The Legs of Sister Ursula

(notes by John McGivering and David Richards)


ORG Volume 5, page 2515 records the first publication of this story (Uncollected No. 214) in the San Francisco Examiner of 4 June 1893, The Idler for June 1893 in London, and in the United Kingdom, The Idler for July 1893 (published by S.S. McClure from the English sheets).  It appeared once more in McClure’s Magazine for June 1894 [Richards C570].

The story was subsequently published without authorization as a first separate book edition by The Brothers Johnson at The Windsor Press in San Francisco in 1927, in a hand-numbered edition of 500 copies, priced at $4.50 [Richards A371].  Kipling’s response was to include the story the following year, 1928, in The One Volume Kipling (which was also the first authorized edition of “The Lamentable Comedy of Willow Wood” [first published in 1890] and “For One Night Only” [1890]), published by Doubleday, Doran & Company in New York (there was no corresponding English edition) [Richards A379].  It is also collected in the Burwash Edition, Volume 30, and he Sussex Edition, Volume 23.

The signed autograph manuscript (AMS) of the story is in Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, four pages formerly joined by a straight pin at the upper right-hand corner.  The first letter of the first word “The” is an RK-drawn illustration of a ladder leading up to a window sill, the ladder and sill forming a “T”.  Kipling has made notes above the title, “return MSS | to author | RK” and “rough proof | urgent to | R. Kipling | Brattleboro | VT”, with a dozen words or phrases struck through.  This manuscript first appeared at auction at Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge in London in July 1899 in the library of the “Late Sir John Hayford Thorold”, where it was purchased by Maggs Bros. for £33.  As such, it is seemingly the first Kipling manuscript to appear at auction, and is most probably the one sent to The Idler.

The story

Sister Ursula is nursing a rich man who lives in a mansion flat. He is on the road to recovery but suddenly loses the will to live and may just turn his face to the wall and die. The Doctor prescribes some medicine which has to be administered every twenty minutes and when it is delivered Sister Ursula is accidentally locked out of the flat.

Very conscious of her duty to her patient, the stout-hearted girl climbs some five or six storeys up a terrifying vertical fire-escape ladder secured to the exterior of the building, enters his bedroom through the window which is fortunately open and gives him the first dose on time.

On the way up, however, she attracts the attention of Cott van Cott, the occupier of a flat on a lower floor who, seeing her on the fire-escape believes she is fleeing to the roof from a fire below, so seizes his most precious possession, a Stradivarius violin with its bow, and follows her up the ladder. The Sister has entered the sick-room and closed the window so van Cott keeps going to the roof much to the amusement of the invalid, who decides not to shoot himself and immediately begins to recover.


In a postscript to a letter dated 25 September 1892 to Richard Watson Gilder, Kipling wrote:

“I have a short yarn by me …‘ The legs of Sister Ursula’. The only hint of impropriety lies in the title of which I am enamoured.  I hear though that no one will take it with such a name―in America.”

[Letters, vol 2., ed. Thomas Pinney p. 60]

The author’s concern was prescient: when first published in the San Francisco newspaper owned by William Randolph Hearst, who did not shy from controversy, the story was titled “Up the Fire Escape.  Sister Ursula and her Eccentric Patient”.

And in another letter dated 10 December 1893 to Edward Lucas White, Kipling writes of the story:

I’m glad (it) made you laugh…

[Letters, vol 2., ed. Thomas Pinney p. 114.]

In a copy of the 1927 unauthorized book edition, now at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, which includes a clipping of the San Francisco Examiner story, is a typewritten note, titled “Memo”, dated September 15, 1927 (and therefore probably contemporaneous with the book’s publication date), reading as follows: “I met [Kipling bibliographer] Mrs. [Flora] Livingston in New York.  She says that this story was based on an actual experience of [Kipling’s sister-in-law] Josephine Balestier Dunham, who locked herself out of her New York apartment, found that the janitor was gone, climbed the fire escape and hoisted herself into the bath room window. [signed] W. M. O. [unidentified]”

Some critical comments

J M S Tompkins (p. 52) writes

Laughter is also the solvent of despair and hatred. Its impact shivers the insubstantial, impassable wall of of glass between the sufferer and the reality of life. The best example of this is the later tale “The Miracle of St. Jubanus” (Limits and Renewals) … The same theme, however, has been handled nearly forty years earlier … “The Legs of Sister Ursula”

Like many of the early tales, it is an anecdote, no pre-history attaches to it, we are given the rich man in his fifth-storey flat – the scene is American -….In the first paragraph Kipling invokes Sterne – the only time, I think, that he mentions this tightrope dancer over the gulfs of sentiment and ribaldry. The caretaker’s wife prays that there will be no wind; but Sister Ursula’s legs, with elegant ambiguity, appear only in the title …

… laughter to Kipling was as essential to the well-being of man as music to Shakespeare, a bond of union, a strong hold on sanity and health of mind, a relaxation and restoration of human temper …

See also KJ 321/08 for text and further Notes.


