Saki

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Not to be confused with Sake.
For other uses, see Saki (disambiguation).
Hector Hugh Munro
Hector Hugh Munro aka Saki, by E O Hoppe, 1913.jpg
Hector Hugh Munro by E.O. Hoppé (1913)
Born (1870-12-18)18 December 1870
Akyab, British Burma
Died 13 November 1916(1916-11-13) (aged 45)
Beaumont-Hamel, France
Pen name Saki
Occupation Author, Playwright
Nationality British

Hector Hugh Munro (18 December 1870 – 14 November 1916), better known by the pen name Saki, and also frequently as H. H. Munro, was a British writer whose witty, mischievous and sometimes macabre stories satirize Edwardian society and culture. He is considered a master of the short story, and often compared to O. Henry and Dorothy Parker. Influenced by Oscar Wilde, Lewis Carroll and Rudyard Kipling, he himself influenced A. A. Milne, Noël Coward and P. G. Wodehouse.[1]

Besides his short stories (which were first published in newspapers, as was customary at the time, and then collected into several volumes), he wrote a full-length play, The Watched Pot, in collaboration with Charles Maude; two one-act plays; a historical study, The Rise of the Russian Empire, the only book published under his own name; a short novel, The Unbearable Bassington; the episodic The Westminster Alice (a parliamentary parody of Alice in Wonderland); and When William Came, subtitled A Story of London Under the Hohenzollerns, a fantasy about a future German invasion and occupation of Britain.

Life[edit]

Born in Akyab, Burma (now known as Myanmar), when it was still part of the British Empire, Hector Hugh Munro was the son of Charles Augustus Munro, an Inspector General for the Indian Imperial Police, and his wife Mary Frances, nee Mercer (1843–1872). Mary was the daughter of Rear Admiral Samuel Mercer and her nephew, Cecil William Mercer, became a famous writer as Dornford Yates.

In 1872, on a home visit to England, Mary was charged by a cow and the shock caused her to miscarry. She never recovered and soon died.[2] Charles Munro sent his children, including two-year-old Hector, to England, where they were brought up by their grandmother and aunts in a strict puritanical household.

Hector was educated at Pencarwick School in Exmouth, Devon and at Bedford School. On a few occasions after he retired from Burma Charles travelled with Hector and his sister to fashionable European spas and tourist resorts.

In 1893 Hector followed his father into the Indian Imperial Police and was posted to Burma. Two years later, having contracted malaria, he resigned and returned to England.

At the start of the First World War Munro was 43 and officially over age, but he refused a commission and joined the 2nd King Edward's Horse as an ordinary trooper. He later transferred to the 22nd Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, in which he rose to the rank of lance sergeant. More than once he returned to the battlefield when officially still too sick or injured. In November 1916 he was sheltering in a shell crater near Beaumont-Hamel, France, during the Battle of the Ancre, when he was killed by a German sniper. According to several sources, his last words were "Put that bloody cigarette out!"[3]

Munro has no known grave. He is commemorated on Pier and Face 8C 9A and 16A of the Thiepval Memorial.[4][5]

A blue plaque has been affixed to a building in which Munro once lived on Mortimer Street in Central London.

After his death his sister Ethel destroyed most of his papers and wrote her own account of their childhood.

Munro may have been gay, but in Britain at that time sexual activity between men was a crime. The Cleveland Street scandal (1889), followed by the downfall of Oscar Wilde (1895), meant that if he was gay, "that side of [Munro's] life had to be secret".[6]

Munro was a Tory and somewhat reactionary in his views.[7]

Writing career[edit]

The pen name "Saki" may be a reference to the cupbearer in the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam, a poem mentioned disparagingly by the eponymous character in "Reginald on Christmas Presents" and alluded to in a few other stories. This reference is stated as fact by Emlyn Williams in his introduction to a Saki anthology published in 1978.[8] However, "Saki" may also or instead be a reference to the South American monkey of that name, which at least two commentators, Tom Sharp and Will Self, have connected to the "small, long-tailed monkey from the Western Hemisphere" that is a central character in "The Remoulding of Groby Lington".[9]

Munro started his writing career as a journalist for newspapers such as the Westminster Gazette, the Daily Express, the Morning Post, and magazines such as the Bystander and Outlook. His first book The Rise of the Russian Empire, a historical study modelled upon Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, appeared in 1900, under his real name.

