"The Madness of Private Ortheris"

(notes edited
by John McGivering)




notes on the text
[November 4th 2003]


Publication

First published in Plain Tales from the Hills in 1888, and in successive subsequent editions of this collection, in which it was the fourth of the Mulvaney stories.

The Story

Private Stanley Ortheris, small, tough, a crack shot, Cockney to his bones, and serving the Queen in India, is plunged in suicidal gloom. He is overcome with homesickness for London, '...sick for the sounds of 'er and the stinks of 'er; orange-peel and hasphalte an' gas comin' in over Vaux'all Bridge. Sick for the rail goin' down to Box 'ill, with your gal on your knee an' a new clay pipe to your face...'. To jerk him out of his depression, the narrator offers to help him desert, get to Karachi, and take ship for England. Ortheris agrees to rendezvous in the long grass by the riverbank, dressed in civlian clothes, to pick up a rail ticket. But when they meet him at dusk, the mood has left him, he is contrite and desperate to get back into uniform, to the life he knows with Mulvaney and Learoyd.

Some critical comments

Marghanita Laski in From Palm to Pine maintains that Kipling's 'Soldiers Three' stand with Shakespeare’s Nym and Bardolph and Pistol as the most famous soldiers in literature. According to Philip Mallett, this is the best of the stories about the three. Cornell, (p.137') writes of this 'homesickness of almost pathological intensity' breaking through Ortheris’s normal self-control, and sees the story as expressing the conflict between prescribed duties and the impulse to flee from British India. For the background to the Mulvaney stories, see the excellent Introduction to Charles Carrington’s edition of Barrack-Room Ballads (Methuen, 1973).