Hector Hugh Munro, who wrote under the name of Saki, did not think much of James Barrie (“He had a wonderful and tender insight into the child mind and knew nothing whatever about boys”); but the subtitle of Barrie’s masterpiece—“The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up”—could serve as the subtitle of A.J. Langguth’s biography. It would also describe the indolent, decorative characters of Saki’s fiction who take a child’s delight in shocking their boring acquaintances, those Victorian ninnies and stuffed shirts who have worn out their welcome at the Edwardian house party. “My mother never bothered about bringing me up,” says Clovis Sangrail. “She just saw to it that I got whacked at decent intervals and was taught the difference between right and wrong; there is some difference, you know, but I’ve forgotten what it is.” His companion is horrified, and he explains, “Well, you see, I took up natural history and a whole lot of other subjects at the same time, and one can’t remember everything, can one?”
When Saki’s characters are not casually anarchic, they are intentionally rude (“My mother was considered a brilliant conversationalist.” “These things have a way of skipping one generation”); or they exploit the scandalous implications of a banal remark. Clovis’s aunt complains to her hostess that another guest has been making love to her maid. “I assure you Mr. Brope would not dream of doing such a thing,” the hostess says, and receives the frosty reply: “His dreams are a matter of indifference to me; for all I care his slumbers may be one long indiscretion of unsuitable erotic advances, in which the entire servants’ hall may be involved.”
Except for such literal-minded naughtiness, however, or an occasional pompous guest accidentally exposed in her underwear, there is no mention in Saki’s stories of, as E.F. Benson’s Lucia puts it, “that horrid thing which Freud calls sex.” For all the pleasure his characters take in defying convention, their behavior is, even for the earliest years of the century, absurdly refined; we see them marry, but never kiss. Shut up in a country house, they can think of no more exciting pastime than playing practical jokes.
Few of his characters have any useful occupation; when they are in town, they shop, go to the theater, and—most enjoyable of all—lunch at the Ritz. All the while, they rabbit away at each other in dialogue wittier and cleverer than that heard across any real-life restaurant tables. Often they do nothing else—many of Saki’s short stories (and they are very short, five or six pages on the average) are merely dialogues, or even monologues. His best pieces are the ones in which they are given a plot to enact, some breathing space between epigrams. Reading several of the talky stories together is a bit like making a meal of his characters’ favorite food—caviar, champagne, lobster Newburg, and marrons glacés.
But if there is no sex in these stories, there is passion—the thwarted child’s passions of rage and revenge. Several of these pretty, Fabergé-egg toys of stories end with worse punishments than humiliation for the unlucky bores. The title character of “The Sheep,” an aggressively inept and perpetually apologetic man, drowns when he ignores the advice of cleverer people that the ice is too thin for skating. The prim and bossy Sylvia Seltoun of “The Music on the Hill” is impaled on a stag’s horns after she meddles in her husband’s affairs and decides he’s being silly when he warns her to keep clear of the woods. Saki’s adorable, merry child-heroes have an enthusiastic, even sensuous, appreciation of cruelty. Comus, the title character of the novel The Unbearable Bassington, is full of “goblin mischief and the joy of revelry,” which includes bribing a classmate for the pleasure of caning the new boy, and then chalking his victim’s buttocks so that each cut can be aimed at the same spot. Gabriel-Ernest, in the story of that name, is a laughing, brown-skinned youth who turns out to be a werewolf (“It’s quite two months since I tasted child-flesh”).
