Bitters Neat

(notes edited by John McGivering)



ORG (Vol. 3, page 1598) records the first publication of this item (Uncollected No. 77) in the Civil and Military Gazette of 19 April, 1887. It is collected in the Edition de Luxe, and Scribner’s Outward Bound Edition, though not in the successive reprints of the Uniform Edition from 1899. It is also to be found in Volume I of the Sussex and Burwash Editions as one of the Plain Tales from the Hills.

The story

This is a cynical and rather tragic little anecdote, written when Kipling was only twenty-one, in much the same vein as “Yoked with an Unbeliever” (Plain Tales from the Hills”), which is headed by the quotation ‘I am dying for you, and you are dying for another‘, attributed by the author to a ‘Punjabi proverb’.

“Bitters Neat” concerns a dull man named Surrey and a very ordinary girl called Miss Tallaght, who falls madly in love with him for no apparent reason. Surrey, who ‘never bothered his head about women’, is unaware of her feelings. Another man falls in love with her and proposes, but she turns him down, much to the disgust of the aunt with whom she is living.
Reminiscent of the dreadful Mrs Scriffshaw (‘a lady who believes she has a will of her own’) in “Mrs Hauksbee Sits Out”, the aunt subjects the poor girl to a rigorous cross-examination, obtains a confession, and discusses it with other women in strictest confidence until it is known all over the station. Ashamed and humiliated, Miss Tallaght goes Home to England. When Surrey at last hears the story he ‘looked like a man who had missed a train and had been half stunned at the same time.’

Critical responses

In her Chapter 8, “Change and Persistence” J M S Tompkins discusses (page 222) the influence of Browning on the young Kipling and draws our attention to other stories in a similar vein:

Some of the short tales of Kipling’s twenties are Browningesque in their acceptance of the centrality of love in a man’s life, and others in their presentation of special cases in love. “In Error,” “On the Strength of a Likeness” and “Wressley of the Foreign Office” (All in Plain Tales from the Hills) are subjects that Browning might have used and “Bitters Neat” is a negative illustration of :

Oh, the little more, and how much it is !
And the little less, and what worlds away !
[Robert Browning, “By the Fireside.”]


Harry Ricketts (page 99) detects the influence of Jane Austen and Thackeray, while Jan Montefiore comments (p. 17):

The young Kipling writes, notoriously, as a knowing insider of colonial India hailed by Victorian contemparies as ‘the Revealer of the East’ … He knows about Simla’s unpredictable tolerance for illicit liaisons…

This reflects the catchphrase – irritating to some readers – that often appears in Kipling’s early work: ‘that is another story’, hinting at his knowledge and suggesting that he could tell more if he cared to do so. This is, however, a remarkable story, that might well have been written by an elderly roué, and from a young man of twenty-one it is surprising. One wonders if he was assisted by his father or mother. Alice Kipling may well have added a touch of acid.

Notes on the Text

[Title] Bitters Neat In this context ‘bitters’ would have been angostura, a concentrated flavouring for food and beverages made of water, alcohol, gentian root, and vegetable flavouring extracts, produced in Trinidad and Tobago. As the name implies, taken neat (undiluted) it would, like the anecdote, indeed be bitter, though it goes very well with gin and a little water ! By Kipling’s account, in Officers’ Messes it was not unknown to mix bitters with the very indifferent sherry that was to be had in British India. See our notes on “Quo Fata Vocant”.

Home in this context the United Kingdom.

programmes At the beginning of balls in those times, gentlemen would ask ladies to partner them for one or more dances, and both were provided with programmes on which they wrote the names or initials of their dancing-partners for the evening.

Solomon Solomon the son of David, the great King of Israel, whose wisdom was proverbial. He has his own Book in the Bible, “The Song of Solomon“. See also the opening of “The Butterfly that Stamped” in the Just-So Stories, page 199.

a big Station Not a railway-station, but a town or city with a substantial British presence, as in Lahore, with a military garrison and a European community of about seventy, as opposed to a small station like ‘Kashima’ in “A Wayside Comedy” (Wee Willie Winkie), with five or so. [See Harry Ricketts, page 55.]

cold season Generally speaking, India has three seasons:

  • Hot February to May, when the Plains become so hot that those who can go to the Hills
  • Wet the monsoon comes in June and July
    , and there is frequent rain
  • Cool October to February. There are of course, variations on this in such a vast country. [See India, Lonely Planet Publications, 1987 (page 29)

This remarkable variety of weather is featured in much of Kipling’s Indian prose and verse. See also the poem “Pagett, M.P.”, and Something of Myself, Chapter 3.

third volume an echo of the time when novels often appeared in three volumes – see Kipling’s verse “The Three-Decker” (The Seven Seas, 1896).

