The Pharsalia by Lucan – 1: Introduction

O mighty the sacred labour of the poet! He rescues
all from fate, and grants immortality to mortal beings.
(Pharsalia Book 9, lines 980 to 981)

Lucan biography

Marcus Annaeus Lucanus (39 to 65 AD), generally referred to in English simply as ‘Lucan’, was a Roman poet, born in Corduba (modern-day Córdoba) in the Roman province of Hispania. Although he was ordered to kill himself by the emperor Nero at the age of just 25, Lucan is regarded as one of the outstanding figures of the Imperial Latin period, particularly for his (unfinished) epic poem, Pharsalia.

Lucan was the son of Marcus Annaeus Mela, younger brother of Seneca the Younger i.e. he was Seneca’s nephew.

Lucan’s father was wealthy, a member of the knightly class, and sent him to study rhetoric at Athens and he was probably tutored in philosophy, and especially Stoic philosophy, by his uncle (maybe by Seneca’s freedman, Cornutus, who also tutored the slightly older poet, Persius).

Lucan was a precocious talent and was welcomed into the literary and philosophical circles around the young emperor Nero, who was only two years older than him (born 37 AD). In 60 AD i.e. aged barely 21, Lucan won prizes for extemporising poems at Nero’s new Quinquennial Games. Nero rewarded him by appointing him to the office of augur, a plum position in Rome’s religious hierarchy.

Soon afterwards Lucan began circulating the first three books of what was intended to be an epic poem about the civil war between Julius Caesar and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (generally referred to as Pompey). This has come down to us with the title Pharsalia, or De Bello civili (‘On the civil war’) in other manuscripts. It’s titled Pharsalia because the action focuses on the decisive Battle of Pharsalus, fought on 9 August 48 BC, at which Caesar decisively defeated Pompey’s army.

At some point Nero and Lucan fell out. According to Tacitus (Annals, book 15, section 49) Nero became jealous of Lucan and ordered him to stop publishing the Pharsalia. According to Suetonius (in his brief Life of Lucan, cited in full at the end of this blog post), Nero disrupted a public reading by Lucan by leaving and calling a meeting of the senate. Lucan responded by writing insulting poems about Nero – which is always a bad thing to do against a tyrant. The grammarian Vacca mentions that one of Lucan’s works was entitled De Incendio Urbis (‘On the Burning of the City’) which presumably contained criticism of Nero’s role in the Great Fire of Rome (July 64). This is confirmed by a reference in a poem by Lucan’s younger contemporary, Publius Papinius Statius (45 to 96 AD).

As further proof, after the pro-Nero eulogy of the opening book, nearly all the subsequent references to emperors and the empire are vitriolically anti-imperial and pro-republic in tone. To take an example at random, Lucan’s biting criticism of not only Alexander the Great’s achievements, but of the cult of imperial Alexander which followed his death.

For, if the world had regained a shred of liberty
his corpse would have been retained as an object
of derision, not shown as an example to the world
of how a host of lands were subjected to one man.
He left his Macedonian obscurity, spurned Athens
that his father had conquered, and spurred on by
the power of destiny ran amok among the realms
of Asia, slaying humankind, putting every land
to the sword. He stained far-off rivers, Persia’s
Euphrates, India’s Ganges with blood; a plague
on earth, a lightning bolt that struck all peoples
alike, a fateful comet flaring over every nation.

But what ended Lucan’s life was his involvement in Gaius Calpurnius Piso’s conspiracy against Nero, uncovered in 65. Lucan was one of many conspirators revealed by torturing suspects. According to Suetonius he miserably truckled to his persecutors, giving them names of further conspirators, including even his own mother, in the vain hope of winning a pardon.

