"Brown Bess"

Notes on the text


(by Peter Keating)




[March 20th 2006]


[Line 1] Lace-ruffles, perukes and brocade. A lace-ruffle was a decorative gathering of lace at the wrist, breast or neck; a peruke was a wig; and brocade a very rich fabric often with a raised pattern and silky finish used for men’s coats and women’s ball-gowns.

[Line 2] Brown Bess was a partner. Held closely to the body whether in a battle or a dance.

[Line 3] An out-spoken, flinty-lipped, brazen-faced jade. Out-spoken, the loud explosion as the gun was fired; flinty-lipped, the rim of the flint-lock that produced the necessary spark to ignite the gunpowder; brazen-faced (i.e. the bronze trimmings on the iron barrel of the musket). All of these characteristic qualities of the musket are easily transferred to a jade, i.e. a loose, disreputable woman.

[Line 4]. A habit of looking men straight in the eyes. The musket, especially in its days, was only accurate at short range, so the soldiers had to march fearless up to the enemy just as a determined flirtatious woman might approach a man.

[Line 5] At Blenheim and Ramillies fops would confess. Blenheim in Bavaria was the site of a battle in 1704 in which a combined English and Austrian army led by the Duke of Marlborough defeated a Franco-Bavarian army.

Ramillies the site in present-day Belgium of another of Marlborough’s victories over the French in 1706.

fop, an elegant affected man, a dandy.

[Line 6] They were pierced to the heart. Shot dead or smitten with love.

[Lines 7-8] Though her sight … language was clear. Brown Bess was heavy and, in her early days, only effective at short range, but she won the battles by her determined manner. Or, to pursue the comparison, although the woman was short-sighted and rather overweight, still she was ‘winning’ (sexually attractive) and made her intentions unashamedly clear.

[Line10] a high-gaitered, grim genadier. A soldier of the household infantry wearing unusually high gaiters (protective leg coverings).

[Line 12] dances and routs ... Bess. A rout was a noisy party or gathering of revellers. The word was also used to describe an army fleeing in disarray from a field of battle. Both kinds of ‘dances’ were greatly enjoyed by Brown Bess.

[Lines 13-14] When ruffles … perukes. When the fashionable accessories of ruffles and perukes were exchanged for the more functional military equivalents of of ‘stiff leather stocks’ (close fitting neck cloths) and pigtails (hair tied or plaited functionally at the nape of the neck).

[Lines 15-18] Brown Bess never altered … I am killing enough, said Brown Bess. While the men changed their dress for battle, there was no need for Brown Bess to do the same because she is valued for more than her ‘iron-grey locks’ (the barrel of the musket and grey hair). And, anyway, she has always relied on powder (for guns and the face) and patches (for healing wounds and beauty spots), and is ‘killing enough’ (devastatingly attractive and murderous) as she is.

[Line 19] So she followed her red-coats, whatever they did. Red-coats, obviously enough British soldiers, named after their distinctive bright uniforms, but everything else about the line is ambiguous. Brown Bess, the musket, didn’t ‘follow’ the soldiers: she was carried by them. The Brown Bess who followed the soldiers refers to the women ‘camp-followers’ who travelled with, or in the rear, of an army, and were either connected with individual men or made themselves more generally available. 'Whatever they did,’ alludes once again to the musket and the women, both being trustworthy and steadfastly dedicated to their cause. Together they won ‘most of the Empire which now we possess’ (line 23).

[Line 20] Quebec to the plains of Assaye. The city of Quebec captured from the French in 1759 by British troops under the command of General James Wolfe;

Assaye, a battle in the Mahratta wars in India,1803, between French-led troops and British-led troops commanded by General Arthur Wellesley (later Duke of Wellington). Wellington regarded Assaye as one of his most hard-fought victories.

[Line 21] From Gibraltar to Acre, Cape Town and Madrid.

Gibraltar, captured by the British navy in 1704;

Acre, a town in Palestine besieged by the French in 1799 and raised by the British navy;

Cape Town, South Africa, taken by Britain from the Dutch in 1806;

Madrid, the capital of Spain, occupied by the French and liberated by Wellington’s troops in 1812.

[Line26] From the Portugal coast to the cork-woods of Spain. French troops invaded Portugal, Britain’s oldest continental ally, in 1807. The following year Britain sent troops to Portugal under the command of Wellesley. This was the start of the ‘peninsular war’ which stretched throughout Spain and eventually on into France in 1813. Woods of cork oak are found in the Southern and central parts of Spain.

[Lines 29-30] But later, near Brussels …Brown Bess. The battle of Waterloo was fought ‘near Brussels’ in June 1815, with Wellington’s alliance of British, Dutch and Belgian troops, together with Marshall Blücher’s Prussian army, defeating the French forces. It was the last ‘ball’ Napoleon was to organise and Brown Bess’s greatest triumph.

[Line 33] linked squares. A characteristic battle formation of the British infantry consisting of troops lined up in a series of squares with the central sections usually open.

[Line 34] quadrilles …lancers. Quadrilles and lancers are both ‘square’ dances, French in origin. Lancers are also cavalry soldiers armed with lances.

[Line 36] “I have danced my last dance for the world!” said Brown Bess. Given the punning nature of this poem and the constant play between imagery of war and sex, it is difficult not to believe that Kipling intended more than the straightforward meaning of this line – that victorious Brown Bess has given her last great service to the world.

It’s perhaps not unreasonable to say that Brown Bess’s mood of complete relaxed satisfaction anticipates by just a few years that of Mary Postgate, another of Kipling’s civilian war heroines who does her bit to win the war, and with her contribution made takes a ‘luxurious hot bath before tea, and came down looking, as Miss Fowler said when she saw her lying all relaxed on the other sofa, “quite handsome.”’ [A Diversity of Creatures (1917), p. 441.]

[Line 37] If you go to Museums – there’s one in Whitehall. This was the Royal United Service Museum which was opened in 1895 and situated inside the Banqueting House.

[Lines 39-42] You will find her … Brown Bess! As with line 36, and elsewhere in the poem, it is difficult not to take some of the images in these lines as blatantly sexual, though in this instance it is less easy to believe that this was Kipling’s deliberate intention. Even so, the final line with its typically sacred reference to ‘our mothers’ surely supports rather than denies a sexual interpretation. Maybe nothing can match the inspirational contribution made by our mothers, the meaning runs, but still there is always another woman involved who plays a role that is very different, far from maternal, and just as necessary. This, of course, is Brown Bess who throughout the poem who has been referred to not simply as a military weapon, but as a sexual comforter, whether at the level of a humble camp-follower or a fashionable society hostess. There is no reason to believe that this kind of double-meaning shouldn’t continue to the very close of the poem.


[P. K.]

©Peter Keating 2006 All rights reserved