Three Men on the Bummel by Jerome K. Jerome (1900)

I wish this book to be a strict record of fact, unmarred by exaggeration…

What is ‘the Bummel’?

Deliberately, but oddly, the book doesn’t explain what a Bummel is until the very last paragraph, where J, the narrator, writes:

‘A “Bummel”,’ I explained, ‘I should describe as a journey, long or short, without an end; the only thing regulating it being the necessity of getting back within a given time to the point from which one started. Sometimes it is through busy streets, and sometimes through the fields and lanes; sometimes we can be spared for a few hours, and sometimes for a few days. But long or short, but here or there, our thoughts are ever on the running of the sand. We nod and smile to many as we pass; with some we stop and talk awhile; and with a few we walk a little way. We have been much interested, and often a little tired. But on the whole we have had a pleasant time, and are sorry when ’tis over.’

Bummel is a German word, appropriately enough since the book describes a cycling tour around Germany. The American edition of the novel avoided this obscurity by being titled simply Three Men on Wheels.

Is Three Men on The Bummel a sequel to Three Men in a Boat?

Sort of. It was published in 1900, eleven years after his most famous work, Three Men in a Boat and features the exact same three characters – ‘J’ the narrator, George and Harris – 11 years further on, when two of them (J and Harris) have gotten married and had children.

What is it about?

It opens in the same way as Boat, with the same three chaps chatting and realising they need a break from their everyday lives. They consider hiring a boat for a sea cruise but remember various disasters when they’ve tried that before, at which point Harris suggests a cycling tour of Germany.

So if the twin narrative frames of Boat were the nature of boats and boating and descriptions of the River Thames and its surrounding towns and cities, the parallel frames in Bummel are comic meditations on the nature of cycling and descriptions of the Germany towns, cities and countryside which they pass through.

What was the bicycling craze?

The 1890s saw an outburst in the popularity of cycling. It was partly due to technical developments in 1880s which made bikes much easier to ride than the former, penny farthing, model, namely the invention of the ‘safety bicycle’ with its chain-drive transmission whose gear ratios allowed for smaller wheels without a loss of speed and then the invention of the pneumatic (inflatable air-filled) bicycle tire which made the whole experience significantly smoother, partly the ongoing development of mass manufacturing process which made bikes much more affordable.

So the two books have this in common: Boat was written to capitalise on the new fashion for pleasure boating on the Thames in the 1880s, and Bummel to capitalise on the 1890s fad for cycling.

(It’s worth noting that the up-and-coming young novelist H.G. Wells was one among many other authors who sought to take advantage of the new craze, publishing his light-hearted bicycling novel, The Wheels of Chance in 1896, between his two heavyweight science fiction classics, The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) and The Invisible Man (1897).)

To quote a useful (American) blog on the subject:

The bicycling craze swept the nation in the 1890s, with insatiable demand keeping nearly 2,000 manufacturers in business. Numerous manuals were published to instruct riders on road etiquette, proper breathing and riding technique, and accident prevention. Sometimes referred to as steel horses, bikes were a cheaper, faster, and more adaptable means of transportation that fostered both self-reliance and sociability. Earlier uncomfortable and unsafe models transformed into safety bicycles featuring cushion and pneumatic tires, coaster brakes, and most importantly a drop frame that was easier for women to mount and navigate.

Which makes it all the stranger that there is actually almost no description at all of the actual bikes. We are told there’s one single bike and tandem, and that’s that. We’re not even told how they carry luggage and such; presumably it is sent ahead by train or somehow, but none of this is explained.

‘What bicycle did you say this was of yours?’ asked George.
Harris told him. I forget of what particular manufacture it happened to be; it is immaterial.
(Chapter ten)

But of course, it would have been of considerable interest, to keen cyclists in his own day and ever since.

Why is Three Men on the Bummel a disappointment?

I remember reading the Bummel immediately after the Boat 30 years ago and being disappointed. Three reasons:

1. Bachelors carefree When they were young bachelors they could do anything. They expected and forgave each other for their irresponsible antics, and so did the reader. The situation is transformed now they are family men and fathers. What is attractive in a 25 year old just starting a career feels immature in a 35 year old father.

2. Family men tied down Families add complexity. I admit to being confused by the entire first chapter of this book, confused about where it is set and who is speaking and who is related to whom. The second sentence is:

At this moment the door opened, and Mrs. Harris put her head in to say that Ethelbertha had sent her to remind me that we must not be late getting home because of Clarence.

Only in the next chapter did I firmly grasp that Ethelberta is J’s wife, Mrs Harris is Harris’s wife (could have been his mother) and – I’m still not sure, but think that Clarence must be J’s son. Anyway it took a bit of effort to figure out who was who and what was going on and effort is not what you want from a comic novel.

All this is in complete contrast to the opening of Boat where the setting is immediately clear and comprehensible: the three chaps are in someone’s apartment thinking about holidays and this segues into the brilliant extended passage about J’s hypochondria. The opening of Boat gripped me; the opening of Bummel confused and irritated me.

3. Cycling tour more random that a journey upriver But by far the most obvious reason why Bummel is less engaging than its predecessor is the setting. Boat follows a lazy boat trip along the River Thames, which, in itself, is packed with meaning and resonances and associations, historical, nautical and – to those of us who grew up or lived by the Thames – personal. Whatever flights of fancy ‘J’ indulges in, the narrative always returns to the simple, central plot of them slowly rowing or towing their way up the Thames. The very simplicity of the central theme is what allows for such wild and fanciful digressions.

Whereas a cycling holiday around Germany has at least 2 problems: 1. It is by its nature random; they could be going anywhere for any reason, there’s nothing compelling, there is no deeper logic to the narrative. 2. They could be anywhere. Next to none of its English readers, then or now, have any idea where the Black Forest or Hanover or Mecklenburg are. Whereas Boat had the deep, almost archetypical logic of the river, Bummel appears random and capricious. It may have many scenes of comedy as intense and fantastical as the previous book, but it lacks the slow steady underlying structure.

4. Less funny Sorry, but the simple fact of the matter is that a lot of Jerome’s comic digressions and sketches in this book are just less funny than in Boat.

5. Sometimes serious See the section below, about Mensurs.

Is it any good as a guide book?

No. I won’t give an exhaustive plot summary because there isn’t a lot of plot. There’s a rough itinerary of their progress around Germany but, even more so that Boat, it’s really just a pretext for a steady supply of digressions and comic tales, some short, some extending for 5, 6 or more pages.

Suddenly, with no mention of the sea crossing, they are in Hamburg, which is not described at all; a sentence later they are in Hanover.

There is an extended passage at the start of chapter 5 where the narrator describes his experiences working on a cheap periodical designed to convey ‘useful information’ on a huge range of topics to its naive readers, the titbits, snippets and advice in question generally having been cut and pasted out of cheap encyclopedias. (Presumably this genuinely funny passage was based on Jerome’s extensive experience as the editor of The Idler magazine, 1892 to 1897, and then of To-Day, 1893 to 1898.)

J tells a story about how a little boy misused a piece he wrote for the magazine about manufacturing hydrogen to cause a small explosion to comically justify why he made the editorial decision that BUmmel should contain no useful information whatsoever.

There will be no useful information in this book…nothing in the nature of practical instruction will be found, if I can help it, within these pages…There will be no description of towns, no historical reminiscences, no architecture, no morals…Lastly, in this book there will be no scenery.
(chapter 5)

This is quite funny as a comic conceit, but it strips away what might have been a useful structure to the text, not so much guide-book useful, but useful in creating some kind of narrative structure. Without even the pretence of trying to be useful, it really does become a long series of anecdotes, reminiscences, comic scenes and observations, many of which are funny, but it lacks the underlying imaginative punch or force or coherence which you want from a book.

Does it at least give their itinerary round Germany?

Up to a point. Although once they actually manage to get clear of England (which they only manage to do by chapter 6 of this 14-chapter book, so that almost half the book is digressive preamble), the first part of the ensuing travelogue is often little more than a name, a brief description, and then some extended comic digressions. Thus the text mentions Hamburg, Hanover, Berlin, Dresden, Prague, Nuremberg, Carlsbad, Stuttgart, Carlsruhe, Baden, which they seem to have travelled between exclusively by train. There is some guide book-style content. Here’s a taste:

Stuttgart is a charming town, clean and bright, a smaller Dresden. It has the additional attraction of containing little that one need to go out of one’s way to see: a medium-sized picture gallery, a small museum of antiquities, and half a palace, and you are through with the entire thing and can enjoy yourself.

Brief and pithy, and then it’s off on another comic anecdote. His deflating comments on Berlin are interesting:

Berlin is a disappointing town; its centre over-crowded, its outlying parts lifeless; its one famous street, Unter den Linden, an attempt to combine Oxford Street with the Champs Elysée, singularly unimposing, being much too wide for its size; its theatres dainty and charming, where acting is considered of more importance than scenery or dress, where long runs are unknown, successful pieces being played again and again, but never consecutively, so that for a week running you may go to the same Berlin theatre, and see a fresh play every night; its opera house unworthy of it; its two music halls, with an unnecessary suggestion of vulgarity and commonness about them, ill-arranged and much too large for comfort.

So when does the actual cycling come in?

It is only in chapter ten (of this 14-chapter book) when they arrive in Baden that, as the narrator puts it, ‘we started bicycling in earnest’, from which the reader deduces that all the previous destinations have been little more than tourist visits, with the bikes mostly consigned to the baggage car of trains.

It is here in Baden, that they finally start the actual cycling holiday.

We planned a ten days’ tour, which, while completing the Black Forest, should include a spin down the Donau-Thal, which for the twenty miles from Tuttlingen to Sigmaringen is, perhaps, the finest valley in Germany…

But:

We did not succeed in carrying out our programme in its entirety.

As far as I can tell the cycling part of the tour takes them from Baden and features Todtmoos, Waldshut, ‘through Alt Breisach and Colmar to Münster; whence we started a short exploration of the Vosges range’, Barr and St Ottilienberg.

Comic moments, sometimes

Patriotism

Harris is inclined to be chronically severe on all British institutions… George, the opposite to Harris, is British to the core. I remember George quite patriotically indignant with Harris once for suggesting the introduction of the guillotine into England.
‘It is so much neater,’ said Harris.
‘I don’t care if it is,’ said George; ‘I’m an Englishman; hanging is good enough for me.’

The disastrous sea cruise

The long, long story about the time J and his wife hired a boat for a sea cruise and the extreme laziness of the captain, which dominates chapter 2, I found almost completely unfunny. Similarly, there was a long passage about the narrator’s fictional Uncle Podger and the mayhem he causes in his house every time he leaves for work, which wasn’t a patch on the brilliantly funny description of the same Uncle Podger trying to hang a picture on the wall in Boat.

The hose fight

There is a funny description of Harris getting involved in a fight with a man who was hosing down the road outside Hanover and splashed a pretty woman cyclist, which leads to general mayhem.

German kisses

George visits a shop to buy a cushion (Kissen) but by mistake asks for a kiss (Kuss) leading the shop girls to collapse in fits of giggles, though not the reader.

Prague, windows and guides

Having read a very long book about the Thirty Years War recently, which starts with the Defenestration of Prague in 1618, when the disgruntled Protestant estates threw two royal governors out of a window of the Hradčany Castle, I appreciated his joke that the history of Prague would have been much more peaceful if only they’d their houses and castles ‘possessed windows less large and temptingly convenient.’

In Prague they hire a guide for the day who takes them all round town and doesn’t stop talking in a rough mix of German and Slavonic. It is only late in the day they realise that almost he’s been saying hasn’t been elaborate descriptions of historic architecture but has a prolonged sales pitch for a patent hair restorer lotion the man has invented.

It is interesting that Jerome comments on the fierce enmity between German-speaking and Czech-speaking populations of Prague. Guides tell them not to speak German in certain parts of the city or they’ll get beaten up. This reinforces the prolonged explanation of the ethnic animosity given in Ernst Pawel’s excellent biography of Franz Kafka who was 7 years old when this book was published.

German law and order

Jerome has an extended comic disquisition on the German mania for order.

Your German likes his view from the summit of the hill, but he likes to find there a stone tablet telling him what to look at, find a table and bench at which he can sit to partake of the frugal beer and ‘belegte Semmel’ he has been careful to bring with him. If, in addition, he can find a police notice posted on a tree, forbidding him to do something or other, that gives him an extra sense of comfort and security.

And:

In Germany there is no nonsense talked about untrammelled nature. In Germany nature has got to behave herself, and not set a bad example to the children. A German poet, noticing waters coming down as Southey describes, somewhat inexactly, the waters coming down at Lodore, would be too shocked to stop and write alliterative verse about them. He would hurry away, and at once report them to the police. Then their foaming and their shrieking would be of short duration.

German regulations

And, naturally enough, for a (sort of) travel book set in Germany, the book has many passages describing the national character and especially the complicated nature of their laws. For example, none of our heroes appreciate the fact that you need not one but three tickets to travel on a train: one for general train travel, one for travel on a particular train, and one to specify whether you are seated or standing. George ignores this and related rules and is fined a hefty sum.

Our heroes are arrested

On the same theme of Order and Rules, the narrator is arrested because he takes a bicycle off a train which is just about to depart the station which he mistakenly believes is George’s. Only when he catches up with George does he realise George has his bicycle and the one the narrator has taken is some innocent German’s. He turns to see the train steaming out the station. He tries to stash it inconspicuously but is spotted by a typically officious German official. He only escapes actual prison because he happens to know a well-placed official in the town (Carlsbad) who testifies to his good character.

All of which leads to reflections on the ‘frequency with which one gets into trouble here in Germany’ and he gives a comic list of German bylaws. In Germany:

  • you must not wear fancy dress in the streets
  • you must not feed horses, mules, or donkeys, whether your own or those belonging to other people
  • you must not shoot a crossbow in the street
  • you must not ramble about after dark ‘in droves’
  • you must not throw anything out of a window
  • you must not joke with a policeman: it is treating them with disrespect
  • you must absolutely positively not walk on the grass
  • you must sit on the correct benches provided, marked for adults or for children
  • you must not leave your front door unlocked after ten o’clock at night, and you must not play the piano in your own house after eleven

Not very enticing, is it? ‘Go for a relaxing holiday in Germany and get arrested for laws you didn’t even know existed!’ is not a very convincing tourist slogan.

In Germany there is no law against a man standing on his head in the middle of the road; the idea has not occurred to them. One of these days a German statesman, visiting a circus and seeing acrobats, will reflect upon this omission. Then he will straightway set to work and frame a clause forbidding people from standing on their heads in the middle of the road, and fixing a fine. This is the charm of German law: misdemeanour in Germany has its fixed price.

German prams

Or take the humble pram. Apparently the Germans had a world of laws regarding what you may or may not do with a perambulator, which he cheerfully describes in all their absurdity, concluding, with typically Jeromian mischief:

I should say that in Germany you could go out with a perambulator and get into enough trouble in half an hour to last you for a month. Any young Englishman anxious for a row with the police could not do better than come over to Germany and bring his perambulator with him.

The deceptions of advertising

Plenty of contemporaries noticed and complained about the explosion in advertising during the 1890s and 1900s, in magazines, newspapers and increasingly intrusive hoardings. Jerome takes the mickey out of posters which very deceptively make cycling look wonderfully easy and relaxing and contrasts it with the often very hard work of puffing up a steep hill in Germany.

Generally speaking, the rider is a lady, and then one feels that, for perfect bodily rest combined with entire freedom from mental anxiety, slumber upon a water-bed cannot compare with bicycle-riding upon a hilly road. No fairy travelling on a summer cloud could take things more easily than does the bicycle girl, according to the poster.

Cycling and women’s liberation

Interestingly, Jerome confirms the comments of social historians I’ve been reading that bicycling amounted to a real social revolution and, in particular, liberated women, giving them an entirely new mobility, and, as a result, transforming the freedom of young couples to ‘date’ far from the eyes of their parents.

Occasionally the poster pictures a pair of cyclists; and then one grasps the fact how much superior for purposes of flirtation is the modern bicycle to the old-fashioned parlour or the played-out garden gate. He and she mount their bicycles, being careful, of course, that such are of the right make. After that they have nothing to think about but the old sweet tale. Down shady lanes, through busy towns on market days, merrily roll the wheels of the ‘Bermondsey Company’s Bottom Bracket Britain’s Best,’ or of the ‘Camberwell Company’s Jointless Eureka.’.. And the sun is always shining and the roads are always dry. No stern parent rides behind, no interfering aunt beside, no demon small boy brother is peeping round the corner…

And in the final chapter, where he delivers an extended review of the German character circa 1900, Jerome makes a special place for the German version of the New Woman sweeping Europe:

The German woman…is changing rapidly—advancing, as we call it. Ten years ago no German woman caring for her reputation, hoping for a husband, would have dared to ride a bicycle: to-day they spin about the country in their thousands. The old folks shake their heads at them; but the young men, I notice, overtake them and ride beside them. Not long ago it was considered unwomanly in Germany for a lady to be able to do the outside edge. Her proper skating attitude was thought to be that of clinging limpness to some male relative. Now she practises eights in a corner by herself, until some young man comes along to help her. She plays tennis, and, from a point of safety, I have even noticed her driving a dog-cart.

The insular English

In several places he satirises the English for their complete and utter failure to learn any foreign language, to get quickly exasperated with any foreigner who is dim enough not to speak fluent English, and the tendency of the English not to simplify their language when dealing with a foreigner, but to repeat the same thing, in difficult idiomatic English, but louder, a phenomenon I have observed countless times.

‘It is very disgraceful,’ I agreed. ‘Some of these German workmen know hardly any other language than their own.’

Taken alongside his comparison of the English and German education systems (the German infinitely superior) shows how some cultural stereotypes (the English are badly educated and useless at languages, the Germans are excellently educated and speak English among other languages, fluently) just never change.

German student duelling clubs

There’s some lovely frivolity in the cycling chapters, but the entire book ends with some unexpectedly serious thoughts. Jerome describes at length German student duelling societies which he candidly considers disgusting and squalid. They were expensive to join and the sole purpose was to spend time in a greasy dirty room with one opponent and two seconds, both your bodies well protected but your faces exposed to the slashes of heavy broadswords. The aim was to acquire as many impressive cuts as possible, which were then tended by not very competent student doctors and result in extravagant scars, in faces ‘cut and gashed, which prove your manliness and social status and are much desired by eligible young ladies. It was ‘a cruel and brutal game’.

Jerome describes the entire culture as being as inexplicable to outsiders but making perfect sense to insiders, as being as compelling to insiders, as bullfighting in Spain or fox hunting in England. But Jerome doesn’t find it at all funny. He thinks it brutalises both participants and arouses in onlookers ‘nothing but evil’.

Jerome on German character

Jerome had a good understanding of Germany. Soon after the the cycling trip the book was based on, he took his wife and children to live in Dresden for two years. When the First World War broke out 12 years later, Jerome made himself unpopular by speaking out against the torrent of anti-German propaganda the conflict unleashed in the press. When the many jokes wear off, you are left pondering his descriptions of the Germans as a nation obsessed with orders and regulations, over-willing to take instructions from every policeman or military officer.

Individualism makes no appeal to the German voter. He is willing, nay, anxious, to be controlled and regulated in all things… The German citizen is a soldier, and the policeman is his officer. The policeman directs him where in the street to walk, and how fast to walk. At the end of each bridge stands a policeman to tell the German how to cross it. Were there no policeman there, he would probably sit down and wait till the river had passed by. At the railway station the policeman locks him up in the waiting-room, where he can do no harm to himself. When the proper time arrives, he fetches him out and hands him over to the guard of the train, who is only a policeman in another uniform. The guard tells him where to sit in the train, and when to get out, and sees that he does get out. In Germany you take no responsibility upon yourself whatever. Everything is done for you, and done well. You are not supposed to look after yourself; you are not blamed for being incapable of looking after yourself; it is the duty of the German policeman to look after you.

And with an officer class trained at university in the enjoyment and infliction of disfigurement and pain.

We prate about our civilisation and humanity, but those of us who do not carry hypocrisy to the length of self-deception know that underneath our starched shirts there lurks the savage, with all his savage instincts untouched…

And:

The German idea of it would appear to be: “blind obedience to everything in buttons.” It is the antithesis of the Anglo-Saxon scheme; but as both the Anglo-Saxon and the Teuton are prospering, there must be good in both methods. Hitherto, the German has had the blessed fortune to be exceptionally well governed; if this continue, it will go well with him. When his troubles will begin will be when by any chance something goes wrong with the governing machine. But maybe his method has the advantage of producing a continuous supply of good governors; it would certainly seem so…

Or not.

Summary

After a clumsy start, and some long, not very funny stories set in England and/or involving wives, the book gets more interesting when it actually gets to Germany in chapter 6, and, in my opinion, really blooms when they finally get to the actual cycling holiday bit in chapter 10.

A final thought is the odd tonal imbalance in Jerome, or the overlapping of historical periods. What I mean is that his naughty schoolboy relishing of hi-jinks and breaking the law and getting into comedy fights is completely at odds with the stuffy, mutton chops side-whiskers mental image we have of Victorian men, it seems hugely more modern. One minute he’s describing the fight over the water hose, which sounds like utterly contemporary, the next he is talking about chaperones and how young ladies are supervised by their families in drawing rooms and dances which takes us right back to Victorian values.

And then there’s the fantastical Monty Python aspect. He begins a digression about how you find more breeds of dog in Germany than in England but almost immediately steps over a boundary into the fantastical and absurd.

George stopped a dog in Sigmaringen and drew our attention to it. It suggested a cross between a codfish and a poodle. I would not like to be positive it was not a cross between a codfish and a poodle.

Jerome’s signature note is not the ‘gentle Edwardian humour’ I associated him with before I reread these books, it is the continual schoolboy urge to push every comic conceit far beyond the bounds of reason, into the utterly surreal.

I do not know what the German breeder’s idea is; at present he retains his secret. George suggests he is aiming at a griffin. There is much to bear out this theory… Yet I cannot bring myself to believe that such are anything more than mere accidents. The German is practical…about a house, a griffin would be so inconvenient: people would be continually treading on its tail. My own idea is that what the Germans are trying for is a mermaid, which they will then train to catch fish.

Or:

Orchards exist in the Vosges mountains in plenty; but to trespass into one for the purpose of stealing fruit would be as foolish as for a fish to try and get into a swimming bath without paying.

This is the wonderfully fantastical Jeromian note and, at the end of the day Bummel is not as good as Boat because in the later book we hear less of it, it is often more strained and contrived, and, in the final chapter completely eclipsed by the extended meditation on the German character which can’t help but evoke dark thoughts of the terrible events which were to come.


Related links

Related reviews

Three Men in a Boat (To say nothing of the dog) by Jerome K. Jerome (1889)

George said: ‘Let’s go up the river.’ He said we should have fresh air, exercise and quiet; the constant change of scene would occupy our minds (including what there was of Harris’s); and the hard work would give us a good appetite, and make us sleep well.

Three Men in A Boat is routinely included in any list of the funniest books ever written in any language. It describes the lazy dawdling progress of three late-Victorian ‘chaps’ on a 2-week boating holiday up the River Thames from Kingston upon Thames to Oxford and back again. Despite being slapdash in ‘plot’ and very uneven in tone, it was wildly popular upon publication, has sold solidly ever since and been translated into loads of languages. Why?

Guidebook to a new type of activity

One answer is that the book caught the spirit of a moment when commercial activity on the Thames had all but died out, almost the entire barge traffic which dominated it having been decimated by the railway revolution of the 1840s and 1850s. As a result a new fashion had been developing since the 1870s for boating as a leisure activity. In fact at various points the narrator complains about the Thames becoming too busy with pleasure craft, with thousands of skiffs and rowboats and his particular bete noire, the steam pleasure cruiser.

The book was originally conceived as a mixture of history book and tourist guide to cash in on the newish pastime, and quite literally showed ‘how to do it’, with advice on how to hire a boat, what kind to get (our heroes hire ‘a Thames camping skiff’, ‘a double-sculling skiff’), an itinerary with top sights to spot, what to expect, how far to expect to travel each day, with historical notes about Romans and Saxons and kings and queens and the castles and monasteries of each Thames-side settlement.

‘We won’t take a tent,’ suggested George; ‘we will have a boat with a cover. It is ever so much simpler, and more comfortable.’

Admittedly the book as we have it now almost completely submerges this factual information in prolonged comic digressions and humorous sketches, but as a practical guide, it still has a vestigial interest: most of the route, the locks and so on are unchanged and most of the pubs and inns named are still open. Here’s an example of Jerome’s factual but dreamy guidebook style:

From Wallingford up to Dorchester the neighbourhood of the river grows more hilly, varied, and picturesque. Dorchester stands half a mile from the river. It can be reached by paddling up the Thame, if you have a small boat; but the best way is to leave the river at Day’s Lock, and take a walk across the fields. Dorchester is a delightfully peaceful old place, nestling in stillness and silence and drowsiness. Dorchester, like Wallingford, was a city in ancient British times; it was then called Caer Doren, ‘the city on the water.’ In more recent times the Romans formed a great camp here, the fortifications surrounding which now seem like low, even hills. In Saxon days it was the capital of Wessex. It is very old, and it was very strong and great once. Now it sits aside from the stirring world, and nods and dreams.

How to holiday

The second element is it shows you what tone to approach such a holiday in, namely one of humorous self-deprecation. It is not only a guide to the route and its sights, but the mood and manner of insouciant larking around to take on such a holiday.

The book is less of a guidebook than a toolkit of whimsy, humour, comedy, irony, pranks, mishaps and ironic reversals. Reading any passage at random makes you feel lighter and gayer. In fact it is a model, in its simplicity and sustained good humour and sheer fun, of what a modest staycation should be like and, as most of us know to our cost, rarely is.

Humour

This brings us to the third and most obvious element which is the humour, the comedy, and the most striking thing about the book which is how incredibly well the humour has lasted. Much of Three Men in a Boat is still very funny indeed. Jerome manages to turn almost every incident and passing thought into comedy with the power of his whimsy and frivolous invention.

I was hooked from the moment in paragraph three when the narrator describes what a hypochondriac he is, how the minute he reads any advert for a new medicine he becomes convinced he has all the symptoms of the relevant illness, and proceeds to develop this into a comic riff about how he once went to the British Museum to read up on a slight ailment he thought he had, and then found his eye diverted by another entry in the medical encyclopedia and, in the end, ended up reading the entire thing from cover to cover, convinced he had every symptom of every ailment listed in the book, from Ague to Zymosis.

I had walked into that reading-room a happy, healthy man. I crawled out a decrepit wreck.

He doesn’t stop there. His new-found health anxiety led him to pay a worried visit to a doctor friend who  sounded him out, discovered where he’d been and what he’d been reading and calmly gave him a prescription for… exercise, fresh air and to stop poking about in subjects he didn’t understand!

The narrative opens on this mood of restless and entirely fictional hypochondria, as the narrator (‘J’) and his two pals meet up for a drink and a pipe, and all agree they need some kind of break, some kind of rest cure… This leads into a comic consideration of all the alternative types of holiday available with the invariable disasters they entail, with a particular lingering taking a sea cruise and a vivid comic description of the prolonged sea sickness it so often leads to… until:

George said: ‘Let’s go up the river.’

They discuss the novel charms of a slow cruise up the River Thames… And off we go. (Actually, as the book progresses, we discover that they have been on quite a few boat trips up the Thames before, but somehow that doesn’t dampen the initial boyish enthusiasm.)

Play acting

And this is another aspect of it: the three chaps in the boat are in a sense playing at being late-Victorian larks. There is a strong element of play-acting, of theatricality, in many of the best scenes and this encourages the reader to take part in the acting.

When I was a student there were chaps who liked to wear boaters and blazers and hire punts on the river. They were acting the part of chaps punting along the willow-strewn river while their lady loves lay back among the pillows, trailing one hand in the river and holding a glass of chilled champagne in the other. It encourages a spirit of acting.

The models of the narrator’s two chums, Harris and George were, in real life, the founder of a London printing business (Harris) and a banker who would go on to become a senior manager in Barclays (George). But not on this trip. On this jolly jaunt they are acting the parts of incompetents and fools larking around.

Male friendship

Which brings us to the chappiness of the chaps, the fact that the book is not only a record of an idyllic trip through an idealised bit of English landscape, but is also an idealised account of male friendship. If only our real friends were as whimsical, funny, amusing and doggedly loyal as the chaps in the boat.

Having gone on various all-male holidays myself, I know that a key element of them is the sense of exaggerating each other’s shortcomings and characteristics. Things always go wrong and the sign of a good holiday, and of a good relationship, is to retain good spirits and a sense of humour whatever happens.

Without wanting to sound too pompous about it, a key element in this kind of practical, camping, outdoors-style venture is the element of forgiveness. If one of you sets the tent up all wrong so that it falls down in the middle of the night in the middle of a rainstorm, it takes a lot of character, and of love, not to get angry but to keep your sense of humour.

One way to manage this is to turn each other into cartoons. I had a couple of friends who went on an epic journey across South America. They had difficult times made worse by drunkenness and general incompetence. They discovered early on that the way to avoid anger and arguments was to treat each other as cartoon caricatures of themselves, so they weren’t criticising each other (which is hurtful) but were attacking each other’s cartoon avatars (which was funny and defused tensions).

In fact they developed a particularly powerful variation on this theme which was to mimic a couple of  fictional sports commentators, Brian and Peter, alternating commentary on their real-life activities in wheedling, whining, microphone voices of two fictional

‘In a long career of cocking up travel arrangements, surely this is Dave’s biggest screw-up of all, turning up at the airport a day after their flight had left. Brian.’

‘Thank you, Peter, yes in a lifetime of commentating on drunken Brits fouling up abroad, I think this definitely takes gold medal. It looks like young Dave now has no serious competition for the Most Incompetent Tourist of the Year award which he has, to be fair, put so much effort into winning’.

By turning each other into comic caricatures, male friends can be quite brutally critical about each other, but in a way which defuses tension and increases male bonding.

George and Harris

So the three chaps are not only characters but caricatures, types. Very early in the book we learn that Harris is caricatured as the Lazy One.

Harris said he didn’t think George ought to do anything that would have a tendency to make him sleepier than he always was, as it might be dangerous. He said he didn’t very well understand how George was going to sleep any more than he did now, seeing that there were only twenty-four hours in each day, summer and winter alike; but thought that if he did sleep any more, he might just as well be dead, and so save his board and lodging.

And the drinker.

I wonder now, supposing Harris, say, turned over a new leaf, and became a great and good man, and got to be Prime Minister, and died, if they would put up signs over the public-houses that he had patronised: ‘Harris had a glass of bitter in this house;’ ‘Harris had two of Scotch cold here in the summer of ’88;’ ‘Harris was chucked from here in December, 1886.’

No, there would be too many of them! It would be the houses that he had never entered that would become famous. ‘Only house in South London that Harris never had a drink in!’ The people would flock to it to see what could have been the matter with it.

And the glutton:

Harris said there was nothing like a swim before breakfast to give you an appetite.  He said it always gave him an appetite.  George said that if it was going to make Harris eat more than Harris ordinarily ate, then he should protest against Harris having a bath at all.

While George is caricatured as Dim, so that everyone can enjoy feigning surprise every time he makes a sensible suggestion (which he does, in fact, all the time; the whole idea of a trip up the river is his, after all). George always knows ‘a little place just round the corner’ which will serve a jolly fine whisky or brandy or whatever the occasion demands. ‘George said he felt thirsty (I never knew George when he didn’t)’.

And ‘J’, the narrator, thinks of himself as the imaginative, soulful one who does all the organising, a contention the other two vehemently deny.

Englishness

A central aspect of Englishness is a kind of dogged incompetence. I have Canadian cousins and I am quietly appalled at how good they are at everything. Their jobs, their cars, their airplane deals, the house on the lake, their camping, their barbecues, they’re just super capable at everything.

By comparison, whenever I try a barbecue the sausages are burned on one side, raw on the other or smell of paraffin; I not only can’t handle the massive armoured cars most people drive around in these days, but they terrify me. Whenever I went camping the inner tent always touched the outer tent so that the rain came through and, generally, dripped precisely on my face or that of my angry partner. I went canoeing once but, although I’m quite confident on water, ended up going round in circles and eventually gave it up in frustration.

In all these respects and more I think of myself as very English, in living a life of quiet frustration, putting up with endless humiliation by shop assistants, local government officials, crooked financial advisers, maladroit tradesmen, pestering insurance salesmen and countless other rip-off merchants, living in a small, over-crowded, angry country run by buffoons, painfully conscious all the time of my own failings and lack of ability.

For a whole year I’ve been meaning to fix the trellis currently leaning against the fence to the fence with battens and screws so I can plant some climbers for it. But in order to do that I need to figure out where to go to buy the wood to make the battens, how to saw them to length, which make of electric screwdriver to buy (battery or cord) and then which size of screws. It is a forest of impenetrable obstacles. I wonder if it’ll ever get done. Can’t help feeling my Canadian cousins would have done it in half an hour and then got on with organising another delicious barbecue.

(I’d written that paragraph, looking out the window at the trellis, before I came across the sequence in chapter 3 of Three Men In A Boat describing at comic length the legendary incompetence of the narrator’s Uncle Podger and the mayhem he causes his entire extended family, the servants and neighbouring shopkeepers in his cack-handed attempts to simply hang a picture on a wall. The inability to do even the simplest household chore reminds me of all Charles Pooter’s domestic accidents in Diary of a Nobody. Both books show that being useless at even the simplest household tasks has been a hallmark of English comedy for at least 130 years.)

Heroic failure is the English way. As no end of commentators have pointed out, the British most remember their military disasters, the Charge of the Light Brigade, the siege of Mafeking, the massacre at Isandlwana, the Somme, Dunkirk and the Blitz. We like it when we’re being hammered. Until very recently our tennis players and our footballers have been notable for their dogged third-rateness (Tim Henman, any England squad since 1970).

American humour tends to be smart and snappy, a festival of fast-talking, wisecracking one-line-merchants from Groucho Marx through Cary Grant in his screwball comedies to Woody Allen. English humour is about fumbling and falling over things: Dad’s Army, Some Mothers Do Ave Em. Ooh Betty. They don’t like it up ’em, Captain Mainwaring. This tone of perplexed failure is perfectly captured in the narrator’s description of bathing in the sea from the start of the book:

It is the same when you go to the sea-side. I always determine—when thinking over the matter in London—that I’ll get up early every morning, and go and have a dip before breakfast, and I religiously pack up a pair of drawers and a bath towel. I always get red bathing drawers. I rather fancy myself in red drawers. They suit my complexion so. But when I get to the sea I don’t feel somehow that I want that early morning bathe nearly so much as I did when I was in town.

On the contrary, I feel more that I want to stop in bed till the last moment, and then come down and have my breakfast. Once or twice virtue has triumphed, and I have got out at six and half-dressed myself, and have taken my drawers and towel, and stumbled dismally off. But I haven’t enjoyed it. They seem to keep a specially cutting east wind, waiting for me, when I go to bathe in the early morning; and they pick out all the three-cornered stones, and put them on the top, and they sharpen up the rocks and cover the points over with a bit of sand so that I can’t see them, and they take the sea and put it two miles out, so that I have to huddle myself up in my arms and hop, shivering, through six inches of water. And when I do get to the sea, it is rough and quite insulting.

English weather

Foreigners often accuse the English of being obsessed with the weather. This is because it is so perverse and unpredictable. Occasionally we do actually have hot summers but my lifetime has been marked by confident predictions of ‘barbecue summers’ which end up being dismal washouts. Not that the English weather’s particularly interesting, it’s rare that you have really hot blue-sky summer days and, where I live in London, we rarely if ever have snow in winter. English weather is usually boring and mundane, lacking vivid extremes, like English culture generally. I read once in the CIA Handbook that for more than 50% of the time the English sky is grey and overcast. I remember it feeling like that during the entire premiership of John Major, 1990 to 1997.

Anyway, any adult English person has had the experience of organising a barbecue or birthday party or wedding reception outdoors in a garden or park or grand mansion only to have it rained off by steady, grey. ‘Rain stopped play’ is one of the commonest terms in cricket. It’s amazing that Wimbledon ever makes it to the final on schedule given the amount of time lost to English summer rain. The gloomy weather is a big part of that heavy-hearted sense of entirely predictable failure and disappointment which is at the heart of the English character.

Hence the national obsession with weather forecasts, on telly, the radio, in all the papers, despite the fact that any rational adult knows the weather forecast is usually wildly wrong. I remember looking at the BBC’s weather forecast for my part of London which told me it was hot and sunny despite the fact that, out the window, at that very minute it was chucking down with rain. As in so many big organisations, reliance technology meant the weather forecasters were relying more on their expensive computer model than looking out the bloody window.

Three Men In A Boat shows you that nothing has changed, the weather forecast was just as rubbish 130 years ago:

I remember a holiday of mine being completely ruined one late autumn by our paying attention to the weather report of the local newspaper. ‘Heavy showers, with thunderstorms, may be expected to-day,’ it would say on Monday, and so we would give up our picnic, and stop indoors all day, waiting for the rain.—And people would pass the house, going off in wagonettes and coaches as jolly and merry as could be, the sun shining out, and not a cloud to be seen.

‘Ah!’ we said, as we stood looking out at them through the window, ‘won’t they come home soaked!’

And we chuckled to think how wet they were going to get, and came back and stirred the fire, and got our books, and arranged our specimens of seaweed and cockle shells. By twelve o’clock, with the sun pouring into the room, the heat became quite oppressive, and we wondered when those heavy showers and occasional thunderstorms were going to begin.

‘Ah! they’ll come in the afternoon, you’ll find,’ we said to each other. ‘Oh, won’t those people get wet. What a lark!’

At one o’clock, the landlady would come in to ask if we weren’t going out, as it seemed such a lovely day.

‘No, no,’ we replied, with a knowing chuckle, ‘not we. We don’t mean to get wet—no, no.’

And when the afternoon was nearly gone, and still there was no sign of rain, we tried to cheer ourselves up with the idea that it would come down all at once, just as the people had started for home, and were out of the reach of any shelter, and that they would thus get more drenched than ever. But not a drop ever fell, and it finished a grand day, and a lovely night after it.

