A Second-rate Woman

(notes edited by John Radcliffe and  John McGivering)


This story was first published in The Week’s News on 8 September 1888. It was the fifth story in Under the Deodars (No. 4 in the Indian Railway Library, in the same year). It was collected in the first edition of Wee Willie Winkie and Other Stories in 1890 and in numerous editions thereafter.

The Story

Mrs Hauksbee and Mrs Mallowe are gossiping as usual about life and love and flirtations in Simla. They are intrigued by Mrs Delville; she is dowdy, languid-voiced, and ill-dressed, in every way appearing second-rate, who nonethless – rather tiresomely – seems to have the knack of attracting men. Then Mrs Delville surprises them, first by sending one man packing in no uncertain terms because he had paid court to her without admitting he was married. Then, when a child is dying of diphtheria, she saves its life, bravely and decisively. Mrs Hauksbee is confounded: “They ought to build her a statue – only no sculptor dare copy those skirts.

Some critical opinions

Strangely enough, this story has been little noticed by the commentators and critics, despite the gripping events that appear in what begins as a conversation between two bored women with nothing better to do !

Dr Tompkins, however, ( p. 233/4) compares Mrs Delville to “Mrs Bathurst” in Traffics and Discoveries, who she describes as “…the vessel of a power whose effects can go counter to her willed character and her natural kindness”. See also the notes on “A Wayside Comedy” earlier in this volume, where Philip Mason is quoted, making very much the same point.

Mrs Hauksbee

In “Three—and an Extra” Mrs Hauksbee is described as :

‘a little, brown, thin, almost skinny, woman, with big, rolling, violet-blue eyes, and the sweetest manners in the world. You had only to mention her name at afternoon teas for every woman in the room to rise up and call her not blessed. She was clever, witty, brilliant, and sparkling beyond most of her kind; but possessed of many devils of malice and mischievousness. She could be nice, though, even to her own sex.’ (Plain Tales, p. 10 l.3)

Thomas Pinney writes (Letters vol I . p. 144)

Mrs Burton (d. 1916), the wife of Major Francis Charles Burton, is identified with Mrn Hauksbee, the clever, witty, and cynical heroine of a number of RK’s Simla stories. She must have been wholly a Simla acquaintance, for the Major was never stationed at Lahore in RK’s day. Major Burton was a staff officer with the 1st Bengal Cavalry ui’ Peshawar in 1887; he later commanded the 2nd Bengal Lancers, and returned to England in 1901.

Mrs Burton was Irish, dressed by preference (it is said) in yellow ul black, and was the mother of four sons and two daughters, none of whom surviw,1 her. RK acted with her and her husband in A Scrap of Paper (an adaptation from Sardou) at Simla in September 1887, the earliest documented evidence of RK’s acqua.intafu•,, with Mrs Burton. But that acquaintance must precede 17 November 1886, when ti”‘ first of the Mrs Hauksbee stories (“Three and – an Extra”) was published.

See also pp. 231-232 in the paperback edition of Kipling Sahib, by Charles Allan.

Mrs Hauksbee figures in seven other Simla stories

Three—and an Extra
The Rescue of Pfuffles
The Education of Otis Yeere
A Supplementary Chapter.
Mrs Hauksbe Sits Out.

She is also mentioned in a number of other stories. See ORG vol;1 pp. 5-6