7 min read.Updated: 10 Apr 2021, 06:00 PM ISTNINA SOVICH, The Wall Street Journal
A pandemic-weary urbanite rents a farmhouse in Vermont, just down the road from where novelist Rudyard Kipling built his own safe haven. Plus: Former homes of famous writers, from Jane Austen to John Steinbeck, available as holiday rentals
arrived in Brattleboro, Vt., hassled, broke and looking for a little peace and quiet. The Japanese bank in which he had kept all his money had collapsed in the early stages of the Panic of 1893. His wife, Carrie, was pregnant with their first child. And while a famous writer at that point, he had no novel with the publisher that could lift their fortunes.
The banking crisis forced the British novelist and his Yankee wife to abandon their round-the-world honeymoon to return to Vermont and their only asset—10 hilly acres above Brattleboro, where Carrie’s family had a home. They stayed in a small cottage. Snow up to the windows, wind blowing in through the cracks, wife banging on the boiler, 26-year-old Kipling sat down to write. In the next four years, he produced “The Jungle Book," “The Just So" stories and the first draft of “Kim."
“He had zero money and a family," said Christopher Benfey, the author of “If: The Untold Story of Kipling’s American Years." “The wolf was at the door. That’s a great way for some people to write."
At the time, Brattleboro was a posh spa town surrounded by poor farms. The world was entering a great depression, and Vermont was as good a place as any to catch your breath. The mountains are tall hills. The winters are cold but not Arctic. It was—and still is—the kind of place where you’d come home from a hike covered in frost with red cheeks and blustery hair. In the summer, the valleys reverberate with the sounds of frogs and woodpeckers.
After a year of pandemic living in Washington, D.C., my life had begun to feel like one endless Sunday afternoon. We rarely went outside. My husband and I were always on Zoom. The children were wilting under the glare of online learning, and there was no sign schools would open in spring. The idea of leaving behind the confining city for the inviting countryside tugged at me. “We should move to Vermont," I told my husband. “Something has got to give."
We drove to Vermont in February, quarantined for a week and then took the Covid-19 PCR tests required by the state for visitors. Many stores and restaurants were still closed, but schools were open five days a week and in person. A small private school called the Grammar School in Putney agreed to take the children.
We needed a house for six months and a comfortable one since both my husband and I would work from home. Kipling did too, and once he had enough money from selling his work, he began to build. He brought an architect up from New York who designed a house in the American shingle style—imagine a place Teddy Roosevelt would summer in. The house was dubbed Naulakha, named after a book Kipling wrote with a friend about an Indian jewel. It looked like a green houseboat resting on the crest of a wave. Inside, it was all dark wood, huge windows and oriental carpets. There was a terrace for tea, a sunroom for taking in the stunning view, and two offices for Rudyard to write and Carrie to manage correspondence and bills. The house looks much the same now, which makes it, weirdly enough, the perfect place for a gig economy worker to wait out the pandemic. Even more so since it’s available for vacation rentals.
“We want people to live history and enjoy history, but we are also caretakers," said Susan McMahon, the executive director of Landmark Trust USA, which manages Naulakha. Concerned that we’d make poor caretakers—with our labradoodle, two kids under 13 and our love of eating toast in bed—we opted to rent another Landmark Trust home down the road. Dutton Farm, built in 1844, sits across from a 200-year-old apple orchard. Naulakha is just over the crest. In the cold spring evenings, when we walked the hills, we saw it lit up like a supertanker passing through a canal.
“Kipling knew from the start that life can turn on a dime," said Mr. Benfey, noting that Kipling had a traumatic childhood. “He had a terrible sense of abandonment when his parents left him in England [and returned to India]. Had it in Japan when he discovered he had lost all his money. The world is a dangerous place, but in Vermont there is a wonderful world of cozy protection and safety."