The next morning we would read that it was going to be a ‘warm, fine to set-fair day; much heat;’ and we would dress ourselves in flimsy things, and go out, and, half-an-hour after we had started, it would commence to rain hard, and a bitterly cold wind would spring up, and both would keep on steadily for the whole day, and we would come home with colds and rheumatism all over us, and go to bed.

Voilà the English national characteristics: the complete incompetence of the forecasters, the blithe indifference of the newspapers (or radio or telly) which publish this twaddle day after day, the utter unreliability of official information, the inevitability that whatever you decide to do will be wrong, and the one over-riding certainty of disappointment. A Philip Larkin world.

Hence, the one time our trio of chums need a cab to collect their stuff from the front door and take them to Waterloo station in a hurry the road, which is usually packed with empty cabs hurtling back and forth, is empty. Similarly, when they get to Waterloo they can’t find anyone who knows the platform for the train to Kingston.

Activities the English (in the shape of J, Harris and George) are doomed to fail at

  • going on an ocean cruise – seasickness
  • putting up a tent in the rain – recipe for homicidal rage
  • hanging a picture on a wall – reduce entire family to tears
  • swimming in the sea – cut your feet to ribbons and get half drowned
  • running a train system – it was an over-priced shambles in the 1880s and still is
  • washing their own clothes in the river – disaster
  • rigging up the hoops and canvas over the boat for the night – they manage to get tangled in the cloth and nearly throttled
  • cooking scrambled eggs – J had never heard of this dish before but Harris turns it into a burned mess
  • opening a tin of pineapple with a knife – impossible to do without serious injury
  • finding a room for the night in Datchet – never do this
  • singing a comic song after dinner – Harris should be banned from even trying
  • playing the bagpipes – when a young fellow J knew practiced at home the neighbours called the police and accused him of murdering his family

To say nothing of the dog

I’m not a dog person, but I appreciate that many English people are, and so I can see that the character of the dog Montmorency, a mischievous fox terrier, is a vital component in the story. He brings a warm, snuffling supplement to the human narrative, either getting into mischief or shedding an ironic light on the human shambles, adding the final cherry on the cake to many a comic moment.

Take the scene in chapter 14 where the chaps knock up a supposed Irish stew by combining the leftovers in the party’s food hamper:

I forget the other ingredients, but I know nothing was wasted; and I remember that, towards the end, Montmorency, who had evinced great interest in the proceedings throughout, strolled away with an earnest and thoughtful air, reappearing, a few minutes afterwards, with a dead water-rat in his mouth, which he evidently wished to present as his contribution to the dinner; whether in a sarcastic spirit, or with a genuine desire to assist, I cannot say.

A cat couldn’t do that, add that final comic touch. Any sensible cat would have sloped off long ago to the warm lap of a homely lady happy to stroke and feed it fishy titbits all day. A dog sticks it out through thick and thin, no matter how incompetent his master(s). Mind you, Montmorency is not quite the tail-wagging, faithful hound some people make out.

When first he came to live at my expense, I never thought I should be able to get him to stop long. I used to sit down and look at him, as he sat on the rug and looked up at me, and think: ‘Oh, that dog will never live. He will be snatched up to the bright skies in a chariot, that is what will happen to him.’

But, when I had paid for about a dozen chickens that he had killed; and had dragged him, growling and kicking, by the scruff of his neck, out of a hundred and fourteen street fights; and had had a dead cat brought round for my inspection by an irate female, who called me a murderer; and had been summoned by the man next door but one for having a ferocious dog at large, that had kept him pinned up in his own tool-shed, afraid to venture his nose outside the door for over two hours on a cold night; and had learned that the gardener, unknown to myself, had won thirty shillings by backing him to kill rats against time, then I began to think that maybe they’d let him remain on earth for a bit longer, after all.

To hang about a stable, and collect a gang of the most disreputable dogs to be found in the town, and lead them out to march round the slums to fight other disreputable dogs, is Montmorency’s idea of ‘life’.

And again:

Fox-terriers are born with about four times as much original sin in them as other dogs are, and it will take years and years of patient effort on the part of us Christians to bring about any appreciable reformation in the rowdiness of the fox-terrier nature.

And:

We spent two very pleasant days at Oxford. There are plenty of dogs in the town of Oxford. Montmorency had eleven fights on the first day, and fourteen on the second, and evidently thought he had got to heaven.

The dog is one more prompt for that amused exasperation which is the tone of the book throughout, that resigned tolerance of each other’s foibles (that’s to say inadequacies and incompetence), the cussed obstinacy of the universe, the stupidity of other river users, with the dog thrown in as an additional element of chaos and frustration.

Montmorency’s ambition in life is to get in the way and be sworn at. If he can squirm in anywhere where he particularly is not wanted, and be a perfect nuisance, and make people mad, and have things thrown at his head, then he feels his day has not been wasted.

To get somebody to stumble over him, and curse him steadily for an hour, is his highest aim and object; and, when he has succeeded in accomplishing this, his conceit becomes quite unbearable.

He came and sat down on things, just when they were wanted to be packed; and he laboured under the fixed belief that, whenever Harris or George reached out their hand for anything, it was his cold, damp nose that they wanted. He put his leg into the jam, and he worried the teaspoons, and he pretended that the lemons were rats, and got into the hamper and killed three of them before Harris could land him with the frying-pan.

Harris said I encouraged him. I didn’t encourage him. A dog like that don’t want any encouragement. It’s the natural, original sin that is born in him that makes him do things like that.

Montmorency helping to untangle the tow line

The dog speaks, by the way. It is given a variety of opinions and several passages of dialogue, once with the cat in Marlow High Street, once when it challenges the kettle to a fight. And it’s not the only normally non-speaking entity to be attributed agency. I was particularly taken with the story of his earliest attempt to sail a boat in which he and his friend struggled to even erect the mast and then managed to get themselves completely tangled up in the sail.

The impression on the mind of the sail seemed to be that we were playing at funerals, and that I was the corpse and itself was the winding-sheet. When it found that this was not the idea, it hit me over the head with the boom, and refused to do anything.

Digressions

Three Men In A Boat in a sense consists almost entirely of digressions. It’s as if, having laid out the narrative of what actually happened in its logical order, Jerome then pondered how he could exaggerate every single incident into the most preposterous comic riff possible.

He has a fantastic comic conceit, i.e. the ability to take a simple idea and develop it into a preposterous and fantastical series of exaggerations. Thus when they’re discussing what food to take, they all solemnly agree no cheese, which prompts J to launch a fairly straightforward joke about the way cheese is very smelly.

For lunch, he said, we could have biscuits, cold meat, bread and butter, and jam—but no cheese. Cheese, like oil, makes too much of itself. It wants the whole boat to itself. It goes through the hamper, and gives a cheesy flavour to everything else there. You can’t tell whether you are eating apple-pie or German sausage, or strawberries and cream. It all seems cheese. There is too much odour about cheese.

But this is only the beginning: mention of cheese leads the narrator to remember the time a friend bought some cheeses in Liverpool –

I remember a friend of mine, buying a couple of cheeses at Liverpool. Splendid cheeses they were, ripe and mellow, and with a two hundred horse-power scent about them that might have been warranted to carry three miles, and knock a man over at two hundred yards.

– a story which becomes steadily more inflated and preposterous over the next four pages, as the cheese proceeds to alienate all the passengers in the train back to London, his cab driver who collects him at the station. The wife of the man he transported it for announces she is moving out of her house (and taking the children) until the cheeses are removed, and then the story develops a surreal, almost horror story persistence as the narrator tries dumping the cheeses in a nearby canal only for the barge drivers to insist the smell is making them ill and that he trawls them back up; he next sneaks them into a mortuary, but the coroner complains that he is trying to wake the dead, and the entire, by this stage surreal and absurd fantasy, only comes to an end when he takes them all the way to the coast and buries them deep in the sand, although people can still smell their strong whiff, but (comically) attribute it to ‘bracing’ sea air.

So it’s: 1. a book of wonderful comic digressions, a kind of unscholarly, more mundane version of Tristram Shandy – but also 2. it struck me how extended these digressions are; he rarely stops a comic conceit after a sentence or two when he can carry it on for as many paragraphs as possible.

Look at the four paragraphs about Montmorency’s character quoted above. Jerome could have stopped after the first paragraph, he’s made his point, it’s very funny. But he presses on for another three paragraphs, milking the notion of Montmorency being a serious hindrance to anyone trying to pack a bag to the absolute max.

Or take the extended sequence about the utter rubbishness of weather forecasts which I quoted above. That’s only the beginning. The weather riff then goes on for twice as much again, leading into a prolonged passage about the barometer in a hotel in Oxford which obstinately pointed to ‘Dry weather’ while it was raining so hard the lower part of the town was flooded.

Probably the book’s central quality is the ability of these digressions to take a comic ball and run with it for a really extended period of time, never dropping it, but blowing the original comic balloon up to the size of a zeppelin.

The fantastical

This raises a third point, which is the tendency of many of the jokes to cross a border from the realistic  to the ridiculous and then continue on into the positively fantastical. Many if not most of J’s extended anecdotes have this quality of exorbitancy, meaning: ‘exceeding the bounds of custom, propriety, or reason’.

I realised this during the account of their inability to find the right platform at Waterloo for the train to Kingston. At first it is realistic, in the sense that big train stations often are chaotic. Then it becomes enjoyably farcical as porters, officials and even the station master give completely contradictory advice. But then it crosses a borderline from exaggeration into outright fantasy when they find a train driver who’ll take them wherever they want to go for half a crown, so they pay up and this man drives his train to Kingston, without telling the station authorities or any of the passengers aboard apart from our chums.

So we went to the high-level platform, and saw the engine-driver, and asked him if he was going to Kingston. He said he couldn’t say for certain of course, but that he rather thought he was. Anyhow, if he wasn’t the 11.5 for Kingston, he said he was pretty confident he was the 9.32 for Virginia Water, or the 10 a.m. express for the Isle of Wight, or somewhere in that direction, and we should all know when we got there. We slipped half-a-crown into his hand, and begged him to be the 11.5 for Kingston. ‘Nobody will ever know, on this line,’ we said, ‘what you are, or where you’re going. You know the way, you slip off quietly and go to Kingston.’

‘Well, I don’t know, gents,’ replied the noble fellow, ‘but I suppose some train’s got to go to Kingston; and I’ll do it. Gimme the half-crown.”

By this point it’s become as fantastical as a children’s story. You feel it’s only a small hop and skip and a jump from here to the Hogwarts Express. And then the punchline:

We learnt, afterwards, that the train we had come by was really the Exeter mail, and that they had spent hours at Waterloo looking for it and nobody knew what had become of it.

The book is generally described as a heart-warming story of a trio of chaps messing about in a boat. This element of fantastical exaggeration is surprisingly under-reported.

And excess. Here is the narrator descanting at length about the types of people who insist on fencing or chaining off their little bits of the Thames waterfront, or erecting officious noticeboards:

The sight of those notice-boards rouses every evil instinct in my nature. I feel I want to tear each one down, and hammer it over the head of the man who put it up, until I have killed him, and then I would bury him, and put the board up over the grave as a tombstone.

I mentioned these feelings of mine to Harris, and he said he had them worse than that. He said he not only felt he wanted to kill the man who caused the board to be put up, but that he should like to slaughter the whole of his family and all his friends and relations, and then burn down his house. This seemed to me to be going too far, and I said so to Harris; but he answered:

‘Not a bit of it. Serve ’em all jolly well right, and I’d go and sing comic songs on the ruins.’

People associate the book with mellow nostalgia, but I hope I’m showing that it’s quite a lot more extreme and disruptive than that suggests. There’s a surprising amount of this comic excess, talk of murdering and strangling and burning and trampling and so on.

There’s a good microcosm of the process in chapter 12 where in just a few sentences you can follow the thought process going from reasonable to exaggerated to manic.

Maidenhead itself is too snobby to be pleasant. It is the haunt of the river swell and his overdressed female companion. It is the town of showy hotels, patronised chiefly by dudes and ballet girls. It is the witch’s kitchen from which go forth those demons of the river—steam-launches!

(The more I read, the more I realised Jerome isn’t dealing in jokes; he writes entire comic sketches. Although he doesn’t do the deliberate surrealism, the way he carries a comic conceit from the funny onto the exaggerated and then to outlandish conclusions reminds me a bit of Monty Python. It is no surprise to learn that he started his career in the arts, in the theatre, as an actor, and wrote a dozen or so plays alongside his career as a prose writer and magazine editor.)

Purple prose and historical fantasias

This brings us to the last aspect of the book worth noting which is the continual advent, in between the extended comic digressions, of passages of over-ripe purple prose. This comes in two flavours: 1. soppy rustic idylls about nature and 2. historical fantasias when the author presents sub-Walter Scott descriptions of the passage of Good Queen Bess or some such historical personage through whatever historic old town or castle they’re boating past.

The many over-ripe nature passages are clearly written with his tongue firmly in his cheek:

The red sunset threw a mystic light upon the waters, and tinged with fire the towering woods, and made a golden glory of the piled-up clouds. It was an hour of deep enchantment, of ecstatic hope and longing. The little sail stood out against the purple sky, the gloaming lay around us, wrapping the world in rainbow shadows; and, behind us, crept the night.

We seemed like knights of some old legend, sailing across some mystic lake into the unknown realm of twilight, unto the great land of the sunset.

And are nearly always the prelude to an almighty thump of bathos. In this case J experiences this great communing with Nature at its most spiritual just before he steers their boat into a punt full of anglers who proceed to curse and excoriate them in extensive and colourful terms. So the purple passages are, at bottom, another type of joke, a variation on the idea of the extended comic passage.

Although some of them are maybe just meant to be happy, light and evocative, slightly tongue in cheek, but also capturing the beauty of unspoilt countrside.

Down to Cookham, past the Quarry Woods and the meadows, is a lovely reach. Dear old Quarry Woods! with your narrow, climbing paths, and little winding glades, how scented to this hour you seem with memories of sunny summer days! How haunted are your shadowy vistas with the ghosts of laughing faces! how from your whispering leaves there softly fall the voices of long ago!

Like P.G. Wodehouse a couple of generations later, the over-egging of these descriptions is part of their knowing, light, good humour.

2. A good example of his historical fantasias is when the trio reach Runnymede and J gives an extended imagining of Bad King John being forced to meet his rebellious Barons and taken on a barge to the island where he is obliged to sign the historic Magna Carta, all visions of bluff, manly, hearts-of-oak Englishmen.

the heart of King John sinks before the stern faces of the English fighting men, and the arm of King John drops back on to his rein, and he dismounts and takes his seat in the foremost barge. And the Barons follow in, with each mailed hand upon the sword-hilt, and the word is given to let go.

Slowly the heavy, bright-decked barges leave the shore of Runningmede. Slowly against the swift current they work their ponderous way, till, with a low grumble, they grate against the bank of the little island that from this day will bear the name of Magna Charta Island. And King John has stepped upon the shore, and we wait in breathless silence till a great shout cleaves the air, and the great cornerstone in England’s temple of liberty has, now we know, been firmly laid.

Many critics have objected to these passages as disrupting the flow of what they think of as a comic novel and feel ought to remain strictly in character as a Comic Novel. But I have already shown that the text is not as straightforwardly humorous as people think. To my mind both the rural visions and the historical fantasias are natural extensions of Jerome’s tendency to really extended comic fantasy. They are another type of tall tale. They share, along with the comic passages, the tendency to exorbitance, to overstep the bounds of ‘realism’ into fantasy.

Many critics have come down hard on these passages but, personally, I found them amusing and entertaining diversions, a relief from the need to be laughing all the time, so they added to the variety and pacing the text.

Also they have the charm of their time. It’s not as if we, nowadays, in 2021, get to read very much high-minded Victorian patriotic history. Modern historians are devoted to debunking the past and showing what a sexist, racist, slave-ridden society Britain has always been. It’s as pleasant to slip into Jerome’s manly, patriotic visions of English history as it is to pretend, for the duration of the reading, that one is a late-Victorian young buck messing about on the river.

Mock heroic

The mock heroic as a literary genre consists of:

satires or parodies that mock Classical stereotypes of heroes and heroic literature. Typically, mock-heroic works either put a fool in the role of the hero or exaggerate the heroic qualities to such a point that they become absurd.

Obviously Three Men In A Boat isn’t a mock heroic work in this sense but, like much comedy, it uses mock heroic techniques. All I mean by this is two things:

1. As an extension of his habit of slipping into extended historical fantasies, Jerome also slips, often in the space of a sentence, into humorously comparing one or other of his companions or the dog, to heroic historical counterparts; as when Montmorency sees a cat in Marlow High Street:

We were, as I have said, returning from a dip, and half-way up the High Street a cat darted out from one of the houses in front of us, and began to trot across the road. Montmorency gave a cry of joy—the cry of a stern warrior who sees his enemy given over to his hands—the sort of cry Cromwell might have uttered when the Scots came down the hill—and flew after his prey.

He doesn’t say which of Cromwell’s battles he’s referring to, maybe to Cromwell’s decisive victory over them at the battle of Worcester in 1651. But the point is the humour in the vast dysjunction between a dog spying a cat in a road and one of the great battles of British history.

2. My other point is more specifically lexical, meaning specifically about language, and more specifically than that, about quotes. Like many comic authors before and after him, Jerome creates a comic effect by juxtaposing descriptions of his clumsy mates and their scrappy dog with solemn and portentous quotes, the more solemn and portentous the funnier the effect, and what language is more solemn and portentous than quotes from those twin peaks of the English language, Shakespeare and the Bible?

Thus he ends a comic passage about his school days and the unfairness of the way the only boy in his class who loved schoolwork was always ill and off school, whereas J and his mates, who hated schoolwork, always showed disgusting good health no matter how hard they tried to get ill and get days off school – he ends this passage with a mockingly solemn aphorism from the Bible:

Such is life; and we are but as grass that is cut down, and put into the oven…

Although the naughty schoolboy in him can’t help adding a comic and demotic phrase to the end of this quote:

Such is life; and we are but as grass that is cut down, and put into the oven and baked.

You can almost imagine J or one of his friends solemnly intoning these phrases in the persona of a dreary vicar, delivering a wise and learned mock sermon on the subject of Harris falling into a stream or George driven mad with frustration at having a tin of juicy pineapple but no can opener to open it with.

(Compare and contrast with the use of Biblical quotes and phraseology by Jerome’s contemporary, Rudyard Kipling, who was saturated in the Bible, its phrases and rhythms, and aspired to, and sometimes matched, the solemnity of the original, as in Recessional.)

So much for comically inappropriate use of Biblical phraseology, as to Shakespeare, comic characters for centuries have used tags from the Bard out of context in order to heighten a comic moment. Thus when George forgets to wind his watch and wakes in the early hours to see, with panic, that it is a quarter past eight and he needs to be at the office by nine, his response is to repeat in comic mode an exclamation from Hamlet, tragically intense in its original context, but long since watered down to become a comic expostulation:

‘Angels and ministers of grace defend us!’ exclaimed George; ‘and here have I got to be in the City by nine.’

3. As I wrote this I realised that alongside the mock heroic presence of these two reliable old warhorses, the Bible and Shakespeare, in the text, there is a notable absence: there are no Latin tags. Jerome had a surprisingly harsh upbringing in the East End, attending a day school, unlike most of the authors and critics of the time, who enjoyed the blessings of a preparatory school followed by public school followed by Oxford or Cambridge, all of which of course, soaked them in the Classics and explains why later Victorian literature is littered with Latin tags which ‘everyone’ was supposed to understand.

Not so Jerome. The absence of Latin is one of the subtle indicators of the slightly lower class vibe of the text which contemporary critics picked up on and criticised (see section on Demotics, below).

The narrator as raconteur

This wide range of comic effects is possible because the narrator early on establishes his persona as a raconteur, a story-teller and memoirist, which allows him very casually to introduce as many memories and incidents and anecdotes as he wants. The narrator’s tone and voice immediately create a very relaxed, flexible and roomy atmosphere. It’s indicated by the number of passages or sequences which overtly begin as memories and tales:

  • I remember going to the British Museum one day to read up the treatment for some slight ailment of which I had a touch—hay fever, I fancy it was…
  • I remember my brother-in-law going for a short sea trip once…
  • Another fellow I knew went for a week’s voyage round the coast, and, before they started, the steward came to him to ask whether he would pay for each meal as he had it, or arrange beforehand for the whole series…
  • He always reminds me of my poor Uncle Podger…
  • I remember a friend of mine, buying a couple of cheeses at Liverpool…
  • I lived with a man once who used to make me mad that way. He would loll on the sofa and watch me doing things by the hour together…
  • I remember a holiday of mine being completely ruined one late autumn by our paying attention to the weather report of the local newspaper…
  • There was a boy at our school, we used to call him Sandford and Merton…
  • It was my misfortune once to go for a water picnic with two ladies of this kind [fussed about their dresses]. We did have a lively time…
  • One golden morning of a sunny day, I leant against the low stone wall that guarded a little village church, and I smoked, and drank in deep, calm gladness from the sweet, restful scene…
  • Speaking of comic songs and parties, reminds me of a rather curious incident at which I once assisted…
  • I remember being terribly upset once up the river (in a figurative sense, I mean). I was out with a young lady—cousin on my mother’s side…
  • I remember going up once from Staines to Windsor—a stretch of water peculiarly rich in these mechanical monstrosities—with a party containing three ladies of this description…
  • I knew a young fellow once, who was studying to play the bagpipes…
  • I was one of a party who hired an up-river boat one summer, for a few days’ trip….

Some highlights

Passages that stood out for me included:

  • the time Harris not only got lost in the Hampton Court Maze but persuaded a whole load of other people to follow him until they were all lost
  • the time J took some young ladies dressed in the latest fashion for a boat trip and the comedy of their things getting wet and dirty
  • the comic passage about the time he was having a soulful moment in a graveyard which was interrupted by an interfering old man who wanted to show him all the tombs and monuments
  • the extended description of Harris making a complete fool of himself trying to sing a comic song after a dinner party
  • the comic anecdote of the German professor who sang a tragic song about a dying maiden but who two mischievous German students had told the foreign audience was actually a cheerfully comic song so that the foreigners guffawed and tittered all the way through, rendering the professor speechless with anger
  • the notion that the kettle can hear you expressing a wish for tea and so deliberately refuses to boil, so the best thing is to talk loudly about how the last thing you want is tea, then the perishing thing will boil, alright!
  • how, back in good King Henry’s day, the innocent day tripper couldn’t go anywhere without bumping into the bloody king and Ann Boleyn on one of their many snogging trips
  • the procession of our heroes down Marlow High Street after a shopping expedition for food and drink, accompanied by the ‘boys’ of almost every shop in the town, plus random urchins and various stray dogs

by the time we had finished, we had as fine a collection of boys with baskets following us around as heart could desire; and our final march down the middle of the High Street, to the river, must have been as imposing a spectacle as Marlow had seen for many a long day.

Jerome’s demotic tone

Nothing excuses violence of language and coarseness of expression…

Contemporary critics, upper-middle class to a man, tutted about Jerome’s slangy expressions and disapproved of the lower-middle-class character of the protagonists. They disliked their levity, their lack of respect for their elders and betters and authority figures of all types. Nothing is taken seriously, everything is debunked. Education.

I don’t understand German myself. I learned it at school, but forgot every word of it two years after I had left, and have felt much better ever since.

Or the high minded activities of worthy philanthropists.

In the church is a memorial to Mrs. Sarah Hill, who bequeathed 1 pound annually, to be divided at Easter, between two boys and two girls who ‘have never been undutiful to their parents; who have never been known to swear or to tell untruths, to steal, or to break windows.’ Fancy giving up all that for five shillings a year! It is not worth it.

Even the modern reader can, I think, detect moments when Jerome seems to be deliberately using slang expressions for effect:

  • She was nuts on public-houses, was England’s Virgin Queen.
  • For once in a way, we men are able to show our taste in colours, and I think we come out very natty, if you ask me.
  • We—George, Harris, and myself—took a ‘raw ’un’ up with us once last season, and we plied him with the customary stretchers about the wonderful things we had done all the way up. [where ‘stretchers’ seems to mean tall tales or whoppers]

The narrator has a habit of adding ‘like’ at the end of sentences, which is clearly non-orthodox and deliberately put in to make the tone just that bit East End.

  • Neither the beef nor the strawberries and cream seemed happy, either—seemed discontented like.
  • We had had a sail—a good all-round exciting, interesting sail—and now we thought we would have a row, just for a change like.

Equally non-U is the way the tone of many of the passages is surprisingly immoderate.

I never see a steam launch but I feel I should like to lure it to a lonely part of the river, and there, in the silence and the solitude, strangle it.

Take the extended passage about the wretched people who put up loud signs warning boaters from mooring on their river frontages which I quoted above, in which J tells us he’d like to burn down their houses and Harris declares he’d like to slaughter their entire families and sing comic songs on the ruins!

In addition to humorously contemplating murder and arson, the narrator cheerfully confesses to having, as a boy, been a thief, pure and simple:

Having acquired a taste for the water, I did a good deal of rafting in various suburban brickfields—an exercise providing more interest and excitement than might be imagined, especially when you are in the middle of the pond and the proprietor of the materials of which the raft is constructed suddenly appears on the bank, with a big stick in his hand.

And appears to recommend stealing a boat in the here and now:

To those who do contemplate making Oxford their starting-place, I would say, take your own boat—unless, of course, you can take someone else’s without any possible danger of being found out.

And the text contains a number of incitements to actual vandalism, which I can well imagine the property-owning classes and all right-minded critics sharply disapproving of.

Of course the entrance [to the Wargrave cut off the Thames] is studded with posts and chains, and surrounded with notice boards, menacing all kinds of torture, imprisonment, and death to everyone who dares set scull upon its waters—I wonder some of these riparian boors don’t claim the air of the river and threaten everyone with forty shillings fine who breathes it—but the posts and chains a little skill will easily avoid; and as for the boards, you might, if you have five minutes to spare, and there is nobody about, take one or two of them down and throw them into the river.

The three chaps come over as fairly middle class with their ‘drats’ and ‘dashes’ and ‘come on old chap’s so I was surprised when J admits a more working class accent in his circle. He describes going boating with a lady friend and how much it changed her temper for the worst. But it was her accent which surprised me.

‘Oh, drat the man!’ she would exclaim, when some unfortunate sculler would get in her way; ‘why don’t he look where he’s going?’

And it’s a telling detail that J doesn’t like Maidenhead because it is ‘too snobby’ and la-di-dah:

The London Journal duke always has his ‘little place’ at Maidenhead; and the heroine of the three-volume novel always dines there when she goes out on the spree with somebody else’s husband.

To summarise: it’s not as posh as it seems. In fact it’s odd to think a book so entirely associated with Hooray Henries dressed in boaters and blazers, hiring punts and hampers and recreating what they considered to be the book’s ineffably upper class and joshing tone, was ever criticised for its lower class attitude

It is just a comedy, but it’s a good deal more rough, anti-social and subversive than most people remember.

It is an ancient place, Streatley, dating back, like most river-side towns and villages, to British and Saxon times. Goring is not nearly so pretty a little spot to stop at as Streatley, if you have your choice; but it is passing fair enough in its way, and is nearer the railway in case you want to slip off without paying your hotel bill.

What he thought of the nineteenth century

  • some quaint-perched eyrie on the cliffs of Time, from whence the surging waves of the nineteenth century would sound far-off and faint.
  • The sun had got more powerful by the time we had finished breakfast, and the wind had dropped, and it was as lovely a morning as one could desire. Little was in sight to remind us of the nineteenth century.
  • I like to watch an old boatman rowing, especially one who has been hired by the hour. There is something so beautifully calm and restful about his method. It is so free from that fretful haste, that vehement striving, that is every day becoming more and more the bane of nineteenth-century life.
  • Mr. W. Lee—five times Mayor of Abingdon—was, no doubt, a benefactor to his generation, but I hope there are not many of his kind about in this overcrowded nineteenth century.

A purple patch about the river Thames

The river—with the sunlight flashing from its dancing wavelets, gilding gold the grey-green beech-trunks, glinting through the dark, cool wood paths, chasing shadows o’er the shallows, flinging diamonds from the mill-wheels, throwing kisses to the lilies, wantoning with the weirs’ white waters, silvering moss-grown walls and bridges, brightening every tiny townlet, making sweet each lane and meadow, lying tangled in the rushes, peeping, laughing, from each inlet, gleaming gay on many a far sail, making soft the air with glory—is a golden fairy stream.

But the river—chill and weary, with the ceaseless rain-drops falling on its brown and sluggish waters, with a sound as of a woman, weeping low in some dark chamber; while the woods, all dark and silent, shrouded in their mists of vapour, stand like ghosts upon the margin; silent ghosts with eyes reproachful, like the ghosts of evil actions, like the ghosts of friends neglected—is a spirit-haunted water through the land of vain regrets.

He’s fallen in the water

In chapter 13 they moor in a grassy spot for lunch. Harris makes himself comfortable on the loose edge of a little stream, starts to carve the appetising steak pie they’ve brought with them but, before anyone can do anything, the earth gives way and he falls into the stream, emerging moments later from amid the reeds muddy, wet and cross. The steak pie isn’t too happy, either.

The incident itself is fairly funny, but two things make it Jeromian. One is that Harris doesn’t just fall in the water, he vanishes! One minute he’s there, something distracts the other two for a second or so and, when they turn back, Harris has vanished leaving them utterly bewildered! For a moment they are thunderstruck… until they hear a wet groaning coming from the reeds. The book is full of moment like this, not just a bit funny, but extreme, like theatrical coups de grace, like a kind of verbal special effect, which stuns author and reader alike.

The second element is the cod Biblical, mockingly philosophical tone of the narrator as he describes the scene, a tone which marinates the entire book, by assuming a high-falutin’ tone in effect mocking all things earnest and pompous, mocking teachers and vicars and property owners and stationmasters and sextons, mocking Great Writers and Lofty Sentiments; contrasting the Timeless Wisdom of the Books of Books and the Immortal Spirit of Nature with the clumsy reality of three hapless young chaps who keep falling in the water and endlessly fighting.

Harris believes to this day that George and I planned it all beforehand. Thus does unjust suspicion follow even the most blameless for, as the poet says, ‘Who shall escape calumny?’ Who, indeed!

Shakespeare, again.


Related links

Related reviews

The Diary of A Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith (1892)

NOVEMBER 19,  Sunday. I don’t pretend to be able to express myself in fine language, but I feel I have the power of expressing my thoughts with simplicity and lucidness.
(from the diary of Charles Pooter)

It helps if you know that the diary’s authors, George and Weedon Grossmith, were both entertainers. George, or ‘Gee Gee’ as he liked to be known, was born in 1847, began his career as a singer and entertainer in 1870 and went on to work closely with Gilbert and Sullivan, being the first performer and ‘creator’ of many of their chief parts at the Savoy Theatre, from 1877 onwards. Gee Gee became a prolific writer of comic sketches and songs. Leaving the Savoy in 1889, he toured Britain and America as an entertainer and singer till 1901 and his autobiography was titled Reminiscences of a Clown.

Weedon Grossmith was George’s younger brother, born in 1854. At first he trained as an artist at the Slade, and exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery and the Royal Academy. But art didn’t work out and he, too, succumbed to the lure of the theatre, joining a drama company in 1885 and touring the provinces and America. Weedon wrote a novel and a series of plays, and managed Terry’s theatre in London for over a decade, appearing in numerous roles, until 1917.

The point being, then, that the brothers were extremely well practiced in writing and performing comedy when they were approached by the editor of Punch magazine in 1888 to write a satirical skit about the humdrum life of a pompous, lower-middle-class ‘nobody’.

The whole thing was intended as a satire on the recent flurry of eminent ‘somebodies’ in the worlds of politics and the arts publishing autobiographies and diaries – why not the diary of someone of absolutely no significance whatsoever?

And thus was born the character of Charles Pooter, well-meaning but rather stuffy, priggish, married father of one, clerk in a stuffy, old-fashioned firm in the City, who tries to lead a dignified and respectable life but who fate is constantly twitting and undermining – in the form of a temperamental servant, a layabout son, numerous uppity tradesmen, unreliable friends and the sniggering mockery of the younger clerks at his work.

The first episode of the fictional diary was published in Punch magazine in May 1888 and it then ran for 26 fortnightly instalments until May 1889. At that point the text didn’t have illustrations and the story ended with an entry for 21 May, when Charles’s disrespectful, good-for-nothing son, Lupin, finally secures a job at Charles’s own firm, Perkupps.

However, when the text was prepared for publication in book form in 1892, the authors added a further four months’ entries to the text, and 26 illustrations by Weedon Grossmith. These are amiable pen and ink sketches typical for the time, none of them masterpieces, but they have a significant impact on the text, vividly bringing the characters to life and introducing a form of visual punctuation which makes you dwell a fraction longer on scenes and moments, letting them sink in.

APRIL 30 — I seized her round the waist, and we were silly enough to be executing a wild kind of polka when Sarah entered, grinning, and said: “There is a man, mum, at the door who wants to know if you want any good coals.”

Plot overview

Charles Pooter is a clerk in Perkupps, a firm in the City of London. He is happily married to Caroline or ‘Carrie’, as he affectionately calls her. He has two male friends, Gowing and Cummings, who pop round to see him most evenings, for a chats or a game of dominoes. The diary opens on 3 April, a week after Charles and Carries have moved into a new house:

‘The Laurels’, Brickfield Terrace, Holloway—a nice six-roomed residence, not counting basement, with a front breakfast-parlour. We have a little front garden; and there is a flight of ten steps up to the front door, which, by-the-by, we keep locked with the chain up. Cummings, Gowing, and our other intimate friends always come to the little side entrance, which saves the servant the trouble of going up to the front door, thereby taking her from her work. We have a nice little back garden which runs down to the railway. We were rather afraid of the noise of the trains at first, but the landlord said we should not notice them after a bit, and took £2 off the rent. He was certainly right; and beyond the cracking of the garden wall at the bottom, we have suffered no inconvenience.

This opening paragraph sets the tone. Unlike much Victorian writing, it is concise. With precision it not only describes the kind of suburban house in question, but immediately conveys the tone of fussing over details and concern over money which are such a large part of Charles Pooter’s existence.

The opening also conveys the Pooters’ social situation to a t. Having a house and a servant doubtless makes Charles and Carrie just about lower-middle class, but the detail of the railway roaring along the bottom of the garden every few minutes, so fiercely that it has cracked the garden wall, conveys just how precarious their achievement is. And the fussing and fretting about Sarah the servant which runs through the entire book shows the Pooters completely lack the money or savoir faire of the true middle classes.

Theirs is a world of continual small failures and petty humiliations which they are always trying to look on the bright side of. Charles is continually ripping his trousers or wearing ones which are too short or the wrong kinds of boots. The junior clerks at his work take the mickey out of him and throw scrunched-up paper balls at him or mutter nicknames as he walks past, such as ‘Hornpipe’ when he happens to be wearing trousers tight at the knee though loose over the boots, like a sailor.

Charles is thrilled when he is invited to the Mayor’s annual ball then deflated when he realises everyone else in his office has been invited, too, and further demoralised when he finds that the rude and incompetent ironmonger he’s paid to remove the scraper from outside the front door of The Laurels, is also there and boozily treats Charles – to his chagrin – as a social equal.

Charles is a well-meaning man entirely trapped in the prison of his own personality. He gives us quite a few examples of ripping jokes he makes which no-one else gets or thinks are as funny as he does. He reports his best friends, Gowing and Cummings, as casually putting him down about his sense of humour. In a hundred and one ways the diary cleverly reveals the discrepancy between how we see ourselves, how we experience our own lives and thoughts and ideas – and how other people perceive us, which, we can be confident, is with a lot less sympathy and understanding than we perceive ourselves. In fact, most of the time, it is with complete indifference occasionally interspersed with casual mockery.

Thus although all the book’s many incidents are funny to read about, it’s hard to avoid the underlying sadness of the thing. The comedy is mixed with poignancy at Charles’s entrapment within his own narrow life, values and hopes. The thoughtful reader might reflect that this is true of all of us; we think our hard work is acknowledged, we have a fine reputation, our friends talk about us with respect, and our jokes set the table on a roar. But what if none of these things are true? What if we have a reputation at work for being slow and getting things wrong; if our friends laugh at us behind our back; if our sense of humour is notorious for being laboured and obvious?

Charles thinks he is standing on his dignity when his name is omitted from the comprehensive list of all the guests who attended the Mansion House Ball which is given in the Blackfriars Bi-weekly News. But when he writes to complain, he is mortified to have his name included but mispelt in the addendum, as Mrs and Mrs Porter. When he writes for a third time, the journalists begin to take the mickey of this self-important little man.

May 16.—Absolutely disgusted on opening the Blackfriars Bi-weekly News of to-day, to find the following paragraph: ‘We have received two letters from Mr. and Mrs. Charles Pewter, requesting us to announce the important fact that they were at the Mansion House Ball.’ I tore up the paper and threw it in the waste-paper basket. My time is far too valuable to bother about such trifles.

It is not only his mortification, but his immediate justification to himself that he is ‘above’ such trifles, when it is he himself who has insisted on the importance of such trifles. The text constantly hovers on this borderline, laughing with Charles, then at him, then with him again.

May 25.—Carrie brought down some of my shirts and advised me to take them to Trillip’s round the corner. She said: ‘The fronts and cuffs are much frayed.’ I said without a moment’s hesitation: ‘I’m ’frayed they are.’ Lor! how we roared. I thought we should never stop laughing. As I happened to be sitting next the driver going to town on the ’bus, I told him my joke about the ‘frayed’ shirts. I thought he would have rolled off his seat. They laughed at the office a good bit too over it.

May 26.—Left the shirts to be repaired at Trillip’s. I said to him: ‘I’m ’fraid they are frayed.’ He said, without a smile: ‘They’re bound to do that, sir.’ Some people seem to be quite destitute of a sense of humour.

