The publication of this collection marked the end of a long fallow period for Rudyard Kipling in which he struggled with depression (following his son, John’s death in World War I) and a creative block. The collection of 14 stories, 19 poems, and two scenes from an unfinished play received a mixed response, although some did see Kipling as having returned to the form of his earlier works. The collection contains some of Kipling’s most famous stories, including “The Janeites,” which famously describes the sense of kinship created between men as a result of a shared passion for the works of Jane Austen. “A Madonna of the Trenches” focuses on the aftermath of the war and in particular on a man whose mind has been shattered not only by what he has encountered but also by his family life. World War I also features in “A Friend of the Family” and “The Gardener,” a story Kipling composed after a visit to the war cemetery at Bois Guillaume near Rouen on March 14, 1925. He was familiar with the bureaucracy of identifying bodies and notifying next of kin from his work with the War Graves commission.
In “The Gardener” Helen Turrell returns from recuperating in France with the infant son of her dead ne’er-do-well brother and an unsuitable woman. She raises Michael with great devotion and allows him to call her “Mummy” at bedtime. Before beginning Oxford, Michael enlists in the army. He is soon listed as missing. Helen is informed that he is buried in a military cemetery in Belgium. On her way to visit the grave, Helen encounters two women. One is distraught because she cannot find her son’s grave; the other visits the cemetery ostensibly to take photos for her grieving friends, but the real reason, as she confides to Helen, is to visit the grave of a lover whom she could never acknowledge. Helen encounters a man in the cemetery who “looked at her with infinite compassion.” He tells her, “I will show you where your son lies.” Leaving the cemetery, she again sees the man, “supposing him to be the gardener.”
Understatement and irony throughout the story lead up to this short exchange, the mystery of the story. What is the relationship between Helen and Michael? Is she, as many critics suggest, actually his mother? Has her life been a series of lies to cover up the birth of an illegitimate son? The passage refers to John 20:14– 15 in the Bible. Mary Magdalene at the tomb of Jesus turns to a man who asks her why she is weeping; she answers him, “supposing him to be the gardener.” Is Christ the gardener providing Helen with heavenly consolation? Does the accompanying poem’s reference to Mary Magdalene and the themes of deception and discovery illuminate the ambiguity of the story? Or, as Dillingham has argued, is the story “a study of the excruciating and prolonged pain of bereavement” (68) in which religion brings no consolation? Is a biological connection necessary to explain Helen’s profound grief, or does parenthood mean more?
As in other stories in the collection, inconsistencies and incomplete explanations force the reader to question the veracity of the third-person narrative. Conventions and social forms are rigidly upheld by society, and the messy, emotional disturbances of life are covered up and repressed. Kipling’s language conveys through casual narrative the pain and grief that lies below the surface. The horror of Helen’s loss is underscored by the narrator’s calm, ironic revelation that “by means of time-tables made clear, how easy it was and how little it interfered with life’s affairs to go and see one’s grave.” Michael’s death, the catastrophe of the story, is contained: “a shell-splinter dropping out of a wet dawn killed him at once. The next shell uprooted and laid down over the body what had been the foundation of a barn wall, so neatly that none but an expert would have guessed that anything unpleasant had happened.” Like other stories in the collection this hints at hidden secrets and a private self. Kipling also reveals how repression of pain, love, and grief seem to be necessary for society to maintain order, but the price it ultimately exerts on individuals is shown in exquisite detail.
Bauer, Helen Pike. Rudyard Kipling: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1994. Dillingham, William B. “Rudyard Kipling and Bereavement: ‘The Gardener,’ ” English Language Notes 39, no. 4 (2002): 60–71.
Gilbert, Elliot. “Kipling’s ‘The Gardener’: Craft into Art,” Studies in Short Fiction 7 (1970): 308–319. Kipling, Rudyard. Debits and Credits. 1926. New York: House of Strauss, 2003.
Lewis, Lisa. “Some Links between the Stories in Kipling’s Debits and Credits,” English Literature in Transition 25, no. 2 (1982): 74–85.
Shanks, Edward. Review of Debits and Credits. London Mercury 14 (1926): 649–651.