Winston Churchill once described ‘If’ (1895) by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), as his ‘spiritual autobiography’, which eloquently embodies the impact of Kipling’s writing upon both the individual and the collective. Kipling’s works have become part of British culture and heritage, still resonating with many today and often quoted by many in motivational speeches and remembrance services.
The acclaim that Kipling received in his lifetime, with texts such as The Jungle Book (1894), Kim (1901), The Man Who Would Be King (1888), and his various poetry, found its origins from Kipling’s own life and interests. Born in Bombay (now called Mumbai), in 1865, to a teacher and artist, Kipling had an infinity with India and its vibrant heritage, however at just six years old, he was sent to live with a foster family in Southsea so that he could attend boarding school, at his mother’s wish. In his isolation, Kipling escaped his loneliness in his imagination, creating stories and plays. It is possible that in his childhood imagination Kipling envisioned talking animals and anthropomorphic figures, much like the ones he wrote about in The Jungle Book and other works of his adult career.
Upon his return to India in 1882, Kipling worked as a journalist in Lahore, and only wrote fiction in his spare time, mainly at night. He suffered from insomnia and would often walk the streets in the early hours of the morning, witnessing street vendors set up for the day ahead. This experience immersed Kipling into the diverse Indian culture. Consequently, with India being part of The British Empire from 1858-1947, Kipling experienced two very different worlds: the wealthy but oppressive elitist society of The British Raj, and the native, more natural and heterogeneous Indian night-time culture. This amalgamation of different cultures, created a relationship between both countries for Kipling and other authors alike, that still to this day, is intrinsically connected. Despite the political, military, and social oppression enforced in India under The British Raj, texts, such as E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India and Frances Hodgeson Burnet’s A Little Princess, have become contemporary symbols of the Anglo-Indian relationship, a major part of our joint cultural identity and history and pieces of reflection.
Most famously, and controversially for many contemporary Indian post-colonialists, is Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Becoming one of the most recognisable texts in international literature from the period, the story of Mowgli, a young boy, and his animal friends has come to eclipse Kipling’s entire career. However, later in Kipling’s career was written some of his most provoking works, including ‘My Boy Jack’ (1915). During the First World War (1914-1918), John, Kipling’s son and inspiration for ‘If’, was killed in battle, and, thus, his death sent Kipling into a hazy depression. The series of poems that were published after the loss of his son embraced the sombre mood of the times, capturing the feeling of people. Despite his ill-health and heartbreak, Kipling continued to be a key figure of intellect and admiration, continuing his writing and, even, in 1922 he became Rector at The University of St Andrews for three years.
Buried next to Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy in Westminster Abbey in 1936, Kipling’s works have impacted so many people, from Churchill to George Orwell. The recognition he receives and the continual use of his works by many serves as a testament to his genius and unique imagination.