From 1902 to 1908 Munro worked as a foreign correspondent for the Morning Post in the Balkans, Warsaw, Russia (where he witnessed Bloody Sunday), and Paris. He then gave up foreign reporting and settled in London. Many of his stories from this period feature Reginald and Clovis, young men-about-town who take mischievous delight in the discomfort or downfall of their conventional, pretentious elders.

Shortly before the First World War, when "invasion literature" was selling well, Munro published a "what-if" novel, When William Came, subtitled "A Story of London Under the Hohenzollerns", imagining the eponymous German emperor conquering and occupying Britain.

Works[edit]

Much of Saki's work contrasts the conventions and hypocrisies of Edwardian England with the ruthless but straightforward life-and-death struggles of nature. Nature generally wins in the end.

"The Interlopers"[edit]

"The Interlopers" is a story about two men, Georg Znaeym and Ulrich von Gradwitz, whose families have fought over a forest in the eastern Carpathian Mountains for generations. Ulrich's family legally owns the land, but Georg, believing that it rightfully belongs to him, hunts there anyway. One winter night Ulrich catches Georg hunting in his forest. Neither man can shoot the other without warning, as they would soil their family’s honour, so they hesitate to acknowledge one another. As an "act of God" a tree branch suddenly falls on each of them, trapping them both under a log. Gradually they realise the futility of their quarrel, become friends and end the feud. They call out for their men’s assistance and, after a brief period, Ulrich makes out nine or ten figures approaching over a hill. The story ends with Ulrich’s realisation that the "interlopers" on the hill are actually wolves.

"Gabriel-Ernest"[edit]

"Gabriel-Ernest" starts with a warning: "There is a wild beast in your woods …" As the story proceeds we learn from the narrator that Gabriel is indeed wild, feral, in fact a werewolf. The climax comes when Gabriel is revealed to have taken a small child home from Sunday school. A pursuit ensues, but Gabriel and the child disappear near a river. The only items found are Gabriel's clothes, and the two are never seen again.

"The Schartz-Metterklume Method"[edit]

At a railway station an arrogant and overbearing woman, Mrs Quabarl, mistakes the mischievous Lady Carlotta, who has been inadvertently left behind by a train, for the governess, Miss Hope, whom she has been expecting, Miss Hope having erred about the date of her arrival. Lady Carlotta decides not to correct the mistake, acknowledges herself as Miss Hope, a proponent of "the Schartz-Metterklume method" of making children understand history by acting it out themselves, and chooses the Rape of the Sabine Women (exemplified by a washerwoman's two girls) as the first lesson.

"The Toys of Peace"[edit]

Preferring not to give her young sons toy soldiers or guns, and having taken away their toy depicting the Siege of Adrianople, Eleanor instructs her brother Harvey to give them innovative "peace toys" as an Easter present. When the packages are opened young Bertie shouts "It's a fort!" and is disappointed when his uncle replies "It's a municipal dustbin." The boys are initially baffled as to how to obtain any enjoyment from models of a school of art and a public library, or from little figures of John Stuart Mill, Felicia Hemans and Sir John Herschel. Youthful inventiveness finds a way, however, as the boys combine their history lessons on Louis XIV with a lurid and violent play-story about the invasion of Britain and the storming of the Young Women's Christian Association. The end of the story has Harvey reporting failure to Eleanor, explaining "We have begun too late."

"The Storyteller"[edit]

An aunt is travelling by train with her two nieces and a nephew. The children are naughty and mischievous. A bachelor is sitting opposite. The aunt starts telling a moralistic story, but is unable to satisfy the children's curiosity. The bachelor intervenes and tells a story in which the "good" person ends up being unwittingly devoured by a wolf, to the children's delight. The bachelor is amused by the thought that in the future the children will embarrass their guardian by begging to be told "an improper story".