Once his guilt was established Nero ordered Lucan to commit suicide by opening a vein (the alternative being arrest, torture and public execution). According to Tacitus, as Lucan bled to death he recited some lines he had written about a wounded soldier. I wonder if they were from the passage about the 600 Caesarians who chose suicide rather than surrender to Pompey, in book 4:

how simple it is to escape captivity by suicide
(4.577)

Alternatively, according to Suetonius, Lucan in his dying minutes wrote a letter to his father containing corrections to some of his verses and, after eating heartily, offered his arms to a physician to cut his veins. Lucan’s father and both his uncles, i.e all three sons of Seneca the Elder, were also compelled to kill themselves.

(Statius wrote an elegy to Lucan, the Genethliacon Lucani, which was addressed to his widow, Polla Argentaria, on the dead man’s birthday. It was written during the reign of Domitian (81 to 96) and included in Statius’s collection, Silvae).

Themes in the Pharsalia

De Bello Civili (‘On the Civil War’) or the Pharsalia is long and dense with themes and ideas, some of which I will now consider:

1. No gods

The traditional epic poem is packed with gods, supporting various protagonists and intervening in the events. The entire narrative of the Aeneid exists because of the enmity of the queen of the gods, Juno, to the hero, Aeneas, who she continually enters the story to block and stymy, in doing so setting herself against fellow goddess, Venus, who, for her part, does everything she can to support Aeneas (who is her son). This leads to great set-piece debates in heaven between the rival gods, adjudicated by the king of the heavens, Jupiter.

There’s none of this in Lucan. Lucan took the decision to dispense with all the divine interventions associated with traditional epic. Lucan replaces them with the more up-to-date Stoic notions of Fate and Fortune. These two forces, sometimes blurring into each other and overlapping, at other moments appear as clearly distinct entities, names for two different forces operating at different levels of the universe.

Fate, fatum or fata is Destiny – the fixed, foreordained course of events which underpins the universe. Fate is the name given to the working through of the deep plan for the world and the nations in it.

And now, as light dispersed the chill shades of night,
Destiny lit the flames of war, setting the spur to Caesar’s
wavering heart, shattering the barriers shame interposed
and driving him on to conflict. Fate worked to justify
his rebellion, and found a pretext for his use of arms.
(Book 1, lines 261 to 265)

What but the power of destiny, that tragic fate
decreed by the eternal order, drew him, doomed
to die, to that shore…Yet
Pompey yielded to fate, obeying when requested
to leave his ship, choosing to die rather than show
fear…
(8.571 ff.)

By contrast, Fortune, fortuna, is Chance, a fickle, unpredictable force, continually turning her wheel, ensuring that anyone at the peak of professional or social success, can never be certain that Fortune won’t turn her wheel and plunge them down to the pits of failure.

At a deep level, Fate determines the occurrence of a civil war and that Caesar will win. But Fortune decides the outcome of specific events and details.

Caesar, finding civil war so eagerly welcomed by his men,
and finding fortune favourable, granted destiny no delay
due to idleness, but summoned all his forces scattered
throughout Gaul, moving every legion towards Rome.
(1.392 to 395)

Susan Braund explains all this in the introduction to her translation of the Pharsalia published by the Oxford University Press. The distinct operational levels of the two forces are sometimes made particularly clear:

Caesar, finding civil war so eagerly welcomed by his men,
and finding fortune favourable, granted destiny no delay
(1.392-3)

Where Destiny is the overall force or plan but whether individual elements of the plan fall this way or that, depends on Fortune. Or:

Fate stirred the peoples and sent them as companions
to a great disaster, as a funeral train fit for Pompey’s
exequies. Even horned Ammon was not slow to send
squadrons from Africa to battle, from all parched Libya,
from Morocco in the west to Egyptian Syrtes in the east.
So that Caesar, fortune‘s favourite, might win all with
a single throw, Pharsalia brought all the world to battle.
(3.291 to 297)

The distinction is made particularly clear in the long speech by the witch Erictho in book 6, where she makes a distinction between ‘the chain of events fixed from the beginning of the world’ which nobody can change or alter, and ‘lesser decrees of fate’, which witches like her can alter. Level 1 and Level 2. (6.609 to 621)

However, at other moments I found the concepts a lot less clear cut, for example in this passage where you’d expect the Pompey’s ultimate death, the deep pattern of his life, to be described as his Fate not his Fortune.

