Last week I started reviewing books that I like. I debated writing a review of any number of books from my favourite modern authors but decided to go for a slight change of pace. Hence this week's review is of a book first published over a century ago.
One advantage of reviewing a book written 100+ years ago is that it is available electronically from all sorts of places including the magnificent archive of works at Newcastle University in Australia. If you want it in printed form and don't have the leisure to hunt for it in second hand book stores then there are many editions available as well.
The Day's Work is a collection of 12 short stories (one split into two parts) that is quintessential Kipling in what PG Wodehouse would call his "mid season form". There are stories about India, about ships, about America, about animals and about England. Although somewhat random, in my view, they do combine to make a very satisfying whole and it is good to read them from start to finish. Of course one benefit of a collection of short stories is that there is no need to read them in order and no harm done if one is skipped because it is boring.
I first read The Day's Work as an inky schoolboy a little more than two decades ago, although one of the stories - The Maltese Cat - I read considerably earlier as my mother has a nice illustrated children's edition of it. I can quote significant chinks of it by heart and opening it at random I can immediately place the story and remember what happens next, but despite that I can still enjoy re-reading it and I do. Anyway enough of the overview lets get down to the individual tales.
The Bridge Builders describes the construction of a large rail and road bridge across the mighty river Ganges. It is a story of two halves with the first part being a fascinating look at some of the best of the British Empire, the engineers who built the Infrastructure of India that has lasted until this day. This is Kipling describing some of his beloved "Sons of Martha", the capable men who do not
...preach that their God will rouse them a little before the nuts work loose.
They do not teach that His Pity allows them to leave their job when they damn-well choose.
As in the thronged and the lighted ways, so in the dark and the desert they stand,
Wary and watchful all their days that their brethren’s days may be long in the land.
The second half is a fantasy, given the excuse of an opium dose and a flood, the engineer encounters upon an island downstream of the bridge the gods of India, including the great Mother Gunga(Ganges). It is an allegory about progress and what in modern times we would call "Westernization" or "Globalization" and with none ot the Political Correctess of these times it is nu surprise that Kipling, the imperialist, lets his white men and their works prevail.
A Walking Delegate
This story takes, as background, the time that Kipling spent in Vermont, but it is really a story of how revolutionaries seek to conceal their true goals. The story is one of those wherein Kipling assumes that animals can talk and concerns some horses on his farm and has wonderful characterization, accents and all, which could be stereotypes but somehow manage to rise above such hack imagery. It is a tale that can be read simply as an animal story but on rereading the deeper message comes through.
The Ship that Found Herself
This is another story with anthropomorphisms. In this case it is the separate parts of a cargo ship which is making its maiden voyage across the North Atlantic. In this case the moral drawn is how the sum can be greater than the parts and hence how cooperation is important for all. I have no doubt that a critic who disliked Kipling would say that it illustrates his view that people whoild know their class and station in life and stick to it but I think that would be unfair as an alternative moral is that everyone is important even the least amongst us.
The Tomb of his Ancestors
This is a tale of the start of the career of an officer in an Indian regiment who comes from a family who has sent generations over to serve (and whether or not modern theorists would agree Kipling certainly believe it was service) in a particular region of India. At one level it is condescending towards the "natives" and their superstitions, but in other respects it is an example of progress and how a failure to communicate can set back even the best intended aid. One suspects that the coalition soldiers in Iraq would sympathise a lot with this story.
The Devil and the Deep Sea
This is a humourous story about a British ship whose captain (and owner) have rather slippery morals. It also depicts, again, the labours of the "Sons of Martha". There is no hidden message or subtext that I can think of, just fun and light humour.
William the Conqueror - Part I and Part II
For reasons which I do not understand this story is broken into two chapters. There is no point whatsoever is only reading one of them. This is effectively a romance set in the background of famine relief works in Southern India, but it is also, I think, a timeless story about how expats live. Of course expats who are also rulers are different to expats who just work abroad but the description of the British community in N India is not that different from expat communities I have seen in Japan, California or the Riviera. It is also one of the rarer Kipling tales where the heroine is about as capable as anyone else. Indeed his introductory portrait of Miss Martyn is an absolute gem:
...Scott knew, too, as well as the rest of the world, that Miss Martyn had come out to India four years ago to keep house for her brother, who, as every one knew, had borrowed the money to pay for her passage, and that she ought, as all the world said, to have married at once. In stead of this, she had refused some half a dozen subalterns, a Civilian twenty years her senior, one Major, and a man in the Indian Medical Department. This, too, was common property. She had “stayed down three hot weathers,” as the saying is, because her brother was in debt and could not afford the expense of her keep at even a cheap hill-station. Therefore her face was white as bone, and in the centre of her forehead was a big silvery scar about the size of a shilling—the mark of a Delhi sore, which is the same as a “Bagdad date.” This comes from drinking bad water, and slowly eats into the flesh till it is ripe enough to be burned out.
None the less William had enjoyed herself hugely in her four years. Twice she had been nearly drowned while fording a river; once she had been run away with on a camel; had witnessed a midnight attack of thieves on her brother’s camp; had seen justice administered, with long sticks, in the open under trees; could speak Urdu and even rough Punjabi with a fluency that was envied by her seniors; had entirely fallen out of the habit of writing to her aunts in England, or cutting the pages of the English magazines; had been through a very bad cholera year, seeing sights unfit to be told; and had wound up her experiences by six weeks of typhoid fever, during which her head had been shaved and hoped to keep her twenty-third birthday that September. It is conceivable that the aunts would not have approved of a girl who never set foot on the ground if a horse were within hail; who rode to dances with a shawl thrown over her skirt; who wore her hair cropped and curling all over her head; who answered indifferently to the name of William or Bill; whose speech was heavy with the flowers of the vernacular; who could act in amateur theatricals, play on the banjo, rule eight servants and two horses, their accounts and their diseases, and look men slowly and deliberately between the eyes—even after they had proposed to her and been rejected.
In some ways William is the archetype of the heroine in much Science Fiction - the original "Boy Scout with Breasts" as unkind reviewers have described many Heinlein heroines - but William never forgets her femininity nor do the men surrounding her. The romance is highly amusing in that neither of the principles is willing to admit that they fancy each other, yet that mutual attraction is evident to all from the boss to the starving children they are trying to help. What can one say but Barbara Cartland would have begged to have written this tale.
More anthropomorphism here. This time it is American railway locomotives. The story is of the first few days out on the rails of the newly constructed ·007. It is a story of how modesty and a willingness to prevent teasing and bullying pays off but it is also an appreciation, as indeed is most of the book, of the "Sons of Martha" and their tools. It illustrates all the work that goes on in the background to make civilization function correctly and, in its light hearted tone, makes its points without belabouring them. I suspect that today's elites could usefully have a Kipling to explain to them how the fabric of our society is maintained.
The Maltese Cat
Still more anthropomorphism, in this case the description of a polo match through the eyes of the ponies of the underdog team. Yet, as with so much else, it has deeper moments, such as the classic explanation of why spectators add to the pressure. It also has some amusing one-liners including this great putdown to a social climber:
‘Let’s see,’ said a soft, golden-coloured Arab, who had been playing very badly the day before, to the Maltese Cat, ‘didn’t we meet in Abdul Rahman’s stable in Bombay four seasons ago? I won the Paikpattan Cup next season, you may remember.’
‘Not me,’ said the Maltese Cat politely. ‘I was at Malta then, pulling a vegetable cart. I don’t race. I play the game.’
‘Bread upon the Waters’
Another tale of the North Atlantic. In this case it is a story about how one shipping firm deliberately uses its wiles and a bit of inside knowledge to put a rival out of business. This is one of the few tales which suffers from its era because much of the tale revolves around money and I estimate that things are now between a hundred and a thousand times more expensive now than then. It can be a surprise to discover that an senior engineer earns just £15 or £20 a month or that £25,000 was a small fortune then. However the tale itself is in many ways soemthing that still applies, it shows that cutting corners with safety and other sharp practices are as old as the hills and illustrates nicely the cleft stick underlings can find themselves in when their bosses indulge in the same. Finally it is yet another example of Kipling explaining how the fabric of society is maintained.
An Error in the Fourth Dimension
This is a story of how even rich men can come a cropper. It also looks like it was the inspiration for one or more of PG Wodehouse's Blandings tales yet the two authors cover the problems of rich Americans in England in totally different fashion. It is also light-hearted, indeed amusing, and shows only too well how the smallest of cultural misunderstandings is sufficient to drive home the difference in culture between the two sides of the Atlantic. Surprisingly I suspect it has considerable resonance today, or at least it certainly would have had just a decade or two ago, and even if in the fullness of time England and America move away from the cultures described here no doubt the same gulfs will be visible elsewhere - perhaps between the new SiliconValley millionaires and their old money rivals up in San Fancisco or Marin county.
My Sunday at Home
Another story of an American in England. In this case though the tale is that of an hilarious misunderstanding when a doctor attempts to cure a patient who is in fact perfectly healthy but drunk. Perhaps my least favourite story in the book but still amusing.
The Brushwood Boy
Another romance, and, as with William, something else as well. In this case it is almost Science Fiction in that the hero and heroine know each other through dreams before they meet each other properly in person. There is much more to it, such as the absolutely magnificent descriptions of life through the eyes of a child
‘I am not afraid, truly,’ said the boy, wriggling in despair; ‘but why don’t you go to sleep in the afternoons, same as Provostoforiel?’
Georgie had been introduced to a grown-up of that name, who slept in his presence without apology. Georgie understood that he was the most important grown-up in Oxford; hence he strove to gild his rebuke with flatteries. This grown-up did not seem to like it, but he collapsed, and Georgie lay back in his seat, silent and enraptured.
and the classic description of the problems of innocent acts being misinterpreted by the devious:
...the small-minded—yea, men who Cottar believed would never do ‘things no fellow can do’—imputed motives mean and circuitous to actions that he had not spent a thought upon; and he tasted injustice, and it made him very sick.
All in all this story is a great finale to a wonderful book. So go read it!