Over the years “Mrs Bathurst” has baffled and intrigued Kipling’s biographers and critics. Philip Mason (p. 164), in his extensive and perceptive consideration of the story, writes in 1975 of ‘the difficulty of knowing anything of the lives of other people except what is revealed in a passing flash’.
Harry Ricketts (1999) writes
It was, in effect, the first modernist text in English. Deliberate obliqueness, formal fragmentation, absence of a privileged authorial point of view, intense literary self-consciousness, lack of closure – all the defining qualities of modernism were present and correct.
However, the literary critics have largely disregarded the naval background to the story, which in the view of this Editor helps make it a great deal more intelligible than is commonly supposed. This was, as the ORG points out, both in order of events and in appearance, the fourth of Kipling’s stories in which Petty Officer Pyecroft, navy through and through, is one of the main protagonists. The audience for which Kipling wrote were a great deal more au fait with naval matters than today’s readers. Naval personnel were forced into similar moulds by training and environment, and in the most general way, what was true of one would be true of most. So when Angus Wilson says (p. 222) that we know ‘next to nothing’ about the characters in the story, we suggest that a knowledge of the Royal Navy reveals a great deal more general information about the man Vickery that the cinematic flashes of Kipling’s narrative.
“Mrs. Bathurst” was first published in September 1904, in the Windsor Magazine in England, and the Metropolitan Magazine in the United States. In the Windsor Magazine it was illustrated by Victor Prout with five black and white pictures which contribute little. Mrs. Bathurst is shown as bovine and devoid of charm, while Pyecroft and Vickery would be more in their element in the Police Gazette [which published, among other things, photographs and drawings – the fore-runners of today’s ‘identikit’ pictures – of wanted criminals]. Pyecroft has outgrown his jumper, and Mr. Vickery, neither in uniform nor in plain clothes, might well be charged with having robbed a locker in an unfashionable yacht club. All of which suggests that Kipling had little to do with the illustrations for the tale.
The story was collected in 1904 in Traffics and Discoveries (the printing date at the back of the first edition is given as 20 September 1904, so publication would have been in October/November), and it is preceded by an excerpt From Lyden’s ‘Irenius’, Act III. Sc. II., which seems to be closely allied to, or part of, Kipling’s unfinished play, Gow’s Watch, which supplies introductions to some other stories. Thus it will be seen that publication of the tale in magazine and collected forms was nearly simultaneous, though in publication terms the magazine version was the earlier. We do not know the dates on which Kipling approved each version for printing. There were many minor differences between the two texts – 133 in all – and these differences have been responsible for some critical misapprehensions. See the attached table.
It may be noted that, between the completion of the story in February 1904 (date confirmed by Carrie Kipling’s diary – see
below) and first publication in September 1904, Kipling had ample time to pare away what he saw as inessential.
“Mrs. Bathurst” is included in:
- Sussex Edition, Volume VII, page 345.
- Burwash Edition, Volume VII, page 345
- Scribner’s Edition, Volume XXII, page 379.
At one time the story was to have been dramatised, but the time limit for the contract ran out.
The narrator meets Mr. Hooper, a railway official, at Simon’s Town, the naval base in South Africa, near Cape Town. Subsequently they are joined by Petty Officer Pyecroft and Sergeant Pritchard, a Royal Marine. They are sitting together, yarning over a bottle or two of beer, and the subject of the effect of men on women, and vice versa comes up. There is a slight digression on the subject of desertion (in the sense of being a Naval ‘crime’; leaving one’s place of duty with the intention of not returning) but they revert to men – especially sailors – and women. The themes then become linked with the mention of a man, known to both Pyecroft and Pritchard some fifteen years before, who deserted for the sake of a woman. This brings us to the core of the story, as Pyecroft, with Pritchard’s assistance, recounts the events, in which he was peripherally involved, leading to the recent desertion of a warrant officer from Pyecroft’s ship.
It appears that all three, the warrant officer, whose name is Vickery, Pyecroft, and Pritchard, have at different times been acquainted with Mrs. Bathurst, a widow who kept a small hotel near Auckland in New Zealand. Both Pyecroft and Pritchard are agreed that she had that indefinable quality which Kipling was the first to call ‘It’ – sex-appeal without flaunting her sexuality.
Chance – and naval drafting – throws Mr. Vickery and Pyecroft together in a cruiser proceeding to the Cape of Good Hope from England, and in the course of their conversations together, there is a very strong implication that Vickery had had sexual relations with Mrs. Bathurst, or more likely had married her bigamously. Soon after their arrival at Simon’s Town for Christmas – last Christmas; the events are recent – Mr. Vickery goes ashore on leave in Cape Town. There he visits a circus where, as part of the entertainment, they are showing an early newsreel film. In it, he sees Mrs. Bathurst, in London. This affects him markedly, and he asks – no, demands – that Pyecroft accompany him to a subsequent showing of the film, to confirm what he has seen. He then takes Pyecroft on a pub-crawl round Cape Town, clearly in the grip of some powerful emotion. The same thing is repeated on four further nights, and so marked is Vickery’s obsession that Pyecroft is fearful for his sanity.
