“The Gardener” is a short story about a woman named Helen Turrell, who keeps the birth of her illegitimate child a secret and raises the boy, Michael, as though she is his aunt and he is the son of her dead brother, George. Helen leaves India when she becomes pregnant (under the pretense of going away to the South of France for her health) and brings the boy to England in order to avoid the scandal, which Michael’s illegitimate status would cause in both Anglo-Indian and British society in the early 1900s. The rigid moral conventions of British Edwardian society make it impossible for Helen to speak openly about her experience. According to these moral conventions, Helen is doing the “noble” and “honorable” thing by raising Michael herself while maintaining an image of propriety by calling herself his aunt. However, these same moral conventions make it necessary for Helen to engage in behaviors that would be considered immoral, such as lying and slandering her dead brother. The importance of conforming to moral conventions in British Edwardian society is conveyed by the lengths that Helen is willing to go to in order to align herself with the society’s standard of behavior.
According to the moral conventions of British society, Helen is behaving correctly by denying the true nature of her relationship with Michael and inventing a story around his birth. Kipling opens “The Gardener” by stating that “everyone in the village knew that Helen Turrell did her duty by all her world,” and then gives an account of the story of Michael’s birth, which Helen has concocted. This suggests that the villagers quietly realize that Michael is Helen’s son but are willing to play along with this fake origin story for the sake of propriety. The community’s acceptance allows Helen to maintain a false (and ironic) image of herself as an altruistic woman who is “as open as the day” and has nothing to hide. The irony of this is that it implies that people in British society would rather be complicit in a lie than deviate from their strict moral conventions or tolerate someone who has gone against the grain of proper behavior. The fact that “everyone in the village” knows Helen’s story suggests that almost everyone around her is willing to ignore the truth and to say one thing while doing another for the sake of propriety and appearance.
Although she portrays herself as someone who values honesty, Helen is being blatantly dishonest about Michael. The outward respectability, which Helen is required to put on in order to maintain her place in society, has a negative impact on her ability to be a “moral” person in other ways. Helen’s need to create a believable story about Michael’s birth leads her to slander her dead brother, George. By implying that George had “many fresh starts given and thrown away,” Helen paints a picture of her brother as a careless and ungrateful person who did not care for his own or his family’s reputation. Helen’s invention of George’s lover, “the daughter of a retired non-commissioned officer,” also supports Helen’s image of British conventional propriety. Claiming that Michael’s mother has sold the baby to her, Helen states that “people of that class would do almost anything for money.” This puts a distance between Helen, who is upper class and wants to be seen as respectable, and “people of that class,” who are evidently from a poorer background. It is convenient for Helen to blame her own mistake on someone from a lower-class background, as she knows that this story will be widely accepted. It removes responsibility from Helen, and from her own class more generally, as the birth of illegitimate children in the early 1900s was something associated with poorer, less “respectable” members of society.
Helen’s dishonesty not only contrasts with her ability to be a “moral” person, but also seems to conflict with her underlying personality and emotions. Despite being outwardly dishonest, Helen is honest with herself internally. For example, Helen allows Michael to call her “mummy” at bedtime. This demonstrates that Helen feels a conflict between her external portrayal of herself as Michael’s aunt and her close maternal bond with him, which flourishes in private. Many years later, when Michael goes missing during World War I, Helen is surrounded by people who “preach hope” that he might still be alive and “tell her tales” of missing relatives who have been “miraculously restored.” Rather than deluding herself in this way, Helen privately acknowledges that “missing always means dead.” Externally however, Helen plays along with the social etiquette of having hope and sending out letters to try and recover Michael. These socially acceptable “rituals” maintain a sense of propriety throughout the war, rather than allowing people to give in to grief and despair, which would perhaps have been considered improper and unpatriotic. The introduction of Mrs. Scarsworth, towards the end of the story, provides a mirror through which both Helen and the reader can re-evaluate Helen’s experience, as well as the effects that restrictive social conventions have had on her life. Mrs. Scarsworth’s confession that, when she isn’t telling lies, she “has to act ‘em” and “to think ‘em always” demonstrates the control with which Helen has also had to manage her delicate situation in society, both in her experience of raising Michael and in dealing with his death.
As “The Gardener” comes to a close, Kipling demonstrates the wider social implications of restrictive social conventions in British society. The introduction of Mrs. Scarsworth towards the end of the story suggests that many people are secretly in the same position as Helen and are forced to keep parts of their lives a secret in order to maintain a façade of propriety and hide the fact that they have transgressed the boundaries of societal convention.
