Kipling and the Limits of Healing.
When you come to London Town, (Grieving -- grieving!) Bring your flowers and lay them down At the place of grieving. When you come to London Town, (Grieving -- grieving!) Bow your head and mourn your own, With the others grieving. For those minutes, let it wake (Grieving -- grieving!) All the empty-heart and ache That is not cured by grieving. For those minutes, tell no lie: (Grieving -- grieving!) `Grave, this is thy victory, And the sting of death is grieving.' Where's our help, from Earth or Heaven, (Grieving -- grieving!) To comfort us for what we've given, And only gained the grieving? Heaven's too far and Earth too near, (Grieving -- grieving!) But our neighbour's standing here, Grieving as we're grieving. What's his burden every day? (Grieving -- grieving!) Nothing man can count or weigh, But loss and love's own grieving. What is the tie betwixt us two (Grieving -- grieving!) That must last our whole lives through? `As I suffer, so do you.' That may ease the grieving.(1)
The poem is dominated by a word which refuses to rhyme with any other word but itself. Nothing answers to grieving -- not man believing in God receiving, or tears relieving the bosom heaving -- nothing except grieving, which alone bears the burden both literally and in the literary sense of being the poem's refrain. Yet grieving alone is shared, becomes the medium of a paradoxical fellowship. `Bow your head and mourn your own / With the others'. Your neighbour's grief is unspeakable, or can only be expressed as a negative quantity: that which cannot be counted or weighed; all that can be said of it is that it is equivalent to yours. A fellowship of mourning may -- the conditional is a last constraint -- `may ease the grieving'.(2)
`London Stone' stands as an emblem of Kipling' s effort -- the most concentrated, passionate, and sustained of any of his contemporaries -- to dwell, as an artist, in the aftermath of the Great War. It was a time of great and increasing bitterness for him, and the traces of it show in his work and in his private and public life. In 1915 his only son had died in Flanders, and soon after -- not by coincidence, it has been many times said -- he began to suffer from terrible stomach pains, the result of duodenal ulcers which were misdiagnosed until it was too late for effective treatment. He was to die in 1936 of a perforated ulcer, and the work of his last twenty years constitutes, among other things, one of the most powerful and inward explorations of sickness in our literature. At the same time, Kipling, who had always been interested in people's behaviour under extremes of stress, found rich material in the multiple forms of neurosis and mental breakdown suffered by ex-servicemen. The element of revulsion against life, of dark melancholy and depression, is constant in him from the beginning -- James Thomson's Victorian epic of despair, The City of Dreadful Night, was one of his literary talismans -- and he responded with acute sympathy to what we nowadays call `post-traumatic stress syndrome'. This suffering and tender-hearted Kipling, however, also had the ideological temperament of a wounded water-buffalo, and the post-War years show him wallowing in the thickest and nastiest prejudices and charging with stupid and indiscriminate ferocity at his real or imagined tormentors. His antisemitism is virulent and persistent, nastily snide in his fiction, brutally overt in his letters and in the record of his private conversations. His attitude to state education, to take just one sample of his political and social opinions, was that it was a Trades Union of frustrated spinsters, dedicated to producing a nation of emasculated wimps. Kipling's achievement in the post-War years is determined as much by the noxious elements of his outlook as by those which command our admiration and affection. Like that other magnificent, tormented, intolerant and intolerable spirit, Carlyle, he has gifts to make you weep and shudder. And he comes from the War to tell his tale like Hamlet's ghost from the fires of purgatory, unshriven and unforgiving, with greater wrongs and with less excuse.
But the tale itself is complex, diverse, and divided. Kipling did not think of the War as one thing, or respond to it with one voice. Of his thirty-five Epitaphs of the War, no two are alike: they record, and do justice to, not simply different experiences but different ways of seeing.(3) The man who explored the darkest recesses of hatred in `Mary Postgate' also wrote `The Gardener'; the laughter which brings salvation in `The Miracle of Saint Jubanus' is countered by the laughter which is deployed like poison-gas, in `Beauty-Spots', to destroy a hated enemy. In many stories the War takes centre-stage, in others (such as `The Bull that Thought') it is only indirectly or glancingly evoked, though still with signifying power. If there is one binding impulse -- intellectual, emotional, and artistic -- which can be discerned in these diverse forms, it is that of honesty, an unflinching and unsparing recognition that things are as they are, and not otherwise -- not as they might have been, not as we wish them, above all not as we pretend they are. Even this does not hold sway in every story, as witness the strained, desperate fantasy about the afterlife, `Uncovenanted Mercies', which concludes his last volume of stories, Limits and Renewals. Yet the impulse to honesty is strong enough to be called a dominant note. In `London Stone' it urges the mourners to tell no lie, not to let conventional sentiment and gesture obscure their recognition of what it means to grieve. The mourners may bring flowers and bow their heads, but during the Two Minutes' Silence they must be open to the truth:
For those minutes, tell no lie: (Grieving -- grieving!) `Grave, this is thy victory, And the sting of death is grieving.'
St Paul's rhetorical question (in 1 Corinthians 15: 55) `O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?' imagines a rapture of the future and, as the preceding verse makes clear, is governed by a grammar of wish fulfilment: `So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory' (verse 54, my italics). Kipling's quotation brings the grammar back to the here and now: `Grave, this is thy victory, / And the pain of death is grieving'.
