Books at Bateman's
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
Rudyard Kipling’s bookshelves at Bateman’s in East Sussex are, as you would expect, well stocked. Kipling bought the Jacobean house with its 33 acres in 1902. By this time, he was, at the age of thirty-six, “the most famous writer in the English-speaking world”, to quote the leaflet from the National Trust, in whose possession the house now rests. (Elsie, the only one of his three children to survive into adulthood, bequeathed the property to the Trust when she died childless in 1976.)
In a recent article in the Commentary section of the TLS (March 28), Malyn Newitt, an emeritus professor of History at King’s College London, cites the Trust’s mission statement on its website, with its pledge of access to everyone. Newitt goes on to suggest that “Opening [the properties] up for ever, for everyone does not, however, seem to apply to its libraries”. The piece is accompanied by a photo taken at a Trust property, Lanhydrock in Bodmin, with its bookshelves showing metal bars across the book spines, making it impossible for the casual visitor to browse.
But David Pearson, in a letter published in this week’s issue of the paper (Letters, April 4), suggests that Newitt’s article is “unduly negative, and unrealistic in its criticisms”, pointing out that “the houses are full of historic objects which visitors are not able to use in the ways their makers intended – we do not sit on the chairs, walk on the rugs, or lie on the beds, because if we did, that heritage would be destroyed in a season” (Pearson is Director of Culture, Heritage & Libraries at the City of London Corporation).
I have to say I’ve never felt the urge to pick a book off the shelf in a National Trust property (it’s enjoyable just to consult the spines, particularly when one sees books such as The Thackerays in India, above), but I guess Newitt’s point was a slightly different one – that the libraries may contain books useful for research that are not easily accessible elsewhere. In which case, as the historian David Rundle offers in another letter in the same issue, it’s an idea to “contact [the staff] before arriving” and they will invariably be “helpful, forthcoming and quite willing to arrange a consultation”.
Bateman’s has other pleasures to offer apart from the books: Indian memorabilia, of course, including a sequence of plaques (see below) executed by Kipling’s father,John Lockwood Kipling who, as well as being a museum curator in Lahore, illustrated scenes from his son’s Indian stories. And, as always, there are the volunteers, who are keen to step forward and unburden themselves of everything they know about the room you have just entered.
Not forgetting the Vegetable Garden, with its carefully labelled plants, some of which I had never heard of: angelica, bugle, toadflax, soapwort, sneezewort, alecost . . . .