When little Rollo in “The Strategist” goes to a children’s party, three other boys take him into the library and beat him, first with a dog whip, then with a whalebone riding switch, for no other reason than that they outnumber him; his stratagem is the trick he uses to avoid being beaten a third time. But the story would be more suspenseful—and funnier—if the child were never beaten at all. In “A Defensive Diamond,” a clubman repeatedly vexes and humiliates another by cutting off his attempts at conversation with a series of outrageous tall tales. Yet he cannot resist one last cut. As they both head for the door, “Amblecope made as if to pass out first, but a new-born pride was surging in Treddleford’s breast and he waved him back. ‘I believe I take precedence,’ he said coldly; ‘you are merely the club Bore; I am the club Liar.”‘
Saki’s stories often reproduce the state of mind of the child who makes no distinction between “I don’t like what you did” and “I hate you and I wish you were dead.” His greatest, “Sredni Vashtar,” powerfully combines the elements he handled so well: the mistreated child, the stupid, vindictive adult, and the touch of the supernatural that is an extension of the child’s imagination. Sredni Vashtar is the name given to his pet ferret by Conradin, a desperately unhappy little boy who is literally dying because of the unsympathetic treatment of his guardian, who delights in thwarting him “for his own good.” Jealous of his attentions to the ferret, she goes down to its shed to drive it away, but Conradin has been praying to his pet every night and ending his litany, “Do one thing for me, Sredni Vashtar.” He watches his guardian go into the shed, watches the door swinging open for some time, and then watches as his pet emerges, “with eyes a-blink at the waning daylight, and dark wet stains around the fur of jaws and throat.”
Hector Hugh Munro was born into a family that had its own history of unhappy encounters with wild beasts. In 1792 an ancestor hunting in India was devoured by a tiger. This event was commemorated by a colorful Staffordshire mantel ornament of Mr. Munro with his head deep in the tiger’s mouth, and, Langguth tells us, “for several decades it sold briskly.” Hector’s mother, the wife of an officer in the British military police in Burma, returned to England in 1872 so that she could have her fourth baby in greater safety and comfort than she had had her previous three. In the peaceful Devonshire countryside, Mary Munro was charged by a cow, suffered a miscarriage, and died. Her children—the two-year-old Hector, his brother Charles, and sister Ethel—were sent to the same county to live for the next fifteen years with their spinster aunts.
After Hector’s death, Ethel wrote a short biography of him in which she created a chilling picture of life with Aunt Charlotte, “a colossal humbug,” “without any sense of humor whatever,” and Aunt Augusta, “a woman of ungovernable temper, of fierce likes and dislikes, imperious, a moral coward, possessing no brains worth speaking of.” The Munro children were kept on a tight rein by these rampaging virgins; they were allowed to play with other children only twice a year—as often as Augusta’s chained-up dog was taken for a walk. Hector and Ethel were not beaten, for they were considered too delicate, but “Aunt Augusta never liked [Charlie], and positively used to enjoy whipping him.” Yet Ethel was always at pains to insist that they had not been harmed by their upbringing. She not only denied that her brother’s stories were unwholesome (“So much has been said, in reviews of Hector’s books, about the cruelty element in them, an element which, personally, I cannot see”) but also denied that he had had an unhappy childhood, as if that were something to be guilty about. Almost forty years after Hector’s death, Ethel answered Graham Greene’s claim that he had been a miserable child with what she obviously felt was irrefutable proof: “He once said to me that, in spite of our strict upbringing and having no other children to play with, he was glad of it, as otherwise we should never have been original.”
There was something else about Hector that his sister badly wanted to hide; he was homosexual. Ethel destroyed many of her brother’s letters and diaries; certainly she would have burned the incriminating ones—if, in the days when sodomy was a prison offense, he ever wrote any. But Langguth has turned up enough evidence to make a good case—including a gold, heart-shaped locket inscribed “Hector With best love Cyril.”
In his stories, Saki’s two favored types of male characters are the languid young man and his protégé. The former included “Lucas Croyden, an amiable worldling, who had three thousand a year and a taste for introducing impossible people to irreproachable cookery…. Lucas was a Socialist, and he argued that you cannot hope to elevate the masses until you have brought plovers’ eggs into their lives.” And so he takes a draper’s assistant, one with “delightful hair and a weak mouth,” to the Carlton and the Ritz. The proteges are sometimes soft and pretty, more often feral, and usually described in such terms as “His pose was so suggestive of some wild faun of pagan myth that I instantly wanted to engage him as a model.”
Sometimes Saki was even more daring, perhaps making a sly acknowledgment to his friends. Sylvia, the victim of “The Music on the Hill,” has married her husband after a struggle, “in spite of his unaffected indifference to women,” and “she had watched with satisfaction the gradual fading of what she called ‘the Jermyn-Street-look’ in his eyes.” Jermyn Street was then, as now, a street of fashionable men’s shops, but it was also the location of the Jermyn Street Baths, which catered to customers whose tastes were less Turkish than Greek.
