Kipling & Trix - The Brown Book's Review


Mary Hamer's first novel shows us an unfamiliar Rudyard Kipling. Writing and politics, even India, are not the theme. The novel, while based on detailed historical research, sets out to make emotional sense of the lives of Kipling and his younger sister Trix - both writers although not equally successful, both troubled by the lasting effects of childhood experiences.

In 1871 Rudyard, almost six, and Trix, three, were shipped without explanation from their home in Bombay, to lodge with a family in Southsea for five years. Arrangements like this were not unknown and not always disastrous. But Rudyard Kipling felt condemned to exile in the 'House of Desolation' where the sense of loss of all he had known in India. coupled with the betrayal he felt, were to leave indelible marks. For his younger sister, accommodation was easier and memories less vivid. But in her acceptance, she was made to feel that she too was betraying her brother. These conflicts left her emotionally fragile. Neither Rudyard nor Trix ever found 'fitting in' easy. Lack of confidence in their abilities and pervasive uncertainty about themselves as individuals affected them throughout their lives. 

Mary Hamer's imaginative novel draws the unfolding scenes of Rudyard's and Trix's lives in an intimate, domestic and conversational style and shows us with delicacy and understatement how their early experiences were to play out. Trix, emotionally withdrawn and unstable, is trapped in a life she detests and escapes from an unwelcome marriage into flirtation with the paranormal. Rudyard is successful as a writer but doesn't always find a comfortable 'fit' with men of affairs, where the volatility of his political enthusiasms is suspect. He depends increasingly on his wife, Carrie, for stability and a clear moral compass. Trix and he share a love of writing and youthful memories, but there is ambivalence and confusion there too. 

For Rudyard, as Carrie says after his death, 'Loss is the word that really applies' . The deaths of his daughter, Jo, and much later of his son Jack in the Great War, scarred his adult life but the first great loss, of everything he had known in childhood - and of trust - pervaded everything. Rudyard at his mother's deathbed asks, 'Was she asking him to say that he'd never suffered left behind in Southsea? That he forgave her? He froze'. 

'Kipling and Trix' follows historical fact very closely but is wonderfully unburdened by too much detail or exposition. Empire, war and politics are the backdrop but not the subject. Kipling's writing is allowed to speak for itself through selective and sparse quotation. Physical settings are sketched delicately and evocatively so that a sense of place is conjured in a few words - (of South Africa) - 'An undercurrent of woodsmoke in the air, a bright edge to the morning. .. Weaverbirds were building in that mango tree'. 

This is immersive storytelling with a real lightness of touch, so that we are drawn with a sense of intimacy into the conversations and thoughts of the characters. The shifts of time and place and the inner narrative of emotion produce a surprising sense of dramatic movement and shape,so that we could indeed be watching the scenes of a play. 

There is a charming tailpiece: Trix, outliving Rudyard Kipling by many years, attends a meeting of the Kipling Society as the guest of honour, interrupting the speaker: "Oh, but forgive me, I think that's not quite correct' - with her own recollections of her brother: she the more fragile of the two, but the survivor. 

Christine Lehman (Soret 1963 English)