It’s a little like the comedy of the TV series The Office. The protagonist is painfully assured of his own point of view, his own wisdom, wit and good sense; while almost everything he says and does, and the responses of pretty much everyone else in the narrative, undermine this perspective. The humour is mixed with sympathy and poignancy and something occasionally like pity.

Charles is the butt of jokes between even his supposed ‘best friends’ Cummings and Gowing, none of the tradesmen he deals with take him seriously or show him any respect, the junior clerks at his workplace mutter nicknames as he walks past, his attempts at dignity are continually being undercut.

Charles and Carrie’s annual holiday goes predictably wrong when the landlady of the boarding house in Broadstairs which they always go to, initially confirms their places but then at the last minute announces she is fully booked. It is funny but also sad when he reveals that the rooms they eventually have to take with another landlady are near the station, which is fine, just fine, perfectly fine, because rooms on the cliffs would have been so much more expensive, anyway. Charles is continually justifying and looking on the bright side of the penny-pinching, scraping by, making do and mend that his limited income forces him to.

August 13.—Hurrah! at Broadstairs. Very nice apartments near the station. On the cliffs they would have been double the price. The landlady had a nice five o’clock dinner and tea ready, which we all enjoyed, though Lupin seemed fastidious because there happened to be a fly in the butter. It was very wet in the evening, for which I was thankful, as it was a good excuse for going to bed early.

The cheap rooms, the fly in the butter, the heavy rain on his holiday: he tries to rise above all the petty vexations of his little life. In fact it rains throughout their holiday week but Charles is determined to look on the bright side, despite his own son refusing to be seen with him wearing the ridiculous new straw hat he had made specially for the holiday.

‘August 16.—Lupin positively refused to walk down the Parade with me because I was wearing my new straw helmet with my frock-coat. I don’t know what the boy is coming to.’

His greatest humiliation is when he attends the Lord Mayor’s ball and tries to please Carrie by whisking her out onto the dancefloor but, because he is wearing new shoes, slips on the polished floor and falls heavily, banging his head nastily, pulling Carrie down with him, in front of everyone. Hard to live that one down.

But there are plenty of other humiliations, large and small. After church one Sunday he is flattered to be approached by ‘Mrs. Fernlosse, who is quite a grand lady, living in one of those large houses in the Camden Road’ and she is just about to start talking to him when a gust of wind blows his hat off and into the middle of the road, where he has to scamper about like an idiot to retrieve it only to turn and discover…. Mrs Fernlosse has moved on to chat to some of her swell friends.

It was a very shrewd move to introduce Charles and Carrie’s son in chapter 6 while Charles and his tribulations were still fresh i.e. before we’d got bored with his little escapades. The pacing bespeaks two authors who between them had written countless sketches and stage shows. Before Charles and Carrie’s little world has a chance to flag, the arrival of Pooter Junior introduces a whole new realm of comic possibilities for he is a son who blithely ignores all Charles’s advice, orders and attempts to stand on his dignity, as casually as his friends and tradesmen have been shown to.

The son has been christened William but much prefers his larky middle name, Lupin. He is 20 years old and had been working at a bank in Oldham but ‘got the chuck’ and has come back to live with his parents. Right from the start he demonstrates a breezy indifference to Charles’s well-meaning but stuffy rules and advice, stays out late with his mates, gets drunk, only gets up after lunch, is reluctant to get another job. Charles conscientiously writes a succession of letters to prospective employers and the steady stream of rejections becomes a comic leitmotiv of the second quarter of the book.

Things move on apace when Chapter 8 introduces us to the fact that Lupin has fallen in love and proposed to a young woman named Daisy Mutlar. Inevitably, when they finally meet the young lady, both Charles and Carrie think she is not quite right for Lupin:

We asked them in for a few minutes, and I had a good look at my future daughter-in-law. My heart quite sank. She is a big young woman, and I should think at least eight years older than Lupin. I did not even think her good-looking.

But, just as inevitably, Charles tries to put a brave face on it.

NOVEMBER 3. Lupin said: ‘I’m engaged to be married!’

From my description you might have thought Charles and Carrie’s lives would be dull and boring but in fact they have a surprising number of parties and get-togethers, albeit in a rather straitened, Victorian way.

Because Charles is always standing on his dignity, these ‘do’s’ involve no end of complications, resentments and bad feeling. Like when Lupin brings home his friend from the local amateur dramatic society he has joined, the Holloway Comedians, one Mr Burwin-Fosselton, who does a storming impersonation of the famous late Victorian actor, Mr Henry Irving. The evening is somewhat spoiled by the fact that Charles’s friend Gowing invites along a fat man named Padge, who insists on sitting in the best armchair all evening, and smoking a gross pipe.

‘NOVEMBER 23. The man Padge, who had got the best arm-chair, and was puffing away at a foul pipe into the fireplace.’

Or the extravagant engagement party Charles and Carrie hold for Lupin and Daisy where the guests scoff all the food and swill all the champagne so that when Charles’s boss arrives, coming late in the evening from another engagement, Charles is mortified not to be able to offer him anything, not even any soda water.

Charles is very clumsy. Take, for example, the time he visits Smirksons’, the drapers, in the Strand, who had created impressive displays of Christmas cards. He takes it upon himself to tell one of the shop assistants how careless the other customers were, when:

DECEMBER 20. The observation was scarcely out of my mouth, when my thick coat-sleeve caught against a large pile of expensive cards in boxes one on top of the other, and threw them down. The manager came forward, looking very much annoyed, and picking up several cards from the ground, said to one of the assistants, with a palpable side-glance at me: ‘Put these amongst the sixpenny goods; they can’t be sold for a shilling now.’ The result was, I felt it my duty to buy some of these damaged cards.

Or:

FEBRUARY 18. I was this morning trying to look at [my hair] by the aid of a small hand-glass, when somehow my elbow caught against the edge of the chest of drawers and knocked the glass out of my hand and smashed it. Carrie was in an awful way about it, as she is rather absurdly superstitious.

Or:

JULY 3, Sunday. In the afternoon, as I was looking out of the parlour window, which was open, a grand trap, driven by a lady, with a gentleman seated by the side of her, stopped at our door. Not wishing to be seen, I withdrew my head very quickly, knocking the back of it violently against the sharp edge of the window-sash. I was nearly stunned.

Clumsiness is connected to bathos, which is itself a kind of textual falling over, a stumble from the dignified to the comically clumsy. (Bathos is defined as a literary ‘effect of anticlimax created by an unintentional lapse in mood from the sublime to the trivial or ridiculous.’) Take the moment when (December 21) Charles tells Lupin not to take Daisy breaking up with him to heart, at which Lupin loses his temper with his interfering father:

He jumped up and said: ‘I won’t allow one word to be uttered against her. She’s worth the whole bunch of your friends put together, that inflated, sloping-head of a Perkupp included.’ I left the room with silent dignity, but caught my foot in the mat.

Or (March 21) after his boss, Mr Perkupp, has movingly paid tribute to Charles’s loyal, dogged character, on the bus home Charles feels like crying:

It was as much as I could do to prevent myself from crying in the ’bus; in fact, I should have done so, had my thoughts not been interrupted by Lupin, who was having a quarrel with a fat man in the ’bus, whom he accused of taking up too much room.

It is emblematic of the way Charles’s continual quest to have finer, more dignified feelings is continually undermined by the insensitive boorishness of the cut-price world around him.

Characters

Diary of a Nobody is generally taken as mocking the narrow, boring world of suburbia, which on one level it obviously is. But this doesn’t mean the narrative is restricted to a small number of people; quite the opposite. When you stop and count them there are far more characters in the book than you think:

  • Charles Pooter
  • Caroline ‘Carrie’ Pooter
  • William ‘Lupin’ Pooter
  • Sarah the servant
  • Mrs. Birrell the charwoman
  • Gowing, friend
  • Cummings, friend
  • Farmerson, the ironmonger
  • Horwin ‘a civil butcher with a nice clean shop’
  • Borset the butterman
  • the grocer’s boy
  • Mr. Putley, a painter and decorator
  • woman hired to make some chintz covers for our drawing-room chairs and sofa
  • ‘the little tailor’s round the corner’, presumably the same as Trillip’s round the corner which Carrie recommends to repair Charles’s shirts
  • Lockwood’s, a local store which sells ‘the Unsweetened’, some kind of spirit
  • the curate of the local church
  • Perkupp, Charles’s boss
  • Buckling, one of the senior clerks at Perkupp’s
  • Pitt, an impertinent junior clerk at Perkupp’s, aged just 17
  • Shoemach, friend of Gowing
  • Stillbrook, friend of Gowing and Cummings, accompanies them on the ill-fated walk to Hampstead, when Charles is refused admission to a pub which the others swan into
  • Merton, friend of Cummings, who is in the wine trade and promises to get him free tickets to the theatre which turn out to be anything but
  • Mr and Mrs James from Sutton, the wife being an old schoolfriend of Carrie’s
  • Mr. Willowly, manager of the Tank Theatre, Islington
  • Brickwell, friend of Charles’s who recommends the new Pinkford’s enamel paint
  • the Lord and Lady Mayoress
  • Franching, from Peckham, who Charles thinks he sees at the ball, then later invites round for tea, ‘a great swell in his way’
  • one of the sheriffs, in full Court costume
  • Darwitts, the gentleman who helps Carrie to a chair after she slips over at the Mayor’s ball
  • Brownish, the chemist
  • Miss Jibbons, makes Carrie’s dresses
  • Mrs. Beck, landlady of holiday apartments at Harbour View Terrace, Broadstairs
  • Edwards’s, men’s tailors
  • Mr. Higgsworth, friend who owns a telescope, ‘which he always lends me, knowing I know how to take care of it’
  • Mrs. Womming, another landlady in Broadstairs, who offers them rooms after Mrs Beck lets them down
  • the caddish new next door neighbours who throw a brick in his bed of geraniums
  • Mrs. Burtsett, an old friend of Carrie’s cousins, the Pommertons, late of Dalston
  • Daisy Mutlar, Lupin’s beloved
  • Black’s, the stationers
  • Harry Mutlar, Daisy’s brother, ‘rather a gawky youth’
  • Frank Mutlar, another brother
  • Mr Mutlar, Daisy’s father
  • Mr. Peters, the waiter at Lupin and Daisy’s big engagement party
  • Mr. Burwin-Fosselton, one of the ‘Holloway Comedians’, who gives gives his wild impersonation of Henry Irving to Charles, Carrie and guests
  • Mr Padge, a ‘very vulgar-looking man… who appeared to be all moustache’
  • the local laundress
  • Mrs. Fernlosse, ‘quite a grand lady, living in one of those large houses in the Camden Road’
  • Smirksons’, the drapers, in the Strand
  • Carrie’s mother who they visit for Christmas
  • ‘the dear old Reverend John Panzy Smith, who married us’
  • ‘a young fellow named Moss’ who shocks Charles at the Christmas lunch by grabbing a sprig of mistletoe and kissing all the ladies including Carrie
  • the unnamed rude man who opens the door to Gowing’s house when he is away
  • ‘Mr. Murray Posh was a tall, fat young man’ and rival for Daisy Mutlar’s hand
  • Job Cleanands, owner of Job Cleanands and Co., Stock and Share Brokers, who turns out to be a crook
  • Mr. and Mrs. Treane, members of their congregation
  • the rude and impertinent young Griffin boys next door
  • Mr Griffin, their rude father
  • Captain Welcut of the East Acton Volunteers
  • Mrs Lupkin, kind to Carrie at the Volunteers Ball
  • Putley the plumber
  • Teddy Finsworth, an old school friend of Charles’s
  • Mr. Edgar Paul Finsworth (of Finsworth and Pultwell), owner of a nice house, Watney Lodge, ‘only a few minutes’ walk from Muswell Hill Station’
  • Mrs Finsworth, defender of her rather aggressive dogs
  • Mr Short, luncheon guest at Mr Finsworth’s
  • Mr. Hardfur Huttle, ‘a very clever writer for the American papers’
  • Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Hillbutter, Mrs. Field, Mr. and Mrs. Purdick, Mr. Pratt, Mr. R. Kent – guests at Mr Franching’s dinner party in Peckham
  • Mr. Gilbert E. Gillam O. Crowbillon of Crowbillon Hall, the most valued customer of the firm Charles works for
  • Mr. Mezzini, Mr. Birks Spooner – guests at a meat-tea given by the James’s of Sutton
  • ‘Lillie Girl’, nickname of Mr and Mrs Posh’s daughter, ‘very tall, rather plain, and I thought she was a little painted round the eyes’, who, right at the end of the text, we discover is engaged to Lupin

My point being that it’s quite an extended world, isn’t it. Certainly most of the characters are from the lower middle and tradesmen classes the book is intended to portray, but there are also quite wealthy people like the Poshes and the Finsworths, not to mention the egregious American, Mr Hardfur Huttle who dominates the book’s ending. There are at least 70 characters in all.

In other words the book is a good deal more panoramic than people give it credit for, and the sheer number of people Charles interacts with helps to give the book, although it is ostensibly just about Charles and Carrie and Lupin, a surprising sense of capaciousness.

Making do and mending

I could not help thinking (as I told her) that half the pleasures of life were derived from the little struggles and small privations that one had to endure at the beginning of one’s married life.

Their world of little means and scraping by and making do and always counting the pennies is continually present. When Charles tells Carrie the big news that he’s been promoted and had a significant pay rise:

I need not say how dear Carrie received this joyful news. With perfect simplicity she said: ‘At last we shall be able to have a chimney-glass for the back drawing-room, which we always wanted.’ I added: ‘Yes, and at last you shall have that little costume which you saw at Peter Robinson’s so cheap.’

It is funny and pitiful at the same time. They are not poor, Charles can buy whiskey and champagne when he wants to. But only the cheap brands, and he smokes cheap cigars and has to fight with tradesmen about the costs of everything. He doesn’t buy an address book when he needs a new one, he buys ‘a cheap address book’.

It is a tiny detail but poignantly telling that they turn down an invitation to Miss Bird’s wedding, not so much because they’ve only met her a few times but because ‘it means a present’. I.e. they can’t really afford one. What a world of careful self-denial in that short, clipped phrase.

Charles has been steadily employed at Perkupp’s for 20 years and is used to getting a £10-a-year pay raise and they can afford an annual holiday. But only at ‘good old Broadstairs’ and, as mentioned above, happily put up with a boarding house near the station because, after all, one on the cliffs with a view would be a bit too expensive.

So it is in no way a tragically confined life, as the pitiful existence of the truly poverty stricken is in A Child of the Jago (1896) or Liza of Lambeth (1897). There is cheap champagne and card parties and evenings of dominoes or music. There is fun and life. But no avoiding the continual sense that overall their existence is narrow and scrimped.

Concision

Something else which has made the Diary a classic is its pithiness. Usually the Victorians, and their descendants, the Edwardians, wrote at lugubrious length in their fiction, whereas one of the book’s qualities is its crispness and clarity. Obviously this comes with the diary format, and the sense the author is writing brief notes for his own use. The best of these entries are masterpieces of charged brevity.

MAY 4. Carrie’s mother returned the Lord Mayor’s invitation, which was sent to her to look at, with apologies for having upset a glass of port over it. I was too angry to say anything.

Those two sentences say a huge amount. The fact they sent Carrie’s mother the invitation in the first place, to show off and share their pride in the invitation, and the rather claustrophobic presence of the mother-in-law; the rather inevitable fact that the mother spoils it, and the precise detail that it is a glass of port wine she spills; Charles’s characteristic seething rage at this petty accident and the characteristic way he cannot express it. ‘I was too angry to say anything’ sums up countless incidents throughout the book. Charles is a man of boundless silent seething. So these two short sentences are a perfect example of the aphoristic power of ‘the diary entry’ as a genre.

Part of the appeal is the way the mundaneness of his life, with its little psychological inflections, can be captured in the briefest of entries. After Gowing tells Charles he has ruined his favourite walking stick by painting it a shiny new black colour, Charles is (as so often) mortified and does his best to make amends. Hence:

MAY 22. Purchased a new stick mounted with silver, which cost seven-and-sixpence (shall tell Carrie five shillings), and sent it round with nice note to Gowing.

‘Shall tell Carrie five shillings’ says everything about the little velleities and grace notes of married life, manages to be sweet and funny at the same time.

It’s true that some of the set-piece scenes are much, much longer, go on for pages and can be very funny too. But a lot of the pleasure comes from these quick little hits, these bite-size bursts of insight into the protagonist’s everyday life and little fusses.

Charles Pooter’s jokes

Another part of the book’s complicated mixture of humour and pathos derives from Charles’s recounting of the many awful jokes he and those around him make. He is continually making terrible puns which crack his wife and friends up, but not his savvy disrespectful son and certainly not the numerous tradesmen and other ‘outsiders’ who never seem to show Charles the respect he feels he deserves.

APRIL 12. Gowing began his usual sniffing, so, anticipating him, I said: ‘You’re not going to complain of the smell of paint again?’ He said: ‘No, not this time; but I’ll tell you what, I distinctly smell dry rot.’ I don’t often make jokes, but I replied: ‘You’re talking a lot of dry rot yourself.’ I could not help roaring at this, and Carrie said her sides quite ached with laughter. I never was so immensely tickled by anything I have ever said before. I actually woke up twice during the night, and laughed till the bed shook.

MAY 25. Carrie brought down some of my shirts and advised me to take them to Trillip’s round the corner. She said: ‘The fronts and cuffs are much frayed.’ I said without a moment’s hesitation: ‘I’m ’frayed they are.’ Lor! how we roared. I thought we should never stop laughing.

NOVEMBER 16. I was starting for the office, when Lupin appeared, with a yellow complexion, and said: ‘Hulloh! Guv, what priced head have you this morning?’ I told him he might just as well speak to me in Dutch. He added: ‘When I woke this morning, my head was as big as Baldwin’s balloon.’ On the spur of the moment I said the cleverest thing I think I have ever said; viz: ‘Perhaps that accounts for the parashooting pains.’ We roared.

JANUARY 3. ‘Do you know anything about chalk pits, Guv?’ I said: ‘No, my boy, not that I’m aware of.’ Lupin said: ‘Well, I give you the tip; chalk pits are as safe as Consols, and pay six per cent at par.’ I said a rather neat thing, viz.: ‘They may be six per cent. at par, but your pa has no money to invest.’ Carrie and I both roared with laughter.

FEBRUARY 11. Gowing dropped in just in time, bringing with him a large sheet, with a print of a tailless donkey, which he fastened against the wall. He then produced several separate tails, and we spent the remainder of the evening trying blindfolded to pin a tail on in the proper place. My sides positively ached with laughter when I went to bed.

But even when they’re terrible, the reader is encouraged to laugh along with these jokes because they embody the humour of the character himself; their very badness is testament to the unchanging nature of the character himself, who we’ve come to sympathise with, as in all the best sitcoms. In a way, the badness of the jokes is what makes them funny, because we are not laughing at the joke itself but at the way the sweet and dim characters find it funny, and that is endearing.

Englishness

Many critics and later writers have praised the book for its essential Englishness. I would say theis ‘Englishness’ consists in the Diary‘s sense of constant embarrassment and humiliation.

This is exemplified in chapter 18 when Charles and Carrie accept a kind invitation to a dance given by the East Acton Volunteers, arrive late at the dance hall, help themselves to a delicious dinner, with plenty of champagne and ices and a cigar only to discover that… this wasn’t free provision and part of the invitation – it has to be paid for! As the waiter patiently explains:

‘Your party’s had four suppers at 5s. a head, five ices at 1s., three bottles of champagne at 11s. 6d., a glass of claret, and a sixpenny cigar for the stout gentleman—in all £3 0s. 6d!’ I don’t think I was ever so surprised in my life.

Never so surprised nor humiliated, Charles manages to scrape together almost all the money, lacking a few shillings which he promises to pay later. But this means that, when he and Carrie, at the end of the evening, take a cab back to North London, or at least to the Angel Islington which is far as the cabbie will take them, it’s only when they disembark that Charles realises he has no cash on him. The cab driver calls him every name under the sun and violently pulls his beard, all within view of a policeman who, when he learns Charles and Carrie have taken a long cab journey but cannot pay the driver, has no sympathy for them. They then have to walk the last two miles to Holloway, late at night, in the pouring rain, seething with humiliation and embarrassment.

The entire scene is a kind of apotheosis of English shame and embarrassment but the book is packed with plenty of other examples. Take the passage towards the end when Charles is being shown round Mr. Edgar Paul Finsworth’s drawing room full of fine pictures and Charles remarks of one of the portraits that ‘there was something about the expression of the face that was not quite pleasing. It looked pinched.’

Mr. Finsworth sorrowfully replied: ‘Yes, the face was done after death—my wife’s sister.’ I felt terribly awkward and bowed apologetically, and in a whisper said I hoped I had not hurt his feelings.

‘I felt terribly awkward.’ That could be Charles Pooter’s motto and also stand as the core essence of  a certain type of Englishness.

The final chapters

Possibly I’m influenced by reading in the introduction to the OUP edition, and in Wikipedia, that the last four chapters were added after the magazine serialisation was complete, and were written specially for the book edition – but they felt significantly different from everything else that had preceded.

Previously it had been a dawdling, enjoyably aimless diary of a suburban nobody’s quiet life and footling concerns but in the added chapters the narrative suddenly felt like the authors had decided it was A Novel and so needed to have a sense of a plot and of a climactic ending.

Hence the introduction of an unusually elaborate storyline wherein Lupin advises Perkupps’ oldest client, Gilbert E. Gillam O. Crowbillon, to leave the firm and use a rival. This ‘betrayal’ of the old firm mortified Charles and Mr Perkupp asks him to write a letter of apology to Crowbillon, explaining that his son is new at the firm and inexperienced in the ways of the City in the hope of winning him back. So far, so consistent with the mode of embarrassment and humiliation which characterises the earlier parts.

But then comes a Fairy Tale Ending. Crowbillon not only sends Lupin a check as thanks for giving him such good advice, but the firm Lupin recommended him to, Gylterson and Sons, hires Lupin and at the princely salary of £200 a year, which it is hinted is comparable to Charles’s pay (I don’t think we ever learn Charles’s precise salary).

As a result Lupin hires rooms in the far more fashionable district of Bayswater and announces he is engaged to the daughter of the well-off Posh family, who sell hats across the North of England and are opening ‘branch establishments at New York, Sydney, and Melbourne, and [are] negotiating for Kimberley and Johannesburg.’ Suddenly, Lupin is rich!

And although Charles’s letter fails to win back Crowbillon, in the very last pages we meet again a rather loud-mouthed opinionated American Hardfur Huttle, who had made his first appearance at a dinner party which he dominates with his none-too-subtle opinions.

Right at the very end of the book, and out of the blue, this American summons Charles to his hotel to tell him he’s been impressed by him and his firm and so will be directing an important American friend to give Perkupp his business! With the result that, right at the very end of the novel, Mr Perkupp grandly rewards Charles for bringing in the new American client by buying and giving Charles the freehold to ‘The Laurels’, an act of stunning generosity which leaves Carrie crying with joy and Charles sending out for champagne to celebrate with his old muckers, Gowing and Cummings.

My point being: chapters 18 to 24, although they continue with the same characters and include many of the same kinds of social embarrassments, nonetheless feel significantly different from their predecessors, because they suddenly feel like they have a direction and a plot, and because that plot acquires an increasingly fairy tale quality of happiness and (cheap) champagne all round.

The meandering, silly and inconsequential charm of the opening chapters which didn’t appear to have any direction or purpose feel long gone and something of the book’s initial charm and innocence is lost as a result


Related links

The Square Egg and Other Sketches by Saki (1924)

Eight amusing short pieces by Hector Hugh Munro (pen name Saki) who was shot dead by a sniper while serving on the Western Front during the First World War. These last few pieces were collected and published posthumously in 1924.

The Square Egg: a badger’s eye view of the mud war in the trenches

The first few pages are a humorous description of life in the First World War trenches, whose main points can be summarised as:

  • snuffling around in the mud is like being a badger
  • though engaged in a titanic struggle against one of the greatest armies in the world, the average soldier thinks about the enemy relatively little
  • the subject which does consume the soldier’s every waking minute is the mud and how to avoid it; now the narrator knows what it’s like to be one of those animals you see at the zoo wallowing in muddy enclosures
  • he describes the nature of the many estaminets just behind the front lines, a cross between coffee houses and bars, and the way they always manage to have small children running round and getting in the way

At which point the text morphs into an anecdote about a chap he met in such an estaminet, a shifty French bloke who talked to him about eggs, specifically the way he’s noticed one of the many hens kept by his aunt lays eggs with the hint of angles. Consider how, through a programme of selective breeding, one could eventually create hens which produce only square eggs! Well, this guy claims to have done just that!! (Saki’s narrator makes wry, sardonic references under his breath).

The shifty Frenchie then explains how he had set up a thriving square-egg business but then came the war, he has been sent to the Front and his aunt is now selling his square eggs without any special consideration about keeping the breeding line secure and keeping the money she owes him. Therefore he has decided to take her to court to stop her, but the law is so expensive, monsieur. So, could Saki please lend him a small sum towards his legal fees, 80 francs should do it! The whole thing is, in other words, a scam.

This was a mildly amusing story which confirmed my sense of how many Saki’ stories are set on farms or involve farmyard animals.

Birds of the Western Front

These texts written at the Front highlight, almost exaggerate, Saki’s characteristic upper class nonchalance; everything is cast into an ironical manner which, for example, amuses itself by making elaborate and ironic comparisons. Thus, since the war began:

Rats and mice have mobilized and swarmed into the fighting line, and there has been a partial mobilization of owls, particularly barn owls, following in the wake of the mice, and making laudable efforts to thin out their numbers. What success attends their hunting one cannot estimate; there are always sufficient mice left over to populate one’s dug-out and make a parade-ground and race-course of one’s face at night.

Crows and rooks have become habituated to shellfire and machine guns. Drolly, Saki describes observing a pair of crows fighting a pair of sparrowhawks while above them the same number of English and German airplanes were fighting. Nature red in tooth and claw. He observes that magpies have been bereft of the poplar trees they used to love to nest in, and so on with further observations about buzzards, kestrels, larks and a hen-chaffinch which he noticed unaccountably hanging around a wrecked woodland, even during the most intense bombardment.

He ends with the sardonic observation that English gamekeepers as a breed believe their precious gamebirds and pheasants and whatnot must be protected from the slightest disturbance. They should come to the Western Front and learn how hardy birds are in face of even the most ruinous disruption.

The Gala Programme: an unrecorded episode in Roman history

The scene shifts abruptly from the present war, jumping back in time 2,000 years to ancient Rome.

It is the birthday of the Roman Emperor Placidus Superbus who has arrived at the Circus Maximus to enjoy the games, but just as the first entertainment is about to begin – a thrilling chariot race – hundreds of shouting women are lowered by ropes into the track and completely prevent the race taking place.

‘Who are these furies?’ the emperor demands. ‘The dreaded Suffragetae,’ his miserable Master of Ceremonies explains. The emperor has a brainwave. ‘Skip the chariot race,’ he tells the MC, ‘let’s go straight to part two, the combat of wild animals.’ And so a horde of beasts are let loose among the protesting women, to really very entertaining effect :).

Takes its place with the other 3 or 4 Saki stories entirely dedicated to commenting on / ridiculing the suffragettes.

The Infernal Parliament

Bavton Bidderdale (a typically Sakian preposterous name) dies, but the medical authorities contest the exact cause of death etc and so, although his soul has gone down to hell, the officials there keep it in a kind of limbo until the paperwork is sorted out.

While he’s waiting, the officials offer to show him round and suggest taking a tour of the infernal Parliament, a relatively new innovation. As he arrives the infernal Parliament is having a debate to lodge a formal complaint with the human race for describing events or activities as ‘devilish’ or ‘fiendish’ when they are, in fact, nothing of the sort, but entirely human.

Other details obviously mock contemporary parliamentary debates (and, in the final passage, mock a living playwright, possibly George Bernard Shaw) but these references are lost without some kind of annotation. You can see the comic intention but it would have more bite if included in my dream idea of an ‘Annotated Saki’.

The Achievement of the Cat

A wonderfully suave and ironical tribute to the qualities of the domestic cat:

It is, indeed, no small triumph to have combined the untrammelled liberty of primeval savagery with the luxury which only a highly developed civilization can command; to be lapped in the soft stuffs that commerce has gathered from the far ends of the world; to bask in the warmth that labour and industry have dragged from the bowels of the earth; to banquet on the dainties that wealth has bespoken for its table, and withal to be a free son of nature, a mighty hunter, a spiller of life-blood. This is the victory of the cat.

The Old Town of Pskoff

Not a story at all, but a straightforward description of how this city in west Russia, now referred to as Pskov, represents a kinder, quainter, more colourful and older Russia than the unpleasantly nouveau riche style of Petersburg. Sounds like it’s based on a real visit and the real views of Hector Munro who had been a foreign correspondent in Russia and, indeed, wrote a history of it.

Clovis on the Alleged Romance of Business

The last appearance of Clovis Sangrail, the witty, ironic, ‘languidly malicious’ young man who embodies key aspects of Saki’s droll, langorous, ironic humour.

This one is a short squib, a return to the format of his early Reginald ‘stories’, and amounts simply to a 2-page speech by Clovis, declaiming, fairly predictably, against the so-called Romance of business. In his view, business is deadly dull, which is why all the best adventures have been written about the young men who ran away from it:

The romance has all been the other way, with the idle apprentice, the truant, the runaway, the individual who couldn’t be bothered with figures and book-keeping and left business to look after itself.

The Comments of Moung Ka

Moung Ka is a wise man who lives by the banks of the River Irrawaddy (whichm, upon looking it up, I discover is the longest river in modern Burma).

The opening description of the landscape and birds where Moung Ka lives is a final reminder that, although people routinely describe Saki as a deliciously malicious critic of Edwardian upper class society, he was also obsessed with animals, and wrote a lot of vivid descriptions of landscapes and the wild animals living in them. A collection of excerpts titled ‘Saki’s nature and animal writing’ would be surprisingly extensive.

In the tall reed growth by the riverside grazing buffaloes showed in patches of dark slaty blue, like plums fallen amid long grass, and in the tamarind trees that shaded Moung Ka’s house the crows, restless, raucous-throated, and much-too-many, kept up their incessant afternoon din, saying over and over again all the things that crows have said since there were crows to say them.

Anyway, the story, such as it is, is another political satire. Old Moung Ka reads the paper which is brought up the river and then interprets its contents for his village followers. He comments on two related pieces of news. The recently announced division of Bengal by the (British-run) government of India has been cancelled. In 1905 Lord Curzon divided Bengal along sectarian lines, into a Hindu and Muslim province. The policy was a disaster, leading to an outburst of terrorism and sectarian violence and so was reversed in 1911. This is the news Moung Ka reads out to his followers.

And contrasts with the fact that the newspaper tells him that the United Kingdom itself is about to be partitioned. It isn’t explained what he means so it took me a moment to realise he must have been referring to the granting to Ireland of home rule, which led to vehement protests from Protestant Ulster and a serious crisis which dominated Edwardian politics from 1911 up to the outbreak of the Great War.

The very last joke in this, Saki’s very last published story, is a satirical and political one. Earlier Moung Ka had explained to his followers that Britain is what is called a Democracy. One of the followers doesn’t understand how come, if Britain is a Democracy, it can enact such a big and impactful decision  (the partitioning of Ireland) without consulting its people.

Moung Ka clarifies – and this, one imagines, is the point of the whole ‘story’ – that he didn’t say Britain was a democracy; he said Britain is what is called a democracy. The implication being that its alleged democracy is in fact a sham. The implication being that Saki is a Unionist and considers the prolonged political haggling about granting Ireland independence to be squalid and destructive.

There’s plenty of meat in this short text to chew over, it confirmed my sense of Saki as an unrepentant Unionist and conservative and anti-suffragette reactionary, and review in my mind the reactionary views which crop up periodically through the short stories and underpin the entire novel When William Came.

Then again, the world is more full than ever before of division, dispute and angry argument. For my part, I like to take leave of this long journey through Saki’s complete works by remembering the grazing water buffalo like plums fallen amid long grass, and the eternal crows in the tamarind trees.


Saki’s works

The Toys of Peace by Saki (1919)

Beryl, Mrs. Gaspilton, had always looked indulgently on the country as a place where people of irreproachable income and hospitable instincts cultivated tennis-lawns and rose-gardens and Jacobean pleasaunces, wherein selected gatherings of interested week-end guests might disport themselves.
(For the Duration of the War)

‘I’m afraid there is nowhere for you to sit,’ I said coldly; ‘the verandah is full of goats.’
(The Guests)

Biographical sketch

Saki, or to give him his proper name, Hector Hugh Munro, volunteered for the army as soon as the Great War broke out in August 1914. Born in December 1870, he was 43 at the time and so, officially, over-age to enlist. It took a lot of effort and pulling strings before he managed to secure a place in the Second King Edward’s Horse. Finding a cavalry regiment too demanding for his age, Hector later transferred to an infantry regiment, the the 22nd Royal Fusiliers, and finally made his way to the Western Front in 1916.

The most striking fact about Saki’s war service was that although, because of his class and education, he was repeatedly offered the chance of a commission or a cushy job at the rear, he turned all these offers down and preferred serving as a common private, and then lance sergeant, among the men he grew to love. He was shot through the head at Beaumont-Hamel on the morning of 14 November 1916.

All this and more is detailed in a biographical note by Rothay Reynolds which stands at the head of this collection of 31 of Saki’s short stories which was published posthumously in 1919. And it adds considerable bite to the first story in the set, which gives its name to the entire volume and is about the pointlessness of denying men and boys’ natural instinct for war.


The stories

For each of the stories I give the briefest possible summary and sometimes add a quote which exemplifies Saki’s dry and macabre humour, often, especially when casually dealing with exotic animals, bordering on the surreal.

The Toys of Peace

The title is quite literal. Eleanor Bope complains to her brother, Harvey, that her sons (‘Eric, not eleven yet, and Bertie, only nine-and-a-half’) only ever play at war, with soldier toys. Next time he visits can he please bring some toys which emphasise the virtues of peace? So, in a comic scene, on his next visit, Harvey unveils to the two boys such delights as models of the Manchester branch of the Young Women’s Christian Association, of a school of art and a public library, and little figures of John Stuart Mill, Robert Raikes (the founder of Sunday schools), a sanitary inspector, a district councillor and an official of the Local Government Board. He leaves the boys with their perplexing toys of peace, to take a break in the library. Half an hour later Harvey returns to find the boys have converted the models into forts and castles, repainted the figures as soldiers with lashings of red paint for blood, and are acting out gruesome battle scenes.

Louise (Clovis)

Jane Thropplestance is the most forgetful woman in the world. When she returns from a shopping expedition her sister, the elderly Dowager Lady Beanford, asks her what she has done with her niece, Louise. ‘Good gracious,’ Miss Thropplestance replies, ‘I must have mislaid her!’ and then proceeds to review all the shops and social calls she made during the afternoon, where she might, possibly, have mislaid, poor inoffensive Louise.

It’s an inadvertently hilarious list, bringing out Jane’s flaky superficiality, with plenty of humorous phrases where mislaying a niece is placed on the same level as losing your keys.

The comic punchline comes when the butler informs the two ladies that Louise, in fact, never went out with Miss Thropplestance in the first place and has spent the afternoon reading an improving book to a sick servant upstairs. Silly billies.

Tea

James Cushat-Prinkly is a dim 34-year-old and his extended family of females think it really is time he settled down and proposed to someone. His female family and friends settle on Joan Sebastable as being the perfect match. So one afternoon he sets off to walk across Hyde Park to the Mayfair residence of Miss Sebastaple to propose.

But when he glances at his watch he notices it is 4.30 which means the dreaded hour of afternoon tea is approaching. James hates afternoon tea with its rituals of tinkling tea glasses and endless stupid questions about whether you’d prefer milk or cream and how many lumps and so on. In order to avoid confronting his beloved crouching behind the wretched tea things, he drops in on an acquaintance who happens to live en route, ‘Rhoda Ellam, a sort of remote cousin, who made a living by creating hats out of costly materials.’ Rhoda is serving up tea (this is England, after all) but is much more relaxed about the whole thing, asking James to grab a mug if he can see one and quickly knocking up some bread and butter.

Result: James strolls home and informs his astonished womenfolk that the proposal went well and now he is engaged to be married to…Rhoda Ellam! In fact that isn’t the end of the story. The very end comes when, after getting married and going on honeymoon etc, the couple return to London and at their first tiffin, James discovers to his dismay, that Rhoda has arranged best quality tea things in exactly the way all other women do, has become completely conventional. You can’t beat tiffin!

The Disappearance of Crispina Umberleigh

Two English chaps, a Journalist and a Wine Merchant, are in a train heading from Hohenzollern into Hapsburg territory i.e. from Germany into Hungary. News of a picture being stolen from the Louvre leads the Wine Merchant to tell the story of the mysterious disappearance of his fearsome aunt, Mrs Crispina Umberleigh, ‘born to legislate, codify, administrate, censor, license, ban, execute, and sit in judgement generally.’

‘As a nephew on a footing of only occasional visits she affected me merely as an epidemic, disagreeable while it lasted, but without any permanent effect.’

Her unexplained disappearance leaves a large hole in family life. After a while a ransom demand appears stating that the aunt has been kidnapped and is being held in Norway and will be returned unless a ransom payment of £2,000 is made, this, of course, being a comic inversion of the usual definition of a ransom which is where you pay to have someone returned. The uncle coughs up and this goes on for eight years.

Then one day the aunt reappears. Turns out she had never been kidnapped at all but suffered a complete loss of memory, wandered for a while and ended up working in domestic service in Birmingham. Then one day, eight years later, her memory returned and she came storming back into the lives of her astonished husband and family.

And the ransom demands? Had been made by an enterprising servant of the family :).

The Wolves of Cernogratz

All the starved, cold misery of a frozen world, all the relentless hunger-fury of the wild, blended with other forlorn and haunting melodies to which one could give no name, seemed concentrated in that wailing cry.

