[page 148] This article will consider the connections between Mortimer Collins’s novel Transmigration (1874) and Rudyard Kipling’s short story “The Finest Story in the World” (1891) and argue for a stronger relationship between the two texts than is generally understood to show that Kipling’s short story adapted and reworked elements of Collins’s novel to create a different yet respectful literary representation of reincarnation. “The Finest Story in the World” tells the story of Charlie Mears, a young man employed in a London bank who is, the narrator informs us, “full of aspirations” (90). As the tale unfolds, Charlie’s dreams of literary success–unmatched by his actual capabilities–assume a secondary significance. Believing that he is sketching out fictional ideas and images for the benefit of the story’s narrator, Charlie recounts the incidents of two previous incarnations. Keen to test the young man’s astonishing memories, the narrator casually introduces the subject of reincarnation and is satisfied that Charlie, at least, is unaware that his scenes of historical life are factual. The memories appear in flashes, tantalizing and tormenting him in equal measure until, at the story’s end, Charlie’s first experience of falling in love awakens him fully to his current incarnation and stops all recollection of his past lives. The reference to Transmigration in “The Finest Story in the World” is integral to the story as the novel provides themes which are readily adopted by the later work. The novel also offers structural forms against which the fin-de-siècle story rebels. Other late-Victorian literary works featured metempsychosis, or the rebirth of the soul, but did not always use the same theme of reincarnation to create the same effects. Novels such as H. Rider Haggard’s She (1887) and Marie Corelli’s Ziska (1897) incorporate reincarnation as part of romance plots spanning centuries and occuring in exotic foreign settings. Mortimer Collins’s novel, however, uses the transmigration of the soul to create a linear and conventional narrative. In a work that Collins claimed was inspired by William Wordsworth, the narrator relates the adventures of the soul of an English gentleman who lives two immediately consecutive lives. Kipling’s story explicitly refers to Transmigration and transforms its conventional structure and first-person narrative into the fragmented tale of a bank clerk’s former lives of servitude over several centuries. While Transmigration may merely broach the theme of reincarnation, “The Finest Story in the World,” while indebted to the novel, offers a very specific portrayal of the ways in which reincarnation functions both as an organic event and as a plot device. [page 149]
Collins and Kipling
In his own time, Mortimer Collins was known as a journalist, poet, and novelist. Although he has since slipped into relative obscurity, during the nineteenth century his “versatility and talent” as a writer were noted and praised, as was his “remarkable fertility of invention” (“Mortimer Collins” Leamington Spa Courier 7; “Mortimer Collins” Morning Post 3). His admirers and detractors alike noted this faculty. One critic commended his novels for being “eminently original,” while another commented unfavorably on Collins’s numerous and all too evident “idiosyncrasies” (“Death” Nottinghamshire Guardian 2; “Village Comedy” Pall Mall Gazette 12). Whether praised or criticized, his style was inimitable.
These peculiarities are manifest in Transmigration. With its reincarnation plot and interplanetary setting, the novel is memorable for its unconventionality as much as for the story it tells. After his death, one obituary noted it as being among Collins’s “best” works, while, several years after its publication, this “charming” novel was referenced in connection with the fin-de-siècle interest in all things Martian (“Death” Sheffield Independent 3; “Social and Personal” Western Daily Press 3). The genesis of this strange tale came, not from an avowed desire to confuse or provoke, but from Wordsworth and his poetry. In his introduction to the novel, Collins explicitly denied any immediate, Victorian literary precursors. He instead gave credit to Wordsworth, claiming that, while walking with “one of England’s great poets,” the older man quoted lines from “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” (Collins 1.n.p.). Collins included the inspirational lines on the novel’s title page, although the text of Transmigration does not refer directly to the poem. However unusual its origin, Collins’s novel was to have an equally unexpected afterlife when it reappeared in “The Finest Story in the World.”
