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A Ruddy Good Writer

kipling-house-in-vermontIf you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you…”

I’m familiar with these words, but I never realized they were written by Rudyard Kipling. “If–” is consistently voted the most popular poem in Britain, and all too frequently quoted, according to its author. Despite being woefully unfamiliar with his other works, I was thrilled to be invited to spend a weekend at Naulakha, the Kiplings’ home in Dummerston, Vermont during their four years in America.

Whenever they travel, my second cousin Mark and his wife Liz, who live outside London, try to stay at one of the many properties run by The Landmark Trust in the U.K. Restored manor houses, castles, forts, and cottages, they exude history and charm. The Landmark Trust USA offers a small group of historic homes for vacation rentals as well, including Kipling’s former shingle-style home outside Brattleboro. 90 feet long but only 22 feet wide, it was designed to resemble a ship riding the hillside like a wave, with vistas of the Connecticut River Valley and a glimpse of Mt. Monadnock. It’s a stunner, alright. When Mark, who studied and taught at Oxford, started planning a trip to the States two years ago, he lost no time nailing down a stay at Naulakha.

Determined to know something about old Rudyard before I slept under his roof, I checked out The Jungle Book. I found all the anthropomorphizing a little daunting so I stuck to the preface. Thanks to that, and recent articles in the Globe and the New York Times about the new Kipling biography, I can reel off a few fun facts about Francis Rudyard (Ruddy) Kipling.

Did you know…

His parents fell in love in Staffordshire, England at a picnic on Lake Rudyard.

At age 41, he was the first English-language writer, and youngest-ever winner, of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle gave him a pair of downhill skis, believed to be the first in Vermont.

He allegedly coined more phrases in the English language than any source besides Shakespeare and the Bible. In addition to “white man’s burden,” he gave us “bite the bullet,” “never the twain shall meet,” “slack-jawed,” and “Svengali.” Who knew?

Kipling was a complex man of startling contradictions. He has been variously called a colonialist, an imperialist, and a racist, as well as one of the greatest and most versatile writers of all time. He was also no slouch when it came to socializing, counting among his friends Henry James, Mark Twain, Frank Doubleday, and Teddy Roosevelt.

So how did this Bombay-born Brit come to call Vermont home from 1893-1896?  At age 23, he fell in love with and married American Carolyn “Carrie” Balestier. On 10 acres of land near Brattleboro, where Carrie’s family had settled generations earlier, he built his dream house, which he named Naulakha.

By all accounts, the Kiplings thrived in New England. There Rudyard wrote Captains Courageous and The Jungle Book, earning him world-wide recognition, and began work on Kim. He also started telling what came to be known as the “Just So Stories” to their two young daughters. Their idyllic life in New England, however, came to an abrupt end when Kipling and his alcoholic brother-in-law had an epic falling out that culminated in a messy court battle. With public opinion strongly against him, he packed up his family and returned to England, leaving behind most of his possessions. He might be pleased to know they remain in good hands.

Naulakha, if you’re wondering, is a Hindi word meaning “jewel without price.” That’s not entirely true today, as the opportunity to sleep in Kipling’s bed and bathe in his claw-footed tub is hardly free. But how often can one relax in a famous author’s book-lined study and sit at the very desk from which literary classics were penned? Paying guests can also play a set of tennis, go sledding, or simply stroll among the lovely grounds, just as the Kiplings did. Or even grill burgers and dogs on the outdoor barbecue, which I’m fairly certain the Kiplings did not do.

Breakfasting at the original table in the spacious updated kitchen, along with my husband, sister, brother-in-law, and British kin, I read aloud the top 10 things to do in Brattleboro from the Moon travel guide to Vermont. We chuckled over the prospect of visiting a clothing-optional venue but opted instead for a hike to the former ice pond at Retreat Farm, followed by a stop at the Grafton Village Cheese Shop. I think we made the right call.

The latter, simply put, is a cheese-lover’s paradise. And who among us lactose-tolerant types doesn’t love unlimited free samples of fromage? Toothpicks for spearing cubes of cheddar, flavored with chili, truffle, garlic, and sage, were flying fast and furious, mostly by me. And then there was the award-winning Shepsog, the Algonquin word for sheep, as we all know. But it wasn’t all curds and whey. To cleanse the palate between cheese courses, one could also try savory spreads such as Triple Ale Onion on tiny crackers, and… well, you get the gist. The only disappointment was the chocolate bar, bursting with mouth-watering peppermint patties, dark chocolate-covered pretzels, and salted caramels; I couldn’t help but notice the distinct absence of toothpicks, tongs, or any other items to facilitate free tastings, within reach.

If following in the actual footsteps of one of the most prolific and popular writers of the 20th century is on your bucket list, or just shooting pool on his table, the charms of Naulakha await. For a less intimate but more immediate experience, check out the newly published If: the Untold Story of Kipling’s American Years, by Christopher Benfey, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke. Howard Rice’s Rudyard Kipling in New England can also be found on the shelves at the Norwood Library, as well as The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling: His Life and Works, by Angus Wilson. To read his own words, Kim— required reading for all CIA operatives in Vietnam—is available through our streaming service, hoopla.

Younger readers might prefer Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, a short story in the 1894 anthology The Jungle Book about the adventures of a young Indian mongoose. To enjoy Kipling without committing hours of time, I recommend the delightful, and delightfully short, Just So Stories. How the Elephant Got His Trunk and How the Camel Got His Hump are two of my favorites.

Whether you venture as far as Vermont or as close as your local library, Rudyard Kipling offers treasures for readers of all ages. “Just So” you know.

April Cushing is the Adult and Information Services Librarian at the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, MA. Look for her article in the August 1, 2019 issue of the Transcript & Bulletin.


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