A quietly moving and/or vitriolic story. Nouveau riche Baroness Gruebel and her husband have bought and live in the ancient castle somewhere in central Europe. She is telling her brother Conrad, a banker from Hamburg, about some of the romantic old stories attached to the castle, for example how the local wolves are supposed to start howling when anyone dies in the castle, when she is unexpectedly interrupted by the governess, Fraulein Schmidt, who reveals the real legend is that the wolves howl only when a member of the Cernogratz family is dying.

She then astonishes everyone by revealing that she is herself a member of the Cernogratz family. The family fell on hard times, was forced to sell the castle, she went into domestic service and ended up with the Gruebel family. It is a cruel irony which has brought her back here to the home of her ancestors.

That night, while the Baroness’s over-dressed, flashy rich guests are enjoying dinner, they are disturbed by the howling of wolves. They go to the governess’s bedroom and find the window flung open even though it is the depths of winter. The governess knows she is dying but wants to hear ‘the death-music of my family’.

Despite its society satire surface this is a strangely powerful story, like a fairytale. It is clearly linked to The Interlopers (see below) by being a) set in Eastern Europe b) featuring wolves c) being about authenticity and identity, contrasting the shallowness of human concerns with something deeper and more primeval.

Louis

Lena Strudwarden refuses to go abroad on holiday with her husband this year, insisting they go (yet again) to Brighton or Worthing. Her real reason is that their circle of acquaintances in Brighton and Worthing, though boring, show an admirable instinct to fawn on Mrs Strudwarden. In these sorts of arguments Lena always relies on excuses concerning her little dog, Louis, ‘the diminutive brown Pomeranian that lay, snug and irresponsive, beneath a shawl on her lap’, Louis couldn’t possibly go abroad, he couldn’t possibly be quarantined, he couldn’t survive without me, etc etc.

When Strudwarden complains to his sister, she, with unladylike brutality, suggests they just kill Louis. (The text acknowledges this fact: ‘“Novels have been written about women like you,” said Strudwarden; “you have a perfectly criminal mind.”)

So the next time Lena is out of the house, Strudwarden and her brother place the dog in a box and fix the only hole in it over the gas bracket. In other words, they set out to gas the dog to death. But in doing so they make an ironic discovery: Louis isn’t a real dog at all, he is a mechanical toy. All this time Lena has been using the little toy as an emotional lever to get her way with her husband.

The Guests

Annabel thinks the view from the room she’s sharing with her sister, Matilda, is English and pastoral but rather boring. Matilda has recently returned from India and tells her sister she loves boring, it’s a great relief from extravagant adventures abroad. Take the time when she was living in remote India and the Bishop of Bequar paid a surprise visit just as the river Gwadlipichee overflowed its banks, forcing the servants and all the livestock into the main house. It was chaos and socially embarrassing.

‘I’m afraid there is nowhere for you to sit,’ I said coldly; ‘the verandah is full of goats.’

The Penance

Octavian Ruttle thinks his neighbours’ cat is stealing his chickens, so he nerves himself to do away with it. Unfortunately, the neighbours’ three young children, lined up along the wall, witness the act, and in unison call him ‘Beast!’ They send, via servants, a sheet with BEAST childishly scrawled on it. This pricks Octavian’s already guilty conscience and he sets out to appease them by buying luxury chocolates, sends them next door, but later in the day finds them scornfully thrown back over the wall.

One day when Octavian is meant to be minding his two-year-old daughter, Olivia, the three children kidnap her. He sees them trundling her pushcart at top speed across a meadow and gives chase. He catches up just as they deposit the toddler into the muck of a massive pigsty and she starts sinking. Octavian can’t make it over to her in time and so begs the children to save her, he’ll do anything.

So they order him to do penance: to stand by the grave of their dead cat dressed only in a white sheet  holding a candle and repeating: ‘I’m a miserable Beast’. Only when he actually does this, do the three children pin another piece of paper up with the message ‘Un-Beast.’

The Phantom Luncheon

Member of Parliament Sir James Drakmanton informs his wife that she must take for lunch the rather beastly Smithly-Dubbs whose family come in handy at election times. Exasperated at this tedious chore, Lady Drakmanton decides to pull a practical joke. She contacts the three Smithly-Dubbs ladies to invite them for lunch,  then does her hair in an unusual style and dresses in not her usual manner before going to meet them in their hotel foyer and whisking them off to the Carlton where she encourages them to choose all the most expensive dishes on the menu.

Then she drops a bombshell by claiming not to be Lady Drakmanton at all, but another woman altogether who keeps having fits of memory loss, then it comes to her: she is in fact Ellen Niggle, of the Ladies’ Brasspolishing Guild.

At that precise moment (as she had arranged) another woman enters the Carlton dining room who looks and is dressed exactly like Lady Drakmanton, who she points out to the three appalled young women as the real Lady Drakmanton, thus confirming her story.

And before they can recover their composure, Lady D thanks them for a lovely meal and sweeps out, leaving the discombobulated Smithly-Dubbs to pay the (very large) bill.

A Bread and Butter Miss

A story about horse-racing. The guests at a country-house party are eagerly discussing the upcoming Derby when it is discovered that one of them, young Lola, has dreams which come true and last night dreamed of a horse race and dreamed that the crowd cheered when ‘Bread and Butter’ wins.

There is no horse named Bread and Butter in this year’s Derby so a furious debate ensues about which actual horse she could be referring to. They desperately want her to fall asleep and dream a bit of clarification but, it turns out, with comic frustration, when she’s not dreaming dreams which come true, Lola has bad insomnia and, sure enough, despite the comical welter of suggestions to help her get off to sleep, she passes a sleepless night and morning.

Next day, as the race is underway, she lets slip one more vital detail in her dream which helps the guests guess correctly the name of the winning horse which does, indeed, win, but by then it is too late for any of them to place a bet.

Bertie’s Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve in the household of Luke Steffink, Esq. complete with posh guests. When a couple frivolously recall the Eastern tradition that on Christmas Eve, animals in their stalls can talk, the guests all troop down to the cow house to see if it’s true.

However, Luke’s disgruntled nephew (‘Bertie Steffink had early in life adopted the profession of ne’er-do-well’) is angry at everyone because the family has decided it is going to pack him off to Africa in an effort to find him gainful employment. So, out of spite, Bertie locks them all in the cow house, and invites some passing revellers into Luke’s house to drink all his champagne and raucously sing out of tune Christmas carols. It’s a kind of sketch or scene rather than an actual story.

For someone interested in social history, the most interesting part comes at the beginning where Bertie’s loser status is established by describing the family’s attempts to set him up with jobs in various colonies, a passage which vividly conveys the way the Commonwealth and Empire were conceived as a sort of dumping ground for the useless upper-middle-classes.

At the age of eighteen Bertie had commenced that round of visits to our Colonial possessions, so seemly and desirable in the case of a Prince of the Blood, so suggestive of insincerity in a young man of the middle-class. He had gone to grow tea in Ceylon and fruit in British Columbia, and to help sheep to grow wool in Australia. At the age of twenty he had just returned from some similar errand in Canada, from which it may be gathered that the trial he gave to these various experiments was of the summary drum-head nature. Luke Steffink, who fulfilled the troubled role of guardian and deputy-parent to Bertie, deplored the persistent manifestation of the homing instinct on his nephew’s part, and his solemn thanks earlier in the day for the blessing of reporting a united family had no reference to Bertie’s return. Arrangements had been promptly made for packing the youth off to a distant corner of Rhodesia, whence return would be a difficult matter…

Forewarned

Alethia Debchance has spent her entire 28 years at the remote rural house of her aunt near Webblehinton. She is as naive and unworldly as it is possible to be. Thus when she goes to visit a distant relation, Robert Bludward, who is standing for election, she is astonished at the extreme criticism directed at him by two gentlemen she overhears in a train and by an article she reads in the paper. She makes up her mind to tell his opponent, Sir John Chobham. But as she sets out to do so, she hears the same kinds of comments made, and reads an equally damning article, about him, too.

Bewildered and appalled at the terrible men abroad in the world, she retreats back to her aunt’s rural hideaway and immerses herself in the breathless women’s novels that she consumes like smarties.

It is both a satire on a certain kind of unworldly English spinster, but also on the casually vituperative discourse surrounding English politics, a subject Saki was an expert on after years of being a parliamentary correspondent for the newspapers.

The Interlopers

Somewhere on the eastern spurs of the Karpathians, a patch of forest land has been disputed between three successive generations of two families of neighbouring landowners. The current rivals are Ulrich von Gradwitz and Georg Znaeym.

One day they both happen to be out with parties of their own men, wander away from them, and encounter each other in the depths of the forest. As they go to raise their rifles to shoot each other there is a loud crack and half a beech tree plummets down, pinning them both helplessly to the ground.

Over the next hour or so, as they come to acknowledge their plight, both injured and cold and pinned by the fallen tree to the ground with various broken bones, they slowly come to reassess the stupid rivalry which has dominated their lives. Eventually Ulrich offers his wine flask to Znaeym which the other grudgingly accepts and they decide to put the feud behind them and become friends. They agree to shout for help from their respective men, but the calling only attracts… a pack of wolves!

A gruesome parable about…what? The stupid pettiness of human concerns, petty rivalries and feuds which don’t, placed in the larger perspective of the human condition, matter a damn. Or the vanity of human presumption, showing that both men’s claims to ‘own’ the woods are ridiculous. The true owners of the forest are the wolves; both humans are merely the ‘interlopers’ of the title.

Quail Seed

Mr Scarrick rents out the rooms over his suburban grocery store to an artist and his sister. He complains that business has fallen off woefully because shoppers are attracted by the sales gimmicks of big stores in town, which include music played on gramophones and tickertape news about sports.

So the artist comes up with the idea of staging what would nowadays be called performance art, namely he, his sister and a local boy they hire will play the parts of strange and exotic figures, mysterious strangers who seem to be leaving codes messages for each other, about grand plans and feverish rivalries. Intrigue and gossip. Maybe spies!

It works a treat. Word spreads and soon Mr Scarrick’s shop is full of local housewives waiting to witness the next bizarre episode in the fictional drama.

Canossa

A nonsensical satire on the trivial silliness of political life, indicated by the initial setup which is that Demosthenes Platterbaff, the eminent Unrest Inducer, is on trial for blowing up the Albert Hall on the eve of the great Liberal Federation Tango Tea, the occasion on which the Chancellor of the Exchequer was expected to propound his new theory: ‘Do partridges spread infectious diseases?’

The point is that there is a by-election set for the constituency of Nemesis-on-Hand the day after the jury are scheduled to deliver their verdict and the view is that a guilty verdict will lead to the government losing the seat in a protest vote by working men supporters of Platterbaff. Therefore the story is about the contortions the government ties itself up in, in order to find him guilty but not let him go to gaol.

More precisely, he is allowed to go to gaol for precisely one night after the guilty verdict is brought in but then (the Prime Minister and Home Secretary feverishly decide) will be released early enough the next morning for his release to be telegraphed to the by-election constituency and broadcast to his supporters who will then, hopefully, support the government.

This already ridiculous story turns into farce when Platterbaff announces that he will not physically leave the prison unless there’s a brass band to play him out. He always has a brass band.

We are then witness to the comic panic of the Prime Minister and senior cabinet members as they try to arrange this at very short notice, hampered by the fact that there is a musicians’ strike on (strikes were a surprisingly ubiquitous element of Edwardian life which Saki is here satirising).

In the farcical climax of the story, the Prime Minister and colleagues are forced to borrow knackered old instruments from the prison recreation room and themselves batter out an out-of-tune rendering of the pop hit of the moment ‘I didn’t want to do it’ (which, incidentally, dates this story to the second half of 1913).

And the comic punchline of the entire story? The government loses the by-election anyway, because the trade unions ordered their members to vote against the cabinet for acting as strike-breakers (for playing musical instruments during a musicians’ strike).

So it is a satire on the extreme contortions to which modern politicians are forced to go in the name of democracy, of bending over backwards to accommodate even terrorists in order to win their supporters’ votes, but how even the most humiliating obeisance won’t be enough to satisfy the sky-high demands of the new militant working class electorate.

As to the title, Canossa is the site where the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV did penance in 1077, standing three days bare-headed in the snow, in order to reverse his excommunication by Pope Gregory VII. It’s the kind of factual element which would benefit from a note of explanation.

The Threat

One of Saki’s anti-suffragette satires. Sir Lulworth Quayne (a recurring character in these stories), sat in the lounge of his favourite restaurant, the Gallus Bankiva, describes to his nephew, recently returned from abroad, an evermore absurd list of (fictional) strategies adopted by the suffragettes (for example, enlivening the state opening of Parliament by releasing thousands of parrots, which had been carefully trained to scream ‘Votes for women’).

The joke in the story is that the leading suffragettes come up with a plan which outdoes all the others, converting their hitherto negative strategies into a positive one. They threaten to erect exact replicas of the Victoria Memorial at key locations all around the capital. ‘No, no, anything but that!’ The government gives in to their demands.

Excepting Mrs. Pentherby

Reggie Bruttle has inherited a big but not particularly practical mansion named ‘The Limes’. He has the brainwave of converting it into the venue for a kind of continuous, rolling country-house party. However, Major Dagworth points out that the womenfolk will give trouble, within days they’ll be bitching and arguing.

On the whole, the major is proven wrong, except for Mrs Pentherby. Within days all the other women have come to loathe her casual condescension and come to Reggie with their complaints.

Reggie listened with the attenuated regret that one bestows on an earthquake disaster in Bolivia or a crop failure in Eastern Turkestan.

But then the comic reveal: It turns out Reggie has invited Mrs Pentherby precisely to be the official quarreler, to act as a lightning rod, attracting to herself all the bitching energy of the other women, in order to unify the others in their dislike and make them pleasant to everyone else. Cue feminist outrage.

Mark

Augustus Mellowkent is an up-and-coming novelist. His agent suggests he changes his name to ‘Mark’ which sounds more manly.

But the story itself concerns the visit, one morning in December, of a tiresome encyclopedia salesman, one Caiaphas Dwelf. At first Mark puts up with Dwelf’s tiresome sales pitch, but then has a brainwave. He takes down one of his own novels and starts reading an excerpt to the salesman, telling him what an excellent resource a Mark Mellowkent novel is if one is trapped at a boring country-house party. The salesman replies with a dithyramb on the useful geographical knowledge contained in his encyclopedia. Mark replies with the opening of his classic work, The Cageless Linnet and so it goes on, a duel of bores.

Eventually the salesman is forced to abandon his spiel, closes his sample volume and leaves Mark’s house, and ‘a look of respectful hatred flickered in the cold grey eyes.’

The Hedgehog

Every year a mixed doubles tennis match is held at the rectory garden party hosted by Mrs Norbury and every year a quartet of old ladies sit in judgement on the players, not least the bitchy Mrs. Dole and Mrs. Hatch-Mallard. They argue and contradict each other about everything.

When it is announced that a young lady, Ada Bleek, who happens to be a clairvoyante, is coming down to the house party, they even argue about whose ghost she will see, Mrs Dole insisting she will see the ghost of Lady Cullompton, murdered by one of her ancestors, Mrs Hatch-Mallard insisting she will see the ghost of her uncle, who committed suicide in the house in the most tragical of circumstances.

In the event Miss Bleek does see a ghost but not one belonging to either of the rivals, instead a giant white hedgehog which slithers across her bedroom floor! Social satire gives way to the genuinely weird.

The Mappined Life

The Mappin Terraces at London Zoo were opened in 1914, so they were very recent when Saki made them the subject of a story. Mrs. James Gurtleberry and her niece start off by discussing whether the animals penned in this slightly larger caged area have any illusory sense of freedom. But the story evolves into an impassioned and deeply depressing diatribe from the niece about how we are, all of us, trapped in the Mappin Terraces of our own narrow, blinkered and utterly unfree little lives.

Of course there ought to be jungle-cats and birds of prey and other agencies of sudden death to add to the illusion of liberty…

Surprisingly serious and surprisingly pessimistic.

Fate (Clovis Sangrail)

Rex Dillot is nearly twenty-four and almost continually penniless. He scrapes a living by betting shrewdly on the little sporting competitions at the country-house parties he frequents, but he is ambitious to make one really big killing wager.

His opportunity comes when cadaverous old Major Latton is scheduled to spend an evening playing billiards against cocky young Mr. Strinnit. Dillot bets more than he actually has on the major to win but the game goes against expectations and Strinnit is advancing his score in leaps and bounds.

Too distraught to watch the climax of the game and his own ruination, Dillon wanders off upstairs to the guest bedrooms. Here he overhears the snores of Mrs Thundleford who had retired to her room in a huff when all the other houseguests declared themselves more interested in watching two men knock about ivory balls than listen to her simply fascinating slideshow and lecture about the architecture of Venice.

Dillot opens her bedroom door. Sure enough Mrs. Thundleford has nodded off sitting very close to the reading lamp. If only a kind fate had had her nudge or knock it over, thus starting a fire, thus causing an outcry, thus interrupting the game, thus saving Dillon from ruinous losses. Well… sometimes one has to make one’s own fate…

And thus it is that a few moments later Dillot comes thundering into the games room carrying a startled Mrs. Thundleford whose dress is (slightly) on fire, dumps her on the billiard table and announces the house is on fire, leading to screams and shouts and the dousing of the flames with soda water and rugs and cushions. And the game? Oh called off, of course. Oh dear, what a shame!

But then, as Clovis remarked, when one is rushing about with a blazing woman in one’s arms one can’t stop to think out exactly where one is going to put her.

The Bull

Tom Yorkfield is a small farmer with a small herd of cows serviced by his pride and joy, a bull named Clover Fairy. The bull is probably worth £80 though Tom tells himself he’d hold out for at least £100.

Tom has never gotten on with his half-brother, Laurence. When the latter pays a visit he is tactless enough to be a) underwhelmed when Tom takes him to see his pride and joy, b) and then to boast about a painting of a bull which he recently sold for £400. And, he assures his angry brother, will continue to climb in value while Clover Fairy slowly loses all value till she’s sold for the price of his pelt and hooves.

Tom snaps, loses his temper, makes to hit Laurence who backs then runs away, and all this commotion excites the bull who promptly tosses Laurence then goes to trample him. Luckily Tom pulls him off and spends the next few weeks tending him back to health among many apologies.

A recovered Laurence duly returns to work as an artist and grows in popularity of a painter of animals ‘but his subjects are always kittens or fawns or lambkins—never bulls’.

Morlvera

Two impoverished cockney kids, Emmeline, aged ten, and Bert, aged seven, stop in front of a posh toy emporium and are attracted by an overdressed doll (an ’embodiment of overdressed depravity’) which they immediately start attributing all kinds of bloodthirsty crimes to. The children’s malevolent imaginations and cockney accents are very enjoyable.

Then along comes a chauffeur-driven car out of which emerge spoiled little Victor in his sailor suit and his commanding mother. Our two backstreet kids overhear their conversation. The mother is nagging Victor that they need to buy something for his friend, Bertha, as she bought him a beautiful box of soldiers on his birthday.

Once inside the shop, with infinite reluctance Victor allows himself to be persuaded by the sales assistant into selecting the malevolent-looking doll Emmeline and Bert had been surveying. The cockney kids watch as Victor emerges clutching the thing, gets into his car with his mother, and very carefully throws the doll out the back window just as the vehicle is reversing. The car’s back wheel gently crushes the doll to smithereens. Emmeline and Bert are thrilled and delighted.

A delicious story about children’s utter lack of innocence, their wild violent imaginations, but which also captures the class divisions of Saki’s day.

Shock Tactics (Clovis Sangrail)

‘People yield more consideration to a mutilated mealtime or a broken night’s rest, than ever they would to a broken heart.’

A Clovis story. The mother of Clovis’s friend Bertie, 19 years old, insists on opening all his letters and reading them, much to his chagrin. Clovis conceives a hilarious prank. He gets delivered to Bertie’s house a series of letters in which he poses as an utterly fictitious young lady named Clotilde and hints that she and Bertie are involved in unspeakable goings-on which involve the suicide of a serving girl and some jewels.

Astounded and enraged, Bertie’s mother rushes upstairs, banging on Bertie’s (locked) bedroom door and insisting he explain each of the successively more scandalous revelations until… a final letter arrives from Clovis explaining that, since Bertie told him that someone nosy in the household was opening his letters, Clovis has conceived the idea of sending deliberately fake letters in order to sniff the shameful culprit out.

Bertie’s mother is mortified and humiliated and from that moment onwards never opens another of Bertie’s letter.

The Seven Cream Jugs

Anything that was smaller and more portable than a sideboard, and above the value of ninepence, had an irresistible attraction for him, provided that it fulfilled the necessary condition of belonging to someone else.

Mr and Mrs Peter Pigeoncote are paid a visit by their relative Wilfred. Wilfred is a common name in their extended family and so they imagine this Wilfred is the one known widely in the family as ‘Wilfred the Snatcher’ because he is a kleptomaniac.

This stresses the couple because it just so happens to be the date of their silver wedding anniversary and friends and family far and near have bombarded them with silver gifts. Reluctantly, they show ‘Wilfred the Snatcher’ their gifts, including no fewer than seven silver cream jugs.

Wilfred is polite and complimentary, then it is time for bed. After he’s gone upstairs, Mrs and Mrs count up all the silver presents and become convinced that one of the cream jugs is missing and convinced that Wilfred must have stolen it. Next morning when he’s in the bathroom, they sneak into his bedroom and rifle through his suitcase and find… the missing silver cream jug! They take it back but decide to say nothing about it.

Half an hour later, when he comes down for breakfast, Wilfred immediately announces that one of the servants must be a thief because someone has stolen the silver cream jug from his suitcase. He goes on to explain that he and his mother had carefully selected the silver jug as a silver wedding anniversary for the pair but he forgot to give it earlier in the evening and when the couple showed him the presents they’d received to date and laughed at the fact that they’d already received seven cream jugs, he felt too embarrassed to proceed.

During this explanation several facts tumbled out which made the horrified couple realise that this Wilfred Pigeoncote is not the famous Wilfred the Snatcher but a much more remote relative, a Wilfred who is very high up in the Foreign Office! My God! They’ve made a disastrous mistake! Mrs Pigeoncote feels faint and dispatches husband Peter to fetch her smelling salts.

The situation is retrieved when, while her husband is out of the room, Mrs P confides in a low tone that the culprit is none other than her husband! ‘My God,’ says Wilfred the Foreign Office; ‘What, you mean like Wilfred the Snatcher!? My God, it must run in the family.’ ‘Yes,’ says the wife, ‘It is most tragic,’ handing him back the stolen cream jug, ‘and we’d be most grateful if you could keep it to yourself!’

The Occasional Garden

Elinor Rapsley is moaning that her back garden is too big to be ignored but not big enough to make a statement and she’s stressed because Gwenda Pottingdon has invited herself to lunch, and is ‘only coming to gloat over my bedraggled and flowerless borders and to sing the praises of her own detestably over-cultivated garden.’

The Baroness (a recurring character we’ve met in previous stories) advises her to subscribe to the OOSA, the Occasional-Oasis Supply Association. If you’re having a social event and have a scrappy back space, the OOSA will supply the garden of your dreams for the day, and tailor it to your guests, as well. Or you can pay extra and get the EON or Envy of the Neighbourhood service.

So Elinor pays for a de luxe garden to be installed ahead of Gwenda Pottingdon’s lunch visit and the latter is suitably overawed and silenced. Unfortunately, a few days later, when the OOSA has been back to remove the temporarily hired garden, Gwenda Pottingdon pays a surprise visit, barges her way into the living room and is immediately startled to see the previously luxurious garden completely absent. What happened?

‘Suffragettes,’ is Elinor’s brilliant, one-word reply, the one-word explanation for any kind of vandalism and hooliganism.

The Sheep

The Sheep is in fact the nickname of a very bad bridge player: ‘Being awfully and uselessly sorry formed a large part of his occupation in life.’ His bridge partner and prospective brother-in-law, Richard, thinks of him as one of the world’s many sheep, bumbling foolishly through life while all the time imagining himself a big, brave fellah. What makes it so galling is that, having lost his son, Robbie, fighting in India, Richard has no heir so, when the Sheep marries his sister, Kathleen, it’ll be only a matter of time before the inept bumbler inherits the family home and raises more ‘sheep’.

When the Sheep and Richard are on the way back from a day’s shooting during which he has pitifully failed to bag anything, the Sheep is suddenly confronted by a large bird lifting off the ground and flying slowly towards them and hits it with both barrels. Unfortunately, it is a very rare honey-buzzard which Richard’s family have been going to great lengths to protect for the last four years.

The local MP has died and Richard throws himself into a round of canvassing for votes which leads up to a packed meeting to be addressed by their candidate the night before the vote. Richard is due to give thanks to the Chairman but has a sore throat and (foolishly) asks the Sheep to do it. He makes the required customary sentence or two but then decides to give the meeting the benefit of his own opinions which turn out to be wildly destructive and unpopular. His remarks travel all round the constituency and lose the election.

Then Richard and Kathleen and the Sheep go for a winter holiday in the Alps. The Sheep insists on going too near to the thin ice on the lake which all the skaters have been amply warned against. No surprise when there’s a cry and he disappears into an ice hole. Richard immediately skates to the land where he’d seen a ladder which can be used to reach across the dodgy ice to save him. But as he reaches for it a huge guard dog leaps on him and keeps him pinned down during the vital moments when the Sheep might have been rescued, but in fact drowns.

As a result, Richard buys the guard dog and it becomes his loyal and much-loved companion :).

The Oversight (Clovis Sangrail)

Lady Prowche goes to enormous lengths to ensure that the guests to her prospective country-house party cannot possibly disagree about anything (after a run of parties which each ended in appalling rows). With her friend Lena Luddleford she goes carefully through a list of the many issues which divided Edwardian society, eliminating anyone who would be liable to fall out about any of them, and eventually whittles her list down to the only two possible men she can invite.

But first she tasks Lena with the all-important job of ascertaining the two men’s views align on the hot topic of the day, vivisection. A day or two later back comes the signal that they do agree on this issue and so Lady Prowche goes ahead and invites them.

With lamentable consequences. Despite all her efforts the two men do, in fact, fall out, and the party ends in a big row. Why? Because they support opposite sides in the recent Balkan Wars: ‘One of them was Pro-Greek and the other Pro-Bulgar.’ Damn! So close!

Hyacinth

Hyacinth is the name of an intelligently malicious boy. He is the son of Matilda who insists on taking him along for the election campaign of her husband who is up against the newly appointed Colonial Secretary (who has also brought his three little children along for the campaign) much against the advice of her good friend Mrs. Panstreppon who knows just what Hyacinth is like.

After the polls have closed, Hyacinth phones his mother to explain that he has kidnapped the three charming little children and locked them in a local pigsty with a very angry huge sow locked outside. If their father wins the poll, he will unlock the door and the big angry sow will devour the children. If his (Hyacinth’s) father wins, he’ll let the children go.

This results in the kids’ father, Jutterly the Colonial Secretary, rushing round to the town hall begging them to query and invalidate as many of his votes as possible in order to save his children’s lives. It works. He manages to lose, his defeat is communicated to Hyacinth, who lets down a ladder into the stye which allows the three terrified toddlers to climb to safety.

‘Told you so’, says Mrs. Panstreppon. Hyacinth wouldn’t be out of place in a modern Mexican election, she points out drolly; but maybe leave him at home for the next domestic one.

This story contains both animals and children, vectors of Saki’s satire on the absurd pretensions of the adult world, continual revealers of the spite and violence at the heart of nature.

The Purple of the Balkan Kings

The first of two ‘stories’ about the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913.

Luitpold Wolkenstein, financier and diplomat on a small, obtrusive, self-important scale, sat in his favoured cafe in the world-wise Habsburg capital, confronted with the Neue Freie Presse and the cup of cream-topped coffee and attendant glass of water that a sleek-headed piccolo had just brought him.

Austrian cafe expert, podgy inexperienced and smug, Wolkenstein is horrified at news of the Balkan War which heralds the rise of new nations on his border, new nations who’ll want to teach the old Great Powers a thing or two! The Ottoman Empire has lost almost all its possessions in Europe, while a significantly enlarged Serbia has begun agitating for a union of all the Slavs in south-east Europe.

As you can see, this is more of a character profile heavy with political interpretation i.e. condemnation of Austria’s smug bourgeoisie, than a ‘story’.

The Cupboard of the Yesterdays

The second of two ‘stories’ about the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 is a dialogue between the abstract figures of the Wanderer and the Merchant.

The Merchant holds the conventional liberal view that the Balkan Wars are a tragedy, all that death and waste etc. Whereas the Wanderer holds a completely different view: he thinks the tragedy is that, with the expulsion of the Ottomans from Europe and the establishment of modern nation-states with clearly defined borders, a lot of the old glamour and mystique of the murky Balkans will disappear.

‘The old atmosphere will have changed, the glamour will have gone; the dust of formality and bureaucratic neatness will slowly settle down over the time-honoured landmarks; the Sanjak of Novi Bazar, the Muersteg Agreement, the Komitadje bands, the Vilayet of Adrianople, all those familiar outlandish names and things and places, that we have known so long as part and parcel of the Balkan Question, will have passed away into the cupboard of yesterdays, as completely as the Hansa League and the wars of the Guises.’

He uses words like magic and charm:

  • ‘It seemed a magical region, with its mountain passes and frozen rivers and grim battlefields, its drifting snows, and prowling wolves; there was a great stretch of water that bore the sinister but engaging name of the Black Sea—nothing that I ever learned before or after in a geography lesson made the same impression on me as that strange-named inland sea, and I don’t think its magic has ever faded out of my imagination…’
  • ‘There is a charm about those countries that you find nowhere else in Europe, the charm of uncertainty and landslide…’

But now that many of these nations have gained nationhood, in fifteen years the whole region will be about as glamorous as Bexhill! As the Wanderer himself admits, his version of the Balkans exists primarily to ‘to thrill and enliven’ our humdrum existences, to fire our slothful imaginations.

So it’s not really a story at all, it’s more the exposition of a worldview, the late-Victorian worldview which found glamour and excitement in tales of derring-do in far-off, exotic places. In this respect, it’s not unlike the opening passage of Bertie’s Christmas which gave the impression that the entire British Empire and Commonwealth existed solely for the entertainment and gainful employment of the English upper middle-classes. Maybe it did.

For the Duration of the War

The Reverend Wilfrid Gaspilton finds himself removed from the fashionable parish of St. Luke’s Kensingate to the immoderately rural parish of St. Chuddocks, somewhere in Yondershire. His wife finds it dire and buries herself in translating an obscure French novel.

Wilfrid also finds it unbearably boring until he has an idea: to concoct a literary hoax. He makes up:

Ghurab, a hunter, or, according to other accounts, warden of the royal fishponds, who lived, in some unspecified century, in the neighbourhood of Karmanshah

and attributes to him fragments of poetry allegedly discovered by the Reverend’s own son, currently serving in Mesopotamia.

The reverend then sends these fictional fragments of Persian poetry to the Bi-Monthly Review in London which publishes them and they quickly become popular, taken up and quoted, and a Ghurab-of-Karmanshah Club is founded whose members refer to each other as Brother Ghurabians.

War brings many unintended consequences.


Themes

The role of animals in Saki’s short stories

The previous collection of short stories, Beasts and Super-Beasts, was aptly titled, since rogue animals play a key role in many of them, the more bizarre or encountered in bizarre circumstances, the more savage and violent, the better.

Like the werewolf in Gabriel-Ernest or the hyena which eats a gypsy child in Esmé or the polecat which kills Conradin’s aunt in Sredni Vishtar. Violent, beast-related and gruesome, it’s no accident that those three stories are among Saki’s most celebrated.

In this collection, there are some exotic beasts, but not so many:

  • The Wolves of Cernogratz
  • Louis centres on a mechanical lapdog
  • The Guests describes an overflow of goats and a leopard! during a flood in India
  • The Penance involves a domestic cat and a big pig
  • The Mappined Life contrasts the lives of zoo animals with humans
  • Bertie’s Christmas Eve involves farmyard cows
  • The Interlopers features the forest wolves at the end
  • The Hedgehog in which a young woman has a vision of a giant white hedgehog
  • The Bull is about a prize bull which tosses and tramples the artist
  • Hyacinth which features a potentially murderous sow

It is no accident that the two most haunting stories in the set, The Interlopers and The Wolves of Cernogratz, both feature animals at their most intense and symbolic, symbolic counterpoints to the superficialities of human wealth and culture.

The other stories mostly feature domestic or pretty plain farm animals (cat, cows, pig) in relatively humdrum settings but nonetheless, The Animal plays a role in Saki’s fiction as a kind of wild card, thrown into otherwise banal social settings to create an element which punctures the polite pretensions of human society and its timid conventions (satirised in the story about afternoon tea).

The role of ‘abroad’

Another thing about the two wolf stories is that they are not set in England.

It is a critical platitude about Saki that his stories mock the Edwardian English upper classes and, indeed, many of them are set in London drawing rooms or at country-house parties. But it’s arguable that the best of them (obviously the two wolf stories, but also the two at the end ‘about’ the Balkan wars, or the three animal stories from earlier collections) do not.

There is a consistent strand of Saki stories which are not set in England at all, and he has a penchant for Eastern Europe or Russia where he himself spent some years as a correspondent. The appeal of these, at the time, fairly remote destinations is made explicit in The Cupboards of Yesterday: they are remote and untamed, full of casual violence and risk which thrills the bourgeois imagination in a way life in Bexhill emphatically can’t.

The notion that animals speak on Christmas Eve in Bertie’s Christmas Eve derives from Russia, precisely the kind of peasant superstition you’d expect from what the Edwardian readers thought of as a charmingly backward peasant society.

The tension between the two – tame England and exotic abroad – comes out a little in the story Louis, where Mr Strudwarden wants to holiday in (exotic) Vienna while his wife insists on going, yet again, to Brighton, precisely because that is where she will find the dull, unimaginative people who find her interesting.

In this respect ‘abroad’ provides another dichotomy or pole against which to set ‘the normal’ existence of the Edwardian middle classes, to bring it into more vivid focus and to critique it, just as ‘animals’ do, and…

Children

…just as children do. In Saki’s world children are emphatically not the innocent angels of conventional thinking. For me the funniest story is Morlvera with its brilliantly funny depiction of the two backstreet London kids, their heads full of lurid, bloodthirsty imagining, but there are also:

  • the two boys in Toys of Peace who can turn even the blandest present into a vehicle for violence and blood
  • the three children in Penance who are prepared to let Octavian Ruttle’s 2-year-old daughter drown in pig poo
  • the ghastly Hyacinth, prepared to let other children be eaten alive

So animals, abroad, and children, are all perspectives or devices which Saki uses to highlight and mock the shallow, silly world of his contemporary society.

Not limited to Edwardian upper classes but told in an upper class tone of voice

Saki’s stories are not really set among the upper classes. I’ve just read Bull, which is about a farmer and his struggling artist brother. Not set in London and very much not among aristocrats. Or take Quail Seed, which concerns a shopkeeper and an impecunious artist he’s rented rooms to in some suburb or small town.

Maybe I’m making the simple point that Saki’s stories are more varied, in setting, class, character and subject matter, than is ordinarily accepted.

At which point, I realised a fairly obvious truth. The characters, settings and subject matter of the stories may not be narrowly upper class – but the tone is. The tone of the narrator, and the character it implies in pretty much all of the stories, is that of the exaggeratedly playful, carelessly privileged, upper class idler, a tone of calculated indifference, sophisticated insouciance, a lofty, mocking detachment from anything serious.

This tone is embodied from time to time in the recurring figure of the useless son or nephew who is failing to get a job or a career or a focus in life, such as Bertie Steffink (Bertie’s Last Christmas) or the useless young Bertie Heasant in Shock Tactics.

And from time to time crystallises in the character of the youthful, playful, witty prankster and bon mot artist, Clovis Sangrail (although Clovis appears in only four of these 31 stories). Clovis has the same playfully amoral wittiness of Oscar Wilde’s protagonists, and many of the snappy one-liners to match:

  • Susan Lady Beanford was a vigorous old woman who had coquetted with imaginary ill-health for the greater part of a lifetime; Clovis Sangrail irreverently declared that she had caught a chill at the Coronation of Queen Victoria and had never let it go again.
  • ‘When you wear a look of tragic gloom in a swimming-bath,’ said Clovis, ‘it’s especially noticeable from the fact that you’re wearing very little else.’
  • But then, as Clovis remarked, when one is rushing about with a blazing woman in one’s arms one can’t stop to think out exactly where one is going to put her.

So it’s not Clovis himself who predominates, it’s his tone, the tone of amused, ironic malice which pervades the stories at every level, no matter where their setting or what their subject matter:

As long as the garden produced asparagus and carnations at pleasingly frequent intervals Mrs. Gaspilton was content to approve of its expense and otherwise ignore its existence. She would fold herself up, so to speak, in an elegant, indolent little world of her own, enjoying the minor recreations of being gently rude to the doctor’s wife and continuing the leisurely production of her one literary effort, The Forbidden Horsepond.

‘Being gently rude to the doctor’s wife’. An understated tone which glosses over ironical comparisons and unexpected juxtapositions which are always amusing and sometimes very funny.

The Rev. Wilfrid found himself as bored and ill at ease in his new surroundings as Charles II would have been at a modern Wesleyan Conference… With the inhabitants of his parish he was no better off; to know them was merely to know their ailments, and the ailments were almost invariably rheumatism. Some, of course, had other bodily infirmities, but they always had rheumatism as well. The Rector had not yet grasped the fact that in rural cottage life, not to have rheumatism is as glaring an omission as not to have been presented at Court would be in more ambitious circles.

Political stories

The Edwardian period was one of surprising political stresses and crises and a number of the stories  directly invoke the world of politics. Except that, true to form, what interests Saki is not the issues themselves but the  way the issues, and the political process itself, can be mocked and ridiculed. To my daughter the feminist, the suffragettes are the subject of burning zeal. To Saki, they are the punchline of a joke.

