(notes edited by
|notes on the text|
I have been revisiting George du Maurier's once-popular novel Peter Ibbetson (1891); which concerns the love between a man and a woman who know one another as children, but meet only once thereafter. They lead separate, unhappy and unfulfilled lives, but for many years they share a vivid, fulfilling dream life in which they can express their love. There is no happy ending as in the Kipling story, however: the woman dies first, and visits the man in one final dream, in which she tells him they will eventually be reunited as part of a greater life...ORG Comment on the story
It may be that Kipling - let's not say cribbed, but was influenced by Peter Ibbetson, perhaps unconsciously. He could drink from fountains that in our time are largely overgrown and forgotten. John Masefield wrote: 'We who were young then could have dispensed with many of the then great writers, but without du Maurier life would have been bleak.'
To many people "The Brushwood Boy" is the best of all Kipling’s short stories, being a classic love story, an English idyll, and a delightful picture of the English home and countryside. Others have said that it has too many faults to take high rank in that respect. Others again say that it wants only a little modification to make it one of the best. Georgie is too much of a prig for the modern reader, but at the time the character was conceived by its creator, the anti-hero of today  had not even been thought of, and the knightly hero of fiction was a firmly established convention.The present Editor would suggest that one’s view of the tale depends on one’s age: he read it first as a late teenager, when, it may be suggested, one is more stirred by the romantic in life than later, when one’s illusions have been swept away by the harsh realities of earning a living and establishing a relationship and, if one is so blessed, in bringing up a family. (That, anyway, is a male view of the matter.) As a result of early reading, he can still believe in the romance, and the coincidence and continuance of the twin dreams, although his realist side suggests that the fiction is unlikely.
Miriam has been described as (a) not a real woman, and (b) one of the loveliest of creatures. French opinion was represented by Monsieur Fleurian, Ambassador at the Court of St. James, who said, in 1932, “Miriam is the proof that Kipling had a thorough understanding of women.”
Lord Moynihan [a distinguished surgeon who died in 1936] used to suggest that this is the finest story in the world. Others think it too sentimental for the 1960s.
...and, at the end of the volume [The Day’s Work], "The Brushwood Boy", which contains some of Kipling’s most glaring lapses in taste and self-criticism.[This Editor, who has always liked the story, has to admit that Birkenhead has a point. Young Cottar and young Cottar’s family and family life are just a bit too good to be true. It may be suggested that, when the tale was written, Kipling had not really experienced English ‘County’ life. One can speculate that the tale might have been written differently had it been written in, say, 1908, after six years at Batemans, rather than in 1898.]
"The Brushwood Boy" is one of Kipling’s fabular stories, and deals with the fusion of dreams and reality. The dreams of the child, which always begin by a heap of brushwood near the shore, are poetical yet frightening: there is danger and terror in them, but they are also in a sense exciting and desirable, so that although the boy is puzzled and disturbed by these dream-journeys, and by the girl who is his companion in them, he is also stimulated by an experience so different from the workaday world. There is a beauty and a mystery about these occult wanderings which is completely dissipated when Kipling shows us the bewitching child developing into one of his idealized subalterns in India, and the picture of this clean-living military prig shatters in an instant the mystique of the 'Brushwood Boy'.
Cottar was cantering across to polo, and he looked a very satisfactory figure of a man as he gave easily to the first excited bucks of his pony, and slipped over a low mud wall to the practice ground. There were more than Mrs. Corporal Morrison who felt as she did. But Cottar was busy for eleven hours of the day. He did not care to have his tennis spoiled by petticoats on the court; and after one long garden-party, he explained to his major that this sort of thing was ‘futile piffle’ and the major laughed ….The picture of this smug paragon’s return on leave, after winning glory in the field, to the stately country home and the adoring ‘pater and mater’ resembles some early Hollywood attempt to portray the English aristocracy, and is among the most embarrassing passages in all Kipling’s work; and by now we can neither believe, nor rejoice in the Brushwood Boy’s hastily contrived union with his ‘Dream Girl’.”
‘Comin’ to the Fusiliers’ dance tonight, Galahad? asked the Adjutant.