Women are not regarded very affectionately in Saki’s stories. They most often appear as some variety of gorgonaunt, condescending to a husband or censoring a child. Nor are the younger and more attractive ones to be trusted; they compete with the young men for attention or for other young men. The baroness of “The Peace Offering,” who puts on amateur theatricals, lets herself in for some spectacular trouble when she cuts Clovis’s entrance cue “Oh, lovely stripling, radiant as the dawn.” The only females Saki approves of have no authority over men and no sex appeal—the wicked little girls, mischievous old ladies, and schoolgirlish jokesters and good sports. On the principle that a change is as good as a rest, the enterprising child in “The Lull” takes an overworked politican’s mind off his election by bursting into his room late at night with a rooster and a pig. “I say, can I leave these here?” she asks. “The reservoir at Brinkley has burst…and we’re cut off by a raging torrent from any human habitation.”
Saki’s epigrams more often skewer women than men, and more disdainfully than any of Shaw’s or Wilde’s. “A woman who takes her husband about with her everywhere,” he has one of his characters say, “is like a cat that goes on playing with a mouse long after she’s killed it.” In his nastiest pieces he enthusiastically joins the popular prejudice against one type of interfering woman, the suffragette, with a comic poem about one who “too sincerely hungerstruck,” and a story, set in ancient Rome, of an emperor who deals with a demonstration by “Suffragetae” in his amphitheater by releasing his lions and panthers and wolves on them.
For most of his short life, Hector Munro led the sedentary and circumscribed existence one would deduce of an author whose characters pretty much keep to the route between the department store, the tea table, and the potting shed. But from 1902 to 1907 he was the Morning Post’s correspondent in Russia and the Balkans, and saw a fair amount of mob violence and guerrilla warfare. His dispatches retained a note of flippancy and preciousness, however—“Without being exactly a thorn in the side of the community, the Macedonian is at least a very crumpled rose-leaf”—and his most memorable line about those years in the field could have been spoken by one of his fastidious characters: “The only hotel in the place is full; I am in the other.”
In January 1905, Ethel Munro joined her brother in St. Petersburg for a holiday. “Knowing that there was likely to be trouble,” Ethel wrote, they went to watch the revolutionaries march on the Winter Palace, and were soon rewarded with the sight of the crowd “being driven by Cossacks, who were using their whips freely,” and then “charged…with drawn swords.” They retreated to the embankment, where “we waited for something to happen,” and then, gaily dodging bullets, went back to their hotel. The next morning they returned to the area in a sleigh to inspect the bodies, some with cloven skulls. Ethel pronounced her trip “very exciting” and “with the exception of Davos…the most perfect time abroad we had ever had together.”
The last two years of Munro’s life may have been the happiest. As soon as war broke out in 1914, he enlisted in the cavalry, though he was forty-three years old, and was soon enjoying the unaccustomed feeling of doing something idealistic, important, and masculine. He also enjoyed the company of so many younger men, the camaraderie he had never experienced as a child. “We have a good deal of fun,” he wrote to Ethel, “with skirmishing raids at night with neighbouring huts, and friendly games of footer; it is like being boy and man at the same time.” Hector so far immersed himself in this wholesome atmosphere as to heap contempt on his earlier creations. He wrote newspaper articles denouncing men who were not “red-blooded” and “Boys of the Lapdog breed.” “It is inconceivable that these persons were ever boys, they have certainly not grown up into men; one cannot call them womanish—the women of our race are made of different stuff. They belong to no sex, and it seems a pity that they should belong to any nation…” “After the War let them be treated as something apart…something not altogether British, not exactly masculine, something that one does not treat as an equal.”
By all accounts, Munro was a model soldier—cheerful, hard-working, and brave. He insisted on leaving a hospital bed to fight in a battle at Beaumont-Hamel in November 1916. In the early-morning dark, he saw a nearby trooper lighting up and shouted, too late, his last, inelegant words: “Put that bloody cigarette out.” A German sniper picked him off, and the life that had begun with one undignified catastrophe was neatly snipped off with another.
