Kipling & Trix - The Kipling Journal Review


Mary Hamer's novel about the lives of Rudyard Kipling and his sister Alice, 'Trix' to her family, is intelligent, vividly imagined and a real page-turner. I started it at about 8 pm and was so gripped that I went on, until at 3 am I reached Carrie Kipling's tight-lipped grief at the ceremony of interring Rud's ashes in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey. 

This narrative magnetism is perhaps surprising in a novel dealing with such a well-known life history. Like most Kipling Journal readers, I knew the main events of Rudyard Kipling's life from biographies (which also mention his sister), and Kipling's own Something of Myself (which doesn't), and thought I would already know the story. Yet despite the familiar narrative signposts - paradisal Bombay, the traumatic childhood exile and abuse in Southsea, Trix's marriage to Jack Fleming and her subsequent psychotic breakdowns, Rudyard's marriage to Carrie Balestier, and the births and deaths of their children - this story at once recognizable and new. Its freshness comes partly from Mary Hamer's sensitive deployment of Kipling's own words (the chapter-headings are all Kipling quotes), and from much new material about Trix's novels and her friendships with the Maud Diver, William de Morgan, and Sir Oliver Lodge of the Society for Psychical Research, but more from the skill with which the Kiplings' story is told from unfamiliar angles. Whereas a biographer, bound to fact, must rely on letters, memoirs or independent witnesses, all potentially unreliable sources needing to be weighed and assessed, or else resort to speculation ( 'X must have wanted/ feared/ felt...') , a novelist enjoys the privilege of narrative insight and can use whatever point of view she chooses.

Mary Hamer relates Rudyard's and Trix's childhood and adolescence by means of an omniscient narrator who like George Eliot in The Mill on the Floss, stays close to the children's feelings. When they reach adulthood, the narrative moves between several viewpoints. Trix's life is sometimes seen from her own point of view, but during her courtship by Jack Fleming whom she doesn't want but can't resist, and her later breakdowns when she was looked after in her parents' Wiltshire home, the centre of narrative consciousness becomes her sympathetic but puzzled father Lockwood Kipling. Conversely, the adult Rudyard is mainly presented as he appears to his wife Carrie who turns out, unusually, to be the heroine of the Kipling story. If the novel had a villain, it would be Kipling's snobbishly conventional, racist mother who bosses her family through the strength of weakness (nobody wants to risk upsetting Mrs Kipling) and who, after exiling her children to England , fails to understand them as adults. Yet even she is presented with some sympathy as a mother plagued by guilt and insecurity about having left her children in the care of Inidan servants. 

Conversely, Carrie Kipling née Balestier is shown as a person of love, insight and grit who understands her Rud very well, inwardly dissents as a democratic American and loving wife from her husband's furious preoccupation with the South African war and his crush on Cecil Rhodes, and creates with him a steadfast, lifelong mutual love, which though not perfect is deeply sustaining to both and enables Rud's creativity. The story of this happy if flawed partnership (nothing, Carrie acknowledges to herself, was ever quite the same after their daughter Josephine's death), is finely contrasted with Trix's disastrous marriage to the anti-intellectual Jack Fleming, which gives no pleasure to either party, stifles her talents and helps to drive her mad.

Brother and the sister are shown as equally gifted: everything Trix does, she does brilliantly, but she achieves little compared with her brother thanks to discouragement compounded by her own vulnerability. In the chapter about the children's Southsea exile 'How Fear Came', we see Trix becoming the horrible Aunt Sarah's favourite, escaping persecution but learning terror and confusion from her foster's mother's bullying of Ruddy and hellfire diatribes. Her life becomes a series of brilliant promises, all blighted: when her school suggests she might try for Girton College she knows her mother wouldn't tolerate a bluestocking daughter; her parodies in Echoes are easily as good as Rudyard's but her mother doesn't want them published; after two good novels the Fleming family she marries into puts a stop her to her writing; and the gift for the paranormal which she shares with her mother leads to mental illness in the powerful, harrowing scene where Josephine's death, foreseen by a terrified crystal-gazing Trix, triggers her first psychotic breakdown. Yet Trix proves a survivor who eventually recovers, outlives her uncongenial husband, and in a charming 'Epilogue' appears at Edinburgh Zoo speaking Hindustani to the elephant.

Professor Jan Montefiore, Kent University