Collins’s work was read by an enthusiastic and impressionable young Kipling. A delighted eighteen-year-old Kipling informed one correspondent of the favorable reviews his volume of poetry Echoes (1884) had earned, noting in especial one comparison to “the classic rhythm of Mortimer Collins” (Letters 78). Two years later Kipling wrote with similar pride of the sales of Departmental Ditties (1886) and the reviews which compared his verse to “Mortimer Collins … and all sorts of people whose shoe-latchets I am not worthy to unloose” (Letters 139). If Kipling’s appreciation of Collins’s poetical publications was sincere, it would nonetheless be Collins’s fiction that featured in “The Finest Story in the World.” One perceptive critic of Kipling’s work suggested of Transmigration that “there was nothing in it … except the bare introduction of the concept of reincarnation” for “The Finest Story in the World” (Tompkins 227). While the plots of the novel and short story appear [page 150] dissimilar, Transmigration does more than simply introduce the idea of metempsychosis. Collins’s writing informs “The Finest Story in the World” at a structural as well as at a thematic level, allowing Kipling to respond to the earlier literary depiction of the soul’s rebirth.
Transmigration and Narrative Structure
Transmigration follows a simple, if supernatural, structure. The first volume treats the narrator’s life as Edward Ellesmere, born in England in 1780 into a life of great wealth and privilege. Ellesmere attempts to atone for his early dissolute life by withdrawing from society and passing his adulthood in relative seclusion. His later years are given to study, during which period he gains spiritual wisdom that enables him subsequently to retain his memory of his previous life and the time passed between his two earthly incarnations. The volume concludes with his death and the death of his beloved, his engagement to whom he had been forced to break after killing her brother in a duel. The second volume, following a less conventional trajectory, details his soul’s adventures in space and on Mars between incarnations. The third and final volume commences with his death as Ellesmere in the afternoon and his rebirth as Reginald Marchmont later the same evening. He assumes his new physical body in 1840, and the narrative follows his life as Marchmont.
Mortimer Collins’s novel therefore combines the extraordinary with the mundane. Rebirth, in this text, is chronologically linear, and the narrator’s memories record events in an equally orderly, undeviating fashion. Beginning in the late-eighteenth century and resuming in the early-Victorian period, the novel details one individual’s biography despite the unusual circumstance of the memoirs spanning two lives. As one reviewer observed of the novel’s use of reincarnation, “the existence of such a thing is taken for granted, and as it were insinuated, in the account of the life of the person who is supposed to be biographising” (“Transmigration” 6). If the fantastic elements of the plot are made unremarkable, the novel is also socially conservative. The narrator is born into the aristocracy as Ellesmere, and his mother is “the first heiress in England” (1.14). As Marchmont, his parents enjoy comfortable circumstances at the time of his birth and inherit an “immense property” when he is a child (3.29). Marchmont later improves his lot by marrying an aristocrat who is also “an heiress” (3.278). His financial security in both lives is constant, just as the narrative regularity of the text is consistent throughout his history. Although fantastic in its use of a soul’s metempsychosis, Collins’s novel is in many ways a conventional work of fiction in its use of linear narrative and its depictions of social mores and environments. [page 151]
“The Finest Story in the World” approaches Charlie’s tales in an altogether different manner. Most significantly, of course, Charlie’s story is not told directly as a first-person narrative, as Ellesmere/Marchmont’s is. The narrator’s attempts to make sense of Charlie’s memories blur the narrative thread even as they attempt to disentangle and impose order. Furthermore, the narrator’s prompts, interventions, and summaries are all that the reader is permitted to know of Charlie’s lives, much as the narrator himself remains excluded from knowing the full history of Charlie’s memories. The knowledge of past lives, in this short story, always comes at second hand. Conveying the story of a soul’s history becomes, for Kipling’s readers, strange and opaque.
Marchmont’s narrative emphatically refuses to treat the experience of reincarnation as mysterious, imposing on the supernatural the regularity of a three-decker novel. In point of fact, he says, it is possible “by scientific analysis [to] trace the soul backward” (3.290-291). His account is logical, assuming the language of science in support of his own “investigation” (3.291). His rationalist approach, which permits of tracing his family’s souls “backward,” has, at the time of writing, been accomplished “through three generations only” (3.291). Whether recording his own forward progression or tracing backward to find his children’s souls’ lineage, Marchmont’s theories of transmigration are emphatically traditionalist. Each incarnation may be methodically plotted, documented, and tested.
The narrator of “The Finest Story in the World” experiences no such straightforward narrative when Charlie unknowingly recounts his past lives. What one critic has termed the “fragmentation” of Charlie’s recollections instead highlights the constructed nature of Transmigration, discreetly hinting that the unobtrusive conformity of Collins’s novel is artificial despite its claims to the contrary (Mackenzie 26). Kipling’s tale conceives of Charlie’s lives not only as a conscious act of story-telling, but also as a semi-conscious act of memory. In doing so, the short story highlights the discrepancies between the expository nature of Transmigration and the disconnected, blurred snatches of memory as the narrator hears them from Charlie’s lips. Both narrators use the structure of their tale to underscore the veracity of reincarnation. The first employs a conservative framework, the second a more modernist, experimental one. The reference to Transmigration in “The Finest Story in the World” highlights these differences. In introducing the earlier work, readers familiar with Collins’s novel would be able to contrast the two and the different ways in which the respective stories are told. The disjointedness of “The Finest Story in the World” strives for a verisimilitude which is, by contrast, lacking in Transmigration. Much as the “realistic commemoration of details” suggests the truth of Charlie’s, and the narrator’s, accounts, the structure of the short story implies that their combined tale is true (Millar 208). [page 152]
Though simpler in its undeviating plot development, Transmigration’s use of this linear method of narration suggests less a genuine act of memory on Ellesmere/Marchmont’s part and more an author at leisure to construct a well-ordered work of fiction. By contrast, in highlighting his own profession as a writer, Charlie’s literary ambitions, and the fictional antecedents for tales of reincarnation, Kipling’s narrator cunningly highlights the assumption that, for such bookish men as those who tell “The Finest Story in the World,” the story ought to be more plausibly and conventionally told. Instead, the narrator persistently emphasizes the “doubling of story-tellers” and the near incoherence of Charlie’s past histories (Kemp 34). In stressing Charlie’s infuriating lack of control over his past life recollections, the narrator implies the more readily that the tale must, through its greater resemblance to life than to fiction, be true. The narrative, in its construction, bears so little likeness to that of Transmigration that the narrator might well be forgiven for believing that there is no connection at all between Charlie’s memories and the carefully arranged memories of Ellesmere/Marchmont.
“The Finest Story in the World,” drawing on selected elements of Transmigration, replicates some of the difficulties of a reincarnation plot despite its distinct pattern of narration. Though Kipling has his narrator persistently emphasize the jarring and discontinuous nature of Charlie’s revelations, the narrator of Transmigration experiences similar difficulties when constructing a coherent story. In Collins’s novel, the narrator continually moves between his two names, suggesting a narrative confusion despite a fully unimpaired sense of self. Ellesmere/Marchmont also uses more than one name for other characters who have been reincarnated or to whom he has borne different relations in his two earthly lives. The first time he must confront this peculiar experience happens immediately, on the day of his death as Ellesmere and birth as Marchmont. He muses upon his redefined relationship to a former friend who is now his parent: “Mavis Lee, not long ago, was a little girl that I petted; now she’s Mamma: which view of her character am I to take?” (3.5). The slippage between identities is perhaps unavoidable. Although the newly born Marchmont knows both who he is and who he was, he immediately realizes that his ability to tell his own life story is shaped considerably by those around him.
