A Wayside Comedy

(notes edited by John McGivering)


This story was first published in India in The Week’s News of 21 January 1888 and as the third of six stories in the first Indian edition of Under the Deodars (No. 4 in the Indian Railway Library, 1888). It was collected in Wee Willie Winkie and other stories, in various Indian and English editions. (See KJ 168/07)

Wee Willie Winkie is available from Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions.

The story

Kashima is a small remote station in the hills, the scene of a claustrophobic story of jealousy, infidelity, and hatred, coolly told. There are three British people; Boulte the Engineer, his wife, and Captain Kurrell. Mrs Boulte is having a love affair with Kurrell and hates her husband. Then a new couple, the Vansuythens, are posted to Kashima. Mrs Vansuythen is a charming woman, with ‘very still gray eyes’. She cares only for her husband, yet both Boulte and Kurrell fall in love with her. Meanwhile, Mrs Boulte has told her husband that she hates him, and he responds that she is free to run away with Kurrell. But Kurrell, also in love with the newcomer, is no longer interested. Soon all the infidelities come into the open. But there is no escape from Kashima. In a little station ‘we must all be friendly’.

Some critical comments

Philip Mason (p.79) notes that the story is:

… much admired in France and it is much in the vein of Maupassant. But it is cold and loveless. The characters ‘love’ without affection. Nobody except Mrs. Vansuythen emerges as the kind of person one would like to meet…

(the story) is flawless of its kind.

Mason (p. 144) also compares this story with “Mrs. Bathurst“ in Traffics and Discoveries:

… the destructive force of a woman’s attraction, in both cases exercised by a woman who was essentially kind and who had done nothing to bring about disaster.

Louis Cornell (p.161) sees the story as:

… particularly Anglo-Indian in the moral ordeal its characters must suffer. Like Morrowbie Jukes (later in this volume) they are trapped…the experimenter has achieved the fictional equivalent of a controlled laboratory environment.

For Tompkins (p. 156):

…the title … is cynical enough as a description of the painful or guilty relations of the five isolated English people, yet the little hell at Kashima is terrifying, not because of the cynicism , but because of the helplessness of the prisoners …”

Kipling’s own view, in Something of Myself, (p. 72):

It went into the Weekly with …. tales of the opposite sex. There was one of this last, which, because of a doubt, I handed up to the Mother, who abolished it and wrote me: Never you do that again. But I did, and managed to pull off, not unhandily, a tale called ‘A Wayside Comedy’ where I worked for a certain ‘economy of implication,’ and in one phrase of less than a dozen words believed I had succeeded.

Norman Page in A Kipling Companion (p.134) observes that:

this story is narrated with a controlled cynicism and an irony that anticipate the mode of Somerset Maughan and draws attention to E.B. Adams who discusses this in English Literature in Transition III (1968) as being very striking for its date.

See also Pinney’s Kipling’s India, p. 281 for a reprint of an article in the Civil and Military Gazette of 8 May 1888 “The Old Station (by the Visitor)“ which must have been inspired by Kipling’s return to Lahore in that year to deputise for Robinson who was on leave. He expresses the intense narrow changeless familiarity of a small Anglo-Indian community of those days. Lahore, however, unlike Kashima, was a city, with a railway station linking one to the larger world.