The Essay: Kipling's new England

That bastion of Empire, Rudyard Kipling, actually spent his happiest years in America - until a family feud made him fear for his life and leave his dream home. Terry Neilan tells the tale

When the name Rudyard Kipling comes up, it's the Empire and its trappings that spring to mind. But for a writer who is thought of as so quintessentially British, Kipling certainly had a thing about America. If it hadn't been for a threat on his life, on a lonely New England road, by a hard-drinking, black-sheep brother-in-law named Beatty Balestier, the man who gave us The Jungle Book and Kim might today be thought of as much an American as an Englishman. Vermont and New Hampshire would come to mind just as readily as Bombay, Lahore and the Sussex Downs.

For it was in America, with an American wife, Caroline, that Kipling, in his mid-20s, found the first place that he felt like calling home. Two of his three children were born there - his first, Josephine, was a child of great beauty whom he adored, and he delighted in telling friends with pride that she was "truly an American'' - and he referred to his four years in Vermont as the happiest of his life. In India, the place of his birth, he was a colonialist first and last. In England he was also an outsider; he was, in short, a man without roots. But it was in America, on an 11 acre hillside pasture in Vermont, that he built the house of his dreams, and here, he indicated, he intended to remain for ever. He loved the beauty of the countryside, the crisp, clear winter weather, so important to his health after the damp English air had left him with weakened lungs. New England also held a perhaps surprising, though deeply felt, connection to his boyhood days, when he had read a poem about a mountain in New Hampshire that left him with a lasting impression.

The dream started to come to a humiliating end with Kipling wobbling, and then falling off, his recently acquired bicycle to the side of the bumpy dirt road that ran past his house. He heard the sound of horse hooves thundering towards him, and he didn't need to be told that driving the buckboard on a part of the dirt road known as The Pines was Beatty, an angry, revengeful man. Though he professed a love for animals, Beatty was known for always driving his horses to the limit and, on this particular Wednesday in May 1896, he thought he had a score to settle with Kipling. Although the two hadn't spoken for about a year, following many conflicts over money, Beatty shouted in a fury that Kipling had been spreading lies about him and if Kipling, who had said little up to this point, didn't "retract these goddamned lies within a week", he would blow out his brains.

"Let's get this straight,'' Kipling replied, now standing and staring through the thick glasses without which he could hardly see. "You say if I don't do certain things you will kill me?" "By Jesus, I will!" Beatty replied. Never one to give in to a threat, Kipling - short, stocky and broad-shouldered - stood his ground.

Three days later, after Kipling had complained to the sheriff of the nearby town of Brattleboro, Beatty was arrested, charged with assaulting Kipling and "threatening to kill". What Kipling had, perhaps naively, thought the sheriff would treat as a private matter, to be settled among the three of them, now passed into lawyers' hands, with Beatty taken off to jail and Kipling subjected to the kind of public scrutiny he had done his best to avoid. After an uncomfortable day of testimony in court, with Kipling forced into defending an off-guard remark that he had indeed been supporting his brother-in-law financially for a year, Beatty was bound over for the next court hearing, which was scheduled for September. Kipling's only way to bring the nightmare to an end was to leave before the case came to trial. When the Kiplings left Vermont that August, there was no longer a case for Beatty to answer. In four short years, the happiness that Kipling had found in America had been wrecked and on 1 September 1896, they set sail for England. For Kipling and Carrie, as his wife was known, the loss was immense. But there was an even bigger loss in their lives to come in America, one from which Kipling never recovered.

Vermont was where he wrote The Jungle Books, Captains Courageous and the Just So Stories (so called because Josephine wanted them read "just so", in the same way, every time Kipling told them) and a host of poems. It's where he spent time walking in the woods and playing with his children and, after putting in what is believed to have been the first court of its kind in Vermont, playing tennis. Before relations with Beatty hit rock bottom, the two families would weekend together. Kipling was also credited, by the American Golf Association, with inventing the game of snow golf, and he introduced skis to Vermont, a state where snowshoes ruled in winter.

In a letter to an American friend after his return to England, he told how, "Those four years in America will be blessed unto me for all my life,'' and wondered, "How the deuce has it wound itself around my heartstrings in the way it has? C and I sit over our inadequate English fire and grow - homesick." For as much as he had criticised America, calling it "an uncivilised land", he knew when he left that a part of his soul had stayed behind. Two months before their return to England, Kipling wrote to the American author William Dean Howells: "It is hard to go from where one has raised one's kids, and builded a wall and digged a well and planted a tree.'' Today the house where he did so much of his most famous work, brilliantly restored by the Landmark Trust, stands as serene as the day it was built in 1892, and can be rented by the week. Its Hindi name, Naulakha, means "something of great value".

Kipling was attracted to Vermont for a number of reasons: members of his wife's family lived there, of course, and he fell in love with the natural peace of the place. But it also brought him into full view, across the New Hampshire side of the Connecticut River, of Mount Moadnock, - the subject of a poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson - that had loomed large in his childhood imagination. Seeing it for the first time on his second day in Vermont was, for Kipling, a special, almost spiritual moment, and the house was sited so the mount could be seen from the front loggia.

Ironically, it was Beatty who took Kipling on a tour of the delights of Dummerston, the name of the county in which Kipling would set up home. And it was Beatty who sold Kipling the land on which Naulakha would be built, for the inflated price, in those days, of $750. Although it is widely believed that Beatty took pains to retain the right to cross the land and harvest the grass that would become hay, apparently no written agreement to this effect has been found. Perhaps it was settled with a handshake or in a casual, verbal way. But this matter is widely considered to have been the final straw for Beatty and Kipling. It was brought to a head after Carrie started planting trees on the property and talking of further plans for landscaping. It turned into a furious farce when Beatty, while the Kipling case was still in the courts, insisted on his right to take a muck-raking press contingent right up to the house.

A former journalist in India himself, Kipling had little regard for American reporters and had enraged them, and the American public, in sarcastic essays written during a six-month visit in 1889: he described America as lawless, arrogant and extravagant. And because of his almost instant fame as a writer, Kipling was hounded by reporters wherever he went, and he continued to refuse all interviews. Taking a hostile press to his house was the very thing Beatty knew would rile Kipling the most, and it was in keeping with Beatty's reputation in Brattleboro as a mean-spirited, spoilt braggart. It should be remembered that all this happened a little more than 100 years after the American Revolution, so there were still plenty of Americans who could be stirred up to dislike Kipling, if not for what he said, then just for being English. There was further fighting between Britain and the US in the War of 1812, fought along the Canadian border, which exacerbated hostility. And during his time in Vermont, Kipling was very seriously concerned - as unlikely as it might sound now - that an accusation by President Cleveland's administration, that Britain was encroaching on Venezuela from British Guyana, was being whipped up to the point at which America would declare war on Britain. Kipling thought the possibility so real that he made plans to leave the country.

However, after Kipling left Brattleboro, a movement was begun to persuade him to return, for he had grown popular. A local paper found that not one in 100 people interviewed believed Beatty's version of what had led to the final confrontation, for Kipling had established a circle of friends in Brattleboro, though small in number, that was centred on the downstairs bar and billiard room in the Brooks House Hotel.

Kipling's Vermont social circle included Mary Cabot, who had been in love with Carrie's brother Wolcott, a publisher's representative who signed up Kipling, became a close friend, and even collaborated with him on a novel, The Naulakha, a Story About East and West. When Wolcott died of typhoid in Germany in 1891, Kipling was in India with his parents, Alice and John Lockwood Kipling. He cut short what was to have been a world trip and returned to London, telegraphing a proposal of marriage to Carrie. Eight days after he arrived, on 18 January 1892, they were married by special licence at All Souls, Langham Place, in London's West End. To Henry James, also a friend of Wolcott's, it was "a dreary little wedding", and he doubted the marriage would last. Even Kipling's father described Carrie to Alice as "a good man spoiled".

Carrie was Wolcott's business organiser, a role she took on for Kipling after their marriage. Today she would be called a control freak. To Kipling, who said he fell in love with her while working with Wolcott, she represented the independent American woman. Her formality was in sharp contrast with Kipling's more relaxed attitude: he had a deep curiosity about everything and everyone around him and would spend hours at the Brattleboro railway station, for instance, talking with the stationmaster about trains, and chatting to the arriving and departing passengers.

Kipling also made a close friend of Dr James Conland, the doctor who brought his beloved daughter, Josephine, into the world, calling him, "the best friend I made in New England". Orphaned and brought up at Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Conland, like Kipling, was largely self-educated. Conland had served on fishing vessels, coasters and East India traders, so he had an intimate knowledge of the sea. It was this knowledge that Kipling put to good use in Captains Courageous, a title he had earlier given to an essay about the seal hunters, developers and explorers of the American North-West. It was Conland who gave Kipling first-hand knowledge of life aboard fishing vessels and took him to Boston Harbour to meet fishermen, and to Gloucester, Massachusetts, where Kipling went aboard the boats, working with the men and asking questions.

Kipling even numbered Theodore Roosevelt, at that time police commissioner of New York City, among his friends, and, during a visit to Bermuda, he developed a lifelong relationship with the Catlin family, of Morristown, New Jersey - it was from their home in 1896 that the Kiplings set out for the New York ship that would take them back to England. Another frequent and important visitor to Naulakha was Frank Doubleday, then of Scribner's but soon to start his eponymous publishing company. The two became lasting friends.

During his father's first-ever visit to Vermont, in 1893, Kipling accompanied him on visits to Boston and New York. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, Lockwood renewed an old friendship with the Harvard professor and philosopher Charles Eliot Norton, whose daughter, Sallie, had played with Kipling as a child in England. Norton, who had included Emerson and Longfellow among his friends, added his own praise of Kipling's "poetic imagination", and this meeting, along with Norton's praise, brought Kipling into the centre of the East Coast intellectual circle. He became friends with William James of Harvard and with the author Sarah Orne Jewett, and he renewed an acquaintanceship with John Hay, the writer, diplomat and former secretary to Abraham Lincoln, whom he first met when he and Carrie crossed to New York in 1892.

The picture that emerges of Kipling in these four years is of a man reaching out to people who interested him, happy with his active life and overjoyed with his children, and writing in his book-lined study from his usual 9am to 1pm. It was a creative period in many ways, and Kipling, at this time at least, was a man who enjoyed the company of others, and could hold a party spellbound with his stories. At one gathering at Naulakha, Mary Cabot said he spontaneously composed 75 verses of a poem. He also adored, and was adored by, children. At Naulakha, too, he organised at least one barn dance, had carol singers visit at Christmas, and entertained guests from around the world, although Naulakha, which was 90ft long and 22ft wide, had only one room reserved for visitors. Among them, in 1894, was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his brother, Innes. Conan Doyle was in America on a lecture tour to further Anglo-American friendship, and he hoped to influence Kipling's views. The two men hit it off at once, despite their differences, and the two-day visit had a surprising outcome. Conan Doyle brought his golf clubs with him and gave Kipling lessons on the meadow while, as, Conan Doyle wrote, "the New England rustics watched us". Conan Doyle also left behind a pair of skis, and Kipling would later spend part of the long Vermont winters trying to master their use.

Kipling also took a keen interest in local affairs. He successfully campaigned for a new post office to be installed closer to his house, and he convinced the Boston and Maine Railroad to tone down the sound of its train horns, saying that they frightened the horses as they galloped into and out of Brattleboro through a covered bridge. He failed, however, to convince the town not to install a trolley system.

In Brattleboro, which he liked and visited often, his social life focused on the bar at the Brooks House Hotel, which was entered down a steep flight of stairs. Today the name of the hotel still stands in large lettering on the building at the corner of Main Street and High Street, but the building, sadly shabby in appearance, has been converted into a myriad of apartments and offices. The bar, too, is still there, converted into a restaurant called The Mole's Eye, which serves an eclectic menu in a distinctly casual atmosphere. And it was in the Brooks bar that he made the remark that became his undoing.

When Wolcott died, Carrie and Rudyard had promised they would look after Beatty, who was newly married with a daughter but didn't like to work and existed mainly through the largess of his grandmother, who lived along the same dirt road. She had given him his own farm, as well as the 11 acres the Kiplings finally bought. With the decision to build Naulakha made, the Kiplings reasoned it would help Beatty financially if they made him manager of the project. They would give him the money for the contractors and Beatty would pay them off.

The Kiplings also advanced Beatty small loans from time to time, all painstakingly recorded by Carrie. For as social as Kipling was in this period, Carrie was his opposite. She was businesslike, certainly, but considered cold, cultivated and snobbish - she insisted that they dress formally for dinner, for instance, even when she and Kipling were living in a simple rented cottage while the house was being built; maids left her service when she insisted that they wear hats. The trouble set in when Carrie suspected that not all the money they were giving to Beatty was being passed on to the contractors. Beatty brushed it off, but the bad blood between them continued to simmer. Still they helped him, even deciding, once work on the house was finished, that it would be to Beatty's financial advantage to put in the tennis court and they intended to make him the manager of that project, too. For about a year after the widely reported dispute about Carrie's landscaping plans, the two families communicated only in writing.

The fateful moment for Kipling came on a day in March 1896, when one of the regulars at the Brooks bar said: "People in town think you have been holding Beatty up by the slack of his breeches." Not given to discussing his family problems in public, on this occasion Kipling did not deny the assertion, saying that until a year before he had indeed supported Beatty, which he thought was well known around town anyway. Soon after that seemingly innocent exchange, the Kiplings, as they often did, decided to take a break from Brattleboro, spending a month near the New Jersey shore. The day after they got back, an angry letter arrived from Beatty confronting Kipling with the "breeches" remark, calling it slander and demanding a retraction, which Kipling refused. The incident at The Pines came a few days later.

Beatty considered he could turn the events to his advantage, and maybe even sell his story to the press. Always short of money, Beatty had declared bankruptcy about a month before the court hearing. He was even unable to come up with the money for bail, and Kipling, his supposed adversary, offered to make the payment for him - an offer that Beatty dismissed sneeringly. Despite looking nervous at times, Kipling held his own in court, refusing to take back anything he had said about Beatty: "I wouldn't retract a word under fear of death from any living man.'' But the hearing, indeed the whole dispute, took its toll on his health. Carrie wrote in her diary: "Rud a total wreck. Sleeps all the time, dull, listless and dreary.'' From then on until he left, Kipling carried a gun when he walked the Naulakha pasture. After Kipling left, the house and most of its contents were sold to Mary Cabot for a well-below-market $8,000. She later sold it to her nephew and it stayed in the family until it was bought and restored by Landmark in 1992.

After 1896, Kipling never returned to Vermont, but he did return to New York, in February 1899, in part to settle a copyright dispute. The whole family was hit with colds and bronchial problems, with the children diagnosed with whooping cough. On 20 February, Kipling came down with pneumonia in both lungs. For over a week the press was parked outside their Manhattan hotel night and day until Kipling finally recovered. Meanwhile, Josephine was sent to recover in what was thought to be the more beneficial rural surroundings of Long Island. Tragedy struck, however, on 6 March: Josephine, the daughter he worshipped, the little girl he was so proud to call an American, died of pneumonia. As Charles Carrington wrote of Carrie in his 1955 Kipling biography: "How and when she broke the news to him is their own secret. Months passed before he recovered from his illness; from the shock of his daughter's death he never recovered; nor did Carrie.''

On 14 June 1899, Rudyard and Carrie left for England. Kipling never set foot in the United States again.

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