"The Gardener"

(notes edited
by Lisa Lewis)

notes on the text
[October 26 2004]


First published McCall’s Magazine, April 1925, illustrated by Arthur E. Becher; also in Strand, May 1925, with eight-line epigraph, illustrated by J. Dewar Mills, and headed by an editorial comment:

Few stories ever roused so much discussion and divergence of opinion as that by Mr. Kipling entitled ‘They.’ The following story will be likely to excite as wide a controversy.
Collected in Debits and Credits (1926), followed by the poem “The Burden” .

The story

Helen Turrell, a well-off single woman of good family, is living in the country village where she grew up. She goes to the south of France for her health, and later returns with baby Michael. She explains that he is the son of her recently dead scapegrace brother and a sergeant’s daughter, who has entrusted him to Helen to bring up. When Michael is six, she tells him that though she is his aunt, he may call her “Mummy” at bedtime. He is furious when he finds that she has explained this to her friends. At 10, he realises that he is illegitimate, and fears that she might reject him, but their bond grows closer than ever.

He grows up and wins a scholarship to Oxford, then World War I breaks out and he joins the Army instead. He is sent to the western front and before long is killed. His body is covered in rubble and he is posted “missing.” No news is received until after the Armistice, when Helen is officially informed that he is now buried in a military cemetery at Hagenzeele. She goes to see the grave.

On the way, Helen sees a Lancashire woman who has hysterics because she does not know where to look for her son’s grave, and cannot provide the necessary information to find it. Then Helen meets Mrs Scarsworth, who is visiting a neighbouring cemetery on behalf of friends, but confides that this is a cover for her own loss of a secret lover. Helen’s response is inarticulate and Mrs Scarsworth takes offence.

Next day, Helen goes to the cemetery, where she sees a man planting flowers on the graves. She asks him where to find her nephew: ‘Come with me,’ he said, ‘and I will show you where your son lies.’ When she leaves, she sees him at work again, and the story ends: “and she went away, supposing him to be the gardener.”


The composition of “The Gardener” is well documented. By Kipling’s usual standards it was rapid. On 14th March 1925, after a visit to the war cemetery at Bois Guillaume near Rouen, he wrote in a letter to Rider Haggard:

Went off to Rouen Cemetery (11,000 graves) and collogued with the Head Gardener and the contractors. One never gets over the shock of this Dead Sea of arrested lives … [Pinney ed., Letters, vol. 5, p. 212].
On the same day, Kipling wrote in his diary [TS, “Rudyard Kipling’s Motor Tours,” Wimpole papers 25/8, Special Collections, University of Sussex Library]: “Have begun a few lines on the story of Helen Turrell and her ‘nephew’ and the gardner [sic] in the great 20,000 cemetery.” The next day he was working on it again, and commented “Not a very bad beginning.” On the 16th he wrote that he and his wife had moved to Angers, where he planned to work on the story again, as he would do at Angoulême on the 19th. By the 22nd they had reached Pau, where he “finished rough draft. At least something done and don’t think it will be very bad.” Next day he “got it finished enough to send … for typing. A good job not so badly done.” On the 27th, Mrs Kipling wrote in her diary that it was “finished”. The manuscript shows little difference from the text as published. Changes between magazine and book versions were few and almost all were trivial.

Kipling had been recruited to the War Graves Commission in 1917. He composed epitaphs for it and wrote a booklet The Graves of the Fallen [published anonymously by H.M. Stationery Office]. Over the next few years he would make several tours of the battlefields, but unlike Helen he and his wife never found a grave for their son John, missing since September 1915.