When the circus moves on, Vickery goes to see his captain; by implication, on a personal matter, rather than a professional one. We are unable to know what was said, but we know that a pretext was created for Vickery to leave the ship, and go up-country. Thereafter, all Pyecroft knows is that he did not come back, and had apparently deserted. All this occurred about four months ago.
Mr. Hooper takes up the tale, and describes how he had found a charred corpse, apparently answering to Vickery’s description, beside the railway, up beyond Bulawayo, in modern Zimbabwe. There was a second corpse as well, but the tale ends with the reader in suspense – the second corpse is never identified.
In a letter to Leslie Cornford dated 24 February 1904 (Thomas Pinney (Ed.) Letters III), Kipling wrote: ‘I’ve done two Pyecroft stories – one pure farce and the other the last rather ghostly tragedy. It’s told by Pyecroft in a guards’ brake van on the beach near Simon’s town. I’m rather pleased with it. It came away in a rush – a thing that had been lying in the back of my head to (sic) years. “Mrs Bathurst” is its simple and engaging name.’
Professor Pinney adds in a footnote: ‘According to CK (Carrie Kipling)’s diary “Mrs. Bathurst” was completed on 24 February. It is possible that Kipling wrote “ghastly” rather than “ghostly” since he often formed as as os and the copyist may easily have confused one for the other.’ (The Pinney text is taken from a copy of the original in the Library of Congress.)
The origin of the story is described on page 101 of Something of Myself
All I carried away from the magic town of Auckland (1891) was the face and voice of a woman who sold me beer at a little hotel there. They stayed in the back of my head until ten years later when, in a local train of the Cape Town suburbs, I heard a petty officer from Simon’s Town telling a companion about a woman from New Zealand who ‘never scrupled to help a lame duck or put a foot on a scorpion’. Then – precisely as the removal of the key-log in a timber-jam starts the whole pile – these words gave me the key to the voice and face at Auckland, and a tale called ‘Mrs. Bathurst’ slid into my mind, smoothly and orderly as floating timber on a bank-high river.
In KJ 323 (p. 14) there is an article by Lydia Monin, ‘The Last Lamppost’. In it, citing Carrington as her authority, she identifies Mrs. Bathurst as being a barmaid in Coker’s Hotel in Christchurch, rather than in “a little hotel” in Auckland.
Kipling arrived in Lyttleton (the port of Christchurch) on 3 November 1891. He was waylaid by a reporter from the Lyttleton Times who accompanied him into Christchurch. There, wanting a cigar and a shave, Kipling went into Coker’s Hotel: and in the hotel he was, it seems, forcefully impressed by the barmaid, whose image stayed with him until, as recounted above, it came back to his mind on the train in the Cape Town suburbs.
It seems that a Christchurch historian, Richard Greenaway wrote to Carrington, in the course of his researches about the founding of the city of Christchurch, about one J.R. Godley (the subject of another of Carrington’s biographies). In his reply, Carrington mentioned that the original barmaid had worked in Coker’s Hotel, but that Kipling had set the story in Auckland.
We know that the details in Something of Myself are not always accurate, and it made sense (navally) to transpose the setting to Auckland, which was the Royal Navy’s main base in New Zealand, where naval ratings might be expected to have their favourite watering-holes; whereas Christchurch (or rather Lyttleton) would have been visited only infrequently.
Unfortunately, the orderliness felt by Kipling has not been communicated to all his readers, as the pages of the Kipling Journal testify (see our extracts from Kipling Journal articles, and from the critics over the years.) But surely few readers will agree with one correspondent who – exasperated by his inability to resolve all the problems it raises – asserts that it must have been written as an impudent exercise, to see how bad a story Kipling could get away with. It would have been out of character for Kipling to treat a serious and moving subject with such levity, and the evidence offered is unconvincing to a degree.
The Moral of the Story
In Something of Myself (pp190-1), Kipling wrote that, in Rewards and Fairies, published in 1910:
I worked the material in three or four overlaid tints and textures, which might or might not reveal themselves according to the shifting light of sex, youth and experience.
This point has been used by commentators, who have suggested that “Mrs. Bathurst” is a multi-layered work. This is a perfectly arguable point of view, but this Editor would suggest, rather simplistically, that when all is said and done, the story is about the destructive effect that infatuation can have on two persons. In this case, it is the effect on a man of a woman, and although Kipling does not use the word infatuation (the word would perhaps not have been in Pyecroft’s vocabulary), clearly Mrs. Bathurst has had that effect on Vickery. Ultimately, and unknowingly, she is the cause of Vickery’s destruction. (And this is suggested by the epigraph.) We have seen above that Kipling himself described it as a tragedy.
