A Diversity of Creatures by Rudyard Kipling (1917)


In his excellent biography of Kipling, Charles Carrington devotes much of chapter 16 to a fascinating picture of the political scene in Britain from 1909 to 1914. He reminds us that the pre-Great War years weren’t the summery idyll they’re often painted as, but a time of intense social and political strife. In 1909 the all-powerful Liberal government launched David Lloyd-George’s ‘People’s Budget’ to raise taxes on the wealthy and create a welfare state – like other well-off people the Kiplings were alarmed at the possibility of new ‘super’ taxes, death duties and so on biting into their hard-earned savings, and took advice about how to protect their assets. The aristocratic House of Lords threatened to repeatedly block the Budget Act and so, in 1910, the government called two general elections to bolster their mandate, the second resulting in a hung Parliament in which the Liberals were only kept in power by the Irish Nationalist vote and therefore had to make promises to introduce a new Home Rule Bill for Ireland. It was only King George V’s threat to create enough Liberal peers to swamp the Conservative majority in the House of Lords which finally coerced the Lords into passing the Budget and then the 1911 Parliament Act which limited their powers. 1911 also saw a wave of mass strikes hit various key industries, including mining and railways, with extreme radicals calling for a general strike to overthrow the entire capitalist system.

Most threatening of all, the Liberal threat to bring in a Home Rule bill for Ireland led to extreme fighting talk from the Ulster Unionists. It is generally forgotten that the summer of 1914 was dominated not by concerns about Germany, but by the threat of civil war breaking out in northern Ireland, where the Unionists were buying guns and ammunition from Germany, while nationalists in the south were forming a rival army. The threat of civil war was so real that Kipling’s wife, Carrie, helped set up one of the numerous committees being formed to cope with the influx of refugees expected from Ireland once fighting broke out.

It was these years which saw Kipling’s reputation as an extreme right-wing propagandist crystallised. In newspapers, articles, interviews and speeches, Kipling turned himself into a spokesman for the extreme right in politics, the so-called ‘die-hards’ in Ulster, an opponent of everything the Liberals stood for, railing against Trades Unions, the Suffragettes, radicals and anti-Imperialists, the nationalist Irish and so on.

From 1909 until 1914 he threw himself into party activity on the extreme right wing, attending party meetings in London and even speaking for Max Aitken, at an election meeting. Rudyard Kipling lost some of his popularity in those years; no longer the spokesman of the forgotten men, the soldiers and sailors, the British overseas, he seemed to have become the propagandist of the Tory Party.

This collection

This is the immensely troubled background to many of the stories collected in this volume. And yet Kipling’s work is a paradox, larger than his critics or his times, larger than the man himself – because arguably the best stories in this collection have nothing to do with politics but are the unbridled farces, The Vortex and The Village That Voted That Earth Was Flat. The collection also includes a sort of spy story, a bizarre science fiction tale, and another instalment of his schoolboy ‘Stalky’ stories. The title is fitting: the stories truly are ‘a diversity of creatures’.

By the time the volume came out in 1917, Britain and the world had been utterly transformed by three years of war. The most ‘relevant’ stories for most readers will have been the last two, Mary Postgate and ‘Swept and Garnished’, bitter, angry violent tales which themselves reflected the early years of the war.

Altogether, the variety of subject matter and tone make it a very uneven, puzzling, dazzling, almost bewildering collection.

The stories

1. As Easy as A.B.C. (1912) This is an extraordinary story. It’s a sequel to With the Night Mail (published in 1905) and, like it, is a science fiction tale set in the future. It is 2065, 65 years after With the Night Mail and the world is controlled by the ‘Aerial Board of Control’ (the ‘A.B.C.’ of the title), a ‘semi-elected semi-nominated’ body.

This future world is divided into scattered settlements of people living far apart. There are fewer people and the birthrate is declining as people live longer. The key central idea to this vision and the story is that society has outgrown crowds and demagoguery and democracy. The most valuable good in this world is Privacy, which everyone jealously guards.

The story is triggered when there is an outbreak of ‘crowds’ organised by a group of the hated ‘democrats’, who have started to congregate in northern Illinois. The story takes the form – as so often in Kipling – of following a group of very talkative men, representatives (from different nations, including Italian and Russian) of the A.B.C., who are dispatched in an airship complete with advanced weapons, to quell this disgusting outbreak of crowdism and mob violence.