Kipling mostly kept to himself while in Vermont, noted Ms. MacMahon, who added that “Kipling loved children but didn’t love adults." But he did have some famous visitors. Mark Twain stopped by as did Arthur Conan Doyle. Kipling, who was a nut for golf, played on snowy hillsides with the Sherlock Holmes creator. When the house became too quiet, Rudyard and his wife took a carriage into town to get a drink at the city’s grand Brooks House hotel. Main street would have been a hive of commerce and prosperity.
Today Brattleboro is a hodgepodge of architectural styles unified by a gentle hippy vibe. Main Street, which is a national landmark, is still mostly two- and three- story brick buildings with granite trim and cast iron balustrades that Kipling would have recognized. The stores are just now reopening after hibernating through the Covid winter. One can spend a pleasant Saturday morning first getting a cappuccino at Mocha Joe’s, then poking around vintage-clothing shops, little art stores and secondhand booksellers. Small luxuries abound. For Easter, I bought gorgeous tall pink lilies at George J. Brooks flower shop. The Brattleboro Co-op is just down the hill, where you can spend $21 on a lovingly raised chicken.
Kipling left Vermont in 1896 after a public dispute with his brother-in-law. Soon after he left he wrote “White Man’s Burden," an indefensible defense of colonialism. These days, he is widely criticized for his atavistic views on race and gender. Yet, rereading “The Jungle Book" and “Kim" in our Vermont cocoon, I couldn’t help but be transported. We see a brilliant man at his creative zenith, warmly ensconced in domestic life and writing for the children he adored. Vermont for him, and for us, became the perfect place to let his mind wander and his imagination run free.
These four former homes of famous writers—now all stylish vacations rentals— have stories to tell
A Poetic Palazzo
On the Grand Canal in Venice sits Ducissa, the villa of Italian nationalist poet Gabriele d’Annunzio, who whooped it up there from 1914 to 1918. A stroll away from St. Mark’s Square, the light-filled palazzo has vastly changed since the rascally writer wooed actress Eleanora Duse: A makeover added modern amenities but didn’t disrupt the glorious south-facing views, so visitors can watch gondolas glide by while lounging in the plush interiors, the garden or on the roof terrace. From $4,000 per night, 2-night minimum stay, globalcommunitytravel.com
Come Fly Away
“A wild rocky romantic island it is too," wrote “Peter Pan" creator J.M. Barrie in a letter about the Neverland-like locale of the 18th-century Eilean Shona House. In 1920, Barrie rented the house, a three-hour drive from Inverness on the west coast of Scotland, for the summer. There, he worked on both the screenplay of his children’s classic and the ghost story “Mary Rose." Today, it’s more luxurious than rough-and-ready: The grand, eclectically furnished three-story home has a house chef and a host to arrange hiking, kayaking or clay pigeon shooting activities. If you’re there to finish your own opus, retreat to one of the nine rustic cottages on the grounds. Or participate in a writing workshop (the next one led by English novelist Raffaella Barker happens in October). From $11,667 for a 3-night, fully catered stay at the house for up to 16 guests, eileanshona.com
This historic 1920s cottage in the California coastal town of Pacific Grove belonged to novelist John Steinbeck, who used it as a writing studio in the early ’40s. Avid fans (one eloped there, another had a Steinbeck tattoo) of the “East of Eden" author book the cozy one-bedroom house situated close to Cannery Row. The home’s Airbnb hosts, Kevin and Vicky Delaney, said many aspiring writers come here for inspiration and respite, but they recommend plenty of break-taking, to kayak in the bay or toast the “Grapes of Wrath" writer with a Sonoma County Sancerre. $75 a night; 30-day minimum stay, airbnb.com
This chic two-story flat has the good bones of the kitchen and scullery of 4 Sydney Place, the house where Jane Austen and her family lived in Bath in the early 1800s. “Nobody ripped out the paneling, flagstones, or the fireplaces," so the character remains, said owner Maxwell Lamb, who modernized the interior and added furnishings that reflect a “British multicultural mélange gathered from the flea markets of the world." The residence with its writer’s study faces Holburne Museum and Sydney Pleasure Gardens. From $215 a night in summer, airbnb.com
This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.
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