The Day’s Work by Rudyard Kipling (1898)

‘Perfect! Perfect! There’s no place like England – when you’ve done your work.’

‘That’s the proper way to look at it, my son.’

Kipling collected the short stories he’d published in various magazines in the mid-1890s into The Day’s Work, published in 1898, the year after Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, the year before the Boer War broke out.

A character in one story, William the Conqueror, about British officers working to relieve famine in India, remarks, ‘It’s all in the day’s work’, and this is the focus of the stories – work, men’s work and duties, generally carried out by pukka junior officers of the Empire on which the Sun Never Sets, or by Kipling’s favourite type of man, the engineer.

That said there’s another consistent thread – personification or ventriloquism. A Walking Delegate and The Maltese Cat are both about horses who talk and organise things. The Ship that Found Itself features not just a talking ship but a ship whose parts speak and argue among themselves. .007 features American steam locomotives who welcome a new recruit to the line.

And comedy. A lot of the stories are good-humoured or contain wry humour, but An Error and My Sunday at Home are both obviously meant to be comedies. (Both are about Americans misunderstanding the English; compare and contrast with the fictions on the same subject of Kipling’s friend, Henry James.)

I’d recommend the first and the last stories as highlighting Kipling’s strengths (powers of imagination and description) and weaknesses (lack of depth, oddness).

The Bridge-Builders (1893) India. Encapsulates two big features of Kipling’s style – masculine, technological accuracy, and disconcerting fantasy. Chief Engineer Findlayson sees the work of three years, a giant bridge across the Ganges, just reaching fulfilment when there is an early monsoon flood which requires a panic-stricken clearing of all the equipment by native coolies. This section crammed with technical descriptions of the bridge and bridge-building. Shivering in the rain, he is persuaded to take a pill of opium and, high as a kite, scrambles onto a boat which is washed downstream and crashes onto a sandbank where he hallucinates a meeting of river animals who stand in for the Hindu pantheon of Gods who discuss the past, present and future of mankind. In their perspective, the deep history of mystical India, all Findlayson’s efforts are transitory…

A Walking Delegate (1894) Vermont. Encapsulates two other features – talking animals (vide the Jungle Books) and right-wing politics. A group of horses in a pasture in New England are chatting in their various American accents, when they are interloped by a bolshie, badly-trained yellow horse from Kansas who encourages them to rise up against their human oppressors. Premonitions of Animal Farm. Some bitter repartee captures Kipling’s real hatred of trade unions, socialists and agitators who were a growing force in the States and Britain in the 1890s. In Kipling’s view they make the error of putting the individual before the group, failing to realise that we must all work and do our duty in order to keep society safe and peaceful.

The Ship That Found Herself (1895) The North Atlantic. Is this even a story, or a kind of fantasia of a technical diagram come to life? A new cargo steamer, built in Glasgow, steams across the Atlantic and all the parts of the ship are given voices and complain about the strain they’re under. Slowly, painfully, the parts realise that they all interlock and depend on each other to survive. By the time the ship arrives in New York, she is one co-operative unit, all the parts working together. Identical to how groups of raw recruits are knocked into shape in Kipling’s idealised army. But done with imagination and fantasy…

‘If you lay your ear to the side of the cabin, the next time you are in a steamer, you will hear hundreds of little voices in every direction, thrilling and buzzing, and whispering and popping, and gurgling and sobbing and squeaking exactly like a telephone in a thunder-storm. Wooden ships shriek and growl and grunt, but iron vessels throb and quiver through all their hundreds of ribs and thousands of rivets…’

The Tomb of His Ancestors (1897) India. Young John Chinn, from a Devonshire family of Imperial administrators, arrives with his family regiment. The local tribespeople are called Bhils, they are primitive and childlike and owe ancestral allegiance to previous Chinns who have ruled them. The story is how young Chinn rises to the responsibility of managing them, including hunting the tiger which has been terrorising the tribes and which they’re convinced the spirits of his ancestor rides by night. He does a man’s job, sir. Made into a BBC drama.