A.J. Langguth’s biography of Saki, the first full-length one (his sister’s, published in 1924, was only 118 pages), tries diligently to give us a portait of this elusive Edwardian dandy, to show, as Evelyn Waugh described Saki’s first novel, “instead of the cut gardenia, the tree flowering in its pot…a complete growth, leaf, stem, root, mould and all.” But Langguth is handicapped by Ethel Munro’s vigilance in destroying any unflattering material, and by his own peculiar prose style.
Ethel’s memoir, which he quotes and paraphrases a great deal, is much more charming and flavorful, if one-sided, and seems about the right length for a chronicle of a short and relatively quiet life. Langguth pads out his book with a lot of plot summaries and quotations, but very little criticism, unless one counts remarks such as (of the caning scene in The Unbearable Bassington), “At that point, Hector commits either a blunder or an act of daring.” He makes morose generalizations (“Most writers are happy, if at all, only on the days that they write”) and feeble imitations of his subject’s wit. Explaining why Saki was not invited to his publisher’s banquet, Langguth says, “To seat Hector at a public table, even below the salt, might revive unfortunate memories of Sodom and its notorious ambassador, Oscar Wilde, also a John Lane author.”
Apart from lining up several of Wilde’s and Saki’s epigrams into a page of Chinese-menu columns, and an obligatory mention of Lewis Carroll (Saki wrote a series of political satires called Alice in Westminster), Langguth gives us no hint of Saki’s literary ancestors. A good place to begin looking for them might be in English light verse and popular song. Saki’s characters love to sing and to write parodies of inane and high-minded songs and poems. Indeed, his stories themselves, so compressed, neat, and full of evocative detail, owe a great deal to the light verse of the period. In “The Secret Sin of Septimus Brope,” the title character loathes his moronic but immensely profitable songs (“Lively little Lucie / With her naughty nez retroussé”). When he decides to let his true feelings show, he comes up with his biggest hit: “How you bore me, Florrie, / With those eyes of vacant blue;… / I’ll throw you down a quarry, Florrie, / If I marry you.” Saki must have thought most popular songs as vacuous as most polite conversation, but he probably appreciated the robust, irreverent songs of the music hall, such as “She Was Poor but She Was Honest,” a satire on the ruined-girl melodrama, which has a lightly malicious touch like his own: “See the little country village / Where her aged parents live; / Though they drink champagne she sends them, / Still they never can forgive.”
The greatest of the Victorian lyricists, of course, was W.S. Gilbert, whose work, along with its dazzling and complex rhymes, has, like Saki’s, a streak of misogyny (those gibes at women who are old and plain) and of comic violence. “Oh, I am a cook and a captain bold, / And the mate of the Nancy brig,” says a shipwrecked sailor who has survived by eating the rest of the crew. This poem is very jolly until the sailor explains, a bit too vividly, how he dispatched the cook in his own kettle: “I ups with his heels, and smothers his squeals / In the scum of the boiling broth.” There is an odd echo of this line in Saki’s story “The Chaplet,” in which a chef, driven to madness by the eleventh encore of that song, drags the orchestra leader to the soup table “and plunged his head deep down into the almost boiling contents of the tureen.”
“Sredni Vashtar” irresistibly recalls one of the most famous of English comic verses. While Conradin’s hated guardian lies in a pool of blood, he calmly gets a slice of bread. “And during the toasting of it and the buttering of it with much butter and the slow enjoyment of eating it, Conradin listened to the noises and silences which fell in quick spasms beyond the dining-room door…’Whoever will break it to the poor child? I couldn’t for the life of me!’ exclaimed a shrill voice. And while they debated the matter among themselves, Conradin made himself another piece of toast.” In Thackeray’s parody of Werther he writes: “Charlotte, having seen his body / Borne before her on a shutter, / Like a well-conducted person, / Went on cutting bread and butter.”
Hector Munro most likely took his pseudonym from the Rubáiyát. Langguth quotes the five stanzas that Munro copied into his commonplace book, noting that the name signifies not only wistfulness at lost gaiety (Saki is the cupbearer who remains at the feast after one of the guests has died), but, appropriately, courage in the face of death. But “saki” has another meaning as well. It is the name of a mischievous beast, a South American monkey with a long tail and a jester’s ruff. Vindictively moral, Hector’s aunts raised a creature with a comic genius for revenge.
October 8, 1981