An introductory note
As with other notes for the New Reader’s Guide (NRG), the starting point has been those prepared by our predecessors for the Old Reader’s Guide (ORG) edited by Reginald Harbord. It has seemed to this Editor that much of what was written for the ORG has remained relevant, and so, where this text is substantially that of the ORG, it appears in black type. However, the great difference between writing for the ORG and for this new Guide is that the ORG had a very limited circulation of Kipling enthusiasts, mainly in Britain, whereas, thanks to the Internet, our new readership comprises people from all over the world, for many of whom English is not their first language. So new or substantially amended entries have been added, and appear in the dark blue type of this paragraph.
This story was first published in Century Magazine, a New York publication, in August 1905. It is accompanied by the poem
“The Recall”. It is collected in:
- Actions and Reactions in 1909.
- Scribner’s Edition, Vol. XXIV.
- The Sussex Edition, Vol. VIII, Page 291.
- The Burwash Edition, Vol VIII.
The tale is a romance: it describes how a young American couple, on a visit to Edwardian England, discover the wife’s roots – her family emigrated to the newly independent USA round about 1800 – and, drawn by the association of place, settle down to make their home there.
The Chapins are young and affluent. He is a successful American businessman who has suffered a nervous breakdown, brought on by over-work. They come to Europe for a rest-cure, and after wandering aimlessly for several months, come to England. There, they are recommended by a fellow-countrywoman to go and stay in the country.
They go to East Sussex, to stay on a farm on an estate which has been neglected by an absentee landlord. They discover the mansion which is the estate’s centre, and Sophie Chapin feels more and more drawn to the place. They decide to buy the estate to put it into good order as something for George Chapin to do. On the first Sunday of their ownership, while in church, Sophie finds her mother’s maiden name on a tombstone.
Thereafter the tale concerns their tracing of the family connection, which proves that inadvertently they have bought the home of Sophie Chapin’s forebears; and their acceptance into local Society, culminating in the birth of their son, and their realisation that they have come Home, and can build for the next generation.
The tale, which this Editor regards as a great personal favourite, represents an Edwardian England seen through rose-tinted spectacles. The countryside is idyllic; society is stable, with everyone in their place and ‘knowing their place’. It may be suggested that Kipling was writing out a wish-fulfilment of his own, an expanded and idealised version of his and Carrie’s purchase of ‘Bateman’s’ and its mini-estate. The ORG quotes Roger Lancelyn Green in Kipling and the Children (1965):
Perhaps Kipling did not know when he came to ‘Bateman’s’ in 1902 that the old order was about to change and that he was taking part in the very end of a great tradition. Possibly realising something of this subconsciously, he caught the whole spirit of that tradition in three stories, “An Habitation Enforced”, “My Son’s Wife”, and “Friendly Brook”, and enshrined in them some of the most perfect pictures in our literature of that lost world. This he did as of a world in full flowering, with no trace of a nostalgia for something that was about to pass: and this increases the authenticity as well as the moving quality of his pictures
That world is also caught in the pages of Punch magazine, where the cartoons and illustrations in the period 1900-1910 always suggest bright sunlight. Of course, it wasn’t all like that: for just one illustration of what rural life was like for the poorer members of our society, Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford (OUP, Oxford, 1945) can be recommended. And another much wider-ranging novel covering the same period, and basically in a similar setting, is R.F. Delderfield’s A Horseman Riding By (Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1966).
But it was all about to change, as the Kiplings themselves found. The continuity of life would be rudely shattered by the First World War. The break applied to all levels of society, from the landed proprietor, through the squire, to the yeoman farmer, all of whom had thought that they were building for the next generation, but whose sons died in or above the trenches of the Western Front, or in the waters of the North Sea. Nor was it just in the countryside: the manufacturer who hoped his son would take over the factory, and the small tradesman who hoped that the name “Jones & Son” would mean what it said; all suffered the same loss.
