The Long Recessional The Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling

David Gilmour

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Trade Paperback

368 Pages



Request Desk Copy Request Exam Copy
A Choice Outstanding Academic Title

Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) was a unique figure in the literary world of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: a great writer who was at the same time a great icon of the British Empire. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature and added more phrases to the language than any man since Shakespeare, yet he was also an apologist for imperial government and policies, a man who incarnated an era that was beginning to fade even as he celebrated it.

Gilmour's nuanced biography of Kipling is the first to show the depth and complexity of Kipling's writing and world—from the earliest publications of his youth (his first stories about Anglo-Indian life launched him into celebrity when he was only twenty-four years old), through his many novels, stories, and poems composed in the triumphant years of Queen Victoria's reign, and then to his astonishing output before and after World War I and during the 1930s, as he lived to see the rise of Hitler threaten England's very existence.

Gilmour's detailed narrative suggests the many reasons why this child of the era of imperial self-confidence, this laureate of the Empire at its apogee, saw early on that the Empire's demise was imminent. The long trajectory of Kipling's life matched the trajectory of the British Empire from its zenith to its final decades—his great poem "Recessional" celebrated Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897, while his last poems warned of the dangers of Nazism—and he himself was transformed from the apostle of success to the prophet of national decline. Throughout, as Gilmour makes clear, Kipling's entertaining, humane works of art deeply influenced the way readers saw both themselves and the British Empire.

Based on years of extensive research in Britain and in hitherto unexplored archives in the United States, The Long Recessional is a study of a man who embodied the many paradoxes and difficulties of his age. Gilmour's accomplishment honors the many ways that Kipling's enduring but mysterious art challenged his own generation—and those that followed.


Praise for The Long Recessional

"In his entertaining and sympathetic biography . . . Gilmour portrays Kipling in all his complexity."—Alan Riding, The New York Times

"Excellent . . . Gilmour's biographical study of Kipling's political consciousness examines this more deeply than any writer before him."—Gregory Feeley, The Philadelphia Inquirer

"Readable and reliable . . . [Gilmour's] assessment of the political background of Kipling's writings is exemplary."—Earl L. Dachslager, Houston Chronicle

"Gilmour is superb as a historian and biographer [and] scrupulously impartial . . . [He] examines Kipling's work methodically, promoting his master theme that imperialism and conservatism were the seedbed of the poet's imagination, that 'his politics could not be disentangled from his work.'"—Robert F. Moss, Los Angeles Times Book Review

"Important . . . [Gilmour's] purpose is not to write a life-and-work, or even a full biography. For him Kipling is a Cassandra worth listening to today, and he is eager to take on even his most unsettling aspects [while] focusing his book on exactly the years previous biographers have found least rewarding and hardest to handle . . . Combining historical thoroughness with narrative grace, he provides contexts which are missing, or only touched on, in other lives. Here at last is a full explanation of the Venezuela Affair . . . Here is the Kaiser's New Year's day proclamation that 'Germany was now a world empire'; here is his telegram congratulating the Boer leader, Paul Kruger, that 'converted Kipling to relentless Germanophobia,' here is the ill-judged Jameson Raid that started the war, led by that Dr. Jameson on whom Kipling modelled 'If—' . . . Gilmour is out to right the 'curious imbalance' he notes in previous biographers. 'Most of their work has concentrated on the prose, much of it on the life, a little on the poetry, and virtually none on his public role.' Gilmour's brave choice is to reverse these concentrations . . . Though his examination is exhaustive . . . it is not exhausting."—Clara Claiborne Park,
fs26The Hudson Review

"[A] readable and well-informed biography . . . Worth reading for the light it sheds on both Kipling and our own political views."—John Leland, Virginia Military Institute, Lexington, Virginia, The Journal of Military History

"A thoughtful biography . . . Unapologetic, carefully detailed, and highly useful for students of Kipling and his era."—Kirkus Reviews

"Gilmour's study of Kipling is also a history of the British Empire from triumphal climax to decline. The author concentrates on leading actors in the imperial drama (Indian Viceroys, the Rhodes-Jameson-Milner South African triumvirate, generals and admirals, influential newspaper barons, prime ministers, and King George V) known personally to Kipling. He elucidates this theory by citing Kipling's responses in verse and prose. Embedded as they are in contemporary controversies, Kipling's works become self-explanatory and regain much of their original vitality. While faulting Kipling's prejudices and wrongheaded opinions, Gilmour justifies the author's fury at temporizing politicians and suggests that, from a 21st-century perspective, Kipling's prophecies were correct . . . that a postimperial democratic world would not be happier or better than the one it eclipsed. Kipling predicted the Boers and apartheid, both world wars, and the Hindu-Muslim massacres after India's independence. The bibliography and notes demonstrate Gilmour's exhaustive research in both British and U.S. archives."—D. H. Stewart, emeritus, Texas A&M University, Choice

"For 50 years, Rudyard Kipling projected his political and social views in prose fiction and, more pointedly, in verse. He was a British imperial propagandist but also an artist who took no orders. As Gilmour presents him in a biography focused on his political life, but that cites and evaluates numerous poems and stories, noting their aesthetic qualities as well as their messages, Kipling was the greatest, because he was the most humane, British imperialist and also the empire's great, pessimistic prophet. His early working years in India convinced him that British rule there had to be paternal: guiding but not dominating, helping but not exploiting native peoples. The British in South Africa had similar duties, he thought, and needed also to restrain the Boers, whom he warned would establish a racist regime: apartheid. He despised liberals and socialists because he believed they would dismantle the empire, leaving India to be torn asunder by contending Hindus and Muslims—another accurate forecast. He undermined his own effectiveness with his ideological purity and permanent grudges. Still, as Gilmour makes abundantly clear, he was a major player in the affairs of the mightiest power on Earth, which lost its potency in tandem with his loss of practical influence. A remarkable man, a remarkable book."—Ray Olson, Booklist (starred review)

"A sympathetic, well-informed, and highly readable account of Kipling. He focuses on Kipling's complex relation to empire, especially as expressed in his stories and poetry . . . Highly recommended."—Thomas L. Cooksey, Armstrong Atlantic State University, Savannah, Georgia, Library Journal

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

David Gilmour is the author of many works of literary and political history, including Curzon: Imperial Statesman (FSG, 2003) and The Last Leopard: A Life of Giuseppe di Lampedusa. He lives in Edinburgh.
Read the full excerpt


  • David Gilmour

  • David Gilmour is the author of several highly acclaimed works of literary and political history, including two prize-winning biographies, Curzon and The Last Leopard: A Life of Giuseppe di Lampedusa. He lives in Edinburgh.
  • David Gilmour Copyright Laura Gilmour