In Saki's works, epicene young men or wild beasts shake up the stifling complacency around them © Pictoral Press ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Untameable Saki

One hundred years after Saki's death in the Great War, his stories are still wickedly funny
November 16, 2016

What Hector Hugh Munro (1870-1916), or “Saki,” thought of his life and work is a mystery. After his death, his sister Ethel destroyed most of his papers and instead wrote a short biographical sketch of her brother, which was published in 1924. The most vivid detail is her first memory of him, which has Saki running around the nursery with a blazing hearthbrush yelling, “I’m God! I’m going to destroy the world!” The second most vivid detail is their final encounter, when in the summer of 1916, Ethel declared “Kill a good few for me!” as Saki returned to the front in France. In November that year in the trenches near Beaumont-Hamel, Saki was reported to have shouted, “Put that bloody cigarette out!” only to be shot and killed by a German sniper.

Exactly a century after Saki’s death on 14th November 1916, it seems remarkable that his work has survived so well. In a line-up of the wits of 20th-century English literature, Saki is usually tucked somewhere between PG Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh. Both were prolific writers (Wodehouse frighteningly so), and most of their work is worth remembering. Waugh was a brilliant and fair critic of fiction he had sympathy with, and once wrote that Saki produced no more than seven or eight short stories that are masterpieces. (The Collected Stories numbers over 120.) The rest “too often have the air of being fancies and jests unduly expanded, or of dramatic themes unduly cramped.” Seven or eight masterpieces, including his most famous story “Sredni Vashtar,” is more than most writers ever manage but—given such a low strike rate and the slightness of his chosen form—Saki’s enduring popularity, among fans including Roald Dahl, in children’s editions, and this year as the subject of a play, is one of the stranger literary feats I can think of.

"There is a hierarchy of beings in Saki's stories. Wolves are at the top, followed by beautiful young men; women and aunts are at the bottom"
Saki’s life was an eventful one compared with that of the writers he is often compared to, and others with whom he should be (Max Beerbohm and EF Benson, for example); it was not untypical for someone belonging to what George Orwell, who came from a similar background, later called “the lower-upper-middle class.” He was born in Burma, where his father served in the Indian Imperial Police. His mother died when he was two, and he was consigned with his older brother and sister to live in Devon with his grandmother and with two aunts about whom Ethel is scathing. After school, Saki served for a brief spell in the Burma Military Police, which he left because of ill health. But from then on, his life became more irregular. After moving to London in 1896, he spent a large part of the next three years in the reading room of the British Museum writing a book, The Rise of the Russian Empire (1900), about a region he had never visited. He plucked a pen name from Edward FitzGerald’s translation of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam and began to write political satires for the liberal Westminster Gazette, which also published his short stories, before becoming a foreign correspondent for the conservative Morning Post. He filed from the Balkans, where he reported on the murder of the king and queen of Serbia; from Russia (finally), where he witnessed the 1905 massacre in St Petersburg; and Paris, where he saw Sarah Bernhardt act. In 1908, he settled in London to become a full-time writer. When the First World War broke out he was 43, and he joined up although no one could have expected him to do so.

The stories in Saki’s first collection, Reginald (1904), are the slightest of sketches. Reginald is a languid young man, with aristocratic friends who are mere titles (“the Duchess,” “the Baroness”) or unnamed confidants; both groups are largely silent. What the stories lack in plot, they make up for in good lines—and many of Saki’s most memorable ones are to be found among them: “People may say what they like about the decay of Christianity; the religious system that produced Green Chartreuse can never really die.” (from “Reginald on Christmas Presents.”) And, of course, the eternal, “The cook was a good cook, as good cooks go, and as good cooks go she went.” (from “Reginald on Besetting Sins”). Reginald in Russia (1910) is no more substantial—and few of its stories are set in Russia. In both collections, the hero’s urbane interest in fancy waistcoats and Turkish baths can’t obscure a more dismal social landscape, summed up in “Reginald on House Parties.” Here we find an outline of the social career of women who read George Meredith and wear bad homemade frocks, get married and ship out to India, admire exhibitions at the Royal Academy, and develop a taste for “indifferent prawn curry.”