Pompey by then, had gained the open sea, but the luck
that aided his past hunts for pirates was his no longer,
and Fortune, wearied by his triumphs, proved untrue.

And sometimes the two concepts seem interchangeable:

Greedy quicksand and spongy marshes hid the secret
Fate had placed there; yet later that aged general’s flesh
was scarred by iron fetters reduced by long vile imprisonment.
He was to die though as Fortune’s friend, as consul in a Rome
he had ruined.
(2.71 to 75)

Anyway, Lucan’s neglect of the traditional apparatus of gods and his focus on Fate and Fortune do two things for the poem:

  1. Lots of gods would have distracted attention away from what was a very human catastrophe and away from the all-too-human human protagonists.
  2. Also the gods can, in some sense, be appealed to and swayed by humans. Whereas Fate and Fortune are profoundly impersonal forces and so bring out the horror of the unstoppable nature of civil war, Fate emphasising the deep inevitability of the outcome, with Fortune standing for the many chance victims along the way.

There is a simpler explanation, which is that the introduction of the kind of gods found in Virgil was simply inappropriate – would have appeared gauche and clumsy – in a poem dealing with very events almost within living memory. Roman literature – Classical literature generally – was very concerned with what was and wasn’t appropriate for every genre, in terms of subject matter, tone and even individual words. Including the gods in a historical epic would have breached the conventions of the genre.

2. No heroes

Epic poems feature the adventures of more-than-human heroes, from Gilgamesh, through Achilles and Aeneas, to Beowulf, humans not only with superhuman power but often the progeny of the gods. Whereas a historical epic like the Pharsalia is concerned with real historical personages, many of whose relatives were still alive when Lucan wrote.

Not only that, but epics generally feature one obvious central protagonist (Gilgamesh, Achilles, Beowulf) but just as there are no gods or divine intervention in the Pharsalia, so there is no one hero or central protagonist. Instead there are three leading but not totally dominating figures:

1. Gaius Julius Caesar

Caesar is the most prominent character in the first part of the poem, active, clear-sighted, ambitious, a force of nature – but not likeable. Lucan’s Caesar approaches closest to the figure of traditional epic hero. He has no moderating feminine influence on him until right at the end, in book 10, where his encounter with Cleopatra is a meeting of two cynical players. After the climactic battle of Pharsalus, however, Caesar is depicted as becoming more ambitious and imperial.

2. Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus

Pompey is portrayed as the opposite – vacillating, indecisive, and past his prime (‘the mere shadow of a mighty name’) but, in scenes with friends, followers and especially his wife, Cornelia, far more human than Caesar. At the end, after Pharsalus, Pompey is transformed into a stoic martyr, receiving a kind of visionary treatment as he nears his tragic death on the beach in Egypt which he meets with Stoic calm acceptance.

3. Marcus Porcius Cato

And, after the death of Pompey in book 8, Cato emerges as the strongest leader of the Republican cause, holed up with Republican legions in north Africa. Cato epitomises stern old-fashioned values. He stands for Roman patriotism and Stoic contempt for death, notably in the episode in book 9 where he scorns to consult the oracle of Ammon, saying God gave us all the knowledge we need to live a virtuous life at birth; which triggers adulation from Lucan:

Behold, the true father of his
country, a man worthy to be worshipped,
Rome, at your altars; by whom none need
blush to swear, and who, if you ever free
your neck from the yoke, shall be made a god.

In fact, in a striking episode on the march across the desert, Cato not only embodies Stoic resolution in the face of death but inspires it in others:

Alone he was present at every
death; whenever they call, he goes, and confers that
mighty benefit, more than life: the courage to die;
so that, with him as witness, any man was ashamed
to die with a groan on his lips.
(9.882)

When Cato’s first wife, Marcia, returns to him the narrative emphasises that their marriage is sexless; it symbolises his adherence to defunct, sterile values. Many critics think Lucan intended Cato to develop into the central figure of the poem, with the narrative designed to end with his famous suicide in the besieged garrison town of Utica, symbolising the moral victory of Stoic principle and Freedom against Tyranny.

