Beauty Spots

(notes edited by Dr Gillian Sheehan and John McGivering)


First published in the Strand Magazine for January 1932 with three illustrations by Steven Spurrier 1878-1961), painter, illustrator and poster designer. It is collected in Limits and Renewals (1932) where it is accompanied by “Neighbours” and “The Expert”. Also included in the Sussex Edition Volume 11, the Burwash Edition Volume 10, and Scribner’s Edition Volume 33.

The story

Walter Gravell, a chemical engineer, and his son James whose health has been affected by poison-gas in the Great War, are now in business together, making gaseous fertilisers. The father buys a country estate with land suitable for testing his gases. The unpleasant Major Kniveat, a local trouble-maker with ambitions to become a Justice of the Peace or a County Councillor, regards them as interlopers and, believing them to have social ambitions themselves, does his best to spoil their chances by slandering them locally. Far from having such ideas, however, Gravell wishes only to pursue trials of his gases while his son runs the estate and endeavours to shield his father from distractions. However, ugly rumours, fuelled by a disaffected farm manager, continue to be spread by Kniveat.

Young Gravell sacks the farm manager and his men, sells the stock on the farm, installs a retired foreman from the chemical works and his wife in the farmhouse, and lets the land for grazing to local butchers. One animal, an enormous white sow Angelique, remains on the farm as something of a pet. She often escapes from her sty and terrorises the neighbourhood even though she is hand-reared and very sociable.

Young Gravell and Kit Birtle, a doctor and son of the company’s lawyer, try a new gate which the former has invented, but the sow demolishes it in quick time. They are so convulsed with laughter that Kniveat, who has taken it upon himself to ensure that the rights-of-way across the Gravell’s land are preserved, believes that they are making fun of him in front of various villagers who just happen to be passing. Kniveat writes a letter of complaint and shows young Gravell’s polite letter of apology around the village as
a sample of the spirit of ‘half-castes’ when frontally tackled.

While father and son are in France, the local authority lops branches and undergrowth which was alleged to be overhanging the highway; this action discloses a little dell with wild flowers where Gravell was testing his chemical manures. The public gets in, picks flowers, picnics and dumps rubbish. Gravell tests some new gases in the dell and a mysterious outbreak of spots attacks people all over the country, and also Angelique, who is kept hidden from Kniveat until the spots fade.

The young men then hatch a plot for revenge on Kniveat. They make up the sow with grease-paint to look as if she is spectacularly afflicted with some grave disease. Kniveat sees the pig and spreads the word for all to come and look at her. In the meantime the young men clean off the make-up, leaving Angelique beautifully white, so when Kniveat and various local dignitaries see her perfectly clean it appears that he had been drunk and suffering from hallucinations. His credibility has gone for ever and so have any hopes of social advancement.

The pig in this story may have been inspired by the majestic ‘Empress of Blandings’ in the novels of P.G. Wodehouse, whose work Kipling admired. See Andrew Lycett page 551.

Some critical comments

J M S Tompkins considers this story in her chapter 5, “Hatred and Revenge”, and elsewhere, (page 141) referring to:

…his last tale of revenge, in which the heat and sourness of some pages gets the overhand, in the total effect, of the fun of the petted sow, Angelique, and the affection of Mr. Gravell and his son.

Angus Wilson (page 326) sees some reflection of Kipling’s post-war life in this story, which he calls:

a Stalky-like farce … concerned with the turning of the tables against village spreaders of rumours. It is no more than an amusing story, but its social attitude is a good corrective to the false stereotype of Kipling as a snobbish would-be gentleman.

In his Chapter 9 “Stalky and Others”, Professor J I M Stewart looks at this and other stories (page 169) observing:

Most do not trespass beyond the bound of mere amusement, but a few, mainly of late composition, are elaborate structures in which farce is deployed against a background in which we glimpse the interplay of altogether more serious and sombre passions. He describes the painting of spots on the pig as an activity belonging to the world of children’s comics, and ends with petty tyranny drowned by laughter. But when we come upon iron phrases in it – “the generation that tolerates but does not pity went away” – we know they are meant to be there.

Martin Seymour-Smith (page 9) calls this ‘an enigmatic revenge tale with a twist’, while Kingsley Amis, displaying a sad lack of humour, comments (page 104) that Limits and Renewal shows a sad but not strange decline:

Disease, now accompanied by madness, comes back as a recurrent theme. There is a revenge-comedy, “Beauty Spots,” among Kipling’s unfunniest, which is saying something.

In his critical collection, Rudyard Kipling, the man, his work, and his world, John Gross (Ed.) includes (p. 149) a piece by John Raymond,
“The Last Phase”, in which he sees “A Naval Mutiny” (earlier in this volume) and “Beauty Spots” as: ‘high-spirited comedies, the one with a typological, the other with an obliquely but genuinely sentimental difference.’ Also in Gross’s collection is Roger Lancelyn Green’s “The Countryman”, where (p. 120) he examines Kipling’s life as a landowner.

And Philip Mason (page 227) looking at the ‘revenge’ stories, comments of “Beauty Spots” that:

this one takes us back to an earlier model; a tiresome and malicious man is destroyed, so far as all local influence is concerned, quite pitilessly, almost casually, not from hatred, not to make honour clean, but simply to get rid of a nuisance. But that story trembles on the edge of farce.

[G S / J H McG]

©Gillian Sheehan and John McGivering 2008 All rights reserved