"The Open Window"[edit]

Framton Nuttel, a nervous man, has come to stay in the country for his health. His sister, who thinks he should socialise while he is there, has given him letters of introduction to families in the neighbourhood whom she got to know when she was staying there a few years previously. Framton goes to visit a Mrs Sappleton and, while he is waiting for her to come down, is entertained by her fifteen-year-old niece. The niece tells him that the French window is kept open, even though it is October, because Mrs Sappleton believes that her husband and her brothers, who were killed in a shooting accident three years before, will come back one day. When Mrs Sappleton comes down she talks about her husband and her brothers, and how they are going to come back from shooting soon, and Framton, believing that she is deranged, tries to distract her by talking about his health. Then, to his horror, Mrs Sappleton points out that her husband and her brothers are coming, and he sees them walking towards the window with their dog. He thinks he is seeing ghosts and runs away. Mrs Sappleton can't understand why he has run away and, when her husband and her brothers come in, she tells them about the odd man who has just left. The niece explains that Framton Nuttel ran away because of the spaniel: he is afraid of dogs since he was hunted by a pack of pariah dogs in India. The last line summarizes the story, saying of the niece, "Romance at short notice was her speciality."

"The Unrest-Cure"[edit]

Saki's recurring hero Clovis Sangrail, a sly young man, overhears the complacent middle-aged Huddle complaining of his own addiction to routine and aversion to change. Huddle's friend makes the wry suggestion that he needs an "unrest-cure" (the opposite of a rest cure), to be performed, if possible, in the home. Clovis takes it upon himself to "help" the man and his sister by involving them in an invented outrage that will be a "blot on the twentieth century".

Hector Hugh Munro.jpg

"Esmé"[edit]

A Baroness tells Clovis about a hyena that she and her friend Constance encountered alone in the countryside, and that cannot resist the urge to stop for a snack.

"Sredni Vashtar"[edit]

This is the story of a sickly child named Conradin whose cousin and guardian, Mrs De Ropp, "would never ... have confessed to herself that she disliked Conradin, though she might have been dimly aware that thwarting him 'for his good' was a duty which she did not find particularly irksome".

"Tobermory"[edit]

At a country house party one guest, Cornelius Appin, announces to the others that he has perfected a procedure for teaching animals human speech. He demonstrates this on his host's cat, Tobermory. Soon it is clear that animals are permitted to view many private things on the assumption that they will remain silent, such as the host Sir Wilfred's commentary on one guest's intelligence and the hope that she will buy his car, or the implied sexual activities of another guest, Major Barfield. The guests are angered, especially when Tobermory runs away to pursue a rival cat, but plans to poison him fail when Tobermory is instead killed by the rival cat. "An archangel ecstatically proclaiming the Millennium, and then finding that it clashed unpardonably with Henley and would have to be indefinitely postponed, could hardly have felt more crestfallen than Cornelius Appin at the reception of his wonderful achievement." Appin is killed shortly afterwards when attempting to teach an elephant in a zoo in Dresden to speak German.

"The Bull"[edit]

Tom Yorkfield, a farmer, receives a visit from his half-brother Laurence. Tom has no great liking for Laurence or respect for his profession as a painter of animals. Tom shows Laurence his prize bull and expects him to be impressed, but Laurence nonchanantly tells Tom that he has sold a painting of a different bull, which Tom has seen and does not like, for three hundred pounds. Tom is angry that a mere picture of a bull should be worth more than his real bull. This and Laurence's condescending attitude give him the urge to strike him. Laurence, running away across the field, is attacked by the bull, but is saved by Tom from serious injury. Tom, looking after Laurence as he recovers, feels no more rancour because he knows that, however valuable Laurence's painting might be, only a real bull like his can attack someone.

"The East Wing"[edit]

This is a "rediscovered" short story that was previously cited as a play.[10] A house party is beset by a fire in the middle of the night in the east wing of the house. Begged by their hostess to save "my poor darling Eva – Eva of the golden hair," Lucien demurs, on the grounds that he has never even met her. It is only on discovering that Eva is not a flesh-and-blood daughter but Mrs Gramplain's painting of the daughter she wished that she had had, and which she has faithfully updated with the passing years, that Lucien declares a willingness to forfeit his life to rescue her, since "death in this case is more beautiful," a sentiment endorsed by the Major. As the two men disappear into the blaze, Mrs Gramplain recollects that she "sent Eva to Exeter to be cleaned". The two men have lost their lives for nothing.

