It could be that one of the greatest obstacles to overcome when reading Kipling’s short stories for the first time is what you have already read about the author. I have several books on the form in which Kipling gets either a chapter to himself or shares one with a narrow selection of other writers. Standard histories of the short story by Frank O’Connor, H.E.Bates and Walter Allen all give him a rough ride yet know that they cannot ignore him or be thought to do so. Henry James has been widely quoted as describing Kipling as ‘the most complete man of genius’ he had ever known, followed by a sort of disclaimer. Critics seem to think he’s great but wish that they didn’t.
Kipling’s story ‘Mary Postgate’ (read on TSS) has attracted the sort of attack that typifies reactions to this author – attacks that recognise a brilliance but at the same time wish to dissociate the commentator from it. Stanley Baldwin’s son is quoted as calling it ‘the wickedest story ever written.’ (Kipling Society website, accessed, 18/10/17)
‘every critic has praised [it] for its technical brilliance but many have been repelled…’
(Walter Allen, The English Short Story, Clarendon,1981)
In explanation Allen summarises the climax of the story:
A lady’s companion, middle-class, middle-aged, watches without compunction or intervention a shot-down German airman die in agony…
He’s almost right, but not quite, as we shall see. This, the climactic scene of the story, sees the eponymous heroine in a state of seemingly orgasmic excitement as she burns the personal effects of her employer’s late nephew, killed – not as Allen erroneously reports, in combat, but whilst training with the Royal Flying Corps – while the injured airman lies nearby, dying from his wounds, and even he, implicitly is the victim of an accident rather than combat. Back inside, the job(s) done, even her employer cannot help but notice that she looks ‘quite handsome’, and we, the readers, might think her post-coital.
The long back-story to this crescendo has played heavily on Mary’s character, and of her utter devotion to the nephew, unquestioning and often abused in a thoughtless rather than malicious way by the young man. After he has gone her detached competence in dealing with the consequences elicits a character assessment, against which the later, shocking single act of passion will be measured. ‘Mary, aren’t you anything except a companion?’ And Mary’s answer is a simple ‘No.’
As with many short stories what must seem to be the major event turns out not to be the ending. After the nephew’s death the story continues and the war impinges once more on the lives of the two women. Mary witnesses the sudden, violent death of a little girl and believes it to be the result of a German bomb. In fact, she is told, the child had the misfortune to be playing beneath an old roof that without warning gave way.
‘….that accident at the “Royal Oak” was due to Gerritt’s stable tumbling down.’
But she is not convinced and, perhaps, neither are we. Kipling can leave some things quite unresolved and here undermines the information that has just been given to Mary.
‘….I can rely on you not to say anything…’
It’s shortly after this that she goes to burn the dead nephew’s belongings in a home-made incinerator and encounters the badly wounded airman lying nearby. Her reaction to him and to his suffering is sadistic and gloatingly so and brings us to the nub of people’s reaction to Kipling and some of the attitudes we rightly or wrongly attribute to him. While the man whimpers in pain she tells him: ‘Stop that, you bloody pagan.’
Her anger, though, driven on by the grim losses of her life – ‘She came from a family that had a knack of dying under, as she told Miss Fowler, ‘most distressing circumstances.’’ – turns to a sensual enjoyment of the man’s anguish. The sequence takes more than a page to play out – that’s several hundred words. In fact there are three pages of close text between the airman’s first groan and her ‘lying all relaxed on the sofa , ‘quite handsome’.’ One commentator calls this Kipling in ‘hate mode’, as if the emotion were his as well as that of his character.
She even refers to the dying man, in her mind, as ‘It’.
Walter Allen suggests that the repulsion to this story, well attested in several critiques, assumes ‘Kipling’s own attitude towards the central event to be Mary Postgate’s’, which would be fair enough if it were not for the fact that Allen has missed something vital.
For the dying airman is not German.
The poignancy of this story, its overwhelming sadness and tragedy, is that Mary Postgate is not revealing the mere savagery of wartime feelings but the absolute blindness to reality that can afflict people acting under such impulses.
In that careful build up to this climax Kipling has laid some clever and well concealed clues – concealed in plain sight. Here is an example of telling, not explaining. He tells us, for example, that ‘There was no doubt as to his nationality.’ And without making clear what that is he does it early enough for us to make the same false assumption as Mary Postgate! It’s a curious statement to make. Why would we doubt it? How might we?
A half page later when Mary returns, not with a doctor, as the man has hoped, but with a pistol, the man cries ‘Cassé. Tout cassé’, and Kipling gives us the distracting qualifier ‘it whimpered.’ But if we are not distracted we might recognise that the words are not German. Even I know that and I have never had a German lesson in my life. Mary’s reply in her ‘small German’ brings no response to the threat it poses. This Frenchman, presumably, has less German than she does. And his very first words, ‘Laty,laty,laty’, have suggested that he knows he is not in France but in an English speaking country. Stories, and especially short stories, work through the provision of small, explicit details, embedded naturally in the narrative. They are not to be ignored but are often overlooked or misinterpreted. Kipling is a master of such detail.
For Walter Allen to have missed this, however, all the way through to publication, is astonishing. Perhaps later editions corrected it but he was not the only one nor the most recent:
she discovered the German airman, who – after dropping the bomb – had fallen from his plane and was now dying.
This from Harry Rickets, whose biography of Kipling was published in 1999. Others have suggested that the airman is entirely imaginary. Whether he is or not doesn’t change the fact that he is not German – unless we believe that Kipling didn’t realise he was using French words or that he wished to show someone speaking in a language not his own at such a moment. Or is it that commentators simply don’t want to see what the words of the story – which is all we have to go on – are actually telling them? Is this a case of denial rather than simple misreading?
For it changes our perception of the story entirely. Had Kipling wanted to revel in the ‘torture’ of a wounded enemy one would have been repelled by his savagery and it would serve, perhaps, as an example of wartime excess. To have him revelling in the death of a wounded ally, however, seems quite absurd. And I wonder if the fact that the misreading happened at all tells us something about the way that readers, even professional critics, approach the works of this writer. Eager to distance themselves from his imperialist, racist attitudes, they find those attitudes in stories where they simply do not exist.
Far from being an indulgence of wartime enmity this story is a powerful and unequivocal rejection of it. Let us be quite clear. Kipling here is showing the awful death of an innocent and a friend – in wartime thinking – as a result of blind, jingoistic ‘loathing’. H.E.Bates says of him, ‘throughout Kipling’s work [where] beating and whipping are the constant media by which the problems of life are solved and its justice satisfied.’ Here is an example of that, in the mind of Mary Postgate as she savagely pokes the fire while the airman suffers, but Kipling’s narrator is not underwriting it. In The Lonely Voice, Frank O’Connor makes no mention of Mary Postgate or her story, but, writing of Kipling he says ‘He always loved to “gloat”.’ When Mary gloats, I do not sense that Kipling expected or intended us to join in with her. Walter Allen’s fifteen page essay examines in depth many Kipling stories that I have written about, but his comments on Mary Postgate seem casual and cursory, tagged on to the end of his essay in a paragraph of less than half a page. The story deserves more attention and at the very least accuracy in the reading. He says the story is ‘appalling and unforgettable’, and so it is, but not for the reasons many have suggested.
Brindley Hallam Dennis writes short stories. He lives on the edge of England. Blogs at www.Bhdandme.wordpress.comand writes poetry,plays and essays as Mike Smith.