The change was abrupt, and for those who lived through it, cataclysmic. But it would probably have happened anyway, though more gradually. Late Victorian and Edwardian social stability was probably illusory, because the 19th century had seen the pace of life, and the rapidity with which ideas spread, increase dramatically. In urban areas such factors as the second Reform Act of 1867, the rise of the Labour party in the latter part of the 19th century and the coming of the ha’penny press in the 1890s, had already started to undermine the previously accepted social hierarchy.
On another level, the story is about ‘place’, and the effect it has on humankind. Kipling clearly felt the need to settle and put down roots, when once he had married. Brattleborough and the USA failed him, and in any case, the USA had too many associations with his dead daughter Josephine; so, after a short and not-very-pleasant period in Devon, he came to Sussex.
This was a Sussex before the days of the motor car and the spread of bungalows up the seaward face of the South Downs, when iron was still mined and forged as it had been in the 16th century (the last ironworks in Sussex, at Ashburnham, closed in 1923). Almost immediately he felt that this was a place where he could settle and bring up his family, and his deep love of the place was later reflected in his poem ‘Sussex’, written in 1902, the year he went to ‘Bateman’s’, and ‘The Run of the Downs’, from ‘Rewards and Fairies’, first published in 1910 – to give but two examples.
In this tale the setting is East Sussex – ‘Kipling Country’ – and Kipling has put all his personal feelings about place into his female protagonist: George Chapin is very much the lesser character of the two, and there are parallels to be drawn with Kipling’s own life. (Which is not to imply that Kipling was a lesser character than Carrie, merely that in domestic matters it has been shown that she led the way.)
It is interesting to note that although the tale was written in 1905 and published in the USA the same year, it was not published in Great Britain until 1909. It may also be noted that the tale, written in the third person, is (supposedly) seen through American eyes. Kipling himself added a gloss to the character details of his main protagonists in a letter dated 5 April 1910 to Edward Lucas White ( Letters Vol 3, Ed. Pinney p. 418):
Sophie Chapin was New England. I’m not sure about her spouse but I have a notion he was Yale – not Harvard. Anyhow he did his work in New York where the nerves come from and if they wanted to go to Baltimore it was probably on account of the climate for Sophie’s confinement.
See the Notes on the Text [Page 43, line 10]
The ORG Editor for this story, writing in the 1960s concludes his notes with the following comment:
Finally, in addition to the themes of sense of place, and the sense of belonging where one’s ancestors lived, one may note that of duty and responsibility. In our days, to talk publicly about such is not fashionable, but Kipling returns to this theme in many of his tales.
The story has attracted a fair amount of favourable criticism, but is not examined in any depth in the major biographies by Carrington, Birkenhead and Lycett. It may be suggested that the tale is not central to Kipling’s life, but it reveals a major facet of his outlook, a love of and an appreciation of England: an attitude which, mostly unspoken or barely even thought of, would have coloured the views of many of his characters: for example young Brevet Major Cottar, in “The Brushwood Boy” from The Day’s Work. And of course, many of the characters in Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies illustrate the same theme. Lycett (p. 534) records that Stanley Baldwin (Kipling’s cousin and Prime Minister 1923-29 and 1935-37, who is frequently portrayed as a quintessential English countryman, usually smoking a pipe and engaged in scratching a pig’s back) said that he had read the story ‘over and over again’.
One of the earliest books about Kipling written after his death is by Edward Shanks Shanks thought highly of “An Habitation Enforced”: the chapter heading under which he discusses the tale is “The Golden Years”. He is referring to Kipling’s work, but the phrase has been used to describe the whole Edwardian, pre-1914, era. However, as has been touched on above, the gold was largely gold-plating, if not mere pinchbeck, and Shanks opens the work by commenting on the effect on the nation, and Kipling, of the Liberal landslide victory in the 1906 election, which had an effect comparable to that of the Labour victory 39 years later, at the end of World War II. But “An Habitation Enforced” is not in the least politically inspired: it is inspired by Kipling’s love of the country (countryside) and his love of his country (England – and that word is used advisedly, rather than Britain, or Great Britain).
