I haven’t read much Kipling. I’ve never been very interested in his themes & the subjects of his books. I suppose I’ve been influenced by his reputation as the poet of the Empire & associated him with the jingoistic poem by Newbolt, Vitai Lampada, with the famous line, “Play up! play up! & play the game!” comparing war with a game of cricket. So, when my 19th century book group chose The Light that Failed as our next book, I wasn’t very enthusiastic.On the other hand, I’ve discovered some real gems through this group & there was a lovely new edition of the book by Victorian Secrets, so I put aside my prejudices & started reading.
The Light that Failed is Kipling’s first novel & is based on incidents from his own life. I knew a little about Kipling’s miserable childhood as I’d read a biography of his mother, Alice MacDonald, & her sisters who all married famous Victorians (A Circle of Sisters by Judith Flanders). Kipling & his sister, Trix, were sent home to England from India by their parents as so many children were at that period. They were sent to board with a woman who exploited them & mistreated them. All Kipling’s experience as a miserable little boy is evident in the first chapter of The Light that Failed. Dick & Maisie, two children boarded with uncaring Mrs Jennett, find happiness in escaping together to play with a revolver on the beach near their home. It sounds dangerous but the nearest thing to tragedy is that Maisie’s pet goat eats a few cartridges. Both children have parents or guardians far away but can only rely on each other as allies. Eventually Dick goes to school, only returning in the holidays & Maisie is sent to France by her guardians for further education. Dick & Maisie plan for their futures & Dick, already in love with Maisie, decides that they will always be together.
Some years later, Dick is an artist, working for a newspaper as a war correspondent with his closest friend, the writer, Torpenhow. He’s knocked around the world a bit but his talents as an artist are finally being recognized &, on his return from the Sudan, he becomes quite famous. He meets Maisie again, quite by accident, & discovers that she is also learning to paint. Dick has never forgotten Maisie & expects that they will pick up their relationship where they left off as children. Maisie, however, is quite cool & uncommitted. She is sharing a flat with a red-haired girl (we never know her name) & studying art. Dick pursues her, visiting on Sundays to criticise her work but his love is not returned.
Dick’s success goes to his head for a while & he starts producing potboilers instead of the work that Torpenhow & his other friends believe he is capable of. Dick takes Maisie back to their childhood home, to the beach where they’d played & escaped from Mrs Jennett, hoping to spark some response in her but this also fails. While they’re on the beach, Dick watches a ship sailing off to Australia & starts to get itchy feet. Maisie is completely uninterested in his plans, although she is sympathetic & pities him while being unable to return his feelings. She certainly has no intention of accompanying him on his travels & sets off for France with her flatmate to study.
While Maisie is away, Dick starts to experience trouble with his eyes & learns that he’s going blind, the result of an injury he suffered in the Sudan during the war. He refuses to tell Maisie & begins work on what he believes will be a great picture. Just as he finishes it, he loses his sight. Torpenhow cares for him when he falls into a fever & discovers the story of Dick’s love for Maisie from his ravings, which Dick had kept secret from his friends. Dick descends into misery & self-pity, desperate at the loss of his vocation & determined that Maisie shouldn’t feel obliged to marry him now that he’s helpless. Torpenhow puts his career on hold but, eventually, he has to set off for another war zone. Before he leaves, he goes to France to find Maisie & tell her what has happened.
The Light that Failed was a qualified success when it was published in Lippincott’s Magazine in 1891 with a happy ending which was not what Kipling had originally written. It was published as a book soon after with the ending we have here. Over the next few years it was reprinted several times with either the sad or happy ending but the 1892 standard edition which has been reprinted by Victorian Secrets is the book as Kipling intended.
The reviews were mixed. It was praised for the “good touches of character, excellent bits of description, deep knowledge of a certain kind of life.” But other reviewers were repulsed by “the pretentious brutality, the obtrusive and cynical coarseness, and the calculated sourness of its tone.” I thought it was a fascinating book, influenced not only by Kipling’s childhood but also by an unhappy ten year love affair he had with Florence Garrard, who was the inspiration for Maisie. The scenes in the war zone are beautifully done & also the scenes of Dick’s wandering in Egypt after he parts company with Torpenhow & his newspaper work before he returns to London to begin work as an artist.
The relationship of Dick and Maisie is also painfully believable. Paul Fox, in his Introduction to this edition, says that Maisie & the red-haired girl were lovers (as a reflection of Florence Garrard’s lesbian relationships) but I didn’t see that. There’s even some evidence that the red-haired girl falls in love with Dick. I thought that Maisie had been so damaged by her loveless childhood that she was almost incapable of returning Dick’s feelings or of sustaining any kind of relationship. Dick has held on to the idea of Maisie through all the lonely years they’ve spent apart & when they meet again, he assumes they will pick up their relationship from where they left off as children. Even back then, it was Dick telling Maisie that he loved her. Maisie allowed herself to be loved & she hasn’t changed when they meet again as adults.
The Light that Failed is a fascinating insight into the way that a writer uses his personal experiences as the basis for fiction. An author’s first novel is often based on their own life, especially when they begin writing at a young age. The Introduction, biography & reviews in this edition were useful in bringing out the connections in Kipling’s life & made it a very rewarding reading experience.