Munro, H. H.
Munro, H. H.
Born December 18, 1870, in Akyab, Burma; killed in action during World War I, November 14 (some sources say November 13), 1916, in Beaumont-Hamel, France; son of Charles Augustus (a military police officer) and Mary Frances (Mercer) Munro. Education: Attended Bedford Grammar School, c. 1885-87.
Policeman in Burma, 1893-94; political satirist for the Westminster Gazette, 1896-1902; foreign correspondent for the Morning Post, 1902-08; full-time writer near London, England, 1909-14. Military service: British Army, 1914-16; served in the cavalry and infantry during World War I; refused several officer commissions; killed in action.
UNDER PSEUDONYM SAKI
The Westminster Alice (political satire; also see below), illustrations by F. Carruthers Gould, Westminster Gazette, 1902, Viking Press (New York, NY), 1929.
Reginald (short story collection; also see below), Methuen (London, England), 1904.
Reginald in Russia, and Other Sketches (short story collection; includes "Reginald in Russia," "The Saint and the Goblin," "The Bag," and "Gabriel-Ernest"; also see below), Methuen (London, England), 1910.
The Chronicles of Clovis (short story collection; includes "The Unrest Cure," "Tobermory," and "Sredni Vashtar"; also see below), John Lane (London, England), 1912, reprinted, Penguin Books (New York, NY), 1948.
The Unbearable Bassington (novel; also see below), John Lane (London, England), 1912.
Beasts and Super-Beasts (short story collection; includes "The Open Window"; also see below), John Lane (London, England), 1914.
When William Came: A Story of London under the Hohenzollerns (novel; also see below), John Lane (London, England), 1914.
The Toys of Peace, and Other Papers (also see below), portrait and memoir by Rothay Reynolds, John Lane (London, England), 1919.
The Square Egg, and Other Sketches, with Three Plays (contains the plays The Death Trap, Karl-Ludvig's Window, and The Watched Pot; also see below), biography by sister, Ethel M. Munro, John Lane (London, England), 1924.
The Works of "Saki" (H. H. Munro), eight volumes (contains The Chronicles of Clovis, introduction by A. A. Milne, 1927; The Unbearable Bassington, introduction by M. