Yet the supernatural mode is also used for the two great tragedies of Kipling’s adult life: the deaths of his daughter Josephine, of pneumonia in 1899, aged seven, and of his son, John, killed at the Battle of Loos in 1915, aged 18. Josephine is remembered in the story They (1904), where the narrator comes upon a mansion owned by a blind woman where the grounds are full of the spirits of dead children, heard but not seen. The narrator recognises his own dead daughter by a secret sign that only the two of them knew about. John’s death is the subject of The Gardener (1925), in which a woman, Helen, bears an illegitimate son but passes him off as her nephew. He is killed in the war, and afterwards she tries to visit his grave, but is bewildered by the endless lines of tombstones. She tells a man she takes to be the gardener (a biblical reference to John 20:15) that she is looking for her nephew’s grave, and he replies: “Come with me and I will show you where your son lies.” Kipling’s concision is startling here, with the meaning of the whole story depending on a single monosyllable. He believed in concision, saying a cut story was always better, just as a poked fire burnt more brightly. Batchelor seems mindful of that in this concise and remarkable book.
Batchelor is too scrupulous a scholar to ignore what came after the Just So Stories – indeed he points out that within two years of the book’s publication the satirist Max Beerbohm was drawing Kipling as an imperial stooge, the diminutive bugle-blowing cockney lover of a blousy-looking Britannia. Nonetheless, Batchelor urges us to see the stories as evidence that as a young man Kipling was an imaginative artist of the first rank. Full of bustling linguistic ingenuity, conjured by a man whose first language was actually Hindi rather than English, the stories themselves are hopeful, expansive, joyfully attentive to a world where difference and separation can be mended by imaginative acts.