In January of 1895, a reviewer for the British journal The Academy waxed eloquent about the delights of Duncan’s The Story of Sonny Sahib, which had just been released in book form.
And oh, what a relief to turn from this dismalness [Miss Theo Gift’s Wrecked at the Outset] to Mrs. Everard Cote’s charming, winsome, and every way delightful Story of Sonny Sahib! True, it begins somberly in the darkest days of the great Mutiny, but after the first sad chapter there is nothing but brightness and grace and beauty. It is a very slight, filling little more than a hundred small pages, and perhaps the restoration of the brave little Sonny Sahib to the father who had believed himself childless as well as widowed reads more like a fairy-tale than like a transcript from the life of every day; but, then, in the India of a generation ago fairy-takes sometimes came true, and whether true or not they are very welcome after even a short course of contemporary realism. The Story of Sonny Sahib can be read easily between, say, London and Brighton in the fastest train, and it will make that or any other hour brief with pleasantness. — Review of The Story of Sonny Sahib. The Academy (5 Jan. 1895): 10.
The novel began its life as a submission to a story competition that was subsequently serialized in The Youth’s Companion (Boston) between 12 July and 16 August 1894. It is a simple tale of the bravery of a young British boy, saved by his ayah during the Sepoy Rebellion, and reunited with his father after revealing his honourable British character. The trope was not new; the best example is perhaps Kipling’s Kim, published seven years later, in 1901. (I’ve always wondered to what extent Kipling knew Duncan’s work. They were both journalists working in India, but as far as I am aware they never met: Duncan lived India after her marriage to Everard Cotes in December of 1890; Kipling left India in 1889. Duncan was in Calcutta in the spring of 1889, however, so who knows… but there is no documented evidence of a meeting.)
Given the jingoism of the story, Sonny Sahib is not one of Duncan’s most admirable of works. It is interesting as a collection of stereotypes but, as a children’s story, is sadly unrelieved by Duncan’s characteristic irony. It is nevertheless interesting to see the differences between the six-chapter serialized version, posted here (page images and searchable pdf), and the ten-chapter published version, available through the Internet Archive project.