Saki (December 18, 1870 – November 14, 1916) was the pen name of British author Hector Hugh Munro, whose witty and sometimes macabre stories satirised Edwardian society and culture.
Saki is considered a master of the short story who is often compared to O. Henry and Dorothy Parker. His tales feature delicately drawn characters and finely judged narratives. "The Open Window" may be his most famous, with a closing line ("Romance at short notice was her speciality") that has entered the lexicon.
He also wrote several plays; a short novel, The Unbearable Bassington (1912); and two novella-length satires, the episodic The Westminster Alice (1902, a Parliamentary parody of Alice in Wonderland), and When William Came (1914), subtitled "A Story of London Under the Hohenzollerns".
The name Saki is often thought to 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" (see quote below). It may, however, be a reference to the South American primate of the same name, "a small, long-tailed monkey from the Western Hemisphere" that is a central character in "The Remoulding of Groby Lington" and that, like Munro himself, hid a vicious streak beneath a gentle exterior.
H.H. Munro was born in Akyab, Burma (now known as Myanmar), the son of Charles Augustus Munro, an inspector-general for the Burmese police when that country was still part of the British Empire. His mother, the former Mary Frances Mercer, died in 1872, killed, essentially, by a runaway cow. It charged at her, the shock of which caused her to miscarry, losing her life and that of the baby ( ). It was an incident that may have influenced the sometimes deadly animals of his later stories. He was brought up in England with his brother and sister by his grandmother and aunts in a straitlaced household whose comic side he appreciated only later in life. He used the severity of these domestic arrangements in many stories, notably "Sredni Vashtar", in which a young boy keeps a pet polecat without the knowledge of his spiteful and domineering female guardian, who, to the boy's great satisfaction, is eventually killed by the animal.
Munro was educated at Pencarwick School in Exmouth and the Bedford Grammar School. In 1893 he followed in his father's footsteps by joining the Burma police. Three years later, failing health forced his resignation and return to England, where 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 famous The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It was followed in 1902 by Not-So-Stories, a collection of short stories and a clear reference to Rudyard Kipling's Just-So Stories.
From 1902 to 1908 Munro worked as a foreign correspondent for The Morning Post in the Balkans, Russia, and Paris, then settled in London. Many of the stories from this period feature the elegant and effete Reginald and Clovis, young men-about-town who take heartless and cruel delight in the discomfort or downfall of their conventional and pretentious elders. In addition to his well-known short stories, Saki also turned his talents for fiction into novels. In 1911 he published, under the name "Hector Munro," a novel titled "Mrs. Elmsley." On the eve of the Great War, he published a "what-if" novel, When William Came, imagining the eponymous German emperor conquering Britain.
At the start of World War I, although officially over age, Munro joined the Army as an ordinary soldier, refusing a commission. He returned to the battlefield more than once when officially still too sick or injured to fight. He was killed in France, near Beaumont-Hamel, in 1916. Munro was sheltering in a shell crater when he was killed by a German sniper. His last words, according to several sources, were "Put that damned cigarette out!". After his death, his sister Ethel destroyed most of his papers and wrote her own account of their childhood.
He never married. A. J. Langguth in his biography produces strong evidence to support the hypothesis that Munro was homosexual. In the social climate of Edwardian Britain, in the years after the tragic downfall of Oscar Wilde, Munro would have had every reason, social and psychological, to keep silent about "the love that dares not speak its name".
In recognition of his contribution to literature, a blue plaque has been affixed to a building in which he once lived on Mortimer Street in central London. One of his social-climber young characters lived in a similar "roomlet which came under the auspicious constellation of W" (i.e. within London's West End, where, in Edwardian times, all the fashionable people lived).
Some believe that Munro wrote misogynistic and anti-Semitic stories. See, for example, "The Unrest-Cure", in which Clovis perpetrates a hoax to the effect that the local bishop is going to massacre every Jew in the neighbourhood. Compared with such contemporaries as Belloc or Chesterton, however, Munro appears mild.
