Mary Postgate

(notes edited by John Radcliffe)


First published in Nash’s and Pall Mall Magazine of September 1915 and in The Century the same month, with the heading ‘How does your garden grow ?’, the second line of the well-known nursery rhyme. “Mary Mary, quite contrary”. In Nash’s there are two illustrations by Fortunato Matania. Collected in A Diversity of Creatures in 1917, accompanied by the poem, “The Beginnings”.
Also collected in:

  • Scribner’s Edition vol. 26
  • Burwash Edition vol. 9
  • Sussex Edition vol. 9, p. 421

The story

This is a story steeped in the heightened atmosphere of the Great War, a conflict more brutal, savage, and destructive than anyone had anticipated. In the words of Harry Ricketts (p. 318):

Its central figure was the middle-aged, unimaginative and deeply repressed companion of a Miss Fowler. When the latter’s orphaned young nephew, Wynn, entered the household, Mary became his surrogate mother and `always his butt and his slave’. Wynn joined the Flying Corps on the outbreak of war and was soon killed on a trial flight, without having been in action. The two women decided that Mary should burn all his more personal effects in ‘the destructor’, the garden-incinerator.

Going to the village for paraffin Mary witnessed the death of the publican’s small daughter, killed by a bomb dropped by a German plane. Later, while burning Wynn’s possessions, she discovered the German airman, who – after dropping the bomb – had fallen from his plane and was now dying. Mary, tending the bonfire, watched with mounting pleasure as the German slowly died.


The War, involving all the major countries of Europe, which Kipling had long anticipated, broke out in the early days of August 1914. Kipling’s son, just seventeen, reported for duty with the Irish Guards in September. The early battles on the Western Front in France soon showed that the war would not be quickly over, and that casualties among the young soldiers would be high. As Charles Carrington, who himself fought through the war as an infantry officer, notes:

… the ferocity of the German war machine grew more apparent. In January 1915 the first air-raids were made on undefended English towns; and in February the German Admiralty announced its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. Rudyard’s reaction took the form of three short stories written that winter, “Swept and Garnished” written in October, “Sea Constables” in February, and “Mary Postgate” in March.

In a speech at Southport in June 1915, Kipling said: : ‘However the world pretends to divide itself, there are only two divisions in the World to-day – human beings and Germans.’ ‘That is not’, commented Bonamy Dobrée (p.131), ‘a sadistic utterance, nor one prompted by `irrational’ hatred; it expresses the outraged feelings of a man deeply believing in the value of civilization, “the ages’ slow-bought gain”, and in the Law by means of which life is made comely.’ [See KJ 076/09]

Harry Ricketts (p. 319) stresses Kipling’s fear that his son would soon be killed, as indeed he was a few months later:

“Mary Postgate” thus, almost certainly, began as another of his superstitious attempts to avert the evil eye: if he wrote a story in which he imagined his deepest fear, the gods might spare John.

This is not to ignore the story’s more obviously shocking aspects: that Kipling was also gratifying his non-combatant fantasies of killing a German and that this imaginative gratification had its sexual counterpoint within the story. Specifically, in a succession of sentences interspersed throughout the final scene (as Mary attended to the burning of Wynn’s possessions and watched the German pilot die), Kipling made it quite clear that she had an orgasm:

`She wielded the poker with lunges that jarred the grating at the bottom [of the ‘destructor’], and careful scrapes round the brickwork above’; `the exercise of stoking had given her a glow which seemed to reach to the marrow of her bones’; `she thumped like a pavior through the settling ashes at the secret thrill of it’; `an increasing rapture laid hold on her…’

It was presumably (writes Ricketts) this final scene that would lead Stanley Baldwin’s son Oliver to describe “Mary Postgate” as: `the wickedest story ever written’. It was shocking, and was meant to be. But it also had the inevitability, the sense of waste, of tragedy. The story might have had its origins in Kipling’s own terror, superstition and wish fulfilment, but Mary was imaginatively transformed into something far more than a conduit for his tortured feelings. Her repressed life, thwarted love and grotesque consummation, evoked with an absolute conviction of detail and nuance, compelled an appalled compassion. It was arguably the finest short story inspired by the Great War.

Critical responses

There is a wealth of critical comment on this tale. Some (see Malcolm Page in KJ 174) have taken the view that the airman was not a German at all. Perhaps that does not matter, what is important is that Mary believes that he is a German.

Others go further, and argue that he was the product of Mary’s repressed imagination. Jan Montefiore comments (p.154):

…the tale itself is not detached but ambivalent. Despite the narrator’s insistence that Mary is the product of a repressive training and the ambiguous status of its key events, it is told so much from her point of that it becomes impossible for the reader not to identify with her, however appalling her response. The point is made forcefully by Kipling’s most alert and subtle reader, Randall Jarrell:

‘This truthfully cruel, human-all-too-human wish fantasy is as
satisfying to one part of our nature as it is terrible to another. What
happens is implausible but intensely actual: the German is not
really there, of course, except in our desire, but his psychological
reality is absolute, down to the last groan of the head that ‘moved ceaselessly from side to side.’… we are forced to believe in him just as Freud was forced to believe in his first patients’ fantasies of seduction.’ [Randall Jarrell, ‘On preparing to read Kipling’, in Kipling, Auden & Co., Essays and Reviews 1935-1965, Manchester: Carcanet 1980].

Jan Montefiore concludes:

Because the story is narrated almost wholly through Mary’s eyes (apart from that final chilling moment when her employer sees her after her bath ‘all relaxed … and quite handsome’) the reader, merely by responding to the scene, cannot help sharing her experience of ‘rapture’. The story thus both gives revenge fantasy an unforgettable outing and shows it to be pathological.

Angus Wilson (pp. 310-311) writes:

It is not easy to respond wholly to such a story. And few have done so. I remember that, when I put it forward as an example of Evil in English Literature in the Northcliffe Lectures, the late Bonamy Dobrée rightly sprang to Kipling’s defence, but wrongly insisted, I am sure, that the story was to be seen entirely as an understanding portrait of the pathological behaviour of a repressed woman under the impact of war’s horrors. It is the line taken by all who want to defend the story. It is that, of course; and an excellently told account of such a woman it is, restrained and exact. But it is not only that.

…Kipling is not, it is true, saying this is how we all act in war-time. But he is saying that the unimaginative and desperate logic of this woman
has its own fitness, is right for the times, given the wickedness of the
enemy …

…Kipling is aware that it is inhumanity, a nature unfulfilled, that is
required for such an act. He suggests, maybe, that he and the reader
could not meet the requirement, would feel pity or softness. But, I feel
sure, in its context, that the story tells us that Mary’s terrible
ruthlessness is the fitting response to German “awfulness” (as I remember
it used to be called) … In short, there is a savage and horrible satisfaction for Kipling in writing the story, although it has other and more bearable layers on top of that. But its narration, the use of every word so tellingly, is something that must make us read with equal satisfaction, though not with the same satisfaction as the author’s. Any rejection of it, such as I made for years, or any attempt, as by so many critics, to read it more pleasantly, is, I believe, a refusal to face the difficult truth that
aesthetic satisfaction is not one with ethical satisfaction – although the
critic has every right to distinguish the moral impulse which disgusts
him, from the story which is such a wonder to read.

And J M S Tompkins writes (p. 137):

We have watched a moral casualty, a monstrous ebullition of passion which is at once a sensual enjoyment and an outraging of self and sex. Kipling wrote nothing else like this. To show the naked action of revenge, he put before us a woman, in her instinctive nature and shocked temporarily out of civilization, which can do no more for her than wave a pitiful transparency of argument over her deed and her profound ignorance of herself. As Dr Johnson said of Desdemona’s death: ‘I am glad I have ended the revisal of this dreadful scene. It is not to be endured.’


©John Radcliffe 2008 All rights reserved