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THE LIGHT THAT FAILED OR ARTISTIC BOHEMIA AS SELF-REVELATION By Pierre Coustillas (Université de LiUe) Few commentators on KipUng's Ufe and works have given high marks to his first novel, The Light that Failed. When the long-awaited story appeared in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine, and afterwards under Macmillan's imprint in the winter and spring of 1890-1891, critical appreciation in England was mixed. Reviewers commonly felt that, briUiant though the story might be in some respects, it was not quite a novel in the usual sense of the term, but rather a senes of scenes about the lives of Dick Heldar and his ladylove Maisie. Besides, the two versions of the narrative~a short one with a happy ending, and a long one ending with Dick's disguised suicide in the Sudan—coming in quick succession as they did, caused critics to wonder whether Kipling, although a new hand at fiction, did not already know his trade too weU. Nor have the three main biographers in the last thirty years, Charles Carrington, Angus Wilson and Lord Birkenhead, contributed to raise greatly the reputation of the book, however much Ught they have thrown upon the manifold elements that went to the making of it. Carrington, the official biographer, was obviously embarrassed, but he managed to confess that "the strangest feature in the book is a strain of iU-nature that runs through it."1 Angus Wilson, with keen insieht, pointed to a great many weaknesses and scarcely left the volume standing, while Birkenhead dismissed it as "the only rotten apple in [the] teeming orchard"3 that was the year 1890 in Kipling's working Ufe. Still, despite its artistic blemishes, The Light that Failed remains an important book in KipUng's early career. If patiently taken to pieces, it reveals him on his return from India in a most illuminating manner, a fact which his own comments in his autobiography, Something of Myself, indirectly confirm, the Uterary sources he gives for his own inspiration—Manon Lescaut and Le Roman Comique—while making full sense, being oovious red herrings. The story has also acquired interest as a period piece in a way which contemporary reviewers and readers could hardly sense, and it invites a more thorough discussion as a picture of artistic bohemia than has been hitherto offered. It is this last aspect that the present essay aims at examining, in the light of the other two. When fixing on the subject of The Light that Failed Kipling made no random or innocent choice. He was acquainted with the long tradition of representations of artistic life in the modem novel. The artist, to conventional middle-class readers, was a figure at once to be envied for his apparent freedom and spumed for his unconventionality. He was viewed as an anti-social type because of his unwillingness or incapacity to conform, because of his individualism and supposedly loose morals—a dangerous person for wives and daughters to come into contact with—but he was simultaneously an object of secret admiration for his uncommon achievements, which placed him in a realm outside the norm. For years literature, in England as well as in France, had offered instances of painters, sculptors, literary men reflecting the ambiguity of the artist's position in the materialistic society bom of the Industrial Revolution. Of course in actual life, and consequently in its fictional mirror, there had been 127 cases of artists whose success had defeated prejudice and won for them acceptance by society. The foundation of the Royal Academy in 1768 had been a landmark on the way to recognition; occasionally an artist who gained the ear and eye of aristocrats would be knighted, but always at the cost of concessions to ruling taste which resulted in academism. The average artist was nonetheless hardly acceptable in society. Discussions of the subject in English fiction and verse were rife. The names of Thackeray, with The Newcomes and The Adventures of Philip, of Browning with "Andrea del Sarto," of Henry James with Roderick Hudson come readUy to mind.4 And newcomers to fiction would not infrequently let their thoughts wander towards the artist figure of which...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 127-139
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Ceased Publication
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