Propriety, Performance, and Secrecy ThemeTracker
Propriety, Performance, and Secrecy Quotes in The Gardener
Everyone in the village knew that Helen Turrell did her duty by all her world, and by none more honorably than by her only brother’s unfortunate child. The village knew, too, that George Turrell had tried his family severely since early youth, and […] after many fresh starts given and thrown away, he […] had entangled himself with the daughter of a retired non-commissioned officer, and had died […] a few weeks before his child was born.
All these details were public property, for Helen was as open as the day, and held that scandals are only increased by hushing them up. She admitted that George had always been rather a black sheep, but that things might have been much worse if the mother had insisted on her right to keep the boy. Luckily, it seemed that people of that class would do almost anything for money.
In a few years Michael took his place, as accepted as Helen—fearless, philosophical, and fairly good-looking. At six he wished to know why he could not call her “Mummy,” as other boys called their mothers. She explained that she was only his auntie, and that aunties were not quite the same as mummies, but that, if it gave him pleasure, he might call her “Mummy” at bedtime, for a pet name between themselves.
At ten years old, after two terms at prep. school, something or somebody gave him the idea that his civil status was not quite regular. He attacked Helen on the subject, breaking down her stammered defenses with the “family directness.”
“Don’t believe a word of it,” he said cheerily, at the end. “People wouldn’t have talked like that if my people had been married. But don’t you bother, Auntie. I’ve found out all about my sort in English Hist’ry […] There was William the Conqueror to begin with, and—oh, heaps more, and they all got on first-rate. ‘T’wont make any difference to you, my being that – will it?”
“All right. We won’t talk about it anymore if it makes you cry.” He never mentioned the thing again of his own will, but when, two years later, he skillfully managed to have measles in the holidays, as his temperature went up to the appointed one hundred and four, he muttered of nothing else, till Helen’s voice, piercing at last his delirium, reached him with the assurance that nothing on earth or beyond could make a difference between them.
Helen had been shocked at the idea of direct enlistment.
“But it’s in the family,” Michael laughed.
“You don’t mean to tell me that you believed that old story all this time?” Helen said […] “I gave you my word of honor—and I give it again—that—that—it’s alright. It is indeed.”
“Oh, that doesn’t worry me. It never did,” he replied valiantly. “What I meant was, I should have got into the thing sooner if I’d enlisted—like my grandfather.”
A month later, and just after Michael had written Helen that there was nothing special doing and therefore no need to worry, 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.
Helen, presently, found herself pulling down the house-blinds one after another with great care, and saying earnestly to each one: “Missing always means dead.” Then she took her place in the dreary procession that was impelled to go through a series of unprofitable emotions. The Rector, of course, preached hope and prophesized word, very soon, from a prison camp. Several friends too, told her perfectly truthful tales, but always about other women, to whom, after months and months of silence, their missing had been miraculously restored.
Helen did and wrote and signed everything that was suggested or put before her. Once, on one of Michael’s leaves, he had taken her over a munition factory, where she saw the progress of a shell from blank-iron to all but the finished article. It struck her at the time that the wretched thing was never left alone for a single second; and “I’m being manufactured into a bereaved next of kin,” she told herself, as she prepared her documents.
The agony of being waked up to some sort of second life drove Helen across the Channel, where, in a new world of abbreviated titles, she learnt that Hagenzeele Third could be comfortably reached by an afternoon train which fitted in with the morning boat, and that there was a comfortable little hotel not three kilometers from Hagenzeele itself where one could spend quite a comfortable night, and go to see one’s grave the next morning. All this she had from a Central Authority who lived in a tar and paper shed on the skirt of a razed city full of whirling lime-dust and blowing papers.
Helen was grateful, but when they reached the hotel Mrs. Scarsworth […] insisted on dining at the same table with her and, after the meal […] took Helen through her “commissions” with biographies of the dead, where she happened to know them, and sketches of their next of kin. Helen endured this till nearly half-past nine, ere she fled to her room. Almost at once there was a knock on the door and Mrs. Scarsworth entered; her hands, holding the dreadful list, clasped before her.
Because I’m so tired of lying […] year in and year out. When I don’t tell lies I’ve got to act ‘em and I’ve got to think ‘em, always. You don’t know what that means. He was everything to me that he oughtn’t have been—the only real thing—the only thing that happened to me in all my life; and I’ve had to pretend he wasn’t. I’ve had to watch every word, and think out what lie I’d tell next, for years and years!
“Lieutenant Michael Turrell—my nephew,” said Helen slowly and word for word, as she had many thousands of times in her life. The man lifted his eyes and looked at her with infinite compassion before he turned from the fresh-sown toward the naked black crosses. “Come with me,” he said, “and I will show you where your son lies.”