“Mary Postgate” – what happened to Wynn’s sword?

As I plod through fiction magazines of the War years, I sometimes come across well-known stories in their first incarnation. Occasionally, these can be significantly different from versions published later. For instance, there’s the P.G.Wodehouse story with topical jokes about the horrors of war and peace, presumably trimmed by publisher Herbert Jenkins as material liable to date, and to limit the book’s shelf-life.

In other cases, the changes are subtler, as in Kipling’s In the Interests of the Brethren, whose book publication tidies the original Storyteller version, and clarifies its themes.

Mary Postgate is in Nash’s and Pall Mall Magazine for September 1915. It was the star story of the issue, advertised on the cover and the first in the magazine. (I noted a while back the way that the story was advertised in The Times.) There are very only a few textual differences between this version and what appeared in A Diversity of Creatures, and they are not very significant, though I find them interesting.

First, the story has an epigraph that does not appear in any later version that I have seen. It is:

“How does your garden grow?”

Should we take this as an ironic comment on the horror that will occur in Mary’s garden? Or is it telling us to expect that Mary’s behaviour will be “quite contrary”? Or both? Doesn’t gardening otherwise appear in Kipling’s work as the most positive of activities? I’m thinking of The Gardener, of course, but also of Fairy-Kist. Did Kipling cut the line because it was unnecessary?

Then there are a couple of changes that are hard to understand. One is that the pub is the “White Hart” in the magazine, and becomes the “Royal Oak” in the book. I can think of two reasons for a change like that. One is to remove what might seem a reference to a particular local pub, and the other is to put one in. Are there any White Harts or Royal Oaks near Batemans, or anywhere else with particular associations for Kipling?

And, in particular, there is the question of Wynn’s sword.

Almost everything that the dead airman left behind him was consumed in the bonfire, and the list of Wynn’s property is one of the greatest lists in English literature, conjuring as it does a whole young existence from the rather pitiful inventory:

Next, journey by journey, passing Miss Fowler’s white face at the morning-room window each time, she brought down in the towel-covered clothes-basket, on the wheelbarrow, thumbed and used Hentys, Marryats, Levers, Stevensons, Baroness Orczys, Garvices, schoolbooks, and atlases, unrelated piles of the Motor Cyclist, the Light Car, and catalogues of Olympia Exhibitions; the remnants of a fleet of sailing-ships from nine-penny cutters to a three-guinea yacht; a prep. school dressing-gown; bats from three-and-sixpence to twenty-four shillings; cricket and tennis balls; disintegrated steam and clockwork locomotives with their twisted rails; a grey and red tin model of a submarine; a dumb gramophone and cracked records; golf-clubs that had to be broken across the knee, like his walking-sticks, and an assegai; photographs of private and public school cricket and football elevens, and his O.T.C. on the line of march; kodaks, and film-rolls; some pewters, and one real silver cup, for boxing competitions and junior Hurdles; sheaves of school photographs; Miss Fowler’s photograph; her own which he had borne off in fun and (good care she took not to ask!) had never returned; a playbox with a secret drawer; a load of flannels, belts, and jerseys, and a pair of spiked shoes unearthed in the attic; a packet of all the letters that Miss Fowler and she had ever written to him, kept for some absurd reason through all these years; a five-day attempt at a diary; framed pictures of racing motors in full Brooklands career, and load upon load of undistinguishable wreckage of tool-boxes, rabbit-hutches, electric batteries, tin soldiers, fret-saw outfits, and jig-saw puzzles.

His uniform is handed on to other soldier, as support for the War effort dictated, but, as Miss Fowler says,

“We needn’t keep anything else except his cap and sword.”

Or that’s what she says in Nash’s. By 1917 this has become “his cap and belt”, and I’m trying to speculate why.