“Gabriel-Ernest” (in Reginald in Russia) is Saki’s first published hint at what the ideal escape from this milieu might look like. Van Cheele, a local parish councillor and justice of the peace, goes for a walk and comes across a pool in a coppice, where “a boy of about 16 lay asprawl, drying his wet brown limbs luxuriously in the sun.” By the end of the story we understand that the boy, Gabriel-Ernest, is a werewolf responsible for the deaths of small animals in the neighbourhood and the abduction of small children. Any moral disapproval is directed at Van Cheele’s aunt who enlists the lithe teen-wolf to help with the local Sunday school. In “The Music on the Hill,” Sylvia Seltoun (Saki seems to have scoured the country for his characters’ surnames) has married her husband Mortimer “in the teeth of the cold hostility of his family, and in spite of his unaffected indifference to women.” After wrenching her husband away from town and down to the country, she discovers that he believes in Pan, meets a boy who is “brown and beautiful, with unutterably evil eyes” and is later gored by a stag.

These two stories are the furthest forays Saki makes into the kind of homoerotic supernatural satire that Benson pulls off in his magnificent novel Colin (1923) and its splendidly titled sequel Colin II (1925), whose hero is a beautiful, amoral young man in league with the Devil. Speaking of her brother, Ethel later told a researcher that, “one subject he never wrote on was sex, and I am certain if he had, he would have made fun of it. The only way to treat it.” It’s easy to smile at Ethel’s briskness, even more so when she insists to the same correspondent that “Saki’s writing contemporaries had no influence on his style, which was unique, nor on his subject matter.” This is nonsense—Saki’s early vignettes are stuffed full of Wildean epigrams—but it’s more interesting to think of Ethel as defensive rather than obtuse. The one full biography of Saki, by AJ Langguth, was published in 1981 but its endless speculations about the life based on the fiction makes it a flat-footed and old-fashioned affair. The one passage that springs to life, however, is where Langguth speculates that a surviving notebook, with marks in the margins, is a record of sexual encounters: “If every squiggle did represent a conquest… Hector’s average in his best months was an encounter every second day.”

Saki may have been coded about sex—it was impossible not to be in the decade after the Wilde trial—but there’s an unmistake- able hierarchy of beings in his stories. Wolves are at the top, followed by other wild beasts, and beautiful young men; women are at the bottom and domineering aunts are the lowest of all. It’s often noted that whereas aunts in Wodehouse are mocked and avoided, one of Saki’s aunts is eaten by a polecat-ferret (“Sredni Vashtar”). However, the misogyny that pervades Saki’s fiction—mockery of women’s suffrage is another consistent strand—points to a much deeper disgust with the social universe he knows so well: the roles for both women and men in this world are painfully limited. There are unexpected echoes of Virginia Woolf in Saki’s mocking of social ritual in stories like “Tea”: “Thousands of women, at this solemn afternoon hour, were sitting behind dainty porcelain and silver fittings, with their voices tinkling pleasantly in a cascade of solicitous little questions.” Compare the beginning of Woolf’s Night and Day: “It was a Sunday evening in October, and in common with many other young ladies of her class, Katharine Hilberry was pouring out tea…” But whereas Woolf’s heroine is on autopilot—“Perhaps only a fifth of her mind was thus occupied”—in Saki’s misogynist universe, tea is woman’s whole existence.

In story after story, epicene young men, difficult children, or wild beasts set out to shake up the stifling complacency around them. In “The Unrest-Cure” Clovis pretends to be the secretary of a Bishop and shatters the world of a country gentleman called JP Huddle, by informing him that the house is to be the centre of operations for a massacre of all the Jews in the neighbourhood. “The Bishop is out for blood, not tea,” Clovis (calling himself “Prince Stanislaus”) declares. The story has some of Saki’s best dialogue, as Clovis explains the plan to his host:

“...we’ve got men we can trust to do our job, so we shan’t have to rely on local assistance. And we’ve got some Boy-scouts helping us as auxiliaries.” “Boy-scouts!” “Yes; when they understood there was real killing to be done they were even keener than the men.” “This thing will be a blot on the Twentieth Century!” “And your house will be the blotting-pad.”

There’s no denying Saki’s anti-Semitism and, like the misogyny that runs through his work, it seems to harden, as if he forgets his reason for hating society and puts himself “on the side of the hateful” (as Jessica Mitford said of her sister Unity’s love for Hitler). In “The Unrest-Cure,” the joke is on JP Huddle who is worried about what the neighbours will say. In When William Came (1914), Saki’s fantasy about London under German occupation, the royal family has fled to Delhi and the rest of England is resisting, but the Jews are apparently content: “it was not to be expected that they would be heartbroken because London had suddenly lost its place among the political capitals of the world and become a cosmopolitan city.”

When there is too much straining after epigram and not enough plot, or when there is too much sympathy for characters who are only types, Saki is at his worst, lurching uncertainly between heartlessness and sentimentality. Both of these faults run through his first novel, The Unbearable Bassington (1912). The hero, Comus, is “one of those untameable lords of misrule… in most cases their tragedy begins when they leave school and turn themselves loose in a world that has grown too civilised and too crowded and too empty to have any place for them. And they are very many.” After failing to marry an heiress, which will allow his mother to stay in the house she loves, Comus is shipped out to West Africa, which he describes as “a sort of modern substitute for the old-fashioned oubliette, a convenient depository for tiresome people.” Waugh rightly pointed out that the novel is “a sentimental tragedy,” and made the interesting claim that the tragedy is that of Comus’s mother: the Van der Meulen painting, which is her pride and joy but disappoints her even more than her son, is described with much more care than Comus. Francesca Bassington is the aesthete here: a female, match-making version of Wilde’s Dorian Gray and JK Huysmans’ Des Esseintes: “Her enemies… would have agreed with her friends in asserting that she had no soul... her drawing room was her soul.”

In “The Mappined Life,” a story from the posthumously published Toys of Peace, an aunt has been reading about the latest architectural innovation at London Zoo: the Mappin Terraces, a tiered mountainous landscape made out of reinforced concrete for bears, goats and deer. The aunt’s approval of these features gets a solemn response from her niece: “We are just so many animals stuck down on a Mappin terrace, with this difference in our disfavour, that the animals are there to be looked at, while nobody wants to look at us.” The aunt disagrees and the niece extends the comparison: “It’s the dreadful little everyday acts of pretended importance that give the Mappin stamp to our life” (dreadful little everyday acts like wanting to know what’s happening in Mexico when you live in the Home Counties). The niece’s moralising is the closest Saki gets to a manifesto.

However, Saki’s best stories, such as “Tobermory,” “The Unrest-Cure” or “The Story-Teller” are childlike and inventive, not moralistic. Just as it’s possible to enjoy Gulliver’s Travels without detesting Robert Walpole, it’s possible to enjoy Saki without knowing anything about the growing popular interest in the British Empire from the 1890s onwards, which he mocks. And although Saki didn’t seem to have the desire or stamina to create fictional utopias, in a few stories he creates moments of light as well as shade. In a 1907 interview Saki declared: “My favourite flower is the periwinkle, my favourite animal is the kingfisher, my favourite bird is the hedge-sparrow, and I like oysters, asparagus and politics. Also the theatre.”

His friend Rothay Reynolds reports that after he had signed up to fight in the war, Saki wrote to him asking if it was possible to buy land in Siberia. Even as he was about to fight for his country, he was thinking of escaping it. The best of Saki’s singular fiction comes from its creator’s decision to set up camp in the no-man’s-land between these irreconcilable versions of the good life.