This story first appeared in the U.S.A. in The Idler Magazine, April 1895 and in McClure’s Magazine, June 1895. It was collected in:
- The Day’s Work in 1898
- Scribner’s Edition Volume XIV
- the Sussex Edition Volume VI, page 355
- the Burwash Edition Volume VI.
The Narrator, Kipling himself (the tale is told in the first person) is travelling westwards from Waterloo station (in London). In his compartment is an American doctor, making his first visit to England. Somewhere on Salisbury Plain, the train makes an out-of-course halt at a country station, to receive a telegram concerning the loss of a bottle of poison. The guard’s delivery of the message is ambiguous, and the doctor gets the impression that there is someone on the train who has taken (swallowed) the poison by mistake. He leaps on to the platform, and before anyone can disabuse him of his error, has administered a powerful emetic to an innocent, but drink-taken, navvy, who has been travelling in one of the third-class carriages.
In the meantime, the train has departed, the guard having decided that the bottle is not still on the train, and Kipling, the observer/narrator, is left on the station, in a Sunday calm in the countryside, which is lyrically described. On the station, however, the emetic has done its work, and in an unguarded moment, the doctor has allowed himself to be seized by the navvy, who is, to say the least, upset, both in his emotions and his stomach. The navvy finally collapses, still gripping the doctor: the narrator helps the doctor to free himself, and the providential arrival of the station cab, enables the doctor to make his escape: exit doctor.
Shortly afterwards, the narrator leaves the navvy sleeping on the platform seat, and makes his way to the village, where he enjoys the peace, his supper and a smoke, interspersed with immoderate laughter. The navvy, meanwhile, has visited the village for his own supper, and both return to the station to catch the next train. But the cab also returns, and the navvy, assuming it contains the American doctor, storms the cab, to do violence to the occupant – who turns out to be the squire. The waiting passengers rally round, and lock the navvy in the lamp-room, where he goes berserk, throwing all the lamps out on to the track, just as the train arrives.
As the narrator boards the train, one of the passengers, hearing the commotion, says “I’m a doctor, can I help …”, and the last we hear is a wail from the navvy, “Another bloomin’ doctor”.
Like most of the stories collected in The Day’s Work, this was written during the time that Kipling and his family were resident in Vermont, though this particular tale was re-written in England, during a family visit to his parents at Tisbury, in Wiltshire (entry in Carrie Kipling’s diary for 14 June 1894 – Carrington ‘Extracts’ – “Rewrites ‘My Sunday at Home'”).
Advance advertisements announced the title of the story as ‘The Child of Calamity’, but this title was never used.
It has been said that Kipling, who was a competent illustrator himself, was conscious that illustrators could make or mar a story. A footnote to The Idler version reads: “Mr. Kipling specially requests that this story shall appear without illustrations and under the above title instead of The Child of Calamity as announced in the March number. – Editor“.
However, in a de luxe edition of Humorous Tales from Rudyard Kipling (Macmillan), published in 1931, this story is included with an illustration (right) by the brilliant black-and-white artist Reginald Cleaver, showing the navvy, in hob-nailed boots and bowler hat, grasping the doctor by the collar and saying, “You’ll wait along o’ me, you will”. The narrator stands in the background and it is interesting to observe that, in this and other illustrations in the volume, he is portrayed not as Kipling, but a tall, austere, rather spare man, without spectacles and with a rather short moustache, looking like a solicitor in a good way of business. This volume was later published by the Reprint Society (1942), and again in 1993 (Random House, Studio Editions).
This story has attracted a fair amount of attention from the critics, and the quotations which follow are arranged in chronological order of their writing; therefore Lord Birkenhead’s comments appear before Professor Carrington’s although the latter was published earlier.
One of the earliest comments was by the Scottish novelist Neil Munro, writing in 1899 (Kipling, The Critical Heritage, Ed. Lancelyn Green):
We could indeed sacrifice some of his work without detracting in the smallest degree from his permanent reputation, though the loss might mean the surrender of many light and cheerful hours … “Brugglesmith” and “Badalia Herodsfoot”, “My Sunday at Home”, and a few other caprices of his prose muse might also pass into limbo unwept, unhousel’d, unalanel’d.