A-D-C’s end of the table The lower end, where the junior officers would sit. A-D-Cs were ‘Aides de Camp’, assistants to a senior officer.

P.W.D. the Public Works Department.

Commissariat The Commissariat was responsible for the supply of food, fodder, fuel, bedding and clothing. See “The Drums of the Fore and Aft” in Wee Willie Winkie, page 348, line 8.

Civilian Generally a person not in one of the armed services, but in this context a member of the Indian Civil Service, the elite “Heaven-Born” administrators of the Indian Empire. [See British Life in India, ed. R. V. Vernede, OUP 1995, page 10].

average amount of pay the salaries of civil servants and the military were set forth in reference-books available to everybody. At that time Kipling, working for a private newspaper company, was getting 375 rupees a month, around the pay of a fairly junior Civil Servant, and about half what Tallaght earned at about thirty years of age. (Senior men with many years of service would earn five or six times as much as the young journalist). There were some 13 rupees to the £ sterling.

plain cards numbers two to ten in each suit of playing cards (spades, clubs diamonds and hearts). The remainder are ‘court cards’ (aces, Kings, Queens, and Knaves).

Elaine Demoiselle d’Escalot. In the 15th century poem “Le Morte Arthur” by Sir Thomas Malory. She dies of unrequited love for Sir Lancelot (one of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table) and drifts down river to Camelot in a boat.

A 13th century version is told in the Italian novella La Donna di Scallota, the source of Alfed Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Lady of Shalott”, which inspired several paintings by Victorian artists.

Jawabed Hindi from the Arabic jawab – an answer which has come to mean dismissal; and in Anglo-Indian usage, a lady’s refusal of an offer of marriage. [See Hobson-Jobson, page 456.]

hair-pins The u-shaped wires used for holding up ladies’ long hair of that era.

false hair-plaits Used to bulk up thinning hair.

mane The long hair on the neck of a horse or other animal – used here for hair on the head.

ayah in this context a lady’s maid. (Also a nurse, looking after children).

Love Cupid, the Roman god of Love, the son of Venus, usually represented as a naked child, sometimes with wings.

Venus the goddess of love in Roman mythology.

Colombo to Dakar from the capital of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) off the south-east coast of India, to a city in Bengal, from end to end of the Indian Empire.

Band Stand An ornamental structure, usually with a roof, where a band plays at regular intervals – situated in the Mall or the garden of the Club; an important part of the social life of a Station.

rack in this context a medieval instrument of torture for obtaining confessions – the victim’s wrists and ankles were secured to windlasses which then hauled away until the limbs were almost pulled out of their joints.

Governess one of the few occupations available to an unmarried lady. Up to about 1914 when more clerical work became available, there were, apart from the medical and teaching professions, no jobs ladies could do without losing their social standing. Thus an unmarried girl was totally dependent on her father for her board and lodging, and a married woman on her husband. A governess was paid a salary to educate the children of a well-to-do household.

See Rudyard Kipling at Home and at Work by Dorothy Ponton. She was governess to the Kipling children and later private secretary to Kipling himself.

chaperone a married lady who supervises a young girl on social occasions. See “Mrs Hauksbee Sits Out”.

shandy-gaff a refreshing drink made by mixing beer with ginger-beer or sparkling lemonade.

Lotteries in this context a a form of betting on horses mentioned in “The Broken-Link Handicap”, Plain Tales from the Hills, page 167, line 33 onwards.

One version – better known as an accumulator – is to select the winners of a certain number of specified races, where the winnings from one bet are invested in the next, thus – with a lot of luck – producing a large return from a small initial stake.

khitmutgars butlers – see Hobson-Jobson, page 486.

bones the marrow from roasted beef-bones cooked with vegetables, flavourings etc., and served on toast. A popular dish of the period.

kismet fate or fortune, from the Turkish, via Persian and Arabic.

[J. H. McG.]

©John McGivering 2009 All rights reserved