A Kipling novel that still defies comprehension
‘Listen, Bill,’ wrote P. G. Wodehouse (in a letter published in Performing Flea), ‘something really must be done about Kip’s “Mrs Bathurst”. I read it years ago and didn’t understand a word of it. I thought to myself, “Ah, youthful ignorance!”
A week ago I re-read it. Result: precisely the same.’
Wodehouse is not alone in finding the story baffling. At once rambling and compressed, told entirely in reminiscent and speculative conversation, it is powerful but murky. You may feel it is a masterpiece yet be unable to determine just what happens. Summarising it is difficult, but, for the benefit of anyone who doesn’t know the story, here goes.
Four men meet on a beach in South Africa and talk as they drink beer: an unnamed narrator (Kipling himself?), Inspector Hooper of the Cape Government Railways who has just come down from up-country, Pyecroft of the Royal Navy, an old acquaintance of the narrator, and Sergeant Pritchard of the Royal Marines. They speak first about old shipmates and an experience in Vancouver for which Pyecroft was court-martialled. Then the talk turns to one Vickery, known as ‘Click’, on account of his ill-fitting false teeth, a detail that arouses Hooper’s curiosity. Vickery, it seems, had deserted ship and never been seen or heard of again.
‘Who was she?’ the narrator asks. ‘She kep’ a little hotel at Hauraki — near Auckland’, is the reply. This is Mrs Bathurst, a widow, who ‘never scrupled to feed a lame duck or set ’er foot on a scorpion at any time of ’er life.’ Mrs Bathurst, with her ‘blindish way o’ looking’, has ‘It’ . (First use of the expression?) Vickery, a married man with a 15-year-old daughter, becomes obsessed with her, on the strength of a couple of meetings.
Cut back to South Africa. Vickery takes Pyecroft to the cinema. (The story is set at a time when moving pictures were an astonishing novelty.) There is a film of the Western Mail coming into Paddington, and then ‘slowly, from be’ind two porters — carryin’ a little reticule an’ looking from side to side — comes out Mrs Bathurst. There was no’ mistakin’ that walk.’ Night after night Vickery compels Pyecroft to watch the snatch of film before taking him on a tour of the bars. The show moves on up-country. Vickery deserts — to see her again. Before he does so, he tells Pyecroft to remember that he is not a murderer because his ‘lawful wife’ died in childbirth six weeks after he set sail.
Now Hooper tells of how he came on two corpses up-country, struck by lightning, reduced to charcoal. One had false teeth. ‘Permanent things false teeth are,’ he says. ‘You read about ’em in all the murder trials.’
Vickery is dead, no question about that. (‘Thank Gawd’, says Pyecroft, remembering his face on their cinema- and bar-evenings.) But whose is the other body? Nicholas Freeling, in an essay in his fascinating Book, Criminal Convictions, has no doubt that it is Mrs Bathurst herself, and that Vickery, in his despairing obsession, has deliberately attracted the lightning. It is inconceivable,’ Freeling writes, ‘to drag in a new figure , previously unheard of, on the last page. The story is called “Mrs Bathurst” and she is the major character throughout, the more vividly so for being scarcely seen.’
This is good sense. Nevertheless, difficulties remain. If the other corpse is indeed hers, how and when did she come to Africa? Had Vickery arranged to meet her there, or did he happen on her by chance? If their meeting was arranged, and if he indeed ‘deliberately attracted the lightning’, why? What has she refused him?
She was last seen in the film-clip alighting from the train at Paddington, and looking around as if she was expecting someone to meet her. Who? Vickery himself?
And that remark about his ‘lawful wife’: was he hinting that he had contracted a bigamous marriage with Mrs Bathurst? Harry Ricketts, in his biography of Kipling, calls the ‘cinematograph the device through which Vickery saw his lover on screen and was convinced he was being haunted.’ If that’s correct, and he met Mrs Bathurst by chance ‘up-country’ — but, again, how did she get there? — and he thought her a ghost — the ghost of the woman he had already killed, in England perhaps — that might explain why he attracted the lightning, if indeed he did.
Wodehouse was right to be puzzled. I’m puzzled myself, despite having read the story at least a dozen times. Yet I’m sure it’s a masterpiece, and I would hazard that its true theme is the ultimate impossibility of fully knowing another human being. That sounds banal; but it’s not when dramatically, if obscurely, expressed as it is here.
There are mysteries beyond explanation.