A Madonna of the Trenches

(Notes by Lisa Lewis and George Kieffer)


First published MacLean’s Magazine, illustrated by F.R. Gruger, August 15 1924; Hearst’s International and Nash’s Magazine, illustrated by Herbert M. Stoops, September 1924. A few changes were made when the story was collected in “Debits and Credits” (1926): see the notes on the text. In this collection it is preceded by the poem “Gipsy Vans” , and followed by Act V. Scene 3 of the unfinished play “Gow’s Watch” .

The story

The narrator attends the Lodge of Instruction of the Masonic Lodge previously described in “In the Interests of the Brethren” and “The Janeites”, of which he is a member. Clem Strangwick, a young ex-soldier and visitor to the Lodge of Instruction, interrupts the proceedings with a hysterical outburst, partly caused by his experiences in the war and partly by boredom with the Masonic presentation, and the narrator helps the doctor take him to a quiet room where he can be sedated and lie down. The doctor knew Clem in the trenches, and draws out his story.

He describes the horrors he has known, but is brought to admit that the cause of his trouble was not these but the suicide of Sergeant Godsoe, who was a father figure in his childhood. Clem says that Godsoe and his aunt had been deeply in love, though married to others. He had only found this out when the aunt died of breast cancer and her ghost appeared to Clem and “Uncle John” in a remote trench, by an empty dug-out. Godsoe took two charcoal braziers, went into the dug-out with the ghost, wedged up the door and stifled to death. Clem then had a breakdown from which he has still not recovered. He is refusing to marry his former sweetheart, who is suing him for breach of promise. This is the mundane explanation of his outburst given by his aunt’s widower, who has brought him to the Lodge, but who does not know the full story or understand his behaviour.


This is one of the stories begun while Kipling was writing The Irish Guards in the Great War (1923), a history of his dead son’s regiment for which his research had involved reading letters and diaries and interviewing survivors. Neither John Kipling’s body nor grave were ever found during Kipling’s lifetime and it is likely that this overshadowed the story, which, according to Birkenhead [p. 297], had been “long in his mind.” Kipling was working on it again on 14th December 1923, and finished it on 1st February 1924 [Carrington’s notes from Mrs. Kipling’s diaries]. The manuscript in the University of Durham library begins with a version of page 243, line 25; everything before that is missing. The story includes some of Kipling’s most horrific and realistic descriptions of conditions in the trenches of the Western front. It is also one of the most complex and controversial of his stories.

On the surface it deals with the nervous condition of the shell-shocked Clem. Dr Keede draws out the circumstances leading to his breakdown, employing comparatively novel interventions of drug and shock therapy. When Clem attributes his debility to a vision of his deceased aunt visiting his “Uncle John” Godsoe in the trenches, the reader is presented with this as observed, if inexplicable and even incredible, fact. But are we supposed to believe Clem’s account, or is it the reaction of a young mind to intolerable stress? Was the sergeant’s death suicide, as he tells it, or accident, as in Keede’s earlier version, which seems to be the official one? Keede knows Clem is concealing something. “But you don’t think I did him in, do you?” asks Clem, to Keede’s “discomfiture.” When at the end Keede says, “That’s the real thing at last”, does he mean that he believes what Clem claims to have seen, or merely that he now knows the root of Clem’s mental problems?

Both Keede and Clem mention the date 21st January 1918, which occurs nine times in the story. Such repetitions commonly have significance in Kipling’s late work, but there is nothing in The Irish Guards in the Great War to suggest what this might be, nor were there any notable battles or engagements on that date. 21st January is St Agnes’s Day. In “‘Wireless'” in Traffics and Discoveries Kipling had already constructed a story of unhappy love around Keats’s poem “The Eve of St Agnes”, a date when traditionally one was supposed to dream of the lover one was destined to marry. The third stanza of this poem may be relevant:

“Northward he turneth through a little door,
And scarce three steps, ere Music’s golden tongue
Flatter’d to tears this aged man and poor;
But no – already had his deathbell rung:
The joys of all his life were said and sung:
His was harsh penance on St Agnes Eve:
Another way he went, and soon among
Rough ashes sat he for his soul’s reprieve,
And all night kept awake, for sinners’ sake to grieve.”

At the end of the poem, Keats’s two lovers elope together in the dawn of St Agnes’s Day, as the Sergeant and Bella are finally together on that date, though only in death. Bella’s ghost comes to the killing fields of Flanders, rather than appear to Godsoe on his imminent leave in England: an altogether darker St Agnes’s Day than lovers are wont to dream of. Clem says that this is why he cannot proceed with his own betrothal, which inspires no such intensity of feeling.

