The premise for this novel is simple – that the story of Rudyard Kipling’s sister Trix is fascinating. Who even knew he had a sister, the blurb exclaims. Author Mary Hamer wrote a blog post for me about why she chose to write about Trix (read it here) and I loved the idea of exploring the story of this woman ‘behind the scenes’ in the life of one of England’s most famous writers.
Kipling and Trix covers pretty much the entire lives of the siblings, from their early years in India, to the years they spent living in Southsea after their parents decided they needed to be sent Home; and all their adventures after that. The years in Southsea – when they were both still children – prove extremely formative as Rudyard cannot forgive his parents, his mother in particular, for sending him and Trix away to live with a strictly religious woman, Mrs Holloway, who is often harsh and mean. Trix on the other hand refers to Mrs Holloway as ‘Auntie’ and even asks to be sent back there for a Christmas holiday, while Rudyard goes to see their Aunt Georgie and her children. Every now and then there is some suggestion that Mrs Holloway was unspeakably cruel to them and one suspects something rather dark and unsettling, but no truth of this is ever revealed. The disturbance seems to come from Rudyard’s feelings of abandonment and his bewilderment that Trix would willingly spend more time with Mrs Holloway. The fact that her cruelty is played up means that there is a sort of anti climax when nothing is ‘revealed’ – for most of the book you feel as if there is some great secret about what ‘really happened’ in Southsea. It is true the Mrs Holloway was unfair, mean, and sometimes neglectful towards Rudyard (this is backed up by his accounts of his time with her), and more favourable towards Trix as she hoped that Trix would marry her son.
Time advance quickly in this novel. It is divided into several very long chapters that each cover at least five years at a time. Within each chapter skips ahead are denoted only by a page break and a brief mention in the text – more than once I got lost and was unclear about how many years had passed. In the last third of the book everyone is suddenly much older and I felt like I had missed something.
I felt that Hamer tried to cover too much time in her novel – so much happens that sometimes things feel a little rushed, and the style gets a little list-like, and as I say you get a bit lost with what happened when. Rudyard and his wife Carrie moved an awful lot, spending years in America with her family, several winters in South Africa, and living in several different homes in England. The pace of the book means that it feels like they are a bit all over the place. Similarly Trix is back and forth between India and England, as well as Scotland, with her husband Colonel Fleming. They marry more because they should than that they love each other, and their relationship deteriorates rather quickly.
This is mostly caused by Trix’s ‘problems’. She was a devotee of automatic writing and spiritualism, two practices that were hugely popular but hugely suspicious in Victorian England. Trix feels that she receives messages from spirits and her hand is compelled to write them down. Each communication is preceded by a headache and she often becomes hysterical; a couple of friends encourage her, but her husband and her family see it as a kind of lunacy – as it would have been called then – and she is subsequently ‘treated’ for this behaviour for the rest of her life.
From the point at which the decision is made to call a doctor, Trix does not appear in the novel for nearly forty pages, and after that most of her appearances are quite short and followed by her family’s exasperation as caring for her. In Hamer’s depiction she is clearly unstable but she is also treated like a child, or an idiot who cannot think rationally, and her absence from the page only enhances this. The treatment of Trix stirs up anger at the injustice of the attitude and treatment of people with any kind of mental health issue (or what was perceived as a mental health issue) during this period. At one point the Board of Lunacy are mentioned. Though Trix is allowed to write ‘normally’ and becomes quite successful, she is constantly supervised and never allowed to live a normal life. She has no freedom.
The novel ends with Rudyard’s death and Trix taking a trip to the zoo to show people from the Kipling Society around. She is happy with the animals, and this is apparently some sort of redemption for her, despite being nearly seventy and still not allowed to go anywhere on her own. I felt that Trix was ‘kept’ for her entire life and at no point in the novel does she seem truly happy or content, and she is never really allowed to be herself. She is considered a problem that must be dealt with.
I enjoyed Hamer’s style, despite several issues with commas (though that is down to proofing issues), and felt fully absorbed in the day to day lives of the Kiplings. Kipling and Trix is not a plot driven novel and there is real beauty in the depiction of everyday occurrences and the ongoing struggles of life. Rudyard’s wife Carrie is a mostly sympathetic character, though Rudyard’s mother and Trix both find her cold and always trying to steal ‘Ruddy’ away. Some strange issues there about possession in relationships.
Though they are apart for most of the novel, Kipling and Trix really does explore the sometimes close and often fraught relationship between the siblings. They have a bond in their childhood experiences and memories, but find it increasingly hard to remain close as adults. Trix sees her brother as one of ‘Them’, those who have put her away and treated her as unwell, and she resents him for this; while he worries at her condition and tries to write to her and see her, but is constantly rejected and hurt. If anything this novel teaches us that no relationship is easy, and that Trix’s story is sad and frustrating as well as fascinating.
Published by Aurora Metro in 2012. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.