When it was collected in 1917 this story was dated by Kipling to 1913, though according to Mrs Kipling's diary he was still 'hard at work' on it in May 1914, and 'on 8th June - finished'. It was not published until it was collected in A Diversity of Creatures, accompanied by the poem, "The Press".
As Angus Wilson recounts (pp. 256/7):
The farce, as so often, depends on the motor car. And in this case the pirate-hero motorists are Kipling (assuming that he can be identified with the narrator), an eminent journalist, a brilliant young ex-Oxonian and a Tory M.P. They are charged with speeding in a village (Huckley). Brought before the local Justice of the Peace (Sir Thomas Ingell, M.P.), they are, in their opinion, monstrously and very pompously convicted. Charged and convicted shortly after them is the famous music hall impresario, "Bat" Masquerier. The J.P., it emerges, is the local landowner and a Radical M.P. Something of the air of conspiratorial myth that entered Kipling's views in those years may be gauged from this description of the village: 'They are all Rads who are mixed up in this from the Chief Constable down,' ... It is worth noting that one of the sins of the Radical J.P. ... is his addressing Masquerier in the dock in anti-semitic tones.In the course of the tale the village people are entertained with a lavish dinner— 'dinner for five hundred and drinks for ten thousand'— and persuaded to vote that the Earth is flat, the story is splashed all over the newspapers, a popular music hall song is written about it, and Huckley and the J.P. become a public laughing stock.
As Charles Carrington (pp. 404-406) explains of Kipling:
His considered opinion on the routine of politics is to be found in "The Village the Voted the Earth was Flat" ... Politics, he said, was `a dog's life without a dog's decencies'. Kipling's method of accumulating material can be closely studied in the preliminaries of "The Village that Voted". The characters, though not drawn from the life, are reminiscent of the sort of men he knew. One of them was a specialist in bringing moribund newspapers to life like Gwynne. Kipling advised him, and occasionally spent evenings with him in his office. In the late summer of l909 Kipling saw much of two friends in Parliament, his cousin Stanley Baldwin and Andrew Bonar Law, and attended one of the violent debates over the Budget, when Bonar Law, that calm unimpassioned man, displayed his skill at goading the Opposition into fury with violent and telling blows, delivered quite without emotion.'Radicals' (or 'Rads') in Edwardian Britain were vigorously reformist Liberals, and the object of deep hostility and suspicion on the part of Kipling. British trade unionists from 1874 until 1892, upon being elected to Parliament, saw themselves as Radicals, and Radical trade-unionists formed the basis for what would later become the Labour Party.
The sequence in the music hall reflects Kipling's own experience of the Halls during his time as a young unmarried writer in London between 1889 and 1891. He was living in Villiers Street across the road from Gatti's Music Hall, and was fascinated by the performers and their working-class audiences. See David Page's Headnote on "My Great and Only" (Abaft the Funnel).
Some critical comments
Roger Lancelyn Green in the ORG (p.3074) reports that 'Pressmen seem to have liked this burlesque of Pre-World War I journalism, especially those on the advertising side,' though he also notes that the novelist Graham Greene later called it 'that tedious overwritten piece of horseplay.'
However, Somerset Maugham, in his introduction to A Choice of Kipling's Prose (Macmillan, 1952 pp. xxii - xxiii) writes : 'I have been more doubtful about those stories concerned with practical joking... There is only one of these tales I have found frankly amusing ... "The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat". Here the comedy is rich, the victim deserves his punishment, and his punishment is severe without being brutal.'
J M S Tompkins in her chapter on 'Hatred and Revenge' comments:
My own opinion is that `The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat' grew out of a conviction, at once zestful and misgiving, of the enormous power of the modern Press and the other publicizing industries and arts, especially the Music Hall, that were linked with it. The old journalist in Kipling kindled to the power, and the craftsman rejoiced in the technique of `the widest game that all of a man can play'. With these resources almost anything could be done, and almost anything, on so vast a scale, could get out of hand, even if the wielders of the power were fully responsible, which they are not.Carrington (p.406) makes an interesting comment about Kipling's humour:
Any estimate of Kipling's work must take account of the series of elaborate farces which he produced at intervals throughout his career... Certainly, they are not meat for delicate stomachs. Kipling admitted to his friends, more than once, that comical outbursts gave relief to his own feelings, and these tales reveal a common pattern. They are all told in the first person, but the part he casts for himself is whimsical, puckish, malicious, not dignified or dominating. He is there to make sport and laugh at it. In each case an enormous practical joke is not so much induced as released. to develop by some law of its own, involving all sorts of innocent people, but recoiling upon the head of the victim, a pretentious intruder.
©John Radcliffe 2008 All rights reserved