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Picturing a World

Guest Post from Mary Hamer, author of Kipling & Trix

I’d be surprised if many people on first sight of this drawing thought ‘Oh that must be Rudyard Kipling’. We’re much more used to photographs of him bald and spectacled, taken later in his life. In fact, this pencil drawing is the only image of him as an adult where he isn’t wearing glasses. But I’m getting ahead of myself: you need to know why I have any concern with monitoring pictures of a writer who died in 1936 and whose politics readers find questionable nowadays.

Once I set out to write his life in the form of fiction, some years back, I presented myself at the National Portrait Gallery in London, to see if they’d got any pictures of him. I was surprised by the range of images they held. But I arrived at a selection, had copies made, and painstakingly—for I’m not handy—fixed them up on a board. It wasn’t a mood board so much as a permanent reminder of enigma, the enigma of another person. I knew I had to be true to all that those images suggested, all that I’d turned up in my research. In my ignorance it was the only practical, novel-writer’s preparation that I made. For this was my first novel. No character outlines, no timeline, just a burgeoning swarm of research in my head. And those pictures.

I did have one over-arching question: how did the experience of Rudyard and his sister, Trix, abandoned as small children by their parents to the care of a woman who was worse than limited, in fact positively sadistic, play out in their later lives? Pictures of Trix were harder to come by but I put up one showing her as a lovely young creature of about twenty. And as I struggled to think and write I’d look up sometimes at the board and exclaim ‘Come on, you’re supposed to be helping me.’ Talking to the dead? Perhaps so.

I particularly wanted that drawing of Rudyard to speak to me. It’s so tender, I think the woman who made it saw a vulnerability others didn’t spot. Violet Manners, Marchioness of Granby was older than her sitter by nine years and a woman who took her own work as an artist very seriously. Throughout her life she exhibited her work in all the major galleries and was most admired for her pencil and silverpoint portraits. She was said to be most successful with ‘interpretations of the feminine’ and not just in women: that might give us a clue to her take on Rudyard Kipling.

Drawing this young man, twenty-five, a year back in London from India, suddenly famous, she picked up his quiet intensity. Where others wrote of his brashness, the ‘vulgarity’ of his Indian stories—according to Oscar Wilde it was like sitting under a palm tree, reading by flashes of lightning—Violet Manners got him to remove the spectacles he’d hidden behind since boyhood. She must have won his trust.

That wouldn’t have been easy. Showered with invitations as the latest literary sensation, he thought little of such new friends: they’d see me die of want on their doorstep if they hadn’t read about me, he wrote. It was the tension between this underlying bitterness, rooted in his childhood, and the innocent open intelligence recorded by Manners that I would trace as his life developed.

Later portraits of Kipling—and there were many of them—show a man stiffening into various poses. The Library of Congress owns a photograph of him in his study at Naulakha, the house he and his wife Carrie build in Brattleboro Vermont. He presents himself pipe-smoking, booted and tweed-jacketed, a country fellow, backed by shelves of books. Even more rigid, though quite out of his control , was the way he showed up on the cigarette cards little boys used to collect.

But I don’t want to leave you with that image. I can’t find the rights to the famous photograph that I want to show you but I can describe it. Let’s imagine the scene for ourselves: we’re on shipboard. There’s a cluster of young children, seated in a circle on the deck, spellbound. Their eyes are fixed on the eager face of a man in a boater hat who’s sitting in their midst: he’s telling them a story.

That’s the way to remember him. I can hardly believe I wasn’t there.

A FINAL NOTE FROM KATHERINE: For much more about my guest and her many books, be sure to check out Mary Hamer's website!
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