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 be 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.’

Like others of Kipling’s best stories, ‘Mrs Bathurst’ gets its eerie and problematic energy from the strain set up between two equal brute simplicities: that human desire to master (as we readers ourselves struggle to come to the truth), which keeps the in fact discernibly masculine Pritchard and Pyecroft and Hooper pursuing each his own unique idiom, nagging towards the climax; and the elusiveness of the real which is never quite on the page to be ‘seen’. These disturbing aspects of existence elsewhere solidify in the tale’s deft and frank, though often ignored, insistence on social realities. We are here in a milieu quite coherently lower-middle-class, that of the ‘alf-bred beggars’ of life – although that social conditioning doesn’t by any means, to my feeling, limit the impact of the whole. The story is made for all human beings in a sense other than the merely social ‘betwixt and between’ – in Hamlet’s words, ‘crawling between heaven and earth’, granted hungers and aspirations hardly met by rough circumstance. And this large human angling is, I think, formulated in the story’s very first sentence. The non-dialectical, lucidly authoritative movement of the rhetoric here suggests an upper-class classlessness that takes the story into the universal: ‘The day that I chose to visit HMS Peridot was the day that the Admiral had chosen to send her up the coast. She was just steaming out to sea as my train came in ...’ Intention and effect form a serene if obtuse angle in a world of chance. And this sense of a world of randomness, neglectful of and even hostile to the needs of the human individual, is continued through everything that makes the opening of ‘Mrs Bathurst’ so opaque – the pointilliste descriptions of locality, the allusions to persons unknown, the baffling stories of lost directions.

These are some of the ways in which ordinary movement of plot is counteracted in ‘Mrs Bathurst’ by Kipling’s high, studied yet natural brilliancy of form and style. There are a good many different dimensions of this textural complication, and my brief allusion to Hamlet leads us to one further indication of this aesthetic density. Many of Kipling’s stories are prefaced by a poem by the writer himself. ‘Mrs Bathurst’ has instead for a Prologue a fragment, almost certainly parodic and hammed up by Kipling, of a Jacobean tragedy, in gabbled prose which rises to ranting verse (‘long-stored lightnings loosed/Yesterday ‘gainst some King’). It contrasts the fate of an unlucky, executed groom with that of his more fortunate surviving Prince: and so doing, perhaps hints at a great literary source whose shadow lies behind the difficult opening of the story. Why did Kipling set his tale in furthest South Africa, and why does this setting come to feel so right in the end? The epigraph mockingly evokes the tragic, but sets it into a context of parody: the story which follows will create some more up-to-date, more ‘ ’alf-bred’ successor to tragedy. Relevantly, the beginning of Hamlet, Shakespeare’s most ambiguously modern tragedy, seems to move like a literary ghost behind the start of ‘Mrs Bathurst’, with its group of simple men, led by their Horatio-Hooper, slowly coming to confront the story of their own young Hamlet. Kipling has simply reversed the pure Northernness of his source into a furthest-South-African Southernness; Shakespeare’s Prince has become a lower-middle-class seaman in middle life; Vickery is fated, as Hamlet is shut into the ‘prison’ of Denmark, and the luckier simpler souls of this story are described on the beach as ‘locked ... in against a seven-coloured sea’; even their location, ‘a plank-platform half-buried in sand not a hundred yards from the edge of the surf’, carries some faint, ‘half-buried’ memory of the opening of the tragedy, with the guards up on their gun-platform, overlooking space, and hearing the sea.

But where Shakespeare’s men sit in darkness, haunted, Kipling’s storytellers look into a modern brilliance of daylight, where there are no ghosts except the newsreel records of human passions. Pyecroft says:

Quite slowly, from be’ind two porters – carrying a little reticule and lookin’ from side to side – comes out Mrs Bathurst. 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 which Pritch alluded to. She walked on and on till she melted out of the picture – like – like – a shadow jumpin’ over a candle, an’ as she went I ‘eard Dawson in the tickey seats be’ind sing out: ‘Christ! there’s Mrs B.’

This wonderful image, at the very heart of the story, has really nothing to do with Shakespeare or with Hamlet’s Ghost. There is no mistaking Kipling’s ‘walk’ in a hundred thousand. Even the detail of the ‘tickey’ (threepenny, or cheap) seats behind a Vickery pouring out cash in his obsession has something to add to the effect, half dream and half nightmare. If this story is strangely unforgettable, one reason must he the writer’s originality in evoking an observer’s internal world through the purely external imagery of modern life. And if I compare it to the sudden appearance of Hamlet’s Ghost. I do so only to hint at the amount of critical detachment, of high aesthetic study, which gets into a story by Kipling.

