The stories in The Chronicles of Clovis are loosely connected by a handful of recurring characters. Most notable is Clovis, a seventeen-year-old with a subversive wit and a disrespect for the British upper class, of which he is a member. Clovis is present in most of the stories, if only as observer, and in many he is Saki’s satirical mouthpiece, making light of his staid companions’ most cherished interests, values, and beliefs.
Saki’s cruel satires are written in refined and genteel language that parallels the stories’ central themes. Saki sees elite Edwardian society as morally bankrupt and self-absorbed, yet obsessed with appearances. In the same way that Saki’s elegant language disguises the sinister nature of his stories, his characters’ cultivated manners hide the emptiness of their social customs and their secret malice. Their polished conversations contain thinly veiled insults, and their outward politeness masks a scheming self-interest. Saki’s style is also full of wonderfully understated irony and memorable epigrams reminiscent of Oscar Wilde.
Many stories take the form of brutal cautionary tales. For their shallowness and self-absorption, Saki’s characters are rewarded with humiliation or even maiming, murder, or suicide. In “The Easter-Egg,” a mother’s family pride leaves her scarred, blind, and childless. In “The Way to the Dairy,” sisters who scheme to keep their inheritance intact unwittingly introduce their rich aunt to casino life, and she gambles away the family fortune.
Saki’s stories not only satirize English society but also seem to acknowledge dark, primitive, supernatural forces that his characters are too refined to notice. These mystical undercurrents pit Celtic mythology against English civility. When his city-dwelling protagonists leave their element, they are faced with witches or mythological creatures and flee back to the safety of London. Saki’s characters lead lives divorced from nature, and when they attempt to civilize nature they are killed by it.
The deft humor in these stories makes their often brutal content more palatable. Much of the humor is derived from the outrageous manners in which his characters react to cruel events. They are unmoved by death yet traumatized by a bottle of wine gone bad. The disappearance of a baby causes Clovis no alarm; he sees it as an occasion to make light of a neighbor’s religion. To the baroness, the hideous death of a child becomes an opportunity to bilk a motorist.