The representatives arrive with a fleet of other aircraft, overpower the crowds of poor deluded ‘democrats’, scoop them up into their planes and carry them back to London where they will be put on display in the theatre as a cautionary example of the old barbaric ways which led to such violence and social instability.

We are so used to science fiction being used in a broadly left-wing or liberal cause that it’s quite a shock to see it used so nakedly – and so oddly – in the opposite cause, by a reactionary who diagnoses mass movements and the trend towards democracy as the great perils of modern society.

2. Friendly Brook (March 1915) Alas, we are among Sussex peasants, as grossly caricatured and deliberately given to impenetrable jargon as Kipling’s Indians and Boers and Tommies.

‘Now we’ve a witness-board to go by!’ said Jesse at last.
‘She won’t be as easy as this all along,’ Jabez answered. ‘She’ll need plenty stakes and binders when we come to the brook.’
‘Well, ain’t we plenty?’ Jesse pointed to the ragged perspective ahead of them that plunged downhill into the fog. ‘I lay there’s a cord an’ a half o’ firewood, let alone faggots, ‘fore we get anywheres anigh the brook.’
‘The brook’s got up a piece since morning,’ said Jabez. ‘Sounds like’s if she was over Wickenden’s door-stones.’
Jesse listened, too. There was a growl in the brook’s roar as though she worried something hard.
‘Yes. She’s over Wickenden’s door-stones,’ he replied. ‘Now she’ll flood acrost Alder Bay an’ that’ll ease her.’
‘She won’t ease Jim Wickenden’s hay none if she do,’ Jabez grunted. ‘I told Jim he’d set that liddle hay-stack o’ his too low down in the medder. I told him so when he was drawin’ the bottom for it.’

Two peasants, Jabez and Jesse, are fixing some overgrown hedge, when they discuss old Jim Wickenden and his surprisingly casual attitude to his hay being carried away by the flooded brook. This gives rise to a long yarn about Jim, living with his mother who had a stroke, and how they adopted a Barnado baby from up Lunnon, raising her (Mary) as their own, until a man turns up claiming to be Mary’s natural father, festooned with legal documents etc, who has to be paid off, but comes back a month later. I think he is effectively blackmailing the family to allow Mary to stay with them, and then Jesse continues to tell how he and Jim were clearing rubbish from the brook when an odd object floated past, and they pulled it out with a ‘pooker’, and it was the man from Lunnon, drowned. They take what money they find in his pocket, then let him float off. Jesse and Jim go to the latter’s house where the mute mother claims to know nothing about it all, and Mary is upstairs studying.

Did Mary murder the man? Or did he take money, have a dash of whiskey and slip in the flooded brook and drown? Who knows? Who cares?

3. In The Same Boat (1911) London in the Edwardian era. Conroy is addicted to najdolene pills to manage a recurring nightmare of being aboard ship and hearing men scream in the engine room and stark terror as a man screams in his face this ship is going down and all is lost. His suave specialist Dr Gilbert introduces him to a fellow patient, the statuesque beautiful Miss Henschil whose similar terror is a vision of men with faces covered in mildew pursuing her across a beach. Over a series of train excursions from London they discuss their symptoms and, by talking, manage to control them, slowly giving up the pills. The denouement comes when Miss Henschil’s nurse, dumpy freckly Miss Blabey, reveals that she spoke with Miss H’s mother who revealed that the faceless men incident actually happened – she visited a leper colony in India when pregnant with Miss H, and the leprous men followed her. This revelation makes the shadow pass from her mind, she is suddenly whole and restored. And when Conroy visits his mother in Hereford, she also confirms that his night terror – which he’d never told her about – was an actual incident which happened to her when she was pregnant and on board a ship returning from India in 1885, when two stokers were scalded by steam and a man thought he’d play a cruel joke on her by telling her the ship was going down. She quickly realised it was a ‘joke’ and forgot about it – but in both cases the fright was obviously so intense that, somehow, it penetrated the souls of the little foetuses in their mothers’ wombs.

Interesting as the premise for a horror story; and interesting insight into drug addiction in the Edwardian era.

4. The Honours of War (1911) A Stalky tale. The narrator, the grown-up Beetle of the schoolboy Stalky stories, motors to the house of old Army friend, nicknamed ‘the Infant’, where he meets old pal, Lieutenant–Colonel A.L. Corkran, known in his schooldays as ‘Stalky’, now retired. They overhear two young officers, Eames and Trivett, explaining to the Infant that they ‘ragged’ a chap, Wontner, who was a bit rules and regs and intellectual-like, as you do, and, when he threatened to write to the War Office and implicate their beloved colonel, they wrapped him in a sack, thrust him in the boot of a car and have driven him here. Now. He is in the boot in the car in the garage!

