I’m late to the party again — Rudyard Kipling’s story Mrs Bathurst has attracted so much critical attention that it’s doubtful I can do anything to illuminate it further. The story is like life, which in turn is like Herve Villechaise — too short, and sometimes hard to understand.
This story starts off resembling a lot of Victorian short fiction — in a simple, undramatic situation, characters chat and this leads to the telling of a tale. While a ghost story of the era might take place in a gentleman’s club, Kipling makes his characters working class soldiers and they exchange a number of stories which lead them to the tale of a mutual acquaintance. In a variation on the usual approach, here two of the characters know part of the story — one knows the bulk of it — and a third can supply the ending, which ought to make for a satisfying account, allowing the people in the framing structure to partake of the same surprise and emotional reaction as the reader. But Kipling does something very strange: even with their information pooled, the characters lack vital parts of the story, and so the reader cannot make sense of it. Frustratingly, the characters in the story shrug this off, whereas the more the reader ponders the yarn, the more deeply mysterious it becomes.
This makes it a striking early example of a modernist text. But was this deliberate? Some have suggested that Kipling’s habit of pruning back his stories during re-writing may have gotten out of hand, and he shaved away too much exposition leaving us with an unsolvable conundrum. And apparently never realised it. Certainly, Kipling wasn’t infallible: in revising the story for republication, he inadvertently had one character refer to another by name before that name had been realistically introduced.
But the idea that Mrs B’s story got obfuscated by mistake is rendered implausible by the existence of a letter written by Kipling to a fan who had suggested their own explanation of the story. Kipling said that the explanation was ingenious, but that it was important to remember that a key conversation in his plot took place between two characters without witnesses, and only they knew of its contents. In other words, the story deliberately contains an element of the unknowable.
In the story’s key central section, a character nicknamed Click has a striking emotional response to the sight of a woman on the screen of a cinematograph. She is his ex-lover, and in the film she is apparently looking for him. Click’s companion, narrating the events, gives a description of the cinema that rivals Maxim Gorky’s famous “kingdom of shadows” letter (a favourite text around here).
We were in the front row, an’ “Home an’ Friends” came on early. Vickery touched me on the knee when the number went up. “If you see anything that strikes you,” he says, “drop me a hint”; then he went on clicking. We saw London Bridge an’ so forth an’ so on, an’ it was most interestin’. I’d never seen it before. You ’eard a little dynamo like buzzin’, but the pictures were the real thing—alive an’ movin’.’
‘I’ve seen ’em,’ said Hooper. ‘Of course they are taken from the very thing itself—you see.’
‘Then the Western Mail came in to Paddin’ton on the big magic-lantern sheet. First we saw the platform empty an’ the porters standin’ by. Then the engine come in, head on, an’ the women in the front row jumped: she headed so straight. Then the doors opened and the passengers came out and the porters got the luggage just like life. Only—only when any one came down too far towards us that was watchin’, they walked right out o’ the picture, so to speak. I was ’ighly interested, I can tell you. So were all of us. I watched an old man with a rug ’oo’d dropped a book an’ was tryin’ to pick it up, when quite slowly, from be’ind two porters—carryin’ a little reticule an’ lookin’ from side to side—comes out Mrs. Bathurst. There was no mistakin’ the walk in a hundred thousand. She come forward—right forward—she looked out straight at us with that blindish look which Pritch alluded to. She walked on and on till she melted out of the picture—like—like a shadow jumpin’ over a candle, an’ as she went I ’eard Dawson in the tickey seats be’ind sing out: “Christ! there’s Mrs. B.!”’
It’s good stuff — best to read it in a Victor McLaglan voice, I find.
Just like Gorky, Kipling’s narrator is most struck by something so natural to us now that we barely notice it. Of course, the silence of the cinema image and the lack of colour is a striking difference from nature, despite the lifelike motion, but the FRAME is the weirdest thing of all. People walk closer towards us, but then vanish out of shot. This happens in real life too, but with our own vision, if something we are interested in threatens to pass out of view, we are able to turn our head to follow it. So we’re not generally conscious of losing sight of things out of the edge of our vision (but a certain meditative kind drunkenness can make us aware of it). The film camera gives us a paralysed view of life, like that seen by the protagonist of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Alex DeLarge’s experience in A Clockwork Orange of being strapped into a seat with his eyelids clamped open is just an extreme version of the normal cinematic experience.
It’s not a particularly original interpretation, but I do think that Kipling is using the cinema as a clue to his storytelling approach in Mrs Bathurst. She seems to advance towards us and become ever clearer, but abruptly she vanishes. That which the camera did not happen to aim at goes unrecorded, and we will never know what happened there.
As Mr. Scorsese is always saying, cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s not in the frame.
If you guys all read the story at the link up top, we can debate what the heck it’s all about.