Kipling’s short story explores similar connections but eschews the comfort of the domestic and the familial. Charlie’s memories, simultaneously vivid and indistinct, display some of the complications arising from rebirth. Though different from Marchmont’s restrictions, Charlie’s limitations also probe the boundaries of the rational and the expected. The Ellesmere/Marchmont story, with its strict chronology, compels logic regarding its protagonist’s relationships, showing the narrating soul’s reasons for the choices he adopts throughout his lives. [page 153] Charlie’s confusion is more evident because “The Finest Story in the World” does not follow the pattern of Transmigration. His relation to his former shipmates and his own position is “maddening” as the narrator tries to unpack Charlie’s past life or lives (121). Charlie’s memories are clear–he recognizes that the “black-haired chap” belongs to one ship while the “red-haired chap” is associated with a boat of completely different design and intent (120-121). His insistence helps the narrator to realize that Charlie’s life on the water is not one, but two lives. The complexities of a reincarnated soul are thus foregrounded in a way that Collins’s novel had not treated. In confronting the difficulty of the soul’s memory, Ellesmere/Marchmont seeks to minimize it and establish it as part of an orthodox tale. In rejecting such ready conformity, the narrator of “The Finest Story in the World” treats reincarnation as a more mysterious process. The unpredictable nature of Charlie’s recollections becomes, in this story, a proof of their veracity. Both texts confront the nature of past life memories, but only one imposes a strict order upon them. Marchmont’s narrative is fraught because his knowledge is so perfect and his memory so clear. Charlie’s narrative is complex because his knowledge is so erratic and his memory so fleeting.
That Transmigration enforces such an inflexible structure on its protagonist’s memoirs can lead to almost comic moments of self-consciousness. Reborn as Marchmont, the narrator nonetheless fully retains the education he received as Ellesmere: “I was born again, without forgetting my past. Most babies have forgotten everything: I had forgotten nothing. If my father were to come and quote Horace to me, I could give him the next line” (3.3). The novel generally eschews the humor inherent in such unusual scenarios as a reincarnated protagonist provides, resolutely maintaining the conventional plot in spite of the supernatural element. Such moments, however, merely underscore the rigidity with which the novel’s plot is handled and contrast with the lack of such episodes in “The Finest Story in the World.”
The memories of Ellesmere/Marchmont are the main focus of the narrative, but others are affected by similar circumstances. This slippage between identities affects other characters in the tale, but, crucially, the effort is not sustained throughout the novel. After many long conversations about matters spiritual, Marchmont is able to convince his wife of the truth of his, and her, rebirth. His recollections revive her soul’s memories, and she suddenly identifies herself as Ellesmere’s former sweetheart: “Yes. I was Lucy. I am Lucy. O, I shall always remember now!” (3.292). It is a rapid shift, quite distinct from that experienced by Ellesmere/Marchmont, and it constitutes the somewhat abrupt conclusion to the novel. Although this past life memory by a second character hints at even greater possibilities for full recollection, Transmigration avoids further complications by closing with the awakening [page 154] of Lucy/Grace to her soul’s more complete history.
With the protagonist and, much later, his wife, Collins’s novel explicitly works upon the premise of the continuity of the individual soul complete with unimpaired memory. It is in accepting this conception that the narrator of “The Finest Story in the World” errs, assuming that reincarnation must bear more resemblance to the system of rebirth in Transmigration than the confusing half-knowledge that he tries to understand.
Transmigration and Class Consciousness
Kipling’s story, while influenced by Collins’s, retains only some of Transmigration’s fictional components. The lesson that the narrator takes away from Collins’s work is, presumably, that transmigration must necessarily resemble Transmigration. The superficial and structural similarities to the novel are, of course, limited. Yet had the narrator of “The Finest Story in the World” reflected, he would realize that Charlie displays more similarities than otherwise to the dual identity of Collins’s narrator. Any formal resemblance to the novel may be lacking, yet the narrator’s interpretation of this fictional forebear proves surprisingly inflexible. The constraints of a three-decker novel have quite noticeably failed to be imposed on the past lives of Charlie, of which the most readily apparent example–to all but the narrator–is the class hierarchy that the narrator attempts to transfer from Transmigration to Charlie’s more mixed memories.
In Transmigration, Ellesmere’s rebirth is so perfectly in keeping with his previous life that there is no question of a serious loss of rank from one life to the next. As Marchmont, he goes out of his way to stress his impeccable social credentials by making clear his aversion to the lower forms of securing an income: “Even in the cradle, I detested the Stock Exchange” (3.6). Charlie’s position in life could not be more different, a point that the narrator of “The Finest Story in the World” is quick to see. The narrator’s class prejudices are remarkably similar to Ellesmere/Marchmont’s. Just as Collins’s narrator’s biases color his story, Kipling’s narrator’s presumptions influence his understanding of Charlie’s tales.