A very good article by Michael Aidin in the current Kipling Journal reminds us that George Cecil, the eighteen-year-old son of their neighbour Lady Violet Cecil was reported missing in September 1914. Kipling played his part in helping to ascertain what had happened to him; later he was confirmed to be dead. I think it is very possible that the death of this young man, the loved child of a widow, would have been in Kipling’s mind when he was writing this story. As a regular officer, George Cecil would, I think, have had a sword.

Because of publishing deadlines, Mary Postgate must have been written at least a couple of months before September 1915, when it appeared in Nash’s. That September was also the month of the most significant event in Kipling’s war, the disappearance of his son, John, at Loos.

John’s body was never found, but what relics did Kipling and Carrie cling on to? On Wednesday I hope to finally get round to seeing the My Boy Jack exhibition at the Imperial War Museum. Maybe that will tell me. And did Jack, as a wartime recruit, have a sword? If not, the disappearance of the sword in the book version of the story may be a small tribute to the memory of his son. It’s just speculation, but I’d like to know.

As well as these details, there are two big differences between the magazine publication and the book. The first is that in A Diversity of Creatures, the story is followed by the poem The Beginnings:

It was not part of their blood,
It came to them very late
With long arrears to make good,
When the English began to hate…

This suggests a very definite interpretation of the story, but maybe postdates its composition by quite a while.

The other difference is that the magazine story is illustrated by one of Nash’s best artists, Fortunino Matania. He had produced the pictures for Kipling’s work before (and I think the double spread he did for Swept and Garnished is better than the story it illustrates.) He drew two pictures for Mary Postgate, the first of which shows rather brilliantly, I think, Wynn’s bumptiousness, and the sheer animal energy that so attracted Mary. I like the watchful Mrs Fowler in the background, too. (Apologies for the image quality. This is a scan of a photocopy. The page curves, because the library has a prejudice against people who rip pages out of volumes to put them flat on the copier.)

The second picture shows Mary with the airman. Matania gives no more definite clues than Kipling does as to his nationality.



  1. Pat Herman
    Posted February 6, 2010 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

    Dear Mr Simmers,

    Thanks very much for your illuminating remarks about ‘Mary Postgate’. His amending of the sword to a belt is very suggestive. As for the change of the pub’s name from the White Hart to The Royal Oak, don’t you think he was drawing attention to the completely new fact that England herself was under attack — ‘the war did not stay decently outside England…’ I think that he was also inviting us to remember, by way of Nurse Eden’s name, the passage from Richard II alluding to ‘This other Eden, demi-paradise/This fortress built by Nature for herself/ Against infection and the hand of war’ in which Shakespeare rejoices in England’s territorial inviolability. Kipling has realised early in the history of aerial warfare that all, including women, are now in the frontline and may have to fight. He’s saying that they will do so.

    Best wishes,

    Pat Herman

  2. Posted February 6, 2010 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

    Pat –
    You could be right about the connotations of the pub name ‘Royal Oak’, but I still think there might be a local connection. One of these days I shall take a drive round the country surrounding Kipling’s home at Batemans, looking at pub names. (And even if it’s not productive from a literary point of view, it will be an excuse to sample some good beer.)

  3. Posted April 29, 2015 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    John Kipling did have a sword. A letter Kipling wrote to his son shortly before the latter’s death at Loos tells him: ‘Your sword is on top of the credence in my study.’
    So that’s my theory shot down.

  4. janevsw
    Posted June 17, 2015 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    The White Hart was Richard II’s emblem and the Royal Oak Charles II’s – perhaps the move is from a king(dom) usurped to a king(dom) saved?

    (Present pubs at Burwash appear to be the Rose & Crown and the Bear).

  5. Roger
    Posted June 21, 2015 at 1:30 am | Permalink

    Could the disappearance of Wynn’s sword between 1915 and 1917 reflect a change in the standard equipment an officer was expected to have in that time? In 1915 a newly-commissioned officer would be expected to have a sword; in 1917 it would be anomalous and distract from the story’s impact by raising other matters.

Post a Comment

%d bloggers like this: