Home Commentary The Way I See It: At Home with Rudyard Kipling, Vermonter

The Way I See It: At Home with Rudyard Kipling, Vermonter

Like most English majors of a certain age, I’d read a bit of Rudyard Kipling, including such famous poems as “Gunga Din” and “If—”. The first, in a soldier’s Cockney dialect, celebrates our common humanity; the second is typically trotted out in graduation speeches to inspire the idealistic and ambitious adolescent. 

Since studying Kipling’s stories in a grad school class on the Fiction of Empire, I hadn’t given him much thought, especially as post-colonial criticism had begun to denounce him as a jingoistic racist imperialist (One of his better-known poems — perhaps “infamous” is more apt — is titled “The White Man’s Burden,” so the perception is understandable, though not justifiable in my view considering his work as a whole).

So it was with some surprise that I learned, a few years ago, that the uber-English Kipling, born in Bombay in 1865 and shuttled between India and England as he grew up, had moved to Vermont in 1892 with his new wife, built himself a beautiful home just north of the Dummerston-Brattleboro town line, and settled in, intending to become a permanent Vermonter. 

Like so many writers then and since — Julia Alvarez, Ralph Ellison, Robert Frost, Jamaica Kincaid — Kipling found Vermont a fertile setting for creative work. Among other works during a sadly shortened sojourn, he completed the “Jungle Books,” wrote “If—”, and published “Barrack-Room Ballads,” a collection of poems in the voices of English soldiers serving Victoria’s empire in India, which included the famous “Gunga Din.” 

Kipling’s Vermont home, Naulakha, not only still stands but is a National Historic Landmark available for rental through its owner, the Landmark Trust USA. The Trust “preserves and restores historic properties through creative and sustainable uses for public enjoyment, education and inspiration,” according to its website—or, to put it another way, it runs some nice Airbnb’s with a special appeal to literary and history nerds. 

I’d harbored the dream of going to Naulakha for a writing retreat, but it hadn’t happened until last month (and the writing part never did). With my husband and a friend and two younger couples, we rented the place for three nights, which was as much as we could collectively afford. It did not disappoint.

The soft green shingle style building with its massive stone foundation sits like a beached Ark on a rise atop a green expanse of meadow, its acreage ringed by a dry stone wall and reached by a tree-lined driveway that feels more suited to a coach and four than an automobile. To the east across the Connecticut River are the Monadnock hills. Balconies on the north side face a tunnel of rhododendrons that leads to a temple-like stone structure in the woods. Molten-gold light floods the rooms in the mornings.

To walk into Naulakha is to inhale the time-traveling scent of musty but well-preserved wood paneling and old books. I felt instantly at home. A corridor runs along the western side of the house on all three floors, with a (modernized) kitchen, large dining room, loggia with windows that can be removed in warm weather to make a verandah, study, and library with fireplaces — and much of the furniture, including the desk where Kipling wrote his books, is original. William James and Arthur Conan Doyle were among the visiting luminaries back in the day.

Upstairs are four bedrooms, all with the same gorgeous views to the east, and three bathrooms with steampunk fixtures and clawfoot tubs. Our bedroom had both a sitting-room and a balcony. Such luxury! It was cool in the evenings; the gas fireplace in the library was lovely to cozy up to with a good book (I read little Kipling while there, but browsed a few biographies about him). Had we been bored, the third floor had a small Kipling museum and a classic Victorian billiards room. And maybe a ghost or two, though we were undisturbed.

Naulakha, I learned, was named in honor of a “ripping yarn” of a novel jointly written by Kipling and Wolcott Balestier, an expatriate American publisher living in London, with whom he had an intimate bond. Balestier’s family was from the Brattleboro area, and after learning of Wolcott’s tragic death from typhoid at the end of 1891, Kipling broke off a visit to his parents in India, returned to London, and within ten days had married Balestier’s sister Caroline. His friend Henry James gave away the bride.

By many accounts, Caroline was a difficult person, and a quarrel between her and her ne’er-do-well younger brother, who was very popular in Brattleboro, eventually entangled the normally reclusive Kipling. There were lawsuits, and bad publicity, and the Kiplings fled Vermont in 1896, never to return. Kipling reportedly said later that “There are only two places in the world where I want to live, Bombay and Brattleboro. And I can’t live at either.”