The Outstation

outstation4_BritishBorneo

British Borneo, 1899.

The Outstation is a 1924 short story by Somerset Maugham about a self-exiled British gentleman named Warburton in charge of a remote outpost in Borneo.  The story opens as his new assistant, a young Barbadian named Alan Cooper, arrives by boat. Despite his misgivings about losing his status as the sole white man, Warbuton greets Cooper politely, shows him to his bungalow, and invites him to come to the main house for dinner.  He then returns to the house and begins his own preparations.

He went into his room where his things were as neatly laid out as if he had an English valet, undressed, and, walking down the stairs to the bath-house, sluiced himself with cool water. The only concession he made to the climate was to wear a white dinner-jacket; but otherwise, in a boiled shirt and a high collar, silk socks and patent-leather shoes, he dressed as formally as though he were dining at his club in Pall Mall. A careful host, he went into the dining-room to see that the table was properly laid. It was gay with orchids, and the silver shone brightly. The napkins were folded into elaborate shapes. Shaded candles in silver candle-sticks shed a soft light. Mr. Warburton smiled his approval and returned to the sitting-room to await his guest. Presently he appeared. Cooper was wearing the khaki shorts, the khaki shirt, and the ragged jacket in which he had landed. Mr. Warburton’s smile of greeting froze on his face.

“Halloa, you’re all dressed up,” said Cooper. “I didn’t know you were going to do that. I very nearly put on a sarong.”

“It doesn’t mailer at all. I daresay your boys were busy.”

“You needn’t have bothered to dress on my account, you know.”

“I didn’t. I always dress for dinner.”

“Even when you’re alone?”

“Especially when I’m alone,” replied Mr. Warburton, with a frigid stare.

9 Comments

  1. CharlesM

    I always dress for dinner…Especially when I’m alone.” Now there’s a way of life that is gone for good! I have heard it said that, here in the US, FDR was the first president that didn’t adhere to that practice. I wonder how many other graces died with the 1920s?

    Reply
  2. David

    When I was growing up, the men in my family taught me to dress for dinner and I carried that tradition over to my own family. I’m surprised to learn that FDR didn’t know enough to afhere to the practice. He was a lousy president but a Patrician gentleman on a personal level. Well..that’s America..What can you expect from a bunch of nit wits who have recognized the “baseball hat” as the greatest chapeau of all time! The Americans have no class, no style, no sense of dignity.

    Reply
    1. Duncan Pike

      I don’t think it’s fair to judge all Americans by Donald Trump.

      Reply
      1. Peter Marshall

        Here, here.

        Reply
  3. Daniel

    It’s even more interesting in the context of the story; Warburton sees dressing for dinner as a way of preserving his identity, and Cooper’s lack of doing so is the first sign that he is a very different type of person.

    “When I lived in London I moved in circles in which it would have been just as eccentric not to dress for dinner every night as not to have a bath every morning. When I came to Borneo I saw no reason to discontinue so good a habit. For three years during the war I never saw a white man. I never omitted to dress on a single occasion on which I was well enough to come in to dinner. You have not been very long in this country; believe me, there is no better way to maintain the proper pride which you should have in yourself. When a white man surrenders in the slightest degree to the influences that surround him he very soon loses his self-respect, and when he loses his self-respect you may be quite sure that the natives will soon cease to respect him.”

    The whole thing is available here: http://maugham.classicauthors.net/outstation/

    Reply
    1. Peter Marshall

      Thank you for this, Daniel.

      Reply
  4. Hal

    I think Maugham’s point is that the behaviour of both men is, in its own way, extreme. Cooper’s more relaxed and egalitarian attitudes at first appear more sympathetic; Warburton seems, to begin with, the definition of a stuffed shirt prig.

    I find it hard to believe that anyone still dresses for dinner – at least not the extent of doing anything more than changing out of their working clothes, unless going out or meeting friends. That’s true regardless of whether you are an American or not.

    Incidentally, Cooper says he is a Barbadian rather than an Australian in the story.

    Reply
    1. Peter Marshall

      Thanks for the correction. I have edited the post accordingly (and informed the author of the short story review where I originally obtained this information).

      Reply
  5. David

    I perhaps should qualify what I mean by our habit of dressing for dinner. I was referring to the fact that when we get home from the office, we stay in the suit and tie throughout dinner, not that we put on a tux. Thankfully, there are still some restaurants and private clubs left in the world which require gentlemen to have a jacket and tie.

    Reply

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