The poem does not refuse all consolation, since a way of easing the pain of grieving is, however tentatively, suggested at the end, but that way can only begin from the acknowledgment that there is an `ache / That is not cured by grieving'. The setting of the poem on Armistice Day declares the emptiness and inconsequence of public rituals and forms of words all the more poignantly because Kipling himself was so active in devising such rituals in the post-War years. He was a prime mover in the Imperial, later the Commonwealth, War Graves Commission, visiting many of the cemeteries while they were under construction, and suggesting the standard inscription, `Their name liveth for evermore', which is engraved on the Stone of Sacrifice in each cemetery. He wrote the speech which King George V delivered on his `pilgrimage' to the war graves in 1922. He devised the ceremony of sounding the Last Post at the Menin Gate in Ypres, the monument so hated by Siegfried Sassoon; he was involved from the first in planning and advocating the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey, arguably the single most resonant and enduring act of commemoration to emerge from this `people's war' -- more so even than the contested ritual of Armistice Day. But `London Stone' is imbued with a different spirit, the spirit of the bitterest of the Epitaphs of the War, the one called `Common Form':
If any question why we died, Tell them, because our fathers lied.
It has been suggested that Kipling thought himself one of these lying fathers who had sent his own son to his death. John Kipling was killed at the battle of Loos in September 1915.(4) He was just eighteen, and Kipling had used his influence to get him the commission in the Irish Guards which ensured his early service at the front. But it is not this that would make Kipling a liar, rather the whole ethos of service, of patriotic devotion and masculine honour, in which he had brought up his son. Moreover he might bear a special responsibility for having, if not created this ethos, then fostered and sold it to others. After John's death Kipling received hundreds of letters of condolence, but amongst them were also letters which told him, in effect, that his son's death served him right. The poem which follows `Common Form' in Epitaphs of the War reminds us that the liar is also, traditionally, a storyteller. It is called `A Dead Statesman':
I could not dig: I dared not rob: Therefore I lied to please the mob. Now all my lies are proved untrue And I must face the men I slew. What tale shall serve me here among Mine angry and defrauded young?
What tale shall serve me? The Epitaphs were published in 1919, in the volume called The Years Between, Kipling's last separate volume of verse. His two final collections of short stories appeared in 1926 and 1932. The titles of these collections -- Debits and Credits and Limits and Renewals -- tell us of balances struck, of accounts rendered, of one thing weighed against another. In each case the first word is negative, the second counters or mitigates it: but the negative cannot be wished away. There are wounds, griefs, troubles, which cannot be healed; or for which the healing is only ever partial and doubtful; or which, in the very process of being healed, generate new suffering. This is as true of stories where the War does not figure at all as in those where it is the central subject. In 'The Wish House', Grace Ashcroft makes an occult bargain by which she takes on the pain which would otherwise fall on the man she loves: she literally dies for him, as lovers are always telling each other they would.(5) Yet her beloved neither loves her in return, nor knows of her action. Dying of an unspeakably painful cancer, Grace begs the friend to whom she is telling the story to confirm the value of her sacrifice, to assure her that it has meaning:
`It do count, don't it -- de pain?' The lips that still kept trace of their original moulding hardly more than breathed the words. Mrs. Fettley kissed them and moved towards the door. (Debits and Credits, p. 138)
It takes a breath, the pause of a comma, for an affirmation -- `It do count' -- to dissolve into a question -- `don't it?' It is characteristic of Kipling's late style that he should link the `trace' of lost beauty, the lips' `original moulding', with the uncertain breath of these dying words, and that he should allow in Mrs Fettley's wordless response a tacit pun, for in kissing them it is as if she kisses the words as well as the lips, a kiss that `says' more than words even though it stops the breath.
Kipling's writing reaches such intensity when it recognizes and confronts this quality of the irremediable. In the story called `Fairy-Kist', in Limits and Renewals, a young man, Jimmy Tigner, quarrels with his girlfriend and parts from her in anger. Seconds later, unbeknownst to him, she is killed by a bizarre accident, which at first makes it look as though she has been murdered. Jimmy has to endure the suspicions of his neighbours and hounding by the press until his innocence is proved. Meanwhile another man also comes under suspicion, although for him there is a happy ending, which I shall discuss in more detail further on. Jimmy Tigner is devastated by the discovery that his girlfriend had not been murdered, because he now feels truly responsible for her death, since, if he had not quarrelled with her and left her when and where he did, the accident which killed her would not have happened. His nerves, already strained by the ordeal of trial by public opinion, give way and he suffers a complete and irreversible breakdown. The doctor who treats him offers this lapidary comment `"He'd been tried too high -- too high. I had to sign his certificate a few weeks later. No! He won't get better"' (Limits and Renewals, p. 168). He won't get better. It is hard to describe the tone of this: it is compassionate, but dry-eyed, a pity unblurred by tears, it carries the authority of a judicial sentence, confirmed by an act of writing, but the strangest thing about it perhaps is its matter-of-factness. What happens to Jimmy Tigner is `common form'. He is one of many who have been tried too high and who won't get better; the story despatches him to madness as though seeing him off on a troop-train. A small further detail: Jimmy, we are told, lives in the village with his mother. There is no ostensible reason for our being given this information, it plays no part in the plot, but it connects the story to the poem which accompanies it, `The Mother's Son', which tells us about Jimmy and all his kind, after he has arrived at his destination:
I have a dream -- a dreadful dream -- dream that is never done. I watch a man go out of his mind, And he is My Mother's Son. They pushed him into a Mental Home, And that is like the grave: For they do not let you sleep upstairs, And you aren't allowed to shave. And it was not disease or crime Which got him landed there, But because They laid on My Mother's Son More than a man could bear. What with noise, and fear of death, Waking, and wounds and cold, They filled the Cup for My Mother's Son Fuller than it could hold. They broke his body and his mind And yet They made him live, And They asked more of My Mother's Son Than any man could give.(6)
That such a quality, the quality of the irremediable, should be present in post-War writing will not come as much of a surprise. We are accustomed to thinking of the Great War as itself unprecedented and cataclysmic. In a series of monstrous birth-pangs, the years 1914-1918 deliver us into modernity. The consequences -- to people and nations, to social institutions and practices, to economic and political arrangements -- are imagined as new compounds, irreversible precipitations, which follow an apocalyptic breaking of vials and opening of seals. Such consequences are not just material, but affect value-systems, the network of ideas and associations through which the world can be perceived and interpreted. In extreme form the Great War becomes, in Paul Fussell's words, `the ultimate origin of the insane contemporary scene'.(7) The damage done by it might therefore seem irreversible because one of the things that was damaged was the concept of healing itself, the ability to imagine what it might be like to make things whole again, or even to make-believe in wholeness.
The stories in Debits and Credits and Limits and Renewals -- the latter especially -- are filled with instances of failed or partial healing. They are almost all set either in the late stages of the War or in its aftermath, and they all have these images of a threshhold, a boundary beyond which things cannot be the same. There is a graphic example -- literally, in that it is expressed by marks on the page -- in one of the first stories in Debits and Credits, `In the Interests of the Brethren', which opens as follows:
I was buying a canary in a birdshop when he first spoke to me and suggested that I should take a less highly coloured bird. `The colour is in the feeding,' said he. `Unless you know how to feed `em, it goes. Canaries are one of our hobbies.' He passed out before I could thank him. He was a middle-aged man with grey hair and a short, dark beard, rather like a Sealyham terrier in silver spectacles. For some reason his face and his voice stayed in my mind so distinctly that, months later, when I jostled against him on a platform crowded with an Angling Club going to the Thames, I recognised, turned, and nodded. `I took your advice about the canary,' I said. `Did you? Good!' he replied heartily over the rod-case on his shoulder, and was parted from me by the crowd. A few years ago I turned into a tobacconist's to have a badly stopped pipe cleaned out. `Well! Well! And how did the canary do?' said the man. His name was Lewis Holroyd Burges, of `Burges and Son,' as I might have seen above the door -- but Son had been killed in Egypt. His hair was whiter than it had been, and the eyes were sunk a little. `Well! Well! To think,' said he, `of one man in all these millions turning up in this curious way, when there's so many who don't turn up at all -- eh?' (It was then that he told me of Son Lewis's death and why the boy had been christened Lewis.) `Yes. There's not much left for middle-aged people just at present. Even one's hobbies -- We used to fish together. And the same with canaries! We used to breed `em for colour -- deep orange was our specialty. That's why I spoke to you, if you remember; but I've sold all my birds. Well! Well! And now we must locate your trouble.' He bent over my erring pipe and dealt with it skilfully as a surgeon. A soldier came in, spoke in an undertone, received a reply, and went out. (Debits and Credits, p. 57)
The dots across the page signify the War, the `years between'. The story is being told from the other side, and the first paragraphs refer to the time before the fall; the ominous closeness of the War is evoked in the image of the railway platform innocently crowded with an expeditionary force of anglers, amongst whom, unnamed and unnoticed, is `Son Lewis'. A line takes you from Mr Burges's hearty exclamation, `"Good!"' across the `badly stopped pipe', to his catchphrase, `"Well! Well!"', which he uses three times but which means that things are not well, that the heart has gone out of him. Let us say that the badly stopped pipe is a war-wound: `"Well! Well! And now we must locate your trouble"'. The `we' there, professional and shop-keeperly, stands apart from the `we' who used to keep canaries and go fishing; of that `we' only `I' remains. There is only so much that even the most skilful surgeon can do.
The story introduces a fictional Masonic lodge, `Faith and Works 5837', which is what the soldier at the end of this extract has come to ask about. The conduct of this Lodge is unorthodox, indeed illegitimate -- it has become a drop-in centre for wounded, disabled, or mentally broken men, who find in Masonic ritual not an esoteric mystery but a human, and humane fellowship. Kipling's tribute to the charitable work done by this imaginary Lodge is circumscribed by the fact that it is indeed imaginary; the story was first published in magazine form in 1918, by which time Freemasonry had in Kipling's view, as Burges expresses it at the end, `"thrown away its chance in the War almost as much as the Church has"', (p. 79). Yet even within the affectionate wishful-thinking of the story, the compensations and consolations of human fellowship are set against a dark backdrop. In the course of two pages we meet a Scottish officer swathed in head-bandages, a one-armed New Zealander, a `stiffly silent person in civilian clothes with discharge-badge' (a shell-shock case), a `one footed R.A.M.C. Corporal', and a `Captain of Territorials, who, he told me, had "had a brawl" with a bomb, which had bent him in two directions' (pp. 64-5). These unnamed and diversely broken men are Burges's sons, to whom he gives the love he can no longer give his own. What kind of compensation might there be in that? It goes deep, but it does not go all the way. When the narrator offers to make a contribution to the expenses of the Lodge, one of the other regular members refuses to accept it, saying: `"How much d'you suppose could Burges write a cheque for and not feel? 'Tisn't as if he had to save for any one now"' (p. 71). This, too, is a matter of debits and credits.
Art may be thought to be a medium of healing and consoling make-believe. But many of the stories and poems which Kipling published either late in the War or in its aftermath suggest that such art itself now belongs to the past from which the War has cut us off. In the poem `A Recantation', addressed to a famous music-hall star idolized by his teenaged son, Kipling apologizes for having despised the singer's art as vulgar and `over-bold'. He acknowledges now the singer's power, as he puts it, `to hearten and make whole'. But this acknowledgment is retrospective: the singer made his son happy while he was alive, but cannot console the father for his death. He still has the gramophone, the `magic coffer' as he calls it, and the records in which the singer's `very voice was locked': he can play these songs that his son loved, but the magic brings back nothing but ghosts.(8)
In `A Recantation' Kipling assumes the persona of a grouchy middle-aged parent who disapproves of his teenaged son's choice of pop music, but his own passion for the music-hall was of long standing, and he had not long before -- in a story written in 1913 -- given a lyrical description of a young singer's first real triumph on the stage -- a triumph which means that she gets not just applause from her audience, but worship. Kipling clearly intends us to understand and endorse this tribute to the power of art, yet nothing better measures the distance between what it was possible for him to believe before and after the War than this young singer's subsequent fate.
The 1913 story is called `The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat', and the singer, exotically named Vidal Benzaquen, is young, full of life, and in the prime of her artistic and erotic power.(9) When we next hear of her, in a post-War story called `Dayspring Mishandled' (the opening story in Limits and Renewals), it is not that she has failed, or grown old and outworn, but she has, in a special sense, lost her voice and her power. Although her name keeps recurring, she herself is a marginal figure, displaced by her mother, whose tragic fate is the key to the plot. Vidal Benzaquen's mother is loved by James Manallace and by Alured Castorley, but rejects both of them and marries a man who afterwards leaves her. Manallace never ceases to love her, and devotes his life to looking after her when, after her desertion, she falls ill of a disease which paralyzes her and eventually kills her -- probably, though the story does not directly say so, syphilis, passed on to her by her no-good husband. Castorley, meanwhile, reacts to his rejection in the opposite way to Manallace -- with meanness rather than generosity of spirit. When he is asked for money to help pay for a new treatment for Vidal's mother, `He answered that he had "known the lady very slightly and the calls on his purse were so heavy that," etc.' You might think that Manallace would have his reward in some scene of deathbed recognition of his Dobbin-like fidelity. Not a bit of it. After Castorley's refusal, the narrator remarks:
Vidal's mother was then wholly paralysed. Only her eyes could move, and those always looked for the husband who had left her. She died thus in Manallace's arms in April of the first year of the War. (Limits and Renewals, p. 7)
Like Grace Ashcroft in `The Wish House', Manallace devotes his life -- sacrifices himself -- for the sake of someone who does not love him in return. The nature of this sacrifice is different because it involves not the taking of pain upon oneself, but its infliction on another person. Manallace can do nothing to prevent Vidal's mother from dying, but he can at least revenge himself on Castorley for soiling her memory.
Manallace and Castorley are both writers -- Manallace a contentedly mediocre novelist who has found his niche in historical adventure stories, Castorley a scholar and literary critic whose `prey', as the narrator puts it, is Chaucer. During the War both men are too old to fight, and are given low-grade administrative jobs in the same War Office department. There, while sheltering from an air-raid (this must be late in the War, two or three years after the death of Vidal's mother), Manallace and Castorley `talk humanly', among other things about the woman they both loved. And Castorley says something -- we are never told what -- something about Vidal's mother which is so awful that it can never be forgiven.(10) From that moment Manallace devotes his life to Vidal's mother in a different sense. He determines to ruin Castorley, and the rest of the story relates how he does it, and with what results.
`Dayspring Mishandled' therefore divides into three periods: the time before the War, the War itself, and the time which follows. The first sentence of the story takes us back to what the narrator calls `the days beyond compare and before the Judgments' (p. 3). In this pre-War period, which we may date roughly to the 1890s, Manallace, Castorley, and Vidal's mother are young, the two men are rivals but lose out to a third when Vidal's mother embarks on her fatal marriage; that marriage fails and she dies just as the War begins. During the War Manallace is wounded by what Castorley says about Vidal's mother, a wound from which he never recovers. The narrator describes how, after the War,
Castorley set about to make himself Supreme Pontiff on Chaucer by means not far removed from the employment of poison-gas. The English Pope was silent, through private griefs, and influenza had carried off the learned Hun who claimed continental allegiance. Thus Castorley crowed unchallenged from Upsala to Seville, while Manallace went back to his cottage with the photo of Vidal's mother over the mantelpiece. She seemed to have emptied out his life, and left him only fleeting interests in trifles. His private diversions were experiments of uncertain outcome, which, he said, rested him after a day's gadzooking and vitalstapping. I found him, for instance, one week-end, in his toolshed-scullery, boiling a brew of slimy barks which were, if mixed with oak-galls, vitriol and wine, to become an ink-powder. We boiled it till the Monday, and it turned into an adhesive stronger than birdlime, and entangled us both. (pp. 8-9)
The bleakness of this passage infects its humour -- the joke about Castorley's becoming the Chanticleer of the Chaucerian dunghill is as sour as the gall of Manallace's ink. Castorley's rise is built on the grief and death of the War, but for Manallace only one death, and one grief, matter. Yet the death of Vidal's mother is also a symbolic death, the death of `the days beyond compare'.(11) Castorley's remark, whatever it was, transgressed a boundary of civilized feeling as Kipling thought the Germans had done, and Castorley's claim to European hegemony is like a reprise of German ambitions and is accomplished with German methods. In a parody of combat, Manallace spends his days `gadzooking and vitalstapping' his way through his inauthentic historical romances. Nevertheless, the photo of Vidal's mother on his mantelpiece presides over a real war, the one which Manallace wages against Castorley. It is a long campaign, and it empties out Manallace's life.
