‘They’ by Rudyard Kipling

It’s sentimental, self-pitying and twee. It’s the very definition of self-indulgence. It’s beautifully bound in a Macmillan edition of 1905, printed only on one side of each page and with lush but utterly awful illustrations by FH Townsend. It arrives accompanied by all the problematics you would expect with Kipling: but somehow delivers anyway. It must be his perfectly constructed ghost story, ‘They’.

“One view called me to another,” it begins; “one hilltop to its fellow, half across the county…” Kipling never learned to drive, but here casts himself as the lone free motorist who finds he has run himself “clean out of my known marks” and is lost on the Downs until he finds an “ancient house of lichened and weather-worn stone, with mullioned windows and roofs of rose-red tile”. It seems quiet, but then a child appears at an upper window. A woman in a big gardening hat sets her foot “slowly on the time-hollowed stone steps” and greets him softly across the turf. It’s a heritage outing contemporary readers can fully share.

“I never dreamed–” exclaims our narrator. But he did. He did dream. And this is all he ever dreamed, really: the great shining powerful motor car, the perfect little valleys and bridges, the rose-red tiles, the house where “hollowed” and “hallowed” have the same meaning, this perfect blind graceful woman, the little vanished children who gather round him. ‘They’ is the ultimate Sunday drive, the kinship reconnection with the ghosts of the fiction of England.

First published in Scribner’s Magazine, August 1904. Collected in Traffics and Discoveries, Macmillan, 1904, and as an illustrated volume, 1905. Widely available. Read it online here.

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