‘No thanks. I’ve got a fight on with the major.’ The virtuous apprentice sat up until midnight in the major’s quarters with a stop watch and a pair of compasses, shifting little lead blocks about a four inch map.
Sustaining and stable love is very seldom at the centre of his tales; it is at the edge or in the frame; it is the condition in which his valuable men are rooted, from which they go forth and to which they return, whether it is found in the country estate that bred and welcomes back the Brushwood Boy ….Tompkins also turns to ‘The Brushwood Boy in a comment on The Day’s Work:
Nearly all the tales in The Day’s Work … belong to the well-lighted domain of the Gods of the Copybook Headings … The abyss plays no part here … but an aspect of it looms faintly in "The Brushwood Boy", before we close the book. … But the Brushwood Boy grows up with his dreams, though, since he is active and happy in all aspects of his young life and firmly set on his duty, he keeps this strange extension of his consciousness in healthy subservience to his immediate living. The story, like "The House Surgeon" and "The Wish House", is just not rationalised. We are given hints about the material that was fantastically metamorphosed into Georgie’s dream country, and the dreams themselves are not unparalleled; but when the briefly-met little girl is not only swept into Georgie’s dreams but infected by them, so that for years the two, unknown to each other and half a world apart, keep step in their dreaming, we have something that is outside our usual knowledge of human nature...In her final comment on "The Brushwood Boy" Tompkins argues that there are two convictions which emerge strongly in Kipling’s work, both deep-rooted:
...The supernatural, then, remained part of Kipling’s total world, though it is very sparingly touched in his latest work. He himself specifically disclaimed in Something of Myself any disposition for the ‘psychic’. … The power of dreaming, which De Quincey calls one of the inlets of the dark sublime into our minds, was certainly his. He built only one story on dreams, ‘The Brushwood Boy’, but the evidence of his dream-life is scattered through his books in simile and reminiscence; … he himself has told us in ‘Brazilian Sketches’ that once in a child’s dream he wandered into a Fifth Quarter of the world and ‘found everything different from all previous knowledge’. And the memory of that dream must have provided the groundwork for George Cottar’s wanderings into:
...a sixth quarter of the globe beyond the most remote imaginings of man, [where] he hurried desperately, and the islands slid under his feet, the straits yawned and widened, till he found himself utterly lost in the world’s fourth dimension with no hope of return. Yet only a little distance away he could see the old world with the rivers and mountain-chains marked according to the Sandhurst rules of map-making.
The first is that man is a creature that can do his best work only under pressure ... The other conviction is that the adult human being is in service. He wears some yole or harness, whether it be the obligation of a profession or a position, the demands of his genius or those made by society on the Sons of Martha. Some carry a lonely load, but most men are harnessed in a team, or interact like pieces of machinery. I do not think that this insistence on the yoke that a man, to be completely a man, must carry conflicts at all with Kipling’s insistence on independence and self-ownership. The Brushwood Boy fulfils each of his duties to his regiment and lives a wholly independent life as well; and in some way every man has to make the adjustment.Angus Wilson too uses the tale to illustrate points about Kipling’s work, rather than making a critical appreciation of it. Referring to Kipling’s mother, he says:
Such a mother is not easily reconciled with the muzzily sentimental idea of motherhood that emerges in such stories as, for example, “A Deal in Cotton”, where Agnes Strickland leaves the sickbed of her grown-up son 'humming the Magnificat', or of the grown-up hero’s mother in “The Brushwood Boy”, who:Wilson's next comment refers to part of the early setting of the tale:
... sat down on the bed, and they talked for a long hour, as mother and son should, if there is to be any future in our Empire … she kissed him on the mouth, which is not always a mother’s property.'(He was, as yet, a virgin.) Such over-lush, sentimental passages, along with the equally sentimental poetic references, “Mother O’ Mine”, and “‘Who’ll choose him for a Knight?’, ‘I’, said his mother,” are among the uncontrolled emotional passages in Kipling, things quite different from the carefully controlled appeals to the reader’s emotions in, say, the Boer War poems.
And at Southsea itself he was, at least, protected while kind, friendly, Captain Holloway lived.” [this assessment is rarely commented on – the generally accepted view of his years at Lorne Lodge are of unalloyed misery] …. The visit to Oxford in 1872 when he saw the Provost of Oriel must have been with the Captain on the way to stay with the Baldwins at Bewdley. This visit is commemorated in "The Brushwood Boy" twenty years later as a happy time of enchantment.Wilson's next comment relates to George Cottar’s school days:
In 1894 …. He went over to the College [the U.S.C., at Westward Ho!] …. This seems to have set his mind further on the school, for in "The Brushwood Boy", which he wrote on a visit next year by himself to his parents, there is a fairly detailed fictional account of Westward Ho (deleted from the final book version).Later in his study, Wilson suggests that:
Perhaps the most clearly positive result of his four years stay in America [the reference is to the year 1895] had been his changed attitude to England. Two of his best Jungle Book stories … were written while staying there with his parents in their retirement. Here, too, he miraculously recaptured his obsessive dream of the land of the dunes in "The Brushwood Boy", although in writing the story when he returned to Vermont he incorporated an embarrassingly sentimental attitude to the mother he had left behind.Andrew Lycett describes the tale at length, and uses it as a comparator in half a dozen instances elsewhere in his biography:
Back in his study, puffing on his briar pipe, Rudyard had already started on a ‘story of dream life’ (as Carrie put it), rather at variance from his recent output, almost as if he were defying readers’ efforts to typecast him. "The Brushwood Boy" tells of the conventional upbringing of a young army officer, George Cottar, who throughout his early life enjoys the distraction, pleasure and sometimes terror of a recurring dream sequence. This usually had two main features: he would enter and leave his dream along a beach road that ran past a pile of brushwood to a lamp-post and there was a beautiful girl in the background to whom he gave the name Annieanlouise.Lycett remarks on the publication of The Day’s Work thus:
Returning from India, Cottar meets a girl whom he instantly recognises. When he talks to her he learns that she has had similar dreams and is indeed the girl in his own visions. The autobiographical elements of the story are striking: banished to a nursery in the far west wing of an English country house, Cottar starts weaving his own worlds at the age of six. In his later Brazilian Sketches, Rudyard recalled how, as a child, he had once wandered into a Fifth Quarter of the world where everything was ‘different from all previous knowledge’; in "The Brushwood Boy", Cottar finds himself in ‘a sixth quarter of the world, beyond the most remote imaginings of man’. But his flights of fancy are repressed during the course of a regular English public-school education that ‘does not encourage dreaming’.
In India Cottar spurns contact with older, usually married, women, preferring to keep himself for the girl, literally, of his dreams. During his fantasy voyages he has to run the gauntlet of spirits he describes as ‘They’, ‘Them’ or ‘It’, which can prove either comforting, frightening, or, in the case of a laughing duck, merely bizarre. Having completed these journeys of discovery, he returns to England to find his other half (in Jungian terms his anima). In a reprise of Rudyard’s "The Dream of Duncan Parrness" eleven years earlier, Cottar is then ready for the business of manhood, the propagation of the race with a young woman who, in an intriguing twist, is called, outside of the reverie, not Annie or Louise but by the unambiguously Jewish name Miriam.
The autograph manuscript of this story in the J.P. Morgan Library in New York shows that Rudyard cut a section in which Cottar asks the regimental doctor in India about his dreams and is told,
“Oh, that’s easy enough. You’ve got two sides to your brain, you see, and they ought to work together but they don’t always. One side gets a fraction of a second in front with a thought specially when you’re half asleep and your reason, you see, isn’t at work.”Perhaps he thought this was too didactic: in October he admonished Sarah Orne Jewett, a New England writer he admired, for spelling things out in a story, ‘and I loathe an explanation’. He certainly did not offer much help in relation to "The Brushwood Boy". However, his clear description of the Tisbury landscape and his use of Wiltshire names such as Morrison and Bassett suggest that, as in the previous year, his time in England helped him work out pressing issues. Watching his contented father and his wife carrying his baby (was it to be the son everyone said he longed for?), he reflected deeply about his upbringing (and particularly his school years) and concluded that a complete man needs to strike a balance between his masculine achievements and feminine imaginative sides. As he would later boast, he himself had two sides to his head – something for which he thanked the Lord or, as he put it with a typical flourish, Allah.