The Infant is appalled and Stalky descends the stairs from where he and the narrator have been hiding and listening, to deliver an impressive tongue-lashing to the two young zealots, then despatches Beetle to untie the very angry officer from his sack. They get him in and play up to his pompous lecturing and hectorings and Stalky and the Infant try to placate him over dinner. Finally the imperturbable butler, Ipps, takes them upstairs to where the guilty pair, Eames and Trivett, are sleeping like babes. Wontner, with the others’ connivance, gets two sacks and some rope and ties them up, then asks help manhandling them down into a car, in which they all drive back to the barracks.

Slowly Wontner thaws. When Stalky reveals that he is a serving officer Wontner begins to realise what a pompous ass he’s made of himself. He stops the car in the High Street, goes into a milliners shop to buy all sorts of fabrics and, when they arrive at the barracks, dress his two sacked officers up to look like Japanese geishas, in which state they waddle into the mess. There is uproar, the Colonel is summoned, Wontner makes apologies for behaving such an insufferable prig, and all hell breaks loose as they open bottles, sing and threaten to party till dawn. Stalky and Beetle slip back to the car and drive back to the Infant’s.

I enjoyed this story very much, maybe because I understood it and got the tone straightaway; it seems like a direct ancestor of P.G. Wodehouse or early Evelyn Waugh, admittedly in army uniform. But the upper class setting and the tone of clipped irony from the first sentences is easy to get and enjoyable once you accept its tone and milieu (unlike so many of Kipling’s impenetrable tales).

5. The Dog Hervey (1914) Set in cosy, rural Sussex among middle-class families with big houses and servants, typified by Mrs Godfrey and her daughter Milly. The narrator’s friend, Attley, has a dog who’s given birth to puppies, and invites his circle round to choose ones to adopt. A manky one with a squint is chosen by a ‘dark, sallow-skinned, slack-mouthed girl’, Miss Sichliffe. After a few weeks Attley turns up with the dog, saying it’s come down sick and Miss S doesn’t know how so can the narrator look after it; he finds the dog eerie and uncanny. Now named Hervey, this clumsy squinting dog spends all its time looking at him. A few weeks later, the narrator gets a call that their friends, Mrs Godfrey and Milly, have been taken sick on Madeira. He takes a ship there and a lot of time passes as he and Attley nurse the ladies back to health. They fall in with a wealthy yacht-owner named Shend. Eventually they all ship back to Blighty, and on board the steamer Shend reveals that he is an alcoholic, who comes to him one night on the verge of delirium tremens. The narrator does a man’s job, listening to him, keeping him talking, and eventually Shend confesses that one of his hallucinations is of a funny squint-eyed dog. The ship docks and the narrator’s loyal chauffeur is there to collect him in the motor. They drive back through Sussex and stop at the gate of Moira’s house, where she happens to be outside gardening. Young Shend alights and goes to speak to her and they turn towards the house. The dog Hervey is there, skulking, and needs little encouragement to jump into the narrator’s car and be driven home, there to rejoin the narrator’s other dog, Malachi.

I read this story fairly carefully and still don’t understand what it was ‘about’ – a splendid example of the obscurity and impenetrability of many later Kipling stories.

6. The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat (1917) Like many a motorist Kipling thought he had a God-given right to ignore all rules of the road and cried blue murder if he or any of his friends were pulled up for breaking the law. In this story the narrator is merrily breaking the speed limit in a car along with Woodhouse, a journalist who specialises in rescuing failing papers, Ollyett a young man just down from Oxford, and a Tory M.P., Pallant.

They are charged with speeding in a village, Huckley, by a constable who maliciously presses their horn to frighten the horse of the local Justice of the Peace, Sir Thomas Ingell, M.P., who’s riding by. When they’re hauled up in court a) they hear a few other landowners joking about how convenient it is to have long stretches of road which encourage motorists to speed, so that you can fine ’em and make a fortune b) Ingell is crude, rude and dismissive before fining them twenty-three pounds, twelve shillings and sixpence. The next case after them is another motoring offence, the culprit the famous music hall impresario, ‘Bat’ Masquerier, whose Jewishness Ingell insults by implying that ‘Bat’ lives in Jerusalem.