I began this part of my argument by suggesting it might be a mistake to assume that the second corpse must be that of the object of Vickery’s passion. It does no harm to note, of the deeply startling scene of the discovery of the corpses, the story’s climax, how outré in fact the whole thing is. Even in a South African teak wood, not many tramps are killed by lightning-stroke. Killed, moreover, to this degree – to the dehumanising reiteration of the word ‘charcoal’, into which some kind of tragic love-story at last crumbles (‘Both burned to charcoal, you see,’ as Hooper tiredly fumbles to finish). The scene haunts and disturbs every true admirer of Kipling: but it is also mockingly precise in its oddity – it embodies that evocation of the mysterious from the exact which I spoke of earlier as Kiplingesque.

The telling of Vickery’s story absorbs us into his obscure intense trouble with a gathering effect almost ventral, as sympathetic readers agree. There is a famous image of Vickery preparing to catch in the newsreel his unhappy few seconds of Mrs Bathurst with an expression on his face which reminds Pyecroft of ‘those things in bottles in those herbalistic shops at Plymouth – preserved in spirits of wine. White an’ crumply things – previous to birth as you might say’. This image of the aborted embryo attacks nerves and feelings less cool than the crude Pyecroft’s; it reaches something buried, infantile, vulnerable in the reader as well as in Vickery, touching some deep and basic fear. And yet this primitivism in ‘Mrs Bathurst’ is equalled and balanced by everything in the telling which is cold and detached, so formally ironic as to make Kipling sometimes the easiest of great writers to find repellent. It may not be without meaning that Hooper’s description of the discovery of the corpses helplessly reiterates the word ‘charcoal’, as if to direct us calmly towards the idea of artistic medium (and Kipling himself, the son of a professional artist, was at home in the pictorial media). At this, the frightful conclusion of the tale, something lightens, lifts itself into consciousness, even moves – despite young Pritchard’s horror – towards the defiantly pleasurable.

In order to experience this complicated fictional pleasure in the tableau of the corpses which ends Vickery’s unutterable love, it is better not to ask, in the Auden phrase: ‘Who goes with whom?’ What matters is the relation of the bodies, one upright and one crouched: a relation which has more to do with a charcoal sketch than with a 19th-century novel. The visual is all. Since I have already quoted Auden, it makes sense to recall also the brief epigrammatic comparison he once made in verse of the ‘horizontal man’ with ‘the vertical one’. Vickery dies a vertical man. He has lost everything; he is a deserter from his profession; even his identity is uncertain. His crumbling body, as fragile as his existence, is a dead tramp’s, and he is accompanied in death by something squalid that squats ‘lookin’ up at ’im, you see’. But he dies a vertical man, held upright by some obscure passionate intensity, almost a principle. The only function of the other figure is to look up to this dreadful but memorable intensity. To identify him (let alone her, let alone to make the body that of Mrs Bathurst) will only distract from Kipling’s point. The dead companion must partake of that specific, functional obscurity which attends Vickery himself. For, contrasted with the incessant talk of the narrators, there is something gained from Vickery’s silences, from the amount that we don’t know about him, and from (finally) the fact that he isn’t a ‘character’ like the narrators. His absence at one remove from us adds to the effect of internalised intensity. In an age of publicity, Vickery’s heroic dimension is cognate with his removal, his secrecy, even his obscurity.

I’m suggesting that one of the ways of damaging this story may be to read it too insistently as a story. With all its narratorial compulsion, its movement of its readers, its steady deepening of sympathy, the story works nonetheless by local intensities. The oddity of its end and climax will bear scrutiny, but will not necessarily cede to mere narrative explanations. A different kind of explanation, not in itself of profound importance, may answer the question of why Kipling chose this unusual death in particular, and had his hero struck by lightning. The answer lies, I believe, in a simple verbal phrase never uttered in the story, yet implied by it as any crossword-puzzle solution is by its up-and-down clues: and to grasp it is to understand better the verbal, rather than narrative, medium at work here.

The phrase is coup de foudre, which literally means ‘thunder-stroke’ or ‘bolt of lightning’. Kipling reveals awareness of its metaphorical uses, too, in the ‘long-stored lightnings’ of the prefatory fragment, image of life’s natural unavoidable menace; in the light reference to ‘heavy thunder with continuous lightning’ with which Pyecroft glosses the appalling row which hit the marines led astray by Boy Niven; and in the potent image from the rather later and very striking Science Fiction story by Kipling, ‘As Easy as ABC’, in which (ironically or otherwise) an aircraft of the future quells a subversive American mob by light and sound, lightning and thunder: ‘a thin thread of almost intolerable light, let down from heaven at an immense distance – one vertical hairsbreadth of frozen lightning’. But one metaphorical usage is of more significance than all these. In Kipling’s time, as still in our own (the second edition of the OED takes its most recent example from the Times of 1955), the literate and sophisticated have used the phrase coup de foudre for the act of falling in love.

A general critical study of Kipling prefaces Craig Raine’s Faber selection of prose by the writer. Raine’s remarkably penetrating, sympathetic essay – the best introduction to Kipling since Miss Tompkins’s work was published – mentions this image of the charcoal corpses as something that ‘never relaxes its hold on the imagination’, and he goes on in the next line to call the scene a coup de théâtre. I suspect that Raine’s always finely honed subconscious led him towards coup de foudre, but that his critical instinct substituted the more superficially rational coup de théâtre. The real energies of ‘Mrs Bathurst’ are obstinately internalised.

Explanations of its story-line can be of real interest, in their proposals of hypothetically excluded backgrounds. Raine himself, for instance, genuinely makes a reader think again when he argues that, rather than ‘an obscure tale of elective affinities’, ‘Mrs Bathurst’ is about a bigamist fleeing the effects of his crime by deserting both the woman in question and his profession. The flaw in even such interestingly tough scrutinies is that the story as we have it seems not at all concerned with what Vickery has or has not done. It is not a novel. Like all of Kipling’s best work, ‘Mrs Bathurst’ is literary object as (as well as about) coup de foudre, a lightning-flash to which time and the movement of lives are finally immaterial. Even the normal social and novelistic connection of lives is relatively unimportant. Here as elsewhere, Kipling is at his most intense when writing of unrequited or difficult or fractured love, the lonely sense of others from a position ‘locked ... in against a seven-coloured sea’. ‘Mrs Bathurst’ is less a woman than a title: the title – touchingly and ironically social in its distance, lacking even a first name – isolated romantics are liable to give to their dreams. ‘She walked on and on till she melted out of the picture.’

Readers of fiction are romantics too. Comparably, if we think of a lightning-flash, we have to allow that the coup de foudre of love is above all a feeling. Kipling works because we feel him, in a fashion that is in itself near to being ‘white and crumply ... previous to birth as you might say’ – instinctive, half-repelled, deeply held, overwhelmed. Critics often diplomatically leave in silence, as if they were dotages, the stories in Kipling’s last published volume, immediately before the posthumous Something of Myself: for these stories are sentimental empathetic dog-stories. And yet the animal mode, the voice of a sweet Aberdeen terrier experiencing a hound-friend’s death for the first time, is only one of the writer’s in fact characteristic imitations.He may be most at home when writing for children, or (rather brilliantly) inhabiting the being of a dog, or a ship, or a train: all of what we might call the ‘dialects’ of existence. Kipling would always insist that his children’s stories were written for grown-ups. The dog and the train alike are media which circumvent that adult and social field of the novel which in some sense the writer couldn’t do, or didn’t want to. Kipling wanted something else. Even the late dog-stories can, for an impartial sympathy, hit a nerve curiously hard and centrally. These late stories are minimal by the side of the writer’s best, like ‘Mrs Bathurst’. But the feeling is in its way absolute and pure.

I am suggesting that this ambiguous charge of human feeling is the very stuff of Kipling’s greatest stories. The ‘thin thread’ of it (the writer’s own phrase for the lightning-stroke) runs compulsively through ‘Mrs Bathurst’, and becomes the story. Things begin when the narrator is saved from the mere failure of missed boats by the common kindness of Hooper. From this point, a thread of human relation gradually enlarges into the complex and sometimes crossed or knotted network finally held in the hand of Hooper. With the sea-air filled by the picnic party’s sentimental love-ballad, and as Pyecroft, thinking of Vickery. ‘thanks Gawd he’s dead!’, Hooper decides not to bring out whatever nasty souvenir it is that he has in his pocket (presumably the four false teeth, sole remainder of a great love), for the reason that ‘he was a friend of you two gentlemen, you see.’ He leaves the teeth hidden, just as he has buried the two bodies. The obscurities of the story are at the same time a kind of human decency, a feeling silence, a welcome darkness after the lightning-flash.