Notes on the Text

[Title] The Legs of Sister Ursula some religious orders specialise in the care of the sick – see “They” in Traffics and Discoveries, page 75 line 28. At this time ladies wore long dresses down to the floor, a fashion which lasted until the 1920s. A lady would never show more than her ankles.

Kipling tells of meeting General Booth (right), the founder of the Salvation Army, on a sea voyage. As they steamed into Adelaide, they saw a woman on a boat which came to meet them who had rucked her petticoats well up to her knees. Booth gestured urgently to her ‘with an imperative repeated downward sweep of the arm.’ As Kipling wrote:

In those days righteous woman ended at the neck and instep. Presently she saw what was troubling the General. Her skirts were adjusted. nd all was peace and piety.
[Something of Myself, p. 102]

Laurence Sterne (1713-1768) Irish-born novelist and Anglican clergyman (left), best known for his novels The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, and A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy He also published sermons and memoirs.

The ORG Editors (page 2515) believed Sterne to be Kipling’s favourite 18th Century author.

china from Persia China and Persia (modern Iran), connected by the Silk Road, exchanged artisans and products from the dawn of history; Chinese potters made glazed tiles, other Chinese craftsmen produced metalwork, miniature paintings, calligraphy, glass and pottery, which found its way westwards to Europe.

touched him with its finger an echo of “In Memoriam” LXXXV by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892): ‘God’s finger touch’d him and he slept.

coifed wearing a coif, a nun’s characteristic headdress.

rosary a string of beads used when repeating prayers..

a hundred feet about 30 metres

bric-à-brac small articles of curiosity and value.

iron ladders a fire-escape, (right) common in many North American cities. Sister Ursula’s ladder was more vertical than this. An attack of cramp would put the climber in great danger. Such a ladder would not be permitted today in Britain or North America.

Lady Godiva 11th century Anglo-Saxon noblewoman who, according to legend, rode naked through the streets of Coventry, in order to gain a remission of the taxation imposed by her husband on his tenants. “Peeping Tom” alone amongst the townspeople watched her and was struck blind.

Quebec Major city and province of Canada. The story opens with a nameless city in a nameless land, so it is not clear why this particular city is mentioned . Dr. Tompkins (above) believes the story is indeed set in America.

This is the cow with the crumpled horn from the nursery rhyme “This is the House that Jack Built” a singing-game where the verses become longer as more characters are introduced:

This is the cow with the crumpled horn,
That tossed the dog,
That worried the cat,
That killed the rat,
That ate the malt
That lay in the house that Jack built.

Sister Ursula may also have been thinking of the echoing line:

‘This is the maiden all forlorn’

leads in this context the lead used to cover the roof.

in vacuo empty – in a vacuum

Her Saint – she that had not prevailed against the Huns legend has it that St. Ursula, a 5th Century British princess on a pilgrimage to Rome, was massacred at Cologne with the other eleven thousand virgins. [Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable] See also Lord Birkenhead p.183, and KJ 308/23 for Kipling’s use of ‘Hun’ for the Germans.

canons in this context rigid rules

afternoon visits a social custom of the time. Ladies were “at home” in the afternoon on certain days of the week and would receive calls from ladies and gentlemen, who were entertained with tea and conversation in the drawing-room.

leagues a league on land is three miles (4.83 km.)

silk hat a top hat. Kipling wore one on formal occasions. This picture (right) shows him with King George V visiting British war graves in Belgium in 1922.

frock-coat a long and elegant jacket (left), often worn with a top-hat.

See “In the Same Boat” (A Diversity of Creatures, page 75 line 28).

Strad short for ‘Stradivarius’, a violin made by Antonio Stradivarius
(c.1644-1737) of Cremona, Italy, a famous violin-maker whose products are, indeed, priceless.

(Incidentally, it seems extremely unlikely that a middle-aged man could negotiate such a ladder with a violin in one hand – such ladders require both hands as anybody who has climbed a comparatively short one on a harbour-wall will know: Ed.)

[J H McG]

[D R]



©John McGivering 2009 and ©David Richards 2024  All rights reserved