If you have come away from “Mrs. Bathurst” more than a little confused and frustrated by its complexity, then rest assured that you are neither the first nor the last to do so. Since its growing popularity as one of Kipling’s most complex stories, “Mrs. Bathurst” has received a barrage of critical response, most of which takes for granted that the story is at once “obscure and puzzling,” filled with “misinformation,” “uncrackable,” and, as though Kipling were pleased by his audience’s frustrations, “teasingly ambiguous.”
In fact, even those most familiar with Kipling’s art have chosen to summarize “Mrs. Bathurst” before venturing to interpret its meaning, as though describing “what happens” is, in itself, an interpretive feat. Those who have refused to search out some meaning in the story have done so on the grounds that it is cryptic to the point of incomprehensibility, or even downright pretentious. For one scholar, the problem of the story’s meaning “will remain unanswered” because it “probably never had much meaning.”
One possible explanation for the difficulty we find in “Mrs. Bathurst” may have to do with Kipling’s own preoccupation with questions of literary construction. In the autobiography printed after his death, Kipling writes of his fiction: “I made my own experiments in the weights, colours, perfumes and attributes of words in relation to other words, either as read aloud so that they may hold the ear, or scattered over the page, drew the eye” (Something of Myself).
With Kipling, we have the image of one who combines words the way a chemist combines chemicals, seeking some new reaction that might change the manner in which we experience the world through language. Elsewhere, in a letter to a young reader, Kipling offers this interesting advice: “read and reread [books] until you pass from mere reading to criticism and begin to see how they are put together and what means the author uses to produce certain effects.” It behooves the reader to return to the story time and time again—not despite its complexities, but because of them.
Seeing how the story is “put together” is, perhaps, most central to understanding “Mrs. Bathurst.” For it is precisely the story’s construction, its manner of unfolding, that so often baffles readers. Take, for instance the insertion of what appears to be a series ofnon sequiturs into the story, ranging from the short tale of Boy Niven’s circuitous misguidance, to the anecdote of how Pritchard receives a beer from a woman who apparently has mistaken him for someone else.
We might also note that the story begins with a mistake, as the narrator tells us: “The day I chose to visit HMS Peridot in Simon’s Bay was the day that the Admiral had chosen to send her up the coast. She was just steaming out to sea as my train came in….” From the very start, the story is fraught with mistimings, misrecognitions, disruptions, and unexpected detail; it is constructed like a building with hidden hallways and unfinished staircases. Precisely because Kipling fills lines with so much detail, with vivid “weights, colours, perfumes and attributes,” we find ourselves confused, feeling more ignorant than informed. But only by acknowledging this as part of the story’s strategy—this feeling of disorientation that we immediately get—can we really understand Kipling’s narrative method and the “means the author uses to produce certain effects.”
It should come as no surprise that the ”production of effect” means a great deal to Kipling, especially if we consider the dominant subplot in “Mrs. Bathurst,” namely the story of the cinema’s effect on Mr. Vickery, leading to his eventual insanity and death. We may take for granted, as postmodern viewers accustomed to sophisticated visual technologies, the experience of watching film. However, we cannot pass too quickly over the importance of Vickery’s experience watching Mrs. Bathurst on the movie screen. Indeed, his experience calls to our attention the difficulty of encountering new forms of representation, new visual and aural productions, such as the cinema, at the turn of the twentieth century. “I’d never seen it before,” says Pyecroft about the new technology, “but the pictures were the real thing—alive an’ movin’.” Hooper, who is listening to this description and who seems to understand the difference between an image on the screen and one that is actually “alive and movin’,” offers a correction: “I’ve seen ’em … Of course they are taken from the very thing itself—you see.”
As a result of film’s verisimilitude, it is easy for viewers, particularly those who have never confronted such technology, to confuse the “thing itself’ with the representation of the picture on the screen; and this seems to be Vickery’s and Pyecroft’s confusion. “Why, it’s the woman herself,” says Pyecroft to Vickery, when he sees Mrs. Bathurst exit the train.
Of course, it’s not the woman herself at all. To think that, is to mistake representation for reality and potentially to go mad in the process, much as Vickery does. He cannot sort through the spatial tricks that appear on the ”big magic lantern sheet” of the cinema; for example, that the representation of Mrs. Bathurst appears on a screen in Cape Town despite the fact that she is getting off a train in London’s Paddington station. This confuses Vickery enough to make him look into bars every three minutes, expecting to see her. To the two men, when the image of Mrs. Bathurst passes the camera it appears as though she “melt[s] out of the picture” and phantasmically disappears, “like a shadow jumpin’ over a candle.” There is something haunting about the image on the screen. Nor can Vickery understand the temporal tricks played by film. Some critics have suggested that, at the time when Vickery and Pyecroft are watching Mrs. Bathurst on the screen, she is dead. Such an argument helps to explain why Vickery is so disturbed by her repeated “arrival” in London. “She’s lookin’ for me,” he says, “stopping dead under a lamp.”
At this point, we might suggest that the experience of reading ”Mrs. Bathurst” is confusing to us in similar ways, and that our inability to piece together all of the details is a kind of interpretative madness. As readers, we are given no explanation of the narrator’s business with the ship at the beginning of the story; we only know that, like Vickery, he wants to be where he is not. We never even learn the narrator’s name or history. Likewise, Mr. Pyecroft and Sergeant Pritchard appear in the story as if out of nowhere, phantasmically to the narrator who has drifted off into a beer-induced sleep. Moreover, the abundance of unfinished sentences and, as I have already mentioned, non sequiturs make the story tough to visualize. In regard to many of the story’s episodes, we as readers might say with Mr. Hooper, ”I don’t see… somehow.” The information on the page does not conform easily to a mental picture in our imaginations.
Finally, we might ask why Kipling would construct a story that mimics, by its temporal and spatial shifts and its confusing narrative, the effects of the cinema. What is there for Kipling to gain by making his readers into disorientated viewers, who resemble Vickery in this regard and who must return again and again to the story, obsessed to find answers to many questions? In one sense, Kipling anticipates modernist writers who defamiliarize their narrative styles—make them obscure and cryptic— in order to emphasize the distance between narrative and reality.
One problem that faced many modernists was the public’s willingness to collapse the boundaries separating artistic representation from reality. The film, the most “realistic” of new modes of representation, amplified this problem by glorifying its ability to mimic reality and to make representations appear, as Pyecroft says, “alive an’ movin’.” Some critics have even suggested that “Mrs. Bathurst” exemplifies literary realism, that the dialogue and the anecdotes in the story are strange precisely because they so closely resemble reality. Certainly, when four men sit in a circle and reminisce over beer, the conversation often takes strange, incomprehensible turns.
But this should not rule out the opposite assessment, namely that Kipling is reacting against literary realism by showing the dangers of assuming that representations are reality. “Mrs. Bathurst” moves away from clearly visible reality. We never know what happens to Vickery, because Hooper never pulls from his pocket the missing clue, which we assume he has. And we never see the title character of the story with clear eyes. What does she really look like? Where has she gone? In the end, it is left for our imaginations, not for our eyes to discern. “Yes,” we remember Pyecroft saying, “I used to think seein’ and hearin’ was the only regulation aids to ascertainin’ facts, but as we get older we get more accommodatin’.”
Ira Mark Milne (Editor), Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 8, Rudyard Kipling, Published by Thomson Gale, 2000.
Andrew Mercy, “The Effect of ‘Mrs. Bathurst’ on the Reader,” for Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2000.