Because Shanks’ work is not generally available now, it seems worthwhile to quote him in extenso:
Another way of looking at the facts and their consequences would be to say that his first maturity began when he left India to discover the world and his second when he came home from the world to discover England.
… A little later he moved to Burwash which even today is reasonably quiet and remote. But events prevented him from settling there in peace until the new century. Then he began to discover England there.
I have already said that India is a parish and that Kipling, when he left India was in some danger of becoming parochial. But the world is a parish too. The cosmopolitan with no true roots in any one country tends to become as narrow as the man who never moves out of the village where he was born. Kipling (or rather his mother) asked: “What do they know of England who only England know?” But he came to realise that the Englishman who wants to know the world must know his own country as well. When he first returned from India, however, he seemed hardly to know that it existed. There is something significant in his confession that during those early days in London:
I was so ignorant, I never guessed when the great fogs fell that trains could take me to light and sunshine a few miles outside London. Once I face the reflection of my own face in the jet-black mirror of the window-panes for five days.
[Something of Myself]
It was not ignorance, of course. It was indifference. Even the years in Devonshire had left behind them no affection for English fields and hedgerows. That was to grow later.
I think, too, that he tried to express the meaning of the change that had occurred to him when he became conscious of it by placing the poem I am about to quote immediately before a group of some of the best pieces he wrote about England.
The present editor finds that last remark somewhat baffling. The poem quoted is “The Return”, which was published in The Five Nations, and collected in the various Inclusive and Definitive Editions of the verse, and in the Sussex Edition, but not, it is believed, attached to, or preceding, any of the tales, in any of the collections. Be that as it may, Shanks quotes the last stanza, and in particular the envoi:
If England was what England seems,
And not the England of our dreams,
But only putty, brass an’ paint,
‘Ow quick we’d chuck ‘er! But she ain’t!
Shanks goes on:
Some critics have picked on [these] lines as proof that his loudly expressed patriotism is only superficial or at best selfish. I cannot see any ground for the charge. One loves one’s country for what she is, not as an abstraction. But in any case Kipling was now on his way to discover an England which was not all putty, brass and paint.
He himself has described the process of his “recall”. The story called “An Habitation Enforced” can be profitably compared with another, “An Error in the Fourth Dimension”. In “An Error in the Fourth Dimension” (first published eleven years earlier, in 1894), Wilton Sargent, a young American millionaire, sets out ‘with the versatility of his race … to be just a little more English than the English’. To this end he does a number of things, which are described in a slightly patronising manner (it is one of Kipling’s less amiable stories) … and the end of the imbroglio is that he flees back to America, with every intention of staying there. It is perhaps a little trivial to seek an implication in what is after all only a gay and trivial piece of farce. But if there is an implication to be found, it is that Americans should not try to turn themselves into Englishmen.
…George Chapin, in “An Habitation Enforced”, comes from the same world as Wilton Sargent – the world of American big business. But he has worked there until his nerves have given way. He and his wife drift, bored and aimless, about Europe, hating the life they are leading, but not daring, for fear of George’s life and sanity, to return to their own country. At last they meet a wise woman who sends them to stay at Rocketts, ‘the farm of one Cloke, in the southern counties – where she assured them, they would meet the genuine England of folklore and song.’
On their first morning, George wants to know where the nearest telegraph office is and they are given a line across country.
…It is to an abandoned house that, when they have been thus prepared, their walk leads them. The old shepherd who invites them to walk over it says proudly of the staircase, ‘Plenty room here for your coffin to come down. Seven foot and three men at each end wouldn’t brish the paint.’ By an exquisite stroke of invention it is Sophie Chapin’s discovery of this old man peacefully dead in the old farm at the back and her watching beside him which make the purchase of the house seem right to her. When George suggests that her experience may have put her against the plan, she exclaims, ‘No! What happened this morning seemed to be more of a – of a leading than anything else.’
