Friendly Brook


(notes edited by John McGivering
We are grateful to Alastair Wilson for various suggestions and comments)


notes on the text
[Dec 30th 2012]

Publication

First published in the Metropolitan Magazine for March 1914 with one illustration by Fredrick Dorr Steele (1874-1944, an American artist who studied at the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League, where he taught drawing), and in the Windsor Magazine for December the same year with an illustration by Gunning King (1859-1940). It is collected in A Diversity of Creatures (1917) with the verse “The Land”, the Sussex Edition Volume IX page 47, the Burwash Edition Volume IX, and Scribner’s Edition, Volume XXVI.

The story

Two hedgers, Jabez and Jesse, are trimming a hedge in the rain and fog of a Sussex valley. The Brook in the valley bottom is rising, and threatens to swamp the hay-rick of a neighbour, Jim Wickenden, but Jim had refused to shift the stack a yard. The Brook had been a good friend to him in drowning a blackmailer who had been bleeding him for money. If it pleased it to 'take a snatch at my hay', Jim wouldn't 'withstand her'. .

Background

When this story was written Kipling had been living at Bateman's for some twelve years. He had got to know the secretive self-contained Sussex villagers, and wrote of them in several other tales, including "My Son's Wife" later in this collection, "They" in Traffics and Discoveries, "An Habitation Enforced" in Actions and Reactions, and "The Wish House" in Debits and Credits. See also also 'English Country Life' in Themes in Kipling’s Works on this site.

The Brook of the title is probably the River Dudwell, which runs through Kipling’s garden and occasionally flooded his house, or one of the other tributaries of the Rother. See Dr. W. Haabach, A History of the English Agricultural Labourer, F.S. King & Son, 1908. See also The Kipling I Knew by Edward Parsons (Edward Parsons Books, 1985) who had personal knowledge of Kipling at Burwash, as did the governess and later secretary, Dorothy Ponton, who wrote of his farming in Chapter 7 of her book Rudyard Kipling at Home and at Work (J. Looker Ltd, 1953?).

Some critical comments

This story has attracted much critical attention. Angus Wilson (p. 284), writing of Kipling's view of the Sussex villagers, says:

...if they are secretive ... this, in Kipling's view, is the nature of sensible men. Again they are avaricious but their life is very hard. Everything they do and say is a necessity, not a pretence or a luxury. In his letters and in his autobiography, Kipling speaks with conventional dislike for this peasant society; and, when he dealt with them at Burwash, he wisely saw them as they were. No doubt he and Carrie delighted in being peasants themselves in their local business affairs. But in the stories, he expresses sympathy with this stoic life, and sees in it that group life which he advocated as anarchy's greatest enemy.
C A Bodelsen (page 97) observes that in this story and “My Son’s Wife” (later in this volume):

the flooded brook symbolises benevolent powers of Nature that purge away impurities, and come to the assistance of those who know, or learn, how to fall into step with her.
And Andrew Lycett (page 436) suggests that “My Son’s Wife” and this story: '… take up from “An Habitation Enforced” in suggesting the therapeutic powers of the countryside.'

Seymour-Smith (page 347), regards the opening as: 'as perfect a piece of writing as anything in Kipling'. He goes on to say that the tale is quite as shocking, in its understated way, as anything by Zola, and that it is concerned with barriers:

It begins in the dense fog of loneliness. Essentially the theme is isolation, barren loneliness, ingratitude and pointlessness, and so the tale is closed in upon itself, by the mist with which it begins, and by the unintelligible soft mumbling of the brook with which it ends.
J M S Tompkins (pp. 133-4) writing of Jim Wickenden in her chapter on 'Hatred and Revenge', comments:

The kind of hate he suffers helps to explain his kind of gratitude. This atavism is, as so often in Kipling, an extreme case. What reassures is the country life and the characters of the narrator and the listener. The country life, growing from the permanent basis of the nature and service of the land, accepts without disorder the tarred roads, the road-engines, the Barnardo children and the 'week-end money' they bring. The self-contained, honourable life of the skilled agricultural worker goes on, generous with his toil, secretive over his money, wary towards authority, looking with unobtrusive interest and tolerant malice at the affairs of his neighbour...

Jim's hatred has been impotent and unprogressive as nowhere else in Kipling; the man has no resources; he does not even give words to his feeling. The oppression and the relief are almost physical. For this gratitude chance is no fit recipient. Something very old stirs in Jim's unexamined mind, and in the last sentence of the tale, the brook, whose changes of note are immediately interpreted by the hedgers, sounds `as though she were mumbling something soft'.
Philip Mason (p. 219) also takes this tale very seriously:

It is an artistic whole, all of a piece, with the Brook running through it all and the sense of saturated wet, and the soft blurred speech of the woodmen ...The woodmen have the cautious good manners of people whose world lies within a radius of two or three miles - so that you have to be careful what you say, because who knows what damage may be done among people with whom you will live all the rest of your life. And consider that strange trio, Jim and his dumbstruck mother, the ugly duckling they thought a swan, and the determination of all three not to be separated! How easy it would have been, and how much the story would have lost, if Mary had shown some spark of affection! Jim's character comes out indirectly; both the two woodmen know him and it is by little touches that the picture emerges. Not a drinking man, careful of his money, though much less sharp after money than his mother, a friendly man ready to help a neighbour, patient, one feels, with his feckless wife, sharp mother and the shrewish Mary, a hater of scenes, he is none the less a man of strong passions. His hate for Mary's Lunnon father comes out only in his treatment of the body, which - once he had recovered the money his mother has given him - he pushes back into the water, saying: 'I've done with him'.



[J H McG]

©John McGivering 2008 All rights reserved