There’s a case for saying the three figures are on a spectrum: Caesar is over-balanced in one direction, all energy and decision and lust (‘impetuous in everything’ 2.657); Cato stands at the other pole, arid, sexless, aloof; with Pompey standing in the middle, reasonable and given scenes of touching married love with Cornelia. As this blog shrewdly suggests, it’s as if the heroic protagonist of Virgil’s epic, Aeneas, has decomposed into three characters, none of which are heroic.

3. The gruesome and the macabre

The supernatural

If the Pharsalia doesn’t have gods, what it does have in abundance is the Supernatural – the poem is awash with visions, dreams, ghosts, magic, rituals and so on. Braund sees the supernatural as falling into two categories, ‘dreams and visions’ and ‘portents, prophecies and consultations of supernatural powers’.

a) Dreams and visions

There are four important dream or vision sequences in the poem:

  1. Caesar’s vision of Roma as he is about to cross the Rubicon.
  2. The ghost of Julia (his beloved dead wife) appearing to Pompey (3.1 to 45)
  3. Pompey’s dream of his happy past (7.1 to 30)
  4. Caesar and his troops’ dream of battle and destruction.

All four of these dream-visions are placed strategically throughout the poem to provide structure, and to dramatise key turning points in the narrative.

b) Portents, prophecies and consultations of supernatural powers

Lucan describes a number of portents, with two specifically oracular episodes. What is a portent? “A sign or warning that a momentous or calamitous event is likely to happen.” So, on the morning of the fateful battle:

Now Fortune too did not hesitate to reveal the future
by diverse signs. When the army made for Thessaly’s
fields, the whole sky opposed their march, hurling
meteors against them, columns of flame, whirlwinds
sucking up water and trees together, blinding their
eyes with lightning, striking crests from their helms,
melting the swords in their scabbards, tearing spears
from their grasp while fusing them, their evil blades
smoking with air-borne sulphur. The standards too
could barely be plucked from the soil, their great
weight bowing the heads of the standard-bearers;
and the standards wept real tears…
(7.151 to 162)

The central example is the necromancy which takes up half of book 6, when Pompey’s son, Sextus, goes to consult the witch Erachtho. Lucan’s description of the witch and her ritual take up half the entire book (lines 413 to 830).

All this appealed to contemporary taste for the macabre. Braund cites events in one of the tragedies of Lucan’s uncle, Seneca, his Oedipus, which contains a) a visit to the Delphic oracle, b) a gruesome description of the sacrifice and entrail examination of a bull and heifer (haruspicy), and c) the even more macabre magical rituals by which Tiresias raises the ghost of dead King Laius to accuse Oedipus of his murder.

Chaos on earth reflected in heaven

It is a central feature of the histories that war and disruption on earth must inevitably be accompanied by chaos in the heavens – just as in his uncle Seneca’s tragedies where mayhem on earth is matched and mimicked by cosmic catastrophes. In both Lucan and Seneca the entire universe often seems to be trembling on the brink of complete dissolution.

So when the fabric
of the world dissolves, in that final hour that gathers in the ages,
reverting to primal chaos, star will clash with star in confusion,
the fiery constellations will sink into the sea, and earth heaving
upwards her flat shores will throw off the ocean, the moon will
move counter to her brother, and claiming the rule of day disdain
to drive her chariot on its slanting path, and the whole discordant
frame of the shattered firmament will break free of every law.
(1.72 to 79)

This worldview, the intimate parallelism between human and supernatural affairs, is very prevalent in the biographers Plutarch and Suetonius, writing a generation later.