It may be worth listing the stories which contain at least some politics:

  • The Disappearance: in the world of politics Edward Umberleigh is considered a strong man
  • The Phantom Lunch: MP Sir James Drakmanton insists that his wife lunches with the ghastly Smithly-Dubbs women because they and their uncle help him at election time
  • Forewarned is entirely about how the standard level of abuse and vitriol thrown about in a local election strikes an utterly innocent outsider
  • Canossa is a satire on Parliamentary politics
  • The Threat is an anti-suffragette satire pitched at the highest level where upper class suffragettes hobnob with the Prime Minister, leading up to the passage of an Act of Parliament
  • Hyacinth is another satire on the ridiculousness of local elections
  • The Sheep the final part of which is about the nuts and bolts of canvassing for a local election
  • Hyacinth is about a local Parliamentary election

The political stories confirm the impression derived from reading his polemical, alarmist novel, When William Came, that after 15 years as a political correspondent Saki was heartily sickened and disillusioned by British politics. Who isn’t? His disillusion comes from a solidly patrician, right-wing perspective. But his withering satire on the business of politics is just as destructive.

Suffragettes

Saki was clearly against the suffragettes who he associates with unreasonable demands and violent, vandalistic behaviour. Sometimes he mounts a direct attack, as in The Threat, which features a suffragette who comes up with a cunning new strategy. Other times it is a throwaway remark which, in its own way, is more revealing of the way the suffragettes were regarded by some in Edwardian England.

Thus when, in the comic story, The Occasional Garden, Gwenda Pottingdon pops in unexpectedly on her ‘friend’ Elinor Rapsley and is startled to discover that the sumptuous back garden she had displayed just four days earlier has vanished, Elinor has the presence of mind to explain with one word: Suffragettes, which says enough, and the way it says enough speaks volumes about its place in the respectable, middle-class discourse of the day.

In Louis the brother and sister conspiring to kill Lena’s insufferable dog for a moment consider making up a story that suffragettes had invaded the house and killed it by throwing a brick at it. No act of wanton violence was too outrageous not to be assigned to the violent suffragettes.

And in The Oversight one example of many guests who’ve got into frightful rows is Laura Henniseed, by implication one of the votes for women women. As remarks: ‘Of course the Suffragette question is a burning one, and lets loose the most dreadful ill-feeling.’ Maybe it was as divisive as Brexit has been in our own day.

Real alienation

The least humorous of the stories is the most bitter and may be, in some sense, the most psychologically ‘true’. In The Mappined Life, after they’ve visited London Zoo’s pathetic attempt to give its caged, constricted animals the illusion of wildness and freedom by building a pathetic little concrete area named the Mappin Gardens, her niece reduces Aunt Gurtleberry to tears by saying that they, too, are cabin’d, cribb’d and confined into narrow little lives of utter predictability and emptiness.

Its tone borders on suicidal despair and (this is pure speculation) makes you wonder whether, after fifteen years of chronicling the political scene and upper class life in Edwardian England, Saki, like so many others, welcomed the Great War as a chance to cleanse and redeem themselves from the sordid littleness and petty compromises of English life.

An annotated Saki

Probably the expense would never be justified, but it would be lovely to have an annotated edition of Saki’s stories because some of them contain a veritable blizzard of what are obviously references to contemporary events which it would be entertaining and informative to have properly explained.

For example, The Oversight is a story all about the subjects people find to argue about at country-house parties: religion (Church of England or non-conformist), politics (for or against Lloyd George), votes for women (for or against), vivisection, the Derby decision (‘the Stewards’ decision about Craganour’), the Falconer Report (into the Marconi scandal), and taking sides during the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913.

I was able to look up Mappin Terraces at London Zoo, which were brand new when Saki wrote his story about them, but there are many more fleeting references to contemporary people or events which flash by with the mention of just a name or fleeting reference which you know is important but cannot identify. When, in The Disappearance of Crispina Umberleigh, he casually refers to ‘the feminine cycling craze’ it would be nice to learn more.

And it is a minor but interesting note that the troubled situation in Mexico (then experiencing the start of its long drawn-out revolution) is referred to in no fewer than three stories (The Threat, The Mappined Life and Hyacinth) so was obviously having an impact on educated opinion, but what impact, exactly?

Ignoring this steady stream of contemporary issues has the net effect of making Saki’s stories seem more timeless and ahistorical than they actually are. It’s true that half or more of the stories are set in the timeless world of upper-middle-class twits which to some extent anticipates P.G. Wodehouse’s. But even these sometimes contain sharp references to very recent, headline-making political and social events, which indicate the depth of Saki’s engagement and commitment.

Comic similes

He brought her a large yellow dahlia, which she grasped tightly in one hand and regarded with a stare of benevolent boredom, such as one might bestow on amateur classical dancing performed in aid of a deserving charity.

[The Salvation Army] used to go about then unkempt and dishevelled, in a sort of smiling rage with the world, and now they’re spruce and jaunty and flamboyantly decorative, like a geranium bed with religious convictions.


Related links

Saki’s works

Beasts and Super-Beasts by Saki (1914)

As the name suggests, Saki’s propensity for introducing wild animals into sedate Edwardian society with comic, ironic or gruesome effect goes into overdrive in many of the stories in this collection. Beasts and Super-Beasts is a collection of 36 Saki short stories. I give brief plot summaries and one or two quotes from each story which either sum it up or are just good examples of Saki’s ironic humour. Many of them feature Saki’s fictional avatar, the slender, svelte and hyper-ironic young man, Clovis Sangrail. For interest, I indicate whether Clovis appears in a story, or not, in brackets after the title.

The She-Wolf (Clovis)

‘I think it very unkind of you not to carry out my suggestion of turning me into a wolf,’ said Mary Hampton, as she crossed over to the conservatory to give her macaws their usual tribute from the dessert dishes.

Leonard Bilsiter is a boring non-entity. He went travelling with a friend across Russia but got caught in the railway strike and spent longer than expected in the far East of the country. Upon returning he gave out dark hints that he had acquired secrets of Siberian magic. He attends a house party given by Colonel and Mrs Mary Hampton where the hostess, on impulse, asks Leonard to turn her into a wolf!

Her husband demurs but Saki’s trouble-making young man, Clovis Sangrail, is at table and afterwards asks Lord Pabham, famous for his private menagerie, whether he has a wolf he can borrow. Yes, Lord Pabham does possess such an animal, a fine timber wolf named Louisa. By dinner next day Clovis has also recruited Mary herself into an elaborate practical joke.

After dinner the guests retire to the conservatory where Mary once again asks Leonard to change her into a wolf, as she saunters among the palms, disappearing from view. Then the pet parrots start squawking and from among the palms emerges… a lean, evil-looking wolf! Women scream, the men leap to their feet! Everyone assumes Leonard has used his Siberian magic to turn Mary Hampton into a wolf and so they entreat Leonard to turn her back but, of course, he can’t.

‘What!’ shouted Colonel Hampton, ‘you’ve taken the abominable liberty of turning my wife into a wolf, and now you stand there calmly and say you can’t turn her back again!’…
‘I assure you I didn’t turn Mrs. Hampton into a wolf; nothing was farther from my intentions,’ [Leonard] protested.

Laura

Laura died on Monday.
‘So dreadfully upsetting,’ Amanda complained to her uncle-in-law, Sir Lulworth Quayne. ‘I’ve asked quite a lot of people down for golf and fishing, and the rhododendrons are just looking their best.’
‘Laura always was inconsiderate,’ said Sir Lulworth; ‘she was born during Goodwood week, with an Ambassador staying in the house who hated babies.’

Laura is dying, She tells her friend Amanda she’d like to be reincarnated as an otter. To Amanda’s amazement, soon after Laura’s death a cheeky otter starts terrorising the neighbour’s poultry. And that’s just the first in a series of unfortunate reincarnations.

The Boar-Pig

Mrs. Philidore Stossen leads her grown-up daughter on a short cut through a paddock in order to gatecrash Mrs Cuvering’s garden party, the garden party of the season, which ‘the Princess’ is attending. Everyone else in the county has been invited and Mrs Stossen is damned if she’s going to let herself be left out.

Unfortunately, Mrs Cuvering’s malicious 13-year-old daughter, Matilda, is watching from up in an apple tree. She knows the Stossens will find the back gate into the garden locked and will be forced to retrace their steps through the paddock. So she releases the Cuverings’ enormous, scary boar-pig, Tarquin Superbus, from its stye into the paddock which is where, as they disconsolately troop back from the locked back garden gate, Mrs. Philidore Stossen and her grown-up daughter encounter it and come to a dead halt out of fear.

Matilda then proceeds to shamelessly demand £2 from the hapless mother and daughter to clear the boar-pig out of their only route back to the main road. They argue her down to ten shillings.

The Brogue (Clovis)

Jessie came back from the golf links next day in a state of mingled elation and concern.
‘It’s all right about the proposal,’ she announced; ‘he came out with it at the sixth hole. I said I must have time to think it over. I accepted him at the seventh.’
‘My dear,’ said her mother, ‘I think a little more maidenly reserve and hesitation would have been advisable, as you’ve known him so short a time. You might have waited till the ninth hole.’
‘The seventh is a very long hole,’ said Jessie; ‘besides, the tension was putting us both off our game.’

The Brogue is a very rebellious, even dangerous, horse which the Mullet family have been trying to get rid of for years. Alas, they sell it to a rich neighbour Mr. Penricarde just as he starts to show an interest in one of Mrs Mullet’s endless brood of daughters, Jessie. They are all distraught that the mad horse will throw Penricarde and kill him before Jessie can marry him, so they turn for advice to the ever-resourceful Clovis Sangrail.

The Hen (Clovis)

‘But he might kill me at any moment,’ protested Jane.
‘Not at any moment; he’s busy with the silver all the afternoon.’

Dora sells Jane a bronze Leghorn or some such exotic breed of hen at a rather exotic price. The hen turns out not to lay eggs. The letters which subsequently pass between the two women were a revelation as to how much invective could be got on to a sheet of notepaper.

Which makes it awkward that Jane is staying with the Sangrails and Dora is due to come and visit before Jane has left. Clovis conceives a plan: He has a tete-a-tete with Jane in which he explains that the Sangrail family’s faithful old retainer, Sturridge, is an unpredictable homicidal maniac and has heard some irrational rumours about Jane, and might attack her at any moment.

Amazingly, even this direct threat is not enough to budge her. Not until Clovis sends the butler (all unwitting) into the drawing room with a ceremonial sword on the pretext that Jane is interested in its old inscription (which she isn’t). But when she spies the butler entering the drawing room where she’s sitting, bearing a heavy old sword, she scarpers out the back passage, and is packed and waiting to be driven to the station in half an hour dead!

The Open Window

‘The doctors agree in ordering me complete rest, an absence of mental excitement, and avoidance of anything in the nature of violent physical exercise,’ announced Framton, who laboured under the tolerably widespread delusion that total strangers and chance acquaintances are hungry for the least detail of one’s ailments and infirmities, their cause and cure.

Framton Nuttel has been told to take a rest cure and go and stay in the country, so he’s making the rounds of a number of acquaintances and is currently staying with a Mrs Sappleton. One October afternoon the house is empty except for him and Mrs Sappleton’s 15-year-old niece, Vera. It is then that the niece tells him about the Great Tragedy. One day Mrs Sappleton’s husband and two brothers set off on a hunt and never came back, they were sucked down into the great bog and never returned.

Ever since that day her aunt has always kept the french windows open in the vain hope that they will magically return… She weaves such a persuasive story that when they both see three figures looming in the distance, the niece is suddenly struck dumb with horror and Framton catches her mood, is convinced they must be the ghosts, has a panic attack, grabs his stuff, bolts out the living room out the front door and along the lane (nearly knocking over a cyclist).

Meanwhile the menfolk walk back in through the door, accompanied by their loyal spaniel and muddy from their hunting, and ask who the man is who they saw bolting out of the room. Most peculiar chap, explains Mrs Sappleton, just upped and ran out for no reason at all. At which point Vera delivers the coup de grace of the story:

‘I expect it was the spaniel,’ said the niece calmly; ‘he told me he had a horror of dogs. He was once hunted into a cemetery somewhere on the banks of the Ganges by a pack of pariah dogs, and had to spend the night in a newly dug grave with the creatures snarling and grinning and foaming just above him. Enough to make anyone lose their nerve.’

Romance at short notice was her speciality.

Delicious.

The Treasure-Ship

Lulu, Duchess of Dulverton, is rich and interested in ancient treasure in old shipwrecks. She reads about a new device which can suck up debris from the ocean bed or sunken ships if you can locate them. She has a penniless nephew, Vasco Honiton, who’s quite handy and she commissions him to try out the equipment on the Irish coast, off a patch of land her family own. Unfortunately, Vasco locates the wreck of the Sub-Rosa, which went down when its owner, Billy Yuttley, was suspected of suicide. Vasco not only locates the Sub-Rosa but locates a watertight strongbox in its locker, scoops it up to the surface and discovers within it, papers proving a far-reaching scandal, papers which incriminate Lulu herself. Very calmly Vasco tells Lulu he is going to blackmail her and use the proceeds to buy a villa in Florence and live a life of leisure, possibly taking up as a hobby collecting the paintings of Raeburn.

The Cobweb

Haunting story of young Mrs. Ladbruk, wife of a young chap who inherits an ancient farm and the staff who run it which includes ninety-four-year old Martha Crale. She is an ancient, rake-thin, decrepit crone. The story is short on gags and very long on atmospheric descriptions of an Edwardian farm, its rhythms and how Martha Crale is always in the way of young Mrs. Ladbruk’s plans to decorate and update everything. One day young Mrs. Ladbruk comes across her staring out the window, muttering about death and misinterprets it as her final breakdown. But in fact it is an eerie and spooky vision of the death of young Mrs. Ladbruk’s husband, who is brought in having been crushed by a falling tree.

The skill in the story is how it cuts away at the moment Mrs Ladbruk learns of her father’s death, so that we do not see or hear young Mrs. Ladbruk’s response, or get any description at all of her feelings and the impact on her of the death of her husband. Instead the scene cuts to a week or so later as she stands with all her belongings packed, waiting for a cart to collect her, and has a last sight of old Martha Crale trussing a pair of chickens just as she has done any time this last 80 years.

It’s not a ghost story exactly, but it’s about an almost ghostly presence, and it is a tragedy. In this respect, it echoes a lot of Kipling’s stories from exactly the same period, which are about the uncanny presence, magic and psychology of old Sussex hussifs.

The Lull

Latimer Springfield is a boring young man standing in a county election. Mrs. Durmot invites him to come and stay to break up the final weeks of the campaign. Mrs Durmot tells her niece Vera that the man needs a rest. Instead, when the entire household has gone to bed, Vera interrupts Latimer at his late night speech-writing by telling him there has been a flood, the local dam has burst and the river has burst its banks, the house is full of Boy Scouts who have been cut off, and could he look after one of the pigs and one of the prize chickens which have been rained out of the farmyard.

Very reluctantly Latimer agrees, the animals fight and keep him up all night and, of course, in the morning, the housemaid comes in with his tea as normal, he throws back the curtains, and realises there has been no flood at all. It has all been an elaborate practical joke.

The Unkindest Blow

A Tory joke. The narrator fantasises that the present spate of strikes (which plagued late-Edwardian society) becomes universal until, eventually, every trade and industry known to man has finally had at least one strike.

Utterly exhausted, society returns to normal, and looks forward to the Divorce of the Century, between the fabulously wealthy Duke of Falvertoon and his wife. A vast cottage industry of reporters, commentators, columnists and even the film business hire rooms and seats in the divorce court, ready to make a fortune. Until – and here’s the punchline – the Duke and his wife go on strike, refusing to go through with the case until they get a slice of the action.

The Romancers

Morton Crosby is enjoying a cigarette in a secluded spot in Hyde Park when he is approached in a roundabout manner by an obvious beggar. But Morton is one of Saki’s heartless ironists and the beggar has barely got going with his spiel before Morton launches into a drolly absurd claim to be a Persian, born on the border with Afghanistan, and proceeds to bamboozle the beggar with ridiculous, made-up customs, in the end claiming his religion absolutely forbids him to give alms in the month of November, rising and walking off with a spring in his step.

The Schartz-Metterklume Method

Lady Carlotta steps out of her train at a little rural station for a breather, to stretch her legs, and the train unexpectedly pulls away without her, leaving her stranded without her luggage. However, a cart pulls up and in it is Mrs. Quabarl, who insists that Lady Carlotta must be Miss Hope, the governess, they were expecting. Lady Carlotta, having a droll, Sakiesque sense of humour, decides to go along with the mistake, letting herself be driven back to the Quabarl house, introduced to the household, fed and informed as to her duties posing as the governess.

Next morning Mrs. Quabarl is astonished to discover her children re-enacting the Rape of the Sabine Women by abducting the two little daughters of the gatekeeper’s wife and, when Mrs. Quabarl remonstrates with Lady C, the latter simply walks away, through the gates, back to the station and catches the next train to her intended destination. Soon after which the real Miss Hope arrives and is very confused by the consternation and vapours which greet her.

The Seventh Pullet

He was beginning to realise how safe and easy depravity can seem once one has the courage to begin…

Blenkinthrope is a boring commuter, catching the same train, sitting in the same carriage with the same bored companions. His only subject is the vegetables he grows in his garden. ‘Make something up’, suggests his friend, Gorworth, and on the spur of the moment invents a tale that six of his prize pullets were mesmerised and killed by a snake, but the seventh survived because it’s a rare breed with feathers over its eyes, hence not susceptible to the snake’s charms. Next day, Blenkinthrope tells his commuter colleagues the story and is astonished at how riveted they are. The story is even passed on to a poultry magazine and appears as a titbit in a national paper.

In successive attempts at fiction, however, Blenkinthrope quickly oversteps the bounds of plausibility and becomes known as the Baron Munchausen of his little set. Thus, when his wife really does die from playing a cursed card game from which her own mother and grandmother had died – when Blenkinthrope excitedly tells everyone about this most strange and exciting thing which has genuinely happened to him… Nobody believes him. Chastened, he returns to boring stories about his not-that-special vegetables.

The Blind Spot

‘My dear Egbert, between nearly killing a gardener’s boy and altogether killing a Canon there is a wide difference. No doubt you have often felt a temporary desire to kill a gardener’s boy; you have never given way to it, and I respect you for your self-control.’

Great-aunt Adelaide has died and left Egbert her heir and executor. Among her papers he comes across a letter from her brother, Peter, the canon, who was mysteriously murdered. His cook, Sebastien from the French Pyrenees, was accused and tried for the murder but the evidence wasn’t convincing and he was acquitted, at which point Egbert’s uncle, Sir Lulworth Quayne (who also appears in Laura), instantly hired him and has been enjoying the delights of his wonderful cuisine for several years.

Now, with a flourish, Egbert reveals that among Adelaide’s letters was one from her brother which described a violent argument he had with the hot-tempered Pyrennean, and how he was now going in fear of his life. This letter would supply the missing motive and be enough to convict the cook.

To Egbert’s horror Sir Lulworth takes the letter from his hand and tosses it into the heart of the fireplace.

‘What on earth did you do that for?’ gasped Egbert. ‘That letter was our one piece of evidence to connect Sebastien with the crime.’
‘That is why I destroyed it,’ said Sir Lulworth.
‘But why should you want to shield him?’ cried Egbert; ‘the man is a common murderer.’
‘A common murderer, possibly, but a very uncommon cook.’

Dusk

Norman Gortsby is sitting on a bench in Hyde Park at dusk. An old joxer is sitting there when he arrives but soon leaves, to be replaced by a likely young fellow who immediately starts telling a hard-luck story about how he booked into a hotel he was taken to, nipped out to buy a bar of soap at a chemists, then realised he was lost with no way of getting back to the hotel or money.

Note the extreme laconicism of the title. Saki had written scores of these stories by now. Arguably these mid-career stories are less funny than the earlier ones, in some ways more obvious in plot, but contain more subtle psychology and storytelling techniques.

A Touch of Realism

Blanche Boveal gives her friend Lady Blonze an idea for her Christmas house party: get everyone to adopt a character, not tell anyone what it is but act it out over the course of a few days, and the best one wins a prize.

So they go ahead, with various comic results: waspish Bertie van Tahn wakes up fat hypochondriac Waldo Plubley in the middle of the night to ransack his room for sheep, lost sheep. Yes, he is pretending to be Little Bo Peep. But the prize goes to Cyril Skatterly and Vera Durmot who, next morning before breakfast, drive the Klammersteins thirty miles to Slogberry Moor, and dump them there, in the snow. Why? Bertie van Tahn is the first to understand: Cyril and Vera were pretending to be Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain deporting the Jews from Spain!

Maybe I’m being over-sensitive, but having read Saki’s second novel, When William Came, with its antisemitic central character Murrey Yeovil, sensitised me to even fleeting mentions of Jews in Saki’s stories and so this deliberate, and even dangerous (dumped in midwinter, snowing, miles from anywhere), humiliation of the only Jews in the story, couldn’t help but ring my alarm bells.

Cousin Teresa (Clovis)

Sort of comic, this is more of a polemical satire with a bitingly jingoistic message, in the tone of When William Came.

Colonel Harrowcluff has two sons, Basset and Lucas. Basset has just returned from four years of worthy service in some colony and his father quietly hopes he might get an honour. His other son remained in England and is always coming up with half-cocked, hare-brained schemes. The story opens up with the younger son devising the lyrics and performance for a music-hall song titled “Cousin Teresa”. To everyone’s surprise, for once his dreams come off and the song is a roaring success.

In fact it’s so successful that the Minister decides he must be given a knighthood: not the Harrowcluff who spent years of his life shoring up the empire in a farflung colony, but the Harrowcluff who came up with a meaningless and irritating jingle.

So it’s a lampoon on a British society which is more interested in music-hall jingles than the solid defence of its empire and society. Saki invents a pompous society woman to give an idiotic speech in praise of the song:

‘Politics and patriotism are so boring and so out of date,’ said a revered lady who had some pretensions to oracular utterance; ‘we are too cosmopolitan nowadays to be really moved by them. That is why one welcomes an intelligible production like “Cousin Teresa”, that has a genuine message for one.’

And I am not at all surprised that when Saki ventures on this subject, he manages to squeeze in some antisemitism, which barely even makes sense. Lucas is the twittering idiot of the family, the superficial drone, the epitome of a social gadfly and so, for no logical reason, Saki says he looks Jewish!

His hair and forehead furnished a recessional note in a personality that was in all other respects obtrusive and assertive. There was certainly no Semitic blood in Lucas’s parentage, but his appearance contrived to convey at least a suggestion of Jewish extraction. Clovis Sangrail, who knew most of his associates by sight, said it was undoubtedly a case of protective mimicry.

I don’t quite understand that jab. Does it mean Lucas makes himself appear more Jewish in order to fit in with a show business dominated by Jews? I’m phrasing it like that because there are lines directly to that effect in When Wiliam Comes, that Jews are disproportionately represented in film and theatreland. As I wrote in my review of When William Came Saki’s antisemitism is a stain on his writing.

The Yarkand Manner

An odd satire on the notion that a wild fashion caught on for the editorial staffs of all London’s newspapers and magazines to remove to far-distant locations from where to edit and produce their periodicals. Thus one moves to Paris, but others quickly outdo it by moving to Nurenberg, Seville or Salonika, and then further East till one takes the biscuit by moving its entire editorial team to Yarkand.

Eventually all the newspapers come back to London, tired but with a new Oriental remoteness, a new tone. None more so than the Daily Intelligencer, which had begun to publish articles about foreign affairs of a noted bluntness and belligerence, many ostensibly based on leaks from the government.

The government gets fed up of issuing denials that the Intelligencer is leaking government policy, so one fine day the Prime Minister and a bunch of other ministers go round to the offices and are astonished to discover the true state of affairs: which is that the entire staff of the newspaper decamped for the East where they were promptly kidnapped by bandits who demanded a quarter of a million pounds ransom. The only member of staff left back in London, the office boy who received the bandits’ letter, decided that was too much and so hired some new staff and hid himself away in the Editor’s office, refusing to see anyone personally and issuing all kinds of orders via… himself!

This is presumably a satire on the newspaper industry which Saki knew so well. But here, as in many of the other stories, it’s crying out for intelligent notes to explain whether the story refers to specific incidents in Edwardian London: was there a fashion for one or more papers or magazines to up sticks and produce an entire edition from offices abroad? Or is this pure, whimsical fiction?

I doubt if it would justify the expense, but a fully Annotated Saki would be wonderful, with really good, long notes which thoroughly explained the background to all his many contemporary references.

The Byzantine Omelette

Satirical portrait of snobbish, superior champagne socialist Sophie Chattel-Monkheim. She is preparing herself for a grand dinner she is giving the Duke of Syria. But then disaster strikes. More precisely, the entire domestic staff go on strike. They have discovered that Gaspare, the chef, was himself a strike-breaker in the great strike at Lord Grimford’s two years ago. But he is the only one who knows how to make a byzantine omelette, which is the Duke’s favourite dish, wails Sophie.

All her female houseguests come begging her to do something, so she agrees to dismiss the chef. Half an hour later the guests, looking more or less presentable, are assembled round the dinner table when the butler enters with a sombre look, goes over to Sophie and announces there will be no dinner. The kitchen staff was of the same union as the chef and now they have downed tools in sympathy.

As so often, the story then cuts away completely, jumping forward in time and telling us that, 18 months later, Sophie Chattel-Monkheim is just about recovering from her nervous breakdown.

And so, like The Unkindest Blow, it’s another very topical satire on the widespread strikes which plagued late-Edwardian society.

The Feast of Nemesis (Clovis)

‘There is no outlet for demonstrating your feelings towards people whom you simply loathe. That is really the crying need of our modern civilisation.’

A broad and comic satire in which Clovis’s aunt, Mrs. Thackenbury, wearily laments how tiresome it is having to have to give presents to people one really doesn’t care for on so any feast days. This lament inspires her malicious nephew (Clovis) to concoct the idea of Nemesis Day when you take unbridled revenge on people you really hate.

Take, for example, the ghastly Webleys: wouldn’t it be a good idea to get up bright and early before everyone else on Nemesis Day and go and dig up their tennis court with a fork, later blaming it on ‘an unusually masterful mole or a badger in a hurry.’

How about taking greedy Agnes Blaik into the woods on the promise of a grand picnic and then contriving to lose her just before the eating starts. Or luring fat Waldo Plubley into the hammock in the orchard near where the wasps make their summer nest, getting him nice and comfortable, then throwing a firework into the wasps’ nest.

‘It takes some doing to get out of a hammock in a hurry.’
‘They might sting him to death,’ protested Mrs. Thackenbury.
‘Waldo is one of those people who would be enormously improved by death,’ said Clovis.

A masterpiece of malicious wit.

The Dreamer

Another laugh-out-loud funny story. Adela Chemping invites her sleek, pomaded 18-year-old nephew Cyprian with her to the sales. Most of the story is a satire on the wilful and illogical ways of a middle-aged, middle-class woman on a shopping expedition to a department store. But there is a delicious sting in the tail, when Adela leaves Cyprian for a while to go to the napkin department and, upon her return, discovers him posing as a shop assistant and selling sales goods amid the crush to harassed shoppers for cash and calmly pocketing the proceeds.

As in several of these stories the climax is wonderfully understated, almost omitted, for the next sentence describes Adela being helped into the fresh air and it takes the reader a moment to realise it’s because she’s fainted at the sight of her nephew pulling this impersonation, a fact Saki deliberately omits.

The deliberate omission doesn’t exactly add tension, it makes the effect more… more chiselled and exquisite. There is a tact in not stating what happens, leaving the reader to deduce it. And also a very understated, droll kind of comedy.

The Quince Tree

Heartless Mrs. Bebberly Cumble wants old Betty Mullen removed from her cottage because she never pays the rent and she’s fed up of subsidising her. On the spot her kinder niece, Vera, concocts a cock and bull story about how the jewels stolen in a recent high profile burglary have ended up in Betty’s cottage, and what a lot of people were involved on stealing them and passing them on, including Mrs Cumble’s daughter’s fiancé, that nice young Cuthbert, and also the Canon. Increasingly horrified at the web of crime she has untangled, Mrs. Bebberly Cumble decides to let Betty Mullen stay after all.

The Forbidden Buzzards (Clovis)

Clovis believed that if a lie was worth telling it was worth telling well.

A house party at Mrs Olston’s country home. Hugo Peterby takes Clovis aside and explains he’s rather keen on Betty Coulterneb but doesn’t stand much of a chance against dashing and very rich young Lanner.

‘Leave it with me,’ says Clovis, and proceeds to warn Mrs Olston in dark tones that Lanner has accepted her invitation, not to propose to the fragrant Miss Coulterneb, but to steal the eggs of the only nesting pair of rough-necked buzzards in the country. Clovis concocts an utter fiction about Lanner having one of the finest egg collections in Britain and how he has been associated with desperate measures to get his hands on rare eggs in the past.

‘What can we do?’ asks a horrified Mrs Olston, who promised her husband, before he left on a prolonged trip back to his native Norway, that she would do her uttermost to protect the buzzards. Clovis suggests that Lanner never be left alone for a minute day or night, but be permanently accompanied by a relay of chaperones, including: Mrs Olston herself, who sets out to show him every feature of the estate; her 14-year-old daughter Evelyn, who talks sombrely about how we must make the world a better place (plus ça change); her 9-year-old son who talks incessantly about the Balkan Wars; and the German governess who bombards the hapless Lanner with incessant talk about (the classic German poet) Schiller.

With the result that Lanner never gets a minute to himself, let alone five minutes with the fragrant Miss Coulterneb and so, after a couple of days, gives up and leaves early to return to London.

Leaving the field clear for his rival, Hugo Peterby, who inspired the whole whimsical fantasy in the first place. But, alas, Hugo, also, fails in his suit, and departs leaving the fragrant Miss Coulterneb as virginal and unmarried as ever. The conclusion.

Hugo did not bring off his affair with Betty Coulterneb. Whether she refused him or whether, as was more generally supposed, he did not get a chance of saying three consecutive words, has never been exactly ascertained. Anyhow, she is still the jolly Coulterneb girl.

And then the punchline.

The buzzards successfully reared two young ones, which were shot by a local hairdresser.

Stake

Eleanor Saxelby shuddered. She liked her meals to be of regular occurrence and assured proportions.

Mrs. Attray laments the character of her son Ronald to her friend Eleanor Saxelby. He is only 18 but already a gambling addict. She has deprived him of absolutely every source of money or credit he can possibly have, in order to quell his addiction. The punchline of the story is that Ronnie has excelled himself and managed to gamble away Mrs Attray’s cook to her landlords, the Norridrums, admittedly only for a few days, but this explains why the lunch served to them and Mrs Saxelby is execrable.

‘Then depend on it he was gambling,’ said Eleanor, with the assured air of one who has few ideas and makes the most of them.

Clovis on Parental Responsibilities (Clovis)

‘Now, my mother never bothered about bringing me up. She just saw to it that I got whacked at decent intervals and was taught the difference between right and wrong; there is some difference, you know, but I’ve forgotten what it is.’

Mrs Eggelby is trying to interest Clovis in the achievements of her children, Amy, Willie and Eric, an invitation to curiosity which he does his best to resist. replying to her every sally with sardonic improbabilities.

‘Aunts that have never known a day’s illness are very rare; in fact, I don’t personally know of any.’

A Holiday Task

A timid nobody, Kenelm Jerton, is buttonholed over luncheon in a country hotel by a posh young lady who claims to have forgotten her own name but is convinced she has a title, Lady something or other. ‘I say, would you mind awfully helping me try to remember?’

The unnamed woman asks him to look through old copies of Country Life to see if he can spot her photo, which he dutifully sets himself to do. They meet up again at 5 and she asks him to look after her luggage while she slips out to catch a cab.

A fellow guest walks by chatting to another and mentions that he knows the tall young woman in grey who’s just slipped out. Kenelm asks who she is and finds out she is plain Mrs. Stroope, a golfing lady from thereabouts who often loses her memory. This story is contrived and has some interesting social detail but is not particularly funny.

The Stalled Ox

‘My garden has just been put straight for the winter, and an ox roaming about in it won’t improve matters. Besides, there are the chrysanthemums just coming into flower.’

Theophil Eshley is a timid painter of the rather small landscape he can see from the end of his garden. One day his neighbour, Adela Pingsford, comes banging on his studio door and asks if he can help her shoo away a large ox which has somehow got into her garden. Theophil is useless and Adela is quite magnificently sarcastic.

Eshley took a step or two in the direction of the animal, clapped his hands, and made noises of the ‘Hish’ and ‘Shoo’ variety. If the ox heard them it gave no outward indication of the fact. ‘If any hens should ever stray into my garden,’ said Adela, ‘I should certainly send for you to frighten them out. You ‘shoo’ beautifully. Meanwhile, do you mind trying to drive that ox away?’

The story really lifts off when Eshley a) manages to shoo the ox out of the garden alright – straight through the french windows into Adela’s front room! and b) revolts against the woman’s hysterical imprecations, and instead goes and gets his painting equipment, makes himself comfortable, and paints the masterpiece which was to be the making of his career, Ox in a morning-room, late autumn,  which became one of the sensations of the next Paris Salon, and led on to the Royal Academy showing of its smash-hit sequel, Barbary Apes Wrecking a Boudoir.

The Story-Teller

A confirmed bachelor is stuck in a railway carriage with an aunt accompanying a small girl, an even smaller girl and a small boy. She tells them a feeble story to try and keep them quiet, but they keep asking stupid questions and the smallest girl repeats the first line of On The Road To Mandalay so many times that the bachelor snaps and says he bets he can tell a better story than the aunt.

The bored children immediately ask him to, and so he tells a story about a little girl who is so super-good she wins medals for goodness, and the Prince asks her to visit him in his castle and then to see his lovely park, but then a wolf breaks into the park, sees the girl in her spotless white dress and chases her. She hides in thick bushes and would have gotten away with it except she was trembling so much her medals jingled against each other, the wolf heard her, tracked her down, and ate her up, every morsel, except her shoes and her medals for being so good.

The aunt is, of course, appalled, but the children think it is the best story they’ve ever heard.

A Defensive Diamond

Treddleford is happily ensconced beside a fire on a rainy October evening at his club, settling down to read a book about faraway Samarkand when his peace is broken by the club bore Amblecope sidling up and trying to start conversation on a number of topics. The comedy of the story is that, on each topic, Amblecope has barely begun before Treddleford leaps in and tells huge, preposterous stories which outflank any anecdote Amblecope could tell him.

Eventually Amblecope gives up and sidles away but an hour or so later, as Treddleford makes to leave the room they both happen to arrive at the door at the same moment where, emboldened, Treddleford waves him back with the immortal remark:

‘I believe I take precedence,’ he said coldly; ‘you are merely the club Bore; I am the club Liar.’

The Elk

Teresa, Mrs. Thropplestance, was the richest and most intractable old woman in the county of Woldshire. She has outlived her son and now supervises her heir apparent, vague young Bertie.

‘Bertie might not be disposed to pay much attention to the consecrations of Fate, but he would not dream of opposing his grandmother.’

The story humorously chronicles the forlorn attempts of Mrs. Yonelet to marry off her daughter, Dora and her conversations with the vicar’s wife to whom she confides every stage in her campaigns, up to and including the exciting news that Bertie has just rescued Dora from the old elk Mrs T keeps in a field.

Teresa calmly informs Mrs Yonelet that Bertie has previously rescued two other maidens and the gardener’s son, none of whom he intends to marry. Later the vicar confides to Mrs Yonelet that the woman Teresa wants her grandson to marry is the Bickelbys’ German governess.

Which makes it all the more ironic when, a few months later, the family elk really does attack and kill the Bickelbys’ German governess, leading Teresa to die of heartbreak and frustration a few months later, after which Bertie does, indeed, finally, marry Dora Yonelet. All thanks to The Elk.

‘Down Pens’

Comedy about the gruelling torment of having to write thank you cards as a young couple, who have already written twenty between them, try to think of something genuine and not too insincere to write to the couple who sent them a calendar.

Abruptly the husband comes up with a plan: to write a letter to every newspaper in the land suggesting the abolition of Thank you notes and the declaration of a Writing Truce between Christmas and New Year. Notes of thanks can be attached as formatted counterfoils sent with invoices along with all presents, which only require a quick squiggle of the recipient’s pen.

Obviously a satire on middle-class social conventions.

The Name-Day

Constitutionally timid John James Abbleway works for his firm in Vienna. One winter his fiancée invites him to join her at Fiume. He takes the train south and it starts to snow, very heavily, turning the line into a snowdrift. The engine struggles harder and harder then there is a jolt and John James Abbleway’s carriage slows to a halt. Looking out the window he sees the rest of the train puffing into the distance.

He is left alone in his first class carriage and, on going through to the third class carriage, discovers a solitary old peasant woman. They hear wolves howling. Constitutionally timid John James Abbleway fears they will be eaten by the wolves. Or starve. The woman tells him it is her name day so she knows her saint will protect her. She sells him some of the food in her basket (blood sausages) for an extortionate rate.

Then she announces she knows a house nearby and is going to try to get there. Constitutionally timid John James Abbleway is petrified she will be massacred by the wolves which are howling all round the carriage, but the peasant woman insists it is her name day and she will be perfectly alright. She gets out and steps forth and next thing Abbleway knows, the ‘wolves’ are frolicking round her! He eases open a window and calls her. She shouts back that these are not wolves at all, but her cousin Karl’s dogs and he keeps a pub just beyond the trees. She’ll be back in a bit.

The Lumber Room

Young Nicholas is too clever by half, and for his latest escapade is excluded from the holiday trip which his cousins’ mother arranges for all the children to be taken to Jagborough sands. His aunt forbids him to go into the gooseberry garden. That’s fine by young Nicholas because today is the day he plans to take the big old key from its hiding place on top of some shelves and sneak up to the fearsome and legendary ‘lumber room’ at the top of the house.

When he lets himself into the lumber room it turns out to be precisely the treasure trove such a place should be, dim and dusty with a moth-eaten old fire screen showing an exciting hunting scene and a big old book full of pictures of exotic birds. He hears shouts from the aunt and quickly replaces the book, locks the lumber room door, replaces the key on the shelf and saunters back into the garden.