‘Mrs Bathurst’ possesses all the dense difficulty of the mature Kipling. At the same time, it is by a writer who wrote very successful dog-stories. It is from one angle a dog-story, Kipling’s dogs being of course all profoundly humanised: it is a treatment of human love. Friendship, flirtation, kindness, tenderness, plain erotic obsession and extreme romantic self-destructiveness are all involved in it. Vickery is the obscure knot forming in the ‘thin thread’ of human feeling – the lowest level, the deepest death, the thing itself. We get to him only after reading well into the story; everything we learn of him is mediated through his companions’ understanding of him, which is their own, and may be mistaken; and what he feels and suffers is both abnormally focused and inarguably his own – as our own reading of the story is our own, and as each of the story’s characters thinks in his or her own style. Vickery is right and wrong, mad and illuminated.

I’ve already quoted the unknown Dawson who sings out, from ‘the seats be’ind’ in the newsreel cinema, the curiously impartial ‘Christ! there’s Mrs B.’ If this flickering newsreel image, nearly a century ago, of a woman arriving ‘blindish’ half-way across the world at Paddington Station has the power to electrify readers, it is surely because of the brilliant poise the image holds between internal feeling, ‘blindish’ or ejaculating ‘Christ!’, and the recognisably mechanical, external mode of modern experience. The automatic and the for ever elusive meet ‘like a shadow jumpin’ over a candle’. Because of the power of the image, it seems critically natural to say that Kipling creates modern existence here as a shadowy railway station, where all human meetings are confused and transitory, and where the imagination of love is a Mrs Bathurst. I don’t myself think that the story gives us any means of knowing what Mrs Bathurst was actually doing at Paddington. And I am tempted to feel that it is just because we finally don’t know that we feel the power of the image, the ‘blindish’ walking ‘on and on’ from which circumstantial knowledge would have distracted.

Vickery is reported to have said, in the drunken and half-insane fugue which descends on him: ‘She’s lookin’ for me.’ But people in love do tend to feel this, and they are as right as they are wrong: love may beget love, and it may repel it. What ‘actually’ Mrs Bathurst was doing is as unclear as, let us say, the question of where the Ghost of Hamlet’s father came from. I have already mentioned that we never know the woman’s first name: and there is a pathetic and touching irony in what appear to be the social limits of the seamen’s knowledge of her, just as there is in the narrative limits of our knowledge of him. The story says that we can love hopelessly without knowing or seeing very completely: and to try to explain or justify Vickery’s hopelessness is to blur its chief contention. The story’s own gloss is made by its parody-Prologue (which says, summarised, ‘Life is like this, insofar as it is grim’), and by its chosen social connotations, its location on the ‘lower deck’ of life.

For the ‘ ’alf-bred’, the desolately betwixt and between – a category not confined to the socially low-born – a tragic love, or dream of love, may represent the only way out: the only remotely heroic existence. In the world of this story, the Dantesque imagination, the power to ‘see’, is a flickering newsreel screen; Mrs Bathurst is a Beatrice whose only heaven is Paddington Station; and Vickery’s heroic spirit stands him upright before the lightning-flash crumbles him to charcoal. This is a theme relating the story to another in the l904 volume – ‘Wireless’, where Keatsian inspiration (like love) visits a pathetic tubercular chemist’s assistant, who however lacks the true talent to make anything out of his vision. And the earlier and very powerful ‘The Finest Story in the World’ comparably shows a London clerk visited by heroic visions and reincarnations, which he makes little of before collapsing into pseudo-love. The unseen Vickery is larger than either of these: a seaman, he dies on his feet, and stands up to meet the storm. The whole tone of ‘Mrs Bathurst’ is finally neither satiric nor even ironic, though it must be called dry. It has poetic depths and large horizons; its vision of love includes at one pole kindness and casual decency, and at the other a high obsession which is haunted and hounded, tormented with guilt and anxiety and obscure shame, and finally avid for self-destruction. To think of these as simply abnormal or morbid forms of love is to be an optimist. Kipling describes the lightning-flash, at once vision and destruction.

