Few discussions of literary obscurity fail to come to a climax with a story written by Kipling in the early 1900s, ‘Mrs Bathurst’. Conversely, most general critical treatments of the writer sooner or later brace themselves to try to explain what is going on in it. Excellent work has emerged from the process – Kipling can bring the best out of the good critic, and possibly the worst out of the bad. I don’t, however, want to tackle the question of obscurity precisely in this interpretative way. I should like to suggest rather that the particular difficulties and originalities of this dark tale can (paradoxically) throw light on to what was happening to fiction in England in the 1890s and after: they can even tell us something about why and how the short story emerges from the slow dissolution of the Victorian novel.
‘Mrs Bathurst’ was first published in Kipling’s 1904 collection of stories and poems, Traffics and Discoveries, by a writer who, though still only in his late thirties, already had nearly fifteen years of dazzling success behind him. The story is told in the first person and has as its setting South Africa (where Kipling, as it happens, was accustomed to spend his winters with his family). The narrator tells how, stranded one noon on the burning sea-front of the furthermost coast, he is rescued by a friendly acquaintance, Inspector Hooper of Cape Government Railways, himself just returned from a long trip up-country: and Hooper takes him on the train to a cooler bay a mile or so along the line. There, sitting in an open wagon in a siding in False Bay, with ‘the bland wind on my eyelids’ and the chatter of nearby picnickers in the air, the two men are unexpectedly hailed by further friends of the narrator, the seaman Pyecroft and Pritchard, a Sergeant of Marines. Pritchard has had welcome beer bestowed on him, perhaps because of a mistake in identity, by a servant-girl, and the conversation turns to women and to love – to those desertions or ‘absences without leave’ which passion may bring about, and to desertion simply. The men exchange memories of troubles more or less humorous, among them a massive court-martialling once provoked by a trick played by one Boy Niven, who led a large group of seamen and marines on a wild-goose-chase in British Columbia.
These preliminaries are at once peculiarly exact and yet bewildering. A vividly circumstantial sense of the beach, the hot day, its sights and sounds, interfuses with the men’s allusive and laconic gossip. Gradually and circuitously – because the subject is dangerous – talk settles on a single case of ‘absence without leave’: that of a warrant officer named Vickery, known to friends as ‘Click’ from the sound made by four ill-fitting false teeth. A middle-aged widower with a nearly-grown daughter back home in England, he has been led to break and run from the service by some element in his relationship with one Mrs Bathurst, a young New Zealand hotel-keeper. Vickery’s fate becomes preternaturally vivid to us, but we never directly see either of the two persons concerned, or understand fully the motivations involved.
The gentle and amiable Pritchard, a ‘woman’s man, struggles to communicate the extreme female charm possessed by Mrs Bathurst, known and agreed by both himself and the harder, cockier Pyecroft to be virtuous as well as adorable: one who (like Inspector Hooper’s own mother in intrinsic human decency) ‘never scrupled’, in Pritchard’s words, ‘to feed a lame duck or set ’er foot on a scorpion at any time of ’er life’. Yet this delightful creature is bound up with the terrible degenerative process of obsession and flight now described by Pyecroft. He tells how once not long ago in Cape Town his messmate Vickery, unstoppably drunk and indeed half out of his mind, has forced him to sit, night after night, watching an early newsreel film, which happens to have for a few seconds the inexplicable image of Mrs Bathurst on it, disembarking from a train at Paddington Station, and, Vickery says desperately, ‘lookin’ for somebody’; after which Vickery gets some kind of permission, if not connivance, from his superior officer, which sends him up-country on a journey that becomes desertion.
It is Hooper who surprisingly joins in at this stage and proves to have the end of Vickery’s story. His own trip into the hinterland took him to the place where two dead tramps had been found
after a bit of a thunderstorm in the teak ... One of ’em was standin’ up by the dead-end of the siding and the other was squattin’ down lookin’ up at ’im, you see ... There wasn’t much I could do, except bury ’em ... they were both stone dead and 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 shinin’ against the black. Fell to bits he did too, like his mate squatting down and watchin’ him, both of them wet in the rain.
And with this, we are very near the end of ‘Mrs Bathurst’. All that is left is a brief return to the sun and wind of the beach, where the picnickers are now singing the sentimental Late Victorian love-ballad, ‘The Honeysuckle and the Bee’.
Not everyone likes this extraordinary story. Both Angus Wilson and Kingsley Amis have protested at its terse, incomprehensible oddity, and called it frankly bad. But most other admirers of Kipling, and indeed of good fiction in general, find it in its strange way consummate, haunting and powerful. But a powerful account of what? What, in simple English, can the story be said to be ‘about’? Any critic who tries to answer that question experiences some of the tale’s peculiar difficulties in practice: its ambiguities, which make every attempted statement a leading question. It is genuinely hard to tell Vickery’s notional story without disclosing one’s hand, and interpreting what in the narration is tacit, hovering between feeling and action, obsession and (conceivably) crime. This problematic quality will settle on certain details, of which I will mention just one. The most universally and justly admired single study of Kipling is the late J.M.S. Tompkins’s highly intelligent, scrupulous and loving book about the writer. At one point, describing the problems of this tale, she takes a breath and heroically summarises what she calls ‘the facts about Vickery’, ending: ‘He sees his Captain, is sent up-country alone and deserts eighteen months before his pension is due. He is found dead with a woman after a thunderstorm ...’