Manallace sets out to forge a fragment of a Chaucer manuscript -- and not just any manuscript, but a hitherto unknown Canterbury Tale. The forgery is to be so perfect that Castorley, the Pope of Chaucer studies, will be persuaded to authenticate it. Manallace will then reveal the fraud, and Castorley will be ruined. What he is doing in his toolshed is manufacturing medieval ink. In the same way, we catch glimpses of him learning how to imitate the texture and appearance of a page of vellum, how to forge the handwriting of a particular scribe so that Castorley will `recognize' it, and finally devising a way of planting the finished manuscript in such a way that it will be `discovered' as though by accident. Manallace pretends to admire Castorley and flatters him without shame, carefully picking up the clues which will enable him to betray his victim more effectively.
The first stage of Manallace's plan succeeds to perfection -- Castorley duly proclaims the authenticity of the manuscript, and even ends up with a knighthood. He proposes to write a definitive book on the new Canterbury Tale, and Manallace, now completely in Castorley's confidence, urges him on with the intention of exploding his mine when the book is published. But the episode of the ink-powder was prophetic. Manallace's plot entangles him, and his revenge turns inside out. The cause of this inversion is Castorley' s wife, who is the monstrous counterpart of Vidal's mother. In the midst of writing his book Castorley falls ill, and Lady Castorley begins an affair with Gleeag, the surgeon who treats him. Castorley has a malignant tumour, but it is a slow business and Lady Castorley thinks that a little mental anguish would help things along. She guesses the truth about the Chaucer forgery, and in order to hasten her husband's death she begins to poison his mind with hints, just vague enough to madden him, that all is not well with his great discovery. Meanwhile she prompts Manallace, with the same wicked subtlety, to spring the plot and finish Castorley off. Manallace's willingness to exact revenge on Castorley drains away in exact proportion to Lady Castorley's eagerness. Vidal's mother had died deserted by her faithless husband, but Lady Castorley has betrayed her husband and desires his death. Manallace finds himself in the fantastic position of nursing Castorley through his last illness as he had nursed Vidal's mother, comforting him, nourishing and cherishing his illusions, keeping the lie up to the end, and fighting off Castorley's terrifed and pitiable suspicions by repeatedly assuring him that the Chaucer fragment is genuine. Nevertheless Castorley dies in an agony of doubt and frustration, in which, too, the old poisons and griefs of his youth bubble up, including his long-suppressed passion for Vidal's mother. He pleads with Manallace and the narrator:
He wanted to go away. Would we help him to pack his Gladstone? Or, if that would attract too much attention in certain quarters, help him to dress and go out? There was an urgent matter to be set right, and now that he had The Title and knew his own mind it would all end happily and he would be well again. Please would we let him go out, just to speak to -- he named her; he named her by her `little' name out of the old Neminaka days?(12) Manallace quite agreed, and recommended a pull at the `liver-tonic' to brace him after so long in the house. (pp. 29-30)
The `liver-tonic' is an opiate to dull the pain of Castorley's dying. He will not get well, and the `urgent matter' cannot be set right, because it belongs to a past which has gone beyond recall. The narrator keeps secret from us the `"little" name out of the old Neminaka days', and this is ironic because he has also kept secret from us the name of which the little name is a diminutive. She is identified only as the mother of Vidal Benzaquen, the young, the beautiful, the innocently glorious star of another tale and another world. Vidal herself, by a symmetrical irony, makes no appearance in `Dayspring Mishandled', but her image is repeatedly invoked to contrast with her mother's embodiment of suffering and thwarted desire.
Kipling sets the seal on Manallace's undoing in the story's last sentence. The scene is the crematorium where Castorley's funeral service is being held:
As, on the appointed words, the coffin crawled sideways through the noiselessly-closing door-flaps, I saw Lady Castorley's eyes turn towards Gleeag.
What should this glance remind us of? It answers the dying look of Vidal's mother, her eyes `always look[ing] for the husband who had left her'. Lady Castorley -- cruel, ignoble, triumphant -- is a survivor of a war in which all the other main characters are killed or crippled.
`Dayspring Mishandled' represents an extreme, multiple instance of diseased personal and social relations, and no other story in Limits and Renewals is quite as bleak. `Fairy-Kist', however, is in some ways a more disturbing tale, because its outcome, which for one of the characters at least overcomes the trauma of the War, rests, finally, on a madness born of the War itself. It opens on a genial and convivial note. We meet the members of a small dining-club with the humorous name of the `Eclectic but Comprehensive Fraternity for the Perpetuation of Gratitude towards Lesser Lights'. What this means is that the pretext for their excellent dinners is to honour some lesser-known figure in the arts or sciences. They are prosperous, middle-aged professional men, and there is nothing in the opening pages to suggest that the date of their meeting shouldn't be, say, 1910. But one of the members is Mr Burges -- of Burges and Son, who used to keep canaries and go fishing with 'Son Lewis'. The narrator -- Kipling, we may as well call him -- has also lost his son. Another member is Dr Keede, who was in the Royal Army Medical Corps during the War. We have already seen Burges and Keede as freemasons, helping to piece together the wounded and broken men who come to their Lodge in `In the Interests of the Brethren'. Yet nothing of all that is mentioned at the outset, and the small, closed `Fraternity' of the dining-club seems remote from the interests of these war-wounded `brethren'. When the story gets under way, it is after dinner, and the men are riding their favourite hobby-horses, as the narrator puts it; the War doesn't figure in their conversation, and seems to have receded to a comfortable distance. They start talking about murder, and detective stories, and the name of Sherlock Holmes is invoked as the `great original'. Then Kipling, the narrator, says: `"I wish I could do a decent detective story. I never get further than the corpse"' (Limits and Renewals, p. 154). In response to this idle after-dinner remark, Keede and another member of the fraternity, a man called Lemming, between them relate the events which make up the bulk of `Fairy-Kist'. And though it begins as though it were going to be a pre-War detective adventure, the story eventually reaches back to the War, and Kipling gets `further than the corpse' in a way he does not anticipate.