The wonderful inset image of ‘Mrs Bathurst’, the disembarkation at Paddington Station, may remind us of the feeling for railways recurring in much Symbolist art. It may seem related, too, to that famous moment in a novel which came out in 1903, the very year before ‘Mrs Bathurst’ was published, when Henry James allows his Strether drily to envisage his own loss of hope in life – and The Ambassadors is another love-story – as a train’s ‘faint, receding whistle miles and miles down the line’. Such a literary context suggests a bearing for the story: the lightning-flash, we may feel, cannot be far from the Epiphany. And, in fact, for some decades now (from Walter Allen to David Lodge) critics have found it worth while to see ‘Mrs Bathurst’ in terms of the new movement of Modernism.

Certainly it does no harm to recall that Kipling’s story was written nearly two decades before the so much more apparently modern Ulysses and The Waste Land were published. There is throughout Kipling’s work an extreme originality of technique which deserves all the recognition it can get. And yet it is very difficult to conceive of a Modernistic dog-story. I want here to return to the point I touched on earlier. If we recall that it was in the 1904 Traffics and Discoveries that ‘Mrs Bathurst’ was first collected, it is worth noting that the immediately preceding collection was the Just So Stories of 1902, and that the ‘Mrs Bathurst’ volume was followed in 1906 by Puck of Pook’ s Hill (itself succeeded four years later by Rewards and Fairies). Kiplings’s involvement with children, and not only with children but with animals, and not only with animals but with thinking ships and talking railway-trains, is a joke of criticism. Biographers usually assume some lasting creative childishness in the man himself, perhaps some obsession with the dark experiences of early years. Despite or along with all this, it remains a fact that what I will call the writer’s ‘animism’ has never been thoroughly enough recognised as a critical datum, or completely enough discussed.

An adult reading of the Just So Stories may find them brilliant, but not quite as children’s stories: rather, as odd and amused and sophisticated modern myths – a myth-making so recognisably pre-Goldingesque as to say something about the most potent of all Golding’s probable literary ancestries. There is, that is to say, a continuum binding together all Kipling’s stories, whether nominally for children or altogether adult – which binds, let us say, ‘Cold Iron’ or ‘The Knife and the Naked Chalk’ (both from Rewards and Fairies, 1910) to such inarguably adult writing as ‘Mary Post-gate’ (A Diversity of Creatures, 1917), ‘The Wish House’ (Debits and Credits, 1926) and ‘Dayspring Mishandled’ (Limits and Renewals, 1932) – all stories of the darkness of human passion.

One may say of the children’s work that Kipling, who authentically loved children and animals, respects the limits of children’s experience, a respect tending to a diminishment of psychological power in these stories never quite thoroughly compensated for. But the essential vision of ‘Cold Iron’ or ‘The Knife and the Naked Chalk’ is unremitting; nothing in the late stories is precisely harsher than the wide iron collar which locks at adolescence on the neck of the feudal boy in the first story, a potential magician enslaved by his own humanity, or sharper than the knife which takes out the eye of the guardian of his people in the prehistorical world of the second. The mythical historicism which Kipling employs often wonderfully hauntingly in Puck and Rewards and Fairies could just as easily be described as a special language for communicating within limited conditions precisely those emotional truths met again so formidably in the apparently so realistic, so psychological and contemporary, ‘Dayspring Mishandled’ – a post-Jamesian yarn of love and revenge among a group of writers and hack journalists. And it’s to the point that a curiously touching element of play, of childish pain and energy, is involved in the revenge of this story, just as the two other magnificent tales I mentioned – the appalling ‘Mary Postgate’ and the ambiguous ‘The Wish House’ – both involve children and a naked depth of childish unchildlike feeling.

There is in Kipling’s modernity something quite different from the specific gravities of cultural Modernism, which leant on a high adulthood of experience, conscious, studied and aspired to, far from Kipling’s ferocious childishness or animalism. His first hugely successful collection, Plain Tales from the Hills, dates from 1888 – a year which saw also the publication of Hardy’s Wessex Tales; and, for that matter, the birth of the author of The Waste Land. Kipling’s tales are definitively more original than the backward-looking Wessex Tales (powerful as these are), and yet are so in a mode quite other than The Waste Land itself – whose poet would find room in his great poem for a number of themes, feelings and images of the Indian-exotic out of the earlier writer, using especially Kim.