R. Thurston Hopkins (1883-1958) wrote a number of books about Kipling between 1916 and 1936 and the ORG quoted him as saying (but did not cite which book):
It is a curious fact that the one story written by Kipling which has raised a storm of protest from squeamish people on account of its coarse humour should contain the first direct suggestion of his intention to pass on to the quiet kindliness of the English wayside for his deepest inspiration … it is avowedly Rabelaisian.
Edward Shanks (the pen name of Taylor Bryan Shank (1892-1953), poet, biographer and critic) describes the story as: ‘a marvellous bravura piece of impressionism’. (Rudyard Kipling, Macmillan, 1940, p. 202 – the first full-length biography written after Kipling’s death.)
Lord Birkenhead clearly found this tale, and others of its genre, little to his taste: he wrote (p. 174):
Kipling’s own relish in this book [he was referring to Stalky & Co] is an indication that his humorous literary bent was, for the time, set broadly on slapstick. The effects are contrived with the blatancy of a percussion instrument, and the stage properties are conventional and juvenile, dead cats stinking under dormitory rafters, drunken yokels, and fatuously oafish schoolmasters. It was the genre which was later to pervade such famous stories as ‘Brugglesmith’, ‘My Sunday at Home’. ‘The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat’ and ‘The Puzzler’.
It is a heavy, earthy humour with a strong whiff of Schadenfreude in the revengeful comic climaxes, sometimes set curiously in a background of mellow pastoral description, as in ‘My Sunday at Home’, where the preposterous brawl with the navvy is in strident contrast with a beautiful and languid picture of an English shire in an afternoon of high summer. While this method is the delight of many admirers of Kipling who know these stories by heart, there are others who will sigh in vain for a lowering of pressure, a feathery touch of irony, and the economy of understatement.
Later, Birkenhead wrote (p. 309) as follows:
Many Inventions also contained the story ‘Brugglesmith’, perhaps the most perfect example of what happened when Kipling embarked on slapstick. We cannot lay down standards of humour, and Kipling’s has brought delight to thousands. But to the fastidious reader the note is jarring, vulgar and percussive, and was repeated in such stories as ‘My Sunday at Home’ (1895) … We know that Kipling loved these blatant effects, which often revealed a revenge motif in which people are humiliated by being subjected to derision and laughter, so that besides being vulgar the stories are also cruel. But there was something in his nature which demanded occasional, orgiastic outbursts of low comedy. Tears of mirth had poured down his cheeks as he composed ‘Stalky & Co.’, and he laughed for three days over ‘My Sunday at Home’, finding that such indulgence gave wonderful relief to his own pent-up feelings. The popularity of such stories shows at least that there was a wide public for them, but those who already found something a trifle repellent in Kipling’s work were further affronted.
He also wrote, referring to The Day’s Work:
Perhaps we can get some idea of the variety, indeed unevenness of Kipling’s work, by noting that the volume containing such masterpieces as ‘The Bridge Builders’. ‘The Ship that Found Herself’ and ‘The Maltese Cat’ also included ‘My Sunday at Home’, which, like Kipling’s other stories of orgiastic mirth, has been the subject of erudite comment, but must surely convince most sensitive readers that humour was not his forte…
Charles Carrington wrote:
Any estimate of Kipling’s work must take account of the series of elaborate farces which he produced at intervals throughout his career. Four, at least (‘Brugglesmith’, 1891; ‘My Sunday at Home’, 1895; ‘The Vortex’, 1914; ‘The Village that Voted’ (the Earth was Flat), 1917), must be classed among his greater achievements and, like almost everything else he wrote, they have been described in flatly contradictory terms by various critics. Certainly, they are not meat for delicate stomachs.
