Yesterday I bought a new copy of Debits and Credits. My previous copy has been read to bits. It is an American (Doubleday, page & Co.) first edition of 1926, picked up somewhere by my father during his seafaring years. Its cover is stamped with a rather attractive picture of an ancient ship, which I hope you can just about see in this scan; the lettering has faded.
The new copy is an English 1926 edition, and I bought it (very reasonably priced) from the excellent Children’s Bookshop in Huddersfield. What you would not guess from the bookshop’s website is that as well as a bright and full collection of modern paperbacks and gift books, the shop has a back room labelled ‘Old Books’, full of second-hand treasures, well cared for and at good prices. One that I liked the look of was a boys’ adventure story set during the Franco-Prussian War, but I resisted that, and also a jolly-looking Angela Brazil, despite having enjoyed A Patriotic Schoolgirl so much. There were three books by that rather wonderful Victorian writer Mrs Molesworth; I used to read her to my daughter when she was young.
There is much fuller selection of books by Julia Margaret Ewing; the last time I visited this shop I bought her Mary’s Meadow, the book whose themes Kipling used to such effect in his story ‘Fairy-Kist’ (I wrote a bit about it in my paper on Kipling and Shell-Shock).
As well as the children’s books, there are shelves devoted to various authors. There is a Dickens shelf, for example, and a Kipling shelf, rather high up, with a large selection of the works in the uniform Macmillan edition. There is also a note saying that more Kipling material is available to view; unfortunately the lady serving yesterday did not know much about this, so I shall have to visit again when the proprietor is there.
My new Debits and Credits has a less interesting cover than the American edition – just the standard gilt elephant and swastika motif. Inside, though, thanks to macmillan, who treated Kipling well, the print is much better.
This morning I re-read ‘A Madonna of the Trenches’, one of those stories into which Kipling packs more material than most authors could fit into a novel. It is one of the stories set in the Lodge of Instruction (attached to Faith and Works E.C. 5837) and I wonder whether it was the Masonic interest that made my father keep this book among the smallish collection saved from his travels. He was keen Mason, and Master of his Lodge at one time.
‘A Madonna of the Trenches’is a story about neurosis, and secrecy, and ghosts. I’m sure that Kipling, deeply interested in the problem of shell-shock, would have read W.H.R. Rivers’ The Repression of War Experience. Is this story his commentary on it?
When a young ex-soldier, Clem Strangwick, suffers a panic attack during a Masonic lecture, the Brethren, and especially Dr Keede, presume at first that it is a standard shell-shock, the return of repressed trench horrors. Instead of this relatively simple diagnosis, Kipling shows us a multi-layered pattern of repressions and silences. The trench memories are disturbing enough:
‘It was a bit by Sampoux, that we had taken over from the French. They’re tough, but you wouldn’t call ’em tidy as a nation. They had faced both sides of it with dead to keep the mud back. All those trenches were like gruel in a thaw.’
Underneath that is the story he would not tell Keede in France, but which comes out now, and beneath that is the question he never explicitly voices, about his own parentage. And under that is the mystery of the apparently supernatural. We can’t be certain whether Strangwick actually sees Aunt Bella, or whether it is indeed just ‘some rags o’ gas-screen, ’angin’ on a bit of board’. How much of the story is the work of his fevered imagination?
This story breaks down the conventional binary opposition of war and peace. The soldiers are among corpses, but none of the characters are killed in battle. Aunt Armine dies back at home and Godsoe commits suicide. War memories have to be repressed, but the repressions with most effect are those of civilian life. The family avoids facing the truth about Strangwick’s parentage, and the affair between Godsoe and Bella has become something that did not happen, buried under silence.
The story is full of the things we don’t talk about. Cancer is referred to euphemistically as ‘a gathering’ or ‘my little trouble’.
Civilian standards of decent reticence over-ride military discipline; the soldiers hide the fact of Godsoe’s suicide from the officers:
‘No need to black a dead man’s name, sir.’
Among all these lies and avoidances, Strangwick has had a glimpse of ‘the reel thing’, love as powerful as it can be: ‘The reel thing’s life an’ death.’
When I’ve written about Kipling’s shell-shock stories before, I have tended to ignore ‘The madonna of the Trenches’ as not typical. Now I think it may be the profoundest of the lot.