9 January 2015
The Education of Otis Yeere, At the Pit’s Mouth and A Wayside Comedy
Three stories set in claustrophobic little communities in India at a time when the British Raj, over decades, sucked in a large segment of the British middle class. It’s a surreal transposition of the Home Counties into an alien landscape, where young men from minor public schools are put in charge of hideous tracts of unforgiving land, with only ‘native’ assistants who have no interest in making life easy for their pink-faced superiors. Kipling is one of those who have made this into familiar territory, and the urbane, knowing tone of these stories makes it easy to see how he entered the British consciousness. You think you know where you are with Kipling, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. There’s plenty of casual racism and class discrimination, but I’m pretty sure the attitudes of the characters and those of the narrator aren’t the same. I’m sure I’ll come back to this as I read more of the stories.
The Education of Otis Yeere (1888) is a drawing-room comedy of manners. It’s easy to imagine Mrs Hauksbee, doyenne of the amateur dramatic society but as proud of her art as any West End professional, attending the same soiree as Wilde’s Lady Bracknell. But Simla society is offers thin entertainment compared to Wilde’s London world. It might be the summer capital of India (thanks, Wikipedia), but the town’s self-declared intellectual sisterhood has only two members with not enough to do. Mrs Mallowe persuades Mrs H that her idea for regular soirees wouldn’t work and, in a polite parody of a Dangerous Liaisons moment, suggests boosting a protégé instead. It would be a gratifying vanity project, a proof of power in this small world. Mrs H starts looking.
She finds Otis Yeere, an archetype of those young men marooned in postings that will take them nowhere. And she begins to work the necessary magic. New clothes must be ordered, a new attitude must be projected (‘Conceit’) and it helps that a little bird is spreading rumours of how capable this man is, with his background (really a hopeless hobby he quickly dropped) in the study of local dialects. It’s all going well, and Mrs H has just given him a rousing pep-talk… and then comes the fall we’ve been waiting for from the first sentence. For this is ‘the history of a failure’, and it comes when Otis makes the mistake of misinterpreting Mrs H’s motives. He tries to ‘make love’ to her, and she drops him on the instant. It might be Dangerous Liaisons, but in a Victorian universe.
The other two are the blackest of black comedies. At the Pit’s Mouth is pared down almost to nothing. ‘The Man’, ‘his Wife’ and ‘the Tertium Quid’ are the usual triangle. ‘The Man’ is of no interest and is never seen, as his wife and the other man seek locations for their assignations in Simla where, as we already know, everybody knows everybody else’s business. They resort to the cemetery, never visited – the swift turnover of the population means that any mourners move on within months – until, one day, the Tertium Quid is spooked by a particular ‘ready-made’ grave they have watched being dug. (There are ‘half-a-dozen permanently open for contingencies.’) And guess what. When one of the coolies digging it leaps across it, the man reaches for his coat. ‘I’ve got a chill down my back – just as if a goose had walked over my grave.’
What happens as, following a change of plan – and a change of meeting-places – his skittish mare loses its footing on the narrow road next to the thousand-foot cliff? No need to guess – but Kipling’s description of the look of surprise on his face, and of his position under his horse 900 feet below where he is ‘spoiling a patch of Indian corn’ is superb.
A Wayside Comedy is a variation on the love-triangle formula. By setting a conventional story in a desperately remote and tiny government station Kipling makes it feel as though it’s happening in a box. The three Brits living there are enough to make the triangle, and all is well – until another married couple arrive. The first woman, maddened by jealousy of the (innocent) new arrival and two months of Indian rain, confesses everything to her husband. Visiting the new neighbours’ house to seek advice from them, the husband overhears a conversation between the interloper and this tale’s version of the Tertium Quid. (Try to keep up.) He has changed his allegiance and is swearing that he has no feelings for his former lover. Enter the husband to tell them both what his wife has just told him. He had wanted his wife to ‘bolt’ with her lover, but now he is stuck with her. The lover is now hated by both women, and the first woman hates the new arrival. To cap it all, the second husband, all unsuspecting, expects the usual round of evening drinks and claustrophobic meals together: ‘In a little station we must all be friendly.’ Aargh.
