Thursday, February 23, 2017


Motor car owned by Alfred Harmsworth in 1900 (a 12hp Panhard)

[Image source:]

Rudyard Kipling (30 December 1865- 18 January 1936)

Whether to wend through straight streets strictly,
Trimly by towns perfectly paved;
Or after office, as fitteth thy fancy,
Faring with friends far among fields;
There is none other equal in action,
Sith she is silent, nimble, unnoisome,
Lordly of leather, gaudily gilded,
Burgeoning brightly in a brass bonnet,
Certain to steer well between wains.    

("The Advertisement: In the Manner of the Earlier English", from The Muse among the Motors, published in the Daily Mail, February 1904)

One view called me to another; one hill top to its fellow, half across the county, and since I could answer at no more trouble than the snapping forward of a lever, I let the county flow under my wheels. The orchid-studded flats of the East gave way to the thyme, ilex, and grey grass of the Downs; these again to the rich cornland and fig-trees of the lower coast, where you carry the beat of the tide on your left hand for fifteen level miles; and when at last I turned inland through a huddle of rounded hills and woods I had run myself clean out of my known marks. Beyond that precise hamlet which stands godmother to the capital of the United States, I found hidden villages where bees, the only things awake, boomed in eighty-foot lindens that overhung grey Norman churches; miraculous brooks diving under stone bridges built for heavier traffic than would ever vex them again; tithe-barns larger than their churches, and an old smithy that cried out aloud how it had once been a hall of the Knights of the Temple. Gipsies I found on a common where the gorse, bracken, and heath fought it out together up a mile of Roman road; and a little further on I disturbed a red fox rolling dog-fashion in the naked sunlight.

As the wooded hills closed about me I stood up in the car to take the bearings of that great Down whose ringed head is a landmark for fifty miles across the low countries.  I judged that the lie of the country would bring me across some westward running road that went to his feet, but I did not allow for the confusing veils of the woods. A quick turn plunged me first into a green cutting brimful of liquid sunshine, next into a gloomy tunnel where last year's dead leaves whispered and scuffled about my tyres. The strong hazel stuff meeting overhead had not been cut for a couple of generations at least, nor had any axe helped the moss-cankered oak and beech to spring above them. Here the road changed frankly into a carpetted ride on whose brown velvet spent primrose-clumps showed like jade, and a few sickly, white-stalked bluebells nodded together. As the slope favoured I shut off the power and slid over the whirled leaves, expecting every moment to meet a keeper; but I only heard a jay, far off, arguing against the silence under the twilight of the trees.

Still the track descended. I was on the point of reversing and working my way back on the second speed ere I ended in some swamp, when I saw sunshine through the tangle ahead and lifted the brake.

It was down again at once. As the light beat across my face my fore-wheels took the turf of a great still lawn from which sprang horsemen ten feet high with levelled lances, monstrous peacocks, and sleek round-headed maids of honour—blue, black, and glistening—all of clipped yew. Across the lawn—the marshalled woods besieged it on three sides—stood an ancient house of lichened and weather-worn stone, with mullioned windows and roofs of rose-red tile. ...

(Opening of 'They')

[Full online text]


Scribner's Magazine August 1904.  Lightly revised and collected in Traffics and Discoveries (1904). Published separately, with illustrations by Frederick Henry Townsend, 1905. 

‘They’  is one of the first pieces of literature about motoring, a modern theme that it combines with an ancient one: the terrible but age-old fact of child mortality. The narrator’s drive through this wonderfully realized Sussex in June; the visual intensity of the description is grief at work.... The driving is a way of grieving, but the car can't bring back his child; nor can it save another dying child though it flies busily hither and thither to acquire a nurse. 

Also set beside the half-ghostly poetic writing about the charmed old house is an unidealized vision of rural working life: the greedy Mr Turpin, the cheerfully gossiping neighbour, and the rude Mrs Madehurst at the sweetmeat shop – the narrator at that early stage in the story is intemperately judgmental - ; she, however, later becomes the narrator’s friend. Personal grief and new technology, together, open him to an understanding overview. Her “fat woman’s hospitable tears” provide a down-to-earth alternative to the eerily beautiful voice of the blind Miss whose name is not told to us. The bereaved villagers have to walk in the wood (unlike the narrator, who eventually finds his own child indoors) because their social status denies them easy access to the house.

