To be well-read was once an enviable achievement, something to be admired, a sign that one was cultured. I don't think the concept exists anymore; I know the condition doesn't. Not only are the local yuppies utterly ignorant of prominent literary figures, they are unashamedly bored by the subject. I say to a 55-year-old feather merchant of the yuppie persuasion, trying to keep the shocked wonder out of my voice, "You've never heard of Rudyard Kipling?" "Nope," he replies, trying a quick perfunctory smirk as he turns with not entirely phony interest to my wife: He does not think she will bore him by raving about long-dead authors he's never heard of.
Writing literary essays was a class act in my youth; when I mention what I'm doing nowadays I get an uncomprehending stare. What is "literary"? What is "essay"? Yuppies do not need to read when they can watch dramatizations on TV or listen to tapes in the car. This turning away from literature is one of the effects of the collapse of the left-liberal worldview, as is the barrenness of contemporary writing. One system of thought is dying, another has been born but is still mute so far as imaginative writing goes. Since conservative editors are not about to give new fiction an airing, the best we can do is study the works of writers from the past to reveal their unique qualities and to show how their artistry works, in the process making us (and I include myself) more sensitive to good writing and more interested in it. Then we shall no longer accept the debased products of the time. That an intelligent person should read the New Yorker or the New York Times Book Review is a sign of the cultural confusion of our days; that conservative publications should praise squalid contemporary writing signals cultural deprivation.
Rudyard Kipling (1806-1936) began as a reporter on a paper in India when he was 18, and soon was writing short stories for the paper. It was clear right away that his was a strong, new voice, racy and unabashed, startlingly unlike the pompous, stuffy stories of the period. He was decidedly modern. An early story, "Lispeth" shows this in its tale of a Christianized hill woman, famously a beauty, who falls in love with an Englishman who, on the advice of the Chaplain's wife (who wants to pacify Lispeth) promises the girl he'll come back to marry her. After several trying months, the Chaplain's wife finally tells her the truth.
"How can what he and you said be untrue?" asked Lispeth.
"We said it as an excuse to keep you quiet, child," said the Chaplain's wife.
"Then you have lied to me," said Lispeth, "you and he?"
Lispeth goes back to her own people, renouncing Christianity. This is the concluding paragraph.
Lispeth was a very old woman when she died. She had always a perfect command of English, and when she was sufficiently drunk, could sometimes be induced to tell the story of her first love-affair.
It was hard then to realize that the bleared, wrinkled creature, exactly like a wisp of charred rag, could ever have been "Lispeth of the Kotgarh Mission."
Modernity is apparent in its economy as it moves from point to point of the simple plot without a single extraneous word, without the longwinded "word painting" common in the stories of the time, and it shows also in the author's impiety toward the gods of conventional thinking, i.e., the presumed superiority of the English, the hypocrisy of the chaplain's wife. Finally it shows in the finely balanced irony of the penultimate paragraph, both masked and heightened by the speaker's matter-of-fact tone. The last paragraph (especially "like a wisp of charred rag") dissolves all the pettiness of the plot in the unfathomable pathos of mortality.
From 1888 to 1891 Kipling published eight volumes of stories based on his Indian experience, stories of extraordinary range including Anglo-Indian life, soldiers, all kinds of Indians, spies, the Great Game of Anglo-Russian rivalry on the frontier, social comedies, love stories, farces, tragedies, etc., a remarkable virtuoso performance. There are very few failures among nearly 100 stories, and all may be read over and over again (as I have done) for their characters, situations, and artistry.
A word about how to read, and not to read, Kipling. His reputation was severely damaged among the cultural elite by the perception that he was an imperialist and generally opposed to what were regarded (and are still regarded) as the progressive movements of the time. This was certainly true, and later I shall discuss the issue, but now I'm concerned with a subtler problem. A large portion of his output was about India and Anglo-Indian life, and it was on that basis that his sudden reputation was made, so that although his later work was about other subjects and places, he will always be regarded in the light of his early reputation as the chronicler of India under the Raj. His work is too often judged as a reflection of that life. Some say the portrait is accurate, others say it's false, and then those who disapprove of colonialism disapprove of Kipling simply because that was his subject. In other words, his subject has distorted our appreciation of his work because we have forgotten that every artists's subject is an imaginative creation.