Kipling admitted to his friends, more than once, that comical outbursts gave relief to his own feeling, and these tales reveal a common pattern. They are all told in the first person, but the part he casts for himself is whimsical, puckish, malicious, not dignified or dominating. In each case an enormous practical joke is not so much induced as released, to develop by some law of its own, involving all sorts of innocent people but recoiling upon the head of the victim, a pretentious intruder. The punishment seems too heavy for the offence and, like many of the world’s comic masterpieces, like the tale of Malvolio and the tale of Don Quixote, these stories reveal a strange streak of cruelty that almost spoils the fun, until all ends with a shout of gargantuan laughter that seems to purge away the hatred and resolve the tangle of emotion.
Earlier, Carrington had noted:
The astonishing farce, ‘My Sunday at Home’, with its richly tinted pictures of an English summer evening, was re-cast and completed at Tisbury.
Another critic, who wrote sympathetically about Kipling’s work in the late 1950s, before his rehabilitation in critical eyes had begun, was Professor Joyce Tompkins: she discoursed at some length (pp 45-48) in a chapter headed ‘Laughter’, suggesting that in writing the tale, and in its setting, Kipling was responding to – not an influence, but something more subtle – of Thomas Hardy:
‘Brugglesmith’ stands alone among Kipling’s farces. It is the only one on which the ‘I’ is a protagonist. [This Editor would argue that point – the ‘I’ in ‘The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat’ may be considered, it is suggested, one of the protagonists.] … and the ‘I’ is so close in stature, residence and circumstances to the Kipling recorded in the ‘Interregnum’ chapter of Something of Myself, that it has needed an effort of consistency to avoid using the proper name. It is at least a simulacrum that is dished up together with his persecution in this double sacrifice to the spirits of irony and ridicule. In all the other farces he stands on the edge of the convulsion, an aide-de-camp to Chance.
Laughter, says Hardy, is always the result of blindness. ‘A man would never laugh were he not to forget his situation, or were he not one who has never learnt it. … Laughter always means blindness – either from defect, choice or accident.’ In ‘My Sunday at Home’, the first tale in which Kipling examines the achievements of orgiastic laughter and begins to set it in what came to be almost mystical relations with the powers that rule life, he confronts his great senior [Hardy] on his own ground. As the train stops at Framlynghame Admiral in Wiltshire the devoted American doctor puts his head out of the window, sniffs the May, and says: ‘And so this is about Tess’s country, ain’t it?’
Kipling never labours these hints; they fall almost noiselessly, but in a sufficiently copious shower. Here in the rich Wessex countryside, crossed by the white road along which fateful arrivals and departures take place, a stalwart uncomprehending son of the soil, whose ‘only desire was justice’, is subjected to the assaults of circumstance. His fellow-victim is a sophisticated traveller, and the situation that overwhelms them both is built up of the tiniest of unlucky chances and impulses that waste seconds while explanation or escape is still possible. Aloft on the footbridge the narrator watches the ‘machinery’ working, ‘foreshortened from above’, abandoning himself to ‘the drift of Time and Fate’ and meditating on the inevitable consequences of our actions in ‘the appointed scheme of things’. Even in Wessex, he seems to suggest, the artifices of chance are not always tragic or life’s little ironies deadly. The hints might be followed further.
At times a recognisable shadow is thrown across the style. The painstakingly literal elaboration of the postures of the navvy and the doctor, the transitions from action to evocation of the countryside, soaked in midsummer beauty, and the uplifted melancholy and stinging irony of the end, when the seven-forty-five carries the narrator ‘a step nearer to Eternity, by the road that is worn and seamed and channelled with the passions, and weaknesses, and warring interests of a man who is immortal and master of his fate’, are by Kipling’s hand, but not in his calligraphy. The pace, particularly the scene in dumb-show, is strikingly retarded, and we feel the slight jerk as he addresses himself to the next phase of his tale, which is so often felt in Hardy and never elsewhere in Kipling, who is a master of transitions.
But ‘My Sunday at Home’ is not a parody, though it may be a counter-statement. It is even possible that it was his reaction to Hardy’s tragic artistries in circumstances that made him define his own attitude to comic chance more clearly. Hitherto he had proceeded upon the traditional basis of farce without comment; ‘The Rout of the White Hussars’ and ‘The Arrest of Lieutenant Golightly’ run their brief and boisterous course without inviting any celestial onlookers, and there is no elaboration of the gusto with which, in the ‘Battle of Rupert Square” [a little-known story, only collected in the Sussex edition] he watches the tenacious, ingenious and silent conflict between a cabby and a sailor, his would-be fare, while the horse trots round and round the square, until the hansom disintegrates and the cabby explains: It’s mee brother’.
