First published in the Civil and Military Gazette, 21 February 1890. Collected Volume IX, No. 64 of Turn-overs, 1890, and in Abaft the Funnel (Unauthorised and Authorised Editions), 1909.
Kipling had been living in Villiers Street, London for four months before this story was first published, after his return to England from India in 1889.
The narrator receives an invitation to tea and describes his surprise at the way in which the English have formalised an occasion for which Anglo-Indians maintain an informal open house, indulging in gossip, lawn tennis, and idling on the verandah. On arrival, he finds that he has been thrust into a:
…room entirely filled with strangers, chiefly female … I was introduced to everybody … and one and all had exactly the same name. That is the worst of a lisping hostess.
…A female, who could not have been less than seven feet high, came on, half speed ahead, through the fog of tea-steam, and docked herself on the sofa just like an Inman liner.
“Have you ever considered,” said she, “the enormous moral responsibility that rests in the hands of one who has the gift of literary expression?…”
After several more encounters with what might be termed self-appointed Z-list personae, the narrator escapes with a friend and says “Let’s go to a pot-house, where cabbies call, and drink something.”
This is the third of four items collected in Abaft the Funnel which deal with Kipling’s experiences and views of the London literary sets to which he was exposed in 1889-1890. Starting with “In Partibus”, followed by “A Really Good Time”, “On Exhibition” (described here) and “The Three Young Men”, Kipling amused himself by poking fun at the ‘literati’ for the entertainment of his old Anglo-Indian audience.
This Editor finds Kipling’s nautical analogies particularly amusing where he describes the two women as ‘the Inman liner’, ‘the five-thousand-ton four-master’, and the ‘eight-thousand-ton palace Cunarder’ who ‘docked on either side of him on the sofa’.
Kipling had recently (May-October 1889) travelled on several liners in his journey from India via China and Japan to California, and then from the East coast of the United States to Liverpool in England.
He sailed on board the Inman liner, City of Berlin, from New York to Liverpool starting on 25 September 1889. (Andrew Lycett, p. 244.) She was of 5,491 tons gross, with three masts and a single funnel having been launched in 1874. It is also possible that Kipling saw the Cunarder Umbria of 7,718 tons which had docked in New York on 21 September 1889. (See the note to page 247, lines 21-22 of the text).
Angus Wilson (pp.145-146) draws a parallel between the story aimed at English readers which appeared in Frank Harris’s Fortnightly Review of February 1890, “One View of the Question” (Many Inventions), with “On Exhibition” which appeared the same time in India. The former reports the views of a fictional Indian Mohammedan, Shafiz Ullah Khan, on England and the English, whilst “On Exhibition” gives those of an Anglo-Indian.
Professor Wilson, himself a successful novelist who may well have had to had to put up with being lionised at literary parties from time to time, comments on the:
…amusing article, “On Exhibition”, where he [Kipling] describes his own experiences as a lion at a party with two women talking about him over his head on a sofa. Here he develops that special sort of silly feminine voice that he was to use to good effect in all satirical accounts of progressive or bohemian circles up to his death – “Was he [Mulvaney] quite real? Oh, how lovely! How sweet! How precious!”
©David Page 2007 All rights reserved