I must confess to never having been a big fan of Kipling – tales of empire and derring-do aren’t quite my cup of tea. However, his first novel, The Light that Failed (1891), has proved to be a revelation, and quite unlike any of Kipling’s subsequent work.
The novel is partly autobiographical and tells the story of war artist Dick Heldar, his doomed relationship with childhood sweetheart Maisie, and his descent into blindness. Through Dick, Kipling considers the relationship between art and life, espousing his belief that the artist has a duty to paint only what he knows to be true. In this respect, the author offers a counterpoint to the conspicuous aestheticism of Oscar Wilde’s contemporaneous The Picture of Dorian Gray. Dick’s trouble begins when he refuses to accept reality, pursuing instead a romantic ideal.
Reality is vividly portrayed by Kipling, from the battlefields of Sudan and fleshpits of Port Said, through to the drab streets of London. These near-Naturalistic depictions led to comparisons with Zola, and unfavourable reviews from critics who were revolted by Kipling’s sometimes gruesome detail. Others recognised the novel’s extraordinary power, Murray’s Magazine commenting: “Mr Kipling’s novel is a very remarkable tour de force. His genius makes him write at fever-heat, and we long for some passages of repose in his rapid, breathless narrative. The genius, however, is incontestable.”
The Light that Failed is dominated by Dick’s hopeless longing for fellow artist Maisie and his refusal to relinquish her, even though she is in a lesbian relationship with a woman only ever referred to dismissively as the “red-haired girl”. This plot strand is based on Kipling’s own doomed love for Florence Garrard, who repeatedly rejected him and lived with another female artist. Kipling exacts his revenge on this love rival in a spiteful episode towards the end of the novel, and his disappointment permeates the narrative, manifesting itself in an undertow of misogyny. As such, The Light that Failed could be seen as an anti-New Woman novel, criticising as it does the new breed of independent career-minded women who eschew the restrictions of marriage.
Blindness is a common metaphor for impotence, and the loss of his eyesight reflects the emasculation felt by Dick when confronted with the consequences of the emancipated woman. He is determined to finish his masterpiece ‘Melancholia’ before he goes completely blind, inspired by Dürer’s famous engraving, Melencolia I. Dick’s painting shows a woman laughing in the face of life’s difficulties, embodying his pursuit of stoic dignity against all odds. This is contrasted with frequent references to James Thomson’s poem, The City of Dreadful Night (1874), in which depression and pessimism triumph. Although often bleak, the narrative is regularly leavened by Kipling’s wit and eye for comic detail.
Much of the criticism levelled at The Light that Failed was due to its unhappy ending. Mindful of readers’ expectations, Lippincott’s Magazine, who originally serialised the novel, demanded from Kipling an alternative ‘happy’ ending, which is included as an appendix to this edition. Although undeniably more optimistic, it is inferior to the original, and Kipling makes clear in a short preface to the novel that he favoured the gloomy and more powerful conclusion. In his introduction, Paul Fox places the novel within the context of fin-de-siècle literature, and considers its key themes of masculinity, aestheticism, and the relationship between art and life.
The Light that Failed is an enthralling and thought-provoking novel, and shows a very different Kipling from the one so famous for his Anglo-Indian stories.
- For more details on the autobiographical elements of the novel, see an article by Jad Adams, Kipling’s most recent biographer.