Debits and Credits


(by Lisa Lewis)

The collection

The collection Debits and Credits consists of 14 stories, 19 poems and two scenes from an unfinished play. The manuscripts of the stories are in the bound volume presented by Mrs Kipling to the University of Durham after her husband’s death. The manuscripts of the poems are in the Special Collections, University of Sussex Library.


All except the stories “Sea Constables” and “In the Interests of the Brethren,” and the poem “The Supports,” were written or revised between October 1923 and August 1925. Available evidence of their dates of composition can be found in their headnotes. In October 1923, the Kiplings travelled north to St Andrews in Scotland, where he was installed as Rector of the ancient university there. On his way to the ceremony, he was drawn through the streets by cheering students.

When the couple returned home, Carrington’s notes from Mrs Kipling’s diaries record that he was filled with inspiration and going through old drafts and notes; over the next three weeks he wrote one whole new story, “The Prophet and the Country,” and “pull[ed] into shape” some others. On 13th Nov. 1923, “The United Idolaters,” “The Janeites,” “A Friend of the Family” and “The Enemies to each Other” were ready to be sent to his agent.

This ended a period of several years when Kipling’s imagination was apparently blocked. He had been suffering from grief, depression and painful illness since his only son’s death in action in September 1915. The stories in A Diversity of Creatures (1917) had all been written before that. Letters of Travel (1920) and Land and Sea Tales (1923) consisted of pre-war material, while the verse collection The Years Between (1919) included both pre-war and wartime compositions.

Since 1918 he had been occupied almost exclusively with writings for the War Graves Commission and with the history of John Kipling’s regiment, The Irish Guards in the Great War. This was at last published in the spring of 1923. It seems as though the warm reception at St Andrews that autumn had pulled Kipling out of his gloom and had set him writing stories again for the collection that would become Debits and Credits. Mrs Kipling’s diary shows that he was starting to pull it together as early as 12 Dec. 1924.


The book opens with an apology to the Persian poet Mirza Mirkhond, who was one of the sources for the first story “The Enemies to Each Other”. This starts with a version of the Creation myth as told by Mirkhond, drawing on the Bible and the Koran. The final story, “The Gardener”, ends with a reference to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Angus Wilson saw this as unnecessary (see notes on “The Gardener”) However, viewed in the context of the book as a whole, it has relevance: Creation and Resurrection bracket a theme of religion, not necessarily Christian, that will recur in many contexts throughout.

“The Prophet and the Country” and “The Bull that Thought”, the seventh and eighth stories at the centre of the book, are paired in a different way: each has in the frame story a car, cattle and a moonlit scene; in each the main narrative begins at 11 p.m. But whereas in “The Prophet and the Country” these elements are connected with failure and death, in “The Bull that Thought” they introduce a tale of success and survival. Both failure and success are artistic: a film that will never be made, a supreme performance in the bull-ring. Art, too, is a recurrent theme – there are more literary references and quotations in this book than in any other of Kipling’s collections. It has been convincingly argued that the title Debits and Credits signifies Kipling’s review of his own literary account, and that the elderly matador who enjoys “a miraculous hour of dawn returned to gild the sunset” is in some sense Kipling himself.

Most of the stories contain doors and spaces that can be open or shut, often allowing a character to reveal some hidden secret: a room, a caravan, a grave. Other recurrent themes/images are rules and laws – the school rules on smoking in “The United Idolaters,” the scriptural “rulings” that are stretched to allow admission to heaven in “On the Gate,” the unjust tribunal in “A Friend of the Family”; nakedness and dress – Tarworth in “The Prophet and the Country” almost entirely hidden in his clothes, the matador’s deceptive cloak in “The Bull that Thought”, the boys happily bathing naked in “The Propagation of Knowledge”. The first World War and its aftermath are described in “Sea Constables,” in the four tales set in a Masonic Lodge (“In the Interests of the Brethren,” “The Janeites,” “A Madonna of the Trenches” and “A Friend of the Family”), and in “The Gardener.” For The Irish Guards in the Great War, Kipling had had to read soldiers’ letters and diaries and to interview survivors, giving him the material for such stories. Something of the pain of his son’s loss found expression in “The Gardener”.