It is a critical commonplace to say of classic detective fiction -- the English variety, at any rate -- that the act of murder and the corpse which results from it, are purely functional conveniences -- that is, they are the necessary pretext for the real business of the story, which is the process, or art of detection. Yet the fact of death is important in at least one respect -- it signifies a state of disorder, a sickness in a family or community, which must be put right by discovery and retribution. The detective appears, like Oedipus, to answer a riddle and restore a community to order and well-being.
The plot of `Fairy-Kist' is intricate, but an essential feature of it is that Keede and Lemming set out as amateur sleuths to solve what they believe to be the murder of a local woman, Ellen Marsh. On the night of her death, Keede had come across what he took to be a courting couple -- a man stooping over a woman lying on the ground -- and subsequently realized that the woman was Ellen, and the man, therefore, her putative killer. Instead of going to the Police he and Lemming go `man-hunting', or `Sherlocking' as Keede calls it. They track down the man Keede saw, whose name is Wollin, and pay him a visit on a trumped-up pretext. Everything about Wollin's behaviour confirms their suspicions, and they pick up various clues which point to his guilt; they leave rather proud of their `Sherlocking' until they realize that they have blunderingly alerted Wollin to the real motive for their visit. Needless to say when they visit him again he has disappeared. His elderly housekeeper frantically covers up for him, but also seems to be trying to palliate his crime:
`Then she began talking about Wollin. She'd been his nurse, I fancy. Anyhow she'd known him all his life, and she said he was full of virtue and sickness. She said he'd been wounded and gassed and gangrened in the War, and after that -- oh, she worked up to it beautifully -- he'd been practically off his head. She called it `fairy-kist.' ... Everything she said squared with my own theories up to date. Wollin was on the break of life, and, given wounds, gas, and gangrene just at that crisis, why anything -- Jack the Ripperism or religious mania -- might come uppermost. I knew that, and the old lady was as good as telling it me over again, and putting up a defence for him in advance. (pp. 164-5)
Keede and Lemming -- the two Sherlocks -- think they have solved the mystery, and though Wollin's madness is caused by the War, his crime belongs to a pre-War genre -- the Sherlock Holmes stories of the Strand magazine, a form of romance which is, if anything, comforting in its familiarity. Keede's use of `Jack-the Ripperism' as a tag for Wollin's behaviour is also a late-Victorian reference -- the real Whitechapel murders were already so strongly mythologized that it would not be difficult to imagine them being investigated from a fictional address in Baker Street.(13) It is a nice touch that Keede, the doctor, should be the leading Sherlock of the two, because he turns out to have been Doctor Watson all along. Just as he and Lemming are `putting the finishing touches to [their] evidence', Ellen's boyfriend, Jimmy Tigner, bursts in with the proof that Ellen had not been murdered after all, but that her death had been a freakish accident (pp. 165-6). We have already seen what happens to Jimmy as a result of this discovery -- his going mad, and Keede's sombre assessment that `he won't get better' -- but what about Wollin and his madness? Keede and Lemming now have a different mystery to solve -- one not to do with a corpse, but with a living person, a mystery not of the body but of the mind. If Wollin was innocent, why did he behave as though he were guilty, and then run away? The two men go down to visit him again, and this time they find him at home: he has read in the newspapers of the solution to the so-called `murder', and knows he is no longer going to be accused of it.
Wollin is mad all right, but not in the way Keede had diagnosed. The key to the story is that this madness does indeed go back to the War, just as the old housekeeper said; her description of Wollin as `full of virtue and sickness' is the literal truth. Keede and Lemming were half-right in linking the crime to pre-War literature, but they picked the wrong genre. It is not detective fiction but children's writing which is at the centre of the mystery; not the immortal star of Conan Doyle but a fading Victorian luminary called Juliana Horatia Ewing. The greater light has concealed a lesser, which nevertheless turns out to be the one that rules Wollin's mental firmament. Keede gives the following account of Wollin's medical history:
`... one shrapnel peppering, one gassing, with gangrene. He had put in about fourteen months in various hospitals ... And he'd been doped for pain and pinched nerves, till the wonder was he'd ever pulled straight again. He told us that the only thing that had helped him through the War was his love of gardening. He'd been mad keen on it all his life -- and even in the worst of the Somme he used to get comfort out of plants and bot'ny, and that sort of stuff. I never did.... At his last hospital he'd been particularly doped, and he fancied that that was where his mind had gone. He said there were Gotha raids round his hospital, which used to upset the wards. And there was a V.A.D. -- she must have been something of a woman, too -- who used to read to him and tell him stories to keep him quiet. He liked `em because, as far as he remembered, they were all about gardening. But, when he grew better, he began to hear Voices -- little whispers at first, growing louder and ending in regular uproars -- ordering him to do certain things. He used to lie there shaking with horror, because he funked going mad. He wanted to live and be happy again, in his garden -- like the rest of us. `When he was discharged, he said, he left hospital with a whole Army Corps shouting into his ears. The sum and substance of their orders was that he must go out and plant roots and things at large up and down the countryside. Naturally he suffered a bit, but, after a while, he went back to his house at Mitcham and obeyed orders, because, he said, as long as he was carrying `em out the Voices stopped.... Being a methodical bird, he'd bought a motor-bike and a basket lined with oil-cloth, and he used to skirmish out planting his silly stuff by the wayside, and in coppices and on commons. He'd spy out likely spots by day and attend to `em after dark.' (p. 171-3)
It was while attending to one such spot that Wollin had come across Ellen Marsh's body; he too thought she had been murdered, and when he realized that Keede had seen him stooping over the corpse he panicked, thinking he would be accused of the crime and, if he told the truth about his voices, he would be declared insane and sent to Broadmoor.
