he is already used to the game: “I took, as a matter of course, the fantastic cards that Fate was pleased to deal me” (p. 77).

Kipling’s final use of the figure occurs after he describes how he discovered the rich layers of history that surrounded him in Sussex. Evidences of Phoenicians, Romans, Armada times, ghosts, shadows, and all the “Old things of our Valley” converged to produce the stories of Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies: “You see how patiently the cards were stacked and dealt into my hands?” (p. I86).

The mild notion of “fate” implicit in the card-playing figure is perhaps no more than would arise from any perception of pattern in one’s life: the pattern is not so much created by one’s efforts as discovered afterwards. The idea is given a new twist in a passage towards the end of the book, when Kipling makes a rare excursion into his dream life. He has been writing, disapprovingly, of the temptation to dive after “psychical experiences”, and then, in spite of his disapproval, offers one of his own, a dream about his being at some inexplicable ceremony and of someone’s coming to speak to him. Six weeks later, in actuality, Kipling finds himself at a ceremony in Westminster Abbey to honor the war dead, and there recognizes the images of his dream made real. “But how, and why, had I been shown an unreleased roll of my life-film?” (p. 217).

How seriously should we take that metaphor? Are our lives already on film? Are they scenarios already written, cast, acted out, and stored? Life, then, is solely and simply the process of developing the images already laid up in the film? Kipling, of course, affirms nothing; yet his choosing to tell this story at all is strongly suggestive. He touches lightly on the mysteries of perception in a few other places in Something of Myself, as when, early in the book, he wonders how he could have associated the name “Cumnor” with “sorrow and darkness and a raven that `flapped its wings” without knowing the poem that expressed these things (p. 9):

But how and where I first heard the lines that cast the shadow is beyond me – unless it be that the brain holds everything that passes within reach of the senses, and it is only ourselves who do not know this.

The thought is not pursued. Kipling’s attraction towards the “occult”, to the imaginative persuasion that we are surrounded by mystery and that the overwhelming truth of one’s life is already determined but hidden, to be revealed only in tantalizing glimpses, is written out in so many forms and in so many stories that it would be impossible even to enumerate the evidence here. In T.S. Eliot’s words, “Kipling knew something of the things which are underneath, and of the things which are beyond the frontier.” I make the point only to draw attention to what might be called the final reticence in Something of Myself, Kipling’s unwillingness to acknowledge and to develop for his “friends known and unknown” what must have been the chief form of religious experience that he knew. Without the evidence of his other work, such hints and light breaths of suggestion as occur in Something of Myself would certainly not seem to ask to be taken seriously.

Autobiography as truth

Biographers can, no doubt, go wrong in their work: they can be kept in ignorance of essential facts; they can get the emphasis wrong; they can misread, misinterpret, misjudge. It is arguable, however, that no autobiographer can go wrong: every mistake, distortion, suppression, or invention has its expressive value and contributes to the self-definition of the autobiographer. The truth of autobiography is whatever the subject chooses to tell, and if he tells much that did not happen and does not tell much that did, we are not therefore misinformed. To get the full expressiveness of this indirect sort of revelation, however, it is obviously necessary to know something of what did or did not happen and might or might not have been put in. Since we have at least some such knowledge about Kipling, his autobiography has both direct and indirect evidence for the reconstruction of the man in the mind of the reader. It is also the work of a master of his craft.