During the very brief period memorialized by ‘They’, cars were luxury items owned only by the gentry, and there were very few around, so Kipling could reasonably conceive the car as an instrument for solitary flights, a way of dropping down into other people’s stable existences, as if one had suddenly been gifted wings, and (by natural extension) as a vehicle for entering the otherworld. Already, however, the car – perhaps more precisely the engine – is felt to bear an incipiently quotidian symbolism, which is why the children keep away from it. (Early cars faced a wall of public disapproval of noise and danger.)

Josephine Kipling

[Image source:]

I’m saying “the narrator” but of course we think Kipling -- except that Kipling's myopia ruled out driving a car himself.  Keen motorist that he was, he always had a driver. Could he even have seen himself all that he describes in this landscape? Part of the description's brilliance is its comprehensiveness; not just the June orchids but the subtler details of what by June is faded and sickly:  the primroses in the moss and the feeble bluebells in the wood; the crunching leaf-fall of the previous year.

 Kipling's beloved daughter Josephine had died in March 1899 at the age of six. This was on a visit to New York; Kipling nearly died himself. Carrie sent Josephine away to her friends the De Forest's, perhaps in hope that a change of location might save her, or perhaps because Rudyard's own condition was still critical. Josephine's death was kept from her father for weeks, for fear of inducing a relapse.  He never got over it.

  In October 1899, by then living in Rottingdean,  he experienced his first ride in a motorcar, a Mercedes driven by Alfred Harmsworth (the future Lord Northcliffe), already publisher of the Daily Mail and many other papers (an episode described by Kipling in Something of Myself). By the summer of 1900 the Kiplings were house-hunting, or pretending to, in their own hired Embryo*. "As a matter of fact we just lounge around and get the skin peeled off our noses..."

At one point the narrator becomes upset not by his loss but (as happens when people are distressed) by something apparently unconnected to it. He says to “Miss”, when she complains that people laugh at her: “That sort laugh at everything that isn’t in their own fat lives.” – (Evidently Mrs Madehurst is still in his mind.) The blind lady talks of her lack of defences, her single skin. He goes into a thought:

I was silent reviewing that inexhaustible matter – the more than inherited (since it is also carefully taught) brutality of the Christian peoples, beside which the mere heathendom of the West Coast nigger is clean and restrained. It led me a long distance into myself.

This meditation has a minor function in the story, since it leads on to the discovery that the blind lady sees the intensity of his anger as colours. Kipling (himself extremely myopic and scared of blindness) might be thinking of unforgiven childhood experience. Yet momentarily the primary meaning seems to be that he recognizes his own brutality; and certainly Kipling is  one of the most brutal of authors, in some respects.

She looked at me, her head against the tree trunk—long and steadfastly— this woman who could see the naked soul.
"How curious," she half whispered. "How very curious."
"Why, what have I done?"
"You don't understand … and yet you understood about the Colours. Don't you understand?"
She spoke with a passion that nothing had justified, and I faced her bewilderedly as she rose. The children had gathered themselves in a roundel behind a bramble bush. One sleek head bent over something smaller, and the set of the little shoulders told me that fingers were on lips. They, too, had some child's tremendous secret. I alone was hopelessly astray there in the broad sunlight.
"No," I said, and shook my head as though the dead eyes could note. "Whatever it is, I don't understand yet. Perhaps I shall later—if you'll let me come again."

(from 'They')

Frontispiece to the 1905 edition by Frederick Henry Townsend

[Image source: Rare and Antique books dot com. Link withheld at site owner's request.]


"Somehow, an enterprising Brighton agency hired us a victoria-hooded, carriage-sprung, carriage-braked, single-cylinder, belt-driven, fixed-ignition Embryo..." (Something of Myself).  This passage is much-quoted, yet I can find no other reference to a veteran car manufacturer or model called Embryo.

Rudyard, Carrie and baby Josephine
[Image source:]

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