Having completed the story on 8 September, Rudyard sent it to Century Magazine, asking $170 per thousand words. (His fees had been leaping up.) Since it was accepted for the Century’s Christmas issue, he even allowed the editor, Gilder, in deference to squeamish readers, to alter the boil on Cottar’s thumb to a cut. (Usually, he refused such petty censorship, as when Bok at Ladies’ Home Journal wanted to remove scenes referring to alcohol in "William the Conqueror".)
According to Carrie’s diaries, the original title for "The Brushwood Boy" was ‘The Infants of Bohemia’, which provides a clue to the story’s provenance ….
Lycett explains that Kipling and Conan Doyle had become acquainted, and suggests that 'it would have been just like Rudyard to nod recognition towards Doyle in his title ‘The Infants of Bohemia’ (Doyle’s ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ had been the first of his stories agented by A.P. Watt.)'
... in October, Rudyard published The Day’s Work, his first collection of short stories for five years. Although all the material had been published before, he gave it a focus and artistic integrity, by starting the book with "The Bridge-Builders" dating back to 1893, one of his most successful explorations of the duty and commitment required by the empire-maker, and progressing to the final piece, "The Brushwood Boy", which launches into uncharted territory, where the secret world of dreams needs to be squared with objective reality. Rudyard’s precise positioning of these stories indicates that he saw the collection as his own bridge between a youthful naturalism and a later sparser, more allusive style.Peter Havholm, in his recent (2008) study, speaks well of "The Brushwood Boy", remarking that:
...the development of Kipling’s work after his return to England in 1889 can be followed through his experiments and choices in fictions.Havholm goes on to cite Life’s Handicap and The Light that Failed, and comments:
Whereupon he chose to turn again to the wondrous and produced some of his most popular work: stories like ‘The Maltese Cat’ and "The Brushwood Boy...Later, he examines the tale in greater detail:
...On occasion, he gives himself completely to the pleasurable fantasy of "The Maltese Cat" or The Just-So Stories, or the Jungle Books or "The Brushwood Boy". That last, archetypal in its wild joy, metonymically unveils a fundamental characteristic of all of Kipling’s worlds. Its pure fantasy stands in relation to the worlds of Kim or "The Head of the District" or "The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat", or the Stalky stories as a revelatory extension of their less obvious dreamings.There have been a number of articles down the years in the Kipling Journal: in particular, in nos. 115, 119 and 291. This last contains the text of a lecture on the tale, given by the Hon. Austin Asche, to our Australian branch, together with a short commentary by our then Kipling Journal Editor, the late George Webb. In introduction George Webb writes:
From an outside perspective, the story’s George Cottar (brilliant at school and Sandhurst, DSO and a brevet majority in his first campaign, unwittingly the passion of every woman who sees him, cheered madly by his men and worshipped by his officers’ mess) seems as impossibly perfect as are his parents’ well-staffed estate and the trout in its evening streams. But in the story whose centre is the meeting in life of a man and a woman who have been literally in one another’s dreams since childhood, these little imperfections fall into the background. The climax offers a romantic love gilded by the kind of magic represented by oak, ash and thorn in the Puck books: these souls have been meeting circumstantially.
George confronts Miriam with details of their shared dream: 'Don’t you remember the thirty-Mile-Ride – with me …?' – that confirms his identity. Realizing, she cries: 'Then you’re the Boy – my Brushwood Boy, and I’ve known you all my life!' Later, You are you!', and she remembers what he has forgotten, that, as a dream child years before, he called her Annieanlouise.
'It all joins on, you know', as George says, and then, 'What’s the shortest limit for people to get engaged?'. What could possibly be more satisfactory? And how could anyone be taken in by this sort of thing? …
I am glad now to publish the text of a talk which he [Mr. Asche] delivered in Melbourne in March 1998 to members of our Australian Branch, at an event marking the Branch's sixtieth anniversary – noted in our June 1998 issue at page 37. His subject was that well known short story, "The Brushwood Boy" (collected in The Day's Work, 1898), aspects of which he compared with another story in the same collection, "William the Conqueror".
"The Brushwood Boy" has always provoked a mixed reaction from its readers. Some (myself included) admire it without serious reservations, and do not feel that the main character, George Cottar, though idealised, is too implausibly virtuous. Others, however, have been put off by what they regard as Cottar's priggishness – and by a certain complacency in Kipling's depiction of him. For example, "He had plenty of money of his own; his training had set the public-school mask upon his face, and had taught him how many were the 'things no fellow can do.' Such sentiments, expressed with approval and without irony, were acceptable – indeed were common form – a hundred years ago, but to a more cynical and disillusioned generation they seem painfully dated.
The same perhaps applies (if one is inclined to be captious) to Kipling's rather breathless description of the Cottar parents' idyllic home, immaculate in an unspoiled countryside:
'Nothing was changed in that orderly life, from the coachman who met [George] at the station to the white peacock that stormed at the carriage from the stone wall above the shaven lawns...' – and so on.The story also contains an often-cited example of the kind of false note that Kipling occasionally struck. Like all rapid, copious and creative writers he sometimes slipped, and the remarkable thing is, how rare these lapses were. Still, one may slightly wince on reading how Cottar (just back on leave from India) and his mother fondly 'talked for a long hour, as mother and son should, if there is to be any future for the Empire.'
I have tried to analyse just why this jars. The trouble, I think, arises because it is a sweeping, dogmatic and sentimental generalisation which contributes nothing to the narrative and, being both sudden and uncalled-for, is likely to surprise and even alienate many readers. I guess that here he was tempted to ventilate a favourite political theme – by forcing an analogy between the intimacies of English family life and the state of the British Empire, where much depended on the 'Mother-country' maintaining a sympathetic relationship with her self-governing colonies.
Significantly, Kipling himself seems to have realised that to shoe-horn a reference to the British Empire into this love-story would put off American readers, for he changed "our Empire" (in the English 1898 Macmillan edition of The Day's Work) to "the Empire" (in the American 1898 Doubleday & McClure edition); and it remained "the Empire" in the special illustrated edition of "The Brushwood Boy" published by Doubleday & McClure as a separate book in 1899; though in the volume containing The Day's Work in the 1941 Burwash Edition (Doubleday, Doran) – the American equivalent of the Sussex Edition – it reverted to "our Empire".
Either way, it was artistically a mistake – at least it seems so to us, unaccustomed as we have become to having didactic assertions of a political or philosophical nature made to us by the narrator in a work of fiction. Admittedly, for our Victorian forebears, such assertions were not unusual, and there was more room for them in the huge, leisurely-paced novels of the nineteenth century. For example, Dickens was a heavy and emphatic moraliser – though, be it said, more effective when letting the moral emerge by implication out of what his characters said or did than when passing judgment as narrator. The same caveat applies to any writer bold enough to be dogmatic about matters on which many readers will have views of their own. There will be a saving grace if the ex cathedra comment is amusing (like many of the outspoken opinions with which R.S. Surtees litters his novels), or relevant to the plot (like Dickens's famous introduction of A Tale of Two Cities – 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ...' – which directly pertains to the story, setting the scene for all that follows). But Kipling's throw-away imperial allusion in "The Brushwood Boy" can claim no such justification.
However, if the story has minor flaws, it also has great merits. Cottar's enchanted dream-country is vividly described in evocative language:'He would find himself sliding into dream-land by ... a road that ran along a beach near a pile of brushwood [and then] over a swell of rising ground covered with short, withered grass, into valleys of wonder and unreason.' On occasion, he found himself 'trapped in mines of vast depth hollowed out of the heart of the world, where men in torment chanted echoing songs.' And he and his companion 'rode the Thirty-Mile Ride under whip and spur along the sandy beach by the booming sea, till they came to the downs, the lamp-post, and the brushwood pile, which was safety.'Austin Asche gives full credit to "The Brushwood Boy" for the effectiveness and power of its writing; but is less enthusiastic about its heroine, Miriam, whom he compares unfavourably with the heroine, known as 'William', in "William the Conqueror". It is a fair and thought-provoking comparison.