Our foursome and Bat meet up for a dinner in London and hatch a monstrous plan. The newspapers will begin a small but ongoing campaign to mock and ridicule Huckley, deliberately inviting letters, comments, mild derision, and this they do. But it is as nothing compared to Masquerier’s plan which is enormous – it is to ferry down all his music hall stars, the girls, the bands, all pretending to be members of the fictitious Geoplanarians’ Annual Banquet and Exercises – a version of the Flat Earth Society; they have a huge party, get all the villagers blind drunk and hold a vote in which all 438 drunkenly agree and vote that the earth is flat, as well as festooning the village with posters, banners and spraying their slogan in Sir Thomas’s walls and gates.

Not only does this get into the Press but Masquerier rewrites the lyrics of ‘Here we go gathering nuts in May’ to become ‘The village that voted the earth was flat’, and has it simultaneously launched in his music halls in all Britain’s cities, as well as recorded on the new phonographs and accompanied by film for cinematographs. It becomes a phenomenon, sweeping the civilised world. Huckley becomes a laughing stock but there is more. On a visit to the village the infuriated Ingell comes running out to shut up yet another charabanc of singing, joking, kodaking tourists, but is witnessed attacking Pallant. Pallant now brings a law case for assault but so manages it that his lawyer, on the day in court, with the world’s press assembled, apologises for bringing the case now that they have been apprised of Sir Thomas’s infirmity – and darkly hinting that something unmentionable in Ingell’s character or past renders the case otiose. This dark hint is picked up and amplified and speculated upon by the world’s media.

But even this isn’t enough, because, in the climactic scene, the narrator is invited along to the House of Commons to witness the climax of several days of feverish debate on the troubled issues of the day – only for Pallant to manage things so that he mentions the ill-fated village of Huckley and triggers an outburst of the song, ‘The village that voted the world was flat’, the entire House joining in in helpless mirth and hysterics until the Prime Minister himself enters the House and all hands point towards him in ridicule and tearful hysterics. What began as a few ideas to get their own back on a rather brusque Justice of the Peace has ended up in the farcical ridiculing of the entire political system. Sir Thomas’s humiliation is complete; we see him going into the Whips office to ask to be allowed to resign his seat.

It’s long but there’s a lot of material to get through and it moves at a rattling pace. If you can forgive the Jeremy Clarkson-style self-pity of a bunch of lawbreaking petrolheads as the initial premise, it’s hard not to be carried away by the unstoppable pace of the comedy and the grotesque dimensions of farcicality which it eventually reaches. 

7. In The Presence (1912) This is a thoughtful, reflective, strange and evocative story. The setting is entirely Indian but not the hectic desperate India of the early tales, something much more mellow and experienced. The officers of a Sikh regiment in the Indian Army are taking their leisure.

He folded his arms and sat down on the verandah. The hot day had ended, and there was a pleasant smell of cooking along the regimental lines, where half-clad men went back and forth with leaf platters and water-goglets. The Subadar–Major, in extreme undress, sat on a chair, as befitted his rank; the Havildar–Major, his nephew, leaning respectfully against the wall. The Regiment was at home and at ease in its own quarters in its own district which takes its name from the great Muhammadan saint Mian Mir, revered by Jehangir and beloved by Guru Har Gobind, sixth of the great Sikh Gurus.

In the first half, the Regimental Chaplain tells the tale of Rutton Singh and Attar Singh, two Sikhs whose family were being persecuted by their mother’s kinfolk. Eventually the persecution gets so severe they take four days leave, steal the revolver of Attar Singh’s Sahib, travel to their village and carry out a massacre of all their mother’s kin. Then they take refuge on the roof of a building in the village and await punishment. When none comes, the two men make all the correct religious rituals – they make shinan – and have their colleagues shoot them in the head. The whole tale is told by Sikhs who are most concerned that the proprieties are observed and that everything is done correctly. We hear no white man’s voice. We see their actions from the point of view of their own people, interpreted through their own tradition.

‘So Attar Singh abandoned his body, as an insect abandons a blade of grass.

After meditating on this tale and the impeccable correctness of the young men’s behaviour, it is the turn of the Subadar–Major to tell a yarn: this concerns the time he was in England, which happened to coincide with the death of King Edward VII (died May 1910). The story concerns four Gurkhas who are called on to attend the body – hence the title, In the presence. They have one hour shifts while tens of thousands of mourners traipse by to pay their respects. Much emphasis is put on their devotion to duty, on details like the fact that, although the Gurkha uniform includes stiff collars, they had to bow their heads lower than the Grenadier Guards with whom they shared the vigil, because the inclination of their heads wasn’t so obvious due to the Guards big hats and the Gurkhas’ small berets.

