Grief and grievance
THE HATED WIFE: CARRIE KIPLING 1862-1939 by Adam Nicolson Short Books, £4.99, pp. 94, ISBN 0571208355 Poor Carrie Kipling has not been kindly treated by posterity. Bossy, possessive, critical and self-pitying, her character is not an attractive one, but it seems a little harsh of Adam Nicolson to call his pocket biography The Hated Wife, or for the blurb to claim, 'Carrie Kipling was one of the most loathed women of her generation.' It is true that the Kiplings' marriage, which lasted for more than 40 years, was, for the most part, not a very jolly affair. Initially attracted to the American Balestier family by the allure of her charismatic brother Wolcott, whose 'quivering, mercurial presence' was to enchant even such worldly observers as Henry James, the young Kipling married Carrie on the rebound after Wolcott's sudden and unexpected
death. Henry James, who gave the bride away in All Saints, Langham Place, in front of a congregation of the half dozen friends who had not succumbed to a virulent flu epidemic, described it with some justice as `a dreary little wedding'. He also gave a surprisingly sympathetic picture of the bride — `poor little concentrated, passionate Carrie, remarkable in her force, acuteness, capacity and courage'. They were qualities which were to be terribly tested and ultimately broken and perverted by the hammer blows of tragedy which were to distort her married life.
Much has been written about Kipling's repressed anguish at the death of his much loved daughter, Josephine, at the age of six, and of his only son John, who was lost at the battle of Loos when barely 18. Carrie's share of the suffering is sometimes forgotten. It was she who had to dash to and fro across New York between the sick-beds of her husband and daughter, watching as the child died, then having at first to conceal the truth which might have killed her husband. Visitors at the time described her as 'so splendidly restrained and self-controlled, but vibrating with sensitiveness and bodily worn out'. Similarly, she bore with stoicism the long-drawn-out and ultimately abortive search for John, missing but not seen to have been killed, through months of false dawns followed by black despair. Her personality might have turned out very differently had her life been a happier one. As it was, she soon relapsed into self-pity and her diary is full of a sense of grievance. 'I grind at cutting out for the children' ... 'I grind at accounts', or, describing a distinctly unfestive Christmas with her mother-inlaw, `Grub on in vain attempts to cheer or divert Mrs Kipling, but only solid gloom rewards us.' This glum atmosphere at home drove Kipling to travel or visit friends alone, returning to try to rescue Carrie from the grip of depression by ill-timed displays of jocularity which she must have found infuriating.
There is no doubt that her efficiency and grasp of practical matters, particularly in the early years, freed Kipling from the problems of daily life and facilitated much of his best work, but her extreme possessiveness was eventually to drive them apart. She wanted to read all his letters, and the Nobel laureate had to sneak down to the village post-box like a naughty schoolboy if be wanted to communicate in confidence with a friend. The late Lord Howard de Walden told me that when he was a boy the Kiplings came to stay. He was with Carrie in the drawing-room when she caught sight of her host and husband deep in conversation walking across the lawn. With a sharp tut of annoyance, she barged through the French windows and pushed between them, grabbing an arm of each and making all further personal conversation impossible.
It is unlikely that Kipling ever hated Carrie — they had been through so much together — but towards the end of his life he obviously found her impossible, saying sadly in his last days, 'A train has to stop at some station or other; I only wish it wasn't such an ugly and lonesome place.'
Adam Nicolson's picture of this complicated woman is succinct, perceptive and scrupulously fair. In less than 100 pages, he gives us a new perspective — Kipling seen from across the breakfast table by his difficult, managing, unimaginative wife. Although she saw herself as the guardian of genius, she was in fact deeply selfcentred. She was hopeless with servants, being bossy, interfering and suspicious, and cooks, maids and gardeners left Bateman in droves, their passing characteristically noted in Carrie's diary: 'No sign of grati
tude' `a case of great ingratitude after much forbearance and great tolerance'.
Yet, with all her shortcomings, without her surely Kipling's life would have been the poorer. She gave him in Josephine the deepest and most enduring love of his life, far more profound than any emotion found in his marriage. She managed all his business affairs and the day-to-day minutiae of his life. As he once said to Lady Milner, 'Even if I wanted to run away from Carrie I couldn't do it, because she would have to look out the train and book the ticket.' In taking all this upon herself she set her husand free to write. Without Carrie, tiresome as she was, there might have been no Jungle Books, no Just So Stories, no Kim.