“Mary Postgate”

Kipling placed The Beginnings at the end of his 1917 miscellany, A Diversity of Creatures. To the reader, the poem might seem a postscript to the short story Mary Postgate, which is the next-to-last piece in the collection. The story is unpleasant but great, allowing for a variety of conflicting interpretations, even though it probably grew out of Kipling’s enthusiastic involvement in the British propaganda effort.

Mary Postgate is a 44-year-old English spinster serving as a companion to an aristocratic old maiden. At the end of the story, Mary is overwhelmed by a surge of pleasure, apparently sexual (“an increasing rapture laid hold on her”), as a downed German pilot is dying a few yards away from her. In the background, there’s Mary’s sexless and generally miserable life and her deep affection and selfless devotion to her mistress’ orphaned nephew. The 20-year-old crashed to death during a trial flight about a week before the story’s principal action:

Young Wyndham Fowler repaid her in his holidays by calling her “Gatepost,” “Posty,” or “Packthread,” by thumping her between her narrow shoulders or by chasing her bleating, round the garden, her large mouth open, her large nose high in air at a stiff-necked shamble very like a camel’s.

She remained “always his butt and his slave” for eleven years, at the end of which he joined the Flying Corps:

“You look more or less like a human being,” he said in his new Service voice. “You must have had a brain at some time in your past… A sheep would know more than you do, Postey. You’re lamentable. You are less use than an empty tin can, you dowey old cassowary.”

As if to finish off old Postey, her mistress instructed her to dispose of the late boy’s personal belongings, mostly by burning them in a “destructor” in the garden. It must have been so heart-rending that it’s no wonder Nature transformed some of that pain into unorthodox pleasure.

In this reading of the story, necessarily simplified as it’s only a blog entry, the driving force is the Hun within. Perhaps Kipling was so frightened by the potential for cruelty of a self-sacrificial, long-suffering soul that he had to blame it on a hostile external force.

There are quite a few other ways to look at the same story. In The Death of a German Cousin: Variations on a Literary Stereotype, 1890-1920, Peter Edgerly Firchow (1937-2008) reviews earlier interpretations and argues:

This poem is clearly intended to serve as a kind of moral signpost for the story. The stanza by stanza tracing of the development of England’s hatred for Germany matches the gradual intensification of Mary’s emotional response. As with the English in the poem, Mary is originally patient and good-natured, outwardly unemotional but inwardly full of deep and genuine feeling… Her hatred arises individually and spontaneously and in reaction to what she herself has seen and suffered… Mary, in short, hates just as Kipling tells us the English do…

It all makes sense but I’m still unclear on whether the story’s logic requires genuine evildoing Germans as opposed to creations of the protagonist’s imagination.

…”Mary Postgate” is a story designed to illustrate how the English, epitomized by the humble figure of Mary Postgate, came to feel hatred for the Germans. “English” here includes… all loyal English men and women, Kipling as well.

The question to me is not so much what the story was designed for by its creator but what it does and how it works. A battered soul takes someone else’s crimes, real or imagined, for a license to hate. There’s nothing specifically English about it. Perhaps the writer in Kipling got the better of the propagandist, the patriot, the deep thinker and so on, as should be the case with great authors. Dostoevsky’s politics, for example, was mostly boring, bastardized, second-rate Slavophilia, which shows through in The Demons (The Possessed) and in The Brothers Karamazov but pales before the complexity and unconventional philosophies of the characters.

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