The tone of Kipling voodoo is introduced because the most difficult aspect of the vigil turned out to be staring at hundreds, then thousands, of disembodied feet trudging by. The vision of these feet, tramp tramp tramping becomes an ordeal for the Guardsmen – who can only bear half an hour of it at a time – and even more so a test of the unflinching devotion to duty of the Gurkhas who insist on putting in the full hour, for ‘the Honour of the Armies of Hind’. The Gurkhas are cared for / in the charge of a white officer who it is emphasised, understood their religious rituals and requirements, Forsyth Sahib, who made sure they got food prepared to their requirements.

Their duty is pushed to the edge when three of them volunteer to transport the vast amount of flowers and bouquets which have been laid at the shrine, to ‘Wanidza’ (Windsor Castle), leaving behind the fourth of their colleagues who puts in a four-hour stint till his eyes are buzzing like a weaver’s shuttle. Thus quietly, with no bloodshed or bugles, duty was done, devotion demonstrated.

When he has finished the story the Regimental Chaplain and the Subadar–Major contentedly smile at good deeds well done. Law. Order. Correct form.

‘We came well and cleanly out of it,’ said the Subadar–Major.
‘Correct! Correct! Correct!’ said the Regimental Chaplain. ‘In an evil age it is good to hear such things, and there is certainly no doubt that this is a very evil age.’

8. Regulus (1917) There are about five strands running through this story which made it, ultimately, quite hard to know whether I’d ‘understood’ it. The setting is the unnamed public school of the ‘Stalky’ stories. Mr King the Latin master is taking the class word by word through an ode of Horace’s which concerns Regulus, the Roman general who preferred to die rather than betray his fatherland, refused the offer of freedom and betrayal and walked nobly towards his torture and death. As I studied Latin myself I found this first part quite interesting and more readily comprehensible than much Kipling.

After the lesson, Mr King is shown in dispute with Mr Hartopp the (short) chemistry teacher, arguing the merits of their respective subjects, King insisting that as well as grammar, Latin teaches:

‘Balance, proportion, perspective — life!’

There is a lot of knowing, facetious banter between the pupils, Stalky, Beetle, Mullins, Vernon, Perowne, Malpass and Winton. The latter releases a mouse in the drawing lesson of Mr Lidgett. there is a complicated discussion between the Headmaster, Mr King and Lidgett – I think what is happening is Winton’s mouse trick must result in him being caned by his prefect ‘Potiphar’ Mullins, but the Head considerately orders him to write out five hundred lines of Virgil, which will delay the inevitable. Mr King drops in to help him. A bunch of boys come in to tease him, until Winton snaps and goes berserk and tries to hurt the teaser till they all sit on him to quell his passion. Thus calmed, he finally goes upstairs to receive his caning (after the narrator has casually described the caning of two smaller boys, aged 12).

One little boy is caned and then Potiphar makes a point of complimenting him on his bearing and the boy goes away grateful. Rather like the Ethiopians in the story ‘Little Foxes’ are grateful for being whipped. Then Potiphar canes Winton, before handing him his football ‘cap’, confirming that he’s got a place in the First Eleven. Not only that, but Mr King collars Winton to announce that he has appointed him the latest sub-prefect. At the very end Stalky is overheard mockingly referring to Winton as ‘Regulus’, on account that he bravely faced up to his punishment. ‘See?’ smiles Mr King. ‘A little of it sticks among the barbarians.’

These were the institutions which trained the men who went out to run the British Empire. Kipling’s school – the basis of all his ‘Stalky’ stories – was specifically set up to train the sons of Army officers themselves destined to go out and staff the Army. What comes over is corporal punishment, Latin and a fierce sense of clannishness reinforced by the facetious schoolboy slang.

9. The Edge of the Evening (1912) Another sequel: in this one we meet again American inventor Laughton O. Zigler in the heart of London, who we last saw in a prisoner of war camp in South Africa during the Boer War (as told in the story ‘The Captive’ in the collection Traffics and Discoveries). Now Zigler is rich and renting the massive country house and estate of a friend – in fact, of the English officer who took custody of him after he and his Boer commando were captured during the war.