St Agnes is the Patron Saint of virgins, but “Auntie Armine” was a married woman (though childless) and had had an extra-marital love affair lasting into middle age, which shocks Clem: “an’ she nearer fifty than forty.” The title of the story links her with another virgin, the Madonna, mother of God. The religious and the erotic mingle when Keede and Clem both take a poem by Swinburne, quoted by Godsoe, to be a hymn.
The lovers’ names seem to have religious and supernatural connotations. While John Godsoe recalls the scriptural text “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” [John, 3, 16], Bella Armine recalls a 16th century Church figure, Cardinal Bellarmine, a Jesuit famous for his map of Hell. He is mentioned in D’Israeli’s Curiosities of Literature, other parts of which are quoted in the following story “The Propagation of Knowledge.” “Bellarmine” was also the name of a kind of earthenware jug with a capacious belly and a narrow neck bearing a human face, designed as a burlesque likeness of the Cardinal by 17th century Protestants in Flanders. Such jugs were imported to England from Germany in the 17th and 18th centuries, containing beer or wine. Country people called them “witch bottles” and believed that to bury one under the hearth or the threshold of a house would prevent witches from coming down the chimney or in through the door.

The analytical session takes place within the protective setting of a Lodge meeting, where members traditionally support each other, as demonstrated in the third degree where the newly raised Mason is shown that his fellow Mason “will support [him] in all [his] laudable undertakings,” “the posture of [his] daily supplications will remind [him] of [his] wants” and that “lawful secrets when entrusted to [him] as such [he] will keep as [his] own.” Keede’s enquiries are therefore intended to help a brother in distress. The obligation of secrecy also means that neither doctor nor narrator will enlighten the aunt’s widower, Brother Armine, who had brought his nephew Clem to the Lodge meeting, or give him the reasons why Clem has broken off his engagement to marry. But it was Uncle Armine who introduced Clem, a “new-made Brother,” to the Lodge and possibly to Freemasonry, showing the bond between them.

Finally, the story was written at a time when the Kiplings had still not recovered from the loss of their son John. Kipling was the same age as Godsoe, but was untrained and unfit; for him, joining the army was never possible. All he had been able to do was pay a few official visits to the military, write pamphlets such as The New Army in Training (1914) and France at War (1915), and record the dreadful history of those years in The Irish Guards in the Great War. In his introduction to this he wrote: “the only wonder to the compiler of these records has been that any sure fact whatever should be retrieved out of the whirlpools of war. [Vol. I, p. vi].

[L.L. and G.K.]

Critical opinions

Carrington, himself a veteran of the Western front, listed “A Madonna of the Trenches” among six stories in this collection that meant Kipling’s name “would stand high among the world’s story-tellers” even if he had written nothing else; but saw this one as “grouped among his ‘difficult’ stories” [p. 468.]

For J.M.S. Tompkins, the story is “designed and painted very boldly” [p. 172]. She commented:

This, then, the first of Kipling’s tales of neurosis in an ex-service man, is not really concerned with a war-injury at all, though the war setting throws all the values into strongest relief. We are helped to gauge the power and the range of the love streaming through Bella Armine and John Godsoe because the revelation wholly demolishes the defence-system of a cheerful young Runner, well-protected by youthful callousness and short views, and leaves him a nervous wreck [p. 174].

She believed that the story should not be rationalised, since:

if it is assumed that Strangwick’s vision of the dead woman in the trenches is a hallucination, it is difficult to see what coherent story is left at all. But there are plenty of suggestions that make such an assumption difficult… [Strangwick’s] are the agonies of the reluctant convert, struggling against what is making nonsense of life as he supposed it to be, and imposing new and unwished standards on him. Read like this, the whole tale is closely integrated; rationalised, it is pointless. How idle would be the intricacies of the approach, if they led simply to a painful record of a collapse and a delusion [p. 206].

Philip Mason rated this story one of Kipling’s eight best [p. 210] and one of three among the late collections that were “certainly to me the most moving” [p. 278.]

… there is little point in arguing about just what Kipling believed, nor how Auntie Armine knew the exact date when she would die nor how John Godsoe knew she would come to that dug-out. What is important is the total effect of the story… it is Keede who draws out the story – tooth by tooth – helped by his drug, but more by his guess that there is something funny about Godsoe’s death and that the dates suggested a link with Strangwick’s trouble. Was Keede pretending or did he really think it might be murder? I am confident that he was pretending, in order to shock the truth out of Strangwick, but the narrator was deceived … The story builds up in little dabs of paint and spurts of light – filled in with reminiscent detail. Death is close all the time … What [Strangwick] keeps saying is that if the dead rise again he has nothing to hold on to … But there is a note too of Hamlet’s outrage at his mother’s incest; “my own aunt, and she nearer fifty than forty – no one would have guessed it. He had been her favourite, you see” [p. 283].