Now let's look at one of his explicitly political stories, "The Little Foxes" (1909), a comic exposure of the sentimentalities of progressivism. It tells of the unplanned but ingenious establishment of a system of governance (chiefly concerned with land titles and crops) intertwined with customs and experiences of foxhunting, set up by the English govenror, in an Ethiopian colony. All is well until the "New Era" arrives in the form of a member of Parliament bent on investigating the horrors of colonial rule. The story works by carefully building up the details of the development of the hunt and its involvement with the problems of governance, making it seem plausible and sensible, which means that Kipling has to create a believable cast of English officials, their servants, and village natives, plus the MP, Mr. Groombride. As Arnold Bennett once said, characters are indispensable to the novel, and it is just as true of Kipling's stories, which, more than anything else, are creations of characters. As the story mounts to its hilarious climax, the reader should see that the working out of the idea--anti-progressivism--is secondary to the imaginative creation itself. Ideas in Kipling's work are made the natural outgrowth of the story; they never overcome the story. No one of any sense reads a great fiction writer for his ideas.
Kipling's early stories are remarkably finished, and there are subtleties in them, but as a whole they are highly colored and sharply drawn. Nothing wrong in that, but the writer must cast a finer net if he would catch more of life in his work, and in his later stories Kipling creates works of art that are masterpieces of subtlety. One of his finest stories, and certainly the most artistically complex, "Mrs. Bathurst" (1904), achieves its effect and meaning by deliberate indirection, by painting a picture with fine small strokes, touches here and there against a seemingly bland background, here a railway siding near the naval base outside Cape Town, South Africa.
Moulded dunes, whiter than any snow, rolled far inland up a brown and purple valley of splintered rocks and dry scrub. A crowd of Malays hauled at a net beside two blue and green boats on the beach; a picnic party danced and shouted barefoot where a tiny river trickled across the flat, and a circle of dry hills, whose feet were set in sands of silver, locked us in against a seven-colored sea.
The speaker, Kipling as unobtrusive observer, is sitting in a caboose, eating sandwiches and drinking beer with Hooper, a railwayman. The tone of the scene and the relationship is utterly casual. Hooper, feeling in his vest pocket, remarks that he found a "curiosity" up the line beyond Bulawayo, but at that point he's interrupted by the appearance of Pyecroft, a sailor known to the speaker, and Pritchard, a Marine sergeant, who join them, bringing some beer. The story of how they came by the beer leads to reminiscences on the seamen's part, aided by occasional remarks by the speaker, in which the recent desertion of Warrant Officer Vickery is mentioned. He was sent up country to retrieve some Naval ammunition, and after shipping it, he disappeared. Hooper picks up his ears when he learns that Vickery had four false teeth in his lower jaw, and again feels in his vest pocket as he asks what tattoos he had. A contretemps diverts that line of inquiry, and Pyecroft goes on with the story.
"Why did Vickery run?" I began, but Pyecroft's smile made me turn my question to "Who was she?"
She was Mrs. Bathurst, a young widow who kept a small hotel and bar for Naval noncoms near Auckland, New Zealand. Pritchard is incredulous, refusing to believe she would be involved in an intrigue (Vickery is married). Pyocroft agrees that it "wasn't her fault." The speaker says,
Such faith in a Sergeant of Marines interested me greatly. "Never mind about that," I cried. "Tell me what she was like."
Both men vehemently testify to her kindness and sweet nature, but Hooper says "I can't see her yet somehow," so Pyecroft asks Pritchard how many women he's been intimate with, and answers the question himself by saying hundreds and then asking how many are remembered? Although Pritchard saw her only thrice in ten years, and Pyecroft only twice, they recall everything about her.
