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 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 written in England, during a family visit to his parents at Tisbury, in Wiltshire, in the summer of 1894.
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’.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.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.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.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