One of Rudyard Kipling’s many stories of life among noncommissioned soldiers in India, “The Courting of Dinah Shadd” was first published in Harper’s Weekly in the United States in 1890. It also gave its name to the volume of short stories published by Harper Brothers in September 1890, an edition that Kipling considered pirated. In 1891 Kipling published the story in a collection in the United States titled Mine Own People, with an introduction by Henry James. It was published in Britain in Life’s Handicap: Being Stories of Mine Own People, also in 1891. Kipling wrote it in early 1890, after he had left India; it is a story that echoes earlier work but also points toward the sophisticated narratives and dark visions of his later writing.
The story is placed second in the standard Macmillan edition of Life’s Handicap, between two other stories of a trio of soldiers who recur in several Kipling texts; Mulvaney, the Irishman; Ortheris, the London cockney; and Learoyd, the Yorkshireman. “The Incarnation of Krishna Mulvaney” recounts a drunken adventure involving a sedan chair, an Indian temple, and “the wives and daughters of most of the kings of India.” “On Greenhow Hill” interweaves Learoyd’s account of the death of a girl he has loved with Ortheris’s preparations to shoot a deserter. “The Courting of Dinah Shadd” echoes these stories in its narrative complexity and pessimism.
The epigraph to the story is a poem that asserts— ironically, as it turns out—that all women “Are sisters under their skins” in their desire to get the man they want. The text deals with sexual rivalry (among men also), but it approaches its topic indirectly. Mulvaney’s story of courting Miss Shadd is doubly framed in an account of army maneuvers in India and of an encounter with Mulvaney, Ortheris, and Learoyd. The unnamed narrator listens to Mulvaney talk as the soldiers involved in the maneuvers entertain themselves in camp. Mulvaney starts with a reminiscence of watching Hamlet in Dublin and then asks the narrator “Did you iver have onendin’ devilmint an’ nothin’ to pay for it in your life, sorr?” He proceeds to tell of his falling in love with Dinah Shadd and his fighting another soldier to win her. He reveals that within half an hour of Dinah’s agreeing to his courtship, he had flirted with another woman, the disreputable Judy Sheehy, and gave her to understand that he wanted to marry her. The next day, he and Dinah were confronted by Judy and her drunken mother. Mulvaney refused to marry Judy, whereupon Mrs. Sheehy laid a terrible curse on him. Dinah, after first rejecting him, stuck by Mulvaney and shared the curse. Mulvaney reveals that the curse—of professional failure, moral disappointment, and childlessness—has come true, but he and Dinah have remained married.
Mulvaney’s narration is given in the phonological transcription of dialect that Kipling uses in many stories (and that George Orwell and Salman Rushdie have found annoying). However, this technique is an attempt to let Mulvaney’s lower-class and provincial voice be heard clearly. This and the complex narrative give a freshness to Mulvaney’s sordid tale. Kipling also gives the Mulvaneys’ disappointed lives some dignity. His language and that of Mrs. Sheehy is often rhetorically powerful, his and Dinah’s sufferings are poignant, and the double framing allows Kipling to place Mulvaney’s failure in the context of general transience (“Today, of all those jovial thieves . . . not one remains”) and of heroic figures like Hamlet and Prometheus. The story fits in with the other dark and disturbing tales that make up Life’s Handicap.
Kipling, Rudyard. Collected Stories. London: Everyman, 1994.