My own history with Sussex goes back a long time. I first moved to the county at the age of 23 when I took a job as a computer programmer in Hastings. I soon fell in love with this region which although only 60 miles or so from London feels very remote from the capital. While some of the towns of Sussex are quite large, you can also visit many tiny villages and sometimes you find yourself driving up little lanes that seem to be in the deepest countryside. Although it can be busy in the day time, when you drive out after 9.00pm it often feels like you have the county to yourself along with the foxes and the owls.
However, my time in Sussex has been intermittent, with periods spent in other parts of the country due to work commitments. Now we have moved back down here, and I feel that we are going to stay. Now I find that Kipling expresses my feelings about a more permanent residency in Sussex in his poem, The Recall:
Under their feet in the grasses
My clinging magic runs,
They shall return as strangers,
They shall remain as sons.
Many writers have lived in Sussex. I have previously written about Hilaire Belloc who made his home in the west of the county, and now in this article its the turn of Rudyard Kipling who’s love for his adopted Sussex is reflected in countless articles, books and poems. David Arscott has published a fine collection of Kipling’s Sussex writings under the title A Sussex Kipling, a well-produced book published by his own Pomegranate Press which is based in the county town of Lewes and specialises in Sussex titles.
Kipling of course published many books the best known of which are perhaps The Jungle Books which he wrote in Vermont USA (a time when he met and interviewed Mark Twain) and Stalky and Co which he wrote in Devon UK. But when he moved to Sussex in 1897 he continued his prolific output with the equally well-known Kim, Just So Stories, Puck of Pooks Hill and many articles and poems, leading to the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907. Much of his output seems dated today, particularly for its militaristic and imperialistic themes, but there is also much that seems to be timeless.
But to get back to the Sussex connection. David Arscott opens his book with the statement,
Rudyard Kipling was a much-travelled man, but to only two parts of the world did he commit both his heart and his pen. The first of these was India, the land of his infancy and of his early manhood. The second was Sussex, the land of his maturity.
Kipling’s residency in Sussex began in Rottingdean near Brighton, where he moved to a house called The Elms which he was neighbours with his Aunt Georgie and her husband the artist Sir Edward Burne Jones. Kipling was immediately enamoured of Sussex and wrote his famous poem “Sussex by the Sea” soon after moving to Rottingdean.
So one shall Baltic pines content
As one some Surrey glade,
Or one the palm-grove’s droned lament
Before Levuka’s Trade
Each to his choice, and I rejoice
That lot has fallen to me
In a fair ground – in a fair ground -
Yea, Sussex by the sea!
Kipling arrived in Sussex at a time when travel by motor car was becoming a practical possibility and David Arscott has devoted a chapter of his book to Kipling love of the motor-car. While not driving himself due to poor eyesight, Kipling loved being driven around Sussex exploring its many towns and villages. We read of his experiences with early cars such as the Locomobile (“yes, I have a hell and a half of a motor!”), and the Lanchester (“smells like a fried fish shop and spits her condenser water boiling, over our knees”). David Arscott includes some fascinating accounts of car journeys around the county, and Kipling certainly had to use his knowledge of the internal working of the motor-car, for breakdowns seems to have been a frequent occurrence. However, Kipling was well able to wax lyrical about the car,
But the chief end of the car, so far as I am concerned, is the discovery of England. To me it is a land of stupefying marvels and mysteries; and a day in the car in an English county is a day in some fairy museum where all the exhibits are alive and real and yet none the less delightfully mixed up with books. For instance in six hours I can go from the land of the Ingoldsby Legends by way of the Norman Conquest and the Barons’ War into Richard Jefferies’ country, and so through the Regency, one of Arthur Young’s less-known tours, and Celia’s Arbour, into Gilbert White’s territory.
In 1902 the Kiplings moved to Batemans, a large 17th century house in Burwash, which at the time had no bathroom and no electricity. Batemans is now owned by the National Trust and is open to the public. Its full of Kipling memorabilia and David Arscott’s book has made me want to visit it again as he confirms that Kipling’s study is much as he left as can be seen at the excellent photo-gallery on the National Trust site.
I often find with writers that there is a gap between the time when they are popular and the time when they achieve “classical” status, during which their work just seems dated. Kipling himself may be in this phase. His politics seems terribly jingoistic, and his stories are rarely seem to hit the spot in the way they did when they were at their height of popularity. The selections in A Sussex Kipling suggest that Kipling was no Guy de Maupassant, although David Arscott’s choices show that he certainly had a vivid sense of place and a gift for characterisation. The subject matter sometimes seems a little weak however, as in the story “They” in which the writer visits house owned by a blind woman which she shares with a group of haunted children.
Not everyone would nowadays appreciate Kipling’s attempts to create myths in which ancient gods are personified and mingle with humans, as in the Puck of Pooks hill stories. As David Arscott writes,
Kipling can sometimes prove difficult to fathom because he makes few concessions to readers unfamiliar with his widespread references – to the Bible and the Classics, for instance; to social and relgious nuances in his Indian stories; to the arcana of the men’s worlds he liked to infiltrate for his poems and short stories.
However, David Arscott has included a fairly interesting selection in A Sussex Kipling and they certainly give a flavour of what so entranced Kipling’s readership in the early part of the last century.
Sussex is noted for the lines of chalk hills known as the South Downs which run the whole length of the county mainly along the coastline, and provide some majestic white cliffs which stand above a sparklingly blue sea. It is when Kipling describes this entrancing landscape that the book comes into its own:
There came at last a brilliant day, swept clear from the south-west that brought the hills within hand’s reach – a day of unstable airs and high filmy clouds. Through no merit of my own I was free, and set the car for the third time on that known road. As I reached the crest of the Downs I felt the soft air change, saw it glaze under the sun; and looking down at the sea, in that instant beheld the blue of the channel turn through polished silver and dulled steel to dingy pewter.
Many are the times I have had similar experiences when driving south towards my home. Coming down through the Sussex Weald, you suddenly get a glimpse of Kipling’s “whale-backed Downs”, and climb up on one of the roads over the top of the hills and see the English Channel glistening in the sun, with perhaps a ferry heading off to France. I know that there are countless other wonderful sights in England and around the world but I believe that this one is the equal of any.
A Sussex Kipling will have a permanent place on my shelves and is a find addition to my library of books about Sussex and the Downs. I also discovered that David Arscott runs The Sussex Book Club which brings together as many books about Sussex as he can find. Browsing the catalogue presents me with many other titles which doubtless I will acquire over the next few years.
Title: A Sussex Kipling
Author: David Arscott
Publication: Pomegranate Press (27 April 2007), Paperback, 164 pages
ISBN: 978 0 954 89751 2
I took the photographs in the above article myself. They can be reproduced subject to Creative Commons licence.