In this story, above and behind Strangwick and his troubles there emerge the writer’s conviction that there is a life after death in which personal relations are renewed, and his belief that there is the possibility of the kind of love between man and woman that Dante wrote of, instantaneous and eternal. And also, I think, a strong implication [made explicit in “The Wish House”], that pain and patient endurance are in some mysterious way taken into the reckoning [p.284].

To John Bayley, in The Uses of Division (1976, p. 71) “the point to be made about ‘A Madonna of the Trenches’ is that the more elaborately Kipling seeks to show that illusion and ‘the possible’ are what humans live by, the more he domesticates the mystery and patronises those who are involved in it” However in a later work, The Short Story in English (1988, p. 96), Bayley wrote that:

Corny as it may sound, the sense of eeriness achieved in the story is remarkably genuine, perhaps because the author himself seems deeply and emotionally involved. He also makes the reader feel the state of inner desperation to which the thing has reduced the young man, to whom the notion of normal courting and marriage has, as a result, become insufferably banal. The oddity, and the success, of the story consists in its reversal of the usual Kipling pattern. The setting – both that of the trenches in France and the south London masonic lodge – is not very convincing, having the air of a well-painted backdrop, but the invisible love affair, and its consequences, is conveyed with remarkable power. [p. 96].

Angus Wilson saw all these Masonic stories as “far too overcrowded” [p. 314] and:

so overlaid with muddled themes, obscure literary and biblical references, and started hares, that, for once, Kipling’s extraordinarily economic craftsmanship is lost in prolixity.
“A Madonna of the Trenches” is the best of these stories because in its recall of trench warfare he brings to this central horror of the war his map-like vision and his impressionistic power of detail: but all this is lost in his attempt to fuse two of his most cherished hopes – survival after death and elective affinities, life-long enduring passions…. To equate the enduring through a lifetime of an undeclared passion with St Paul’s suffering for Christ, however creditable to Kipling’s compassion for human suffering, is a damaging confusion: the one is a staple of high romantic literature, the other is at the centre of Christian belief. One does not have to be a Christian to feel the difference in quality between these two experiences … At the heart of this vividly told story, as with so many of the stories in which he uses Christianity as a symbolic device for the demand for compassion, there is plain sentimentality clothed in a metaphysical authority which it does not possess. [p. 315].

For Sandra Kemp:

The most striking aspect of this story is its treatment of the physical body. There are repeated references to the frozen bodies of the dead soldiers used for making the trenches at “French End an’ Butchers’ Row”: “There’s nothing on earth creaks like they do! And – and when it thaws we – we’ve got to slap ‘em back with a spa – ade!” But these are contrasted with the still-warm bodies of the dead woman and of Sergeant Godsoe, and with the hut warmed by the braziers….In this daring image Kipling brings together the two traditions of transcendental love, the “sacred” and the “profane” (“Mary” and “Isolde”): a vision of perfect love, not in traditional terms as virgin love but as a love that is both spiritual and sexual: “The reel thing’s life an’ death. It begins at death, d’ye see?” The persistent but puzzled allusions throughout the story to the resurrection of the body emphasise how incomprehensible these ideas are, particularly as they are expressed by the shocked and sceptical young narrator [p. 119].

Nora Crook wrote “‘A Madonna of the Trenches’ has been, in my opinion, radically misread by most critics” [p. 157.] Crook devoted her final chapter to Kipling’s debt to Swinburne, with particular emphasis on “A Madonna of the Trenches.” She considered that:

Kemp has considerably advanced discussion of the story in her stress on the physicality of the love of Godsoe and Bella, and its relationship to medieval fin amour, but I think that her conclusion, that the relationship of Bella and Godsoe is offered as a daring vision of perfect love, is true only from Godsoe’s angle, and in any case will not satisfy those who say that the story is sentimental. … In “Madonna” Freemasonry is associated with qualities which enable the mentally war-wounded to learn to trust life again, a precondition of their eventually marrying, and becoming the fathers of families once more. The Lodge is a halfway house. Swinburne is associated with the opposite pull – downwards towards escape from the world and extinction. The pull is presented in seductive terms; the death-instinct disguises itself as a victory over death. The story is about the fight between these two opposed principles, and is, I think, among the finest short stories in English about the psychic effects of the First World War [p. 160.]

Crook subscribes to the theory put forward by T.C.W. Swinton [“What really happened in ‘Mrs Bathurst’?”, Essays in Criticism, XXXVIII, 1, January 1988, p. 59] that Bella and the Sergeant were Clem’s real parents, and that he was passed off as a Strangwick to avoid scandal: “A closer look would, I think, persuade most people that Swinton is right; those unpersuadable could still agree that Armine and Godsoe are parent-figures whom Clem seems to have loved better that those whom he called Dad and Ma” [1989, p. 166].

See also