Military, Mystery, Moving Bodies and Mrs. Bathurst
My first thought upon finishing reading “Mrs. Bathurst” was “What. the. hell. did. I. just. read?” At the time of this writing, the question still stands. I don’t know what I just read. This story is a complete departure from anything of Kipling’s I’ve read in the past and I’m not sure what to make of it. My foggy understanding of the plot line is that a group of sailors are conversing and drinking on a train, get to talking about a man with false teeth named Vickery, a very ambiguous lady named Mrs. Bathurst is remarked upon, a man tells a story about seeing a cinematograph which features Mrs. Bathurst (without any explanation I might add) and then the story ends with Vickery going crazy and possibly being found dead. This may or may not be what happened…again I don’t know.
What did strike me about this story in terms of Victorian bodies is both the idea of military bodies and the notion of bodies on film. To cover the former, I think no one would disagree with the statement that in the military, bodies are accounted for with meticulous care. Where the body is physically is important to the regimented nature of how the military works and for the sailors in the story, it plays a large part in their narrative. The idea of being temporarily released from duty, being on shore-leave, is what drives the story along. It is when the men are on leave that they meet Mrs. Bathurst. For these sailors, Mrs. Bathurst is the be-all and end-all of women to encounter when on leave. What is so strange about her is that I as a reader have no idea who she is. The men who know of her sing her praises (without actually giving a description of her) and Sergeant Pritchard claims “I can remember every time that I ever saw Mrs. B” (325). She is obviously capable of making an impact on them but I felt no impact as a reader. I know that she serves alcohol, remembers people fairly well, has a “blindish look” (329) and is kind. Other than that, I have no conception of this woman. The titular character and she’s pretty absent from the narrative. She does somehow manage to enthrall the men, however, and none more so than the deserter Vickery.
He may be the most confusing man in the narrative – the tooth clicking sailor Vickery. Who is Vickery anyway? What’s wrong with him that makes him desert his daughter and become so infatuated with the mysterious Mrs. Bathurst? And then meander around like a tramp and die in an electrical storm? Vickery is an aimless body, living in “a kind of madness, an aimless wandering” (Gilbert 452) that can only end in death. Mrs. Bathurst makes him aimless. He gives up his military career because seeing Mrs. B on film as convinced him that “She’s lookin’ for me” (331) though why he thinks that we don’t know. He may just be crazy. In any case, his mind and body are consumed by this absent woman. Her absent body has, as Gilbert argues “in a word Kipling used before Hollywood did, ‘It’” (452-3). She just has ‘It’, she is ‘It’, whatever that means. It’s an interesting concept that Kipling is playing with, giving an absent body the power of being the focus of a narrative and the power to alter the behavior of others without even being consciously aware of it.
The second aspect where bodies come into play is in the cinema. Modern audiences take for granted the experiences of seeing a body on film – we grow up seeing movies and to view bodies through the medium of a screen is normal. But for those in Kipling’s time, and indeed the men in the story express this, seeing moving images was incredibly startling. They see the bodies of people moving around out of place and out of time. Pyecroft comments with interest that the people on screen “walked right out o’ the picture” (326) and seems fascinated by the idea. People come and go from the screen like “a shadow jumpin’ over a candle” (329), like they are real one minute and then disappear from existence. It’s difficult to push our modern senses back to a time when seeing a moving image would have the power to startle and make us question things the way it startles Pyecroft. And yet it isn’t an unpleasant experience for him – he remarks that seeing Mrs. Bathurst on film is “like meetin’ old friends” (329) which is actually quite a charming way to think of cinema. That is probably the part of the story which I enjoyed the most, reading how Victorian viewers experienced the cinematograph and seeing people move on screen. The rise of the technology to give bodies in motion a new form of expression in the Victorian age is really interesting to see and regardless of the fact that I have no idea what Kipling is doing with this story I still found it compelling.
Gilbert, Elliot L. “What Happens in “Mrs. Bathurst”?” PMLA 77.4 (Sep 1962): 450-458. JStor. Web. 6 March 2016.
Kipling, Rudyard. “Mrs. Bathurst.” Traffics and Discoveries. New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1920. 313-337. Google Books. Web. 5 March 2016.