(notes edited by John McGivering)


The story was published in the Civil and Military Gazette on March 21st 1887, in the first Indian edition of Plain Tales from the Hills in 1888, and in subsequent editions of that collection. See David Alan
p. 17.

The story

Kipling offers the story of Peythroppe as “the example that illustrates my theory” that Government should have a Matrimonial Department to arrange Anglo-Indian marriages. In the exemplary story that follows the narrator’s introduction, the promising ICS officer Peythroppe determines, despite the urgent advice of his friends, to marry the Eurasian Miss Castries.

However, Mrs. Hauksbee, who has his best interests at heart, cleverly frustrates his plan. Following her direction, the ‘Three Men’ kidnap Peythroppe, causing him to miss his wedding. When he is eventually allowed to return, Miss Castries’ angry father reveals to him a disgusting roughness of character, thus forcing Peythroppe to recognize his error.

All ends happily for all but Miss Castries: Peythroppe comes “to his right mind again, and [does] . . . much good work” and Miss Castries, refusing to bring a suit for breach of promise, marries “a most respectable and gentlemanly person.”

The narrator concludes that the point of his story is that much trouble might in future be saved by the government Matrimonial Department he has proposed.

The background

This tale, cruel and unedifying to a modern reader, illustrates the fact that, in the days of the Raj, the British in India were stratified into castes almost as rigidly as Hindus. This was a tiny community, very conscious of the need to maintain its status and preserve its precarious authority over many millions of Indian people. Keeping up social standards was seen as essential to this.

There was a formal hierarchy of precedence, based on official rank, in which the Indian Civil service were at the top, rank by rank, followed by officers of the army and other functionaries, with people in business – ‘box-wallahs’ – still further down the social ladder. To be in ‘trade’ – i.e. shop-keeping – was even worse than to be in business. This hierarchy determined who one was prepared to mix with socially, who sat next to whom when they dined, and – of course – whom one could marry. Neither Kipling, as a journalist, nor his father as a museum curator, came very high up the social ladder, and when the Viceroy’s son started to show an interest in Kipling’s beautiful sister, it was suggested that perhaps she should move to another hill station.

There was an even deeper social gulf between Europeans and Indians, and between Europeans and the large Eurasian community, with whom they would not dine, socialise, mix with in their clubs, or – of course – marry. If Peythroppe had married Miss Castries, he and his wife would have been outcastes from British society, excluded from social events, and largely ignored. Meanwhile promotion in his official job would have been most unlikely.

These social realities would have been commonplace and perfectly acceptable to Kipling’s readers in Lahore, but it should not be assumed by modern readers that Kipling himself believed in them whole-heartedly or accepted them unthinkingly, however necessary he would have felt them to be. There is always a strong note of irony in his accounts of social mores in Simla, and when he says in the opening line of the tale that “We are a very high-caste and enlightened race…” he is reflecting the British view of themselves, rather than expressing his own convictions, which were a great deal more complex.

See ”The Honours of War” (A Diversity of Creatures p. 111, lines 10-15) for a similar case, where Elliot-Hacker is minded to marry a Eurasian girl.

Some critical comments

Hart (p 136) sees this as one of the variants of the literary device “the imperfectly informed narrator”:

…in which certain details of action and dialogue are given, from which the reader is expected to construct the story or the situation itself.

Harry Ricketts writes (p. 98) of Plain Tales from the Hills:

Many of the stories, particularly those set in Simla, shared the high spirits of Departmental Ditties… Simla was Rud’s Illyria, a place where everyone fell in love, usually inappropriately; where identities were mistaken; where tricks were played on the self-regarding and the unwary; and where there were occasional glimpses of a darker undertow. A number of these stories featured the machinations of the witty widow, Mrs. Hauksbee.

Illyria is the scene of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.
Undertow is a current below the surface, dangerous to swimmers
for Mrs Hauksbee see ORG vol. 1, p.5.


[J H McG]

©John McGivering 2012 All rights reserved