Saki

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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 – 13 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 satirized 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 Kipling, he himself influenced A. A. Milne, Noël Coward, and P. G. Wodehouse.[1]

Beside 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 of Britain.

Life and work[edit]

Born in Akyab, Burma (also known as Myanmar) when it was still part of the British Empire, Hector Hugh Munro was the son of Charles Augustus Munro and Mary Frances Mercer (1843–72). Mary was the daughter of Rear Admiral Samuel Mercer; and her nephew, Cecil William Mercer, became a famous writer as Dornford Yates. Charles Munro was an Inspector-General for the Burmese Police.

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.

Munro was educated at Pencarwick School in Exmouth, Devon and at Bedford School. On a few occasions, when he retired, 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, where he was posted to Burma (like George Orwell a generation later). Two years later, having contracted malaria, he resigned and returned to England.

At the start of World War I, although 43 and officially over-age, Munro refused a commission and joined 2nd King Edward's Horse as an ordinary trooper, later transferring to 22nd Battalion, the Royal Fusiliers, where 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, when sheltering in a shell crater near Beaumont-Hamel, France, during the Battle of the Ancre he was killed by a German sniper. His last words, according to several sources, were "Put that bloody cigarette out!"[3] Because Munro has no known grave, his name is commemorated on Pier and Face 8C 9A and 16A of the Thiepval Memorial.[4][5] After his death, his sister Ethel destroyed most of his papers and wrote her own account of their childhood.

Munro may have been homosexual; but, at that time in the U.K., sexual activity between men was a crime. The Cleveland Street scandal (1889), followed by the downfall of Oscar Wilde (1895), meant that if he were gay, "that side of [Munro's] life had to be secret".[6] Politically, Munro was a Tory and somewhat reactionary in his views.[7]

Writing career[edit]

The 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 is stated as fact by Emlyn Williams in his 1978 introduction to a Saki anthology.[8]) It may also be a reference to the South American primate of the same 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]

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

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 that up and settled in London. Many of the 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 Great War, with the genre of invasion literature selling well, he also published a "what-if" novel, When William Came, subtitled "A Story of London Under the Hohenzollerns", imagining the eponymous German emperor conquering Britain.

To recognize his contribution to English literature, a blue plaque has been affixed to a building in which Munro once lived on Mortimer Street in central London.

Work[edit]

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 based on 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 – feeling it rightfully belongs to him – hunts there anyway. One winter night, Ulrich catches Georg hunting in his forest. The two would never shoot without warning and 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 realize the futility of their quarrel and become friends to end the family feud. They call out for their men’s assistance, and after a brief period, Ulrich makes out eight or nine figures approaching over a hill. The story ends with Ulrich’s realization 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 propels, we learn from the narrator that Gabriel is indeed wild, feral—a werewolf in fact. The story uses the strain of animalist desire as an assessment to adolescence[clarification needed] . The story’s climax is 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 the clothes of Gabriel 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 Carlotta's train) for the governess Miss Hope she expected (Miss Hope having erred in her date of arrival). Lady Carlotta, deciding 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]

Rather than giving her young boys gifts of toy soldiers and guns (after recounting her taking away their toy depicting the Siege of Adrianople), their mother Eleanor instructs her brother Harvey to give the children 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 dust-bin". 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 toy figures of John Stuart Mill, poet Felicia Hemans, and astronomer 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 of the invasion of Britain and the storming of the Young Women's Christian Association. The end of the story has Harvey report failure to Eleanor, explaining "We have begun too late."

"The Storyteller"[edit]

"The Storyteller" is a cynical antidote to crude didacticism. An aunt is traveling 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 curiosity of the children. The bachelor intervenes and tells a story where the "good" person ends up being unwittingly devoured by a wolf, much to the children's delight. The bachelor is amused with the knowledge 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 who 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, he 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 her aunt's husband and her brothers were killed in a shooting accident three years ago, and Mrs Sappleton believes they will come back one day.

When Mrs Sappleton comes down she talks about her husband and brothers, and how they are going to come back from the shooting soon, and Framton, believing she is deranged, tries to distract her by talking about his health. Then, to his horror, Mrs Sappleton points out that her husband and 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 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 being hunted by a pack of pariah dogs in India.

"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 of the need for 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]

In a hunting story with a difference, the Baroness tells Clovis of a hyena she and her friend Constance encountered alone in the countryside, who cannot resist the urge to stop for a snack. The story is a perfect example of Saki's delight in setting societal convention against uncompromising nature.

The wailing accompaniment was explained. The gypsy child was firmly, and I expect painfully, held in his jaws.

The child is shortly devoured.

Constance shuddered. "Do you think the poor little thing suffered much?" came another of her futile questions.
"The indications were all that way," I said; "on the other hand, of course, it may have been crying from sheer temper. Children sometimes do."

"Sredni Vashtar"[edit]

The story of a young, sickly child, Conradin. His 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 guests that he has perfected a procedure to teach 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 would buy their car), or the implied sexual activities of another guest, Major Barfield. The guests are angry, especially so 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 thereafter attempting to teach a zoo's elephant to speak.

"The Bull"[edit]

Tom Yorkfield, a farmer, receives a visit from his half-brother Laurence. Tom has no great liking of Laurence, or respect for his profession: he is an artist and painter of animals. Tom shows Laurence his prize bull, and expects him to be impressed. However Laurence is not impressed, and nonchanantly tells Tom that he has sold a painting of a bull (which Tom has seen and did 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 gives 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]

A "re-discovered" short story, previously cited as a play[10] and therefore less well known. A house party with its typical social mix of bumbling Major Boventry, the precious Lucien Wattleskeat, the wordy Canon Clore and a breathless hostess, Mrs Gramplain, 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 that 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." Thus the two men have lost their lives for nothing. (Compare with Oscar Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray)

Books[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 Westminster Gazette, 22 July)
  • 1902: The Not So Stories (political sketches, in Westminster Annual)
  • 1902: The Westminster Alice (political sketches, with 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' 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, with Charles Maude)
  • 1926-1927: The Works of Saki (8 vols.)
  • 1930: The Complete Short Stories of Saki
  • 1933: The Complete Novels and Plays of Saki (includes The Westminster Alice)
  • 1934: The Miracle-Merchant (in One-Act Plays for Stage and Study 8)
  • 1950: The Best of Saki (ed. by Graham Greene)
  • 1963: The Bodley Head Saki
  • 1981: Saki (by A. J. Langguth, a biography that includes six uncollected stories)
  • 1976: The Complete Saki
  • 1976: Short Stories (ed. by John Letts)
  • 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.

In 1962, a Granada Television 8-part TV series, produced by Philip Mackie, dramatised several stories of Saki. 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. The title of the series was Saki, the Improper Stories of H. H. Munro (a reference to the ending of "The Story Teller").

Who Killed Mrs De Ropp?, a 2007 BBC dramatisation 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), a musical based on 9 stories by Saki. Music, book and lyrics by John Gould and Dominic McChesney
  • Miracles At Short Notice (2011) by James Lark, a 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]