The Hill of Illusion, A Second-Rate Woman and Only a Subaltern
Only the title of the first of these seems to have been chosen without irony. It centres on another adulterous love affair, presented as a drama script (‘He’ and ‘She’), and the seriousness of what these two are contemplating becomes more evident as it goes on. The other two titles contain ironies that only really become clear towards the end. Is the ‘second-rate woman’ the one we thought? And is the value of a man really defined by his rank? ‘Only’ a subaltern? I suppose Kipling can get away with both the moral forthrightness of the first title and the satirical ambiguity of the others because he is writing within the well-established moral parameters of late 19th Century English fiction. We’ve seen it in those earlier black comedies in which the punishments of sin may be comic, but they’re still punishments. What I find interesting – and I don’t know how he does it – is the way he makes this stuff so completely engaging for a reader who shares none of his certainties.
In The Hill of Illusion a married woman recognises long before her lover does that there would be no lasting happiness in running off together. This isn’t how it starts, although the clues are there from the beginning. He complacently tells her the route they will take from Simla (or wherever) to Rome. But she has already packed the idea away into some safe place in her mind: ‘Do you mean that still? I didn’t dare to write to you about it – all these months.’ He’s been away, and she’s had time to think about it. And, as she brings him down from his dream of a future together, she shows both him and the reader how she has been able to think about every last detail of a more realistic scenario. Half a page from the end, it all comes down to trust. ‘I wish I were dead! I can’t trust you, and I can’t trust myself. Let it die away and be forgotten!’ It’s taken some time for her to reach this point, but she’s right. In this universe, of course she’s right. At the very end of the dialogue, three seconds after she’s left, he muses to himself: ‘Hmm! I’d give something to discover whether there’s another man at the back of this.’
A Second-Rate Woman brings back Mrs Hauksbee and Mrs Mallowe, and it could almost have been written by Oscar Wilde. Almost. There are dismissive opinions that have a kind of poetry in them, a worldly sense of superiority over the foolish mortals that Mrs H looks down on, literally, from her window. Her incorrigible snobbery – even her only friend is uneasy with it sometimes – often had me laughing out loud. Her target is ‘the Dowd’, a woman whose crimes are to flirt with a married man she doesn’t know is married (Mrs H sarcastically calls him ‘the Dancing Master’) and, worse, to be careless about the way she dresses.
But Kipling is preparing to have his main character taught a lesson. He doesn’t do it through farce – he turns the comedy off entirely for two or three pages – but through an episode that shows how dangerous life in India can be. The Dancing Master’s wife has turned up, bringing their baby, and it catches diphtheria. As it fails to recover, Mrs H tries to score two separate points through one gesture. She’ll gain credit for her selflessness in letting the mother and child stay at the house she shares with Mrs Mallowe; and it will be one in the eye both for the child’s father, who has been neglecting his parental duties, and for the Dowd.
It’s a failure. Mrs H goes to pieces when the crisis arrives, and it’s the Dowd – who has long ago ended her flirtation, if that’s what it ever was – who arrives to apply the remedy that saves the child’s life. Who’s the ‘second-rate woman’ now? Mrs H is chastened, for a time, but Kipling doesn’t ram home the moral too hard. When the crisis is over, and Mrs H is out of ‘the Valley of Humiliation’, she can get back to doing what she likes best. Mocking the accent of an American woman she had overheard – she loves mocking accents, among everything else – she insists on ‘Ha-ow pahltry it all is.’
Only a Subaltern is ultra-conservative. It seems to fit into a late 19th/early 20th Century convention, through which an officer’s love for his regiment and his men is presented as strong as any blood-tie. It’s easy to mock – and yet I can see why it was a favourite among Kipling’s readers. Bobby Wick might be ‘only’ a subaltern, but by the time he’s died of cholera – a fate that is signalled four pages before the end of a ten-page story – there are grown men weeping and a commanding officer feeling ‘the keenest sorrow of his life.’
Don’t ask me how, but Kipling makes it a page-turner. If you want to understand the myth of esprit de corps that made thousands of ordinary men so keen to enlist in 1914, you need look no further than this.
The Phantom Rickshaw, My Own True Ghost Story and The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes
The Phantom Rickshaw has the conventional framing device of being presented as the written testimony of the victim of a haunting. We can choose to take it as ravings of a madman – the victim himself has been made all too aware of this – or we can believe it. I didn’t, because Kipling is no M R James. He makes the haunting the utterly real-seeming rickshaw of the title, belonging to the woman who was in love with him before she pined away and died. It’s a long story, over 20 pages, and the rickshaw appears fairly early on. Gradually – all too gradually – the man comes to recognise that his treatment of the woman was as good as murder, and his own life falls apart. He comes to engage the phantom more and more openly in conversation, ignoring the stares of onlookers who see him talking to thin air as he walks or rides next to a rickshaw only he can see. He’s dying as he tells the story, imagines a strange eternity with this woman and her team of drivers, and… and I suppose the moral is, don’t betray innocent young women.
My Own True Ghost Story is shorter and more entertaining. There’s no framing device this time, just the worldly, cynical voice of an middle-ranking servant of Empire who has to spend more time on the road than he’d like. He has to stay in the cheap conversions that are the government lodging bungalows, and in this one he can hear every sound: the rattle of the door of the next room, voices from next door – and then, as he is kept awake all night, the sound of a billiard game in a room much too small to hold a table. He can judge the length of a stroke, the shots being taken, everything. And next day he finds out not only that the bungalow was built as a games room with a billiard table, but that a man once collapsed and died there while playing. It’s clear who had been haunting him all night. Except…
…the last page debunks the whole story. There’s no confirmation that the man died anywhere near the billiard room; the voices (if I remember rightly) were those of men who, having tried the door, had to bed down outside; and the click of the balls was the sound of a rat in the ceiling, constantly knocking a dangling window-sash. In daylight he can see and hear exactly why he thought what he thought. And he realises he’s ruined a perfect story: ‘Had I only ceased investigating… I could have made anything of it.’
The Strange Ride of Morrowie Jukes, bizarrely, has many of the elements of a novel I read some years ago, the bitterly pessimistic The Woman in the Dunes (1962) by Kobo Abe. Here’s a letter to The Guardian written by Donald Wintersgill in 2006:
‘This novel tells of a man trapped in a funnel-shaped pit of sand. He fails repeatedly to climb out. The theme is the crushing of an individual’s will to freedom. Kipling wrote a strikingly similar story, ‘The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes’; it tells of a sahib in India. He falls into an area surrounded by sand dunes; people have been put there for breaking Hindu customs. There is no escape. He tries to climb the dunes, but the sands flow down on him. The other way out is by the banks of a river. Quicksands foil him; and he is fired on by sentries in a boat. It is an insightful view of the human condition, beset by physical and emotional horrors.’
Yep. The existential angst is right here in Kipling’s tale. 60-odd men and women, and one young child, live a pointless existence waiting for the deaths their religion tells them they have already suffered. Sure, Kipling lets his sahib escape to tell the tale, literally, but before the tacked-on ending there are all the horrors that Wintersgill implies. It makes me speculate about what kind of writer Kipling really is. This story, for publication in a popular magazine, is presented as a travellers’ tale, with all the exotic cruelty of an alien religion in an alien landscape. But the narrator is made to feel the pain, and Kipling’s descriptions are as powerful as any in Kobo Abe’s novel. Before the happy ending, we’ve been taken to a very disturbing place. I’m reminded of the ending of A Wayside Comedy. A farcical plot based on the absurdities of human frailty doesn’t hide the fact that not only Hindus are capable of creating their own hell on earth.
Wee Willie Winkie, Baa Baa, Black Sheep and His Majesty the King
Kipling was the most popular and most respected author of his time, the Dickens of his generation. Now, unlike Dickens, he is practically disregarded. He is little read and is almost never taught in schools and colleges. These three stories, all centring on young English boys, might offer a clue as to why that is. The second of them, Baa Baa, Black Sheep, is the most Dickensian. The story of a well-loved little boy bullied by the adult entrusted by his mother to take over his care is almost identical to the early chapters of David Copperfield. Minor details are different, but the main ones are so similar it feels almost like plagiarism unless the reader is aware of the story’s autobiographical basis. Kipling, like Dickens, was writing about a childhood he knew. And, just as I hated the relentlessness of Dickens’ presentation of the young David’s experiences, I hate Baa Baa, Black Sheep for the same reason.
Punch, six-year-old brother of little Judy, is the spoilt master of his little world in India. It isn’t his fault that his parents let him rule the nursery, but when he gets to England his Aunt Rosa treats him as though it is. She hates him, chooses to believe that his almost babyish self-centredness is wickedness, and the bullying starts there. Her son, much older than Punch, has the same sidekick role as Mr Murdstone’s sister in David Copperfield. And, like David, Punch finds solace in reading – inevitably, a solace that can be withdrawn when the sanctimonious aunt discovers its importance to the boy. Like David, Punch has a label put on him for his schoolmates to jeer at… and so on. Inevitably, this being a Kipling story, there is the happy ending when the mother finally returns to reclaim the children who have almost forgotten her. There are scars: ‘when young lips have drunk deep of the bitter waters of Hate, Suspicion and Despair, all the Love in the world will not wholly take away the knowledge.’ But don’t worry too much: ‘it may turn darkened eyes to the light, and teach Faith where no Faith was.’ In other words, the moral isn’t only that abuse of children is wrong; the boys’ over-indulgent parents were wrong as well.
The other two stories are much more conventional. Wee Willie Winkie is the impossibly sentimental story of the little son of the commanding officer of the regiment, brought up by his father along strictly military lines. One day, thinking the lady friend of the subaltern (or whoever) the boy calls Coppy is putting herself in harm’s way by riding near the river, he ‘breaks his arrest’ and follows her. He associates the territory across the river with the land of the goblins from a story he knows – and, in Kipling’s presentation of it, he’s right. The evil black men who are on the point of kidnapping both these representatives of the ‘superior race’ are actually Pathans, but they might as well be goblins. It’s very easy indeed to dislike everything about this story.
In His Majesty the King we’re back in the world of Baa Baa, Black Sheep before the little boy’s fall from grace. It’s a dumbed-down What Maisie Knew a decade before that novel appeared, with a little boy perceiving the deep cracks in his parents’ marriage without realising what they are. His governess and the mother of the little girl he plays with both try to give him some of the love he’s missing from both parents, but it doesn’t work and it all ends terribly sadly. As if. Instead of a denouement fit for an adult readership, Kipling offers a plot-twist so sentimental I wanted to be sick. ‘His Majesty’ finds and plays with the gift which, it transpires, is from the man seeking an affair with his mother. Luckily, nothing has come of it because she didn’t know about the meeting proposed in the man’s accompanying note – big sigh of relief – but the boy’s father uses it to bring about a reconciliation. ‘I think this makes us quits now, doesn’t it? Oh, can’t we drop this folly once and for all?’ Of course they can. Points gained for psychological realism: in the minus figures.
Is this why Dickens, arch-sentimentalist that he is, is a giant in the literary canon (in a way that he wasn’t always) while Kipling is forgotten? It can’t be to do with the way that Kipling will always go for the popular line, because exactly the same can be said of Dickens. They both gave the public what they wanted – but, on the showing of the stories I’ve read so far, Kipling sanitises his own subversive tendencies by deferring far too meekly to the dominant culture. And not a single one of his main characters – aside from the monstrous Aunt Rosa – is anything other than middle class. I can think of one other working class character, the rough diamond Bobby Wick saves from his own violent tendencies. He’s Private Dormer, and he’s only there to prove the value of the middle class boy who could see his heart of gold. It’s easy to see why Kipling has been dismissed, however interesting his best ideas might be.
