In the Matter of a Private

(notes edited by John McGivering and John Radcliffe)


First published in The Week’s News of Allahabad on 14 April 1888, in the Indian Railway Library, Volume 1 and collected in Soldiers Three the same year. Mulvaney is not mentioned in this story, which is a sequel to “The Daughter of the Regiment” (Plain Tales from the Hills).

The story

This story is told directly by the author rather than as a reminiscence of Mulvaney. As in a number of the early tales, the 22 year-old Kipling spells out his moral very explicitly, to an audience of whom few would have known much about the lives of private soldiers; his ‘prologue’ reflects on the capacity of groups of soldiers under pressure to become as hysterical as schoolgirls.

There is no escape from the terrible heat of India’s summer season; men who are forced to endure this in close proximity get on each other’s nerves. One soldier, Losson, has got into the habit of needling another, Simmons, and has even trained a parrot to insult him, by saying ‘Simmons. you soo-or (swine)‘. One hot night Simmons’ nerve snaps. he seizes his rifle, shoots Losson, and holes up outside the barracks threatening to kill all comers. He shoots the Major in the shoulder, but is taken by a wily Corporal, and later tried and hanged. A fearsome outcome of a bout of hysteria.

Some critical comments

See Patrick Braybrooke Chapter 1, for an interesting examination of this story:

In every barrack-room there is always one unfortunate man … who hates his companions and in return is hated by them (page 12).

Discussing these soldier stories, Alan Sandison (page 74) says:

With very great clarity Kipling brings home the intensity of the pressures which these men endured. Forced to serve in the middle of an alien and hostile country in stations like Fort Amara, the petty frustrations of military regimentation swell to intolerable proportions, enormously aggravated by unpleasant and dangerous diseases.

Sandison then quotes the poem “Cholera Camp”.
Charles Carrington (in a footnote to page 108) calls this “A powerful story”. Norman Page records that The Athenæum praised it as “…a wonderful study of heat-hysteria.” David Gilmour (page 48) notes the Shakespearian background and observes that Mulvaney and his friends are not heroes; “…they do not fight Homeric encounters against great odds …. They are always human.”

[J H McG/J.R.]

©John McGivering and John Radcliffe 2005 All rights reserved