William the Conqueror
by Rudyard Kipling
  

Review by
William H. Stoddard
collected in —

The Day's Work (1899)

September 2006

  

The title of the collection where this story appears, The Day's Work, is quintessential Kipling. No other English writer took more interest in work as a subject of fiction, or did better at making it interesting. It could almost be said that work occupies the place in his writing that love holds for many other writers; not one of his poems presents itself as expressing Kipling's own sentiments of sexual love, and it's a comparatively minor theme of his fiction. (Compare Jane Austen, one of Kipling's favorite writers, the matter of whose novels was always courtship.) "William the Conqueror" is one of the exceptions — but it's a story whose lovers are brought together above all by shared work.

Kipling's situation is straightforward: there is a famine in a southern Indian province, and two men in the Civil Service of a northern province are called down to join the relief effort; the younger sister of one of them insists on going with her brother, rather than being sent away to Simla to wait for her brother's return. She ends up staying with the chief administrator of the relief effort and his wife, helping to care for orphaned and abandoned babies, while her brother's friend goes on the road to deliver food supplies. They scarcely see each other for the next several months; the strongest mark of their growing attachment is her getting up at 3 A.M. during one of his visits to that he can teach her to milk goats. But at the same time they're involved together in long-sustained and brutally hard work.

At the head of Part II of this story (it was long enough for its original magazine publication to be divided into two installments), Kipling quotes a stanza from John Donne's "A Valediction: Forbidding Morning". But a different stanza better fits what he's showing:

But we by a love so much refined
That our selves know not what it is,
Interassured of the mind,
Care less eyes, lips, and hands to miss.

Kipling makes the point of how brutal an effort the work requires, and how harsh the conditions are, in the opening paragraphs of Part II — above all, in the scene of desperately hungry people, accustomed to rice, turning away from unfamiliar wheat and millet in despair, to eat weeds and clay, or taking the strange grains and trading a week's meals for handfuls of spoiled rice; all too many of them die.

Scott ... least of all would have believed that, in time of deadly need, men would die at arm's length of plenty, sooner than touch food they did not know.

Kipling shows both his characters' competence and their sheer fortitude in saving as many lives as they can. The reader is left with no doubt that this is a subject Kipling loves; and the strength of "William the Conqueror" as a love story is that his characters love it as well, and their feelings for each other grow out of that shared devotion.

  

© 2006 William H. Stoddard


  
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