The link between Wollin's condition and the War is not just that it originates in his injuries and his subsequent experiences in hospital, but that it rhetorically and symbolically repeats motifs which belong to the War itself. The voices he hears are explicitly compared to military orders -- `a whole Army Corps shouting into his ears' -- and he is described as `skirmish[ing] out' to do his planting and conducting military style reconnaissance of the terrain. Yet the planting itself is like a symbolic restoration of life to the earth torn and wounded in the bombardments of the War. It is not like the planting which Kipling alludes to at the end of `The Gardener', which takes place within the vast, orderly, military layout of a War cemetery. Wollin's tiny, personal, scattered, and crazy digging `by the wayside' remembers and protests against the trenches of the front line and the craters of No-Man's Land.
It remains for Keede and Lemming to trace the literary source of Wollin's condition. Here they prove themselves much more successful detectives than when they thought themselves actors in a Sherlock Holmes story. From some of the phrases which Wollin uses, and some of the details of the nightmares from which he suffered in hospital, they deduce that one of the books which the V.A.D. read to him during the air-raids must have been an old children's story called Mary's Meadow, by Juliana Horatia Ewing. Characters, events and descriptions from this work, distorted in their passage through Wollin's suffering body and unbalanced mind, had woven themselves into the `Voices' which he heard.
Mrs Ewing (1841-1885) was already a `lesser light' by the time Kipling wrote `Fairy-Kist', and today her fame as a writer for children has long since passed: she is Christian, didactic, morally and socially conservative, and none of her confections is sugar-free. The best that John Sutherland, in his Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction, can say of Jackanapes, her `most admired story', is that it is `handled with less cloying sentimentality than usual'. The same could not be said of Mary's Meadow, but Mrs Ewing's sentimentality does not mean that she cannot represent real emotions convincingly, just as her fixation with the virtues of self-sacrifice and repression does not prevent her from being a shrewd and sometimes very funny observer of people's behaviour. Kipling's choice of her to play the part he gives her in `Fairy-Kist' is superbly well-judged.(14)
Many miscellaneous details of the plot of Mary's Meadow enter into Wollin's hospital nightmares, but the relevant ones here are those which decisively shape what would nowadays be called his obsessive-compulsive disorder. Mary, the heroine and narrator of Mary's Meadow, is a young girl of thirteen, who makes up a game about gardens to amuse her brothers and sisters. The game brings together names and ideas which she finds in two gardening books: from one she gets the notion of planting flowers in wild and waste places, but it is from the other that she gets the phrase which really matters. The book is a seventeenth century work called `the Earthly Paradise', whose author, John Parkinson, says of the honeysuckle: `The Hunisucle that groweth wilde in euery hedge, although it be very sweete yet doe I not bring it into my garden, but let it rest in his owne place, to serue their senses that trauell by it, or haue no garden'. So Mary's game consists partly in the creation of an Earthly Paradise by planting flowers for such as have no gardens, and it is this utopian task which Wollin's voices order him to undertake. The Earthly Paradise is traditionally a hortus inclusus, an enclosed space in which what is most precious is most secured, whether it is the garden of Eden, or the garden of the Rose of Love, or a garden of Remembrance. Wollin's expeditions -- furtive, nocturnal, innocently mad -- seek to create the reverse of this enclosed space, as though the land itself could be healed and everyone could share in that healing.
It is not surprising that Kipling should turn to a children's story for this text of redemption, nor that the story he chooses should come from the Victorian period, the golden age of writing for children, nor that the author of the story should be a woman. One of the minor characters in `Fairy-Kist', the Scotsman McKnight, sums up Mary's Meadow as `"the best, the kindest, the sweetest, the most eenocent tale ever the soul of a woman gied birth to"' (p. 178). This remark comes just after Keede's final, rueful admission: `"We aren't exactly first-class Sherlocks"'. Mrs Ewing triumphs in the story over Conan Doyle, and Mary's conventional feminine sensibility takes priority over the eccentric masculine genius of Sherlock Holmes -- `that great original'. The dark and transgressive sexuality which might have been symbolized by the murder of Ellen Marsh is replaced by a benign and nurturing female power, the divinity which will preside over Wollin's future excursions. For Wollin doesn't give up his mania when its causes are brought to light: when he realizes that the nightmarish and surreal images which oppress him can all be disassembled and remade into a design of sweetness and light, he is released from his torment, and the Voices cease. When the story ends he has `"bought a side-car to his bike, to hold more vegetables"', as Keede puts it, and he `"cuts about the Home Counties planting his stuff as happy as -- Oh my soul! What wouldn't I give to be even one fraction as happy as he is!"' (pp. 177-8). Though Mary's Meadow is no longer the stuff of nightmare and obsession, it still shapes his life as -- again in Keede's words -- a `redeemed soul'.