. . . how she stood an' what she was sayin' an' what she looked like. That's the secret. 'tisn't beauty, so to speak, nor good talk necessarily. It's just It . . ."
Then Hooper begins to see: "That's more the idea. I've known just two women of that nature."
"An' it was no fault o' theirs?" asked Pritchard.
"None whatever. I know that!"
"An if a man gets struck with that kind o' woman, Mr. Hooper?" Pritchard went on.
"He goes crazy--or just saves himself," was the slow answer.
What struck me (and Kipling's discernment seems almost miraculous) was Pritchard's remark, repeated twice by Pyecroft, "she looked at me under her eyebrows in that blindish way she had o' looking," because I've known the look and felt its power.
I have dealt at such length with the description of Mrs. Bathurst because, although the story seems to be about Vickery and his fate, she and her enigmatic attraction-"It"--is the real subject, and she is made as much a living character in the story as the others, each of whom speaks in his own voice and acts characteristically. Pyecroft, something of a cynical rogue, freely uses naval terms and misues foreign phrases: "If the fat marine now occupying the foc'-she will kindly bring 'is status quo to an anchor yet once more," and Hooper less obviously speaks as a railwayman: "You did quite right to look out for your own end o' the line," while Pritchard is warmly boyish (he blushes when Pyecroft asks him about his intimacies). This scrupulous character-drawing is not done just for its own sake; the final effect of the story--how Vickery's fate strikes each character--is its meaning, as we shall see.
The rest is soon told. A circus came to Cape Town and among its attractions was one of those early films:
London Bridge with the omnibuses--a troopship goin' to the war--marines on parade at Portsmouth, the Plymouth Express arrivin' at Paddin'ton.
When Pyecroft went, Vickery, who saw the film the night before, caught him at the door and insisted they sit together, saying, "If you see anything that strikes you, drop me a hint." Finally, in the scene at Paddington station, Mrs. Bathurst appears:
There was no mistakin' the walk in a hundred thousand. She came forward--right forward--she looked out straight at us with that blindish look . . .
Vickery was sure, but he wanted Pyecroft to double his assurance. Immediately, Vickery drags Pyecroft out and takes him on a rapid bar hop, obviously in a state:
He didn't look at what he drunk--he didn't look at the change. He walked an' he drank an' he perspired rivers.
This goes on for five nights, until the circus leaves. Vickery's state is something of a grim puzzle, but Pyecroft's colorful account of being dragged from bar to bar, is comic. At one point, when Pyecroft observes that she seems to be looking for someone, Vickery replies, "She's lookin' for me," but he'll say no more. Then Vickery, after a mysterious interview with the captain, is sent up the line to retrieve the ammunition, and as he's leaving he tells Pyecroft he's not a murderer because his wife died six weeks after he sailed.
"Then what have you done that signifies?" I said. "What's the rest of it?"
"The rest," 'e says, "is silence . . ."
Everyone is mystified, although they're sure Mrs. Bathurst is blameless. Then Hooper, touching his pocket again, tells the story that's been at the back of his mind from the beginning, and of course by now we know what's in his pocket. He was told to look out for a couple of tramps waiting at the siding waiting to go north:
I saw them miles ahead along the straight, waiting in the teak. One of 'em was standin' up by the dad-end of the siding an' the other was squattin' down lookin' up at 'im, you see,
"What did you do for 'em?" said Pritchard.
"There wasn't much I could do, except bury 'em. There'd been a bit of a thunderstorm in the teak, you see, and they were both stone dead and as black as charcoal. That's what they really were, you see--charcoal. They fell to bits when we tried to shift 'em. The man who was standin' up had the false teeth. I saw 'em shining against the black. Fell to bits he did too, like his mate squatting down an' watchin' him, both of 'em all wet in the rain. Both burned to charcoal, you see. And--that's what made me ask about marks just now--the false-toother was tattooed on the arms and chest--a crown and foul anchor with M.V. above."
