Saki

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2077

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...

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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 Reginald stories, as many of their titles suggest, usually depend less upon plot or other narrative characteristics than upon Reginald himself and his opinions or observations, which are by turns impudent, rude, sardonic, and irreverent. The satire is often directed at British stuffiness and pretense.

The two Reginald books were published by Methuen & Company. The first received several favorable reviews; little attention was paid to the second. Neither volume brought much money to Munro, and he switched to John Lane, who published all six of his remaining books, including the two posthumous ones, The Toys of Peace and The Square Egg and Other Sketches.

The Chronicles of Clovis (1911) had only a modest sale, but the volume of twenty-eight stories contained several which were later to be anthologized as classics of modern British short fiction. In “Tobermory” a talking cat wreaks havoc by revealing secrets about men and women at a house party in a fashionable home. “Mrs. Packletide’s Tiger” employs a blackmail scheme by which Louisa Mebbin gains a pleasant cottage in Dorking through a threat to tell the true story of Mrs. Packletide’s attempt to outshine Loona Bimberton socially.

Langguth points out that the blackmail or exposure theme appears in several Munro stories. Munro knew that he himself could have been the object of exposure threats if anyone had been tempted to try. Briefly supplying some information about her brother to an American correspondent in 1952, Ethel declared: “One subject he never wrote on, was sex, and I am certain if he had he would have made fun of it. The best way to treat it.” There was a reason why he might have chosen not to write about sex: he was homosexual. He could create young men like Reginald in the early stories and Clovis Sangrail in later ones, whose mannerisms and waspish tongues might, for many readers of later generations anyway, suggest possible irregular sexual proclivities. He did not need to court trouble for himself, however, by treating a theme that might have drawn too much attention to his own proclivities.

Langguth reports that word had quietly spread about Munro’s interest in young men. John Lane published Munro’s books and also those of Oscar Wilde—whose love affair with young Lord Alfred Douglas had led to Wilde’s disgrace and a prison term. Lane knew more about Munro’s sexuality than he wanted the general public to know. According to Langguth, “When anyone raised the topic around Lane, he put his hands over his ears and pretended not to hear.”

If Ethel divined any special significance in her brother’s frequent references to young men in his letters to her from several countries during his years as a foreign correspondent, she apparently paid little attention. It is possible, though, that some of the many letters she destroyed might have revealed more about his sexual preferences than he would have wanted known. In her “Biography of Saki,” when she quotes an excerpt from one letter she remarks that it was written “when he was chumming with a friend, one Tocke.” Writing of his stay in St. Petersburg, she again mentions “a friend who was chumming with him.” She does not specify the degree of “chumminess,” but Langguth says that it sometimes included live-in arrangements.

To Langguth, Munro’s bringing Turkish baths into several stories suggests “unmistakable first-hand knowledge.” He may at times have gone to such baths seeking male partners. Langguth also reads a possible sexual meaning into some cryptic squiggles in the margin of a number of pages in Munro’s diary, and he suspects that a lover is being protected by a nickname in the dedication of The Chronicles of Clovis: “To the Lynx Kitten, with His Reluctantly Given Consent, This Book is Affectionately Dedicated. H. H. M.” Apparently, until the appearance of Langguth’s biography, Munro’s sexual inclinations, though known by numerous friends and acquaintances, were kept discreetly hidden from the public.

With a collection of clever parodies and three books of short stories that displayed his wit and verbal adroitness, Munro had demonstrated by 1911 that he was a master of the brief literary narrative. Then, like many another short story writer before and since, he was pressured into writing a novel. The result was The Unbearable Bassington (1912), which Langguth calls only a “half-success.” At least Munro showed in it that he was more than a mere comic writer.

This novel was followed in 1913 by When William Came, a brief novel picturing an England that has been defeated by Kaiser William’s Germany in a war which was won through a superiority in ground and air forces. The novel is chiefly memorable for its prophecy of the catastrophic and, for most people, unexpected war which began in 1914.

It is for his stories that Munro is read and remembered today; his fourth collection, Beasts and Super-Beasts (1914)—its title a take-off of George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman (1903)—contains among its thirty-six tales several that show him in top form. “The Open Window,” probably the most frequently reprinted of Saki’s writings, is an artful blend of humor and a ghost-story theme. In “The Schartz-Metterklume Method,” mischievous Lady Carlotta, seizing a sudden opportunity to impersonate a governess, employs engaging inventiveness as she entertains herself in carrying out Mrs. Quabarl’s instruction to teach four young boys and girls so as to make them “interested in what they learn.” “The Lumber-Room” gives Munro one of several literary opportunities, long delayed, to get revenge on his Aunt Augusta for her treatment of the Munro children. Several stories carry over from The Chronicles of Clovis variations on the werewolf theme and a curious streak of cruelty which today might pique the interest of a psychiatrist.

When war came in 1914, Munro was angered by the agitations of British pacifists, and in an article in Outlook he wrote, “If these men are on the side of the angels, may I always have a smell of brimstone about me.” The article, Langguth says, reveals “the moralist hidden within the satirist. Once freed, this scourge and scold could never be cajoled into taking up again with raillery and innuendo.”

Munro enlisted in the cavalry but transferred to the Royal Fusiliers. He rejected offers of a commission as an officer and opportunities to serve as a German interpreter. He was excited by the prospect of direct conflict. He rose from private to corporal and, though he was in his forties, he retained good health despite the rigors of trench life.

He would probably have relished the sudden drama which ended his life in November, 1916. His company had been sent out of the trenches in early morning darkness. During a lull in the roar of guns, a soldier lighted a cigarette. Munro said, “Put that bloody cigarette out.” Hearing the words, a sniper fired and the British Saki quaffed at last the “darker Drink” from the goblet offered by the Persian wine bearer whose name he bore. He was forty-six. Many years later Ethel Munro wrote a correspondent, “I am thankful that Saki did not live to be old; he hated the thought of old age. . . .”

If, as a result of Langguth’s revealing and appreciative biography, Munro’s collected stories enjoy a revival, it will be one they richly deserve. Although they present characters, scenes, and action belonging to Edwardian England, the best of them display a nimble wit, high spirit, and a linguistic virtuosity that are timeless.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 60

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.

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