Saturday, 9 February 2019

The Finest Story in the World and Mrs. Bathurst - Rudyard Kipling

My parents had the entire works of Rudyard Kipling. I remember them clearly. They had red binding with gold lettering and they lived in the bookshelf which we children had free access to. (My parents only censored my reading once. I borrowed my brother's copy of Lolita. They snatched it, rather roughly I felt, out of my hands before I'd barely started.) The Kiplings, along with a set of Robert Louis Stevenson, were some kind of paternity gift to my father when my elder brother was born I think but I'm not completely sure. At any rate my brother has the set now. As a kid of 8 or 9, who had just realised that reading was everything, I dabbled in and out of many of the volumes but I was too young really for Kipling in the sense of fully appreciating him. 

Social media throws many opportunities our way. It enables the merest of mortals connection with people one could only dream of connecting with in the outside world. I read these two Kipling stories on the recommendation of someone I connect with on social media. Someone I revere. No, an author I revere. No, no, a critically acclaimed author I revere. No, no, no a critically acclaimed, exceptionally gifted author I revere. No, no, no, no a critically acclaimed, exceptionally gifted author who is now one of my favourite authors of all time who I revere. The first was suggested following a discussion on longevity and authenticity in fiction with a passing nod to reincarnation and the second  - well, this critically acclaimed, exceptionally gifted, favourite author of all time whom I revere, would love to know my thoughts on Mrs. Bathurst. Reader, I can't refuse!! So here I go.

It's a fine story to be sure, the finest in the world? I'm not sure, but it is a delight. Charlie Mears is a bank clerk in London with aspirations to be a writer. He is acquainted with the narrator who allows him space to write and reads what the young man produces making some critical suggestions as young Charlie seems to be struggling. Ultimately the narrator gives Charlie five pounds for a nautical story, deciding he can write it better himself and suggesting the young man can buy numerous poetry books with the money. But as he questions Charlie about the detail in the story of a Greek galley slave it seems too authentic, to be from Charlie's imagination. And the narrator concludes that what he is hearing is an account of a past life, Kipling uses the term metempsychosis to describe this reincarnation. Charlie goes on later in the story to describe life on a Viking ship crossing the Atlantic.

You might be forgiven for thinking that all of that in itself is enough for an engrossing and mind provoking short story. And I guess it is, for Kipling shows himself to be a master storyteller that has you reading on rapt with wonder at what will transpire next. The short story often seems to be a under rated genre. Yet the skill required to offer a concise, complete and satisfying tale is considerable. Kipling has it in abundance. But the story continues quite delightfully.

Charlie Mears uses his five pounds to purchase volumes of poetry, notably Longfellow which enrapture him. He seems completely satisfied by the arrangement. The narrator confides in a delightful character, Grish Chunder, a delightful name too, about his past life suspicions with which Grish concurs, hinting that the intensity of Charlie's recall might well diminish were he to fall in love. Of course he does!! And he goes on to produce some unremarkable poetry. But he seems unable to continue to recall his past lives and what might have been the finest story in the world never is.

Something crucial to the art of the short storytelling is to offer the reader something to think about after the story has ended. Kipling gives us much to think about. The morality of the narrator in using what he believes to be the material for 'the finest story in the world' for a fiver and passing it off as the product of his own imagination could fuel reading group discussions for longer than many a novel might. Charlie's delight at having the funds to spend on poetry is delightful as is the inferred discomfort of the narrator at believing he is profiting from the youngster's memories.Then of course ideas about reincarnation which are not new but can still provoke many a heated discussion are thrown out for us quite calmly really. The idea that for the most part we do not remember our past lives because the knowledge might be damaging to us in our present carnation is an interesting one to consider. But beyond those issues I kept wondering whether Charlie's recounting of his past lives was an act of catharsis, a need within him to subconsciously detail his development from birth through to love. Until he had done that he wasn't free to love maybe? I also felt the narrator, older was gaining some kind of personal insight through the revelations of Charlie.

Egad! T'is a short story and I've already written more than I might for a four hundred page novel! Such is the power of Kipling.

I was able to read this story online here: -

So, go on. Give it a go!!

Mrs. Bathhurst, though, is a different matter. It remains enigmatic and almost ambiguous in its intent and conclusions by comparison with The Finest Story in the World.  But it's no less absorbing as a short story. The sea, ships and sailing again play a strong part in the story line. There are some marvellous descriptive passages. Another narrator driven tale, set in South Africa, Kipling's use of dialogue propels the story forward. Conversations between the narrator and Hooper, who works for the railroad and a couple of sailors concern topics like absence without leave and naval related incidents. The characterisations are well observed.  Pyecroft and Pritchard, who I endowed with accents of Estuary English, leap off the page at you. A colleague named Vickery is introduced, nicknamed 'Click' because of ill fitting dentures. But we get a way into the story before the titular Mrs. Bathurst is mentioned. We never meet her. All we know of her is through the conversation and observations of the sailors. Of course that is part of the storyteller's art. We learn of their perceptions. She seems to be a remarkable lady unaware of the impact she has on men possibly.  All we know of her is others' perceptions. But are their perceptions true ones? That, dear reader, is up to us to figure out!

We learn of Vickery's obsession with Mrs Bathurst, and inference of an affair, from his watching a newsreel, featuring her arriving in England, which he watches several nights consecutively. The suggestion of obsession bubbling under.  I found this quite surreal, yet quite understated. The newsreel is part of a travelling circus which ends as circuses do and subsequently Vickery has an audience with the ship's captain and mysteriously leaves, 'up-country that same evening'. But he doesn't appear to be seen again. Then Mr. Hooper describes the finding of two bodies beside the railway. They are badly burned. How? The description of one suggests it is Vickery but nothing is said of the other. Who is it? We are reminded of Vickery's comment that he is not a murderer and that his wife died six weeks before he came out?

Is it the job of a story teller to guide the reader to a conclusion? Or is it the job of the reader to discern the author's intent? It seems to me that Mrs. Bathurst raises those questions! But Kipling offers no answers!

I believe the story to be deliberately enigmatic; it raises so many questions of identity, perception and obsession. It's like a literary 'join the dots' for the reader.

Or is Kipling just playing with us?!

You can find the story here:

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