In the narrator’s understandable desire to learn of history from one of its participants, he slowly and inexorably adds to the glory of the tale, falling victim to the very trap he fears for Charlie, that of embroidering the truth. Having at first been captivated by the possibility of “the story of a Greek galley-slave, as told by himself” (100), the narrator’s belief in Charlie’s importance slowly grows until he is convinced that Charlie “might for aught he or I knew have been one of the crew of the Argo–had been certainly slave or comrade to Thorfin Karlsefne” (122). The [page 155] evolution the narrator’s thinking has undergone in relation to the Greek galley slave is seen within a single sentence as he describes the soul’s Viking adventures. It is parallel to the slow process of self-deception that emerges as he pleads with the “Great Powers Above … the Lords of Life and Death” (112). First weighing, not what it would mean to Charlie to regain the knowledge of previous incarnations, but “what this meant to me,” he concludes “Nothing less than eternal fame of the best kind” (112). Unsurprisingly, his plea bargain is reduced, both for his own profit from the matter (“I would be content … with the mere right to tell one story”) and Charlie’s ability to recall past events (“sixty short minutes”) (112). As Charlie’s narratives “will not consent to be written down,” the narrator continually attempts to elaborate and supplement them with his own views of Charlie’s historical significance (Lyon 128). Because Charlie proves incapable of constructing a fully coherent account of his ancestral adventures, the narrator attempts to impose the same order upon them that was so evident and so apparently effortless in Transmigration.
What Charlie’s patchwork account of his time as “two sorts of galley-slave” makes clear is that his social standing was not so great as the narrator might wish to believe (Carrington 397). Though capable of rebellion and some forms of leadership, the essential nature of Charlie, in this life, which the narrator is at such pains to describe that he repeats himself on several occasions, is a nature “as befitted a bank-clerk on twenty-five shillings a week” (91). The narrator’s contempt for Charlie’s literary ambitions grows in inverse proportion to his increasingly exaggerated portrait of Charlie’s importance in previous lives. What, for the narrator, begins as a strange and inexplicable phenomenon becomes an anomaly as he believes the soul to have taken a more central part in history (as also demonstrated in his inflated phrasing) than would suit the nineteenth century’s equivalent of a culturally-ignorant galley slave.
The narrator exaggerates Charlie’s importance in spite of the very evidence he has from Charlie. The embellishment of Charlie’s snippets of memory, while specifically the narrator’s, play upon Charlie’s literary aspirations in more than one incarnation. The narrator’s apparently professional assessment of Charlie’s ignorance of works by great authors, as well as his mute judgment of Charlie’s own literary productions, is mentioned and mentioned often. His sure knowledge that “bank-clerks do not understand metempsychosis” is itself untrustworthy, being marred by his own inability to understand the concept (100). The narrator’s rather smug assessment of Charlie’s character, as he sees it in more than one life, is therefore subtly questioned. The British Museum’s specialist offers the contemptuous declaration that Charlie’s “scratches” are an “extremely illiterate” person’s “attempt to write extremely corrupt Greek” (100). This verdict parallels the narrator’s appraisal of the scribblings of Charlie in his late-nineteenth-century incarnation despite the narrator’s failure to [page 156] recognize the implications.
“The Finest Story in the World” also carefully draws out the literary links between Collins’s fiction, Charlie’s writings as a galley slave, and Charlie the bank clerk’s proposed contributions to Victorian periodicals. When attempting to test Charlie’s knowledge of his own history, the narrator “deliberately introduce[s]” him to Collins’s novel to see what self-awareness might be judged from his reaction (107). After an hour’s casual reading, Charlie declares it to be “rot” and the narrator, seemingly satisfied, does not refer to the novel again (107).