The Devil and the Deep Sea (1895) History of the Haliotis, a steamer with a disreputable history of smuggling, and other criminal activities. Finally, while stealing pearl oysters from government beds somewhere off Malaysia she is arrested by a local government warship, having been damaged by a big warning shell, and the local governor sentences the crew to serve in an inland war. At which point British public opinion is stirred and the British government contacts the governor’s government and pressurises him to release the crew and allow them to return, though still in captivity, to their ship. There they work day and night to rebuild the ruined engines under the instruction of the engineer Wardrop and, finally, manage to break their ropes and limp out of captivity. Along the way they commandeer ie steal a native vessel, towing it to a coaling harbour where they scuttle the Haliotis. Months later the gunship that attacked them runs aground the wreck and is sunk. A strangely immoral story. I think the engineer Wardrop, is the hero, and the crew are somehow redeemed from their obvious criminality by the intensity of their hard work together.

William the Conqueror, parts one and two. India. There’s a famine in southern India. Martyn and his sister, William, go to help. She does a man’s work, mainly because she is Kipling’s favourite type of woman – ie a man.

•007 ‘The Story of an American Locomotive’ (1897) America. Highly technical account of a new engine, inducted into the group of other engines in a company, and then its pulling and pushing adventures, the only notable one being helping rescue a big locomotive which has been derailed by a pig. Barely a story. Reminiscent of Thomas the Tank Engine. Despite its railway setting, the tale is essentially that of the new boy at school (or new subaltern in the army), who feels out of place, but is befriended by a more experienced boy/sergeant, and goes on to prove himself in a match/skirmish, and so earns the respect of his peers and takes his place in the hierarchy of the school/regiment.

The Maltese Cat India. An epic polo match told from the point of view of the horses who, whatever their human owners think, are actually planning and running the match.

Magazine illustration of The Maltese Cat

Magazine illustration of The Maltese Cat

Bread upon the Waters (1895) Comedy. British coastal waters. The old engineer we met in the story of ‘Brugglesmith‘ (in the 1893 collection, Many Inventions) is sacked from his marine company by unscrupulous directors. Later he points out the unseaworthiness of one of their ships and has the satisfaction of seeing it wrecked, and towing it for salvage, and making a fortune. This is a hard story to read, with tough Scotch accents and the plot is hard to follow. I think it’s meant to be a comedy but the tone is very badly spoilt for me by the anti-semitic references to the baddie of the story, the scheming Jewish director of the company who is brought low by his own greed. There are one or two other slighting references to Jews scattered through these stories. No thanks. Yuk.

An Error in the Fourth Dimension (1894) Comedy. A rich American, Wilton Sargent, comes to England to be Anglified, adopts all our customs and buys a country house with a railway line at the bottom of the grounds. He gets his man to flag down a train which runs through his land because he wants to pop up to London to check a collector’s piece. However, he is caught and restrained by train officials. Next day he’s charged with assault on the guard and pays the fine. But then the railway company threatens to bring further charges, and sends two officials down to visit while the narrator is providentially present. It becomes clear one’s a psychiatrist. They think Weston’s letters threatening to buy the railway line are the ravings of a maniac. At which point the narrator intervenes to point out that Wilton could buy their railway if he so wished. Embarrassment all round. Wilton sells up and returns to the States which, the implication is, he should never have left.

My Sunday at Home (1895) England. A straightforward comedy which made me laugh out loud. An American doctor on a train journey west, chatting to the narrator, misinterprets an announcement that a man has taken poison and leaves the train to administer an emetic, but mistakenly does so to a drunken navvy who then refuses to let go of him. Eventually he makes his escape in a horse and cart after the navvy’s passed out. What makes this Kiplingesque is the uncomfortable juxtaposition of the broad comedy with the narrator’s purple prose descriptions of the beauty of the English countryside.

Illustration for 'My Sunday at Home'

Illustration for ‘My Sunday at Home’

The Brushwood Boy (1895) England and India.  Again Kipling combines the banal with disconcerting fantasy. On one level the story briskly describes the extremely idealised childhood, school days and then heroic army career of a pukka Englishman, from a big country house, who serves in India, beloved of his men, worshiped by women of whom he is oblivious. On another very Kiplingesque level, a strange and eerie tale because this epitome has dreams, penetratingly lifelike dreams of another land, so consistent he can draw maps of it, and these dreams lead him on to a strange and momentous realisation… I won’t spoil the outcome!

‘My one theory in regard to my work is that writing to order means loss of power, loss of belief in the actuality of the tale and ultimately to loss of self-respect to the writer. If a man once deviates from this rule (I speak for myself alone) he mis-says himself at every turn and at the last ceases to be the author of what comes from his pen…’

Other Kipling reviews

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