(notes edited by David Page)

Publication history

First published in the Civil and Military Gazette, 1 June 1889. Collected Volume VI, No.42 of Turn-overs, 1889, and in Abaft the Funnel (Unauthorised and Authorised Editions), 1909.

What IT is not in this story!

The “It-girl” of the 21st century, usually a minor and short-term celebrity, does not derive her soubriquet from the same source as this story. The originator of this meaning of the word is usually considered to be Elinor Glyn (1864-1943), who wrote a series of somewhat steamy novels at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. In 1926 she wrote a novella with the title ‘It’ and the word became a synonym for female sex appeal. The novella was made into a silent film in 1927 starring Clara Bow (1905-1965) who was the first “It-girl”.

“The Desert Song”, an operetta by Sigmund Romberg with book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, Otto Harbach and Frank Mandel, opened on Broadway in 1926 and in Act II has a song “It” performed by the comedienne and comedian, which ends:

So if the boys don’t fall for you,
There’s just no hope at all for you.
Give up and quit,
You’ll never hit,
If you have not got IT!

Kipling used the word, almost in this sense, in his 1904 story “Mrs Bathurst”, collected in Traffics and Discoveries, but first published in the Windsor Magazine and Metropolitan of September 1904:

‘So can I—an’ I’ve only been to Auckland twice—how she stood an’ what she was sayin’ an’ what she looked like. That’s the secret. ’Tisn’t beauty, so to speak, nor good talk necessarily. It’s just It. Some women ’ll stay in a man’s memory if they once walk down a street, but most of ’em you can live with a month on end, an’ next commission you’d be put to it to certify whether they talked in their sleep or not, as one might say.’

Clara Bow was not even born at this point in time.

What IT is!

When Kipling wrote this story he meant Seasickness by this word IT, and on shipboard in the 1880s and 1890s that was well understood. [ORG]

Seasickness, or motion sickness, is usually attributed to disturbances of the body’s balance system in the inner ear, and until the mid-20th century when stabilisers were first fitted to ships, was a regular torment to passengers and also to some professional seamen, including Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson.

Its effect has been noted throughout recorded history, with one of the most descriptive being “The Pilgrims’ Sea Voyage” of 1430 from Kent (southern England) to St James of Compostella in northern Spain:

. . . Thys mene whyle the pylgryms ly,
And have theyr bowlys fast theym by,
And cry aftyr hote maluesy,

Thow helpe for to restore.
And some wold have a saltyd tost,
Ffor they myght ete neyther sode ne rost;
A man myght sone pay for theyr cost,

As for oo day or twayne.
. . .

[Source: Manuscript in the Library of Trinity College, Cambridge, England, reference MS R.3.19. f208]

The story

The ship has been five weeks so far on its voyage, presumably from India towards China. The sea has been calm, at least for the last two weeks, and there has been no mention of seasickness in the conversations of the passengers. Now they have turned up into the China Sea which is described, ominously, as being ‘a glassy-smooth sea.’

The narrator, in the tradition of all the best seasickness stories, has a ‘cast-iron stomach’, and as the other passengers start to succumb to IT when ‘suddenly and without warning our ship curtsied’, he does his best to bring home to them the dolour of their plight. One passenger in particular, ‘a big fat man’ who has ‘boasted too much’, is the target of the narrator, since in addition to the boasting, they share a cabin. The narrator treats his ‘virtuous and very respectable stomach . . . to a gin cocktail, which I sucked by the side of the strong man’. The latter goes down to their cabin, followed three minutes later by the narrator ‘with a thick cheroot’, and there wrings out the admission that ‘the strong man’ was suffering from It.


Kipling had left India on 9 March 1889, travelling with Prof ‘Aleck’ and Mrs Edmonia Hill via Burma, Malaya, China, Japan and the U.S.A. on his way back to England. The reports that he sent back to the Pioneer describing his travels were collected in From Sea to Sea (1899). Chapter VII starts with the China Sea, sailing on the S.S. Nawab from Singapore to Hong Kong in early April:

‘When you are in the China Seas be careful to keep all your flannel-wear to hand. In an hour the steamer swung from tropical heat (including prickly) to a cold raw fog, as wet as a Scotch mist. Morning gave us a new world—somewhere between Heaven and Earth. The sea was smoked glass…


©David Page 2006 All rights reserved