The Drums of the Fore and Aft and The Man Who Would Be King
These two stories change everything, or almost everything. The satire in most of his other stories is gently mocking, and any implied rebukes to the behaviour of the middle classes in India are sweetened through last-minute plot twists or punishments that seem almost farcically absurd. Neither of these can be said of these two stories, both of which are quite savage satires. In The Drums of the Fore and Aft the subject is the shameful waste of the lives of working-class men by army generals making decisions beyond their competence. The Man Who Would Be King can be seen as a mordant satire on the whole colonial project. I’m glad I’ve read the other stories, because it would be impossible to get a feel for Kipling’s writing without them. But these two are the ones that should be read by everybody.
The Drums of the Fore and Aft focuses, at first, on the two fourteen-year-old drummers of a half-forgotten regiment that has been side-lined and away from the Front far too long. Its nickname, the Fore and Aft, is a play on part of its real name and was given after a notorious retreat some time ago. Nobody expects anything of them. Almost all the men are from the poor districts of a manufacturing town, and ‘not ten’ out of their 900 have seen any action. The drummer-boys, undernourished scraps of street kids when they enlisted at twelve, spend their time fighting. Everybody is bored.
But there is to be some action at last. Numbers need to be made up to repulse an Afghan incursion alongside two other regiments, Highlanders and Ghurkhas. Being in battle with such experienced soldiers, the colonel blithely decides, will teach the Fore and Aft all they need to know. Hah. Everything, from the march to the Front to the battle itself, is a nightmare that Kipling does not sweeten in any way. The march lasts several days under fire they don’t know how to deal with – Kipling constantly bemoans the lack of experienced men who would at least tell them how to keep their heads down – and they arrive at the Front demoralised and exhausted. The brigadier, or whoever, is concerned. Do they need to rest? Their colonel, eager to repair the regiment’s reputation and achieve some of the glory he’s been waiting for, is blasé about their condition. There’s nothing wrong with them that a good scrap won’t cure.
The battle is a shambles. The officers and men only know what they’ve learnt in training, know nothing of the ways that experienced men – them again – would be able to tell them about if they were there. The Fore and Aft, in the central position, advance at the specified time instead of waiting for the other regiments. They haven’t even had time for breakfast, unlike the Highlanders…. As they advance, uselessly firing off ‘half a ton of lead’ into the ground between them and the enemy, the Afghans send 300 of their best fighters straight at them, including 50 fanatical Ghazis intent on coming face to face with Death. For the Fore and Aft it’s a taste of hell. The moans and screams of dying comrades, the sight of bodies slashed ‘from shoulder to heart’ by the long Afghan knives and the confusion of a battlefield none of them had any concept of are enough to send them rushing back to the gap they advanced through only minutes before. Only the drummers are left after the other band members have joined their comrades in retreat.
Having read the other stories in this collection, I thought I knew where Kipling was going with this. The boys pick up a fife and drum and, to the surprise of everyone – including the enemy – they give the signal to advance. There’s stillness. Despite having plenty of rifles, presumably captured in previous raids, the Afghans don’t shoot them – they are thinking of taking them as hostages – and the Highlanders and Ghurkhas can be heard cheering. The Fore and Aft, sworn at and slapped into some sort of order, advance again. This is the start of the battle as it should have taken place, and the first shots kill the two boys. Ah. But the Fore and Aft, alongside the other regiments at last, fight as well as anyone could ever have hoped and the battle is won by the British. And ‘nowhere were the [enemy] dead thicker than in the track of the Fore and Aft.’ So that’s all right.
