Last Words

John Bayley

  • The Collected Stories of Angus Wilson
    Secker, 414 pp, £12.95, November 1987, ISBN 0 436 57612 0

His cousin Oliver Baldwin described Kipling’s story ‘Mary Postgate’ as ‘the wickedest story in the world’. It did shock its readers very much, but it is not entirely easy to determine just what the shocking element was, perhaps still is. Told with a subdued but cheerful elegance a little in the manner of Jane Austen’s novels, which Kipling much admired, it is a tale about a virtuous spinster companion during the Great War, whose employer’s nephew in the RFC is killed on a training flight. Having brought him up, Mary is very devoted to him. Later a little girl in the village is horribly killed when a house collapses, perhaps as a result of a German bomb. Further upset, Mary sets out to burn the dead nephew’s belongings in the garden incinerator, and finds in the shrubbery a wounded German airman, who pleads for help. She refuses it, and watches his death agony with intense pleasure, afterwards taking a bath and sitting on the sofa in a mood of relaxed satisfaction.

Angus Wilson had some interesting things to say about the story in his book The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling. But he did not mention its crucial point: did these events really happen, or was the climactic one a self-induced fantasy, something that took place only in Mary’s mind? Kipling tells the story as if the wounded airman were real, and the reader, too, accepts it for a fact, but critics have pointed out that he is more likely to be a hallucination, and have admired the way in which Kipling handles the ‘ambiguity’. He may have adapted the technique of it from Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, which he also much admired, and he uses the same device in other stories, notably the earlier ‘Mrs Bathurst’. The significant point, however, is that the impression of wickedness in the tale may derive not so much from the events in it as from the way the narrational technique is used to conceal Kipling’s own feelings: his hatred of the German barbarian and his lust for revenge. The fantasy, as his cousin may have apprehended, is his, and he uses the figure of Mary Postgate to give it a sort of clinical detachment. In wartime a gentle spinster may be more ruthless than a man: the female of the species not only deadly in what she does, but in what she wishes she could do. Kipling, incidentally, had heard stories when he was young about how the women behaved in Afghanistan towards wounded British soldiers.

The short-story form seems peculiarly well suited to the exercise of personal fantasy, because its ready-made spareness and detachment can conceal the author as the full-length novel can scarcely do. Mérimée’s ‘Mateo Falcone’ is an early type of the conte cruel, a genre which developed in France as a special art-form: Michel Tournier still practises it today. The effect of these tales is quite different from that of ‘Mary Postgate’ because there is no personal animus involved – they do but poison in jest. The fantasy may be there, but there is no violence behind it. The same is true of most ‘nasty’ stories written now in England or America – for example, those of Joyce Carol Oates or Ian McEwan. Indeed, there seems to be a whole genre of repulsive literature in our time written by mild, serious, high-minded people who strike one as not so much indulging in personal fantasies as producing the kind of things that they feel ought to be written in the post-Beckett era.

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