Now I am not concerned here to praise this lovely story in detail, nor have I cited it by way of proof that Kipling contradicts the implications of “An Error in the Fourth Dimension”. He is hardly to be taken as preaching that all Americans should buy properties in England and turn themselves into Englishmen again. The real point of the story is that it is as personal as a lyric, that it is a sincere and beautiful projection in the form of the short story of the author’s own emotions.
Kipling was not an American or a millionaire, he was not gathered in in just this way by the magic of the English countryside. But it is substantially true to say that until the beginning of the century England was not his home. He had no roots here. This is reflected in the consciousness one cannot escape after reading “An Habitation Enforced” that English landscapes have been exceedingly rare in his earlier work. There are some incidental schoolboy memories in Stalky & Co. There is a marvellous bravura piece of impressionism in “My Sunday at Home” [from The Day’s Work]. In “The Brushwood Boy” [also from The Day’s Work] there are softer landscapes which, as we learn to expect from Kipling, seem to reach forward to his work in the next decade, and here perhaps we can best see the beginning of the fascination which was to grow until it became unescapable.
But “An Habitation Enforced” is the hymn of praise of the man who knows that he has come home and who knows also, in some mystical manner, that his return has been accepted and approved. Kipling at this time was in a peculiarly sensitive condition. On the private side of his life he had not long since suffered a grievous loss in the death of a dearly loved child. On the public side of his life he had received a grievous blow, not in the destruction of his political ideals but in a weakening of his confidence that they could be realised. England gave him not merely consolation but a new extension of life. Whereas on his departure from India he had sought this extension in space, he now found it in time.
In his manner (and this is a trick of his on which comment has not often been made) he attached to “An Habitation Enforced” a poem in which, in different terms and the different medium of verse, he says the same thing over again. This, though it is one of the best things he ever wrote, even considered in the company of what he did in his best period as a poet, does not excel its companion story in poignancy. But it must be quoted, if only for one phrase:
I am the land of their fathers.
In me the virtue stays.
I will bring back my children,
After certain days.
Under their feet in the grasses
My clinging magic runs.
They shall return as strangers.
They shall remain as sons.
Over their heads in the branches
Of their new-bought, ancient trees,
I weave an incantation
And draw them to my knees.
Scent of smoke in the evening,
Smell of rain in the night –
The hours, the days and the seasons
Order their souls aright,
Till I make plain the meaning
Of all my thousand years –
Till I fill their hearts with knowledge,
While I fill their hearts with tears.
‘All my thousand years’! It is to this feeling of the past that Kipling returns again and again throughout the work of his golden years. The English may make mistakes at home and abroad, the affairs of the Empire may go awry, but England is a country which has been built up by the work of generation after generation. She is not merely putty brass and paint.
Twenty years later Joyce Tompkins also commented on the tale, though not so extensively. She sees it from another angle – and is entirely justified in so doing. In the chapter entitled “Healing” she writes:
The theme of healing is not, like that of revenge, one of Kipling’s original themes. It emerges strongly in what I have called the halcyon period of his art, the tales that are collected in Actions and Reactions and Rewards and Fairies, and continues to act as a powerful focus of his imagination until in Limits and Renewals half the tales are in one way and another, concerned with it.
… It is significant that Actions and Reactions begins an ends with a tale of healing. It is the new theme. In the collections of his middle and later life, Kipling seems to have intedned the first and last tales to serve as the pillars of an archway, corresponding to each other in some part of their meaning , and framing the section of life we see between them.
… In the first tale of Actions and Reactions, “An Habitation Enforced”, the healing is already at all levels, physical, intellectual and spiritual. George Chapin, broken by the pace and strain of the American financial world, and his wife Sophie find health and satisfaction in the ancient, composed, fruitful life of the English countryside. When Kipling made his first acquaintance with country life in Vermont, ten years before, he wrote in “From Tideway to Tideway” that there the visitor “is set down to listen to the normal beat of his own heart – a sound that very few men have ever heard”.
