December 15, 1870 – Hector Hugh Munro:
“He is one of those people who would be enormously improved by death.”
Books are a large part of life at my house. I have stacks of reading material around the house. I usually have two books going, one for public transportation and one for at home. The Husband enjoys novels, while I usually go for essays, memoirs and histories, but we are both adventuresome readers willing to give all genres a try. I am very attracted to “coffee table books”, we probably own 100, and I continue to visit old favorites. On a rainy day I enjoy drinking coffee while spending time perusing The Villages Of Tuscany, Male Nudes In Classical Art or The Gardens Of The French Quarter.
I enjoy short story collections on the bus because, well, because they are short. Hector Hugh Munro wrote under the pen name “Saki”. He is one the masters of the short story form.
He wrote most of his best work for newspapers, which was common for his era. Serialized fiction surged in popularity during the Victorian era, due to a combination of the rise of literacy and technological advances in printing. Most Victorian novels first appeared as installments in monthly or weekly periodicals. The success of Charles Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers, first published in 1836, established the viability and appeal of the serialized format. Arthur Conan Doyle created the Sherlock Holmes stories originally for serialization. Among the American writers that wrote in the form were Henry James and Herman Melville. Writers at the time could enjoy the broad audience that serialization could reach. One of the very significant American works to be released in serial format is Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851) by Harriet Beecher Stowe, which was published over a 40-week period in The National Era, an abolitionist newspaper.
Saki’s stories were serialized and then later gathered into anthologies and sold as books. Saki wrote about a now vanished, jaded world of upper-class rural and metropolitan life in pre-war England and Europe. Before World War II, Saki provided Americans with an excellent introduction to the mysterious world of English humor. His work was an influence on A. A. Milne, Noël Coward, and P. G. Wodehouse. His writing is marvelously mischievous and sometimes macabre. His witty stories satirized Edwardian society and culture. At their best, they are the highest of high camp.
He was born in Burma, when it was still part of the British Empire, but when he was two years old, upon the death of his mother (she was killed by a cow, how’s that for black comedy?), was sent by his father to England to be raised by his spinster aunts and grandmother.
Munro/Saki was queer, but at that time in the United Kingdom, sexual activity between men was a crime. Discretion was called for, especially after the trial and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde in 1895. That side of Munro’s life had to be kept secret. His pen name, however, was a strong hint: Saki was a term for a “cupbearer”, a beautiful boy, an object of male desire. Munro kept a houseboy throughout most of his life, and many of his stories included coded references to homosexuality. In a series of stories, the suspiciously close characters, dandies Reginald and Clovis, engage in dialogue and activity that an astute reader can easily read between the lines.
It seems that Saki’s sex calendar was quite full. His liaisons averaged at least one every other day; when he was busy or traveling, every third day. That’s probably why his stories were so short.
Saki also worked as a journalist and served as an enlisted man in the army in World War I. He was killed by a German sniper’s bullet in the Battle of the Somme in November 1916. He had used his dismissive wit as a satire of the pretensions and the stupidity of early 20th Century society, yet ironically, he died in a war that cost half a million lives, organized by the very upper-class that he parodied. He was just 45 when the krauts got him, and after his death, his family destroyed most of his letters and papers.
Legend has it that that his last words were:
“Put out that bloody cigarette.”
Like Wilde, Saki was good at the epigrams. Here is just a sample:
To have reached thirty is to have failed in life.
Being too tasteless or too poor, which may very well be the same thing, is no excuse for wearing a cravat that does not match your frock coat.
I’m living so far beyond my income that we may almost be said to be living apart.
I always say beauty is only sin deep.
Think how many blameless lives are brightened by the blazing indiscretions of other people.
We all know that Prime Ministers are wedded to the truth, but like other wedded couples they sometimes live apart.
These bring Saki’s era into focus:
To be clever in the afternoon argues that one is dining nowhere in the evening.
Good gracious, you’ve got to educate him first. You can’t expect a boy to be vicious till he’s been to a good public school.
And, useful for certain postings on social media:
A little inaccuracy sometimes saves tons of explanation.
In Burma, his family raised a tiger cub and Munro/Saki was always interested in the world’s creatures. He would later use the idea of wild animals and their unsympathetic guardians in my favorite Saki story, Sredni Vashtar, from his book The Chronicles Of Clovis (1911) in which a boy keeps a pet polecat which he trains to kill his domineering aunt. It is wickedly funny.
Munro/Saki was also a historian, travel writer, political satirist, and writer of novels and plays. His complete short stories can be found in one fat volume. I recommend it.
Because of the era in which he lived, Munro was guarded about his gayness except in a few of his stories. Most of the readers of his time would probably have been shocked had they known that his pen name refers to a beautiful boy in The Rubaiyat Of Omar Khayyam. In the years after the sad end of Wilde, Saki had every reason to keep silent about the love that dares not speak its name.
Most of Saki’s stories have been adapted to film. My favorite, based on my favorite of his stories, is The Orphan (1979).