Er, no it isn’t. Nobody in their regiment is cheering with the Highlanders and Ghurkhas, and the Colonel is disgusted. ‘Haven’t you disgraced yourselves enough for one day!’ And yet they had ‘been doing all that mortal commander could expect. They had lost heavily because they did not know how to set about their business… but they had borne themselves gallantly, and this was their reward.’ It must be stories like this that earned Kipling a reputation for seeing things from the common soldier’s point of view. It was published nearly three decades before the First World War, and seems prophetic. It ends with the drummers’ ‘little bodies, borne up just in time to fit two gaps at the head of the big ditch-grave under the heights of Jagai.’ So it goes.
The Man Who Would Be King is like nothing else in the collection. Or rather, many elements present in his other stories combine into a highly unexpected satire of colonialism. Perhaps I only find it unexpected because usually Kipling is so careful not to offend. I can only believe that The Man Who Would Be King was read as a tall tale that can be passed off as an outlandish traveller’s story. It is, famously, based on the story of a real adventurer, and maybe this was enough to get it past the radar of a readership who expected a confirmation of the status quo. After all, where would an empire be without its precious oddballs who laugh in the face of adversity?
It has the framing device of the old hand who knows all about the underside of life in India. He’s a cynical newspaperman, and his first meeting with one of the adventurers – the one with the extraordinary eyebrows – features all the local colour of rail travel in a far-flung province. He knows he’s dealing with a con-man, but agrees to take a message to the other – the one with the huge red beard – a week later after instructions only an old hand could follow. He’s pretty sure they’re setting up a scam – I was reminded of the hucksters who go by the names of the Duke and His Majesty in Huckleberry Finn, published only three years before – and, as a sop to the respectability of Kipling’s readers, he reports their activities to the authorities when he finds out what they are doing. But, when they return some time later there are no hard feelings. There’s something cosy about a world where there’s honour among thieves.
They have a new scheme. They want to go into the most hostile parts of Afghanistan, where mythical white tribes live, and bring them into the civilised world. The hapless narrator tries to dissuade them, but they are determined. He leaves them spending a surreally comic night working through the newspaper office’s supply of maps and the relevant sections of The Encyclopaedia Britannica, and next morning they are gone. They have dutifully left the maps and books behind as promised – there really is honour among these thieves – and the narrator knows he will never see either of them again.
And then, some years later, he does. It’s Eyebrows who returns, an utterly broken man, with his hands twisted into claws. But he is able, if the newsman promises not to interrupt, to tell the story of their illustrious progress. From small beginnings, enlisting the help of men like Billy the Fish – re-christened with the names of people they look like – they use a mixture of valuable gifts and the force of (extensive) arms in their ambitious project. They mould different tribes – Eyebrows is sent away into the hills to do just this – into efficient fighting units…. And almost everything about it seems a parody of the British in India. The presumption that the ‘natives’ (not usually the word they use) are a blank canvas they can write upon, the imposition of army regulations, the arrogant assumption of ‘superior race’ status are all too recognisable motifs of colonialism as it really existed. And when, through the fortuitous discovery of a cabalistic sign they can link with their own sketchy knowledge of Masonic rituals (also known to some of their Indian sidekicks) they soon move up from the status of kings to that of gods. They, like the British in the rest of India, have reached the pinnacle of success.
It’s Red-beard’s decision to choose a wife from among the young Afghan women that brings about their downfall. Against all the urgent pleading of Eyebrows and Billy the Fish, he insists on a marriage ceremony. The Afghans realise he is a man like any other man, and the backlash is swift and brutal. He is to sent on to a rope bridge across a ravine, the ropes are cut and he plunges to his death. Eyebrows is crucified. Ok, he lives to tell the tale, but his hands are ruined by ugly, gouged stigmata and he shows a strange pride in having carried Red-beard’s half-mummified head all the way back to civilisation. He staggers away from the office, and it’s no surprise at all when, next day, the newsman hears of his death.
What hope is there for the British in India?