Thursday, July 2, 2015

Kipling's "The Bronckhorst Divorce-Case" & Gissing's "The Prize Lodger"

I'm back on the icons of modern Brit lit beat!

In 1961's The Ice in the Bedroom P. G. Wodehouse mentions George Gissing as a kind of exemplar of the writer of "gray novels of squalor" which "don't sell."  Being a philistine with a spotty education, I had no idea if Gissing was a real guy or just a euphonious name Wodehouse had made up.  Wikipedia informed me that not only was Gissing a real person, but that he was considered one of England's top writers by people like H. G. Wells and George Orwell.  Certainly worthy of investigation.

Several of Gissing's greatest hits are available at, and tucked among them is an odd title, Victorian Short Stories of Troubled Marriages, an anthology apparently compiled in 2005 that includes stories by such figures as Rudyard Kipling and Arthur Conan-Doyle as well as Gissing.  This sounded like it was right up my alley--I have a weakness for tales of difficult sexual relationships, and here was my chance to dip my toe in the Gissing pool of "gray squalor," and read another Kipling story while I was at it.

A charming 1960 edition of
Plain Tales from the Hills
owned by blogger Douglas Dalrymple
"The Bronckhorst Divorce-Case" by Rudyard Kipling (188?)

The Gutenberg people assert that this story first appeared in 1884 in the Civil and Military Gazette out of Lahore, where Kipling worked from 1882 to 1887.  The people at the Kipling Society say it first appeared in the 1888 collection Plain Tales from the Hills.  A little mystery for us.

Bronckhorst is an absolute anti-social jerk who is always humiliating his innocent wife and child; he takes pleasure in insulting and embarrassing them in front of visitors.  Another man, Biel, is friendly to Mrs. Bronckhorst in public, and Bronckhorst takes him to court, accusing him of having had an affair with his wife.  Kipling tells us that it is common for the native Muslims and Hindus to lie in court in return for bribes, and Bronckhorst's case against Biel relies on just such false evidence.

Biel hires a detective, Strickland, who is a master of disguise and skilled at dealing with the natives.  Strickland disguises himself as a fakir and gathers evidence that Bronckhorst's case is wholly fraudulent, and uses his ability to influence the natives to get Bronckhorst's paid perjurers to recant their testimony.  Bronkhorst is defeated in court, and then Biel thrashes him with a whip; everybody in town approves of this method of frontier justice, and Kipling hints that Bronckhorst became a better husband as a result.

This is an entertaining and interesting story; along with the detective stuff and "life in British India" stuff is the perhaps even more mysterious, and certainly more universal, theme of the inexplicability of sexual relations and marriage.  Why do women like Mrs. Bronckhorst marry men like Bronckhorst?  Why does Bronckhorst treat his wife so terribly?  Does it even make sense for people to pair off and spend decade after decade together--is seeing the same face every morning for twenty, thirty, forty years really how we want to spend our lives, really the path to happiness?  Such conundrums, Kipling suggests, are "unanswerable," and perhaps "too unpleasant to be discussed."    

First ed. of Human Odds and Ends
for sale at 
"The Prize Lodger" by George Gissing (1896)

I liked the Kipling story, but it has the trappings of adventure or genre literature; an exotic locale, a criminal trial, a detective, disguises, violence.  A collection called Victorian Short Stories of Troubled Marriages, I had expected, would include stories of a more "literary" character, with more psychology and less of what you might call "sensationalism." I'm pleased to say that "The Prize Lodger" fulfills my expectations and is quite good--it may have turned me into a George Gissing fan!

According to "The Prize Lodger" appeared in The English Illustrated Magazine in 1896.  It was included in the collection of stories entitled Human Odds and Ends in 1898.

It is 1889 in the London neighborhood of Islington.  Archibald Jordan, age 45, has a comfortable income and leisurely lifestyle as the owner of a grocery store; he handles the books a few hours a day, and leaves most of the business operations to his partner and subordinates.  He spends his free time relaxing with friends and walking the streets of the neighborhood where he has lived his entire life.

Jordan does not own a home, but lives in lodgings, and, in fact, is famous among the local landladies for being a very desirable tenant.  He is very particular about his desires, and demands attention, but landladies are always willing to put up with his peculiarities because he is so respectable and because he not only never questions the bill, but overpays it.  To the dismay and bewilderment of the landladies, he has never, over the course of two and a half decades, stayed in one place for more than a year.

In 1889 Jordan moves into the house of a thirty-three year old widow, Mrs. Elderfield. Mrs. Elderfield turns out to be the best cook and most efficient landlady Jordan has ever encountered, and he resolves to marry her.  But the realities of married life come as a dreadful shock to Jordan.  All his adult life he has been his own master, and been able to dominate landladies, who have been eager to please him.  But as a husband it is he who is dominated.  His wife moves him out of his beloved neighborhood and into a big house in the suburban countryside, insists that he come home at the same time every evening, scolds him for tracking mud in, and demands that he break the habits of a lifetime:
'You mustn't read at meals, Archibald. It's bad manners, and bad for your digestion.'
'I've read the news at breakfast all my life, and I shall do so still,' exclaimed the husband, starting up and recovering his paper. 
'Then you will have breakfast by yourself.'
Jordan's freedom and happiness are in jeopardy, and as the story ends we are not sure what he will do.  It seems possible that Mrs. Jordan cares only about her fine house in the suburbs and her husband's comfortable income, and will not object if he moves back to Islington without her.

A great story; I loved the plot, characters, and style.  Wells and Orwell seem to have known what they were talking about!


Two good stories about marriage that express skepticism (dare we say "realism"?) about that revered institution.  There's more Kipling and Gissing in my future.

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