As regards the story’s layered complexity, suggested by critics, one may suggest that this is more imagined than real, or else would Kipling have described the tale as sliding “into my mind smoothly and orderly as floating timber on a bank-high river”? Surely a complex tale would have been less ordered, and required more work on the plot than is suggested by Kipling’s remark – though we know, and will see from our list of differences between the journal and collected versions of the story that he made a large number of editorial amendments. Furthermore, much play has been made by the critics on the significance of the cinematograph. It would be interesting to know when Kipling first saw a film for himself. Was he aware of the cinematograph when the tale flowed so smoothly into his mind? A series of cinematograph scenes does not suggest smoothness, nor was the cinematograph of those days a smooth series of images itself.
The timescale of the story
In the notes in this Guide on “Bread upon the Waters” (The Day’s Work), the ORG is quoted in these words:
Kipling, as a good craftsman should, when he builds a tale, first erects a scaffolding of facts and circumstances, to which he refers each incident as the story unfolds. He does not – it is not his method – let the reader see more of the scaffolding than is necessary for understanding the action, and this has caused some of the author’s critics to make assumptions which are not justified by the narrative.
Because ‘Mrs. Bathurst’ has caused so much comment, and raised so many questions, it is worth trying to “erect the scaffolding” for ‘Mrs. Bathurst’. We have therefore set out an analysis of the timescale of the story in a separate note. But, in so doing, we must remember that this is, when all is said and done, a piece of fiction, and authors have been known to bend the rules of time and space in order to produce a good story.
See also KJ 334/7.
Criticism and comment
“Mrs. Bathurst” has been extensively chewed over by biographers and critics. Below we have listed the principal critics who have commented on the story, in the order in which they were published. The list is not exhaustive. The criticism, with an editorial commentary, is set out on a separate page. Click on the author’s name for more details of the book. Click on the red arrow for his or her critical comments. See also a summary of the many Kipling Journal articles on the story over the years.
- Charles Carrington (1955)
- J M S Tompkins (1959)
- George Shepperson (1964)
- C A Bodelsen (1964)
- J I M Stewart (1966)
- Philip Mason (1975)
- Angus Wilson (1977)
- Lord Birkenhead (1978, written 1945-48)
- Craig Raine (Ed.) (1987)
- Nora Crook (1989)
- Martin Seymour-Smith (1989)
- Harry Ricketts (1999)
- Daniel Karlin (1999)
- Andrew Lycett (1999)
Throughout these copious discussions there is only one single point on which all are agreed – and that is that there is no comprehensive, all-embracing ‘solution’ to “Mrs. Bathurst”. One commentator has seen it as a Greek tragedy, and that Kipling deliberately constructed it so. The same commentator saw influences from Dante. Other differences of approach to the story depend on whether you are a ‘Son of Mary’ or a ‘Son of Martha’ (See the poem) . The Son of Martha will tend to look for the physical evidence that such-and-such a thing happened. The Son of Mary will tend to look for more abstract reasons for the events. In making our own comments on the tale we have tried to blend the two approaches.
We talk of ‘reading between the lines’. In the case of “Mrs. Bathurst” Kipling has deliberately left enormous metaphorical gaps between the lines, leaving us, his readers, with fewer clues than usual to enable us to fill them.
Nonetheless, we would suggest the following:
The tale is a tragedy, and is the story of the destructive effect of powerful love on one man, a naval warrant officer, who, although married for many years, encounters a woman of powerful sexual attraction, while he is away from his wife. The other woman is unconscious of the effect she has on men in general, but herself falls in love with him. They commence a relationship, most probably a bigamous marriage, but almost immediately afterwards are separated. In due course the man returns to his wife and makes her pregnant. Subsequently, his naval duties having taken him to South Africa, he sees the other woman on the cinema screen, apparently in London recently. He believes that she is looking for him, and is filled with remorse and guilt for having deceived both women. (His wife has just died in childbirth, and left a teen-age daughter, and possibly an infant.) He is unable to face his responsibilities, determines to desert, and lose himself somewhere in the vastness of South Africa. He achieves this, but, while making his way to what was then a very remote part of southern Africa, he is accidentally struck by lightning and killed. Thus, the other woman, Mrs. Bathurst, has unknowingly been the cause of the man’s death.
All the rest may be classified, in the words of Pooh Ba to Ko-ko in W S Gilbert’s light opera The Mikado, as ‘corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative’ – but what detail, and what artistic verisimilitude.
©Alastair Wilson 2008All rights reserved