Zigler has branched out from developing the artillery he was making in the Boer War story, and is now running a variety of companies producing all sorts of new technologies. He insists on the narrator coming to stay, so their chauffeur-driven car goes to the narrator’s hotel, he collects his bags, and they motor down to the country.

It’s a grand big house which he’s renting off Lord Marshalton: there’s a list of the famous people who have visited, overlooking a race course, with a Temple to Flora, and four footmen who greet them at the portico, carry in their bags, the narrator changes and comes down to a house full of American guests, all poking and prodding the furniture, squinting at the paintings and rummaging through the book cases. Kipling introduces an array of American types over dinner, the pushy young men, the drawling Southern lady who bad mouths Abraham Lincoln, and so on. Henry James would have had a heart attack at the lack of subtlety; it all seems more to me like the amiable satire of P.G. Wodehouse, with another stereotypically unflappable butler – Peters – the brother of Ipps in the earlier story, ‘the Honours of War’.

After dinner Zigler takes the narrator for a walk in the park and tells him about the time he had Lord Lundie the Appeal Court Judge (who appears in the earlier story, ‘The Puzzler’) and Burton–Walen, the editor, Lord Marshalton down to stay and they spent the day playing golf and were making their way back across the park as dark was falling when out of nowhere a biplane landed on the lawn and two flyers get out to fix her. As our foursome approach one of the men turns and fires a revolver at them, narrowly missing Lord Marshalton, so Zigler cracks him round the head with his golf club, while the other man makes a run for it, until tackled and brought down hard to earth.

Our foursome stand back and realise both men are dead, necks broken by golf club and awkward fall. They go through the flyers’ pockets and the cabin of the plane and find plenty of evidence that they are spies, the plane stuffed with aerial photos of English military installations. What makes it weird and very Kipling is that Lord Lundie now holds a kind of impromptu coroner’s court where witnesses are called to describe the events. Some aspect of this is meant to be funny, but it’s also macabre and a bit sadistic at the same time. So many of Kipling’s stories have this disquieting flavour.

They rack their brains how to dispose of the bodies then Zigler has the bright idea of piling them back in the biplane, firing up the engine, with his three accomplices holding it in place, then hanging a weight on the joystick and all letting go – and away the biplane climbs into the sky carrying its corpses south towards the English Channel never to be heard of again.

And with that Zigler proposes to the narrator that they go back inside and rejoin the merry party.

11. The Horse Marines (1910) This is the last of the six stories featuring Royal Navy Petty-Officer Emmanuel Pyecroft and it is another comical, indeed farcical tale. (Although Pyecroft was meant to be a way in to Kipling’s beloved Navy, it is odd that this story, like several of the others, is entirely set on land.) The narrator is down in Portsmouth to collect his motor car which has been recently repaired and is being delivered by sea and driven by his ‘engineer’, Mr Leggatt. He asks why it has such expensive tyres and Leggatt says he better ask Mr Pyecroft so they motor off to find Pyecroft helping out his crotchety uncle in his grocer’s shop. They have a meal together after which Pyecroft tells him the adventure: he and a French sailor on leave, Jules, bump into Leggatt in London and persuade him to give them a lift to Portsmouth. Outside the city they are ambushed by a group of Boy Scouts and their ‘umpire’, a Mr Morshead. He wants to rag his uncle, a Brigadier-General (Army), who is on Whitsun manoeuvres with his brigade somewhere in the Downs. So in Portsmouth they buy a load of fireworks and a rocking horse, then they drive up to the South Downs, to a place between two rival groups of the brigade, set up the rocking horse and fire off all sorts of fireworks. Both ‘sides’ of the brigade see it and think the other is taking the mickey out of them, which leads to a massive pitched battle using a vast pile of manglewurzels as ammunition.

Pyecroft’s style, his slang, his idiolect, is almost completely impenetrable, so that I found the story almost impossible to follow. It was only reading the Kipling Society’s notes which helped me understand what actually happened in the story.

12. ‘My Son’s Wife’ (1913) A satire on Frankwell Midmore, a complacent radical of ‘the Immoderate Left’, who enjoys the radical lifestyle i.e. lots of dining, pontificating, endless meetings and enjoyable affairs also known as ‘Experiments in Social Relations’. He inherits a house from a widowed aunt and land in the country (sounding suspiciously like the Sussex countryside so lavishly described in the Puck books) at the same time as his latest Experiment on Social relations dumps him and, after initially thinking he’ll ruthlessly sell it all off and dispossess the shabby peasant who rents a rundown barn on his land, Frankwell… collapses in the house of the old lady who lives in the house, the dead aunt’s maid, Rhoda Dolbie. She puts him to bed and over the next few days feeds him and nurses him back to health, explains more about old Mr Sidney the peasant who lives with his fourth woman, out of wedlock, and about mad Jimmy the idiot boy, who’ll run any errand as long as it’s not across water – that gives him ‘is fits, like.

