If, however, you can manage NOT to die, with envy (or something worse), the house and the story of Kipling's life and writing make fascinating study.
Rudyard Kipling was born in 1865, to John and Alice, new British Empire arrivals in Bombay (now Mumbai), India. His artist parents taught him to love his adopted homeland and encouarged him to roam the local markets, learn the language and connect with the country and its people. Kipling adored India and was traumatised when, at the age of 6, he was sent away to school in England, staying with a foster family who bullied and beat him. His found solace in reading and devoured Daniel Defo, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Wilkie Collins, choosing not to reveal his misery to his parents.
On the verge of a nervous breakdown, the young Rudyard's unhappiness was spotted by a visitor to the house who told his mother. She rushed across to England to rescue her son. After a holiday, Kipling was transferred to a new school in Devon that he loved and it was here that his writing gift began to flourish.
Once he left school, Kipling returned to India where he worked for a local newspaper, writing in his spare time. Plain Tales from the Hills became very popular in England and he returned here to build on its success, meeting an American publisher (Wolcott Balestier) who soon became one of his best friends. Travelling to the US with Balestier, Kipling fell in love with his sister, Carrie, and after marrying, the pair chose to settle in the US, loving their new life together, Carrie giving birth to two daughters within a few years, Josephine (for whom he wrote his Jungle Stories) and Elsie. The Kiplings' lives were turned upside down when Josephine died from pneumonia, at just seven years old. They returned to England where they later had a son, John.
They moved to Bateman's in 1902, having seen an advertisement for the house and travelling down to visit in one of the first automobiles: -
'It was the heartbreaking Locomobile that brought us to the house called 'Bateman's', he wrote in Something of Myself. We had seen an advertisement of her and we reached her down an enlarged rabbit-hole of a lane. At very first sight, the Committee of Ways and Means (Mrs Kipling and himself) said, 'That's her! The only She! Make an honest woman of her - quick! We entered and felt her spirit - her Feng Shui - to be good. We went through every room and felt no shadow of ancient regrets, stifled miseries, nor any menace though the 'new' end of her was three hundred years old.'
'The Committee of Ways and Means'! Just love that...
Kipling went on to write some of his most significant work at Bateman's, including If, Puck of Pook's Hill and The Glory of the Garden. Sadly, tragedy continued to strike. Having lost a daughter, he later used his influence to help his son enlist, in spite of his myopia (1915), only for John to go missing later in the year. His body was never found.
The house remains furnished as it would have been in the Kiplings' day with oak panels, oriental rugs and graceful furniture. There is a touching tribute to John whose room is left as it was - a pile of books, pictures, clothes hanging in the wardrobe.
Kipling had such a difficult life. Privileged, wealthy, he experienced considerable trauma at a young age and enormous loss as an adult. Wandering around his beautiful home, it struck me that he was a writer who, like many of us, seem to have suffered heartache. Does this in fact drive us to write? Does it make us better writers? Can it make the difference between a writer who can connect with readers and one who can't? Looking back at my writing, I think I write better when I'm sad. But I'd rather not be sad.
Can God use people's writing whether they acknowledge Him as the Giver of All Gifts or not? I believe so. Some may consider it overused, or to be, as one paper put it 'jingoistic nonsense' but If is still one of my favourite poems, written as advice for his son, John, in 1909. A different time, a different world, it was written before John's death but contains lines which are all the more powerful in the light of Kipling's losses.
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the will which says to them: 'Hold on!'
Somehow appropriate today too, as we remember those who gave their lives for the last 100 years of peace.
But for us, as writers, those well known lines leap out at me every time: -
If you can dream - and not make dreams your master
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim:
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two imposters both the same...
Ah yes, if...and there's the rub. If I'm going to live like that, I need my Committee of Ways and Means (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) to help me. And you know what? I'll fail and muck it up and get it wrong and feel like dumping the whole lot, at times. But when all is said and done, He will...
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