Tim Pye, Libraries Curator, is fascinated by a copy of 'Kim' by Rudyard Kipling in the collection at Wimpole Hall, Cambridgeshire and the unexpected connection it holds to Captain Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the Antarctic.
Books have been an ever-present and vital element of my life. I spent my early years at school in the northern reaches of Japan, far away from my family. I still have vivid memories of the small school library there, of the books that I discovered and devoured and of the comfort and enjoyment that they brought. Little did I know that I would end up channelling that enthusiasm for literature into a career.
I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to work with books on a daily basis. I’m a rare-books librarian, and most of my career has been spent working in research libraries. As the Trust’s Libraries Curator, however, I am privileged to work with books in the houses for which they were acquired and in which they were originally read and enjoyed. The Trust’s book collections are world-class and I have responsibility for overseeing their care, cataloguing and use by visitors and researchers. We have over 500,000 volumes, each with a life of its own and a story to tell.
The book I’ve chosen is a small, fairly innocuous-looking copy of 'Kim' by Rudyard Kipling, widely considered his greatest novel. Set in India in the late 19th century, the novel follows the adventures of an Irish orphan, Kim, who finds himself caught up in the machinations of the Russian and British Empires while attempting to understand his place in the latter.
The book comes from Wimpole Hall, Cambridgeshire, and was brought there by George and Elsie Bambridge. Elsie was the second child of Rudyard and Carrie Kipling, so it’s no surprise to find four copies of 'Kim' at Wimpole.
The book is an unremarkable 1908 edition published by Macmillan, but what makes it immensely precious is an inscription inside the front cover, which reads: 'Apsley G. B. Cherry-Garrard, June 15th 1910. Used by the British Antarctic Expedition 1910–1913. Cape Evans, McMurdo Sound.'
This, then, is one of the books taken to Antarctica on Captain Robert Scott’s ill-fated British attempt to be the first nation to reach the South Pole. Apsley Cherry-Garrard, or Cherry, as he was known, was the expedition’s assistant zoologist and one of its youngest members. He inscribed his copy of 'Kim' on the day of the Terra Nova’s departure from Cardiff. Just 21 months later Scott would be dead and the expedition in tatters. In 1922 Cherry published his own account of the endeavour, entitled 'The Worst Journey in the World'.
According to a letter from Cherry tucked inside the volume, no other book in the expedition library was read as much as Kim. The tale of Kim’s adventures in an exotic land would have been the perfect escapist remedy for men struggling at the extreme end of the world. I find it easy to see how Kipling, the great advocate of duty, honour, heroism and patriotism, might have stirred the hearts of those explorers, even in their bleakest moments.
" I believe you would especially like to know how much your books were appreciated by the naval seamen. "
On his return to England, Cherry, a lifelong devotee of Kipling, sent his copy of 'Kim' to Bateman’s, the Sussex home of its author (and also in Trust care). After acquiring Wimpole Hall, Elsie brought a number of Kipling-related books to her new home, where they remain to this day.
Cherry’s 'Kim' is a book I particularly love, for its tangible connection to the great period of polar exploration, and as a powerful reminder of the comfort that books can provide, even in the most harrowing of conditions.
This blog is adapted from 'An object I love' by Tim Pye which appeared in the summer 2019 issue of the National Trust Magazine.