This was in the New England winter, and the conditions and his own sensitiveness exaggerated the rarity of the discovery. “An Habitation Enforced” is soaked in summer air, and the heart-beat that steadies the Chapins is the pulse of nature, of rural society and, to quote Mr. [T.S.] Eliot, of the past in the present. Sophie, delighted and growing daily into closer comradeship with her husband, thrusts her roots at once into the good soil; George, more uncertain of himself and suspicious of his surroundings, takes longer to yield to acclimatisation, but the birth of his son and the restoration of the derelict estate he buys in the Weald combine to fix him.
It may be suggested that Kipling has, in fact and with consummate skill, combined the two themes of place and healing. That the tale is about ‘place’ is undoubted:
I am the land of their fathers.
In me the virtue stays.
I will bring back my children,
After certain days.
Equally it is about healing: it is hardly surprising that Sophie is ‘healed’ first. Friars Pardon is her place; for George it is somewhere new. And physically and mentally it is George who has suffered most, and so will be slower to heal.
Professor J I M Stewart examines “An Habitation Enforced” with “My Son’s Wife (A Diversity of Creatures), as do other critics. Stewart seems, to this editor, to be equivocal in his criticism:
Let us consider something of their sustained power to irritate through the medium of the short story. “An Habitation Enforced” will make a good beginning. [He then summarises the story, and also that of “My Son’s Wife”]
Both these stories require a certain radical sympathy in the reader if they are not to appear bullying performances. They are emphatic statements of persuasions which can readily present themselves as prejudices: we may feel that we are being faced with arguments in which one side is allowed to have its own way. Yet they do faithfully reflect elemental facts of human life and they touch us at the depths of our own nature where the “clinging magic” does run. [“clinging magic” is a quote from Verse 2, line 2, of The Recall, the poem which follows “An Habitation Enforced”.]
So far as “An Habitation Enforced” is concerned, this Editor can see no bullying in the tale.
A number of other critics turned their attention to Kipling in the mid-1970s. Martin Fido writes as follows:
Life at Bateman’s provided the motive force for the most positive stories in the next two collections. “An Habitation Enforced” deal(s) with an American couple settling cosily into the life of village and county in (a) house very like Kiplings. The minor landed gentry theme predominated, for although Rudyard wrote respectfully of the skills of the labouring men of Sussex – hedgers, tree-surgeons, water-diviners and well-sinkers – he did not mix with them as easily as he had done with the Indians and soldiers of the Punjab. He made no friends in Burwash apart from Colonel Feilden, who owned a smart William and Mary house.
This is fair comment: but Kipling’s circumstances in Burwash were very different from what they had been in India, and also from those when he was in Vermont. In India, he was a young journalist: in Sussex, he was an established author, and a celebrity. In the social climate of the time, he could not have readily dropped into the local pub (one must doubt that Carrie would have approved): for one thing, it was the best part of a mile away, up a steep-ish hill, and if he had done so, he would have been expected to drink in the saloon bar, not in the public bar. However, he did mix with the labouring men, but as an employer, working alongside them (his letters suggest as much), and the description, on page 49, towards the end of “An Habitation Enforced”, of George Chapin working with his estate workers probably gives an idea of how Kipling saw his relationships with his men.
Kingsley Amis speaks of the poem “Sussex”, written in 1902, as being:
…well-written, observant, thoughtful and too emphatic, the work of a man putting his roots down by will-power.
This editor considers that to be very fair comment, and justified; Kipling, it may be suggested, realised that the years were slipping by ( he was 37, over half-way through his biblical life-span), and if he were to establish roots, it had to be done swiftly.
The same could be said of the story, “An Habitation Enforced”, in which an American couple settle among English country-folk. The latter are too wise and understanding and unchanged and selfless by half. Nobody shows the strangers any hostility, suspicion or even indifference. Some scenes could even form the basis of a heart-warming American film starring Robert Taylor and Sylvia Sidney. To put the matter more colourfully, the tone and content of the story are Anglophile, something which a real Englishman cannot be”.