Rather than the blanket term 'misogyny', it might be more correct to say that he disliked and disapproved of childless women, probably from his own negative experience of growing up in the care of his strict aunts. Some stories give voice to his irritation with aspects of female psychology, such as the middle-class conventionality epitomised by the ceremony of afternoon tea, or the inability to shop efficiently. He was persistently and derisively anti-suffragette.
Despite his lampooning of suffragettes and aunts, several of his stories feature sympathetic portrayals of admirably cool and self-possessed schoolgirls. Others feature strong-willed, independent women in a positive manner. One of his best childhood friends was his sister Ethel, and they remained close until his death - a sign of Munro's personal forbearance, as she had a powerful and difficult personality.
Saki's world contrasts the effete conventions and hypocrisies of Edwardian England with the ruthless but straightforward life-and-death struggles of nature. Nature generally wins in the end.
Saki's work is now in the public domain, and all or most of these stories are on the Internet.
Some of his best-known short stories include:
"The Interlopers" is about two families fighting over a forest located on the eastern slopes of the Carpathian Mountains. Ulrich's family legally owns this land, but Georg - thinking it really belongs to him - hunts there anyway. Ulrich catches Georg hunting in his forest. Next, a tree branch suddenly falls on them, trapping them near each other. Gradually they become friends and decide to end the family feud, "if we choose to make peace among our people there is none other to interfere, no interlopers from the outside," Georg says. They call out the other foresters to help them. After a brief period of time they see what they think are rescuers, but the story ends with a one word realization of who is really coming: "Wolves."
The Schartz-Metterklume Method
At a train station, an arrogant and overbearing woman mistakes the mischievous Lady Carlotta for the governess she expected. Lady Carlotta, deciding not to correct the mistake, presents herself as a proponent of "the Schartz-Metterklume method" of making children understand history by acting it out themselves, and chooses a rather unsuitable historical episode for her first lesson.
The Toys of Peace
Rather than giving their young boys toy soldiers and guns, a couple decides to give their sons "peace toys". When the packages are opened, young Bertie shouts "It's a fort!" and is disappointed when his father 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, poetess Felicia Hemans, and astronomer Sir John Herschel. Youthful inventiveness finds a way, however.
An old aunt along with three children is travelling by train. A bachelor is sitting opposite to her. The aunt starts telling a story. She is unable to satisfy the curiosity of the children. The bachelor intervenes and tells a different kind of story. It feeds the curiosity and imagination of the children. The good girl , who has won three medals for her goodness, in the end of the story is devoured by a wolf, but the children feel delighted . Thus the short story "The Story Teller" provides an antidote to crude didacticism and expresses an attitude of cynicism.
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".
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."
From "Reginald on Besetting Sins":
- The cook was a good cook, as cooks go; and as cooks go she went.
From "Reginald on the Academy":
- "To have reached thirty," said Reginald, "is to have failed in life."
- To die before being painted by Sargent is to go to Heaven prematurely.
From "The Jesting of Arlington Stringham":
- Eleanor hated boys, and she would have liked to have whipped this one long and often. It was perhaps the yearning of a woman who had no children of her own.
From "Reginald on Christmas Presents":
- Say what you will about the decay of Christianity, but the religion that produced Green Chartreuse can never really die
- 1900: The Rise of the Russian Empire
- 1902: Not-So-Stories
- 1902: The Westminster Alice (with F. Carruthers Gould)
- 1904: Reginald
- 1910: Reginald in Russia
- 1911: The Chronicles of Clovis
- 1912: The Unbearable Bassington
- 1914: Beasts and Super-Beasts
- 1914: "The East Wing" (play, in Lucas's Annual)
- 1914: When William Came
- 1923: The Toys of Peace
- 1924: The Square Egg and Other Sketches
- 1924: "The Watched Pot" (play, with Cyril Maude)
- 1926-1927: The Works of Saki (8 vols.)
- 1930: Collected Stories
- 1933: Novels and Plays
- 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, includes six uncollected stories)
- 1976: The Complete Saki
- 1976: Short Stories (ed. by John Letts)
- 1995: The Secret Sin of Septimus Brope, and Other Stories
- 2006: A Shot in the Dark (a compilation of 15 uncollected stories)
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