`Fairy-Kist' closes with the members of the Fraternity paying homage to Mrs Ewing, but as readers we are entitled to pause before we join them. We might reflect on a slightly eerie absence of children in a tale which depends so crucially on a children's story for its resolution. There are, admittedly, two sons -- Jimmy Tigner, who lives with his mother, and whose fate has been discussed in relation to the poem `The Mother's Son' -- and Wollin, whose surrogate mother is the old housekeeper, who used to be his nurse. The poem `The Mother's Son' is dreadfully like a nursery rhyme, and the madhouse rules are like a jingle from Robert Louis Stevenson: `For they do not let you sleep upstairs, / And you're not allowed to shave'. What happens to the `mother's son' is therefore a frightening regression to childhood, but Wollin's salvation at the end can also be read as a regression into paradisal childhood, whose irresponsibility is authorized by a wise and benign mother, a state of bliss inaccessible to the other characters. Wollin's healing and renewal can only be achieved when circumscribed by these ultimate limits.
(1) All references to Kipling's poems are to the Definitive Edition of Rudyard Kipling's Verse (1940), except for `The Mother's Son', which was published with the story `Fairy-Kist' in Limits and Renewals (see note 6). The text of the stories is that of the `Uniform Edition' (1899-1938).
(2) In his otherwise excellent book on the Armistice Day ceremony from 1919 to 1946, Adrian Gregory quotes from Kipling's poem and says that it `suggests that his own pain was beyond consolation', and that, moreover, if Kipling could not be consoled by `the rhetoric of God, King, and Empire', who could? For was not Kipling `the embodiment of Edwardian patriotism at its most extreme'? (The Silence of Memory, Oxford, 1994, pp. 38-39).
(3) The Epitaphs have thirty-four titles, but one of them, `Two Canadian Memorials', consists of two separate poems.
(4) His body was not found in Kipling's lifetime -- a fact which makes his participation in the War Graves Commission all the more poignant.
(5) The character's first name is never given as the word `grace' in the story: once it is `Gracie', otherwise contracted to `Gra'.
(6) The poem in this instance precedes the story (Limits and Renewals, pp. 151-2). Three of the fourteen stories in the volume use this arrangement; in six others the poem follows the story; the remaining five have poems both preceding and following them.
(7) The Great War and Modern Memory, (Oxford, 1977), p. 329. Fussell is referring to the way the War figures in Thomas Pynchon's novel Gravity's Rainbow.
(8) Kipling gave his son a `whole lot of new gramophone records' as a Christmas present in 1912: see E. L. Gilbert (ed.), `O Beloved Kids': Rudyard Kipling's Letters to his Children, (1983), p. 143.
(9) When Kipling published the story in A Diversity of Creatures in 1917, it carried the date of composition, `1913', to emphasize its pre-War provenance. All the stories in the volume carry dates; in the case of two of them, Kipling added the month as well as the year, so that `The Dog Hervey' is dated `April 1914' and `Swept and Garnished' `January 1915'. In the latter case the refinement is introduced not in order to separate a pre-War from a War story, but in order to demarcate a phase of the War itself, the reports of German atrocities in Belgium which had appeared in the newspapers in the late autumn of 1914.
(10) It has been suggested that the words which Castorley utters in his dying delirium -- `I wish to God someone would stop that old swine howling down there! I can't' -- constitute this unforgivable insult (R. E. Harbord [ed.], Readers' Guide to Rudyard Kipling's Works, VII, 1972, p. 3193). But this can't be right, because the present tense of `howling' refers to someone who is still alive, and when Castorley insults Vidal's mother she is already dead; moreover `swine' usually denotes a man, not a woman. It may refer to Manallace himself, howling sentimentally at `Neminaka's' about his passion for Vidal's mother; Castorley is jealous of Manallace both personally and professionally.
(11) Vidal is also (in one of the many senses in which the quotation may be read) `la fille des beaux jours' in the story's haunting epigraph from Charles Nodier's poem `La Mandragore'.
(12) `Neminaka' is the name of the Soho cafe which Manallace and Castorley frequented in their youth.
(13) There is in fact a movie with this plot, called Murder by Decree, directed in 1979 by Bob Clark, with Christopher Plummer as Holmes and James Mason as Watson. Not only does Holmes investigate the Ripper murders, but they turn out to be connected to a Masonic conspiracy.
(14) Kipling probably also had personal reasons for choosing this particular story. He had treasured Mrs Ewing's stories when he was a child: in his memoir, Something of Myself, he remembers one called Six to Sixteen which was published in Aunt Judy's Magazine in the early 1870s and which he claimed to know `almost by heart' sixty years later. But Mary's Meadow does not belong to Kipling's childhood -- he was eighteen when it was serialized, also in Aunt Judy's Magazine, between November 1883 and March 1884. The date is significant for another reason. Mary's Meadow was the last of Mrs Ewing's stories to be serialized, indeed her last work of fiction. In 1883 she settled at a house in Taunton with a large garden; she was already incurably ill, of cancer of the spine, and died less than two years later. I think that Kipling was drawn to this story because of this fact; his own late work was produced under conditions of terrible physical pain and occasional periods of depression and mental anguish which are movingly recorded not just in his writing but in Carrie Kipling's diaries (see Lord Birkenhead, Rudyard Kipling, 1978, chapter 22).
University of College London
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|Title Annotation:||World War I|
|Publication:||Essays in Criticism|
|Date:||Oct 1, 1998|
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