"In 1939 Carrie Kipling died, mourned by no one."
May 23, 2012
Review by Thomas Patrick Killough
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Pros:Short-96 pages. 4 photos. Select bibliography. Contemporaries' views of "Carrie" Kipling, Rudyard's wife.
Cons:Non-scholarly in appearance: no introduction, maps, notes, division into chapters. 1/3 factual, 2/3 spin.
The Bottom Line: Author assumes that readers of THE HATED WIFE (1) have already read a lot by and about Rudyard Kipling; (2) believe that Mrs Kipling was among the world's hated women.
The Fifth Baron Carnock, aka journalist and historian Adam Nicolson, published in 2001 THE HATED WIFE: CARRIE KIPLING 1862 - 1939.
Recommend this product?
Carrie Kipling, born Caroline Starr Balestier, in January 1892 married three years younger Joseph Rudyard Kipling (1865 - 1936, who would win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907. Nicolson is grandson of the writer Vita Sackville-West and statesman Sir Harold Nicolson. He writes extensively about British history and mores.
Prima facie, then, we have every reason to expect that Adam Nicolson would produce a fair and balanced biography of the wife of Rudyard Kipling and mother of their two daughters and one son. This reader professes however, to be vastly disappointed by THE HATED WIFE.
-- First, the very title assumes that Caroline Balestier Kipling was widely hated and as the text asserts more than once fairly quickly a disappointment as well to her husband. Neither of these "facts" have I found attested by other biographers of the Kiplings.
-- Second, the book is not scholarly or at least does not look to be so. It lacks introduction, footnotes and maps. The narrative is presented in the increasingly popular, alas, style of breathless British popular, "you are there now" journalism.
-- Third, every single contemporary observation quoted in regard to Mrs Kipling is negative, while not one of the sources is criticized.
-- The author is passionately opinionated and makes no effort to hide that fact. Indeed the narrative feels like 1/3 effort to be truthful and fact-bound and 2/3 boundless relish for opining, spinning and freely interpreting neutral raw material. For example: the author concedes that there is no evidence that Rudyard and Carrie's older brother Wolcott were homosexual lovers, but nonetheless dwells on their relationship as friends to stress how sexually charming Wolcott could be.
On the plus side of THE HATED WIFE let there be noted
-- (1) The book is brief, 96 pages.
-- (2) It has photos of the Kiplings and children -- four pictures, each black and white, grainy.
-- (3) The biography ends with a score or more of items in a Select Bibliography.
-- (4) Enough of Carrie Balestier Kipling's diary and correspondence with friends and relatives is quoted to make the reader want to lay hand on more. This is not easy, given the notorious concern by principals and heirs to restrict access to still existing private writings of both Rudyard and Caroline.
-- (5) The text includes the standard and already frequently reported contemporary "sightings" of Carrie Balestier by Rudyard Kipling's parents (more puzzled about why their son loved Carrie than "hating" her), by Henry James who gave her in marriage and by other celebs.
-- (6) Nicolson's wee book does provide something of a counterweight to the quantity of existing biographies of Rudyard Kipling, his two very creative parents John Kipling and Alice Macdonald and Ruddy's mentally ill sister Trix. The welcome balance, slim though it be, is by way of providing more information about Carrie's family: the Balestiers and the Wolcotts. They blended entrepreneurship and derring-do with New England sobriety and puritanism. Caroline Balestier numbered the great Paul Revere among her ancestors. Long noses were an unfortunate part of Balestier DNA.
And, having closed the book, what image do we take away from THE HATED WIFE of Caroline "Carrie" Starr Kipling nee Balestier and her genius husband? What lingers in memory?
-- (1) Carrie from youth onward refused to be confined by Victorian stereotypes of what a woman should be: wife, helpmate, subservient, a good homemaker. She adored her talented older brother Wolcott, moved to London to make a home for him and promoted him aggressively in fashionable British society.
-- (2) When, in September 1889, 24-year old Rudyard Kipling arrived in London from India and via a well published trip across the USA, he did not need from Carrie or Wolcott any kind of publicizing. His early writings had made him the great white hope of English letters. He was suddenly as much "in" as his elder competitor Oscar Wilde (1854 - 1900). Nor did Rudyard ("Ruddy" to his mother Alice, "Rud" to "Carrie") crave approbation from the literary and artistic swells of the UK as did the Balestiers. But very quickly, perhaps as early as February 1890, Rudyard had met Wolcott and Carrie and their mother and beautiful younger sister Josephine -- all then in London. Rudyard and Wolcott became best friends and co-wrote an American-Indian novel, THE NAULAHKA. Kipling romanced every Balestier in sight. He loved them all.
-- (3) Rudyard was regularly attracted to older, forceful, take-charge, in some ways masculine women. And at her brother's untimely death in Germany by typhoid fever while Rudyard was away visiting parents in Lahore, India -- as indeed over and over later in the Kiplings' married life -- Carrie Balestier took charge. She made funeral arrangements and persuaded Rudyard to rush back and marry her days after his return. Throughout their marriage Carrie managed the household, raised three children, played the accountant to Rudyard's income from writing and protected his privacy from press and from curious rubbernecking tourist types -- doing so first during four years in Vermont as later in the UK, South Africa and elsewhere. She organized Rud's life precisely as Rud wanted it organized.
-- (4) Carrie's alcoholic, intemperate, indebted younger brother Beatty Balestier made a hell of Rudyard's four years in a Vermont that he otherwise adored (and where he began the JUNGLE BOOK series of tales). Similarly, during their many years together in England, even after moving to their dream house in Sussex in 1910, Rud's family proved a trial to Carrie. Especially, entertaining mother Alice repeatedly wore Caroline down -- as she recorded in diary excerpts in THE HATED WIFE.
-- (5) That Carrie Kipling was a "hated wife" is neither proven nor credible. But there was one category of adult humans that she mismanaged and did not make friends or admirers of: domestic servants, her own and those of others. Hyper-near-sighted Rud suffered from health problems all his life and they got steadily worse. Carrie tenderly nursed husband and children for years, steadily alienating servants. Had she been less impatient with staff, then her own life might have been much eased by supportive, empathetic and loyal cooks, seamstresses, drivers and gardeners.
BOTTOM LINE: The author presupposes that before you open a page of THE HATED WIFE you already know plenty about the Kipling family and something of Caroline Balestier Kipling and her own kinfolk. If you do not, then postpone THE HATED WIFE until you do.
Nor should you expect a detached, well documented scholarly narrative. You will find overtones of gonzo journalism: more emotion, heat and bloviating than factual reporting.
Nor need you believe, going in to the text, that Carrie Kipling was among the world's most detested women. She was not. The largely fictional Mrs Kipling limned by Adam Nicolson is a straw man/woman. It is easy, therefore, for him to argue in print that she was really not all that bad (because she wasn't) -- albeit worse than you might like to think. The final sentence of the narrative asserts, "In 1939 Carrie Kipling died, mourned by no one" (p. 94)." To which I say, "Bah, humbug!"
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