Publications[edit]

  • 1899 "Dogged" (short story, appeared as written by H. H. M. in St. Paul's, 18 February)
  • 1900 The Rise of the Russian Empire (history)
  • 1902 "The Woman Who Never Should" (political sketch in the Westminster Gazette, 22 July)
  • 1902 The Not So Stories (political sketches in The Westminster Annual)
  • 1902 The Westminster Alice (political sketches with illustrations by F. Carruthers Gould)
  • 1904 Reginald (short stories)
  • 1910 Reginald in Russia (short stories)
  • 1911 The Chronicles of Clovis (short stories)
  • 1912 The Unbearable Bassington (novel)
  • 1913 When William Came (novel)
  • 1914 Beasts and Super-Beasts (short stories, including "The Lumber-Room")
  • 1914 "The East Wing" (short story, in Lucas's Annual / Methuen's Annual)

Posthumous publications:

  • 1919 The Toys of Peace (short stories)
  • 1924 The Square Egg and Other Sketches (short stories)
  • 1924 "The Watched Pot" (play, co-authored with Charles Maude)
  • 1926-27 The Works of Saki (8 volumes)
  • 1930 The Complete Short Stories of Saki
  • 1933 The Complete Novels and Plays of Saki (including The Westminster Alice)
  • 1934 The Miracle-Merchant (in One-Act Plays for Stage and Study 8)
  • 1950 The Best of Saki (edited by Graham Greene)
  • 1963 The Bodley Head Saki
  • 1976 The Complete Saki
  • 1976 Short Stories (edited by John Letts)
  • 1981 six previously uncollected stories in Saki, a biography by A. J. Langguth
  • 1988 Saki: The Complete Saki, Penguin editions ISBN 978-0-14-118078-6
  • 1995 The Secret Sin of Septimus Brope, and Other Stories
  • 2006 A Shot in the Dark (a compilation of 15 uncollected stories)
  • 2010 Improper Stories, Daunt Books (18 short stories)

Television[edit]

A dramatisation of "The Schartz-Metterklume Method" was an episode in the series Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1960.

Saki: The Improper Stories of H. H. Munro (a reference to the ending of "The Story Teller") was an eight-part series produced by Philip Mackie for Granada Television in 1962. Actors involved included Mark Burns as Clovis, Fenella Fielding as Mary Drakmanton, Heather Chasen as Agnes Huddle, Richard Vernon as the Major, Rosamund Greenwood as Veronique and Martita Hunt as Lady Bastable.

Who Killed Mrs De Ropp?, a BBC TV production in 2007, starring Ben Daniels and Gemma Jones, showcased three of Saki's short stories, "The Storyteller", "The Lumber Room" and "Sredni Vashtar".

Theatre[edit]

  • The Playboy of the Week-End World (1977) by Emlyn Williams, adapts 16 of Saki's stories.
  • Wolves at the Window (2008) by Toby Davies, adapts 12 of Saki's stories.
  • Saki Shorts (2003) is a musical based on nine stories by Saki, with music, book and lyrics by John Gould and Dominic McChesney.
  • Miracles At Short Notice (2011) by James Lark is another musical based on short stories by Saki.

References[edit]

  1. ^ http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/35149
  2. ^ AJLangguth.com - "Saki: A Life of Hector Hugh Munro, with six short stories never before collected." (Hamish Hamilton, London, 1981)
  3. ^ "The Square Egg," pg. 102
  4. ^ http://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/1546551/MUNRO,%20HECTOR%20HUGH
  5. ^ http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=12293752
  6. ^ [1] Dominic Hibberd's essay in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  7. ^ [2]
  8. ^ Saki: Short Stories I (1978, ISBN 0-460-01105-7) Williams cites Rothay Reynolds, "his friend".
  9. ^ Elahipanah, Nooshin (2004), Saki's Engagement with Evolution, Naturalism and Determinism, Postgraduate English (Durham University) 9, retrieved 18 August 2013 
  10. ^ Perhaps because of its subtitle: "A Tragedy in the Manner of the Discursive Dramatists". It was included only in later printings (1946 onwards) of The Complete Short Stories of Saki (John Lane The Bodley Head Limited)

Literary criticism and biography[edit]

External links[edit]