Which may be true – or have a grain of truth in it: but it is suggested that if ‘the stranger within your gates’ is friendly, and open, and forthcoming, as most Americans (in this editor’s experience) are, then even the most xenophobic ancient Briton will respond: and Kipling was merely trying to suggest this – he wasn’t giving a blow-by-blow description of how every one in the county reacted: so do so would not have improved the story; not to do so did not make it unreal.
Angus Wilson comments substantially on “An Habitation Enforced”:
Kipling was constantly trying, as he thought, to strengthen his work with realistic detail, technical exactitude. It was not his inborn inaccuracy in relation to detail alone, I think, that makes him so often inexact. It was that he was not a realist at all. His forte was the creation of his own world out of his impressions of the real world. The facts – accurate or inaccurate of the real world – are only important in so far as they impress the reader with the truth of the created world.
…These strengths were to the fore in two Sussex tales of these years in which he directly put forward relationship to the country, relationship to inherited roots of habitation, as balm to cure the terrible tensions of the age.
Wilson then summarises the story, and goes on:
There are key sentences that suggest the country’s healing powers: ‘It’s the proportions’ [of the house] … ‘people don’t seem to matter in this country compared to the place they live in’ … the foreknowledge of deliciously empty hours to follow … ‘climate, all climate’ (This last is a peculiarly insincere attribution, for the Kipling’s were to escape English winters all their lives, save for the years of the war.)
Now, with all its excellencies of scene and background characters, “An Habitation Enforced” does not convince. The healing of Mr. and Mrs. Chapin seems improbable, their discontented return to Brown’s Hotel after a few days much more likely. It is an improbable scheme, but Kipling has made a hundred far more improbable situations convincing. It is the pressure of outside urgencies that mars the story. A weary Londoner, yes, but Americans are not needed to make the point. I suspect that the story is addressed to his wife, is a fantasy that welcomes her to the English land he had brought her to, and tells her that she is its true spiritual heir. If so, it is a touching mark of his love for her, and his realisation of her isolation, but it is an inartistic sentimentalism.
All the above writers have tended to write negatively about this story. Two others, Philip Mason and Roger Lancelyn Green both of whom were members of the Kipling Society, were more positive. Philip Mason writes:
… but there is also “An Habitation Enforced”, a double-length story, one of the fuller exercises in “Hobdenism” and the ways of English Country folk.”
…Two other stories are about healing, though not about doctors of medicine, Both centre on men who are sick at heart or in spirit. One is an American millionaire, struck down in the middle of a deal by a complete mental and nervous collapse, something that doctors recognise … [the other tale is “My Son’s Wife] … Both men are healed by becoming absorbed in the life of the English countryside, Gorge Chapin and his wife by the shades of meaning and emphasis in English country behaviour, by the things said and as often left unsaid by an established way of society centuries old; their conversation sometimes hovers on the brink of sentimental.
Both these stories are variation on the theme of “A Charm”:
Take of English earth as much
As either hand may rightly clutch…
Lay that earth upon thy heart
And thy sickness shall depart.
Roger Lancelyn Green also wrote at length about “An Habitation Enforced”:
We do not, I think, know for certain what the local gentry really thought of Kipling – the landowner rather than the author – between 1902 and the end of that particular civilisation they typifies, which came with the First World War.
But we do know that Kipling in two of his best stories captured for ever the whole ethos, outlook and sentiment of the old landed gentry, once and for all, absolutely and authentically, with such understanding and conviction that any survivor of that particular “Inner Ring” knowing nothing of him but these two stories would place him unhesitatingly as the scion of an ancient house with many centuries of ancestral background in the same spot and enough authentic quarterings to satisfy Mr. Pine himself [the editor of Burke’s Landed Gentry, among other similar books, and author of books on heraldry].
