Without Benefit of Clergy

(notes edited by John McGivering)


This story first appeared in Macmillan’s Magazine for June 1890 and in Harper’s Weekly on 7 and 14 June the same year. It was collected in The Courting of Dinah Shadd and Other Stories (1890) and Mine Own People in 1891 and Life’s Handicap the same year. (See ORG, Volume 2, p. 932 for various unauthorised editions.)

The story

John Holden leads a double life. To his colleagues in the civil service he is a bachelor, living in spartan bachelor quarters, and sometimes neglecting his work. But he has set up a young Muslim girl, Ameera, in a little house on the edge of the old city. She is the love of his life, and he of hers. They are idyllically happy together, and when she gives birth to a baby boy, Tota, their happiness is complete. When Tota dies of fever, they are distraught. Then Ameera is stricken with cholera and dies in Holden’s arms. He is left desolate, and the house is soon pulled down. The idyll is over as if it had never been.

Verse heading

In Life’s Handicap the story is headed by the following lines, also collected in Songs from Books (1913).

Before my Spring I garnered Autumn’s gain,
Out of her time my field was white with grain,
The year gave up her secrets to my woe.
Forced and deflowered each sick season lay,
In mystery of increase and decay;
I saw the sunset ere men saw the day,
Who am too wise in that I should not know.
Bitter Waters

Philip Holberton writes: These lines are a lament for the doomed love in the story. John Holden has known love and fatherhood and then bereavement too early in his life: ‘I saw the sunset ere men saw the day’. And because he loved across racial and religious barriers both his happiness and now his grief have to be kept hidden: ‘who am too wise in all I should not know.’ In Life’s Handicap this verse is entitled “Bitter Waters”. [P.H.]

The title

By strict definition, ‘Benefit of Clergy’ was the right of exemption from trial in a secular court by those in Holy Orders: which later included all who could read. (This was abolished by 1841).

However, Kipling’s punning use of the expression hinges on the fact that Holden and Ameera are living as man and wife without the blessing of his Church or hers; had one of them converted, they might have married, but such a union would have meant both social and professional ruin for Holden, who could well have ended up in similar circumstances to McIntosh Jellaludin in “To Be Filed for Reference” (Plain Tales from the Hills). See also Andrew Lycett (p.524) for a comparison with Strickland’s unorthodox behaviour in “Miss Youghal’s Sais” (Plain Tales from the Hills).

Some critical comments

Nirad C. Chaudhuri thinks this story does not ring true and describes Kipling as prone to falsify the theme of Eastern love and sees it as: ‘…a wholly undeserved idealization of an Anglo-Muhammadan liaison …. and a piece of decided sentimentality.’ [Rudyard Kipling, Ed. John Gross ,Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1972, p. 30]
Kingsley Amis, however, looks upon it as: an unsentimental elegy for all doomed love’ (p.64).

Edmund Wilson, in The Wound and the Bow [Houghton Mifflin Company, 1941] (p.118), says: ‘This idyll, unhallowed and fleeting, is something that the artist in Kipling has felt, and put down for its sweetness and pathos.’

Somerset Maugham observes in his Introduction to A Choice of Kipling’s Prose, (Macmillan, 1952) that: ‘… the stories Kipling produced on his arrival in London are of the highest quality, a quality which later he often achieved but never surpassed. (p. xiii). Those included in this volume are “The Man who Was”, this story and “At the End of the Passage”. ‘

See Edmund Gosse, in Questions at Issue [Heineman, 1893, p.280] for a contemporary who admires his work:

‘….a little group of stories which I cannot but hold to be the culminating point of his genius so far. If the remainder of his writings were swept away, posterity would be able to reconstruct its Rudyard Kipling from “ Without Benefit of Clergy”, “The Man Who Would be King”, “The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes” and “Beyond the Pale”. ‘

This is another story that was nearly made into a film ( Andrew Lycett, p. 499, John Gross, p. 162, and David Gilmour, p. 288)

‘Mixed marriages’

With the possible exception of Mrs Hauksbee, Kipling is probably better at writing of Indian women than English ones. The enchanting Lalun (“On the City Wall” in Soldiers Three and Other Stories), the unfortunate Bisesa (“Beyond the Pale” in Plain Tales from the Hills), and Ameera in this story, are all delightful women, but contact with British men is death to two of the three.

The social tabu against ‘mixed marriages’ in Kipling’s day is in strong contrast to earlier times when Britons married Indian ladies of rank and happily brought up children who themselves became people of importance in the army and civil life. [See Archie Baron, An Indian Affair (Pan Macmillan, 2001, p. 107) for an account of eighteenth-century days in India.]

“Yoked with an Unbeliever” (Plain Tales from the Hills) and “Georgie Porgie” (Life’s Handicap) seem to be the only stories of such unions by Kipling that are more or less successful; but both have something of a sting in their tails.

Lalun, Bisesa, and Ameera are described so convincingly by Kipling that one cannot help asking, with Angus Wilson, who (p. 2) calls it ‘… that most sheerly beautiful of all Kipling’s stories…’, if there is an element of autobiography here? (p. 107.) Having posed the question, Wilson immediately dismisses it as ‘silly’, and quite impossible to answer, but one still wonders. The nationality of the nameless girl that Valens buys in Constantinople is not given, but their romance ends in tragedy too (“The Church that was at Antioch” in Limits and Renewals). ‘Lispeth’ in the story of that name in Plain Tales from the Hills lost her Englishman, but seems to have found security if not happiness as ‘The Woman of Shamlegh’ in Kim.

[J H McG]

©John McGivering 2006 All rights reserved