Rudyard Kipling was born in 1865 in India, in Bombay; but at five years old he was sent to live in a boarding house for the children of colonials, in Southsea in Portsmouth. The house was apparently both unconvivial and Spartan; as late as 1935 he said “I should like to burn it down and plough the place with salt.” At sixteen, he broke away, returned happily to India and worked as a journalist and began writing. His first stories about India are dutifully more grim and realistic; but in Kim, his last major work set on the subcontinent, he let loose and produced one of the great romantic adventure novels, something to set beside the very best of Doyle and Dumas and Stevenson—a full flowering piece of Victorian storytelling, with all the confidence and sweep of the period. James Joyce, at the end of Dubliners, felt that he had not given sufficient credit to the hospitality of his city, and so ended the collection with “The Dead,” which is surely one of the greatest pieces of fictional prose in English. Kim in turn is a luxuriant expression of Kipling’s feelings for India, as though only a novel which is constantly on the move—from Lahore across the Trunk Road to Benares, from the plains all the way into the Himalayan hills—can contain Kipling’s love and fascination. Perhaps only in so great a period of storytelling could a novel combine a foot-free espionage plot with so many lulling and vivid scenes of inspection and introspection.
Having had a long casual interest in India, I had for years avoided Kipling as being a tout for the whole dubious adventure of the Raj, for all the good those folk may genuinely have done. (As one British friend pointed out to me, any group which discouraged suttee deserves at least one round of applause.) And the contradictions in Kipling’s life were very real and very sharp—for all the love of India visible in Kim, Kipling also raised money for Colonel Dyer after the 1857 Mutiny, at a time when even the Blimps had stopped inviting him to dinner. Perhaps it’s a measure of his art that as the critics, from Eliot and Orwell on to Christopher Hitchens and Edward Said, have struck their various stances to Kipling, some part of him seems always to escape. The Norton critical edition of Kim has many essays on Kipling as imperialist or colonial writer, and yet none of them spend much time on Kim’s relation with the Tibetan lama, which is the emotional continuo of the book, and its triumphant end note. Morton N. Cohen, in his introduction to the current Bantam paperback, is one of the few to notice the mystical element in Kim, and to give it its weight. Like all great art, Kim is a strange and permeable thing, little likely to be nailed down.
Probably any old edition of the story will do, but if you want one with illustrations try to find the one with pictures by Kipling’s father, John Lockwood Kipling—they’re splendid. The essay by Edward Said on Kipling as an imperialist writer is an intelligent and even-tempered statement of the case; it’s in the Norton critical edition. Orwell’s piece is in his book A Collection of Essays. Peter Hopkirk, the historian of the Great Game, wrote an amusing and informative book on his travels in search of Kim’s originals and sources, Quest for Kim (University of Michigan Press, 1996). Read the short story "Baa Baa Black Sheep" for Kipling's vivid and saddening account of his time in Portsmouth.