What the literarily-minded narrator does not appear to notice, however, is the volume that Charlie has been reading in his short perusal of the book. Charlie confesses that he does not “understand his nonsense about the Red Planet Mars and the King, and the rest of it” (107). Charlie’s perplexity is understandable. The interlude on Mars that occupies the whole of the second volume provides the novel with structural uniformity but little in the way of realist plot or straightforward setting. Even Ellesmere/Marchmont finds his soul’s interplanetary adventures somewhat puzzling. Collins’s narrator attempts no explanation of his many experiences, simply confessing that he finds it “utterly inexplicable” and adding, somewhat abruptly, that “I leave it to the metaphysical reader” (3.2). Certainly, the passages in the second volume are strange, but, by Charlie’s own account, they form the bulk of his quick knowledge of Transmigration. His hasty judgment of the novel as “rot” would appear to be based exclusively on the second volume. The “Red Planet Mars and the King” come, not from the events of the story that involve Ellesmere’s Georgian escapades or Marchmont’s Victorian exploits, but from the volume of the novel which even its narrator finds bewildering. Charlie’s verdict, then, is of a tale of a disembodied soul in outer space, not of a reincarnated Englishman. The distinction is a fine one, but it is one that, in his eagerness to confirm his own theories, the narrator of “The Finest Story in the World” overlooks.
If Charlie’s assessment of Transmigration is biased, having been based on a speed reading of the interplanetary second volume, Charlie’s judgment might discreetly be questioned elsewhere in the narrative. He decides the more outlandish elements of Collins’s novel are “rot.” This work is not, however, the only literary work that earns the description. After his brief introduction to Transmigration, Charlie writes a short poem that describes his past experiences. The narrator discovers this poem–which excites him greatly–only by mistake. Having spent the evening with Charlie’s other writings, of which the narrator is more than disdainful, the narrator gives ample space to Charlie’s past-life poem, reproducing in full the verse that describes, at first hand, the ineffable weariness of a galley slave. Although the narrator’s own preferences and assumptions distort the shape of Charlie’s histories, the prominence afforded this particular [page 157] poem is in marked contrast to Charlie’s feeling on its merit. Charlie’s comment–that “that’s not poetry at all”–might rightly be seen as commenting on what the narrator fully realizes, that it is a historical record, not a piece of verse to be sent to one of Charlie’s preferred periodicals (119). Before reading it, the narrator refers to it in terms that he reserves for Charlie’s other literary productions. He takes this first-person account for a simple “pencil scrawl” on “the back of the paper” containing some of Charlie’s other, less accomplished pieces, only changing his opinion after seeing the subject matter (119). Charlie, however, refers to his composition as “rot” (119).
Charlie’s valuation of the poem is, significantly, identical to his opinion of the second volume of Transmigration. Because the narrator persistently questions the worth of Charlie’s opinions, the fact that Charlie considers both the planet Mars episodes and the galley slave’s lament “rot” causes the narrator to overlook the links between the two literary accounts of reincarnation. In his excitement to get at Charlie’s histories, he neglects the other evidence that Charlie unconsciously provides. As the narrator himself acknowledges, he “was concerned for the past” rather than the future and, it might be argued, rather than for the present and the present’s evidence as well (118).
Although the narrator uses it to test Charlie’s knowledge of his position, Transmigration suggests a not-dissimilar attitude to reincarnation than that which appears in “The Finest Story in the World.” Collins’s narrator, as Ellesmere, is an aristocrat. His next birth, as Marchmont, is as a moneyed man who marries into the aristocracy. The soul of Ellesmere/Marchmont retains a fixed general identity from one incarnation to the next, despite the minor fluctuations within the events of each birth. Where Collins’s character has a relatively consistent lack of occupation, Kipling’s man, by contrast, retains similar employment from one life to the next. The narrator of the “The Finest Story in the World” makes the critical mistake of assuming that Charlie’s hard labor has no point of comparison with Ellesmere’s lack of labor. Although Charlie is poorly remunerated (when paid at all) in his incarnations, his overworked and underpaid menial status is as consistent throughout his lives as is the financial security enjoyed by Ellesmere/Marchmont.
