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Book Reviews Seymour-Smith's Rudyard Kipling Martin Seymour-Smith. Rudyard Kipling. London: Queen Anne Press, 1989. 373 pp. £16.95 THIS NEW CRITICAL BIOGRAPHY of Rudyard Kipling begins by conceding its own belatedness, Martin Seymour-Smith acknowledging the many good and useful biographical studies of Kipling that have preceded his own work, and even announcing his plan to draw heavily on those earlier books. His special contribution, Seymour-Smith declares, will be to bring a fresh perspective to the well-known details of Kipling's career, illuminating aspects of his subject's life and writing that have till now been ignored or misunderstood. The first example in the book of Seymour-Smith's rethinking of familiar material is his long analytic review of the young RK's traumatic Southsea years. In a psychologically subtle reconsideration of the many people involved in that notorious episode, the biographer succeeds in humanizing the participants, particularly the witch-like "Aunty Rosa" and the apparently heedless older Kiplings, without exonerating or sentimentalizing them. In the process, he makes real sense for the first time of what has always seemed an inexplicable story, establishing as well his own credentials for the revisionary approach to his subject he has embarked on. And this, in turn, earns him, at least to begin with, a respectful hearing for what is his major reinterpretive concept, the bold idea that, as he puts it in so many words, "Rudyard Kipling was a homosexual." If one's first thought here is that Seymour-Smith is merely exploiting a critical fashion—how many times can we be astonished by the news that the "hyacinth girl" is really the "hyacinth boy?"—further consideration brings to mind at least a few elements in Kipling's life that might justify the biographer's dramatic thesis. Foremost among these is RK's unusually close association with Wolcott Balestier, whose early death led to the writer's precipitate marriage to Wolcott's sister. Seymour-Smith spends a good deal of time on this episode, and to the extent that, in the absence of any credible evidence, a purely inferential case can be made for Kipling having had a homosexual relationship with Balestier, the biographer undertakes to make it. 455 ELT: Volume 33:4 1990 But the psychological subtlety that stands him in such good stead in his explication of the Southsea years, about which at least the basic facts are fairly well established, seems merely presumptuous in the Balestier matter, where the bravura critical performance is based on simple guess work and analytic sleight-of-hand. The biographer is clearly aware of this problem himself, which is why he works so hard early in the book to try to establish a homosexual pattern in Kipling's life. But his efforts here are even more inferential and unconvincing. For example, the remark by the headmaster of Kipling's school that "I remember some things he [RK] would like me to forget" becomes the basis for speculation that the two had had a homosexual liaison. Then, testimony about the "cleanliness" of the United Services College by one old Kipling schoolmate, and the failure to speak of the matter at all by another, seem to Seymour-Smith to be equally suspicious circumstances. And these are among the strongest pieces of evidence for Kipling's sexual inclinations the biographer has to offer. One problem with this whole argument is that it is never really set in an historical context. In the years leading up to the Oscar Wilde trial in the middle of the 90s, and particularly for several decades after that traumatic event, England was gripped by a homosexual hysteria that would account for considerably more selfconsciousness about sexual identity than even Seymour-Smith is able to find in Kipling's life and art. (As late as the 1920s, for example, public school performances of Oscar Wilde's plays often omitted the author's name from the program.) Indeed, the letters of many fathers to sons away at boarding schools during these years reveal a preoccupation with "beastliness" no less intense—or more personally meaningful—than a similar concern in Kipling's own letters to his son John. Another weakness...


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