Saki (Magill's Literary Annual 1982)
Up to now, little has been known about Hector Hugh Munro except that he used the pen name “Saki”; that he wrote a number of witty short stories, two novels, several plays, and a history of Russia; and that he was killed in World War I. His friend Rothay Reynolds published “A Memoir of H. H. Munro” in Saki’s The Toys of Peace (1919), and Munro’s sister Ethel furnished a brief “Biography of Saki” for a posthumous collection of his work entitled The Square Egg and Other Sketches (1924). A. J. Langguth’s Saki is the first full-length biography of the man who, during his brief writing career, published a succession of bright, satirical, and sometimes perfectly crafted short stories that have entertained and amused readers in many countries for well over a half-century.
Hector Munro was the third child of Charles Augustus Munro, a British police officer in Burma, and his wife Mary Frances. The children were all born in Burma. Pregnant with her fourth child, Mrs. Munro was brought with the children to live with her husband’s family in England until the child arrived. Frightened by the charge of a runaway cow on a country lane, Mrs. Munro died after a miscarriage. Since the widowed father had to return to Burma, the children—Charles, Ethel, and Hector—were left with their Munro grandmother and her two dominating and mutually antagonistic spinster daughters, Charlotte (“Aunt Tom”) and Augusta. This situation would years later provide incidents, characters, and themes for a number of Hector Munro’s short stories as well as this epitaph for Augusta by Ethel: “A woman of ungovernable temper, of fierce likes and dislikes, imperious, a moral coward, possessing no brains worth speaking of, and a primitive disposition. Naturally the last person who should have been in charge of children.” Because of Hector’s delicate health as a child, he escaped such beatings as were generously administered to Charles. Mischievous and sly as a small boy, Hector as he grew older and even as a man sometimes indulged in practical jokes whose flavor often resembled that which spices his stories.
Hector followed his father and his brother Charles into the Burma military police, but after seven bouts of fever he returned to England and settled in London to write. His first book scarcely anticipates the later writing which would bring him fame. The Rise of the Russian Empire (1900), influenced by Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788), romantically pictures a Russia that Munro was not to see until as a foreign correspondent he lived in St. Petersburg (now Leningrad) in 1904. The reviews of his history disappointed Munro. Wisely, as it turned out, he shifted his writing to political satire and parody, in which he collaborated with a popular cartoonist, Carruthers Gould. Parodies of Lewis Carrol’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Edward Fitzgerald’s Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (1859), published in Westminster Gazette, drew attention to the writer who signed himself “Saki” (the wine bearer in the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám).
Langguth comments on Munro’s choice of the name by which he would be remembered. “He was young and merry and bright,” says Langguth, but he was also
old and sad and cruel. It was Hector who would write the best of the stories; it was Munro who would go off to war. But the name of Saki could stand for both of them—for Hector when he passed on his joyous errand among the guests, for Munro when he sought the cup [of death] at the river-brink. In Omar Khayyam, Hector Munro found an ambiguous pseudonym more appropriate than he could know.
In keeping with this view of Munro, Langguth refers to him as Hector until the more serious and seemingly fatalistic side of his nature begins to predominate. From 1913 to the end he is usually called Munro.
The publication in 1902 of Alice in Westminster (with Carruthers Gould’s cartoons) was both a critical and a popular success. Munro’s conservative political views influenced his acceptance of an offer from the Tory Morning Post to write as a foreign correspondent, and during the next six years he sent news articles to London from the Balkans, Russia, and Paris.
Munro had begun his writing career by imitating Gibbon. He had parodied Lewis Carroll and the Edward Fitzgerald translation of the Rubaiyat, and in 1902 he published several parodies of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories (1902). In September, 1901, though, Munro introduced to readers a character of his own invention, a young dandy and social butterfly named Reginald who was to become the protagonist of a series of fifteen stories collected and published in book form under the title Reginald. The popularity of Reginald as a character led to the publisher’s entitling Munro’s next book Reginald in Russia (1910) despite the fact that Reginald appeared only in the title story.
(The entire section is 2077 words.)
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Bibliography (Magill's Literary Annual 1982)
The Atlantic Monthly. CCXLVIII, August, 1981, p. 87.
Harper’s Magazine. CCLXIII, August, 1981, p. 76.
Library Journal. CVI, July, 1981, p. 1424.
National Review. XXXIII, July 10, 1981, p. 788.
The New Republic. CLXXXV, September 23, 1981, p. 38.
The New York Review of Books. XXVIII, October 8, 1981, p. 33.
The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, August 16, 1981, p. 12.
Saturday Review. VIII, July, 1981, p. 80.
Time. CXVIII, September 7, 1981, p. 67.
Times Literary Supplement. November 6, 1981, p. 1293.