Walk through Rottingdean today and the sense of detachment and seclusion that Kipling experienced while writing the novel are still apparent. The house in which the Kipling family lived during their time here, called The Elms, dates back to the late 18th century and is now, as it was then, an impossibly handsome bow-windowed property looking directly out onto the lush village green.
Living in the village between 1897 and 1902 marked a professionally productive but personally turbulent, often tragic, period in Kipling’s life. Despite getting parts of Kim published in McClure’s Magazine in 1900, as well as working on what would become the phenomenally successful Just So stories, Kipling’s sojourn in Rottingdean coincided with the death of his daughter Josephine, who had succumbed to pneumonia after a storm-tossed voyage to New York.
“The village green is most beautiful,” wrote Kipling’s wife Carrie in her diary when they returned to Rottingdean. “The streets are empty, and we come quietly to The Elms to take on a sort of ghost life.”
While Kim began to enjoy considerable critical and commercial acclaim, the birthplace of the fictional English spy would soon be abandoned by Kipling. The invention of double-decker buses brought hordes of “gawkers” from nearby Brighton to Rottingdean; drivers would stop outside The Elms so that passengers on the top deck could catch a glimpse of Kipling at work in his study.
Unsurprisingly, the family moved out – to the then remote village of Burwash, where Kipling would stay until his death in 1936. Today, The Elms itself is in private hands but the gardens that were once part of the property are now open to the public. Strolling among the rose and herb gardens as the gentle thwack of a croquet ball echoes in the distance, it’s perhaps not so difficult to understand why Kipling chose somewhere so peaceful to create the quintessential spy.
Kim, and all the secret agents who have delighted, infuriated and captivated us in British fiction since then, have all had one thing in common: robust buccaneers they may have been, but there has been an underlying sense of melancholy to each and every one, from Fleming’s Bond and George Smiley to Richard Hannay.
Rootless, alone and often in peril, perhaps it was a place like the village green at Rottingdean that was in their minds as they piteously dispatched another threat to Queen and country. Maybe, just maybe, every spy dreams one day of coming home.