Freemasonry in ‘Debits and Credits’

by George Kieffer

This collection of poems and stories contains perhaps the most overt exploration by the author of Masonic philosophy. It would be wrong to call Freemasonry a “creed,” but Kipling has one of his World War I soldiers say: “so far as I’ve had any religion, it’s been all the religion I’ve had”. It is in this spirit that the subject finds expression in this collection, which contains many ethical and metaphysical elements. The Masonic “system of morality” finds expression in the sometimes prosaic actions and words of the characters and in a sense demonstrates as much the ordinariness of Freemasonry as “The Man who would be King” portrays its mystery and secret symbolism.

Each one of the four “Masonic” tales stands alone in its own right as a story and an example of the author’s craft, but contains a layer which is closed to a reader unfamiliar with Freemasonry. The “doors” referred to above, which assume significance in some of the stories, are emblematical of the closed world of Freemasonry, where the guarded entrance keeps out the uninitiated. As Birkenhead says, sometimes the stories pose moral puzzles which Kipling leaves the reader, including the Freemason, to resolve in his own mind and against his own ethical standards.

Each story explores subtly different aspects of Freemasonry which it serves in part to illustrate. “Banquet Night” is a perfect poetic expression of the enjoyment by the brethren as equals, irrespective of social rank, of the banquet or “refreshment” that follows the “labour” of the work in the Lodge, which is as valid today as it was in Kipling’s time. The following story amplifies this by highlighting the welcome extended to visiting brethren, in breach of Masonic rules, by members of the Lodge and the calm and repose the soldiers returning from the front find among fellows who, although initially unknown, become instant friends.

“The Janeites” is a very different story, describing the bonds that are formed between individuals as a result of shared interests, in this case the works of Jane Austen. In terms of Masonic interpretation it can be read as confirmation that perfect understanding is not a prerequisite of Masonic membership, but that the desire to advance in knowledge characterises the development of the individual Mason.

In “A Madonna of the Trenches”, our attention is drawn to the refuge and haven offered to a brother whose mind has been scarred not only by the horrors of war, but also by the emotional experiences of his family life.

“A Friend of the Family” is altogether a more uncomfortable story, if one sees the actions of a Freemason in the self-justice administered by Hickmot as retribution for his friend’s troubles. There is of course no implication in the story that Hickmot is a Freemason, but there is a tacit approval by the brethren of Faith and Works Lodge of his subversive actions. But then Kipling was not averse to seeing Freemasons as men, rather than ideals: witness Sergeant Kimball O’Hara in Kim and the two loafers, Peachey and Dravot, in “The Man who would be King.”


The posthumous editions


It could be argued against the making of connections between the stories that two of them, “The United Idolaters” and “The Propagation of Knowledge,” were omitted from Debits and Credits in the Sussex and Burwash editions (vols. X, 1937, and VIII, 1941 respectively). Both were included in Stalky & Co. (Sussex, vol. XVII, 1938, and Burwash, Vol. XIV, 1941). Since Kipling died in January 1936, it is possible that the decision to make this change was taken by Mrs Kipling. He had, however, previously reorganised his collections for American readers in Scribner’s Outward Bound edition. He wrote to his American editor on 8th Oct. 1896:

I have finally screwed myself up to re-grouping the whole kit and boodle of the books, i.e. am arranging the military; native; and fantastic tales in batches by themselves…. P.S. You will readily see how this re-arrangement (which has long been demanded by the public) gives the edition a pull of its own. [Pinney ed., Letters, Vol. 2 pp. 260-1].

Most of these rearrangements have not been kept in Sussex/Burwash, except for the two Jungle Books, where all the Mowgli stories are in one volume and the rest in another, as they are in the Outward Bound. All the Mowgli Stories was first published in the U.K. as a separate book in 1933, while The Complete Stalky & Co. had appeared in 1929. So Kipling himself may have taken the decision to remove the Stalky stories from Debits and Credits for marketing rather than literary reasons. He may not even have been consciously aware how the different stories fit together in Debits and Credits as originally published.

In ORG, Vol. 1, it was The Complete Stalky & Co. that Roger Lancelyn Green chose to annotate. In Vol. 6, under Debits and Credits, “The United Idolaters” and “The Propagation of Knowledge” have only a short note each to that effect. More recently, however, critics have been looking at the book as a whole (see below), and that is how it is presented in NRG.

Critical Opinions

Among contemporary reviews, The Times [15th Sept. 1926, page 13] began:

It is now perhaps only those who have exceeded half the official “days of a man” who experience, as they open a new book by Mr. Kipling, the authentic tingle of excitement which was once almost universal on such an occasion. These new books have grown rarer nowadays; the covers of some have hidden disappointments; those cold fellows, the critics – with some hot fellows among them – have been at their work; and there is less undiscovered country than once upon a time. But the older company … here have the chance to recapture more than in sober earnest they ever promised themselves. There are disappointments, but there also veins of real metal.

According to The Times Literary Supplement [16th Sept. 1926, p. 611]:

“Debits and Credits” is a mixture. In the first place it has examples of its author’s work very nearly at his best and a few that touch his lowest level. Then, he is represented by almost all the very different themes and styles with which we associate his name…

In truth, Mr. Kipling has not changed greatly since the early days. He may be better controlled, rather less intolerant, deeper than of old; he may, on the other hand, have lost some of the brighter colours of imagination, something of that marvellous and apparently effortless improvization which brought him his first fame. But … he is still, for good in the main, but also in certain respects for ill, the supremely individual writer that he has always been. There is no other to-day in this country of whom a single paragraph would be so quickly and generally recognized. And his severest critics will admit that his qualities make for a singular liveliness and that his power of expression is almost unique in our time…

And yet that slight dimming of imagination makes itself apparent … The verses which precede or follow the stories here collected are not, on the whole, of quality as high as is to be found in some earlier books. Two or three of the best are, however, very pleasant.

Desmond McCarthy, writing as “Affable Hawk” in the New Statesman [16 Oct. 1926, p. 15], considered:

What strikes one more than the stories themselves [in the book] is the imaginative approach of the author and the vigour of his writing, whatever his theme. Sometimes the subject is incongruous with the energy of the treatment, a mere anecdote, the setting of which is the best part of the tale; sometimes one is struck by the wilfulness which embalms with so much care a mere trifle. But in every case what is achieved is a kind of sublimated realism, utterly different from the realism of the copyist. And then the vigour of the vernacular! … This is the kind of achievement which lasts. I only wish that the stories, which are the occasion of the feat, were all on the level of the best of them.

Unlike the TLS reviewer, McCarthy judged that “The verse in this volume is remarkable”, but concluded:

on the whole I think the verdict of his readers upon it will be that though Kipling has never shown greater mastery in diction, he has told us better tales.

Brander Matthews in America thought [Literary Digest International Book Review, vol. IX, November 1926; reprinted in Lancelyn Green, ed. Kipling: The Critical Heritage]:

Of course, the fourteen tales [the book] contains are not equal in merit – a statement which might be made of any volume by any other writer of short stories. That is to say, some of these narratives are better than others; and it must be noted at once that several of them are very good indeed … There are here three or four tales that no other living writer could equal… He here delights us with the old mastery; he charms us with the old craftsmanship; and he moves us with the old magic. And it is magic, this essential quality of his. There is no other word for it – a magic made up of insight and understanding and imagination [Green, ed., pp. 340-1].

Carrington, a young veteran of World War I, would later write:

I would venture the assertion that if Kipling had published nothing but ‘The Bull that Thought’, ‘The Eye of Allah’, ‘The Janeites’, ‘The Wish House’, ‘A Madonna of the Trenches’, and ‘The Gardener’, his name would stand high among the world’s story-tellers. It would be hard to find such variety of subject, such richness of treatment, in the work of any contemporary, and, when compared with his own earlier work, these stories will be found to express a more delicate sensibility and a deeper penetration of motive. The other stories in the book, and even these six, display also Kipling’s characteristic faults; some passages which gave offence to the thin-skinned, some almost incomprehensible jargon, and some lapses into obscurity. … It was typical of his indifference to public opinion that he began the book with an allegorical tale (‘The Enemies to each Other’) that seemed to be a kind of private joke… It is remarkable that he published it, not that he wrote it. [pp. 467-8].

J.M.S. Tompkins, who was of an age with Carrington, was an early admirer of the book:

Setting aside the children’s books … it was the tales in Debits and Credits that first stirred my eager response. They seemed to me adult, masterful art, suited to my generation; reading them in the nineteen-twenties I felt no time-lag in their point of view. [preface to the University Paperbacks edition of 1959, pp. ix-x].

Birkenhead, who belonged to the next generation, wrote:

The late stories are indeed pared to the bone to such an extent that some of them demand the most concentrated attention, but more they are distinguished by another trait. Kipling seems to be setting elaborate puzzles in the manner of certain Victorian painters in their ‘problem’ pictures, giving a limited help in their solution. It is as though he said to the reader: ‘There, I have given you enough clues. Work it out for yourselves.’ But he is conceding less and less, and although the stories are full of grace notes, the clues are deeply hidden.

A close study of these stories shows that they are composed with layer upon layer of meaning, close packed like the skin of an onion. In The Eye of Allah, A Madonna of the Trenches, and The Gardener four or five different interpretations can be placed upon the stories, which means that four or five different tales are contained in each story, although the average reader will only notice the obvious one. [p. 331].

Studies of the book as a whole include Lisa A.F. Lewis, “Some Links between the Stories in Kipling’s Debits and Credits”, English Literature in Transition, 25, 2, 1982, pp. 74-85 (reprinted in Harold Orel, ed., Critical Essays on Rudyard Kipling, Boston, G.K. Hall, 1989); Harry Ricketts, “Kipling and War: a Reading of Debits and Credits”, English Literature in Transition, 29, 1, 1986, 29-39; Sandra Kemp’s introduction to the Penguin edition of 1987; and Judith van Heerswynghels’ introduction in Pierre Coustillas, general ed., Rudyard Kipling, Oeuvres, tome IV, Gallimard, 2001, pp. 1238-52.

Harry Ricketts [1999] saw the book as modernist:

Among other quintessentially modernist features [is] the intense literary self-consciousness of Kipling’s collection, as reflected in the constant allusions to earlier writers, but also in the subversive games that were played. Official literature (Jane Austen, Swinburne, Shakespeare) was regularly placed in conventionally unliterary contexts (the officers’ mess, the Navy, the trenches, school) and mixed up with unofficial literature (Uncle Remus, limericks, hymns), so that there are no firm boundaries between high culture and low culture, no fixed categories. There was an equally self-conscious employment of links and cross-references between different parts of the work… there was continual parody and pastiche of past writers. Enjoyable as a virtuoso performance in itself, this also served a double function – of giving the illusion of collapsing the distance between present and past, so that the two appeared contemporaneous, while at the same time reinforcing the sense that everything was running down and fragmenting – that after the war all a writer could do was recycle the past. Moreover, again thoroughly modernist, textual self-reference occurred in some form or another in most of the stories…

The argument for a modernist reading of Debits and Credits (or more widely of Kipling) would not, of course, be based on the modernists’ influence on him, but on his influence on them. Kipling would then be cast as the literary father who could not or must not be acknowledged, much as Wordsworth in the ‘Preface’ to the Lyrical Ballads went out of his way to deny Gray as a poetic parent. [pp. 363-4].

©Lisa Lewis and George Kieffer 2004 All rights reserved