Miss Tompkins’s superb study stumbles at this point. Nothing tells us that the ‘squatting’ corpse is a woman’s. In the critic’s favour it has to be said that the story’s first illustrator made the same assumption, one followed by many (though not all) Kipling critics since. But the assumption is wrong. And the reasons which, we may assume, underlie the slip are, to my mind, interesting in themselves. Both Miss Tompkins and the early illustrator were defining what they took to be going on in ‘Mrs Bathurst’ in a manner which regarded the short story novelistically, in a fashion bred of the great 19th-century English novel. As critic, Miss Tompkins utilises what might be called a rationalistic, progressive or liberal-Victorian time-sense, which preserves the sense of characters and of identities along a line. Mrs Bathurst is the heroine of the story and therefore must feature here. And this conscious or unconscious presumption is incidentally confirmed by the number of Kipling critics who still from time to time follow Miss Tompkins in praising the writer by saying that, so great is his density of meaning, ‘whole novels’ are compacted and contracted into his stories. This is an assumption underpinned by Kipling’s own habit of remarking, in his very late autobiographical sketch Something of Myself (posthumously published in 1937), on the excellence of his own, or indeed any, system of strenuous self-criticism and self-discipline, which should lead a writer to cut and cut again.
Kipling was a man who could hardly speak of himself without ironic quizzicality, without silences and reticences. The theory of the condensed novel may be dangerous, particularly given that elsewhere in Something of Myself Kipling mocks, or quotes others as mocking, his own profoundly unnovelistic capacities. He there tells how his contented categorising of Kim as something like picaresque (‘what was good enough for Cervantes was good enough for him’) was robustly censored by that formidable presence, ‘the Mother’: ‘Don’t you stand in your wool-boots hiding behind Cervantes with me! You know you couldn’t make a plot to save your soul.’ The same theme returns later in the book from another angle: ‘In the come-and-go of family talk there was often discussion as to whether I could write “a real novel”, The Father thought that the setting of my work and life would be against it, and Time justified him.’
Tucked into these striking glimpses of the way the kind and much-loved senior Kiplings settled Rudyard’s hash are some decidedly interesting issues about the novel, and the short story, and about Kipling as writer of both. There seems to me no argument that Kipling’s stories are immensely superior to his novels – are, as it were, essential to him. The much-praised Kim is a luminous work, with a great beauty of its own, but regular attempts to call it the writer’s masterpiece ignore how oddly hard to read it is – how the formlessness matters, how the uninsistence tells. The earlier and nakedly melodramatic The Light that Failed is in some straightforward way easier to read, and perhaps more holding, though it won’t do as a work of art.
With his usual wry self-punishment, the writer in Something of Myself is calm in leaving parental criticisms in their ironic negative form. If Kipling ‘couldn’t make a plot’, couldn’t write ‘a real novel’, it’s for the reader to say what in fact he could do. My argument is going to he that obscurity derives from not asking that question, or from answering it wrong. We might pause to notice, for instance, what any quotation from ‘Mrs Bathurst’ reveals: how much in it contradicts or counter-crosses the horizontal lines of ‘plot’, but in a way that doesn’t have to be taken with the scornful negativism of Kipling’s evoked partly-fictive parental figures. Symptomatically, we never meet either the woman who gives the story its name or the haunted warrant officer who brings the account to a heroic climax through the narration of friends; we only hear this narration, and voices like that of Pyecroft, who gives us the sense of his closest acquaintance, Vickery, as ‘a superior man, which is what we’d call a long, black-’aired, genteelly speakin’, ‘alf-bred beggar on the lower deck’. It may be worth noting that the Anglo-Indian, more or less upper-middle-class Kipling never gets his Cockney quite right – he writes the worrying Punch lingo of the period; and this incidental fact works in with the much more purposive circumstance that Pyecroft can’t talk anything but his own English anyway. Garrulous, vivid, and fairly intolerable, Pyecroft (who features in other stories by Kipling) is himself an ‘ ’alf-bred beggar’: he has all the vulgarities of a pathetic verbal aspiration, a romantic, ambitious and inaccurate passion for the high style of verbiage, for status quo and moi aussi and ‘verbatim’, for a thick jargon of phrases like ‘emissary of the law’.
Given that Vickery’s story involves passions, this verbal lechery or luxury of Pyecroft’s is worth pausing a moment on. Not everybody in ‘Mrs Bathurst’ is as hard on the ear as Pyecroft is; nor is all Kipling’s fiction written in these obdurate and obtrusive dialects of class, region or personality. Yet the writer loves them, and it is easy to think of them as characteristic of both Kipling’s verse and prose. Dialect is a rhetoric which sets medium above message; it communicates with or through an opacity. If Kipling’s work is sometimes mysterious, its oddities are, at the best, perfectly concrete. ‘Mrs Bathurst’ is in some sense about the moi aussi and the ‘verbatim’ of Pyecroft, who is simply, in his own words, ‘trying to say solely what transpired’. And the reader is in the position of that equally human and limited hearer among the characters, in time himself a protagonist, Inspector Hooper. ‘“I don’t see her yet somehow,” said Hooper, but with sympathy.’