Kipling’s ‘Fairy-Kist’ – Bibliotherapy gone mad

(This paper was written for the conference The Book as Cure: Bibliotherapy and Literary Caregiving from the First World War to the Present, at the Senate House, London University, September 2018)

In the last twenty years of Rudyard Kipling’s life, the most important theme in his work is healing – and he is especially interested in the possibility of healing the men who have been psychologically or spiritually damaged by war.

His first story on the subject is ‘In the Interests of the Brethren’ (1916) in which he imagines a Masonic lodge dedicated to helping soldiers back from the war. The lodge gives men a place to go, people who will listen to them, and, importantly, it gives them work to do, learning the rituals, polishing the woodwork, caring for the Masonic regalia. They are busy and feel useful, and the companionship means that they don’t feel alone; for Kipling these are the first and most essential steps to recovery.

When I showed this magazine cover at a conference a while ago, someone said to me afterwards – that magazine was a bit down-market, wasn’t it? To which the answer was: yes, deliberately so. Kipling chose The Story-teller because it was a large-circulation magazine that reached all classes. Before then his stories had been appearing in the more expensive and select Pall-Mall magazine, but this story was a story with a purpose, and one that he wanted to reach the greatest number of people. It was prefaced in the magazine with this note, exhorting real masonic lodges to emulate the example of his fictional one.

He used the Story-Teller for other stories on the theme – including The Janeites, which is, of course, one of the most celebrated fictional accounts of bibliotherapy.

This story is also set within a Masonic context. It’s after the War, and the central character is Brother Humberstall, “an enormous flat-faced man, carrying the shoulders, ribs and loins of the old Mark ’14 Royal Garrison Artillery , and the eyes of a bewildered retriever,” presently a hairdresser, tells an odd story of a secret society of front-line artillerymen (both officers and men) united in a brotherhood of appreciation of the novels of Jane Austen, and how he, an unlearned and unsophisticated man, came to be part of it. The story seems highly unlikely and even silly until one realises at the end that Humberstall had been badly affected when an ammunition dump blew up at Etaples, and that even while serving in France (as a mess waiter – they dare not let him work with the guns) he had been highly vulnerable.

Gradually the reader understands that the whole idea of a secret society is a form of therapy organised by his friend and fellow-soldier Macklin, a “toff” and ex-schoolmaster who can discuss literature on equal terms with the officers, and who realises that Humberstall needs something with which to fill his mind. His answer is not unlike that of Brother Burges’ Masonic lodge; he keeps Humberstall’s fragile mind busy with detail, making him not only read the books, but learn pages by heart. “’E said e’d been some sort of schoolmaster once, and he’d make mind resume work or break itself.”

In the story there is an interlocking network of supportive communities. First there is Masonry itself. Equally protective of those inside it is the Army, which finds the damaged man a job within his powers, and is lenient when he labels the gun with what they take to be an obscenity, but turns out to be a misspelling of Lady Catherine de Burgh. Most protective is Humberstall’s friend Macklin, giving his comrade therapy under the guise of initiation.

And there actually is, Kipling suggests, both in the story and outside it, a community of Janeites, though it as informal one, and not the organised esoteric society of Humberstall’s imagination. A new officer feels at home in the Mess when he discovers others who share his literary enthusiasm; the officers accept being put right by a drunken Macklin on this literary matter, when almost any other kind of interruption would have led to a charge and punishment. Finally, and most important for Humberstall, his mention of Miss Bates to an otherwise imposing matron (“a woman with a nose and teeth on ‘er”1) means that she takes a special interest in him, and ensures that he is included in the hospital train back to England – which probably saves his life. People recognising a commonality of interest form bonds. The link can be a common organisation, such as Masonry, a common enthusiasm, such as Jane Austen, or a common experience.

In the Lodge, Humberstall has been supervised by Brother Anthony, who makes him work hard and talk about his experiences – two essential elements of the restorative process. Right at the end of the story, Anthony’s blush reveals that he is engaged to Humberstall’s sister. A final type of supportive community is revealed – a caring family.

Kipling once said that ‘The Janeites’ need not have been about Jane Austen, or about books, and that it could have been about golf. His point being that golf too brings people together, and gets them talking in a purposeful friendly environment. One can believe that many men damaged by war were helped back into society by belonging to a sports club, quite apart from the therapeutic effect of bashing a little ball as far as it will go. Playing golf was one of Siegfried Sassoon’s main activities when he was at Craiglockhart Hospital (and the only time that the three war-damaged poets Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves all met together was at an Edinburgh golf club.)

But Jane Austen does add something essential to the story. She is decidedly English. She is humane. She has an unsentimental view of human nature, but communicates her enjoyment of the strange and wonderful variety of the human race. Her novels are reminders that there is a world away from the war (and in his description of the great German attack of March 1918, Kipling does not go easy in telling us of war’s appallingness and waste). Jane Austen’s novels show people working their way through trials and difficulties before reaching a well-deserved happy ending.

And Kipling was not alone in prescribing Jane Austen to soldiers. There is a story, or at least an elusive legend, that the Oxford don H. F. Brett-Smith compiled a ‘fever chart’, grading novels and poems according to their suitability for sufferers from various conditions. Jane Austen was prescribed for the most seriously shell-shocked. (The Jane Austen scholar Brian Southam tried for a long time to find a copy of this chart, but without success. I’d like to think it existed, though.)

But the Kipling story I really want to talk about today is another one, featuring an attempt at bibliotherapy that seems to go radically wrong, or at least to produce disturbing effects.

‘Fairy-Kist’ is, as the Strand Magazine advertised it, a detective story – the only detective story Kipling ever wrote. It’s the case of a young girl found with her head knocked in on the grass verge of a roadside. I’d better be careful of spoilers, so I won’t reveal whodunit, or how, or why, but I will tell you about the prime suspect.

Wollin is a large melancholy man, a disturbed ex-soldier who seems to have a lot of troubles churning inside him.

He was burned out – all his wrinkles gashes, and his eyes readjustin’ ’emselves after looking into Hell. One gets to know that kind of glare nowadays.

What had Wollin has been doing, going round on his motor bike a long way from home, on a dark evening? It turns out that he has been planting daffodils, honeysuckle and loose-strife in the grass verges. Did he also kill the girl? His trowel was found next to her dead body. Keede and Lemming, two of Kipling’s helpful Freemasons, investigate. The mystery of the death is cleared up – not by them – but there remains the deeper mystery of the man’s psychology. He goes out planting flowers, it transpires, because the Voices in his head tell him to – little whispers at first, then getting louder and louder. From his repetition of the Voices’ messages, Lemming finds a clue. There are phrases here from a nineteenth-century children’s book, Mary’s Meadow, by Juliana Horatio Ewing. In the book, a family of children read old gardening books, and develop the ambition of planting flowers by the wayside for the pleasure of travellers and those that have no gardens of their own.

The secret unravels. When Wollin had been wounded in the war, a V.A.D nurse had tried to soothe him by reading to him, presumably from her own small stock of books that gave her pleasure. Like Humberstall’s friend Macklin, she is doing her best with the things she knows. Mary’s Meadow is a soothing, charming book, and about as distanced from war as you can get. In his delirium, the words got into his head, and after the war they sent him out on his lonely mission of planting flowers by the roads. So this seems to be bibliotherapy gone haywire, a book preying on the man’s mind causing irrational behaviour, until he seems so strange to others that he becomes the prime suspect in a murder case.

Keede and Lemming talk things through with Wollin, and he is deeply relieved to hear this explanation for his behaviour. Interestingly, though, Kipling makes it clear that their finding a solution to the mystery has no effect on the behaviour of the man, who happily continues with his eccentric practice of planting flower seeds on the verges of roads, lunatic by everyday standards, but to him a sensible, satisfying and absorbing practice.

The story raises a couple of questions. The first is: why, for his fable of bibliotherapy, did Kipling choose this old-fashioned children’s story? I’m going to suggest two reasons.

