Thursday, October 25, 2012

And here comes the unpleasant part of the story. - Zolaesque Kipling

That line in the title would not be out of place in any number of Kipling stories, but I read it in “The Other Man,” one of the Plain Tales from the Hills.  Miss Gaurey is forced to marry the blunt, well off, and essentially abusive Colonel Schreiderling instead of the penniless – “I have forgotten his name, but we will call him the Other Man.”  The story is only four pages and the unpleasant part does not occur until have way through.  Kipling was efficient.  The former Miss Gaurey and the Other Man accidentally meet one last time.  Kipling, who claims to have witnessed the meeting and its aftermath, is right: that part is unpleasant.

“The Other Man” is a grotesque domestic story in an unusual setting.  I could imagine Walter Scott coming up with the same conceit, but he would have had to put it in his own unusual setting, 1688 Scotland.  I was at first surprised to see all of the stories about adulterous officer’s wives and the romantic pursuits of young civil servants; I mean, really, about how English society bends and fits itself to India.  The whole picture ends up looking like a satire on England as much as on the English in India.

In “A Wayside Comedy” from Under the Deodars, for example, Kipling isolates two couples and an extra officer in a hill station (“Fate and the Government of India have turned the Station of Kashima into a prison”).  These five are “the English population of Kashima.”  Bored out of their minds, they immediately begin pursuing each other’s wives and husbands and making each other miserable.  The Victorian proprieties and notions of honor disintegrate.  Actually, one of the husbands is not miserable.  He is either an oblivious idiot or a Machiavelli.  It’s an odd story, but one that is unimaginable in England.

Angus Wilson, in The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling (1977) tells me that English critics routinely compared Kipling to Zola for his immorality.  How different things look with the passage of time.  But Kipling’s exotic foreignness does seem to allow him some earthy freedom.  I remind myself that he was writing for the Indian English audience, not the English English one.

In “The Bronckhorst Divorce-Case,” a Plain Tale, a devoted wife is accused of adultery by her brutal husband:

Dinner at the Bronckhorst's was an infliction few men cared to undergo.  Bronckhorst took a pleasure in saying things that made his wife wince.  When their little boy came in at dessert, Bronckhorst used to give him half a glass of wine, and naturally enough, the poor little mite got first riotous, next miserable, and was removed screaming. Bronckhorst asked if that was the way Teddy usually behaved, and whether Mrs. Bronckhorst could not spare some of her time to teach the "little beggar decency."

None of that supports any argument of mine.  I just like the passage a lot.  Poor drunk kid!  In other Kipling stories, Mrs. Bronckhurst likely would have taken up with a younger man, but in this story she happens to be falsely accused.  Her marriage is saved by bribes, threats, and the subversion of the courts.  It is possible that a satirical point or two is being made.

An important recurring them in these early Kipling stories is the mistreatment of women, Indian women and English women alike.  Another theme is determined, intelligent women carving out power for themselves.  Some readers might find this interesting.

5 comments:

  1. I recently read Kipling's Just So Stories to my youngest son - which we both loved for his sarcasm and off kilter but honest morality. He is sort of a precursor to Roald Dahl...I should read more of his stories, I might be one of those readers that find it interesting.

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  2. Roald Dahl! Yes, definitely. I never would have thought of him, it has been so long since I read him.

    I have never seen anyone mention feminist Kipling (not that I have looked). But he exists, evident in story after story.

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  3. I'd like to put forward the idea that Kipling can indeed be very like Zola, and use as a evidence a story still 5 years in the future (1893), The Record of Badalia Herodsfoot: a 20-page compendium of endemic domestic violence, set in the East End of London, and written for an English audience.

    It's about a marriage, but Kipling can it explain in more succinctly than me:

    "In the beginning of things she had been unregenerate; had worn the heavy fluffy fringe which is the ornament of the costermonger's girl, and there is a legend in Gunnison Street that on her wedding-day she, a flare-lamp in either hand, danced dances on a discarded lover's winkle-barrow, till a policeman interfered, and then Badalia danced with the Law amid shoutings. Those were her days of fatness, and they did not last long, for her husband after two years took to himself another woman, and passed out of Badalia's life, over Badalia's senseless body; for he stifled her protest with blows."

    The entire thing is pretty strong stuff - for England - in 1893.

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  4. Yes, that is getting close! Although the sort of example Angus Wilson gives is a complaint about Kipling's failure to condemn Mrs. Hauksbee for her affairs, ergo Kipling is immoral, like Zola.

    That passage you quote, especially, the second sentence, is darn good.

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