She tells him the ruts in the drive are from the local Hunt cantering past, that the dam on the book needs fixing, old Mr Sidney wants a new pig-pound and so on. Recovering over a week or so, Kipling shows in a hundred little details, how Frankwell’s Immoderate Left soul slowly becomes intrigued by the utterly alien rural community he’s stumbled into, he reads about it, listens more to old Miss Dolbie’s stories and advice. And slowly slowly learns to value country ways, the fox hunting, with the commanding Master of the Hunt and the attractive young Miss Sperrit, always humming and singing, the brook that needs fixing, old Mr Sidney’s obstinate humour – and slowly comes to despise the glib, fancy, superficial ‘values’ of his London set.

They all agreed, with an eye over his shoulder for the next comer, that he was a different man; but when they asked him for the symptoms of nervous strain, and led him all through their own, he realised he had lost much of his old skill in lying. His three months’ absence, too, had put him hopelessly behind the London field. The movements, the allusions, the slang of the game had changed. The couples had rearranged themselves or were re-crystallizing in fresh triangles, whereby he put his foot in it badly.

Briefly, the brook that bisects Frankwell’s property floods after days of heavy rain, and Frankwell finds himself intimately involved in every aspect of it, from rescuing Mr Sidney’s live-in lover, and his pig, to handling Jimmy gone mad with fear, to watching up late with Rhoda and then, when he’s investigating the damage the next day, he’s joined by Miss Sperrit, the attractive young belle of the local Hunt, and all of a sudden, when they are knocked off their feet by Mr Sidney’s squealing pig running past them in a panic and both land in the mud – they realise they are in love.

As starkly as the Liberal anti-Imperialists are just ignorant of what they’re discussing, and don’t understand the subtle webs of culture, tradition, loyalty and devotion which bind together Sahibs and native peoples, webs they would rip apart with their facile talk of ‘democracy’ and ‘independence’ – so the superficial ‘radicals’, the urban metropolitan elite, just don’t understand the honesty,frankness, deep-rootedness, faithfulness, love of land and love of country, self respect and respect for others, which rural life encourages.

All this and it manages to be a love story as well, quite a sweet and fetching love story.

13. The Vortex (August 1914) A comic sequel to the story ‘The Puzzler’ in Actions and Reactions. The narrator once again plays host to the Hon. A.M. Penfentenyou, ‘Premier in all but name of one of Our great and growing Dominions’, who has brought with him the modern-thinking Mr Lingnam who has all sorts of clever theories about converting the British Empire into a loose federation of Dominions. I think this is an idea Kipling loathed and so Lingnam is created to be the butt of all sorts of satire. But it turns out to be just as simple a farce as ‘The Puzzler’, for Lingnam insists on driving them all in a hired car to the nearest village, for a pint of local beer and a picnic, when he is in collision with a cyclist who was carrying what turn out to be four full bee hives. In a few seconds the charming high street of the little village the railways station beneath the bridge and the green with the funfair are turned into a war zone as swarms of bees go on the rampage, Lingnam throws himself into the village pond, Penfentenyou barges into the nearest house then locks the door and the narrator covers himself with all available rugs, tucks his trousers into his socks and is reduced to tears of helpless mirth at the spectacle around him. ‘Traditional Sussex village reduced to chaos by mishap with bees’. I smiled all the way through it.

14. ‘Swept and Garnished’ (1915) It is the first autumn of the Great War. Old German widow Miss Ebermann is in bed in her apartment in Berlin with a heavy cold, whining at her maid to bring medication from the chemists, and the maid scuttles off. To Miss E’s surprise, when she next opens her eyes, she sees, first one little child poking about in her room, and a moment later, five little children.

Miss Ebermann shouts at them to get out of her apartment, telling them they have no right to break into her home like this. But the children reply that they have been told to come here until ‘their people’ come to reclaim them. And then, through a series of hints, the reader realises that the children are from a town in Belgium where someone fired on the German army passing through, who promptly massacred the inhabitants and burnt it to the ground. Miss Ebermann remembers letters from her son at the front claiming that the German army has to carry out ‘justice’ when it is attacked by treacherous civilians. Now she is seeing the ghostly victims of German ‘justice’.