The Plain Tales, the young Kipling’s tough, clever and superficially cynical yarns of love and death in Anglo-India, have as much to do with Somerset Maugham (whom they must have helped to invent) as with T.S. Eliot. But there is a curious quality in these early stories which throws some light on the writer’s originality during the 1890s. I want to illustrate this quality, somewhat Irishly, from another and litter collection, because one story there reveals it better. One of Kipling’s best-known and by some undoubtedly best-loved stories is ‘The Brushwood Boy’ (1895), in which a sublimely conventional, triumphantly successful and perfectly beautiful young Indian Army officer comes home on leave to England and meets the young woman to whom he proposes on their first-ever ride out together. Everything in the story is stereotyped: everything but one. When this virtuous young officer first lays eyes on this sensitive daughter of a county neighbour his loveat first sight is the expression of a fact he at once recognises, and to which she more gradually awakens. They have in fact known each other for twenty years, because every night in their sleep these two strangers have met as children in some certainly actual yet preternatural dream-realm, in which they have experienced complex adventures.

This story never actually makes harmony between its two modes. The stereotypical is more offensive than Kipling seems likely to have intended, and the dream kingdom inside the head insecure in imagination. The meaning, moreover, of the relation of each to each remains ambiguous. How much of the fable is ironic? What remains of real interest is the attempted interfolding of these two modes. Kipling seems deeply interested in the peculiar penetration of accepted social worlds by forms of what I have called ‘the lighting-flash’: the strange individual processes of feeling and imagination, open to even the most conventional in the upper society of his time. We might relate to this striking concern some of the more obtrusive characteristics colouring the writer’s fiction, and often explained as (if no worse) survivals of a childishness conceivably morbid: the return, at all periods of Kipling’s writing, to japes and jests and games, the use, early and late, of both savage revenge and wildest practical joking. Many a Kipling tale will climax in an odd extreme physical hilarity, a communal laughter not always exactly distinguishable from mass or corporate grief – but able to make the social disintegrate and reform around the intensities of shared and primitive feeling.

Looking hack to the later 1880s, it can be hard now to guess what gave the Plain Tales from the Hills their quite extraordinary success. The answer may lie in their ‘Brushwood Boy’ mode, the odd shadows, violent feelings and terrible spooks or diseases interpenetrating these anecdotes of cynical Simla society: their opening-out of the conventional into the mysterious. Life is beginning to be seen in them by lightning-flashes, which have the power to change history, to stop clocks: and in the process the true novel, an epic of historical continuities, starts to be upstaged by the new short story as the Modern period recognises it. Kipling’s brilliance, celebrated by his immense fame in the 1890s and for the next two or three following decades, was to speak to the modernity of the 1890s (not at all the same as the Modernism of the 1920s) in a language whose chief medium was the unnovelistic lightning-flash of the modern short story.

If it were absolutely necessary to name Kipling’s two best stories (and the writer’s problematic quality comes out in the amount of disagreement about this), my own choices might be the two perhaps most regularly found good but obscure: ‘Mrs Bathurst’ and the much later ‘Dayspring Mishandled’. The hero of the superb later story, of self-destruction by revenge, is Andrew Manallace, failed poet but capable hack. He is also a man – unhappily but most generously – in love: the two conditions, love and literature, hold together in the story like a public and private face. Perhaps we ought to see in Manallace something of Kipling himself, an artist who always loved the ‘plain tale’ – whose creativity found its poetry, its very being, in a hatred of all pretension, like Manallace’s hatred of his pseudoscholar rival Castorley’s gross successes. In short, we should perhaps see in Kipling, who spoke playfully but seriously of the ‘two separate sides’ of his head, the writer who spoke most directly to that creatively divided psyche which distinguishes English culture in the 1890s, a split as sharp as that which divides Kim into two worlds – the ‘Great Game’ played by the boy-spy himself and the spiritual detachment of the old unworldly lama.

There is a strain in 19th and 20th-century English poetry, from Keats and Browning to Larkin and Amis, which may be seen as taking its vitality from a special and self-divided English philistinism, committed deeply to art yet opposed to the false and the fake practised by enemy ‘art-lovers’. Kipling’s ‘two sides’ should perhaps be thought of in these terms. In a phrase which titles a story from Many Inventions (1893), Kipling is himself as artist ‘The Disturber of Traffic’: into the narrow English conventions and communities he himself loves as an alien the writer will send the destroying lightning-flash of vision or sympathy. He directs himself to social adults, but he speaks with the voice of the child, even of the animal. After The Light That Failed, a violent yarn of love among the artists, the most fully representative artists in Kipling’s work are the loving and self-destroying Manallace, and the pretentious power-achieving Castorley: and in the silent battle between the two men, a battle like the game of a pair of worldly boys, there is both tragedy and bitter comedy.