Missing him, the aunt had herself gone into the gooseberry garden in search and fallen into the empty water tank. Now she is shouting for help. Nicholas saunters over to the water tank and decides to have some fun. ‘How do I know you’re not the Evil One taunting me?’ he taunts. ‘My aunt told me I was forbidden to go in the gooseberry garden’, and so on. The more she protests her identity the more ironically Nicholas replies before casually strolling away.

It is some time before a kitchenmaid, in search of parsley, eventually rescues the aunt from the rain-water tank.

Fur

The sacrifices of friendship were beautiful in her eyes as long as she was not asked to make them.

Eleanor has a super-rich elderly cousin, Bertram Kneyght. She wants to persuade him to give her something really good for her birthday. Her friend Suzanne suggests they ambush the old boy as he walks to his club and inveigle him into the posh department store, Goliath and Mastodon’s where they can hint none too subtly about Eleanor’s birthday.

Indeed they do this but, unbeknown to Eleanor, Suzanne has a plan of her own. She tells Kneyght to buy her friend a fan, just any old fan will do, but then launches on a sad story about how it’s her (Suzanne’s) birthday, too, soon, and how a rich man once promised her a lovely fox-fur stole but never gave it to her.

So the result is that Kneyght gives Eleanor a disappointing fan but Suzanne gets just the luxury silver-fox stole she had been angling for. The friendship between the two women has never recovered. Women Beware Women.

The Philanthropist and the Happy Cat

Direct comparison between Jocantha Bessbury and her cat. Jocantha smugly thinks she has everything she needs, including a lovely house and a lovely garden. Her cat, Attab, spends all day sleeping and at night goes out to catch baby sparrows.

Jocantha falls to reflecting on all the poor around her, poor working girls, shop girls. On an impulse she decides to treat a pair of poor working girls to tickets to the theatre. Well, maybe one one would be better, no need to go mad.

So Jocantha walks to a ticket agency and buys a ticket for a current show, ‘The Yellow Peacock’, then wanders round till she finds an ABC tearooms. Here she spots a sad, pale, forlorn-looking girl sitting by herself, and is about to take pity and play Lady Bountiful when she is surprised by the arrival of the girl’s beau, who is strikingly handsome and self-assured. Jocantha watches them chat then, eventually, the girl has to go.

The story then turns to Jocantha’s half dozen ways of trying to get the dishy young man to catch her eye, including complaining loudly about a muffin, spilling her milk and generally making a commotion. Nothing works. The young man is deeply absorbed in a novel. Eventually Jocantha gives up and comes home, and for the first time regards her house as dull and overfurnished.

She looks at the bloody cat, curled up and smug as ever. ‘But then he had killed his sparrow.’ The droll implication is that Jocantha is every bit the pussy her cat is, but without the hunting abilities. The further implication being that the entire conscious motive of ‘helping the poor’ was a cover for the more self-seeking aim of finding a dishy lover. I.e. philanthropy is bunk, a right-wing (or satirist’s) point of view.

On Approval

None of the discerning patrons of the Restaurant Nuremberg, Owl Street, Soho, are quite sure whether Gebhard Knopfschrank, the young man who caught a ship from Pomerania to London, really is a genuine artist of genius or merely a self-promoting dabbler. He certainly creates striking works.

His pictures always represented some well-known street or public place in London, fallen into decay and denuded of its human population, in the place of which there roamed a wild fauna, which, from its wealth of exotic species, must have originally escaped from Zoological Gardens and travelling beast shows. ‘Giraffes drinking at the fountain pools, Trafalgar Square’ was one of the most notable and characteristic of his studies, while even more sensational was the gruesome picture of ‘Vultures attacking dying camel in Upper Berkeley Street’. There were also photographs of the large canvas on which he had been engaged for some months, and which he was now endeavouring to sell to some enterprising dealer or adventurous amateur. The subject was ‘Hyænas asleep in Euston Station’, a composition that left nothing to be desired in the way of suggesting unfathomed depths of desolation.

Sounds surprisingly science fiction, doesn’t it, a touch of H.G. Wells.

Anyway, over time the regulars notice that Gerhard’s orders at the restaurant are becoming simpler, wine gives way to lager and then to water. This is because Gebhard Knopfschrank is starving. Nothing is selling.

Then one evening he orders a massive, slap-up feast, the finest of everything and puts the Star-Spangled Banner on the music box. The restaurant regulars mutter that he must finally have been ‘discovered’ by a rich American, speculate that his prices will now shoot up, and they quickly hurry to buy up the sketches he’s brought along, as usual, in his portfolio, and at the asking price of ten shillings a pop.

It is only when he’s sold them all that Gerhard disabuses them. His benefactor is an American alright, but one who ploughed his car into the flock of pigs his parents back in Pomerania were walking along a road to market. Being American he promptly offered way over the asking price, making Mamma and Papa rich at a stroke, and they have sent their son in London some of the largesse. Nothing to do with his paintings.

God be thanked for rich Americans, who are always in a hurry to get somewhere else.

And his paintings? Oh, he thinks they’re worthless so he’s burnt them all. Tomorrow he catches the boat back to Pomerania and he’s never coming back. Leaving the restaurant regulars feeling very stupid at having splashed out so much money in a panic for now-worthless drawings.

Obviously a satire on the wild fads and inflated prices of the art world which is, of course, nothing like that 110 years later.


Animals

Obviously the title of the volume is justified by the centrality, in most of the stories, of an animal. In many instances the robust natural behaviour of the animal highlights the artificiality and hypocrisy of the humans. For example, just the blunt existence of the boar-pig highlights the sneakiness and snobbery and competitiveness and bitterness-at-not-being-invited-to-the-party of Mrs. Philidore Stossen.

Animals are innocent because they are not free to make choices. They just do what they do, and their lack of freedom of action somehow highlights the tremendous over-freedom which human beings suffer from, and all the silly snobberies and social restrictions and manners and conventions which we squander that freedom on.

Smart youth versus dumb age

She was a woman of few ideas, with immense powers of concentration.

This is not the first time Saki has expressed this idea and it prompts the reflection that the stories often present a pretty straightforward dichotomy between the simple-minded but obstinate older generation (the apparently never-ending series of prohibiting aunts) who insist on narrow, inflexible ideas of right and wrong and decency etc; and the nimble-witted, ironic and satirical young men and women, who dance ironical rings around them.

The most consistent embodiment of the latter is Clovis Sangrail, but the same spirit is at work in some of the other young adult characters, and often in Saki’s children. His children consistently lack the narrow-minded, good-mannered hypocrisy of their elders, and simply do and say what they fancy, and are all the more shocking for it.

For example,  Mrs Cuvering’s malicious 13-year-old daughter, Matilda, in The Boar-Pig or Mrs. Sappleton’s 15-year-old niece who makes up the story about her dead menfolk in The Open Window or youthfully malicious Nicholas in The Lumber Room.

Are these malicious children the ‘super-beasts’ of the title?

Is Clovis a knut?

In the story The Dreamer Adela Chemping worries that her sleek, pomaded 18-year-old nephew Cyprian might be a ‘nut’. In A Holiday Task the narrator compares Kenelm Jerton to a ‘supernut’. A what?

The term ‘nut’ was Edwardian slang for an idle, upper-class, man-about-town. The word was immortalised in the popular music-hall song Gilbert The Filbert, written and composed by Arthur Wimperis and Herman Finck in 1914 and made famous by the well-known singer Basil Hallam. Here it is from a 1966 disc featuring English character actor Arthur Treacher (on the right) and (improbably enough) the American host of a US TV chat show, Merv Griffin, both cashing in on the fashion for ‘Swinging London’.

Anyway, the point is the lyrics:

I am known round Town as a fearful blood
For I come straight down from the dear old flood
And I know who’s who, and I know what’s what
And between the two I’m a trifle hot
For I set the tone as you may suppose
For I stand alone when it comes to clothes
And as for gals just ask my pals
Why everybody knows.

Chorus: I’m Gilbert the Filbert, the Knut with a K,
The pride of Piccadilly the blasé roué,
Oh Hades, the ladies, who leave their wooden huts
For Gilbert the Filbert the Colonel of the Knuts.

You may look upon me as a waster, what?
But you ought to see how I fag and swot
For I’m called by two, and by five I’m out
Which I couldn’t do if I slacked about
Then I count my ties and I change my kit
And the exercise keeps me awfully fit
Once I begin I work like sin
I’m full of go and grit.

P.G. Wodehouse described the phenomenon of the ‘knut’ at length. In the preface to Joy in the Morning (1946) he wrote:

The Edwardian knut was never an angry young man. He would get a little cross, perhaps, if his man Meadowes sent him out some morning with odd spats on, but his normal outlook on life was sunny. He was humble, kindly soul, who knew he was a silly ass but hoped you wouldn’t mind. He liked everybody, and most people like him. Portrayed on the stage by George Grossmith and G. P. Huntley, he was a lovable figure, warming the hearts of all. You might disapprove of him not being a world’s worker, but you could not help being fond of him… Most knuts were younger sons, and in the reign of good King Edward the position of the younger son in aristocratic families was… what’s the word, Jeeves? Anomalous? You’re sure? Right ho, anomalous. Thank you, Jeeves.

So is Clovis a ‘nut’ or ‘knut’ (the spelling seems to have been unstable)? On the face of it, yes, and the aunts quoted above are right to be worried that their 18-year-old nephews may be turning into unemployed, hyper-well-dressed, unemployed young men-about-town.

In 1994 a new word, ‘metrosexual’, made its first appearance in print to describe: ‘a heterosexual urban man who enjoys shopping, fashion, and similar interests traditionally associated with women or gay men’. Maybe the metrosexual is a descendant of the k/nut which scandalised the older generation in the decadent 1890s and the Edwardian 1900s.

(Interesting to note, in passing, that the term ‘waster’, which in my teenage years was used to describe potheads, was in common use in 1914.)

Silly names

People remember Saki’s stories for their high society cast and settings, for the often exotic animal interventions, for the droll humour and the sometimes macabre turns of events. But Saki was also prolific in the creation of silly names:

Leonard Bilsiter, Mrs. Hoops, Clovis Sangrail, Sir Lulworth Quayne, Mrs. Philidore Stossen, Miss Matilda Cuvering, Sylvester Mullet, Toby Mullett, Mr. Penricarde, Dora Bittholz, Jane Martlet, Framton Nuttel, Mrs. Sappleton, Lulu, Duchess of Dulverton, Vasco Honiton, Mrs. Ladbruk, Martha Crale, Latimer Springfield, Duke of Falvertoon, Morton Crosby, Miss Hope, Mrs. Quabarl, Blenkinthrope, Edmund Smith-Paddon, Zoto Dobreen, Egbert, Norman Gortsby, Lady Blonze, Blanche Boveal, Rachel Klammerstein, Waldo Plubley, Basset Harrowcluff, Sophie Chattel-Monkheim, Mrs. Thackenbury, Agnes Blaik, Adela Chemping, Mrs. Bebberly Cumble, Betty Coulterneb, Mrs. Attray, the Norridrums, Eleanor Saxelby, Marion Eggelby, Editha Clubberley, Hildegarde Shrubley, Kenelm Jerton, Lady Starping, Lady Braddleshrub, Kestrel-Smith, Lady Mousehilton, Lady Ulwight, Lady Befnal, Mrs. Stroope, Theophil Eshley, Adela Pingsford, Treddleford, Amblecope, Mrs. Thropplestance, Mrs. Yonelet, Dora Yonelet, the Froplinsons, Mrs. Stephen Ludberry, Colonel Chuttle, John James Abbleway, Bertram Kneyght, Sylvia Strubble, Mrs Nougat-Jones,

Having taken the trouble to compile this list, at least two points arise. The names are obviously eccentric and unusual but they have neither the inspired grotesqueness of Dickens’s characters (Flintwich, Quilp, Uriah Heep, Ebenezer Scrooge) nor the silver mellifluousness of Oscar Wilde’s characters (Lady Windermere, Dorian Grey).

Instead Saki’s names are genuinely odd and bizarre – Waldo Plubley, Basset Harrowcluff, Mrs. Bebberly Cumble, Lady Braddleshrub – without actually being funny. They are more like explorations of the bizarre possibilities of combining English phonemes in unexpected ways than names anyone would ever actually bear.

The second thing I noticed as I collected the names, is the number of stories which start with the statement of a name, start by introducing a character in the very first sentence, go on to give them a swift paragraph of profile, and then plunge them headfirst into a plight.

My point being that Saki’s stories rarely start with descriptions or settings or anything symbolical or with the explanations of facts or events. They start with, their very first words, are silly names. And this emphasises the way his stories aren’t about issues or ideas or places or atmospheres or landscapes or cityscapes or politics or history, but are entirely about people, people from a very narrow stratum of society, who are immediately introduced, by the narrator or in dialogue with a spouse or friend. The almost immediate introduction of the main protagonist is a function of the way the stories are extremely short and crisp and very tightly wrapped.

In fact, to dig a bit deeper, a brief review of the openings of the stories in this collection suggest that they open in one of three ways:

  1. immediate naming of a character
  2. a line of dialogue which introduces a character and/or the speaking character
  3. a brief description

1. Immediate naming

  • Leonard Bilsiter was one of those people who have failed to find this world attractive or interesting, and who have sought compensation in an ‘unseen world’ of their own experience or imagination – or invention. (The She-Wolf)
  • Norman Gortsby sat on a bench in the Park, with his back to a strip of bush-planted sward, fenced by the park railings, and the Row fronting him across a wide stretch of carriage drive. (Dusk)
  • Lady Carlotta stepped out on to the platform of the small wayside station and took a turn or two up and down its uninteresting length (The Schartz-Metterklume Method)
  • Basset Harrowcluff returned to the home of his fathers, after an absence of four years, distinctly well pleased with himself. (Cousin Teresa)
  • Sir Lulworth Quayne was making a leisurely progress through the Zoological Society’s Gardens in company with his nephew, recently returned from Mexico. (The Yarkand Manner)
  • Sophie Chattel-Monkheim was a Socialist by conviction and a Chattel-Monkheim by marriage. (The Byzantine Omelette)
  • Marion Eggelby sat talking to Clovis on the only subject that she ever willingly talked about – her offspring and their varied perfections and accomplishments. (Clovis on Parental Responsibilities)
  • Kenelm Jerton entered the dining-hall of the Golden Galleon Hotel in the full crush of the luncheon hour. (A Holiday Task)
  • Theophil Eshley was an artist by profession, a cattle painter by force of environment. (The Stalled Ox)
  • Treddleford sat in an easeful arm-chair in front of a slumberous fire… (A Defensive Diamond)
  • Teresa, Mrs. Thropplestance, was the richest and most intractable old woman in the county of Woldshire. (The Elk)
  • Jocantha Bessbury was in the mood to be serenely and graciously happy. (The Philanthropist and the Happy Cat)
  • [Name at the end of the sentence] Of all the genuine Bohemians who strayed from time to time into the would-be Bohemian circle of the Restaurant Nuremberg, Owl Street, Soho, none was more interesting and more elusive than Gebhard Knopfschrank.

A line of dialogue introducing a character

  • ‘You are not really dying, are you?’ asked Amanda.
  • ‘I hope you’ve come full of suggestions for Christmas,’ said Lady Blonze to her latest arrived guest.’ (A Touch of Realism)
  • ‘Dora Bittholz is coming on Thursday,’ said Mrs. Sangrail…’ (The Hen)
  • ‘My aunt will be down presently, Mr. Nuttel.’ (The Open Window)
  • ‘I’ve asked Latimer Springfield to spend Sunday with us and stop the night,’ announced Mrs. Durmot at the breakfast-table.’ (The Lull)
  • ‘You’ve just come back from Adelaide’s funeral, haven’t you?’ said Sir Lulworth to his nephew. (The Blind Spot)
  • ‘It’s a good thing that Saint Valentine’s Day has dropped out of vogue,’ said Mrs. Thackenbury. (The Feast of Nemesis)
  • ‘I’ve just been to see old Betsy Mullen,’ announced Vera to her aunt, Mrs. Bebberly Cumble. (The Quince Tree)
  • ‘Is matchmaking at all in your line?’ Hugo Peterby asked the question with a certain amount of personal interest. (The Forbidden Buzzards)
  • ‘Ronnie is a great trial to me,’ said Mrs. Attray plaintively. (The Stake)
  • ‘Have you written to thank the Froplinsons for what they sent us?’ asked Egbert. (‘Down Pens’)
  • ‘You look worried, dear,’ said Eleanor.

Description

  • The hunting season had come to an end, and the Mullets had not succeeded in selling the Brogue.
  • The great galleon lay in semi-retirement under the sand and weed and water of the northern bay where the fortune of war and weather had long ago ensconced it. (The Treasure-Ship)
  • The farmhouse kitchen probably stood where it did as a matter of accident or haphazard choice; yet its situation might have been planned by a master-strategist in farmhouse architecture. (The Cobweb)
  • The season of strikes seemed to have run itself to a standstill. Almost every trade and industry and calling in which a dislocation could possibly be engineered had indulged in that luxury. (The Unkindest Blow)
  • It was autumn in London, that blessed season between the harshness of winter and the insincerities of summer (The Romancers)
  • It was the season of sales. The august establishment of Walpurgis and Nettlepink had lowered its prices for an entire week as a concession to trade observances (The Dreamer)
  • It was a hot afternoon, and the railway carriage was correspondingly sultry, and the next stop was at Templecombe, nearly an hour ahead. (The Story Teller)

Related links

Saki’s works

The Unbearable Bassington by Saki (1912)

The spirit of mirthfulness…certainly ran riot in the boy, but it was a twisted wayward sort of mirth

‘Comus,’ she said quietly and wearily, ‘you are an exact reversal of the legend of Pandora’s Box. You have all the charm and advantages that a boy could want to help him on in the world, and behind it all there is the fatal damning gift of utter hopelessness.’

Saki published two novels. This is the first one, relatively short (47,720 words) and cast in 17 chapters. It has a slim plotline which I will now summarise:

Executive summary

Francesca Bassington is a member of London’s High Society. She is 40, a widow, and living in a very nice house in Blue Street, surrounded by her precious possessions. The house was left to her by her friend Sophie Chetrof when she died, but only till Sophie’s daughter, Emmeline marries, at which point it will revert to Emmeline (and her husband). Emmeline is still only 17 but that gives Francesca only 4 or five more years of possession and it makes her anxious.

Francesca has one cherished hope which is that she can persuade her only son, the difficult tearaway Comus Bassington, to marry Emmeline.

Once this is all explained, we get a chapter showing Comus at his boarding school where he is shown gleefully thrashing Emmeline Chetrof’s brother, Lancelot, thus permanently turning Emmeline against her. Oh well, so much for that plan.

Jump forward two years and Comus is now 19 and a dashing, slender, good looking addition to London society. He comes to the notice of the fabulously rich Elaine de Grey and the most of the rest of this short novel is devoted to describing the rivalry between young, selfish Comus, and twenty-something handsome Courtenay Youghal for her hand.

This basic premise is spun out via scenes depicting classic activities of the class Francesca and Comus belong to – dinner parties, society gossip, riding in Hyde Park, the opening of a new art show at a fashionable gallery and the first night of a new play, all of which give Saki ample opportunity to display his knowledge of Edwardian High Society, and its refined gossip and malice.

In the event quite a trivial argument with Comus (he asks Elaine for yet another loan to cover his gambling debts, while they’re sitting in deckchairs by the Serpentine) is the straw that snaps Elaine’s patience, and she stalks off by herself. Later she goes out for dinner with Youghal and says yes to his proposal of marriage.

News of this gets back to Francesca, who has a confrontation with her son in which she says that, since he has blown all his opportunities for advancement in London (first with Emmeline, then with Elaine) there’s nothing for it but to throw himself into the Empire. Her brother, Henry Greech, has news of an opening ‘in West Africa’. Comus accepts this meekly but with great misery. He attends the first night of a play, drinking in the sights and (bitchy) sounds of London society, knowing it is the last time he’ll ever see them.

There are three remaining scenes. In one, we see Francesca on honeymoon in Vienna, discovering that Youghal is every bit as selfish and self-centred as Comus, when he forces her to go to a masked ball and has a whale of a time, leaving her bored and disconsolate.

In the second scene, we find Comus in some God-forsaken hole in West Africa, fiercely hot, exhausted, mildly feverish, and oppressed by the pointlessness of being so utterly outside his own set of values and identities. The Africans seem to him like so many teeming ants and he hangs his head in genuine despair.

In the final, short scene, Francesca is in her lovely house in Blue Street, surrounded by her lovely belongings, when she receives a telegram saying Comus has died of illness. Everything turns to ashes. She would give all her wretched belongings just for him to walk through the door. The rest of her life will be misery and anguish.

Despair

Bleak, isn’t it? It leaves a real taste, not of mere unhappiness, but of powerful despair in the mouth. Suddenly the text felt like an echo of Joseph Conrad’s stories about white men who go to pieces in the Tropics and a harbinger of Graham Greene’s despairing novel, The Heart of the Matter. Comus’s utter abandonment reminded me of the end of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Black Mischief. In fact maybe it fits into the tidy little tradition of English fiction describing how horrible a posting to the colonies was. (Would Orwell’s Burmese Days be included?)

Room for psychology

What’s interesting about Saki’s first novel is he has taken advantage of the extra legroom provided by the form to write in a far more leisurely, expansive and descriptive style than he allowed himself in his short stories.

All of chapter 1 is devoted to a thorough description of Francesca’s home, its furnishings, how they match her personality, and then a leisurely tiffin of tea and cucumber sandwiches with her brother, Henry. Normally, his short stories are cut back to the bone, sometimes barely more than short scenes or snippets of dialogue. Some of the stories in Chronicles of Clovis contained longer descriptions, especially of the countryside. In this novel Saki is able to develop that side of his writing.

Something else happens as a result of the extra legroom, which is that it becomes considerably less funny. If you’re writing a dialogue between two characters whose sole purpose is to set up a series of one-liners, nothing hinders the quest for comedy. If you’re essaying a long paragraph describing the interior of a middle-class woman’s home, well, there’s scope from some dry remarks, but it would be self-defeating to try and do it all in a series of quips. The prose, by virtue of aiming to be descriptive, must be flatter. Not without Saki’s characteristic droll, ironic inflection. But without the quotable gags.

Same goes for description of character. Here’s a typical description of young Comus:

Gaiety and good-looks had carried Comus successfully and, on the whole, pleasantly, through schooldays and a recurring succession of holidays; the same desirable assets were still at his service to advance him along his road, but it was a disconcerting experience to find that they could not be relied on to go all distances at all times. In an animal world, and a fiercely competitive animal world at that, something more was needed than the decorative abandon of the field lily, and it was just that something more which Comus seemed unable or unwilling to provide on his own account; it was just the lack of that something more which left him sulking with Fate over the numerous breakdowns and stumbling-blocks that held him up on what he expected to be a triumphal or, at any rate, unimpeded progress.

And a comic description of the errant Comus:

In seventeen years and some odd months Francesca had had ample opportunity for forming an opinion concerning her son’s characteristics. The spirit of mirthfulness which one associates with the name certainly ran riot in the boy, but it was a twisted wayward sort of mirth of which Francesca herself could seldom see the humorous side.

The boy was one of those untameable young lords of misrule that frolic and chafe themselves through nursery and preparatory and public-school days with the utmost allowance of storm and dust and dislocation and the least possible amount of collar-work, and come somehow with a laugh through a series of catastrophes that has reduced everyone else concerned to tears or Cassandra-like forebodings. Sometimes they sober down in after-life and become uninteresting, forgetting that they were ever lords of anything; sometimes Fate plays royally into their hands, and they do great things in a spacious manner, and are thanked by Parliaments and the Press and acclaimed by gala-day crowds. But in most cases their tragedy begins when they leave school and turn themselves loose in a world that has grown too civilised and too crowded and too empty to have any place for them. And they are very many.

As you can see, that description is not only longer than we’re used to from the short stories, but also more serious. Almost a requiem for the generations of boys turned out by Britain’s public schools, who are heroes and stars at school and quite unprepared for the long disappointment of real life, a querulous note found throughout early and mid-20th century English literature.

Detailed plot synopsis

Chapter 1

Introducing Francesca Bassington and her beloved house in Blue Street, W. filled with her beloved possessions, but how the whole thing hangs be a thread because she only has the house

Chapter 2

At their public school, young Comus and colleagues thrash Lancelot Chetrof, young brother of the heiress Francesca was hoping Comus could be set up to marry.

Chapter 3

Francesca Bassington attends a high society party given by her friend Serena Golackly, and spies up and coming star, Courtenay Youghal:

a political spur-winner who seemed absurdly youthful to a generation that had never heard of Pitt. It was Youghal’s ambition—or perhaps his hobby—to infuse into the greyness of modern political life some of the colour of Disraelian dandyism, tempered with the correctness of Anglo-Saxon taste, and supplemented by the flashes of wit that were inherent from the Celtic strain in him…

She spies a politicians who has just been made governor of a Caribbean island and engages him in conversation:

Sir Julian Jull had been a member of a House of Commons distinguished for its high standard of well-informed mediocrity, and had harmonised so thoroughly with his surroundings that the most attentive observer of Parliamentary proceedings could scarcely have told even on which side of the House he sat. A baronetcy bestowed on him by the Party in power had at least removed that doubt; some weeks later he had been made Governor of some West Indian dependency, whether as a reward for having accepted the baronetcy, or as an application of a theory that West Indian islands get the Governors they deserve, it would have been hard to say. To Sir Julian the appointment was, doubtless, one of some importance; during the span of his Governorship the island might possibly be visited by a member of the Royal Family, or at the least by an earthquake, and in either case his name would get into the papers.

Her plan is to get to know him over several meetings and slowly plant the seed of the idea that her son, Comus, would make a wonderful personal secretary in his new position. Next morning this careful scheme is wrecked when, next morning at breakfast, she sees her son has written a witty letter to the Times disinterring some old speeches of Jull’s in which he is ignorant and rude about the West Indies. Once again, Comus has scuppered Francesca’s best-laid plans!

Chapter 4

A wall of ice slowly grows between the mother, trying her damnedest to get Comus a good position in life, and her son who seems hell-bent on wrecking everything. The are both invited to dinner at the home of the ageing Lady Caroline Benaresq:

She came of a family whose individual members went through life, from the nursery to the grave, with as much tact and consideration as a cactus-hedge might show in going through a crowded bathing tent.

And:

Lady Caroline was a professed Socialist in politics, chiefly, it was believed, because she was thus enabled to disagree with most of the Liberals and Conservatives, and all the Socialists of the day. She did not permit her Socialism, however, to penetrate below stairs; her cook and butler had every encouragement to be Individualists.

Hard not to love Saki’s permanent tone of wit and irony bordering on the rude. Anyway,

Chapter 5

Introduces us to the fact that, when he was 16, Courtenay Youghal was seduced by an older woman ‘some four or five years his senior’, Molly McQuade. Since then they have maintained a flirtatious friendship. Now they are meeting in their familiar trysting place of the London Zoo, where Youghal delicately breaks the news that he is planning to get married (to Elaine de Frey). They are both people of the world now, and Molly is relieved to hear the lady has money. Saddened that this phase of their relationship is coming to an end but she begs him to come visit her and her husband in the country for hunting once he’s bedded in to the new marriage. It is nowhere indicated that this is a sexual relationship, maybe we are meant to be sophisticated enough to take this as read.

Chapter 6

Elaine de Frey sits in her stately garden and lets her two suitors, the up and coming politician Courtenay Youghal and the spoilt schoolboy Comus Bassington, spar wittily for her affections. Things crystallise when Comus pettishly takes the silver bread and butter tray down to the lake to feed the swans and then refuses to give it back because he wants it, the spoilt schoolboy.

Chapter 7

In Bond Street Francesca bumps into the tiresome Merla Blathlington before shaking her off and continuing to a bridge party at Serena Golackly’s, where there is gossip and catty competition, not least with Ada Spelvexit, a tiresome do-gooder among the poor (‘Hostesses regarded her philosophically as a form of social measles which everyone had to have once’) and Lady Caroline Benaresq, an ageing Socialist and demon bridge player.

The gossip turns towards the up and coming politician Courtenay Youghal and the women speculate who would make a good wife for him when they are joined by dapper George St. Michael who tells then Youghal is pairing off with the fabulously rich Elaine de Frey

Chapter 8

Out riding in the country, Elaine is forced out of the main road because a circus is passing by and is astonished when the man who greets her turns out to be the once-famous adventurer and traveller, Tom Keriway, who was struck down by illness and retired to an obscure farm. And here he is. It is a beautifully kept place but Keriway reveals it is the seat of all kinds of Darwinian struggles and can’t conceal that he is bitterly unhappy. The countryside often brings out the really bestial (wild animals eating children) and tragic in Saki, as in the Hardyesque short story, The Hounds of Fate.

Chapter 9

Late June in Hyde Park. Courtenay Youghal is riding his ‘handsome plum-roan gelding Anne de Joyeuse’ up and down. He is buttonholed by Lady Veula Croot and they have a sly political duel, being of opposite parties, before being interrupted by a dimwit named Ernest Klopstock.

Not far away Elaine de Frey and Comus Bassington are sitting on deckchairs. She likes him but is getting bored by his selfishness and he oversteps the bounds when he asks her to lend him £5, partly to pay a £2 gambling debt. Elaine agrees but gets up rapidly and says she is leaving, for Comus not to accompany her. It is a snub.

She bumps into Courtenay and insists he takes her to luncheon, which he does, at the Corridor, with its fatherly maitre d’ who discreetly asks Courtenay whether he is engaged to the young lady. ‘Tell him yes,’ said Elaine, on impulse.

Chapter 10

At the Rutland Galleries for an exhibition of Mervyn Quentock’s collection of Society portraits. Comus regards Quentock’s portrait of his mother and sees in it an expression he hasn’t seen for years, now that he permanently irritates and mortifies her. It inspires him to be nicer and above all fulfil his mother’s plan to marry Elaine de Grey. Amid other gossip a little flurry is caused over by the doors when Courtenay arrives. Pressing closer Comus overhears others gossiping the news that Courtenay and Elaine are now engaged.

Chapter 11

After lunch with Courtenay, Elaine returns to the house in Manchester Square where she is staying with an aunt, and reflects on her decision to accept Courtenay. She feels ‘an unusual but quite overmastering hankering to visit her cousin Suzette Brankley’ who has also recently announced her engagement. She pops round the two women bitchily try to outdo each other, Elaine winning and damping her cousin’s mood, specially when her young man appears, the boring Egbert, who speaks pompously to the visible embarrassment of Suzette and her mother, who is also present.

All this time Elaine had been pondering a long and soulful letter to Comus explaining her reasons, but on returning to her aunt’s place she finds a message from him has been delivered briskly acknowledging the news and returning the fiver she’d lent him, along with the notorious bread-and-butter dish which caused the big argument in chapter 6.

Reading the letter again and again Elaine could come to no decision as to whether this was merely a courageous gibe at defeat, or whether it represented the real value that Comus set on the thing that he had lost.

Chapter 12

Francesca is desperate to know the latest about Comus and Elaine but fritters the morning away with a few female friends wittering endless gossip. And then a walk in the Park after lunch leads to her bumping into the dreaded Merla Blathington, who witters on about chickens, and then George St. Michael arrives who in a few swift words confirms Francesca’s worst fears: Comus has blown it with Elaine.

Comus himself turns up and they have an argument. Having failed to bag an heiress, Francesca can see nothing for it but for Comus to disappear off to some colony. Her brother Henry told her the other day he can get Comus a little job in West Africa. Comus says they needn’t be that drastic, he can get a job in England, at, say, a brewery. But Francesca knows that remaining in England will mean Comus is always vulnerable to the lure of the West End, of racing and gambling and sponging off her till she dies. No. West Africa it must be.

Chapter 13

That evening Comus goes to the theatre which is an opportunity for Saki to satirise the upper class types one met there in the Edwardian era, lords and ladies, an archdeacon, the ageing gossip Lady Caroline Benaresq (who is a recurring character throughout the book, as are Serena Golackly and Lady Veula), the authoress of ‘The Woman who wished it was Wednesday’ (is that a jokey reference to G.K. Chesteron’s novel, The Man Who Was Thursday (1908)?) with much chat about the church and politics. It is comically taken for granted that the play is an irritating intrusion into the true function of theatre which is to allow upper-middle-class people to meet and gossip and display themselves.

Everyone is there, but Comus sits through it all in a daze of misery, knowing that he is seeing it for the last time before being consigned to the Dark Continent. Lady Veula is the only person who acknowledges him, with her lovely smile and sad eyes.

Chapter 14

Francesca hosts a farewell dinner party for Comus. It is not a happy affair and is dominated by two show-off men, Henry Greech MP, her brother, and Stephen Thorle, brought by Serena Golackly because he is alleged to ‘know all about’ tropical Africa, but turns out to have loud opinions about everything. Lady Veula is present again, and shakes Comus’s hand goodbye. The mood is bleak, Francesca spills her champagne when she tries to make a toast, she can’t wait till everybody leaves. Comus adjusts his toilette and heads out for a night on the Town for one last time.

Chapter 15

Elaine has married Courtenay. They are on their honeymoon in Vienna, staying at the Speise Staal. Elaine is disillusioned and bored. At lunch she is irritated by three Germans talking endlessly about food, and the even worse party of Americans comparing everything unfavourably to the fabulous cherry pie they make back home. Two of Elaine’s extensive collection of aunts are staying at the hotel, a younger blameless one, and the older, shrewder Mrs. Goldbrook. They act as chorus to her obvious unhappiness.

Courtenay has arranged for them to go to a masquerade ball that night. Courtenay has a wonderful time dressed as harlequin, but Elaine is bored, ending up chatting inconsequentially with a Russian who a) tiresomely compares her to the same Leonardo painting that everyone does b) explains that Russians like culture so much because it is an escape from their real life, which is grim. (Interesting point coming from Saki who had been a foreign correspondent in Russia and, indeed, written a book about Russian history.)

The next day the aunts hear the two newly-weds sharply diverging accounts of the night before and conclude that Elaine is going to be unhappy.

Chapter 16

Cut to Comus in blisteringly hot West Africa where he is profoundly depressed by the sense that Africans are like ants and their life is the life of the teeming ant nest, going on with endless repetition, no variation, no progress, and no meaning.

The procession of water-fetchers had formed itself in a long chattering line that stretched river-wards. Comus wondered how many tens of thousands of times that procession had been formed since first the village came into existence. They had been doing it while he was playing in the cricket-fields at school, while he was spending Christmas holidays in Paris, while he was going his careless round of theatres, dances, suppers and card-parties, just as they were doing it now; they would be doing it when there was no one alive who remembered Comus Bassington. This thought recurred again and again with painful persistence, a morbid growth arising in part from his loneliness.

And:

Here a man simply made a unit in an unnumbered population, an inconsequent dot in a loosely-compiled deathroll. Even his own position as a white man exalted conspicuously above a horde of black natives did not save Comus from the depressing sense of nothingness which his first experience of fever had thrown over him. He was a lost, soulless body in this great uncaring land; if he died another would take his place, his few effects would be inventoried and sent down to the coast, someone else would finish off any tea or whisky that he left behind—that would be all.

And:

He would pass presently out of the village and his bearers’ feet would leave their indentations in the dust; that would be his most permanent memorial in this little oasis of teeming life. And that other life, in which he once moved with such confident sense of his own necessary participation in it, how completely he had passed out of it. Amid all its laughing throngs, its card parties and race-meetings and country-house gatherings, he was just a mere name, remembered or forgotten, Comus Bassington, the boy who went away.

He dreams of London where life had a meaning, where he had a place in it, where people had souls and complex personalities and purpose. Now he knows he has just become a dwindling memory, ‘Comus Bassington, the boy who went away’. He watches some native boys playing, fighting and chasing each other, then joined by some girls. He can never take part in their life, he is exiled forever. He puts his head in  his hands and sobs.

Chapter 17

A few days before Christmas Francesca receives a telegram saying Comus is severely ill. Then another one saying he is worse. She goes out for a walk round St James’s Park and dwells on her relationship with her son, all the false turnings and arguments right up to the ill-fated farewell party.

She returns home to the telegram waiting in the hall and takes it into her drawing room and, now, she hates every article in it because dashing, laughing, mocking Comus is there no more. She realises she hates it all, would give it all if only her beloved son would walk through the door.

Who does walk through the door is her irritating brother, Henry, bearing the ‘bad news’ that the big painting she’s so fond of is not in fact by the well-known artist Van der Meulen but is a good copy. He notices the anguish in her eyes and pats her hand and tells her not to be downhearted. Francesca clutches the telegram tighter in her hand in her anguish and begs for her brother’s inconsequential consolation to end.

It is an image of real, genuine, tormented anguish and a very dark, grim and upsetting note to end this light, mocking novel on.

Themes

In the middle part of the novel it is about a woman who has to decide between two lovers, a very old plot. And basing a novel on the theme of making a good marriage or marrying for money is as old as the genre, if we take the first English novel to be Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740) by Samuel Richardson.

Mother-son relationship

It is a prolonged and sometimes very insightful meditation on the intensity, the loves and hate, the Freudian ambivalence inherent in the mother-son relationship.

London high life

Plenty of scenes show off Saki’s knowledge of London high life – a gallery opening, first night at the theatre, riding in Hyde Park, dinner parties and so on, all conveyed with effortless insider knowledge, and generously spiced with malice and gossip which seemed to be the upper class’s main occupation.

Politics

Hector Munro’s first real job was writing political sketches which blossomed into a full-length satire on Westminster Alice in Westminster. This gives his mockery of British politics real authority.

It is striking to see how many of our political concerns, in 2021, were thoroughly understood and shared by the bien-pensant liberals of 1911. The aim of levelling up and increasing equality and being ‘for the many never’ goes out of fashion. It is a permanent interest of a steady proportion of the educated classes. Munro mocks and satirises gabby, well-meaning intellectuals, as is the wont of authors from his class and education.

Henry Greech had made an end of biting small sandwiches, and settled down like a dust-storm refreshed, to discuss one of the fashionably prevalent topics of the moment, the prevention of destitution.

Ah destitution, how ghastly it must be!