Her and the reader’s suspicions are crystallised when the children finally agree to leave, but on their way out, as they turn to go, Miss Ebermann sees their horrific open wounds and they leave blood puddled all over her bedroom floor. When the maid comes back into the room she finds the old lady on her hands and knees trying to scrub the blood off the floorboards, so the place is ‘swept and garnished’ ready for the Lord.

The Kipling Society website gives useful historical notes to this story, listing genuine German atrocities from early in the war, including the rumours that the Germans cut off the right arms of Belgian boy children, so they wouldn’t be able to fight in the future. Kipling’s stories are no longer about helping tottering old ladies in health spas as they were only a few short years previously. All is changed, changed utterly.

15.Mary Postgate (1915) This is an extraordinary story, combining war, vengeance, sadism and barely suppressed sexuality. Mary Postgate is the plain Jane, 44-year-old personal maid to old Miss Fowler. She fetches and carries without question, is always well organised and emotionless. Miss Fowler’s nephew, Wynn, is orphaned and comes to live with them and Mary brings him up almost as a surrogate son though he is unceasingly rude, arrogant and unfeeling to her. When war comes all the sons go off and Wynn enlists in the Air Force, coming to visit them in his fine uniform until one day he is reported dead, having died in a training accident – the implication being that he fell, maybe 4,000 feet, from the cockpit of one of those primitive early aircraft.

Both Mary and Miss Fowler are strangely unemotional – Miss Fowler had expected Wynn’s death all along, Mary had completely repressed her anxiety. The two women agree to donate Wynn’s uniform to the Forces, but to burn all his private belongings. Kipling then gives is a moving page-long description of a young man’s belongings, stretching back through all his toys and school prizes, which Mary collects and takes to the incinerator at the bottom of the garden.

Then she has to go buy some paraffin in the village and, on the way back, she and a friend she’s bumped into, hear a bang and a wail and run behind a house to find a local child, Edna, has been blown up by a casual bomb dropped from a German plane, maybe returning from a bombing raid on London. The friend, a nurse, wraps the little girl’s body in a blanket, which immediately soaks with blood and they carry it indoors. Here the blanket falls open and Mary sees, for a second, poor little Edna’s body torn ‘into those vividly coloured strips and strings’. (Not so far-fetched. I was recently at Essendon, a little village in Hertfordshire. Here, in the early hours of 3 September 1916, a German airship returning from a raid on London dropped a bomb on the village which killed two sisters and damaged the east end of the church. Dead, out of the blue, for no reason, except the incompetence and stupidity of the German Army High Command which thought it could invade and conquer France in 6 weeks in August 1914.)

Staggering out of the house with the eviscerated child, Mary regains control of herself and walks back to the big house. Here she wheelbarrows dead Wynn’s belongings down to the incinerator and begins piling them in to burn. It is at this point that she hears a noise from the trees at the end of the garden and discovers a German airman who also seems to have fallen from the skies and crashed through trees, landing badly injured not far from the incinerator.

And this is the crux of the story: for although Mary gets an old revolver from the house (the kind of thing which seems to have been much more common in those days than now) she decides to deliberately let the man die in agony without calling for a doctor or any help.

And it is in the phrasing of the physical bodily pleasure this gives her, that many critics detect a sexual element, some going so far as to say that the dying man’s death throes give the lifelong repressed virgin an orgasm, as all kinds of anger and repressions brought to a climax.

As she thought — her underlip caught up by one faded canine, brows knit and nostrils wide — she wielded the poker with lunges that jarred the grating at the bottom, and careful scrapes round the brick-work above… The exercise of stoking had given her a glow which seemed to reach to the marrow of her bones. She hummed — Mary never had a voice — to herself… A woman who had missed these things [love, a husband, children] could still be useful — more useful than a man in certain respects. She thumped like a pavior through the settling ashes at the secret thrill of it… She ceased to think. She gave herself up to feel. Her long pleasure was broken by a sound that she had waited for in agony several times in her life. She leaned forward and listened, smiling… Then the end came very distinctly in a lull between two rain-gusts. Mary Postgate drew her breath short between her teeth and shivered from head to foot. ‘That’s all right,’ said she contentedly…

Anger, revenge, violence, sadism, repressed sex – this is an extraordinarily powerful, haunting concoction of a story.

Related links

Other Kipling reviews

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