‘Mrs Bathurst’ and ‘Dayspring Mishandled’ are two very distinguished stories, whose strangeness and originality might well lead both to be called obscure. If we want to penetrate that obscurity, then the American-European Modernism of the 1920s will probably in the end not give the right kind of light. It is too late a movement; and, more importantly, it carries within it the kind of ambition, even hubris, which Kipling’s work sets itself against. His art is consistently in love with the unpretentious. We need to look, not at the work of 1922, but thirty years back, at that cultural world of the 1890s, a period of rich and great creative vitality. I want to close my argument about Kipling with a kind of coda: to consider briefly what Kipling’s influence after 1890 may have achieved in the most successful short stories of the time.

After Kipling himself, the king of magazine fiction throughout the 1890s was Conan Doyle. The writer shares the peculiar Kipling quality of being far better in his short stories than in his attempts at longer fiction. Set beside the kind of Kipling story I’ve been considering here, the Sherlock Holmes stories (which Kipling certainly knew, or at least allowed himself to mention admiringly in his own work) have to be judged, for all their charm, thin stuff. And yet the charm is real still; it colours, by quotation here and there, the work of the poet of The Waste Land; and it has moreover to be said that in his detective, Conan Doyle invented one of the greatest characters in fiction – not a man, but a myth. And Sherlock Holmes’s character is to solve obscurities, to be a lightning-flash. He wouldn’t serve for a classic Victorian novel. The character is finely conceived to ‘Play the King’ through twenty pages, in situations recurring like a motif in music, or like the movement of an oiled and accurate machine. Exactly the same reasons lay behind the fact that Holmes sent generations of readers mad with enthusiasm, and bored Conan Doyle himself almost to tears.

The kind of connection I’m trying to trace between Kipling and Conan Doyle is made plain by the opening sentences of a characteristic Sherlock Holmes story, ‘The Copper Beeches’ (from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, 1892 – the first collection).

‘To the man who loves art for its own sake,’ remarked Sherlock Holmes, tossing aside the advertisement sheet of the Daily Telegraph, ‘it is frequently in its least important and lowliest manifestations that the keenest pleasure is to be derived. It is pleasant to me to observe, Watson, that you have so far grasped this truth that in these little records of our cases which you have been good enough to draw up, and, I am bound to say, occasionally to embellish, you have given prominence not so much to the many causes célèbres and sensational trials in which I have figured, but rather to those incidents which may have been trivial in themselves, but which have given room for those faculties of deduction and of logical synthesis which I have made my special province.’

The stylistic inertness and verbosity isn’t merely ironic: it witnesses to the gulf between the two very different writers as artists. What is striking is that Conan Doyle makes his detective take as theme here – and the stress on mind above events often recurs in these stories – what one might call the Kiplingesque lightning-flash. And it is the method by which Holmes himself normally operates. He naturally thinks silently, with a ratiocination like the instantaneous retelling of the tale. As Conan Doyle himself said irritatedly, there was really nothing he could ‘do’ with his creation, the character being pure faculty of solution, the reflex and climax of a plot he always dominates as does Socrates his dialogues.

But this literary fact, this threadbareness, also explains the character’s success. On the one side, these stories offer action economically thinned to pure plot, very nicely embodied in a magically-evoked Late Victorian London: the snug bachelors’ chambers in Baker Street, the breakfasts, the pipe-smoking, the togs and the snow, the East End slums and the Surrey mansions, the jewel-bearing grandees and Foreign Office ministers begging Holmes to save a Europe so soon to be revealed as not so cosily salvageable. On the other side, there are the chaste friends, Holmes and Watson (themselves thinned to a satisfactory fewness of human functions), sheer presiding, readerly power of mind.

The gigantic success through the 1890s of these two magazine writers, the brilliant Kipling and the potent Conan Doyle, suggests that at the end of the 19th century fiction was undergoing a change or development not unlike the replacement of High Renaissance by Mannerist forms early in the 16th century. Mannerism spoke to a new and aristocratic consciousness; it was critical; it teased clever viewers with images of staircases that went nowhere, just to remind them of the power of mind – of the new diminishment in the illusion of mere images. Even magazine fiction of such modest aesthetic ambitions as the stories of Sherlock Holmes delights by playing some of these games, by provoking imagination and teasing consciousness into full life. To the sophisticated, Holmes is delightful because so frankly unbelievable – yet his new mythical force gave him an appeal that produced decades of real life. Conan Doyle was asked to solve real crimes, and did his best.

