The Way through the Woods

(notes by Philip Holberton)

Publication

Published with “Marklake Witches” in Rewards and Fairies (1910).

The poem

This has become one of the best known and loved of Kipling’s poems. The late J W Michael Smith, Hon. Secretaryn of the Kipling Society, writing in the Kipling Journal of March 2006, gave this account of its origins.


It is … well documented in Christabel Aberconway’s autobiography. [Christabel Aberconway, A Wiser Woman? A Book of Memories Hutchinson, 1966.]

She, as Christabel Macnaghten (born in December 1890), was a very close friend of Josephine Kipling, claiming to be her “best friend”. I think Angela Mackail might have claimed that distinction with slightly firmer authority.

The event happened before Josephine’s tragic death in the spring of 1899 when Christabel, who was a frequent holiday visitor to her uncle’s home in Ovingdean, had walked over to Rottingdean from there to play with her friend in the garden of The Elms. The Macnaghtens were the squires of Ovingdean and lived at Ovingdean Grange, the setting of Harrison Ainsworth’s novel about the escape of Charles II. She would have been seven at the time.

She had been playing in the garden with Josephine when Rudyard told Jo that Carrie wanted her daughter in the house, and so the two were left together. He certainly asked her how she had enjoyed her recent holiday in the New Forest and she replied that the Forest frightened her and that she much preferred the Downs. She asked him if he believed in ghosts – not fairies, but “ghosts”. Jo (her diminutive) returned and Rudyard left them. A few days later Rudyard said to her “I’ve written a poem about ghosts in a wood; it is a very lonely wood and no one sees the ghosts; you only hear the sound of a horse galloping and a sound of a lady’s skirt swishing as she rides; I shall give you the poem.”

Christabel, to her great regret, never received the poem and was reminded of it when many years later she read Rewards and Fairies. Christabel was later, as Lady Aberconway, a member of the Kipling Society.

Footnote

John McGivering points out that it was reported on July 12th 2016
that evidence of a prehistoric “farming collective” had been discovered after aerial laser scanning was carried out in the South Downs National Park. Large-scale farming from before the Roman invasion suggests a high level of civilisation. The survey also revealed the route of a long-suspected Roman road between Chichester and Brighton.

©Philip Holberton 2020 All rights reserved