ORG quotes an article by B.S. Browne in the Kipling Journal 136, Dec. 1960:

This story was wrung out of Kipling, firstly, by the fact that his son was posted missing after the battle of Loos in World War I and his body never recovered: it is this experience that he reproduces on pp. 405 and 406. Secondly it arose out of the fact that he was appointed a member of the Imperial War Graves Commission and so was enabled to describe intimately the conditions under which our war cemeteries were erected and then visited by the relatives of “the Fallen” after the war, as is described on pp. 407 to the end. The writer of this note had to do with the organization of large parties of relatives to the War Cemeteries in the early twenties, the time of this story, and can testify to Kipling’s unfailing accuracy in all his details and to the great comfort brought to the mourners, as testified by their faces, after they had visited “their grave.”
The story is told in a restrained style, untypical of Kipling, that appears to imitate the speech of women of Helen Turrell’s type. This raises the question of how far we are to believe what we are being told, and how far we are required to interpret the narrative. The annotator for ORG perceived a number of “difficulties”, of which the most important is the question of Michael’s parentage. Most readers (if not quite all – see Dillingham under Critical Opinions, below) assume, after reading the final paragraphs and the poem that follows, that Helen is really Michael’s mother. The scarcity of adult males in the text has led some people to suggest that Helen had an incestuous relationship with her brother, or that her lover was the Rector’s gardener. A problem with both these theories about the father is that Helen’s friends of similar social background do not ostracise her, but appear to collude in the cover-up. Other puzzles suggested are:

  • that, since Michael has been christened in the Church of England, his parentage would have been openly recorded in the Parish Register; so is the Rector complicit in a lie?

  • page 403, line 32, suggests that Helen does not expect Michael himself to believe the cover story she told the village – but we are not told what he is supposed to believe instead.

  • that when [page 404, line 2] she tells him his parentage is “all right. It is indeed” it is not clear what she means by this.

  • and that the reason why the Lancashire woman’s son could have enlisted under a false name is unexplained (but see Ayers in Notes on the text).
An anonymous letter found among Kipling’s family papers shows that there were mourners in real life who felt unable to acknowledge their relationship with the dead. This tells Kipling that if “The Gardener” were the only one of his writings to survive, he would still be entitled to “thanks” and “devotion” from all lovers of literature. It concludes “God bless you for it. Dan’s Father” [Wimpole Papers, University of Sussex special collections 22/35].

Critical Opinions

The Times Literary Supplement’s reviewer compared the story favourably to “The Eye of Allah”:

we greatly prefer the simplicity of “The Gardener.” This is the story of a woman left with an illegitimate son to bring up. (Perhaps we have robbed the discerning reader of a discovery here, for it was not till after a second reading that the relationship between the two became plain; officially it was that of aunt and nephew)… All is simplicity itself till she reaches the cemetery, and sees a man, evidently a gardener, and hears him say: “Come with me and I will show you where your son lies.” [Quoted p. 414, lines 6-9]. A trick? Well, if so, a trick as subtle as beautiful in intention. It is only then that we recall earlier passages which barely hinted at some mystery regarding the birth of Michael Turrell; and even then the name of Mary Magdalene is not mentioned. [Times Literary Supplement, 16 Sep. 1926, p. 611].
Edmund Wilson considered that:

Kipling’s method of preparing a finale by concealing essential information in an apparently casual narrative produces an effect of tremendous power. This method, which Kipling has developed with so much ingenuity and precision, serves in some of his stories to spring surprises that are merely mechanical; but it has always had its special appropriateness to those aspects of the English character with which Kipling has been particularly concerned in that it masks emotion and purpose under a pretence of coldness and indifference; and here it is handled in a masterly fashion to dramatise another example of the impassive Englishwoman… “The Gardener” conquers us completely. I am not sure that it is not really the best story that Kipling ever wrote… This is the first time, so far as I remember, that Kipling’s Christ has shown pity – as Kipling pities now rather than boasts about the self-disciplined and much-enduring British. And the symbol at once bares the secret and liberates the locked-up emotion with a sudden and shocking force. The self-repression and hopeless grief of the unmarried mother in “The Gardener” speak for the real Kipling. Here he has found for them intense expression in the concentrated forms of his art. [Edmund Wilson, “The Kipling that Nobody Read,” The Wound and the Bow (1952); reprinted in Rutherford ed. Kipling’s Mind and Art, pp. 68-9].
J.M.S. Tompkins wrote:

The author makes no overt comment, but confines himself to what could be seen or heard and to what Helen, who was as “open as the day,” said to her friends. The narrative, then, is strictly ironic; it speaks through a mask, the candid-seeming mask that Helen had designed and that her friends co-operated with her in respecting. The skill lies in imparting to us what was under Helen’s mask. This must be done at the very beginning of the tale, by the quietest means; we are not to be bounced or impressed, but sensitized… This is no case for sarcasm or the slightest jerk of the thumb. We are embarking upon a prolonged tragedy of silence, and we are among friendly people who have known and “accepted” Helen and her family for a long time and, though distressed by “the whole disgraceful affair,” believe that she is doing her “duty” in assuming responsibility for the child. They carefully accept her careful fiction and use her words. What conveys the unacknowledged truth is the slant of the sentences and slightly disproportionate emphasis with which they approve the adoption of a nephew and refer – such is the fiction – to the misalliance of Helen’s dead brother, George. “Most honourably, “most nobly” Helen has taken charge … It is by this slight over-emphasis, secured by the placing of quite ordinary words, that each speaker reassures the other of her regret, her approval and her solidarity in the general kind conspiracy. …

It is marvellously done, with simple words but with the most delicate and minute adjustment. It is, however, an exacting style. Its transparency is partly delusive, for it reaches only a little way down. We have to read on slowly, picking our way … We approach the end of the tale under the weight and awe of human suffering. The quiet, limited sentences are like the shallow breaths of a man mortally wounded.
[Tompkins, pp. 116-8.]
According to Bodelesen:

already the first page contains five pieces of information, all of them part of the façade Helen puts up, and quite consistent with Michael’s being her nephew, and not her son. None of them is apparently slanted by the author, and yet each is somehow so presented as to reveal the truth – a veritable triumph of indirect communication. This is brought off by an exceptionally deft use of style indirect libre: though it is ostensibly the omniscent author who speaks here (whose statements are normally supposed to be true) the wording is not quite like him, and strikes one as reflecting rather the version of events that Helen puts about, and the village gossip about her. [Bodelsen, p. 101].
Elliot Gilbert argued that “the baleful influence of respectability” is the theme of the story:

in Helen Turrell he portrays a woman who has been defeated by a repressive, parochial society and whose only chance of salvation lies in the hope of an act of grace which she is destined not to understand when it comes … given the village as it is and given Helen as she is, the outcome is inevitable. But both are required, the village with its implacable rules of propriety, ready at every moment to withhold approval, and Helen greatly in need of that approval. It is a curiously corrupting conspiracy, one in which oppressors and victims are indistinguishable, in which a villager may at one moment be the object of community pressure and the next may himself join the group to stamp out vitality elsewhere. [Gilbert, pp. 84-5].
Angus Wilson disliked the ending:

“The Gardener” is brilliantly carried out, full of subtle, ambiguous, yet meaningful, nuances. It is also his saddest story because it is the one in which he allows his deepest sympathy most open range and ends on pity without any active solution. And it is without violence. All this probably makes it his most agreeable story; yet I believe that it is finally flawed by one of his annoying, puzzling endings which have so captivated those who want to range him on the side of the “clever”, and in particular, because this “puzzling” ending is encased in cliché. The main body of the story certainly demands the highest praise … We need neither Christ himself nor anyone returned from the dead; a gardener, perspicacious enough to see the truth, after all the hundreds of visitors who have come to the graveyard, would have been enough. [Angus Wilson, p. 316].
For Philip Mason :

“The Gardener” is written with a sustained irony for which I can think of no parallel. It is the kind of irony used in Greek drama, when the actor speaks words foretelling the death which the audience knows will be his … there are two audiences who understand the words in different senses. One is reading the story for the first time and is not in the secret. Such a reader perceives a sequence of events which he understands as a casual observer might, a distant relation perhaps who has come over for the day and accepts without question all he is told. But the last words of the story take him aback. Suddenly he perceives what he ought to have known from the start. Now he reads the whole again, knowing the secret; this time he has joined the second audience and almost every phrase strikes him in the light of what he has now learnt. On a third reading, he may see the whole with new depth and meaning, but there will still be questions to ask. It is impossible to convey this effect by a summary; the story must be read as it was written. [Mason, p.288].
Mason disagreed with Gilbert’s reading:

this is wrong, both in history and psychology. It misunderstands Kipling and it misunderstands the English village of that time. It underestimates the strength of moral convention in early twentieth-century rural England; when he implies that Helen should boldly have proclaimed the whole truth, Dr Gilbert must really be thinking in terms of half a century later. She would have outlawed herself and Michael. We live in the 1970s in a permissive world with many Freudian assumptions. Kipling did not. In his world, sex outside marriage was a sin, an extreme self-indulgence, but, if accompanied by love, it was a part of the Christian tradition – though a part often forgotten – that would eventually be forgiven as Mary Magdalene’s was. The village were prepared to forgive – provided the sin was not rammed down their throats. They expected Helen, who was gentry, to set them an example – and Helen knew that too. [ibid., p. 293].
Sandra Kemp commented:

At the beginning of the story Kipling shows how the internalizing of love and the struggle to contain and measure it against conventional standards fracture the relationship between mother and son. They both suffer; they inflict pain in each other, and Helen feels a terrible sense of isolation because of her need to sustain the pretence outwardly, while strengthening their relationship in private…. Twelve years later Michael’s sudden death in the war drives Helen even further into herself. Her particular circumstances prevent her from expressing her sorrow in the public rituals devised to meet it. … Helen’s inner distress is mirrored in the surreal quality of her perceptions, which are at once disturbed and psychologically acute … this disorientation marks the beginning of the process of healing. [Kemp, pp. 120-1].
Steven Trout pointed out that:

cemetery gardeners were – in most cases, at least – British war veterans. Thus, at the end of the story, Kipling superimposes the image of Christ not on a Belgian (as at least one critic has assumed), but on a former British serviceman – for Kipling’s readers, a figure with far more cultural resonance. Indeed, by 1926, there was nothing unusual about equating the Christ-like with the soldierly; the two were united not only in the cemeteries themselves, which feature as their central monument the Cross of Sacrifice (a sword and cross superimposed), but in wartime propaganda.

… the return of hundreds of soldiers to the Western Front – by March 1921, 1,362 gardeners had been recruited – was perhaps symbolic in another, less explicitly nationalistic way: the dead, the Commissioners ensured, would be watched over not by strangers, but by comrades, fellow soldiers already tied, through their own suffering and sacrifice, to the Flanders fields and to the crosses row on row.

As custodians of the fallen, dedicated to redeeming the waste of war through commemoration and responsible for transferring tracts of shell-torn wasteland into English gardens, such men invited absorption into myths of regeneration and resurrection …
[Stephen Trout, “Christ in Flanders?: another Look at Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Gardener’,” Studies in Short Fiction, 3, 22, 1998.]
William B. Dillingham did not agree that Michael is necessarily Helen’s son:

Generally ignored is the blatant inconsistency of characterization inherent in this assumption, for it seems inconsistent that Helen Turrell, one of Kipling’s most admired heroines, would make up an elaborate and atrocious lie about a brother of whom she was admittedly fond (even if he were not much good). To have done what she must have done if she is Michael’s mother, Helen would have to be not only duplicitous but also slanderous, a woman who faked lung trouble so that she could get out of town to have a bastard child and who upon her return slandered her own dead brother, her only sibling, by claiming that he had had an illicit sexual relationship in India with a woman beneath his station and that the child was the result of that sorry affair. But as Kipling portrays her, Helen Turrell is simply not the kind of woman to fabricate such an abominable lie. Open, noble and honorable, she is clearly the object of the author’s admiration and pity. Lying to protect one’s reputation and to shelter a child is understandable, but slandering one’s deceased brother to do so is thoroughly despicable, an act that is out of keeping with the heroine that Kipling has delineated. [William B. Dillingham, “Rudyard Kipling and Bereavement: ‘The Gardener’,” English Language Notes, XXXIX, 4, June 2002, pp. 61-2].
Dillingham argued that this is:

primarily a story not about the hidden suffering and guilt of an unwed mother before her son’s death and her sudden revelation, consolation and redemption after it but is a study of the excruciating and prolonged pain of bereavement … In order to depict the depth of her grief, Kipling had first to show the depth of her love, for the one spawns the other. In every sense but the biological, as these first sections make clear, Michael is Helen’s son. Thus the gardener’s calling him that rings true in one sense if not in another. Michael’s death could not have hurt Helen more had she been his actual mother. [ibid., pp. 68-9].


©Lisa Lewis 2004 All rights reserved