The narrator similarly fails to understand Charlie’s surroundings, much as he fails to understand Charlie in this life, Charlie in his past lives, and Charlie’s status in all of his incarnations. The locations of which the narrator so desperately desires to know in the historical accounts are simply the earlier versions of the surroundings of which he is so dismissive in the present day. These environments constitute an essential part of Charlie’s past experiences on both Greek and Viking ships, much as his current situation makes Charlie who he is in his Victorian life. His rough surroundings are intimately connected with his lowly position, in [page 158] this life as in the past.
With such a close relation between position and background, Charlie follows the example set in Transmigration. At the commencement of the novel, Ellesmere’s recollections of luxurious living and society’s high life match his genteel birth and link the recent past to the present. Subsequently, Marchmont’s narrative of his life represents perfectly the comfortable surroundings that correspond to his similarly easy social standing. In bringing the narrative up to the present moment, moreover, Marchmont’s life reflects the positive attributes of contemporary living and its many modern conveniences. Though undoubtedly tinged with a nostalgic, conservative view of the past and its institutions, the Marchmont plot portrays a comfort quite in keeping with the other socioeconomic aspects of its narrator’s life. Marchmont’s tale in the final volume occurs in the most modern period possible at the time of writing and suggests all of the comfort and ease that might be expected from Victorian privilege.
Charlie’s lives, by contrast, are lived in “more brutal ages” (Wilson 149). The eras in which Charlie’s earlier incarnations were passed are in keeping with his lowly status, but the narrator does not understand that Charlie’s lives, spent in the most humble of situations, could only be passed in earlier, more pitiless eras of history. In misunderstanding Charlie’s consistently low-status reincarnations, the narrator cannot help but misunderstand the environments in which Charlie’s past bodies find themselves. The narrator’s attempts to inflate Charlie’s status parallel his efforts to improve upon Charlie’s “broken muttering” and disconnected images of nautical happenings (125).
The narrator’s ideas of Charlie precede any inadvertent revelations of Charlie’s and hint at how such predetermined judgment of character colors the later narrative. The narrator introduces Charlie very much as he sees the younger man, as an inexperienced clerk who “lived in the north of London, coming into the City every day to work in a bank” (90). Charlie, in his nineteenth-century life, is a marginal figure in his occupation, in his aspirations, and even in his accommodation. It is only natural that the narrator, with these preconceptions in mind, sees less of the squalor and misery of Charlie’s past lives and far more of the poetic, literary, and religious possibilities that Charlie’s recollections seem to promise.
The romanticized nature of Charlie’s tales contrasts markedly with Ellesmere’s prosaic memoirs. Nevertheless, the two works have far more in common than the narrator of “The Finest Story in the World” understands or acknowledges. Transmigration introduces the theme of metempsychosis but does not attempt to explain it, nor does the novel make much of it except as it furthers the narrative. Reincarnation is here, quite simply, an unconventional part of an otherwise conventional [page 159] narrative. “The Finest Story in the World” departs from its predecessor entirely, emphasizing both the occult theme and the disjointed, unconscious nature of Charlie’s memories. The earlier work of fiction still leaves its imprint on the later story, however. Whereas Collins creates an aristocrat, Kipling creates a galley slave and bank clerk. The first work establishes the template for the soul’s general social fixity from one life to the next. The second adheres to the same general principle, but explores different walks of life. The short story also experiments with the periods of history in which the protagonist’s lives are spent. Although Charlie is undoubtedly a young man of the late nineteenth century, his soul’s earlier adventures belong to periods of history many centuries distant from the contemporary Victorian setting. The fashionable Ellesmere/Marchmont, by contrast, passes two immediately consecutive lives that bring the reader smoothly up to the present day and neither tax nor fire the historical imagination. Identical themes concern both works of fiction, yet their approaches playfully overlap with and carefully diverge from each other to offer two interlinked examples of Victorian metempsychosis. While paying a respectful homage to Mortimer Collins’s work, Rudyard Kipling, through the unassuming character of Charlie Mears, subtly rewrote Transmigration to create “The Finest Story in the World.”
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