‘Talk is helpful, talk is needful,’ the young man was saying, ‘but what we have got to do is to lift the subject out of the furrow of indisciplined talk and place it on the threshing-floor of practical discussion.’ The young woman took advantage of the rhetorical full-stop to dash in with the remark which was already marshalled on the tip of her tongue. ‘In emancipating the serfs of poverty we must be careful to avoid the mistakes which Russian bureaucracy stumbled into when liberating the serfs of the soil.’

It’s the same kind of satire of high-minded ‘socialists’ which you find in John Buchan’s third Richard Hannay novel, Mr Standfast, which opens with extended satire on vegetarian, sandal-wearing socialists; or, later, in many passages of Aldous Huxley’s 1920s satires.

Christianity

As in all his stories, Christianity is presented as a joke, an affair of doddery old churchmen whose values the entire society pays ritual obeisance to but utterly ignores.

‘The dear Archdeacon is getting so absent-minded. He read a list of box-holders for the opera as the First Lesson the other Sunday, instead of the families and lots of the tribes of Israel that entered Canaan. Fortunately no one noticed the mistake.’

The British Empire

Saki has a pretty negative view of the British Empire.

What the woke and anti-racist and progressive commentators of our time (2021) tend to forget in their hurry to condemn all British history for its imperialism and racism is that for a lot of the time, a lot of people deprecated the Empire. The British were the first nation to ban the slave trade and then had the navy to enforce a very effective international ban on slave trading. Paradoxically, the two nations which were the last to ban slavery, Cuba and Brazil, are regularly held up as beacons of cool multiculturalism, while the earliest nation to ban it,m Britain, is held up for condemnation.

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries there were very vocal opponents of the British Empire – the entire Liberal Party in the 19th century, and most of the Labour Party in the 20th. For many educated people, the British Empire was a scandal and an embarrassment, as were the gung-ho public school types who went off to run it.

Whereas when the French tried to give Algeria independence in the 1950s it nearly triggered civil war, several coup and assassination attempts, Britain granted independence to India with almost no domestic opposition, and went on to grant independence to its African and Caribbean colonies with barely any comment.

Insofar as the entire novel ends with its protagonist packed off to a colonial hell-hole where he dies in utter misery, it ends with a blazing symbol of the futility and inappropriateness of ’empire’ and this retrospectively highlights the anti-imperial comments which run through the novel.

‘Courtenay Youghal said it in the House last night. Didn’t you read the debate? He was really rather in form. I disagree entirely with his point of view, of course, but some of the things he says have just enough truth behind them to redeem them from being merely smart; for instance, his summing up of the Government’s attitude towards our embarrassing Colonial Empire in the wistful phrase “happy is the country that has no geography”.’

‘West Africa,’ said Comus, reflectively; ‘it’s a sort of modern substitute for the old-fashioned oubliette, a convenient depository for tiresome people. Dear Uncle Henry may talk lugubriously about the burden of Empire, but he evidently recognises its uses as a refuse consumer.’

There was nothing individuals like Francesca or Comus could do to alter the geo-political realities of their day, but they didn’t approve of the empire. Comus and Courtenay both think it’s an embarrassing joke.


Related links

Saki’s works

The Chronicles of Clovis by Saki (1911)

The spirit of mirthfulness which one associates with the name certainly ran riot in the boy, but it was a twisted wayward sort of mirth… (The Unbearable Bassington)

In 1908, Hector Hugh Munro gave up foreign reporting and returned to London. Throughout his career as a foreign correspondent he had also been publishing short fictional squibs under the pen-name Saki, sometimes rising to the level of ‘short stories’, often little more than humorous anecdotes or dialogues set among London’s upper classes. From time to time they were brought together in book form.

The Chronicles of Clovis was Saki’s third such collection of very short stories and scenes. As the title suggests, most (though not all) of the stories feature the character of Clovis Sangrail, a world-weary, spoiled, selfish and cynical upper-class young man with a malicious sense of humour.

Clovis rearranged several cushions to his personal solace and satisfaction; he knew that the Baroness liked her guests to be comfortable, and he thought it right to respect her wishes in that particular.

Clovis, and his friend Reginald, who we know from Saki’s previous stories, are young men-about-town who take mischievous delight in shocking their conventional, stuffy elders. In fact the pair are interchangeable and Clovis performs precisely the same role of sardonic chorus or witty interlocutor to an older, conventional lady, easily shocked by his cynical quips, that Reginald did in the earlier texts. Clovis’s favourite interlocutor is named ‘the Baroness’. Another recurring character is a minor foil or confidante named Bertie van Tahn.

Clovis and Reginald take the upper-class arrogance, privilege and entitlement which has drummed into them at expensive public schools and to turn it against the older generation which had put them through the ordeal, delighting in shocking them not so much with deeds – for our heroes rarely lower themselves to actually doing anything – but with outré and unconventional attitudes, with their extreme cynicism or modish insouciance.

The stories portray a society which put a premium on decorum and good manners, on ‘good breeding’, but which bridled at too much intelligence or cleverness – all of whose boundaries and borders Saki relished driving a coach and horses through.

Mind you, it is inaccurate to say that it’s only Clovis and Reginald who bait their straightlaced peers, because the narrator does too. In fact Clovis appears in fewer than half the stories and it is the narrator who most of the time makes the cruellest jibes and weaves the most extended insults:

Lady Isobel was seen everywhere with a fawn-coloured collie at a time when everyone else kept nothing but Pekinese, and she had once eaten four green apples at an afternoon tea in the Botanical Gardens, so she was widely credited with a rather unpleasant wit. The censorious said she slept in a hammock and understood Yeats’s poems, but her family denied both stories.

The joke is not so much at Lady Isobel’s expense but at that of her family and, more generally, at the kind of society she moves in. It is partly the implication that ‘understanding’ Yeats’s poems is as eccentric as sleeping in a hammock. It is partly the comic notion that it is so exceptional that a denial has to be issued by the family. There are multiple levels of mockery in just that one sentence.

(In the story The Quest Clovis himself is portrayed as lazing in a hammock and it’s worth pausing a moment to reflect what an utterly suitable piece of household furniture a hammock is for Clovis and his character of drawling, ironic inactivity.)

Some people think that satire changes things, in which case you might say that Saki’s stories were designed to ‘satirise’ and ‘scandalise’ Edwardian high society. But I think it’s nearer the mark to start from the opposite premise – that satire changes nothing but merely amuses those being satirised. Compare and contrast the immensely popular Alex cartoon strip which started in 1987 and mocks the greed and heartlessness of City bankers and is… immensely popular with City bankers. In the same way Saki’s stories have been immensely popular from his day to ours because people enjoy recognising themselves, or a part of themselves, or a part of themselves they wish they had. Everyone always thinks it’s someone else who is being mocked.

Saki’s attitude as revealed in ‘Wratislaw’

In the story Wratislaw, two very upper-class European ladies, the shrewd Gräfin and the rather dim Baroness Sophie, are in conversation, exchanging the expected bon mots and cynical witticisms:

‘Haven’t you noticed that women with a really perfect profile like mine are seldom even moderately agreeable?’

The Gräfin is trying to marry off her objectionable son, Wratlislav, to the Baroness’s dim daughter, Elsa, a proposal to which the Baroness says:

‘I don’t want Wratislav. My poor Elsa would be miserable with him.’
‘A little misery wouldn’t matter very much with her; it would go so well with the way she does her hair, and if she couldn’t get on with Wratislav she could always go and do good among the poor.’

From this little exchange we can extract several of the premises which underlie Saki’s humour:

1. Nobody in this pampered upper class is ‘miserable’; or if they are, nobody else understands the concept because everyone is basically sorted for all their earthly needs. Extremes of want or emotion are unheard of and so are little more than conversational toys, empty words.

2. In any case, one of the key markers of being an aristocrat is not to take anything seriously: remember the general sitting astride a horse close to the Duke of Wellington during the Battle of Waterloo? There was an approaching rumble, a loud bang and the general remarked: ‘By Jove, Sir, I believe they’ve shot my leg orf.’ The Duke of Wellington looks over and remarks: ‘By Jove, Sir, so they have.’ This was the attitude of sublime and lofty nonchalance which characterised the English upper classes from the 18th century through to the public schoolboys I met at university.

3. And the extremest way of demonstrating one’s aristocratic nonchalance (like insouciance, a French word) is to take what servants and earnest middle-class types think of as ‘serious’ emotions, conditions and attitudes and to pointedly equate them with the lightest, most frivolous subjects imaginable, generally ‘female’ subjects such as fashion, clothes and, in this instance, hairdo. The utter inability to take anything seriously is demonstrated by the deliberately casual, mocking equation of lifelong emotional misery with someone’s hair colour. Exactly the same attitude recurs in The Story of St. Vespaluus:

Vespaluus…was the best looking, and the best horseman and javelin- thrower, and had that priceless princely gift of being able to walk past a supplicant with an air of not having seen him, but would certainly have given something if he had. My mother has that gift to a certain extent; she can go smilingly and financially unscathed through a charity bazaar, and meet the organisers next day with a solicitous ‘had I but known you were in need of funds’ air that is really rather a triumph in audacity.

‘The poor? Oh, I didn’t notice them.’

4. So the central aspect of the lofty insouciance which Saki both epitomises and satirises is to mock anyone who is ever serious about anything. This attitude had been brought to a pitch of perfection by Oscar Wilde a generation earlier:

  • ‘Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about.’ (Lord Darlington in The Importance of Being Earnest)
  • ‘We should treat all the trivial things of life seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality.’ (Letter to Robert Ross)

Therefore, the notion that an unhappy Elsa might compensate for her unhappy marriage by ‘doing good among the poor’ is a) designed to show how absurd the very notion of someone from her class ‘doing good among the poor’ is; and therefore b) how charity can can only possibly be explained as a harmless diversion for unhappy, upper-class women.

Camp and homosexuality

This extravagantly, ostentatiously, teasingly and mockingly anti-serious attitude, the valorising of the trivial, the mocking dismissal of anything earnest or serious, would evolve, by the 1960s, into the quality known as ‘camp’, heavily associated with a certain type of homosexuality. (See Susan Sontag’s Notes on Camp).

In this regard, it might be worth noting, here, the series of descriptions of improbably beautiful young men, all svelte and soignés, who trail through these stories. Here’s Vespaluus:

‘He was quite the best-looking boy at Court; he had an elegant, well-knit figure, a healthy complexion, eyes the colour of very ripe mulberries, and dark hair, smooth and very well cared for.’
‘It sounds like a description of what you imagine yourself to have been like at the age of sixteen,’ said the Baroness.

And Pan:

Across a thick tangle of undergrowth a boy’s face was scowling at her, brown and beautiful, with unutterably evil eyes.

Here’s the werewolf in Gabriel-Ernest:

On a shelf of smooth stone overhanging a deep pool in the hollow of an oak coppice a boy of about sixteen lay asprawl, drying his wet brown limbs luxuriously in the sun. His wet hair, parted by a recent dive, lay close to his head, and his light-brown eyes, so light that there was an almost tigerish gleam in them, were turned towards Van Cheele with a certain lazy watchfulness.

Naked and wet, asprawl in the sun. Pretty sexy, eh? Critics from Saki’s day to ours have wondered whether not only the male sensuality but also the extra element of malice, and the occasional turn to the macabre in Saki’s stories, in some way derives from Munro’s (necessarily repressed) homosexuality.

All that said, this stylised mockery of anything serious was also, of course, celebrated by many entirely ‘straight’ authors, from P.G. Wodehouse to Evelyn Waugh, in the name alone of Lord Peter Wimsy, in the tone of detached ironic humour which characterises the books of Jerome K Jerome. Is it, I wonder, a particularly English quality?

Childhood unhappiness

Personally, I don’t think Saki’s sexuality is that important. Personally, I think the key fact in Munro’s biography is that he was sent away from his parents at a young age, sent from a warm and loving home in British Burma all the way back to cold and miserable England where he was looked after by strict and stern guardians while he attended a series of miserable boarding schools.

Kipling underwent a similarly miserable childhood and the result was a lifetime of works marked by often very unpleasant sadism. (On one level, Kipling’s notorious ‘racism’ is merely a sub-set of his larger, more out-of-control anger against all kinds of people.)

Same here. I think the grimmer and more macabre Saki stories are Munro’s revenge on the cruel world which gave him such a miserable childhood. Hence the air of malice around ‘aunts’, all of them avatars of the strict, Bible-thumping governess who looked after young Hector. The same repressed anger, arguably comes out, in a displaced kind of way, in the misfortunes of the children in so many of the stories, who are routinely eaten or blown up.

The atmosphere of lonely, solitary childhood tyrannised by a punitive guardian portrayed in the story Sredni Vashtar seems to me the clue to all his works (that is, if you look for clues, if you are interested in biographical keys). Or you could just enjoy the stories’ sly elegance and outrageous storylines.


The stories

1. Esmé (features Clovis)

The Baroness tells Clovis about the time she was out hunting to hounds with Constance Broddle when they got lost but, hearing some hounds barking, discovered they’d got separated from the main pack and were now surrounding a creature at bay which, when the women held the hounds back, turned out to be a hyena! A hyena? Yes, it has escaped from the menagerie of Lord Pabham, whose grounds are nearby.

The Baroness liberates it from the hounds and they ride off to try and find the road home, with the hyena trotting faithfully behind. On an upper-class whim the Baroness names the hyena Esmé. They come across a gypsy waif playing in the path, pass by, the hyena drops back, then they hear a cry and see the hyena has the child in its jaws. They scold and shout and try to whip it and the Baroness throws her sandwich box, to no avail. The hyena drops behind the trotting women, there’s a crescendo and screaming and then an ominous silence and the hyena reappears with a satisfied smile on its face. The Baroness’s companion is horrified as they emerge into a road and make their way home.

It is dark and there is the sound of a motor car roaring up, a thud and a yell and when they catch up, a motorist has hit and killed the hyena. He is a jolly pukka young chap and he apologises most sincerely to the ladies and calls his chauffeur to fetch a spade and they bury the beast, under the impression it is a dog. With admirable sang-froid, the Baroness claims it is indeed a prize pedigree hound. She gives the driver her address. Some time later he sends her a brooch with the name of the ‘dog’ engraved on it.

What then clinches the utter heartlessness and amoral insouciance of the character, is that she sells the brooch for a tidy profit. Nothing means anything to these people except the game of ‘appearances’ and ‘manners’.

2. The Match-Maker (Clovis)

Not a story, more a meandering scene with Clovis arriving at the supper table, polishing off some oysters while waxing lyrical about their selflessness to his host, then segueing into a discussion of his mother’s two previous marriages and how he rustled up an old Empire Johnny to be her third husband.

3. Tobermory (C)

At Lady Blemley’s house-party at ‘the Towers’, rather boring Mr. Cornelius Appin turns out to have made the stupefying achievement of teaching the house cat, Tobermory, how to talk. Not only that but Tobermory drawls, with the exaggerated languid tones of the effete upper classes. That’s satire 1.

Satire 2 is that the cat immediately starts spilling the beans about the ‘goings on’ among the humans and, more viciously, repeating exactly what they say about each other behind each others’ backs which is, of course, often malicious and wounding. General panic.

Tobermory spots the neighbours’ cat out the window and scarpers after it. Sir Wilfred and Lady Blemley agree the cat must immediately be put down. Dinner is a tense affair, as is breakfast, but spirits lift when Tobermory’s corpse is found in a flowerbed. As to Mr Cornelius Appin, some weeks later he is reported gored to death by an elephant at Dresden Zoo which he had been teaching German irregular verbs.

4. Mrs. Packletide’s Tiger (C)

Mrs Packletide’s life is dominated by rivalry with Loona Bimberton. Loona Bimberton had recently been carried eleven miles in an aeroplane by an Algerian aviator, so Mrs Packletide decides she is going to bag herself a tiger!

I think she must already be in India because she pays the headman of a local village to tether a goat in order to lure a rather elderly and ailing tiger for her to shoot. Mrs P hides in a tree with her paid companion, Miss Mebbin, and soon enough the tiger shows up. A single gunshot rings out and the tiger rolls over dead but, on closer inspection, it appears it was the harmless the goat which was shot and the tiger simply died of a heart attack at the loud noise!

The natives take their 1,000 rupees and swear to silence and thus Mrs Packletide returns to London in triumph, makes the tigerskin the centre of her Curzon Street apartment, gives endless parties where it is the centre of conversation, sends a tiger claw brooch to her rival, Loona Bimberton, even has a wild animal fancy dress party, where Clovis makes a fleeting appearance.

Until, that is, her ‘companion’, penny-conscious Miss Mebbin, blackmails her, threatening to reveal the truth (the old tiger died of a heart attack) unless Mrs Packletide buys her a nice little cottage near Dorking.

Mrs. Packletide indulges in no more big-game shooting. ‘The incidental expenses are so heavy,’ she confides to inquiring friends.

Saki is full of sly details. The thing that made me smile most in this story was that Miss Mebbin names her country cottage ‘Les Fauves’, a jokey reference to the recent French art movement which was given that name in 1905, so quite a modish reference at that.

5. The Stampeding of Lady Bastable (C)

Clovis and his mother, Mrs Sangrail, are staying with Lady Bastaple. Mrs S asks Lady Bastaple if she can keep Clovis on for a further 6 days while she, Mrs S, travels north to stay with the MacGregors. She offers to let Mrs Bastaple off her bridge debt of 49 shillings.

6. The Background (C)

A delirious and bizarre story about a modest commercial traveller, Henri Deplis, who comes into a legacy and decides to spend 600 francs on having a massive picture of the Fall of Icarus tattooed on his back by the premier tattooist in Italy, Andreas Pincini. Pincini dies and Deplis thinks he is let off payment but Pincini’s widow pursues him by which point Deplis no longer has 600 francs left to pay her. After some bad-tempered haggling, the widow donates the picture to the municipality of Bergamo, thus making Deplis’ back into state property. The result is that he is unable, as a state property, to leave Italy, an unusual legal situation which is worked through in delirious detail.

7. Hermann the Irascible — A Story of the Great Weep

A satire on the Suffragettes. It is set in a hypothetical future, in the second decade of the twentieth century after a Great Plague has devastated England, and Hermann the Irascible, nicknamed the Wise, sits on the British throne. One of the recurrent problems he faces is the vociferous and violent Votes For Women movement. Hermann comes up with a comic solution. He suggests a bill to make voting for women compulsory with a £10 fine for failing to vote, and then adds a long list of elections and elected officials which women are now compelled to vote in:

Every woman between the ages of twenty-one and seventy will be obliged to vote, not only at elections for Parliament, county councils, district boards, parish councils, and municipalities, but for coroners, school inspectors, churchwardens, curators of museums, sanitary authorities, police-court interpreters, swimming-bath instructors, contractors, choir-masters, market superintendents, art-school teachers, cathedral vergers, and other local functionaries whose names I will add as they occur to me. All these offices will become elective, and failure to vote at any election falling within her area of residence will involve the female elector in a penalty of £10. Absence, unsupported by an adequate medical certificate, will not be accepted as an excuse.

Of course this transforms voting into an intolerable burden for most women: working women are spending half the week traipsing to and from voting booths, while rich women find their holiday plans wrecked as they are continually being called back to vote for their local cathedral verger or what not, and quickly run up fines of multiples of £10.

Eventually the burden of voting becomes so extreme that it gives rise to a No-Votes-For-Women League  to which Saki maliciously and hilariously attributes all the self-righteousness, inflammatory rhetoric and violence of the original Suffragette Movement. The No-Votes-For-Women League goes one better and invents ‘the Great Weep’ being the systematic crying by women at gatherings large and small.

Eventually, making a great show of making a great concession, Hermann the Wise signs into law a bill depriving women of the right to vote and everyone is happy. And greatly amused.

8. The Unrest-Cure (C)

This is one of Saki’s most famous stories because it is so compact and fluent and beautifully designed. On the train down to be guest at a house party, Clovis overhears two friends chatting, one lamenting that he has got very set in his ways, the other recommending that he shake his life up a bit and have what he calls ‘an unrest-cure’. Clovis’s ears prick up, he makes a note of the conventional man’s name and address (J. P. Huddle, The Warren, Tilfield, near Slowborough.”

He then sends this man a telegram saying ‘the bishop’ is coming to stay, preceded by his private secretary – this is of course Clovis, who proceeds to shock and amaze timid Mr Huffle by announcing that the bishop and a general who will be joining him are planning to round up all the Jews in the neighbourhood and massacre them! Mr Huddle is speechless, his sister responds with a migraine:

It was not her day for having a headache, but she felt that the circumstances excused her, and retired to her room to have as much headache as was possible before the Bishop’s arrival.

The ‘plan’ which Clovis unfolds becomes steadily more outrageous. He explains they are going to invite all the Jews from the neighbourhood and murder them one by one. He explains the house is now surrounded by a hidden ring of boy scouts who will shoot anyone who leaves! Indeed an eminent Jew arrives soon after in his motor car and is hustled quickly upstairs by the terrified brother and sister. Things go on like this for a bit while Clovis lounges in Huddle’s library smoking one of his excellent cigars, before quietly slipping away. None of it was true. It was an entire fiction.

9. The Jesting of Arlington Stringham (C)

Stringham is a politician. He makes a joke in Parliament which enlivens a boring debate. His wife disapproves. He’s never made a joke before. She comments to her mother. Stringham makes another joke, which his wife doesn’t get. Over the next few weeks Stringham makes several more. Then a catty ‘friend’, Gertrude Upton, points out that these are all well-known quips by Lady Isobel, the implication being that Stringham is seeing quite a lot of Lady Isobel.

So far so gently mocking the boringness of politicians, the straightlacedness of their families and so on. So it comes as a shock when the last few lines tell us that Eleanor Stringham killed herself with an overdose of chloral. Does he… does Saki mean that she killed herself because the jokes implied her husband was having an affair?

10. Sredni Vashtar

Conradin is a sickly boy looked after by his disapproving cousin and guardian in a strict and tedious house which has driven him mad with resentment and frustration, which makes him sick ‘under her pestering and domineering and superior wisdom’.

Mrs. de Ropp was the ground-plan on which he based and detested all respectability.

One day the local butcher boy brings him a large polecat-ferret in return for all the silver Conradin has saved up and he hides his cage in the garden shed and develops a private religion based round the fierce animal which he gives the made-up name of Sredni Vashtar.

More and more mystified by Conradin’s regular visits to the shed, Mrs de Ropp one day ransacks his bedroom for the key, orders Conradin to stay in his bedroom, from whose window he watches her go to the shed, unlock it, and enter in. He fervently prays to his god, prays for death and destruction. The minutes pass and the dread witch doesn’t return. Then, with wonder, he sees his god slink out of the shed with dark red strains round its jaws, undulate down to the stream, take a drink, and disappear into the undergrowth. Conradin’s dream has come true. His god has answered his prayers. No more repressive aunt.

11. Adrian (C)

Adrian is a working class lad from Bethnal Green where his mum is a laundress.

One can discourage too much history in one’s family, but one cannot always prevent geography.

He is taken up by the hugely posh Lucas who treats him to dinner at places like the Ritz or Carlton. His aunt Mrs Mebberley hears about this protege and decides to take him off on a tour of Europe.

‘I love Americans, but not when they try to talk French. What a blessing it is that they never try to talk English.’

She takes him to an Alpine resort. Here he flourishes but not in the way expected. He turns out to be quite a wild youth. Where he grew up breaking any cutlery was a crime. Among posh people he discovers that, done at the right time and place, it wins kudos.

Lucas hears about Adrian’s increasingly outrageous exploits via the pen of Clovis who is ‘moving as a satellite in the Mebberley constellation.’ One is that Adrian abducts the ugly Grobmayer child and dressed it as a pig in an evening’s drama performance till it wailed, revealed its identity and the parents were furious. But his masterpiece was swapping all the room numbers on an entire landing and especially affixing the ‘Bathroom’ sign to the door of old Frau Hofrath Schilling who was thereupon terrified out of her wits by a succession of half-dressed visitors.

12. The Chaplet (C)

It was a gala evening at the Grand Sybaris Hotel, and a special dinner was being served in the Amethyst dining-hall. The great chef Monsieur Aristide Saucourt has slaved over his masterpiece dish, Canetons à la mode d’Amblève. But just as it is served to the foreign philistine guests, the very average orchestra strikes up the strains of the dull and obvious tune, The Chaplet and, in their relief at recognising a tune amid a lot of other rather more ‘modern’ music, many of the diners stop to listen, to applaud, tinkering with the famous dish or letting it grow cold! So M. Saucourt in a fury seizes the conductor and plunges him head first into a large tureen of boiling soup!

13. The Quest (C)

Clovis is staying at the Villa Elsinore when there is a disaster: Mrs Momeby misplaces little diddums baby Erik. The household is in an uproar. Only Clovis lazing in a hammock is more concerned about which sauce cook is preparing to accompany the asparagus while outraging everyone with his calm suggestion that maybe the little darling has been eaten by an escaped hyena.

A neighbour calls, Rose-Marie Gilpet who is a devout Christian Scientist and therefore believes there is no such thing as illness and also that we all think positively the lost child will appear. She goes to search the road again and lo and behold finds an abandoned baby there who she restores to the bosom of her family amid tears and celebrations. Which makes it embarrassing when the real Erik is discovered hiding in the garden roller. So who is the imposter? Then arrives the nursemaid from the Villa Charlottenburg across the way to reclaim darling little Percy who had gone missing. Mystery solved and Clovis is off to see the cook about the asparagus sauce.

14. Wratislav (C)

(Described above.)

15. The Easter Egg

What you might call a ‘grim’ story, like the apparent suicide of Eleanor Stringham. In this one Lady Barbara has a son who is a pusillanimous coward, Lester Slaggby. They go to say in a small Germanic resort, learn from the local Burgomeister that the Prince is paying a visit, a local couple suggest that a touching gesture would be for their little 4-year-old to be dressed up and give the Prince the gift of an Easter egg filled with his favourite food, plovers’ eggs. Lester helps to train the little mite and on the big day is gesturing the child towards the Prince sat on his dais when, looking round for the proud parents, he sees them stepping hastily into a cab and, in a flash, realises the egg is filled with a bomb. Lester does the one great brave deed of his life and runs to catch up with the child, grabs the egg planning to throw it far, yells to everyone the one word ‘Bomb!’ but is astonished when the little brat holds onto it with obsessive grip. Then it blows up. The story cuts to some time later and makes the simple point that Lady Barbara is now blind.

So it had been sort of funny up till that point and then becomes bitterly tragic. The note of languid insouciance I mentioned earlier, the Oscar Wilde tone of whimsical detachment, doesn’t apply here. Possibly a conductor being drowned in a tureen of soup is sort of funny. But a woman committing suicide from profound misery or being blinded… not so funny.

16. Filboid Studge, the Story of a Mouse that Helped (C)

Mark Spayley is a commercial artist, he creates advertising posters and is on a piddling £200 per annum. He nervously asks for the hand in marriage of Leonore, the daughter of the vastly successful businessman, Duncan Dullamy, ‘the great company inflator’. What neither he nor anyone else knows is Dullamy’s business empire is about to crash, which is why he accepts Spayley’s offer and suggests a surprisingly quick wedding. Dullamy doesn’t reveal about the looming crash but does lament that his new product, Pipenta, has been a failure. Now he’s his son-in-law to be, Mark offers to help out. In short order he has changed the product’s name to Filboid Studge and created a vast poster showing lost souls in hell clamouring for an opportunity to eat the delicious food, with a big strapline: a single grim statement ran in bold letters along its base: “They cannot buy it now.”

This campaign is surprisingly successful and Filboid Studge becomes a runaway success, which the narrator describes with a few waspish asides about the power of advertising (this was 1908). Dullamy’s fortune is restored and he, of course, breaks off his daughter’s engagement to Spayley and sells her to a much more appropriate beau.

17. The Music on the Hill

Clever Sylvia Seltoun has not only inveigled Mortimer Seltoun into marriage, but to abandon ‘Town’ with its delights and friends, a relocate to his country seat, Yessney.

She looked on the country as something excellent and wholesome in its way, which was apt to become troublesome if you encouraged it overmuch

Here she becomes aware of some kind of presence in the woods, a fleeting golden thing, and is oppressed by a feeling of being watched in among the desolate farm buildings. Boring Mortimer astonishes her by revealing that he believes in the great god Pan and for warning her when she takes some grapes which had been left to a beautiful statuette of the god in a remote clearing. In revenge, the laughing, malicious youth diverts a hunted stag so that it gores Sylvia to death. Maybe a life in Town wouldn’t have been so bad after all.

The title refers to the several occasions on which Sylvia heard remote and eerie music, ‘a low, fitful piping, as of some reedy flute’, coming from somewhere on the hills around her husband’s manor house.

This story takes its place alongside other Edwardian invocations of Pan, to be found in Peter Pan, the Piper at the gates of dawn chapter in Wind In The Willows and The Story of a Panic by E.M. Foster to name only the most obvious. (Pan in popular culture.) Why? The end of the 19th century saw a kind of rarefied, aestheticised classicism, the paintings of the Olympians, and this seems to have overlapped with the florescence of the children’s story during the Edwardian decade. Pan represents a melding of the two.

18. The Story of St. Vespaluus (C)

Clovis tells ‘the Baroness’ a long cock and bull story set in the early Middle Ages when ‘when a third of the people were Pagan, and a third Christian, and the biggest third of all just followed whichever religion the Court happened to profess’.

Bad-tempered King Hkrikros has no children but a number of nephews among whom his favourite is elegant, sporty young Vespaluus. The king wants to nominate him as his heir but then discovers that Vespaluus is a Christian. Damn. The king is a fervent pagan who devotedly maintains ‘the sacred serpents, who lived in a hallowed grove on a hill near the royal palace.’

The king hires the Royal Librarian, who has time on his hands, to go cut branches and switches from the woods and give young Vespaluus a sound thrashing. Doesn’t change his mind. Then he has the boy locked up in a tower without food and water though the guards take pity on him and sneak in grub.

But when he’s released in time for the great summer games Vespaluus refuses to take part in the ritual worship of the sacred snakes and the king’s patience snaps. He arranges him to be stung to death by the royal bees. However, the bee-keeper loves Vespaluus (everyone does) and so spends a laboursome night before the scheduled punishment pulling out all the bee stings. So that when crowds of pagans assemble to watch the ritual stinging-to-death of Vespaluus everyone is astonished to see him covered in bees and writhing yet emerging unscathed. It is a miracle! He must be a saint!

The furious king berates his librarian but before he can do any more harm himself dies of an apoplectic fit. At which point Vespaluus is crowned king and, assuming his Christian faith, the entire Court sets about getting itself baptised, neighbouring Christian powers make approaches, the pagan rites begin to be deprecated.

But the punchline is that Vespaluus isn’t a Christian at all. He is a devout pagan and worships the same sacred snakes as the king. Then why on earth, the Chamberlain asks him, did he pose as a Christian and cause himself and everyone else so much bother?

‘I used to pretend to be a Christian convert just to annoy Hkrikros. He used to fly into such delicious tempers. And it was rather fun being whipped and scolded and shut up in a tower all for nothing.’

He is a classic Wildean fop, loving pranks and mocking the earnest.

19. The Way to the Dairy (C)

The Baroness and Clovis again. As usual Clovis tells her a bitchy or spiteful or droll anecdote. This time it’s about an aunt who unexpectedly comes into some money, at which point she is drooled over by her nieces, the Brimley Bomefields, namely Christine, Veronique and another. The nieces are horrified when they learn that the aunt, getting on in years, proposes to leave her fortune to a nephew of hers, named Roger. So Veronique comes up with a cunning plan which is to catch Roger out, gambling or somehow frittering his money away. Every year he goes on holiday to northern France so the nieces persuade the aunt to go on holiday to Dieppe. But, in a comic reversal, while they’re waiting to catch Roger at the tables it is the aunt who has a casual flutter (on the old mechanical game named Les Petits Chevaux) gets bitten by the gambling bug, and turns into a gambling addict, while Roger bumps into them from time to time says, knowingly, that he realises the aunt is just a front for the nieces, who are running a gambling syndicate. Infuriatingly, they eventually give up and straggle home with a reputation for headaches and a permanently depressed look. Which is how Clovis and the Baroness saw them in ‘the Park’ and which prompted the anecdote in the first place.

20. The Peace Offering (C)

Clovis and the Baroness again. She asks him to help with a theatrical production to soothe her local county society who have been rather ruptured by a bitterly contested election. As satire, Clovis suggests they write a Greek tragedy on the theme of the Return of Agamemnon and then proceeds to explain who all the characters are to the Baroness who is cheerfully ignorant and philistine.

They then cast the play with local worthies, each stupider than the next. But the crux is the rivalry which breaks out between the Baroness, playing Clytemnestra and Clovis, who gives himself the minor but beautifully costumed role of the charioteer. When the Baroness pinches some of his best lines, Clovis plots his revenge. He coaches the dimwit playing Cassandra in a special speech and, on the grand night, with all of local county society assembled, when Clytemnestra goes off to make a costume change, Cassandra steps forward and delivers the speech Clovis has written for her… denouncing the great and the good in the audience as ‘corrupt, self-seeking, unscrupulous, unprincipled politicians[who] continue to infest and poison our local council…’ By the time the Baroness returns onstage it is to find everyone calling for their coach and leaving.

In a way the Baroness did succeed in healing local divisions… by uniting everyone who was anyone in condemning her ‘outrageously bad taste and tactlessness’.

21. The Peace of Mowsle Barton

Crefton Lockyer has gone for a rest cure and break from hectic city life by renting a room in an isolated farm. Little does he expect to discover that is the epicentre of a bitter rival between two local witches who cast spells on each other. These aren’t the florid witches of Hollywood, but uncanny and ancient crones and the spells in question amount to little more than preventing the kettle in the farm from boiling and rendering the ducks which in the hated rival’s little pool from being able to swim.

So, small stakes but this is one of the longer of the stories in the collection and the interest is in the spooky and threatening atmosphere which Saki conjures. It’s interesting because Rudyard Kipling, in his Sussex phase, wrote similar stories about village crones.

22. The Talking-Out of Tarrington (C)

Clovis is with his aunt when the latter spots a tiresome young man approaching who she is at pains to avoid because he’s probably heard she’s arranging a luncheon with ‘the Princess’ and will cling leechlike till he’s invited. The aunt makes a run for it leaving Clovis to deal with the young man who introduces himself as Tarrington. Unfortunately Clovis has determined to reply to every question and conversation gambit with irrelevancies and supercilious twitting, until the poor young man, defeated, beats a hasty retreat.

23. The Hounds of Fate

A tragedy, something like a ghost story or a rural tragedy slightly in the manner of Thomas Hardy. Martin Stoner has failed in everything and is down to his last few coins, tramping through muddy country lanes towards the sea with the vague purpose of throwing himself in, as night draws in and it starts to rain and he sees the lights of a farmhouse, he finds himself walking up the path and knocking on the door.

To his amazement the door opens and he is welcomed in by the old retained as ‘Master Tom’, back from Australia. He is given food and then shelter for the night, and given his old room, and his horse is saddled for him, all the time Stoner carries on the masquerade of impersonating this ‘Master Tom’. Slowly it emerges that Tom fled to Australia after some local scandal but try as he might, he can’t get the old retainer (named George) to spell it out.

Then one day old George hurries to find him and tells Stoner that Michael Ley is back in the village and bound on taking his revenge. At a guess, I speculate that Tom ravished Ley’s sister, who killed herself and that’s why he fled and Ley is now determined to take revenge. Old George gives Stoner three sovereigns and tells him to go hide out in the nearest town till Ley has gone away, when he’ll be able to return.

Three sovereigns is a lot of money for a former beggar, and Stoner goes his way rejoicing to have brass in pocket, reconciling himself to moving on from the Tom persona as easily as he adopted it. Easy come, easy go. But at that point Michael Ley steps out from the shadow of an old oak tree, a shotgun in his hand and implacable hatred in his eyes.

24. The Recessional (C)

Clovis is in a Turkish bath with his buddy, Bertie van Tahn, but equipped with a fountain pen and notebook. What is he doing? Well, Mrs. Packletide’s great enemy and rival Loona Bimberton has just had a Coronation Ode accepted by the ‘New Infancy’ magazine and Mrs P is spitting blood. Since she has helped him out so many times, financially, Clovis offers to compose a rival poem, and here he is, composing away like mad. The result is dire:

‘The tawny tigress ‘mid the tangled teak
Drags to her purring cubs’ enraptured ears
The harsh death-rattle in the pea-fowl’s beak,
A jungle lullaby of blood and tears.'”

25. A Matter of Sentiment (C)

Lady Susan is holding a house party and the guests are betting on the big race. Trouble is Lady Susan sternly disapproves of everything, especially horse racing. The guests have to retreat to the far end of the garden where they discovery that Motkin, Lady Susan’s butler, has a second cousin who was head stable-lad at a neighbouring racing establishment, and usually gifted with much inside information as to private form and possibilities. The butler goes off to see this relation and that evening, over dinner, secretively passes on the name of the top tip to each of the guests as he circulates with the sherry.

However, the hot favourite loses, as all the guests assembled in the hall the next morning discover when a telegram arrives, and Lady Susan is delighted because, for the first time in her life she has bet on a race, and her bet won!

26. The Secret Sin of Septimus Brope (C)

Mrs Riversedge is hosting guests including Clovis and his aunt, Mrs Troyle. Mrs Troyle announces that another guest, meek and shy Septimus Brope, appears to be wooing her maid, Florinda. She has overheard him chanting her name (‘I love you Florrie’) and the other day picked up a piece of paper he had dropped with a note to meet him down by the old yew tree. Mrs Troyle wouldn’t mind but her maid is the only person on earth who understands her hair.

The other ladies are scandalised and also surprised, as mild-mannered Mr Brope scratches a living editing the ‘Cathedral Monthly and being enormously learned about memorial brasses and transepts and the influence of Byzantine worship on modern liturgy.

Clovis is the one who solves the mystery when the two men are left alone in the smoking room after dinner. He discovers that Brope makes money on the side by writing the lyrics for trashy popular songs, and is struggling to write one for a hypothetical subject named Florrie. Nothing whatsoever to do with Mrs Troyle’s maid (who is actually named Florinda).