The result is a philistine yet highly potent art which is ‘obscure’ in its own way, though not obscure like Modernism. T.S. Eliot, who loved Conan Doyle, invented a criminal cat in the shadow of both Moriarty and Holmes himself: and the most important point about him is that ‘Macavity’s not there!’ ‘The Copper Beeches’ is a yarn at once gripping and pellucid about a nice New Woman governess who is being used by her evil employers as unconscious visual stand-in for her physical prototype, their immured daughter. When Holmes and Watson finally fight their way through the house after which the story is named, to release the said daughter, nothing but an open skylight meets them: they have been beaten to it by their once-glimpsed rival, the daughter’s rescuing fiancé. Nonetheless, they have cracked the problem, and saved the governess from some dark fate. As in Eliot’s loving, mocking refrain, Macavity isn’t there; and the open window doesn’t spoil the story in any way. It rounds it off triumphantly, with both girls – actual and virtual image – released into their own and different future lives.

Such stories, among the most successful and popular fictions of the 1890s, are defiantly different from classic Victorian novels. They work by not telling: just as Watson himself regularly includes lists of solved crimes, with fine seductive titles, which he doesn’t intend at present to tell us about – the time is not ripe. For all the relative unsophistication of such magazine writing, its philistinic pleasure-purveyance, a reader nonetheless enjoys illuminations not unlike what I have called Kipling’s ‘lightning-flashes’. We see some things with brilliant whiteness: others are left dark. And this is an art which in all its different genres and forms presupposes a new assurance of imagination, a more effective subconscious. We read by knowing what we don’t exactly know that we know. Henry James, who at first thought Kipling a genius, provided his own ‘Figure in the Carpet’ for plot, his own continually dissolving solutions. We see by coup de foudre.

It may not be easy to behave, as a reader, with the circumspectness of an Inspector Hooper: to leave, in the end, in his waistcoat pocket, whatever it is that he has there. But it is always necessary. In the magnificently disturbing ‘Dayspring Mishandled’, the horrible Castorley says to Manallace in their youth something about the woman whom they both, in their wholly different ways, love. And that something is in itself so vile as to generate in the devoted Manallace a lifetime’s obsessive revenge, all his love for the woman de-created into hatred of Castorley. A good number of critics have soberly settled to work out what that something said was, just as others ask themselves what Vickery can have done. All such enquiries add something to the precision with which we think about a work of art, dividing the nothing that is there from the nothing that is not. But in another sense I don’t think we know, or can know, or ought to want to know, the answers to these questions; and I don’t think Kipling cared. The window is open; the creative energy of the story is altogether elsewhere.

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Vol. 13 No. 2 · 24 January 1991

Barbara Everett quotes several passages from Kipling’s Something of Myself in her discussion of ‘Mrs Bathurst’ (LRB, 10 January), but not the sentences in which Kipling describes the genesis of that story: ‘All I carried away from the magic town of Auckland was the face and voice of a woman who sold me beer at a little hotel there. They stayed at the back of my head until ten years later when, in a local train of the Cape Town suburbs, I heard a petty officer from Simon’s Town telling a companion about a woman in New Zealand who “never scrupled to help a lame duck or put her foot on a scorpion". Then – precisely as the removal of a key-log in a timber-jam starts the whole pile – those words gave me the key to the face and voice at Auckland, and a tale called “Mrs Bathurst" slid into my mind, smoothly and orderly as floating timber on a bank-high river,’

This suggests a mechanical modernity to add to others which Everett identifies. A cinema show drives the plot in ‘Mrs Bathurst’; Kipling’s telling of the story, and telling of how the story was made, are montages. He was famous for cutting his stories like a copy editor, but he also cut them like a film editor. He loved machines, and modernity was, in some degree, an appreciation (or at least a prefiguration) of the effects of picture-taking technology on the way tales are told and understood.

Everett refers to Kipling’s lightning-flash. D.W. Griffith said something to the effect that the cinema was history written with lightning. Kipling often forces readers to make connections and accept ambiguities which are commonplace in the movies.

Peter Campbell
London WC1

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