Kipling & Trix, winner of The Virginia Prize for Fiction in 2012, is a fictionalised account of the life of Rudyard Kipling and his sister Alice ‘Trix’ Kipling. It begins with Rudyard, aged five, and Trix, aged three, being sent to live with ‘Auntie Sarah’ Holloway, her husband, Pryse Agar Holloway and their young son, Harry; Rudyard and Trix’s own parents being busy establishing themselves in Lahore, their father having gained promotion to the position of Principal of the Mayo School of Art and Curator of the Lahore Museum.
Sarah Holloway is a cruel woman:
Losing patience, Sarah Holloway swept round the table and dragged him back to his chair, where he sat, not eating, glaring defiance.
‘Do you know what happens to bad children?’ she asked.
‘No, what?’ In spite of his misery he couldn’t help asking.
‘God sees what they do and he marks them down for punishment. He watches them all the time and when they die he sends them to burn forever in Hell.’
The children were glazed with shock.
‘We have different gods in India,’ he attempted boldness. Then, quavering, ‘Mam wouldn’t let him. Ayah – ‘
‘It was because you’re so bad and wicked that Mama left you. And anyway your Mama has to do what God tells her.’
Struck silent, he gazed trembling at the new world that she had revealed, while Trix sucked frantically at her thumb.
However, her treatment of Rudyard, in particular, becomes the catalyst for his love of storytelling:
Alone in the musty basement they’d been given for a playroom, Ruddy valiantly kept up with his own private magic. He piled up the sacred wall, the bastion that kept everything out, and crouched behind it, humming. Yet though at first he was able to summon the stories in his head and to step inside them, by the end of the first week, those that came to him slithered away and would not let him in.
And for Trix’s as he shares his stories with her to help her sleep.
What’s really interesting about this novel are the parallels between Rudyard and Trix – their love of storytelling; their fragile mental health – and how they’re treated so differently by the societies they reside in (India and Britain) purely because of their gender. This is highlighted early in the book through a conversation Trix has with her best friend Maud as they travel to Bombay. (Rudyard’s already working for the Punjab paper the CMG and writing poetry in his spare time.)
‘It’s funny, I simply love writing stories though I hated lessons, didn’t you?’ Maud asked, settling herself.
Trix laughed and nodded companionably. She wasn’t going to intimidate Maud further by revealing that the Headmistress had wanted her to stay on at school.
‘Trix would make an excellent candidate for the new women’s colleges in Cambridge,’ Miss Morant Jones had written to Mama. ‘The expense would of course be much less than for a son,’ she’d added discreetly.
It was exciting to think she might have the brains for it. But Cambridge would have meant waiting even longer without seeing Ruddy. Mama hadn’t pushed her.
‘I’d rather not have my pretty, clever daughter turned into one of those fearsome bluestockings. No man wants a girl who thinks she knows more than he does,’ Mama had concluded.
Of course, the tragedy of Trix’s story is that she ends up unloved and unwanted by a husband who fails to cope with her desire to write and publish under her own name and her mental health issues.
Had Kipling & Trix merely focused on Rudyard it would’ve been an interesting book (he had an eventful life spanning two continents and some real tragedies) but expanding the focus to look at Trix and how her talent was purposely stunted, eventually driving her to madness is what makes this book truly engaging.
Thanks to Aurora Metro for the review copy.