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

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

Landseer’s The Monarch of the Glen @ the National Gallery

The National Gallery uses room 1 to focus on particular works. (To get there go into the main Trafalgar Square entrance of the gallery, then turn immediate left up the steps, and left again at the landing). These exhibitions, small and thoughtful, are always free.

At the moment they’re displaying one of the world’s best-known animal paintings, Edwin Landseer’s The Monarch of the Glen, alongside fourteen other paintings and drawings, to set the picture in the context of Landseer’s own technical and psychological development, showing how he developed his distinctive approach to the representation of the stag as hero.

The Monarch of the Glen (1851) by Edwin Landseer © National Galleries of Scotland

The Monarch of the Glen (1851) by Edwin Landseer © National Galleries of Scotland

The double doors take up most on one wall so there are in effect three walls in the room:

  • the left-hand wall indicates some of the intellectual and artistic preparation
  • straight ahead is the monarch himself, magnificent, flanked by two other Landseer oil paintings of stags
  • the right-hand wall is devoted to the lion sculptures in Trafalgar Square

1. Preparation

Landseer (1802-73) was one of the most famous and successful artists of his time. Immense painterly talent, charm and good looks helped Landseer achieve early success and he was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1850. I didn’t know that, even this young, he was struggling with alcoholism and mental illness.

Landseer had a deep knowledge of earlier painters, such as Rubens, and experimented with large scale complex compositions in the style of the Old Master.

The half dozen drawings and paintings here include a copy of the head of Christ on the Cross, taken from a painting by Rubens. In 1840 Landseer had had a breakdown, and, for his recovery, his doctors suggested a change of scene, so he went on the tour of Europe. He made this very evocative copy on a visit to Antwerp. We know that Rubens compositions lay behind some of Landseer’s earliest representations of horses and dogs, but the head of Christ powerfully introduces the idea of nobility and sacrifice. More, the Rubens Christ suggests a vision of a lone animal struggling against a hostile universe.

Christ on the Cross after Rubens (1840s) by Edwin Landseer. Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Christ on the Cross after Rubens (1840s) by Edwin Landseer. Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Unexpectedly, there’s a drawing by George Stubbs, with a story behind it. Stubbs (1724-1806) was of course the great painter of horses. In the 1750s he made hundreds of detailed anatomical drawings of horses for his revolutionary book, The Anatomy of Horses, published in 1766. Amazingly, Landseer acquired the entire collection in around 1817 (i.e. still a boy) and they provided crucial inspiration for the young Landseer’s own studies of animal anatomy.

Next to it is a detailed (and rather gruesome) study by Landseer of the flayed leg of a dog. This kind of detailed study of the weaving of muscle and tendon over bone was and is still referred to as an écorché. This is just one of countless écorchés which Landseer made the better to understand the anatomy of the animals he wanted to pain.

Nearby a pencil study of a dead stag combines some of these themes, Landseer’s staggering draughtmanship, based on detailed study of anatomy, underpinned by profound pathos at the fate of a noble animal cruelly, tragically struck down.

A Dead Stag by Edwin Landseer. Black and white chalk on paper © National Galleries of Scotland

A Dead Stag by Edwin Landseer. Black and white chalk on paper © National Galleries of Scotland

2. Monarch and other stags

The Monarch of the Glen is hung on the wall facing the visitor, flanked by two other paintings featuring stags. It is by far Landseer’s most famous painting and one of the most famous paintings of an animal in the world.

It was undertaken for the Parliamentary Fine Arts Commission as one of three paintings showing ‘the chase’ i.e. hunting deer. It was originally commissioned to hang above panelling in the dining room of the House of Lords. What a grand location, a constant reminder to the Lords of their nobility and the striking scenery of one of the constituent parts of Great Britain! However, in a typically British fashion, when the time came to pay, the House of Commons refused to grant the £150 promised for the commission, and so the painting went on public sale in the National Gallery and was sold to a private owner. Since then it has passed through about ten sets of hands before the Scottish National Gallery successfully ran a public campaign to buy it for £4 million from the British multinational alcoholic beverages company, Diageo.

The Monarch of the Glen (1851) by Edwin Landseer © National Galleries of Scotland

The Monarch of the Glen (1851) by Edwin Landseer © National Galleries of Scotland

It was intended to be hung above head height. In other words we are looking up, while the stag is painted serenely looking over our heads into an imagined distance.

Knowing what we now do about Landseer’s mental problems and having Rubens’ Christ fresh in our minds we at least understand Landseer’s intention, if it is in practice difficult to put into words, of conveying the idea of nobility, the idea of a kind of superior spirituality which retains its dignity even in a hostile world.

The commentary points out how Landseer gives tints of light to the tips of the stag’s antlers. This subtly conveys the idea of a band of sunlight breaking through clouds to reflect on the antlers, which we cannot see but which the stag can. It sees the view our backs to. It sees – and knows something which we cannot.

There’s a lot more to be said, about the fantastic painting of the deer’s skin and pelt and fur, the way Landseer captures its variations and shimmer – and of course about the violet colouring of the distant crags, a bringing to perfection of the romantic vision of the Scottish Highlands which was to become iconic.

It comes, then, as an amusing surprise to discover that Landseer painted the entire picture in his studio in St John’s Wood where he kept an extensive menagerie, including deer. And he had, of course, been undertaking regular trips to Scotland, sketching and painting, since 1824,

3. Lions

In 1858 Landseer accepted a presitigious commission to create four sculptures of lions to flank Nelson’s column, directly outside the National Gallery, in Trafalgar Square, completing William Railton’s original design for the monument. Landseer’s appointment proved controversial because he was not a sculptor, however his widespread fame as a painter of animals outweighed reservations.

Landseer prepared by, among other things, spending several years doing detailed drawings of the lions at London Zoo. This all contains four drawings and oil sketches, plus a portrait of Landseer working on the actual sculptures in his studio. This is one of two large oil sketches that Landseer made at the London Zoological Gardens which wonderfully captures the menace and power of a pacing lion.

Study of a Lion (about 1862) by Edwin Landseer © Tate, London

Study of a Lion (about 1862) by Edwin Landseer © Tate, London

There are several more sketches and the painting of him working on one of the clay sculptures which were then cast in bronze, done by John Ballantyne.

it was not immediately obvious why four pictures of lions were in an exhibition devoted to the Monarch of the Glen, except that they are further proof of Landseer’s stunning skill at painting animals and the even simpler fact that the results are there for all visitors to go and visit, after they’ve exited the gallery into the square outside.

Curators talk

I really praise the National Gallery for not only hosting extended talks or lectures or discussions about their exhibitions, but for going to the trouble of filming them and posting them on YouTube.

If you have the time, this is a really good way to enter the world of the art or exhibition being discussed.

Here are Susan Foister, curator of Landseer’s The Monarch of the Glen, and Daniel F. Herrmann, National Gallery curator, discussing the Landseer display.


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

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