Reading Group Guide: Kipling & Trix

Winner of the Virginia Prize for Fiction

Although based closely on historical fact, Kipling and Trix is a tour-de-force of imaginative fiction as well as a lyrically written, if often harrowing, tale of surprising passion.
— Huffington Post



As small children, Rudyard Kipling and his younger sister Trix lived an enchanted life in India playing with their beloved servants in a garden full of flowers. Their innocent happiness came to an abrupt end when they were dropped off in England to live with a foster-mother who tried to break their spirit with threats and tales of Hell-fire. 

Both brother and sister grew up to become writers, although one lived in the shadow of the other's genius. Rudyard Kipling's incredible fame is known to many and his poetry has been read by millions but what about the disasters of his private life? And who even knew he had a sister? Let alone one who practised as a famous medium under a false name. For the story of Trix, full of love and lies, became a distressing family secret that was hidden from the world... 

Mary Hamer has uncovered the hidden life of Trix Kipling. In this fictionalised
account the author goes to the heart of the relationship between a difficult brother and his troubled sister exploring how their early lives shaped the very different people they grew up to be.


Questions for book groups

1. Were you surprised to learn that small children used to be sent back to England, away from their parents, in the days of the Empire? How do you think that experience would affect most children? What would make it better for them? What do you think was the effect on their parents? How difficult would it have been to make this decision? To be sure you were leaving them in safe hands? Are any parents still handing over their children to strangers today? 

2. Though brother and sister shared this experience, according to Kipling & Trix it had very different effects on them. Why do you think this was? Why didn't Mrs. Holloway treat them the same? Do you believe that there's still a difference between the way we treat boys and girls today? How would you describe the lasting consequences for Rudyard? Could you understand why Trix seemed to cling to Mrs. Holloway at times, even after she was no longer under her care? 

3. What do you think were Trix's strengths? How did vulnerability reveal itself in Rud? Would you say Trix's life had a happy ending? What do you think of her decision to take up spiritualism? Did it do her more good than harm or the reverse? Both pacifist and militaristic views are expressed by characters in the novel: which do you find more convincing, Trix and Aunt Georgie or Rudyard? 

4. Kipling & Trix is a piece of 'faction': that is, it is closely modelled on historical research but it takes the form of fiction. Did that bother you? Make you irritated with made-up dialogue? Or did you feel it brought the characters and situations to life? Did you feel you got under the skin of these historical personages? Understood what was driving them? Saw them—Cecil Rhodes for instance—from new angles? Have you learned anything more about the Boer War and British history in general by reading this novel? 

5. Could you trust the novelist and her researches, so that you believed she had evidence for what she made the characters say? Were there other gains from her decision to use fiction? Did you find it more approachable than a straight biography? Has it changed your ideas about Kipling in any way? How did you feel about the view of him offered by Carrie, Rudyard's wife? Why do you think the writer made her so prominent? 

6. There are many shifts of time and place in the story. Did you find that made for a lively pace and for variety or did you get confused? Did the settings come to life for you and deepen your pleasure in the story? Which was your favourite? Are you interested in visiting Bateman's, Kipling's home in Sussex, after reading this novel? Did you know that Naulakha, the house he and Carrie built outside Brattleboro in Vermont, is now owned by the Landmark Trust and you can actually stay in it? 

7. Kipling & Trix covers a long time period: did you feel any episodes could have been left out? Or do they all contribute to understanding the two lives at its centre? A lot of research went into this book, the author tells us. Do you think it was properly digested and helped the story? Did it sometimes get in the way? Did you enjoy the historical details of dress and behaviour or not really notice them? 

8. The author mainly uses dialogue and dramatic scenes to tell this story: how did that affect your enjoyment of the book? Did the voices really sound like people from the past? Did you notice any turns of phrase that were particularly convincing or that held you up? Compare Kipling & Trix with other works of historical fiction you've read. Which is it closest to? In what ways does it succeed? Fall down? What will you remember it for? 


Excerpt for Readers


Tiny striped squirrels darted across the paths in the gardens of
the Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy School of Art. From her post close
by the back gate of the compound, Ayah was admiring the ships, 
more than she could count, as they stood out at anchor in the
flashing sea. 
         Now and then she cast an eye over at the perambulator, standing
in the shade of the great neem tree. All springs and tall wheels, 
shining red and green, it was almost a carriage, as Ayah boasted to
her sister-in-law who saw nothing of life outside the house. Closed
off there behind a muslin screen, her Baba, the baby girl the Sahib
said was to be called 'Trick-see', lay sleeping. 
         'She's such a tricksy little baby,' he told them. 
Ayah snuffed up the scent of frying spices, methi, zeera, wafting
over from the servants' quarters across the way. It mingled with
the smell of earth. The garden was damp from the early watering. 
         The house itself was still, for Ruddy Baba, so proud that he was
four years old now, had been allowed to set off with the Sahib
that morning. Each day after breakfast, Kipling Sahib left to walk
across to the new government college, where they did not sit to
read and write at desks but worked in clay like poor village potters. 
What could be the gain? There the Sahib would remain all day, 
making drawings and other playthings, like a child. 
         But soon, soon Ruddy Baba would be back, holding the hand of
his friend, Vaz, the tall gardener. He would come pounding clatter- 
clatter up the steps towards her on those small pink legs, sailor
collar all anyhow, full of his adventures, all 'Listen, Ayah, listen!'. 
         For the moment though, she was free. Fanning herself with the
end of her sari, drinking in the breeze coming off the sea, she
smiled at Prem, the young bearer, as he came round the corner of
the house. 
         'I knew it would not be long before you found me. It is the
tailoring you are wanting, no?' Prem looked abashed but she
laughed at him, patting the floor beside her, 'Sit, sit. Madam Sahib
has gone out for the morning.' She handed back the kurta she had
offered to mend the day before. 
         Prem squatted beside her. After a few words of thanks, he
fell silent. Usually he was eager to share the news he'd picked up
around the butchers' stalls. To report what the vegetable-sellers in
Crawford Market had the impudence to charge today for chillies. 
         'Is true what they are telling me in kitchen? Cook is telling me all
British children are leaving us, going over the Black Water, when
they are small, small?' 
         Ayah felt herself grow still but she nodded, silently. 
         'Why are they doing this, Ayah? Why?' In his haste, he forgot to
insist on her home name, which he alone in the household knew. 
'They are tearing them away from those who take care of them
while they are still nestlings, no wings of their own to fly, just
helpless, so…' He cupped his hands, as if cradling a warm ball of
new life. Ayah nodded for a second time but her throat was tight
and she could not speak. 
         After a few moments she ventured, 'It is the fevers, they say. They
fear the fevers. There are too many Babas in their burying-ground.' 
         Prem turned aside from her to spit in disgust over the wooden
rail of the verandah, making a dark star on the red dust of the path. 
         'A child can die because they are alone, without need of any
fever. Do they not know this?' 
         'That I have never heard talk of.' Ayah braced herself against the
doorpost. Looking straight before her she went on: 'It will be so, 
with Ruddy Baba and with Baby. Also with that other Baba, which
is to come.' All the servants knew that Alice was pregnant again, 
though she had barely admitted it to herself. 
         'It is that of which we speak, no?' 
         'Do they not know? Have they no old ones to teach them?' 
Meeta could not give up so easily. 
         'No. They do not know. And they will not care for anyone who
tells them to do other than their kind. They will do as the other
British.' She held the end of her sari before her face, while Prem
stared out over the flower beds towards the bright colours of the
perambulator where it lay beneath its muslin shroud.