The two stories are “An Habitation Enforced” written in March 1905, published in the Century Magazine for August in the same year and collected in Actions and Reactions
To most readers the world which Kipling describes in these stories is as distant and as hard to recapture as the Simla of Plain Tales; to do so demands as much of a mental metempsychosis as the stories of Romans and Normans in Puck of Pook’s Hill. But many of us remember old people met in our youth who knew Kipling’s India as and when he knew it – soldiers, administrators, political residents, civil engineers, with their wives from ‘the Colonel’s lady to Judy O’Grady’ – who bore witness to the fidelity with which he had caught and preserved the background, and often the minutest details of the stories themselves.
In the same way, there is still time – but only just – to test the reliability of his grasp of the people and their outlook and way of life in rural England – in Sussex in particular – which he got to know so well between 1902 and 1914.
His approach to both India and England was surprisingly similar. He came to each as an outsider, studying a foreighn culture – and became part of it. “We discovered England, which we had never done before”, he wrote to Charles Eliot Norton in November 1902 at the beginning of his adventure, “and went to live in it. England is a wonderful land. It is the most marvellous of all foreign countries that I have ever been in. It is made up of trees and green fields and mud and the gentry and at last I’m one of the gentry”.
In both this story [“My Son’s Wife”] and “An Habitation Enforced” we are shown how “The Land” and “The House” grow upon their unwilling or unsuspecting captives [Midmore] and the Chapins, until they become part of it – return, in a sense, to the clay from which they were digged. It is in their discovery of the land and its people and their absorption into it that Kipling shows the depth of his own discovery of the inner meaning of what at first seems so incomprehensible.
[As George Chapin says (page 15, line 1); “I give it up. People don’t seem to matter in this country compared to the places they live in.”]
But as with the best of Kipling’s mature stories the whole closely packed accumulation of detail and insight is needed, and the only valid quotation is the story in its entirety. And that entirety in “An Habitation Enforced” and “My Son’s Wife” may be accepted as being accurate in every detail and character from the squire [Sir Walter Conant, in “An Habitation Enforced”] to the village idiot [Jimmy, in “My Son’s Wife] – as it could possibly be – bearing in mind that Kipling, however great a writer, was a writer first and always; and that he was compressing what he had learnt (as a journalist maybe, but a journalist of genius) into two short stories, each of which might have served a writer of different inspiration as the plot for a whole novel.
We all, according to our temperaments and backgrounds, have our own favourites among Kipling’s stories – not necessarily those we think his greatest, but those which touch us most nearly. Chance has made me able to feel in this way about the two stories in question and given me the touchstone that proves them to be pure gold. Although not fully a member of that lost world, for simple chronological reasons, I grew up on a small country estate – of no importance, but with a background of nearly nine centuries. It like others, tried to continue in 1919 as if the previous five years had never taken place – and of course failed utterly, but only when the approach of 1939 brought on the main phase of ‘the greatest change in recorded history’.
Others still living can remember the days before 1914, and can speak with greater authority, but I am enough of a dinosaur (as C.S. Lewis styled himself in a similar context) to ‘know in my bones’ the authentic ring of true metal in this case. It is all true; the loyalty to the estate and the family which puts ‘the places they live in’ before merely personal or temporal considerations – for we are no more than life tenants in a place that belongs not to us but to the family; the loyalty which binds the squire, the tenants and the labourers complete with their families into one greater family. Sophie (and Kipling) feel this at one remove: “It’s not our land, we’ve only paid for it. We belong to it, and it belongs to the people – our people they call ‘em”.
This Editor would echo Roger Lancelyn Green’s words, though from a later and hence more remote, but similar, perspective. His family moved to a Sussex farmhouse, about four miles away from, and much the same size as, Bateman’s, albeit some 50 years older, with the same amount of land as Kipling had originally. The year was 1947, and there were sufficient traces of the old order – just – for it to be recognisable.
See also KJ 336/8.
©Alastair Wilson 2006 All rights reserved