Haruspicy and necromancy

Along the way, Braund gives useful definitions of two key Roman practices:

  • haruspicy (haruspicies) is the art of studying animal entrails, usually the victims of ritual sacrifices
  • necromancy is the art of getting the dead to speak prophecy; necromancy is not only the general practice of this craft, but you perform a necromancy

4. Extreme rhetoric

Education for Roman aristocrats focused on rhetoric, the ability to speak eloquently and make a persuasive argument. We know from contemporary comments and satires that under the empire many of the exercises which students were given became steadily more extreme and exaggerated. This was reflected in the poetry of the age; from what survives the most extreme example might be the bloodthirsty and over-written tragedies of Seneca.

A central part of the curriculum was the suasoria, an exercise where students wrote speeches advising an historical figure on a course of action. This obviously fed into the largely invented speeches which fill Tacitus’s histories as much as Lucan’s poem.

Lucan is sometimes criticised for the extremity of his rhetoric and the luridness of scenes and imagery. But Susan Braund comes to his defence, with two arguments. One is that Lucan was a product of his times. There was a taste for melodrama and Gothic hyperbole which Lucan catered to.

More interesting is the second argument. This is to do with Virgil. Virgil was the undisputed king of Roman poets and his epic, the Aeneid, was acknowledged as a classic even as he was writing it. The problem for ambitious poets in all the succeeding generations was how to escape Virgil’s dominating influence, how to do anything new. Braund says Ovid found one way, in his Metamorphoses, which was to drop the notion of one, unified, linear narrative and instead string together hundreds of stories and episodes.

Lucan adopted another strategy which was to import into his text the ‘discourse of contemporary rhetoric’, in all its exaggeration and extremity. For there’s another aspect here, which is not to forget that a poem like this was meant to be recited aloud to audiences. Before the rule of Augustus, poetry was recited to group of like-minded friends or patrons. During Augustus’s reign it became common to recite it to larger audiences. We have accounts of Virgil reciting to the emperor and his extended family. Horace was commissioned to write odes to be declaimed at public games.

Braund argues that this trend for declamation had two consequences: it tended to promote more striking and vibrant imagery/style. And it incentivised the poet to think in terms of episodes.

5. Episodic structure

The Aeneid is very carefully constructed and susceptible to many types of structural analysis. Although critics have, of course, made a case for the existence of a deep structure in the Pharsalia (for example, a tetradic structure whereby the first four books focus on Caesar, the next four on Pompey and the final four on Cato) Braund disagrees. She thinks the narrative is far more episodic. In this respect it is like the highly episodic structure of Ovid’s Metamorphoses with one story leading to another, then another, then another – itself a strategy for escaping the highly unified and centralised narrative of the Aeneid.

Like the Metamorphoses, this lack of a single unifying narrative in the Pharsalia allows for more episodes, more adventures, more flicking between channels – episodes which contain are like mini-genres, containing their own appropriate languages, structure and style.

Lucan is fond of discontinuity. He presents his narrative as a series of discrete scenes, often without any transitional or scene-changing lines. Rather than a continuous narrative, it often feels like scenes are balanced within a book or between books, working by correspondence, similarity and difference between them.

We can imagine how well these dramatic episodes would have gone down as stand-alone recitations to a sophisticate audience of Roman aristocrats. I’m thinking of Appius’s confrontation with the priestess at Delphi or the terrific storm scene or Caesar’s speech of defiance to his mutinous troops, all in book 5.

6. Lucan and Virgil

Lucan frequently appropriates ideas from Virgil’s epic and inverts them to undermine their original, heroic purpose. Sextus’ visit to the Thracian witch Erictho in book 6 is the most obvious example, the scene and language clearly referencing Aeneas’ descent into the underworld (in Book 6 of the Aeneid), but while Virgil’s description, despite its gloomy setting, is an optimistic, nay triumphant vision of the future heroes of Rome leading up to the glories of Augustan rule, Lucan uses his scene to convey a bitter and bloody pessimism about the loss of liberty under the coming empire.

7. Epic similes

Braund and other critics emphasis the way that Lucan seeks to break free from the epic conventions, in particular the way he references Virgil in order to reverse or invert his technique and meaning. But in one respect Lucan strongly conforms with the tradition, which is in his use of epic similes. Straight-up epic similes really litter the narrative. Here’s the famous extended comparison of Pompey, larded with triumphs, to a venerable oak tree:

So some oak-tree towers in a rich grove,
hung with a nation’s ancient trophies, sacred gifts of the victors,
and though its clinging roots have lost their strength, their weight
alone holds it, spreading naked branches to the sky, casting shade
not with leaves but its trunk alone, and though it quivers, doomed
to fall at the next gale, among the host of sounder trees that rise
around it, still it alone is celebrated.
(1.137 to 143)

Or the inhabitants of towns which Caesar’s army approached were conflicted about who to support.

Though loyalty contended with the threat of danger,
they still favoured Pompey, as when a southerly rules
the waves, and all the sea is stirred by its vast power,
so that even if Aeolus’ trident opens the solid earth,
and lets an easterly loose on the mounting breakers,
the ocean, though struck by that second force, stays
true to the first, and though the sky surrenders itself
to the rain-filled easterly, the sea asserts the southerly’s
power.
(2.452 to 460)

Describing Octavius’s naval strategy:

So the hunter works,
holding back the net of coloured feathers that scares
the deer with its scent, till he can pen them all, or
quieting the noise of the swift Molossian hounds,
leashing the dogs of Crete and Sparta, till he has set
his stakes and nets, leaving one hound alone to range
the ground, it puzzling out the scent and only barking
when the prey is found, content then to point toward
the creature’s lair while tugging at the leash.
(4.436 to 444)

Or describing the way Cato’s speech in book 9 persuades the allies to remain with the anti-Caesarian army:

So, when hosts of bees
depart the hive, where their young have hatched,
they neglect the waxy cells, their wings no longer
brush one another, each takes its own way, idling,
refraining now from sipping the flowering thyme
with its bitter taste; yet if the sound of Phrygian
cymbals rises, they interrupt their flight, in alarm,
returning to the performance of their flowery task,
and their love of gathering pollen. The shepherd
in Hybla’s meadows is relieved, delighted that
his honey harvest is secured. So Cato’s speech
persuaded his men to endure the lawful conflict.
(9.282 to 293)

Nothing particularly lurid or extreme or melodramatic or supernatural about these. Very conventional epic similes.

8. Geographical descriptions

Before I started reading the poem I was impressed by Braund’s introduction and its emphasis on the macabre and bloodthirsty in Lucan. But once I began reading, I realised there were a lot of other, more low-key, less sensational elements that go to make up the text. More frequent than descriptions of battle, let alone supernatural visions, are the frequent very long passages describing the precise geography of a particular location, such as the region around Capua where Pompey first took his army or, in book 6, this very long description of Thessaly.

