When it was collected in 1917 this story was dated by Kipling to 1913, though according to Mrs Kipling’s diary he was still ‘hard at work’ on it in May 1914, and ‘on 8th June – finished’. It was not published until it was collected in A Diversity of Creatures, accompanied by the poem, “The Press”.
As Angus Wilson recounts (pp. 256/7):
The farce, as so often, depends on the motor car. And in this case the pirate-hero motorists are Kipling (assuming that he can be identified with the narrator), an eminent journalist, a brilliant young ex-Oxonian and a Tory M.P. They are charged with speeding in a village (Huckley). Brought before the local Justice of the Peace (Sir Thomas Ingell, M.P.), they are, in their opinion, monstrously and very pompously convicted. Charged and convicted shortly after them is the famous music hall impresario, “Bat” Masquerier. The J.P., it emerges, is the local landowner and a Radical M.P. Something of the air of conspiratorial myth that entered Kipling’s views in those years may be gauged from this description of the village: ‘They are all Rads who are mixed up in this from the Chief Constable down,’ … It is worth noting that one of the sins of the Radical J.P. … is his addressing Masquerier in the dock in anti-semitic tones.
In the course of the tale the village people are entertained with a lavish dinner— ‘dinner for five hundred and drinks for ten thousand’— and persuaded to vote that the Earth is flat, the story is splashed all over the newspapers, a popular music hall song is written about it, and Huckley and the J.P. become a public laughing stock.
As Charles Carrington (pp. 404-406) explains of Kipling:
His considered opinion on the routine of politics is to be found in “The Village the Voted the Earth was Flat” … Politics, he said, was `a dog’s life without a dog’s decencies’. Kipling’s method of accumulating material can be closely studied in the preliminaries of “The Village that Voted”. The characters, though not drawn from the life, are reminiscent of the sort of men he knew. One of them was a specialist in
bringing moribund newspapers to life like Gwynne. Kipling advised him, and occasionally spent evenings with him in his office. In the late summer of l909 Kipling saw much of two friends in Parliament, his cousin Stanley Baldwin and Andrew Bonar Law, and attended one of the violent debates over the Budget, when Bonar Law, that calm unimpassioned man, displayed his skill at goading the Opposition into fury with violent and telling blows, delivered quite without emotion.
In the following year, some political capital was made out of a police-court case at Croydon in which Bonar Law was fined for a motoring offence, under circumstances which suggested a vexatious prejudice against him on the Bench. Finally, in the summer of 1913, Landon and Kipling enjoyed themselves renewing their old acquaintance with the London music-halls. Here were all the ingredients which Kipling combined in his gigantic farce about `the village that voted the earth was flat’.
The subject is crowd-hysteria and the keynote is the anguished cry of the vulgar impresario: `Curse Nature! She gets ahead of you every time.’ Nothing could exaggerate the political hysteria of those days, and, many years later, Kipling had to confess the insufficiency of his own invention. In a letter to Frank Doubleday in 1920 he admitted that even his `Village that Voted’ had not made itself as ridiculous as Dayton, Tennessee, at the time of the Evolution controversy.
‘Radicals’ (or ‘Rads’) in Edwardian Britain were vigorously reformist Liberals, and the object of deep hostility and suspicion on the part of Kipling. British trade unionists from 1874 until 1892, upon being elected to Parliament, saw themselves as Radicals, and Radical trade-unionists formed the basis for what would later become the Labour Party.
The sequence in the music hall reflects Kipling’s own experience of the Halls during his time as a young unmarried writer in London between 1889 and 1891. He was living in Villiers Street across the road from Gatti’s Music Hall, and was fascinated by the performers and their working-class audiences. See David Page’s Headnote on “My Great and Only” (Abaft the Funnel).
Some critical comments
Roger Lancelyn Green in the ORG (p.3074) reports that ‘Pressmen seem to have liked this burlesque of Pre-World War I journalism, especially those on the advertising side,’ though he also notes that the novelist Graham Greene later called it ‘that tedious overwritten piece of horseplay.’
However, Somerset Maugham, in his introduction to A Choice of Kipling’s Prose (Macmillan, 1952 pp. xxii – xxiii) writes : ‘I have been more doubtful about those stories concerned with practical joking… There is only one of these tales I have found frankly amusing … “The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat”. Here the comedy is rich, the victim deserves his punishment, and his punishment is severe without being brutal.’
J M S Tompkins in her chapter on ‘Hatred and Revenge’ comments:
My own opinion is that `The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat’ grew out of a conviction, at once zestful and misgiving, of the enormous power of the modern Press and the other publicizing industries and arts, especially the Music Hall, that were linked with it. The old journalist in Kipling kindled to the power, and the craftsman rejoiced in the technique of `the widest game that all of a man can play’. With these resources almost anything could be done, and almost anything, on so vast a scale, could get out of hand, even if the wielders of the power were fully responsible, which they are not.
The submerged alarm breaks surface through Ollyett, the tough young journalist, who is designed for this purpose. Twice he says seriously that he is afraid of Bat Masquerier, the impresario, a generous man, master of enormous power, and `the `Absolutely Amoral Soul’. What this very clever young man, moulded by harsh experiences, fears must be formidable. This power is mobilized for the hunting of a man— ‘the chase of the Human, the search for the Soul to its ruin’, as Kipling had written in Plain Tales from the Hills in an epigraph too drastic for “Pig” (1887) but exactly suiting the destruction of Sir Thomas Ingell. This is shikar on a grand scale. The avengers are selected for their ability to bring into play the resources of their different professions. The initial insult is laid on with a trowel and with Kipling’s peculiar capacity, even better shown in “Beauty Spots”, to make— there is really nothing that describes the immediate, unexamined, fermenting response of the reader to the shock except the stale old cliché— the blood boil.
Kipling, however, does not use this cliché; he is more apt to say that anger makes his character sick. Sir Thomas, nevertheless, is hardly real, though his villagers are. He is the clown who starts the train of consequences, and fresh iniquities have to be devised for him, at regular intervals, lest the avengers should drop the chase. The methods of the chase are precise and fascinating; it is there that the curiosity lies, not in the characters or the motive. Indeed, by confecting a series of offences that might rouse any man, Kipling seems to have wished to dismiss psychological curiosity.
Ollyett and the narrator watch the piling-up of the nation-wide ridicule of Sir Thomas and his village till it is beyond control, and they see, with some consternation, that they need no longer lift a finger. The avalanche cannot be contained. ‘The thing roared and pulverized and swept beyond eyesight all by itself— all by itself.’ … The last stage of the campaign falls fortuitously into a monstrous hilarity, but this is not the true— or, at least, not the complete— ecstasy of mirth. The pursuer does not relax, and the victim is not commended to charity.
Carrington (p.406) makes an interesting comment about Kipling’s humour:
Any estimate of Kipling’s work must take account of the series of elaborate farces which he produced at intervals throughout his career… Certainly, they are not meat for delicate stomachs. Kipling admitted to his friends, more than once, that comical outbursts gave relief to his own feelings, and these tales reveal a common pattern. They are all told in the first person, but the part he casts for himself is whimsical, puckish, malicious, not dignified or dominating. He is there to make sport and laugh at it. In each case an enormous practical joke is not so much induced as released. to develop by some law of its own, involving all sorts of innocent people, but recoiling upon the head of the victim, a pretentious intruder.
There have been many references to the story over the years in the Kipling Journal. See in particular Visions of Modern Journalism in “The Village that Voted the earth was Flat” by Sarah Lonsdale in KJ353 for March 2014.
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