Homme Sérieux

Kipling should be a fascinating subject for literary history. He was enormously gifted and successful, the child of a modest, nonconformist Anglo-Scot family that, besides producing him, also produced his cousin, the conservative prime minister Stanley Baldwin. One of his aunts married Edward Burne-Jones; another married Sir James Baldwin, chairman of the Great Western Railway, and a third married E.J. Poynter, a distinguished Victorian artist who became director of the National Gallery and president of the Royal Academy. Swinburne and the Rossettis were at Kipling's parents' wedding reception. What social quirk could have caused this run of family successes? Kipling himself became the first really important English writer to work in a context wider than that provided by England itself He was born in India, where he spent his first two years; grew up in England, and then began his career by returning to India; went back to England, married an American, and lived in America; finally returned to England again, and ended life as a Sussex man. The result, as T.S. Eliot said, was "a peculiar detachment and remoteness from all environment," the source of the strange, sometimes visionary objectivity of his best writing. And of course Kipling wrote at a fascinating time in English history, the decades of imperial self-consciousness to which he was laureate, critic, and analyst.

None of this interests Martin Seymour-Smith...

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