Mount Pelion’s ridge bounds Thessaly in the quarter where
the winter sun rises, Mount Ossa where in high summer
its shade obstructs the rays of Phoebus rising in the dawn;
while wooded Othrys dispels the flames of the southern sky,
at midsummer, opposing the brow of the all-devouring Lion;
and Mount Pindus outfacing westerlies and north-westerlies,
where daylight ebbs hastens evening on; while those who live
at the foot of Olympus never dreading the northerlies, know
nothing of the Great Bear’s stars shining a whole night long.
The low-lying lands in the region between these mountains
were once covered with endless marshes; since the plains
retained the waters, and the Vale of Tempe was insufficient
for them to reach the sea they formed continuous swampland,
and their only course was to rise. But when Hercules lifted
Ossa’s weight from Olympus, the sea felt a sudden onrush
of waters as Thessalian Pharsalos, that realm of Achilles
the hero born of a sea-goddess, rose above the surface,
a realm better drowned forever. There rose too, Phylace
whose king was first to land in the war at Troy; Pteleos;
Dorion, that laments the Muses’ anger and blind Thamyris;
Trachis; Meliboea whose Philoctetes received Hercules’
bow, for lighting that hero’s funeral pyre; Larisa, powerful
once; and the sites where the plough now passes over famed
Argos, where Echion’s Thebes once stood, to which Agave
howling bore the head of Pentheus giving it to the funeral
pyre, grieving to have carried off no other part of his flesh.
Thus the swamp was drained forming a host of rivers. From
there the Aeas, clear in its flow but of little volume, runs
westward to the Ionian Sea, the Inachus glides with no more
powerful a current (he was the river-god, father of ravished Io)
nor the Achelous (he almost won Deianeira, Oeneus’ daughter)
that silts the Echinades islands; there, the Euhenos, stained
as it is with Nessus’ blood runs through Meleager’s Calydon;
there Spercheos’ swift stream meets the Malian Gulf’s wave,
and the pure depths of the Amphrysos water those pastures
where Apollo herded cattle. There, the Asopos starts its flow,
and the Black River, and the Phoenix; there, the Anauros,
free of moist vapours, dew-drenched air, capricious breezes.
There too are the rivers which do not reach the sea themselves
but are tributaries of Peneus – the Apidanus, robbed of its flow,
the Enipeus never swift until it finds Peneus, and the Titaresos,
which alone, meeting with that river, keeps its waters intact,
glides on the surface, as though the greater river were dry land,
for legend says its stream flows from the pool of Styx, and so,
mindful of its source, scorns commingling with common water,
inspiring still that awe of its current the gods themselves feel.
Once the waters had flowed away leaving dry land, the fertile
soil was furrowed by the ploughs of the Bebryces; the labour
of Leleges drove the share deep; the ground was broken by
Aeolidae and Dolopians, by Magnesians breeders of horses,
Minyae builders of ships.
(6.398 to 416)

Long, isn’t it? A tourist’s guide to the region. I imagine the long list of not only place names but myths and legends associated with them were a) appropriate to the grandeur of the epic genre, magnifying the action b) awed Lucan’s readers or auditor’s with the poet’s impressive erudition c) made those in the aristocratic audience who had visited some or many of those sites nod with smug recognition.

9. Natural history

In his last few years, Lucan’s uncle, Seneca the Younger, composed an enormous work of natural history, the Naturales quaestiones, an encyclopedia of the natural world. A decade later, 77, Pliny the Elder published the first 10 books of his compendious Naturalis Historia (Natural History) (the largest single work to have survived from the Roman Empire to the modern day).

I mention these works to indicate that a taste for ‘natural history’ was obviously in the air and maybe explains the presence of the extended passages of natural history in the Pharsalia. The obvious example is the really extended passage about the snakes of Libya which takes up over 300 lines in book 9.

10. Is the Pharsalia unfinished?

Almost all scholars agree that the Pharsalia as we now have it is unfinished. Lucan was working in book 10 when Nero’s order to commit suicide came through. Book 10 breaks off with Caesar in Egypt. There are numerous theories about this as about all other aspects of the poem. Here are some:

  • Some argue that Lucan intended to end his poem with the Battle of Philippi (42 BC).
  • Some critics speculate that the narrative was intended to continue all the way to the assassination of Julius Caesar four years after the Battle of Pharsalus, in 44 BC.
  • Some even think it was meant to continue all the way to the Battle of Actium in 31 BC.

The latter two theories, in particular, suppose that Lucan intended to write a work many times larger than what we have. The 10-book poem we have today covers a total of 20 months i.e. roughly a book per 2 months; so the 48 months to Caesar’s assassination would imply another 24 books; the 17 years (204 month) to Actium, imply another 102 books!

Another problem with the timeline continuing as far as Caesar’s assassination is that, with both Pompey and Cato dead, Lucan would have had to embark on building up a new set of characters, in particular the leaders of Caesar’s assassination, Cassius and Brutus.

Which is why Braund ends up going with the simplest hypothesis which is that Lucan’s original intent was a 12-book poem, mirroring the length of the Aeneid. The strongest piece of evidence for Lucan consciously modelling the Pharsalia on Virgil is the way Lucan introduces an extended necromantic ritual in his sixth book that deliberately parallels and inverts many of the motifs found in Virgil’s sixth book. Thus Braund goes with the view that the poem was to be 12 books long and was heading towards the suicide of Cato (as the army of Julius Caesar approached his stronghold of Utica in North Africa) held up as a model of Stoic dignity rising above tyranny.

There are a few more scenarios: one is that the Pharsalia in in fact finished, was meant to end at the end of the tenth book, and is complete as we have it. This is the view of Classicist Jamie Masters but most other scholars disagree.

But there is one last logical possibility, which is that Lucan did in fact complete the poem but, for whatever reason, the final few books of the work were lost at some point. Braund notes that little evidence has been found one way or the other, so this question will remain a matter of speculation.

11. The Roman cult of suicide

Throughout the poem suicide is praised as a noble and dignified way to take control of your life. Nothing becomes a true Roman man so much as either a) dying in battle or b) controlling the time and place of his death, especially when faced with tyranny. Thus Afranius contemplates suicide before surrendering to Caesar (book 4), Vulteius and his men actually do commit suicide, en masse, rather than be captured:

No instant is too short for a man
to kill himself; suicide is no less glorious when death
at another’s hand approaches.
(4.480)

Even Julius Caesar unashamedly tells his mutinying soldiers that, if they lose, he will commit suicide:

I shall seek
my own salvation in suicide; whoever looks back
if the foe is unbeaten, will see me stab my breast.
(7.308)

From which Lucan draws the general lesson that suicide is the ultimate way to escape from tyranny:

Yet even after the example set
by such heroes, nations of cowards still do not comprehend
how simple it is to escape captivity by suicide; so the tyrant’s
power is feared, freedom is constrained by savage weapons,
while all remain ignorant that the sword is there to deliver
every man from slavery.

For me, the careful seeding of examples of, and praise of, and defences of, suicide, strongly suggest the poem was building up to the suicide of Cato as its climax and crowning example of resistance. Thus it is that Cato himself sternly celebrates Pompey’s death after defeat:

O happy was he, whose ending
followed on defeat, the Egyptian swords
offering the death he should have sought.
He might perhaps have lived on instead
under Caesar’s rule

Because:

the highest fate
is to know when to die, and the second
best to have such death forced upon one.

The ‘highest fate’, the best thing a man can do, the greatest achievement of human reason, is to know when to die. All the more ghoulishly ironic that Lucan himself was forced to commit suicide before he could complete the depiction of his Stoic hero committing suicide.

12. Lucan and Seneca

I finished reading Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic weeks after reading the Pharsalia. Reviewing my notes I realise the tremendous overlap in ‘philosophy’, namely the absolutely central role played in both texts by suicide as escape from tyranny. It is the central theme of both works. But as I point out in my review of the letters, suicide my be an acceptable theme for a poem, but not for a really long work of moral exhortation (the letters) which claim to be instructions on how to live and think. Personally, I recommend not thinking about suicide every moment of every day, as a healthier way to live.

Modern views

Since the Enlightenment the Pharsalia has commonly been considered a second rank offering, not in the same league as the king of the Roman epics, the Aeneid. But in recent decades more sophisticated literary analysis has brought out how the poem’s ‘studied artifice enacts a complex relationship between poetic fantasy and historical reality’.

His narrative of the civil war is pared down to a bare minimum; but this is overlaid with a rich and varied virtuoso display of learning which reflected contemporary interests. (Braund, Introduction, page 37)

All I can add is that I found the Pharsalia a surprisingly gripping and interesting read.

Caesar crossing the Rubicon by Adolphe Yvon (1875)


Related links

Roman reviews

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

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