But we cannot assume that such a stimulus was needed. Once he was free of the journalistic pressure of his youth, Kipling was a ruminative writer. If the early farces grew out of the unexamined hilarity of the schoolboy, perpetuated by the communal mirth of army messes and professional groups, he had had plenty of time since then to consider laughter. He had tried his hand at the sophisticated and ironical kind, which he afterwards rejected, and he was well aware of the laughter that is the expression of, or the release from, strain. Nevertheless, he had recently heard at the Savile Club, as he tells us, ‘Hardy’s grave and bitter humour’, and he must have perceived that his own drew from different springs. It did not imply blindness, but vision, the comic vision of the involvement of man, with his dignified and blinkered endeavours, and his enormous, ununderstood circumstances. That is why, as soon as this becomes his conscious theme, he needs the wide and solid landscape, populated by minor characters, the leisurely beginning and the ranging, allusive conversations. It is from ‘My Sunday at Home’ that we begin to trace the metaphysical as distinct from the psychiatric bearings of farce. The traces are not yet quite clear, for at times Kipling is walking in Hardy’s footsteps, especially when he distances his actors till their conflicts look like the agitations of insects in the rich, absorbent peace of the countryside. But here is what he says about circumstance and the philosopher:
‘I knew that so long as a man trusts himself to the current of Circumstance, reaching out for and rejecting nothing that comes his way, no harm can overtake him. It is the contriver, the schemer, who is caught by the law, never the philosopher.’
This passivity while the curves of the design unfurl themselves, until the artist’s intention can be identified, is a feature of all the later farces. The narrator, watching the elements of the coming orgy flash and wheel into place, holds his hand, inactive or merely following suit under the orders of a companion, until, often preluded by the round wind of dawn (‘always favourable to me’) the crowning moment comes.
Kipling used a similar phrase at least twice – in “Their Lawful Occasions” – ‘To me that round wind which runs before the true day has ever been fortunate and of good omen’ – and in “Aunt Ellen” – ‘…moved the wind that comes with morning-turn – a point or two south of south-west, ever fortunate to me’.
Then sometimes, but by no means always, he finds a leading card in his hand and plays it with panache.
Such is not the case in “My Sunday at Home”: the narrator remains a passive spectator throughout – indeed, at one point he is tempted to run away when it seems as though the navvy might be dead – see Professor Tompkins’ point below about the ‘Demon of Irresponsibility’:
Sometimes, however, it is a less perceptive companion to whom this grace falls, as to Lettcombe in ‘Aunt Ellen’; for the narrator offers his own small mortifications as a minor sacrifice on the altar of the god. In ‘My Sunday at Home’ he trots up and down the train, eagerly but ineffectively, after the majestic guard; in ‘”Their Lawful Occasions”’ (not strictly a farce, but enriched with farcical elements) he overhears Pyecroft’s comment on his navy-talk and is dropped into a dinghy by the slack of his clothes, and in ‘The Vortex’ he is commanded by the irate householder to wait in the scullery. And who or what is the Power of whose mysteries he is so richly rewarded a minister? We cannot answer so categorical a question in so sportive a medium. The Demon of Irresponsibility, who prompts the narrator, is not the Daemon who sometimes controlled Kipling’s art, but a recognisably human and personal impulse.
Nearly twenty years later, Angus Wilson (p. 198) writes:
Perhaps the most clearly positive result of his four years’ stay in America had been his changed attitude to England … Here in the humorous story, “My Sunday at Home”, ostensibly a leg-pull of an over-solemn American doctor travelling in England, he wrote the first of those superb impressionistic Constable-like accounts of the English countryside caught in a particular moment of English weather.