In 1871, when he was nearly six, Kipling’s parents sent him and his sister Trix away from India for the sake of his health, and he lodged with a Captain and Mrs Holloway in Southsea. In 1874 Captain Holloway, who seems to have been a kindly man, died, and the two children were left with Mrs Holloway, a women who let her worst nature found its expression in evangelical Christianity. Kipling described the situation vividly in his story ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’, and later in his partial autobiography, Something of Myself. As he tells it, his one joy was reading

There were not many books in that house, but Father and Mother as soon as they heard I could read sent me priceless volumes. One I have still, a bound copy of Aunt Judy’s Magazine of the early ‘seventies, in which appeared Mrs. Ewing’s Six to Sixteen. I owe more in circuitous ways to that tale than I can tell. I knew it, as I know it still, almost by heart. Here was a history of real people and real things.

Why did Six to Sixteen, subtitled ‘A Story for Girls’ make such an impact on young Rudyard? It is the supposed autobiography of Margery Vandeleur, born in India, whose parents died when she was six, and who was then sent to England. After that her story is very different from young Rudyard Kipling’s. She is looked after well, makes friends and flourishes, especially when she goes to Yorkshire, the county where Juliana Ewing was born, It is a story of small incidents, pleasant friendships and sadness overcome.

Juliana Ewing has a knack that almost makes her the Jacqueline Wilson of nineteenth-century children’s literature – she can take difficult themes and write about them positively and sensibly – and very readably. And much like Jane Austen, she combined a realistic sense of human nature with a delight in the variety of human beings. In a recent essay, ‘Ruddy Kipling and His Aunt Judy’ William B. Dillingham has speculated that Mrs Ewing’s fiction was a crucial influence on Kipling’s own style of writing – and I think he is right: ‘ a history of real people and real things’ – that is what Kipling aimed for in his writing, an aesthetic made explicit in, for example, his novel The Light that Failed, a study of an artist for whom it was crucial to get the details exactly right.

More crucially, though, Six to Sixteen had been bibliotherapy for Kipling – the happy account of an Indian childhood must have connected with him, as must the description of loss of parents – though his was a different kind of loss. More subtly, the book gives a picture of a life where difficulties are overcome, and where children overcome by sadness can look forward to living in a larger and a kinder world. it’s a book that never preaches, but it does enact a process of growing up.

So Mrs Ewing’s books had a personal meaning for Kipling, and so, I think, had the idea of planting flowers in odd places where they might or might not be appreciated. By 1927 Kipling was the most famous writer in Britain, but also increasingly isolated and out of touch with an age that had generally rejected many of his political ideals. His literary concerns, too, were out of favour with the younger generation. Yet he kept on writing stories, and publishing them, often in magazines where they sit oddly with the rest of the contents and despite complaints that they were becoming too obscure, in the hope that they would give pleasure and consolation to others. Perhaps writing helped him through his despair after his son’s death in the war. The author’s writing therapy becomes the reader’s reading therapy.

And Kipling, I am going to speculate, had a precedent for this that is at least as important to this story as Juliana Ewing. Kipling admired the poetry of A E Housman; he considered Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries, Housman’s tribute to the regular soldiers who died at Mons, the finest poem of the War. Housman also admired Kipling; he sent a copy of Barrack-Room Ballads to his brother, and in one poem of A Shropshire Lad, ‘the New Mistress, we find him imitating both the metre and subject-matter of Kipling’s ‘Tommy’.
So they knew each other’s work, and Kipling must have known that A Shrospshire Lad was the book of poems that many young officers especially, but not only officers, took to war with them. The book’s romantic stoicism gave an example of how to face the difficulties of life and death.

A.E. Housman

In the final poem of A Shropshire Lad, Housman writes an account of sowing flowers that is also about the writing of poetry:

I hoed and trenched and weeded,
And took the flowers to fair:
I brought them home unheeded;
The hue was not the wear.

So up and down I sow them
For lads like me to find,
When I shall lie below them,
A dead man out of mind.

Some seed the birds devour,
And some the season mars,
But here and there will flower,
The solitary stars,

And fields will yearly bear them
As light-leaved spring comes on,
And luckless lads will wear them
When I am dead and gone.

The idea of leaving something behind that may be of use to ‘luckless lads’ in the future is behind Kipling’s story, too. Fairy-Kist is not only about bibliotherapy; like the rest of his ‘healing’ stories, it is an offering placed in public, that might perhaps be of use to someone in the future who is in need of bibliotherapy.

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