In September 1896, having been driven back from Vermont by a fierce dispute with his American brother-in-law Beatty, Rudyard Kipling took his wife Carrie and their small daughters Josephine and Ellie to live near Torquay on the Devon coast. Actually, the location was Carrie's choice, and Kipling soon became restless there; and though their house was large and sunny and overlooked the sea, somehow its atmosphere proved uncongenial. In the spring of 1897, therefore, they went up to London, taking a suite in the Royal Palace Hotel, Kensington. From there they moved to the pleasant little village of Rottingdean, near Brighton on the Sussex coast. Here they were able to await the birth of their third child at North End House, the holiday home of Kipling's Aunt Georgiana and her husband, the artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones. This, Kipling recalls in Something of Myself, was where he had spent his "very last days before sailing for India fourteen years back" (80; in fact, it was slightly longer than that).
Thus it was that Kipling came to spend Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee at Rottingdean, and to write "Recessional" at the Burne-Joneses' house:
The day of the Jubilee, 22 June, was dull and foggy. After looking at the necklace of bonfires glowing along the downs that evening, Rudyard sat down and summarised his thoughts. Since these were written on a sheet of paper headed 'After' and later called 'Recessional', ... his intention was clearly to lift his countrymen's sights, now that the festivities were over. But once again he was not happy with the results and cast them aside.... It was a mark of Rudyard's respect that, when [his Aunt Georgie] suggested that the verses should indeed be published, he sent them to [Charles Frederic Moberly] Bell at The Times, noting, 'We've been blowing up the Trumpets of the New Moon a little too much for White Men, and it's about time we sobered down.' [Lycett 403-5]
In September 1897, just a few weeks after the birth of John, their third and last child and only son, the Kiplings moved to The Elms, diagonally opposite North End House on the village green. They rented the place from its auspiciously named owner, a Mr Bliss, for the princely sum of three guineas a week. "It was small, none too well built, but cheap," wrote Kipling (81). It was also just over the road from St Margaret's Church, where Burne-Jones had installed a set of beautiful windows to commemorate the marriage of his daughter Margaret a few years before. Here the Kiplings settled down as part of a loving extended family, which often included his cousin Stanley Baldwin, the future prime minister, whose in-laws' house (The Dene) faced the very same green: "the Baldwin marriage, then, made us free of the joyous young brotherhood and sisterhood of the Dene, and its friends," he wrote, adding that the cousins would pack their young families into farm-carts and despatch them "into the safe clean heart of the motherly Downs for jam-smeared picnics." As he says himself, "Those were exceedingly good days, and one's work came easily and fully" (Something of Myself 80-81).
Among the works which occupied Kipling in the early part of his stay at Rottingdean were "The White Man's Burden" (published early in 1899), and Stalky & Co, which he had begun in Torquay, and would publish later in 1899.
However, the "joyous" experience of Rottingdean, already interrupted by a bout of gloom in 1897, and by Uncle "Ned" Burne-Jones's death in 1898, was utterly blighted in the spring of the following year. The Kiplings were great travellers, and their daughter Josephine succumbed to pneumonia after a stormy winter voyage to New York. Kipling himself was at death's door with the same illness. Returning to The Elms and its lovely garden without their eldest child was almost more than either he or Carrie could bear: "The village green is most beautiful. The streets are empty, and we come quietly to The Elms to take on a sort of ghost life. Aunt Georgie meets us at the garden gate," Carrie wrote flatly in her diary that June (qtd. in Birkenhead 201).
Although Kipling continued to write, working for example on the Just So Stories (so named because his little lost daughter had wanted the tales repeated to her "just so"), and publishing the first part of Kim in the December 1900 issue of McClure's Magazine, a fresh start was required. As the young author's celebrity had now caught up with him in the form of gawkers "on the double-decker horse-bus" from nearby Brighton (Smith 16), he decided that the family's English base should henceforth be further from the public gaze, in a more remote inland area of their adopted county. The Kiplings at last bought their "very-own house," Bateman's, in Burwash, East Sussex, in 1902. It remained their home for the rest of Kipling's life, and passed to the National Trust after Carrie's death in December 1939.
The Rottingdean period in Kipling's life was quite short, then. Nevertheless, it should not be overlooked. Here, for the first time, he was struck by the "sure magic" (as he calls it in the poem "Sussex") of affinity with the English soil: in other words, he fell in love with the Sussex coast and the Sussex Downs. Staking his first claim on the English countryside, he acquired several plots of land in the neighbourhood, putting up a drill hall on one of them for the rifle club which he sponsored. Here in Rottingdean, too, his name entered the electoral role for the first time. From this new feeling of connection would come some of his most appealing and quintessentially English work. As one recent critic has said, "For Kipling, enchantment is rooted in the land, in real discoverable places and real local people whose past is deeply embedded in the locality" (Hall 309). And this was not something that started in Burwash. In a note to Something of Myself, Thomas Pinney says that Kipling's "preparation for the Roman stories [that is, the stories about Roman Britain* in Puck of Pook's Hill] ... goes back at least as far as 1897 (258).
1897 was also the year in which Kipling's stature was confirmed by an invitation to join the Athenaeum, under the club's special provision for distinguished figures (and he was only 31 then!). During his stay in Rottingdean, despite the dreadful family tragedy which he endured in 1899, Kipling's popularity reached new heights. By the time he left, he was well on his way to earning the biggest accolade of all: the Nobel Prize for Literature, which he was awarded in 1907.
Literary pilgrims will still find traces of Kipling in this largely unspoilt village on the edge of the Downs. The Kipling Gardens beside his old home have been saved from development and are open to the public, and his study there has been recreated at The Grange, a house also facing the village green, and once occupied by his younger friend, the artist William Nicholson. This is now partly used as the Museum of the Rottingdean Preservation Society, and has a Burne-Jones room as well.
* Among these stories is "On the Great Wall" (Chapter 6 of the book), well worth reading for its wonderful description of Hadrian's Wall.
Birkenhead, Lord. Rudyard Kipling. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1978.
Hall, Linda. "Since Time Everlasting Beyond: Kipling and the Invention of the Time-Slip Story." Children's Literature in Education, 34: 4 (December 2003), 305-21.
Kipling, Rudyard. Something of Myself, and Other Autobiographical Writings, ed. Thomas Pinney. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990.
Lycett, Andrew. Rudyard Kipling. London: Phoenix, 2000.
Smith, Michael. "Kipling's Sussex (2) 'The Elms.'" Viewed 19 November 2006.
See the Kipling Society website for more information about this period in Kipling's life.
Last modified 29 November 2006