First published in MacLean’s Magazine, October 1924, Hearst’s and Nash’s, December 1924. Collected in Debits and Credits (1926).
Rudyard Kipling, Mrs Bathurst and Other Stories, edited and annotated by Lisa Lewis, World’s Classics (OUP, 1991). Also available in various other paperback editions and in Kindle, as well as via this site.
Mrs Ashcroft, a Sussex woman who has retired there after working on and off as a cook in London since the death of her husband, is visited by Mrs Fettley, her friend since their Sussex childhood. Both are now grandmothers. Grace Ashcroft has a long-standing ulcer on her shin, and her story emerges from the conversation of the two women, carried on in Sussex dialect. She tells how, during a visit to the country she fell deeply in love with Harry Mockler, recognising in him her “master” — the love of her life. Eventually he leaves her, and when they meet again by chance, he is shrunk and wizened after a bout of blood poisoning.
She goes to London and visits a Wish House of which she has been told — a Wish House being the abode of a wraith or “Token” that can grant a person’s wish to take upon himself or herself another person’s trouble. Grace takes upon herself “everything bad that’s in store for my man, ‘Arry Mockler, for love’s sake.” Soon after, she injures her ankle and, the following spring developes a nasty weeping boil on her leg which gets worse whenever Harry is ill or in trouble, and eventually turns into a painful cancer. As Mrs Fettley is leaving, Grace says to her:“But the pain do count, don’t ye think, Liz? The pain do count to keep ’Arry — where I want ‘im.” (by which she means unmarried and living with his mother). Their talk is ended by the arrival of the Village Nurse.
Taking another’s suffering on oneself
In his Kipling: The Glass, the Shadow and the Fire Philip Mason writes:
“The central ideas of this story are in themselves simple and very ancient. They are that the love of a woman can dominate her completely and that someone who loves sufficiently can bear the burden of suffering for someone else. The substitution idea is as old as Homer and the Bible; it is to be found all over the world ... The sacrifice of substitution can only take place where there is love and where the victim himself accepts the burden; it is at the heart of the Christian doctrine of the Atonement and it was believed by the Early Church to explain the ability of martyrs to endure suffering.”It can hardly be an accident that Mrs Ashcroft’s first name is Grace.
The idea that one has power to accept in one’s own body the pain of someone else, through Christian love, is described by Nevill Coghill in his recollections contributed to Light on C.S.Lewis (1965, page 63). “This was a power,” he says, “which Lewis found himself later to possess, and which, he told me, he had been allowed to use to ease the suffering of his wife, a cancer victim, of whom the doctors had despaired… ‘You mean,’ I said, ‘that her pain left her, and that you felt it for her in your body?’ ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘in my legs. It was crippling. But it relieved hers.’”
The ORG mentions an old belief that “witches can help your friends, but only by transferring their troubles to you”, and suggests that this may have given Kipling the idea for this story — but adds, with more plausibility, that he may have drawn it from the Christian doctrine of the Atonement, of which that belief is a perversion.
'Wish House' and 'Token'
Mrs Ashcroft tells Mrs Fettley how she learned about the Wish House from Sophy Ellis, her charwoman’s young daughter. Once, when Mrs Ashcroft was suffering from a headache, Sophy, prompted by childish but semi-sexual love for her, had relieved it by taking it on herself, saying that she’d “changed” it for her at a Wish House. She had learned how to do this from a Gipsy girl, who had explained that all you had to do was to ring the bell and wish your wish through the letterbox, and that a “Token” in the Wish House would bring it about. Mrs Fettley knows that a Token is “a wraith of the dead or, worse still, of the living”; but all that Sophy had said was that after you’d rung the bell you’d hear it running up from the basement to the front door and giggling behind it.
Grace later decides to visit the Wish House — 14 Wadloes Road, one of a long row of dilapidated little basement-kitchen houses — in order to take Harry Mockler’s illness upon herself. After ringing the front-door bell she hears a chair scrape on the kitchen floor, then “feet on de kitchen stairs, like it might ha’ been a heavy woman in slippers.” It has been pointed out that each of the visitors to the Wish House hears as it were herself moving etc. within, so that in both cases the Token is “a wraith of the living” — though in Kipling’s Hidden Narratives Sandra Kemp says that we do not know whether the incident at the Wish House actually took place or was simply imagined.
Some Critical Opinions
J.M.S. Tompkins [The Art of Rudyard Kipling pp. 4-7]saw “The Wish House” as:
a marvel of structure in its special kind… The pattern of life flows smoothly through the tale and through the talk of the women, for it is against a background of regional and national changes that the individual life suffers it mutations… If ever there was a “built” story, it is this. Almost every paragraph, beside doing its narrative or descriptive work, adds a stroke to the figure of Grace Ashcroft, that formidable woman … This, then, is the way in which Kipling came to master the material of the novel, but he did it by relinquishing the novel form.Of the supernatural element in the story, she wrote [p. 207]:
with a very large allowance for coincidence, it can be rationalized; that allowance, however, is a heavy price to pay, and it is not Kipling’s habit to exact it from us.To Angus Wilson [The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling pp. 286-8], “The Wish House”:
is probably Kipling’s most successful single story… Apart, perhaps, from a certain detailing of the food which the old ladies bolt down for their high tea, there is not a moment in “The Wish House” in which we are conscious of Kipling telling us of a narrower, more ignorant world of different manners from his and our own. Everything emerges from the talk of the old women themselves … The supernatural means by which [Grace] secures her wish is neat and frightening and all that a psychic story requires; and since we are only asked to believe that she believes in it, we are easily able to accept ...Sandra Kemp [Kipling's Hidden Narratives pp. 112-113]wrote:
"The Wish House" brings together the ordinary and the Divine. Most of the narrative is taken up with the ‘back-lookin’s’ of two women …. The whole setting of their conversation and the narratives of the past suggest that, within the apparently male-orientated world, it is woman’s love and vision and caring which, in secret ways, sustain and support.Kemp added [p. 114] that:
it is also significant that it is a child’s experience of love and selfless caring which inspires the adult’s… the presence of the child is all-revealing. She teaches Grace Ashcroft how to transform egotistical suffering into redemptive love. But more importantly perhaps, she brings, with her return, echoes of the sensuality – the physical intensity of the kiss in “They” – strangely absent in these mature love stories of Kipling’s later years. Held within and without, she is a powerfully daemonic and positive “anima” figure.Nora Crook [Kipling's Myths of Love and Death p. 120] noted some parallels between the story and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, adding:
With the Chaucerian original in mind, it becomes difficult to regard “The Wish House” as simply an exposition of woman’s capacity for self-sacrifice, despite his giving his heroine the name of Grace, and despite her taking her lover’s cancer upon herself. It is a rather tougher story about the obsessiveness of woman’s sexual desire and her exerting what Chaucer called the “maistrie” – the power – through self-inflicted wounds.