Clovis promises to not only keep his secret but help him writing his ditties. In fact he proposes a characteristically Clovisian twist: why not try lyrics which slam the woman in question. And sure enough a month later a new song is taking the music halls by storm in which the singer threatens to throw his Florrie into a quarry!

All Clovis requires in return is to accompany Brope on an all-expenses-paid trip to the Continent.

27. ‘Ministers of Grace’

The Duke of Scaw is religious but not quite in the traditional sense. He is discussing politics and social reform with his friend, Belturbet, speculating how easy it would be to replace the existing bunch of disappointing politicians with something more malleable. Why not with angels? Don’t be silly, says his friend. Piqued, the Duke replies:

‘I shall summon angelic forces to take over some of the more troublesome personalities of our public life, and I shall send the ousted originals into temporary retirement in suitable animal organisms.’

And this he does. The rest of the story describes how he converts various leading politicians, the archbishop of Canterbury and top industrialists into various animals and creates their doppelgangers from angels. Suddenly politicians agree and businessmen adopt caring policies. Imagine the confusion of the country, but that is as nothing to the confusion of their wives!

The conceit is developed at some length with very thinly veiled, jokey references to contemporary politicians including David Lloyd-George, Lord Rosebery and so on. Eventually one of the animals the Duke of Scaw has consigned the soul of one of these politicians to, a bad-tempered black swan, grabs Scaw as he is walking through St James Park, drags him into the lake and drowns him. Whereupon the angel-politicians disappear, replaced by their human counterparts, and business resumes as usual.

28. The Remoulding of Groby Lington

This is an eerie story about a man whose personality changes to reflect that of his pets. It opens with him being beaky-nosed and repetitive as his parrot. His brother brings him a pet monkey and he swiftly becomes as malicious and disruptive as his pet. When that dies, his brother buys him a tortoise and now Groby Lington potters slowly around his garden in slow motion. It has many comic details but the overall impression is of the tale’s strangeness.


Themes

Mocking the British Empire

Remember that Hector Hugh Munro was born in Akyab (now Sittwe), British Burma, which was then part of British India, and that Saki was the son of Charles Augustus Munro, an Inspector General for the Indian Imperial Police, and his wife, Mary Frances Mercer (1843–1872), the daughter of a Rear Admiral  – and that he then himself went on to serve in the Indian Police Force. He was steeped, in other words, in the traditions and discourse of the British Empire. So what must his parents have made of his determined ridiculing of it and its stiff-upper-lipped maintainers?

He’d spent most of his life on the Indian frontier, building roads and relieving famines and minimising earthquakes, and all that sort of thing that one does do on frontiers. He could talk sense to a peevish cobra in fifteen native languages, and probably knew what to do if you found a rogue elephant on your croquet-lawn; but he was shy and diffident with women.

The Recessional sounds as if it’s going to be a parody or skit on Kipling’s famous poem of the same name but is nothing of the sort. Saki cannot write verse. Still, the thought was there.

Studied heartlessness

Specially regarding children who are either revealed as heartless brutes (The Strategist) or discussed with utter heartlessness by their parents (The Baker’s Dozen) or are eaten (Ernest-Gabriel and Esmé) or blown to smithereens (The Easter Egg).

Eleanor hated boys, and she would have liked to have whipped this one long and often.

It is not the attitudes as such which are reprehensible, they are fictional, they can be taken in the reader’s stride. It is the shallowness and lack of feeling which Saki is mocking.

Christianity

It almost goes without saying that everyone in these stories has been brought up to treat Christianity as the accepted ‘thing’. Saki’s satire aims at the way none of these conventional Christians show any understanding or putting into practice of its moral teachings. Wherever possible members of the cloth are mocked (as they were in so many 18th century novels, through Trollope, Waugh, every chaplain in every public school in fiction).

More than that, Christianity offers a massive opportunity for satire whereby the manners of the gentleman can be contrasted with Christian morality, with the satirical intention that, in Victorian and Edwardian society, manners and appearance were more important than conventional Christian morality. It is a central part of the macabre comedy of The Unrest Cure that the person said to be panning the massacre of the Jews is the local bishop, whose character Saki then delights in twisting into his own style of gruesome amorality.

‘The Bishop is sorry to hear that Miss Huddle has a headache. He is issuing orders that as far as possible no firearms shall be used near the house; any killing that is necessary on the premises will be done with cold steel. The Bishop does not see why a man should not be a gentleman as well as a Christian.’ (The Unrest Cure)

Culture

Rather like Christianity, most of these upper-class types profess an interest in culture without actually understanding it at all. Painting and music are the two areas Saki picks on, with Reginald making the standard joke that the purpose of the Royal Academy is not to look at the pictures but to look at, and mingle with, other high society types. It is a recurring joke that the English understand a work of art so long as there is a good descriptive title to aid their understanding.

In the same spirit the British upper classes are portrayed as nervously philistine when it comes to music.

Thither [to the Amethyst dining-hall] came in shoals the intensely musical and the almost intensely musical, who are very many, and in still greater numbers the merely musical, who know how Tchaikowsky’s name is pronounced and can recognise several of Chopin’s nocturnes if you give them due warning; these eat in the nervous, detached manner of roebuck feeding in the open, and keep anxious ears cocked towards the orchestra for the first hint of a recognisable melody.

‘Ah, yes, Pagliacci,’ they murmur, as the opening strains follow hot upon the soup, and if no contradiction is forthcoming from any better-informed quarter they break forth into subdued humming by way of supplementing the efforts of the musicians. Sometimes the melody starts on level terms with the soup, in which case the banqueters contrive somehow to hum between the spoonfuls; the facial expression of enthusiasts who are punctuating potage St. Germain with Pagliacci is not beautiful, but it should be seen by those who are bent on observing all sides of life. One cannot discount the unpleasant things of this world merely by looking the other way.

And:

‘Hark!’ said most of the diners, ‘he is playing “The Chaplet.”‘ They knew it was “The Chaplet” because they had heard it played at luncheon and afternoon tea, and at supper the night before, and had not had time to forget.

Money / greed

Saki is funny about the miserly such as Laploshka or the paid companion, Miss Mebbin, in Mrs. Packletide’s Tiger, who resents even centimes unnecessarily spent, or Lady Bastaple (‘Lady Bastable loved shillings with a great, strong love.’)

Aunts

Tell me about the Brimley Bomefields.’
‘Well,’ said Clovis, ‘the beginning of their tragedy was that they found an aunt.’


Related links

Saki’s works

Reginald in Russia, and other sketches by Saki (1910)

Hector Hugh Munro was born in Burma in 1870 to an official of the British Raj. Aged 23 he followed his father into the Burmese police, which he stuck at for two years before getting ill and chucking it in the 1890s. He returned to London to scrape a living by journalism and began writing comic sketches about an Oscar Wilde-style aesthete and provocateur, named Reginald, using the pen name ‘Saki’. These sketches were published in a short book titled Reginald in 1904. By this time Munro was working as a foreign correspondent for several London newspapers, a job which took him to the Balkans, Warsaw, Russia and Paris, before he returned to London to concentrate on being a writer.

The result was this, his second volume of short stories, Reginald In Russia, collected & published in 1910. Only the first story actually features Reginald – maybe the title was chosen to lure in fans of the first book – but it’s not just that: the whole feel of the stories is different. Whereas the original Reginald pieces were little more than comic monologues and all centred on the eponymous languid aesthete, the stories in RiR a) really are stories b) feature a wide cast of characters.

Above all, they mark the arrival of the macabre in Saki’s work. Some truly gruesome incidents take place, and the humour – or the effect – derives from the dead-pan, upper-class sang-froid with which they’re described.

Reginald in Russia

1. Reginald in Russia

Reginald in witty conversation with i.e. making sardonic remarks at the expense of, a Russian princess.

‘I always refused to learn Russian geography at school,’ observed Reginald; ‘I was certain some of the names must be wrong.’

2. The Reticence of Lady Anne

The timid Egbert tiptoes into the dining room at tea-time as the light is fading and makes numerous apologies to his wife for their argument at lunch-time. She sits frigid and silent, until, humiliated by her refusal to respond, he tiptoes out.

To get the worst of an argument with her was no new experience. To get the worst of a monologue was a humiliating novelty.

At which point the narrator reveals that Egbert’s wife is, in fact, dead. (Without a big deal being made of the fact, we realise that this is the first of Saki’s stories which does not feature the egregious Reginald. We are out and about in the wider world now, although, admittedly, still very much in the circumscribed world of the English upper classes.)

3. The Lost Sanjak

The prison chaplain hears the confession of a hanged man who swears it wasn’t him and tells his story. He is an educated man who made a pass at the chemist’s wife who spurned him and asked him to disappear from her life. On the way back from her house he came across the body of a Salvation Army officer who had been brutally murdered, and it occurred to him he could swap identities, dressing the corpse in his clothes, and thus ‘disappearing’ from his beloved’s life. He does so, changing into the Sally Army man’s outfit, only for it to become clear that the dead man was not, as he thought, the victim of a traffic accident, but had been brutally bludgeoned, smashing in his head.

What happens now is that, finding the corpse wearing his clothes they think that he, the narrator of the tale, has been murdered and witnesses report a shifty-looking Salvation Army officer leaving the scene of the crime. And so he, the narrator of the story, becomes accused of his own murder and the target of a nationwide murder hunt, finally being caught by bloodhounds and convicted of his own murder.

A well-educated man and something of an expert on the Balkans, he is asked at his trial, as a trst of his knowledge, to prove he really is who he claims he is, to specify the location of Novibazar and, in his fluster, says Baker Street. And so he was hanged – for a mistake in geography.

Although it has a few spasms of Reginaldesque wit:

With considerable difficulty I undressed the corpse, and clothed it anew in my own garments. Any one who has valeted a dead Salvation Army captain in an uncertain light will appreciate the difficulty.

… this story is clearly quite a departure from Reginald territory in that it is mostly fairly serious and at its heart is an act of gruesome violence.

4. The Sex that Doesn’t Shop

A Reginald-style frivolous essay about women’s peculiar dilatoriness when it comes to shopping, for example always managing to run out of household necessities at just the vital moment, refusing to shop at the nearest store but always fetishising the most distant ones. He tells the anecdote of a friend named Agatha who prevented him from buying perfectly good blotting paper at a nearby shop and insisted he accompany her to a place where ‘they know me’, that being the prime consideration, more than convenience or price.

5. The Blood-Feud of Toad-Water

So-so story about a country feud between Mrs Crick who keeps hens and Mrs Saunders who keeps a vegetable patch, after one of the Crick hens gets in among the onion seedlings. It is told in Saki’s characteristic sardonic and ironic style, but is a definite departure from metropolitan high society.

6. A Young-Turkish Catastrophe

The Turkish Minister For Fine Arts visits the Grand Vizier and persuades him to give women the vote. The progressive Young Turkish party will approve. Later, when the election is called, in one particular region the local candidate is ahead by 300 votes – until his rival, Ali the Blest, turns up with his 600 wives!

I think the point is meant to be that so-called progressive politicians will be undone by their own policies. It is the first of several jibes against the suffragettes in Saki’s oeuvre. And it is topical:

The Young Turks was a political reform movement in the early 20th century that favoured the replacement of the Ottoman Empire’s absolute monarchy with a constitutional government. They led a rebellion against the absolute rule of Sultan Abdulhamid II in the 1908 Young Turk Revolution. (Wikipedia)

7. Judkin of the Parcels

Not a story at all, a rather depressing portrait of a homely man who the narrator sees trudging down his local rural lanes, carrying parcels, and later digging up the roots of a tree. The narrator fantasises about his gilded youth, adventures in Imperial provinces under the stars but how life for old Judkin has now dwindled to rural tedium. It’s elegantly written but… well… sad.

8. Gabriel-Ernest

Cunningham remarks after a weekend stay with his friend Van Cheel that there is a beast in his woods. Next day, out walking, Van Cheele comes across a naked 16 year-old boy sunning himself by the waterfall. The boy is cheeky and slips into the water with an uncanny slinkiness. Next day Van Cheele finds the boy, again naked, in his morning room. His aunt wanders in and is much taken with the poor waif, and bathes and dresses him and whimsically names him Gabriel-Ernest.

The boy’s wildness, uncanny air and tasteless remarks about man-flesh disconcert Van Cheele so much he takes a train to visit Cunningham and ask him just what did his remark about a beast mean? Cunningham replies that he saw a boy lazing on a hillside at dusk and, just as the sun set, he transformed into a wolf! At this revelation, Van Cheele realises the boy is alone in his house with his aunt!!

Van Cheele runs out of the room, catches the next train home, rushes out the station and into a taxi, gets home to find… his aunt is perfectly alright, phew! But where is the boy? Walking one of the many local toddlers home, she replies. Without waiting, Van Cheele dashes back out the house and down the country lane but, as the sun sets, he hears a blood-curdling scream of terror.

Neither Gabriel-Ernest nor the toddler are ever found, though the former’s clothes are found in a pile by the mill stream. The locals assume the little toddler fell in the stream and Gabriel-Ernest stripped and jumped in to rescue him. Van Cheele knows better but tells no-one. The Saki note comes right at the very end:

Van Cheele gave way to his aunt in most things, but he flatly refused to subscribe to the Gabriel-Ernest memorial.

It is as if Oscar Wilde has been crossed with Bram Stoker. There is the genuinely macabre and horrific – but rounded off with the cheeky insouciance of Reginald.

9. The Saint and the Goblin

A kind of fable, slightly like Wilde’s fairy stories, of two neighbours in a medieval cathedral, a stone saint and a carved goblin. They have opposite philosophies: the saint thinks the world is bad and he ought to do something about it; the goblin thinks the world is bad and should be left to its own devices. Both of them use the church mice as an example. The church mice are poor and the saint thinks something should be done about them, whereas the goblin thinks it is their function to be poor in a world which can never be changed or improved.

When a jackdaw drops a silver thaler near the saint he tells the goblin he is going to send the verger’s wife a dream to instruct her to a) find the coin and b) spend it on corn to place on his altar which the mice can eat.

Part one of the dream works and the vergeress finds the silver coin, but all she does is tie it round the neck of the carved saint as an offering. Thus the carved saint’s noble aim of improving the lot of the poor mice is defeated. A Conservative fable?

10. The Soul of Laploshka

Laploshka is a famous miser who sponges off those richer than him. Meanly, the narrator has dinner with him but is then called away on an appointment and yells back for Laploshka to pay the bill. He does so with terrible grace but next day tracks down the narrator for the owed two francs, but the narrator cheerily says he’ll have to owe it since he has no ready cash and is going away for six months.

That night Laploshka dies of a heart attack. The narrator has the whimsical indifference of Reginald, but feels he still owes the 2 francs: should he give it to the poor? In church he drops it in the collection bag ‘for the poor’. But a few days later he is struck to see the ghost of Laploshka in a restaurant near him. From then on, for weeks, Laploshka’s ghost mournfully follows him.

Eventually the narrator realises he should have given the 2 francs to the deserving rich. In another church in Paris he comes across Baron R, one of the richest men in the city, pretends to be an American and asks naive questions about the place and, at the end of the tour, gratefully gives the rich man the 2 francs. Exiting, he sees Laploshka’s ghost tip his hat to him, and then disappear.

Saki’s humorous similes, the comic comparisons and insights which more or less made up the Reginald stories, are now much rarer and deployed with more restraint among the more mundane matter of the plot. It is the plot which acts out the sardonic mentality previously conveyed by dialogue alone. But there are still witty mots:

Laploshka said nothing, but his eyes bulged a little and his cheeks took on the mottled hues of an ethnographical map of the Balkan Peninsula.

Note the highly topical reference to the Balkans which were just about to undergo another spasm of wars.

11. The Bag

A Russian boy, Vladimir, aged 19, is staying with a posh landed family, the Hoopingtons, namely Mrs Hoopington and her niece Norah. The local Major is having the devil of a time keeping the local fox hunt going, what with foxes getting scarcer and people fencing off their property.

Vladimir comes home from a shoot with a full bag and, from his description of having bagged a reddish furry animal that hides among trees and eats vermin, Norah is horrified – Vladimir must have shot a fox, one of the ever-dwindling band of foxes which Major Pallaby is always complaining about !

They hear the Major and Mrs Hoopington coming into the dining room and chuck the bag onto the top of a dresser but the strap catches on an antler and the wretched bag hangs there, just above the alcove in which the foursome settle down for tea.

But then the Major’s dog starts barking and then leaping up to get the bag, the elders ask what the devil’s in it, Norah confesses it’s got one of the rare foxes in it, and the Major bursts into a fury, phones the head of the hunt and resigns, casts insults in every direction and storms out.

Vladimir is shamefacedly sent with his bag to the woods, where he buries – a polecat! Not a fox at all. Norah made a mistake, all the rest is comic over-reaction.

12. The Strategist

A party of children are invited to Mrs Jallatt’s. Rollo is outnumbered by his horrible cousins, the Wrotsleys, and so he tries to use strategy to avoid being beaten up by the bullies. And they really are little brutes: on their first visit to the library to confer on the word for charades the Wrotsleys hold him down and horsewhip him for a minute. The girls in the party call for another word and Rollo is taken back out and subjected to whipping with a whalebone riding switch. The other focus of the story is malicious, fat Agnes who will do anything to lay her hands on food, her personality described at repellent length.

All the time Mrs Jallatt is thinking her little charges are having a lovely time. In other words it is a story about what utter, untamed beasts and greedy sadists children are. Reminiscent of the deliberate sadism in Kipling’s stories about children, for example the entire Stalky and Co series.

13. Cross Currents

Quite a complex tale of the snobbish Vanessa Pennington who is married to a worthy but poor man, but worshipped by an adventurer, Clyde, much given to travelling the wastes of Asia.

When the husband dies and Clyde eventually hears about it in the wastes of Asia, he invites Vanessa to join him in the back of beyond, but she doesn’t take to it:

  • Vanessa was well enough educated to know that all dusky-skinned people take human life as unconcernedly as Bayswater folk take singing lessons.
  • It was one thing to go to the end of the world; it was quite another thing to make oneself at home there. Even respectability seemed to lose some of its virtue when one practised it in a tent.

It all turns out to be very boring for a girl and she ends up running off with another man, Dobrinton, who is actually half-Russian. Alas, they are captured and held to ransom by Kurdish bandits. Clyde not very enthusiastically follows on their trail and he too is captured.

Stuck in a hut and under guard they are not a happy trio, till Clyde escapes, the other two are ransomed by their governments, Dobrinto is bitten by a rabid dog and dies of fright, and Vanessa limps back to London very relieved to get a job in a hotel restaurant. Still, it’s in quite a fashionable address, so things have turned out alright, really.

Once again, the humour is in the plot more than the witticisms, though there are plenty of one-liners. More interesting, maybe, is the setting and the fact that the kidnapping requires the various governments to ransom their citizens i.e. the inclusion of diplomacy as a subject, something which Munro knew about because of his extended stays as a journalist in Russia and environs.

14. The Baker’s Dozen (A Playlet)

The Major and Mrs Carewe meet on an eastern steamer and declare that, their respective spouses being dead, they are free to pursue their love. Except that, when they stop to tot up their accumulated children they find they have 13 (!). It would be dreadfully unlucky to marry and have thirteen children! Maybe they can get rid of one.

Just then an acquaintance, Mrs Paly-Paget, comes by. She only has the one little girl so the Major tries to interest her in adopting a few others for her to play with. Mrs P-P is shocked and storms off. Is there no hope? But then the Major counts again and realises he only has four children. They are saved!

At one point they are discussing whether any of the boys, with a bit of luck, might turn out completely depraved so they can disown him and bring the numbers down:

Emily: There’s always a chance that one of them might turn out depraved and vicious, and then you could disown him. I’ve heard of that being done.
Major: But, 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 school.

15. The Mouse

Theoderic Voler is nervous and shy and is returning by train from a visit to a country vicarage where he had the indignity of having to help harness the pony the trap himself, in a mouse-ridden stable, when he realises a stray mouse has got into his clothing.

He is in a railway carriage with no corridor and one other inhabitant, a young lady who is, mercifully, asleep. Nervously, Theoderic pins up a rug to the overhead baggage compartment and is halfway through stripping off to get at the mouse when the rug falls down with a bang and wakes the young lady.

Almost hysterical with embarrassment, Theoderic grabs the rug up to his neck and spends the next half hour in an agony of embarrassment at his predicament, which gets worse as they approach London and he realises a whole station full of onlookers will at some point see him en deshabillé. So he plucks up his guts to do the bravest thing in his life, drops the rug and hastily gets dressed in front of the young lady, stuttering and fumbling and red with embarrassment.

It is only as the train arrives at the station that the young lady says would he mind helping her; it always makes her feel so helpless at railway stations – being blind! So it’s a comedy, but with a bitter twist.

Commentary

By the last of these stories we have come a long, long way from Reginald’s sub-Wildean epigrams, into much more varied territory.

What had been carefully dealt out one-liners in the Reginald stories have now expanded to become actual plots. The irony and paradox which were once embodied in witty sentences has been expanded into ironic and paradoxical storylines.

Some are silly drawing room comedies such as A Baker’s Dozen. But the memorable ones tend to be those with a touch of the macabre, the one in which the husband talks to Lady Anne for half and hour then storms out without realising she’s dead. And of course Gabriel-Ernest sticks out, as the most shockingly gruesome.

The odd thing is the way Saki’s dryly, super-sophisticated, ironic tone allows you to accept anything: yes, the boy is a werewolf, yes, they were captured by Kurdish bandits, yes, the Edwardian couple are so upset by the thought of having 13 children that they start planning trying to get rid of one. You have entered a world of malicious fairy tales.

But not all of them. As a collection it’s a mixed bag, some harking back to the monologues of Reginald, such as the superficial essay about women shopping, some feel like experiments in trying out unusual subject matter, like Judkin and The Water-Feud and The Bag, not coincidentally all set in the country.

But rearing up among them is a new tone of voice, vivid experiments with shock and bewildered amusement – Gabriel-Ernest and The Mouse. These point towards the finished ‘Saki’ effect.

Witticisms

Reginald sat in a corner of the Princess’s salon and tried to forgive the furniture, which started out with an obvious intention of being Louis Quinze, but relapsed at frequent intervals into Wilhelm II.

The Princess always defended a friend’s complexion if it was really bad. With her, as with a great many of her sex, charity began at homeliness and did not generally progress much farther.

‘I hope you will come and see me again,’ she said, in a tone that prevented the hope from becoming too infectious…

He could sing ‘Yip-I-Addy’ and spoke of several duchesses as if he knew them – in his more inspired moments almost as if they knew him.


Related links

Saki’s works

Reginald by Saki (1904)

Hector

Hector Hugh Munro was born in 1870 in Burma, then still part of the British Empire. He was the son of Charles Augustus Munro, an Inspector General for the Indian Imperial Police, and Mary Frances Mercer, daughter of Rear Admiral Samuel Mercer. Her nephew, Cecil William Mercer, later became a famous novelist under the pen-name ‘Dornford Yates’. So a posh and bookish family.

His mother died when Hector was just two and he, along with his siblings, was sent to Devon to be raised by their grandmother and aunts in a strict and puritanical household. As a result, eccentric or mean aunts loom large in Saki’s fiction and often come to a sticky end.

Susan Mebberley was a charming woman, but she was also an aunt. (The Chronicles of Clovis)

Hector was tutored by governesses until sent to boarding school in Bedford. When his father retired from Burma, he returned to England and took Hector and his sister on tours of fashionable European spas and resorts, which also crop up in Saki’s stories.

In 1893 Hector followed his father into the Indian Imperial Police and was posted to Burma. Two years later, having contracted malaria, he resigned and returned to England.

Back in England Hector developed a new career as a journalist and began writing for newspapers like the Westminster Gazette, the Daily Express, the Morning Post, and magazines such as the Bystander and Outlook.

In 1900 he published a serious historical study, The Rise of the Russian Empire. From 1902 to 1908 Munro worked as a foreign correspondent for the Morning Post in the Balkans, Warsaw, Russia (where he witnessed Bloody Sunday on 22 January 1905) and Paris. He then gave up foreign reporting and settled in London.

Saki

In 1904 Hector published a slender volume of stories and sketches under the pen name ‘Saki’. Nobody is certain where this comes from: it could be a reference to the cup-bearer in the popular Victorian poem, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam. Or it might be a reference to the South American monkey of the same name. Or it might be that his stories are laced with dry sarcasm. Or maybe he just liked the sound of the word.

Reginald

Saki’s first volume, Reginald, is extremely short, comprising twenty short texts of barely two pages each, which had all been first published as snippets in the Westminster Gazette. They are not really stories: each one is more like a topic on which we hear the divine fop, dandy and man-about-town, Reginald, giving his langorous, witty opinions, sometimes to the unnamed narrator, sometimes in dialogue with ‘the Duchess’ or just ‘the Other’, sometimes in plain declamatory prose.

The only thing Reginald cares about is his appearance. He fusses about ties and buttonholes. Even the thought of holding extended conversations exhausts the poor dear. He delights in scandalising aunts and a recurrent character, The Duchess, with deliberately paradoxical and unconventional opinions.

After a few hours in the company of the camp and calculating frivolousness of young Reginald, it comes as no surprise to learn that Saki was gay. Reginald’s character, style and flow of witty epigrams is saturated in the persona and style of Oscar Wilde.

Reginald closed his eyes with the elaborate weariness of one who has rather nice eyelashes and thinks it useless to conceal the fact.

By far the best, the funniest, and the most complete sketch is The Woman Who Told The Truth which contains probably his most quoted line: ‘The cook was a good cook, as cooks go; and as cooks go she went.’

The brief pieces are titled:

1. Reginald

The unnamed narrator takes Reginald to an upper-class garden party where he scandalises everyone he comes in contact with, teaching the children how to make cocktails, mocking the Colonel’s story of how he introduced golf to India, discussing a scandalous French novel with the Archdeacon’s wife. By the time the narrator catches up with him:

I found everyone talking nervously and feverishly of the weather and the war in South Africa, except Reginald, who was reclining in a comfortable chair with the dreamy, far-away look that a volcano might wear just after it had desolated entire villages.

The narrator plays his trump card by telling Reginald a sea-mist is coming in. Reginald sits bolt upright and agrees to beat a hasty retreat to their carriage, for fear that the mist might undo the elaborate curl of hair over his right eyebrow.

2. Reginald on Christmas Presents

Why people are so lamentably bad at giving presents. Really, there ought to be special training in the art of gift-giving:

Then there are aunts. They are always a difficult class to deal with in the matter of presents. The trouble is that one never catches them really young enough. By the time one has educated them to an appreciation of the fact that one does not wear red woollen mittens in the West End, they die, or quarrel with the family, or do something equally inconsiderate. That is why the supply of trained aunts is always so precarious.

3. Reginald on the Academy

Meaning the Royal Academy of Art, for which Reginald affects a fashionable disdain, its sole purpose being to have something to talk about to the tedious country cousins when they come up to Town. As to the actual pictures:

‘The pictures are all right, in their way; after all, one can always look at them if one is bored with one’s surroundings, or wants to avoid an imminent acquaintance.’

In his continual effort to scandalise with unexpected paradox, Reginald reminds the reader of a slightly cut-price Oscar Wilde:

‘What were you talking about? Oh, pictures. Personally, I rather like them; they are so refreshingly real and probable, they take one away from the unrealities of life.’

4. Reginald at the Theatre

A dialogue between Reginald and the Duchess, in which she asks the questions and he supplies the punchlines:

‘Of course you are quite irreligious?’
‘Oh, by no means. The fashion just now is a Roman Catholic frame of mind with an Agnostic conscience: you get the mediæval picturesqueness of the one with the modern conveniences of the other.’

Which leads into the Duchess’s earnest defence of the British Empire and Reginald’s debonaire mockery of it.

5. Reginald’s Peace Poem

A mockery of poetry as Reginald explains how he’s setting about writing a poem for peace.

‘You must have angels in a Peace poem and I know dreadfully little about their habits.’

6. Reginald’s Choir Treat

The vicar’s grown-up daughter in the village where Reginald’s unworldly family still live, is encouraged to undertake his moral reformation. Obviously she fails when it comes to verbal exchanges and so shifts tack and asks him to help with the village children’s choir. Unfortunately, she then takes to her bed with a cold. With a glint in his eye, Reginald leads the children to a stream, gets them to strip off and bathe, then decorate each other with flowers, and process mostly naked through the village leading a goat, in a delightful homage to the pagan world. Nude Greek paganism.

7. Reginald on Worries

To my mind, education is an absurdly over-rated affair. At least, one never took it very seriously at school, where everything was done to bring it prominently under one’s notice. Anything that is worth knowing one practically teaches oneself, and the rest obtrudes itself sooner or later.

8. Reginald on House-Parties

One never gets to know one’s hosts and one’s hosts never get to know you and if they do then quite often, as in the unfortunate affair of the peacock, they take a decided turn against you.

So I got up the next morning at early dawn—I know it was dawn, because there were lark-noises in the sky, and the grass looked as if it had been left out all night…

9. Reginald at the Carlton

Discussing travel with the Duchess:

‘And, after all, they charge so much for excess luggage on some of those foreign lines that it’s really an economy to leave one’s reputation behind one occasionally.’

As usual, even in comedy, these old stories reveal that some social issues are with us forever.

‘And the youngest daughter, who was intended for the American marriage market, has developed political tendencies, and writes pamphlets about the housing of the poor. Of course it’s a most important question, and I devote a good deal of time to it myself in the mornings.’

10. Reginald on Besetting Sins (The Woman Who Told The Truth)

There was once (said Reginald) a woman who told the truth. Not all at once, of course, but the habit grew upon her gradually, like lichen on an apparently healthy tree. She had no children—otherwise it might have been different. It began with little things, for no particular reason except that her life was a rather empty one, and it is so easy to slip into the habit of telling the truth in little matters…

This ironical inversion of the usual values is conceived and delivered with style and aplomb. And talking of how some things never change, Southern trains were, apparently, as proverbial for their lateness in 1900 as they are in 2020.

The revenge of an elder sister may be long in coming, but, like a South-Eastern express, it arrives in its own good time.

11. Reginald’s Drama

Reginald plans a play which would open with the sound and scent of wolves wafted across the footlight such as to make nervous Lady Whortleberry scream, It would then become a tragedy such as that of the mismatched Mudge-Jervises, where he was always absent at sports and she was always absent doing Good Works for the Poor, and when they did finally meet up after 18 months of marriage, they discovered they had nothing in common. If and when the characters could think of nothing brilliant to say about marriage or the War Office, they could open a window and listen to the howling of the wolves. ‘But that would be very seldom.’

This harping on about wolves is one of the first appearances of the large wild animals which would become the signature note of his most effective stories.

12. Reginald on Tariffs

Talking about tariffs, the lift-boy, who reads extensively between the landings, says it won’t do to tax raw commodities. What, exactly, is a raw commodity? Mrs. Van Challaby says men are raw commodities till you marry them.

13. Reginald’s Christmas Revel

Reginald describes a perfectly beastly Christmas he spent as a house guest at the Babswolds’ once, where he took his revenge by playing a particularly corking practical joke.

I don’t like to play games of skill for milk-chocolate, so I invented a headache and retired from the scene. I had been preceded a few minutes earlier by Miss Langshan-Smith, a rather formidable lady, who always got up at some uncomfortable hour in the morning, and gave you the impression that she had been in communication with most of the European Governments before breakfast. There was a paper pinned on her door with a signed request that she might be called particularly early on the morrow. Such an opportunity does not come twice in a lifetime. I covered up everything except the signature with another notice, to the effect that before these words should meet the eye she would have ended a misspent life, was sorry for the trouble she was giving, and would like a military funeral. A few minutes later I violently exploded an air-filled paper bag on the landing, and gave a stage moan that could have been heard in the cellars. Then I pursued my original intention and went to bed. The noise those people made in forcing open the good lady’s door was positively indecorous; she resisted gallantly, but I believe they searched her for bullets for about a quarter of an hour, as if she had been an historic battlefield.

14. Reginald’s Rubaiyat

Reginald outrages the Duchess with steadily more outlandish versions of verses he composes for her album.

15. The Innocence of Reginald

Reginald announces he is going to write ‘a book of personal reminiscences’ and leave nothing out, which prompts an absolute panic among his acquaintance. It prompts a prolonged argument with Miriam Klopstock all the way through a play at His Majesty’s Theatre.

She leaned back and snorted, ‘You’re not the boy I took you for,’ as though she were an eagle arriving at Olympus with the wrong Ganymede.

Bons mots

Reginald in his wildest lapses into veracity never admits to being more than twenty-two.

‘People may say what they like about the decay of Christianity; the religious system that produced green Chartreuse can never really die.’

‘To have reached thirty,’ said Reginald, ‘is to have failed in life.’

‘I agree with you.’
‘I wish you wouldn’t. I’ve a sweet temper, but I can’t stand being agreed with.’

No really provident woman lunches regularly with her husband if she wishes to burst upon him as a revelation at dinner. He must have time to forget; an afternoon is not enough.

‘Lift-boys always have agèd mothers; shows such nice feeling on their part, I think.’

‘There are certain fixed rules that one observes for one’s own comfort. For instance, never be flippantly rude to any inoffensive grey-bearded stranger that you may meet in pine forests or hotel smoking-rooms on the Continent. It always turns out to be the King of Sweden.’

‘I always say beauty is only sin deep.’

‘You promised you would never mention it; don’t you ever keep a promise?’ When people had stopped glaring in our direction, I replied that I’d as soon think of keeping white mice.

‘Her frocks are built in Paris, but she wears them with a strong English accent. So public-spirited of
her. I think she must have been very strictly brought up, she’s so desperately anxious to do the wrong thing correctly.’

‘A woman who leaves her cook never wholly recovers her position in Society.’

‘I hate posterity — it’s so fond of having the last word.’

Saki and Kipling

A few years ago I read most of Kipling’s works and was interested to see him referenced a couple of times in these brief skits. As the son of an Imperial official, born in India and sent to prep school in Devon and forced to stay with uncongenial ‘carers’, Hector’s early life was eerily similar to Kipling’s and they were only five years apart in age (Kipling born 1865, Saki 1870).

And yet Saki was of a completely different temperament and instead of respecting the older writer, he enjoys satirising him and his earnest embodiment of Imperial values.

Kipling or someone has described somewhere the look a foundered camel gives when the caravan moves on and leaves it to its fate. The peptonised reproach in the good lady’s eyes brought the passage vividly to my mind.

In Reginald at the theatre the Duchess tries to provoke the sceptical Reginald into admitting that, despite his pose of elaborate cynicism, he at least believes in patriotism. What’s interesting is the way she expresses herself in Kiplingesque clichés and quotes.

‘But there are other things,’ she continued, ‘which I suppose are to a certain extent sacred even to you. Patriotism, for instance, and Empire, and Imperial responsibility, and blood-is-thicker-than-water, and all that sort of thing… Oh, well, “dominion over palm and pine,” you know,’ quoted
the Duchess hopefully; ‘of course we mustn’t forget that we’re all part of the great Anglo-Saxon Empire.’

In among her jumble of platitudes she is quoting Kipling’s most eminent poem, Recessional

God of our fathers, known of old,
Lord of our far-flung battle line,
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

It’s interesting evidence of the way Kipling’s phrases had penetrated the culture; the way in which a sub-Kipling Imperial worldview was just part of the respectable mindset of the day.

Elsewhere, Reginald jokes about a couple who lived very happily apart, him serving overseas, until they accidentally met one day and discovered they profoundly disagreed on ‘the Fiscal Question’ (a reference, I think, to Joseph Chamberlain’s campaign for tariff reform designed to bind the British Empire together into one trading bloc) and so are divorcing and trying to agree custody of the Persian cats. Reginald is considering turning the story into a drama mockingly titled ‘The Price They Paid For Empire’. In other words, part of the comedy derives from deliberately ridiculing and belittling everything Kipling held dear.

Elsewhere Saki elaborately guys Kipling’s genuinely creepy horror story, At The End of The Passage, when Reginald sneaks off from an after-dinner party game of charades to go and gamble with the servants, later giving his excuse that he was at the end of the passage. ‘I never did like Kipling,’ comments his hostess, Mrs Babwold, so it is assumed that not only the characters but the reader will recognise that phrase, the end of the passage, as the title of a Kipling story.

There are quite a few references to ‘the war’ – for example, the peace poem Reginald is composing relates to the ongoing conflict, and elsewhere he jokes:

‘And nowadays there are always the Johannesbourgeois, who bring a Cape-to-Cairo atmosphere with them — what may be called the Rand Manner, I suppose.’

In a play on ‘the Grand manner’. These are all references to the Boer War (1899 to 1902) and show that Saki’s stories are very aware of their times, are more full of topical and contemporary references than people think.

‘There’s lots more about the blessings of Peace, shall I go on reading it?’
‘If I must make a choice, I think I would rather they went on with the war.’

In its studied frivolity and its awareness of contemporary British politics and international affairs, Saki’s stories are a kind of antidote to everything earnest and manly about Kipling and his circle of Imperial visionaries.

Saki and Oscar Wilde

It’s easy to accuse Saki of being a poor man’s Oscar Wilde and it feels like Reginald owes more or less everything to the dandies of Wilde’s plays and Dorian Grey, except that most of his bon mots are not quite as polished and silvery as Wilde’s. Wilde is an incomparable prose stylist, Saki a lot less so.

Also Saki, despite appearance to the contrary, is firmly embedded in his times, as the references to the Boer War or Tariff Reform suggest, a topicality which becomes dominant in his invasion novel, When William Came. Completely different from Wilde who set his stories in an upper class fairyland. Saki’s stories always have this element of topicality about them.

But this was just the very start of his career. Soon it was to become clear that Saki’s real métier wasn’t wit alone, but the macabre and gruesome dressed as comedy. The Reginald strain remains, and some later stories still consist entirely of dandyish wit, but the best ones are known for the bizarre inclusion of wild animals and the black comedy of bullying aunts coming to grisly ends.


Related links

Saki’s works

%d bloggers like this: