A new TV documentary which promises to explore “the private life and devastating, powerful secrets of one of our most famous and acclaimed writers” will put the life of Burwash’s Rudyard Kipling under the spotlight next week.
“Rudyard Kipling: A Secret Life”, which has apparently been endorsed by The Kipling Society, will look into the writer’s childhood, the loss of two of his three children, and how he played out his life as a successful writer against a backdrop of private grief.
Last year, Your East Sussex explored the East Sussex home of the world renowned writer, famous for The Jungle Book, the poem “if” and the Just So Stories. It was at Bateman’s, a beautiful sandstone Jacobean country house that sits nestled in its idyllic Burwash countryside setting, that the writer spent 34 years of his life.
The house, built in 1634 and home to the Kipling family from 1902 until Rudyard’s death in 1936, has to be one of my favourite places, and, on a warm, sunny day, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more restful and peaceful place to linger. “A beautiful cup in a saucer to match,” is how Kipling himself described the house and its grounds.
But as the new TV documentary will no doubt reveal, it was also here that Kipling endured horrible personal grief. Having lost his daughter to pneumonia, Kipling’s son, John, was killed in the First World War in 1915. After his son’s death, Kipling wrote, “If any question why we died, Tell them, because our fathers lied.”
Some believe these words reveal feelings of guilt at his role in getting John a commission in the Irish Guards while others say the line refers to Kipling’s disgust that British leaders failed to learn the lessons of the Boer War and were unprepared for the struggle with Germany in 1914. The “lie” of the “fathers” being that the British Army was prepared for war when it was not.
Quite apart from the beauty of the house, the 33-acre estate, and its accompanying water mill, the strong sense of history hangs in the air and whispers through every corridor of Bateman’s which was designated as a world heritage site in 1961. Preserved by the National Trust to give visitors a first-hand experience of what it was like to be part of the Kipling family in the early 20th century, it feels almost as though the master of the house has simply stepped out on an errand, perhaps to post his latest manuscript to his publisher, and will return in the blink of an eye.
A snapshot of his life
In his study Kipling’s small round spectacles rest on the desk where he took them off briefly to stretch his legs, and unsatisfactory drafts of his latest work fill the waste paper bin and lay discarded around it.
Somewhat poignantly, though, in John’s room a hastily replaced cricket bat has been put back in the cupboard without it being closed properly. It speaks of happier times for Kipling and his son, not the pain of grief at John’s subsequent death on the battlefield.
It’s difficult to understand Rudyard Kipling the man properly from his literary works, and presumably that’s why the new Sky Arts documentary is titled as it is: “A secret life”. But at Bateman’s we have a snapshot of how he lived his life and where.
Wandering through the spring flowers beside the stream to the watermill or admiring the house from the lime tree hedges, it’s impossible not to imagine the great man doing likewise and going about his day-to-day life. But while the temptation is to imagine him doing so delighted with a literary review or publishing success, for a complete picture of Kipling, we must also conjure up an image of a man whose life was forever scarred by the loss of two children.
But while his grief was certainly very real, it did not stop Kipling loving Bateman’s and, indeed, the county in which he made his home.
God gives all men all earth to love,
But since man’s heart is small,
Ordains for each one spot shall prove
Beloved over all.
Each to his choice, and I rejoice
The lot has fallen to me
In a fair ground—in a fair ground—
Yea, Sussex by the sea!
For more information about a visit to Bateman’s, visit https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/batemans
“Rudyard Kipling: A Secret Life”, produced and directed by Adrian Munsey and Vance Goodwin will air on Sky Arts on Wednesday, 9 October.