"I've seen that," said Pyecroft quickly. "It was so."
"But if he was all charcoal-like?" said Pritchard, shuddering.
"You know how writing shows up white on a burned letter? Well, it was like that, you see. We buried 'em in the teak and I kept. . . . But he was a friend of you two gentlemen, you see."
Mr. Hooper brought his hand away from his waistcoat-pocket-empty.
Pritchard covered his face with his hands for a moment, like a child shutting out an ugliness.
"And to think of her at Hauraki!" he murmured-"with 'er 'air-ribbon on my beer." "Ada," she said to her niece . . . Oh, my Gawd!" . . .
"On a summer afternoon, when the honeysuckle blooms,/And all Nature seems at rest,/Underneath the bower,/ 'mid the perfume of the flower,/Sat a maiden with the one she loves the best . . ." sang the picnic-party waiting for their train at Glengariff.
"Well, I don't know how you feel about it," said Pyecroft, "But 'avin' seen 'is face for five consecutive nights on end, I'm inclined to finish what's left of the beer an' thank Gawd he's dead!"
The serene, untroubled background which so colored the "preface" of the story before Pyecroft and Pritchard appeared is reasserted by the innocent song of the picnickers, and it is against that background that the shadowy drama of Vickery and Mrs. Bathurst has been enacted, so the song at this point makes the drama stand out sharply, darkly colored. Hooper's account, especially the bit about writing showing up "white on a burned letter," puts an end to the earlier comedy, and the tragedy is heightened by contrast with the song. What we are left with is a mystery of love, and the fact that each character takes it differently but characteristically--Hooper with solemn sensitivity, leaving the teeth in his pocket; Pritchard, ever loyal to Mrs. Bathurst, with real feeling; Pyecroft sardonically--shows us also the mystery of our lives: Pulled by the same tides, rocked by the same waves, we sail alone.
Readers used to conventional fiction sometimes have difficulty understanding a story like this because they expect it to make a clearly discernible point, a Big Thought which can be extracted from the story. "Mrs. Bathurst" doesn't work that way. Its closest analogy would he a Chekhov play like The Cherry Orchard: its meaning, its point, is the story itself. When we finish reading it, what we think about are these things, probably in this order: the power of love (Vickery and Mrs. Bathurst), its multifariousness (Pyecroft, Pritchard, and the picnickers), the differing responses which show our uniqueness and loneliness, the tenuous but real bond between the living (the men in the railway carriage). The story, then, is a meditation on life, and while Kipling the artist certainly made it, all traces of contrivance are cunningly concealed. It is a masterpiece because it seems perfectly natural, just a story told on a railway siding. But we know it is more than that because it is infused with feeling, and we sense the tragedy of Vickery and Mrs. Bathurst even as we see the comic and melodramatic aspects-like life itself. The artistry of this story must be one of the greatest in English. *
Stories: Plain Tales From the Hills, Soldiers Three, In Black & White, Under the Deodars, The Phantom Rickshaw & Other Tales, Mine Own People, Traffics & Discoveries, Actions & Reactions, Diversity of Creatures, Land & Sea Tales, "They" & Brushwood Boy, Debits & Credits, Limits & Renewals.
The Jungle Book, Second Jungle Book. Animal stories. The best, half the total, are about Mowgli, the boy raised by wolves.
Stalky & Co. Prep school stories.
Puck of Pook's Hill and Rewards & Fairies are historical tales for children.
Just So Stories for very young children.
Almost all Kipling's best later stories are collected in two Penguin volumes: I: A Sahib's War & Other Stories, II: Friendly Brook & Other Stories, selected by Andrew Rutherford.
The Art of Rudyard Kipling (1959) by J. M. S. Tompins is first rate.
Kipling: The Glass, The Shadow, & the Fire (1975) by Phillip Mason is the best single book on Kipling's art.