In 1999, Professor Daniel Karlin wrote a substantial preface to his notes on this tale in Rudyard Kipling, (OUP, 1999, in The Oxford Authors series):
The story was advertised in advance as ‘The Child of Calamity’, a phrase from Mark Twain which draws attention to its American theme. Kipling had settled in the heart of New England, and some of the vocabulary of the story satirises New England Transcendentalism, whose leading figure, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82), supplies the epigraph for the story. When the narrator opines that ‘so long as a man trusts himself to the current of Circumstance, reaching out for and rejecting nothing that comes his way, no harm can overtake him’ [see page 352, lines 17-20], he sounds very like Emerson or Henry David Thoreau.
Yet this was a tradition he also admired and followed; the epigraph reminds us that the Transcendentalist love of oriental literature and mysticism connects with the Kipling of ‘The Miracle of Purun Bhagat’, and ‘The Bridge-Builders’. So the revised title properly focuses on the figure of the narrator and his ambivalent attitude to ‘home’. After all, Kipling was still living in America in 1895 – his quarrel with his brother-in-law, Beatty Balestier, and the ‘Venezuelan Crisis’ of 1895-6, when it looked as though America and England might go to war – had not yet occurred. ‘My Sunday at Home’ belongs to the trip to England which the Kiplings made in 1894, staying at Tisbury in Wiltshire near Kipling’s parents; the narrator is an Englishman, but he observes the workings of the language, the railway, and the class-system with a poised irony which belongs neither to the alien nor the native.
In The Day’s Work the story follows ‘An Error in the Fourth Dimension’, also based on Anglo-American misunderstanding and the workings of the English railway. But ‘An Error in the Fourth Dimension’ is crude by comparison with this story, whose narrator luxuriates in the pleasure of detachment, of artful spectating, as he does in the later story about an escaped swarm of bees, ‘The Vortex’ (A Diversity of Creatures, 1917) Although there is farce of the most basic and physical kind (Kipling called it ‘viler than “Brugglesmith”’, and there can’t be many comic tales which so depend on repeated vomiting), there is also a disturbing suspension in the narrative, which corresponds to the intense, dreamy stillness of the landscape and produces what I can only perversely call a kind of melancholia.
The rural English scene is phantasmagoric, a theatre of misrule, in which codes and hierarchies are transgressed by mistake, and in which identity is confused and misattributed. When the story begins the ‘ordered English landscape [is] wrapped in its Sunday peace’, but the complications produced by the doctor’s entanglement with the navvy require violence to be done, from the mutilation of the doctor’s coat to the ‘Berserk’ sacking of the lamp-room at the end.
Kipling told Edward Lucas White: ‘Heaven was kind to me in England, where I was safely delivered of several poems, four new Jungle stories and a piece of broad farce, viler than ‘Brugglesmith’, which made me laugh for three days… I wonder if people get a tithe of the fun out of my tales that I get in doing ‘em.’ [Letters, Ed. Pinney ii, 147]. But Dr Karlin comments:
… the ‘fun’ of this story for the reader lies perhaps in places where Kipling himself could not penetrate.
Of other late 20th century critics, Martin Seymour-Smith merely dismissed the tale as one of ‘some farcical stories, such as “My Sunday at Home”, not his best.’ And Harry Ricketts noted (pp. 26-27) that the title might have been taken from a subconscious memory of the reading matter found at Lorne Lodge when he was a child: ‘Even a magazine like Sunday at Home, apparently Mrs. Holloway’s idea of suitable reading matter, later provided Rud with the title for a story, “My Sunday at Home”. ‘ Ricketts refers to the tale as ‘a good-natured farce’.
Finally, Andrew Lycett sees this story as being one of a number in which:
… at the age of twenty-eight, Rudyard was thinking deeply about his roots … Much as he loved Naulakha and its countryside (his homesickness when in England was genuine), he had no real bond with the American people or culture. … But where could this rootless creature really feel at home? In metropolitan London, a few weeks earlier, he had been n o more at home than on his return to England in 1889. Now in Wiltshire with his dependable father to guide him, he tested his reactions to English rural life, and the evidence of ‘My Sunday at Home’ suggests he was beginning to feel comfortable.
As the reader will have seen, the critics’ views can scarcely be called unanimous.
©Alastair Wilson 2007 All rights reserved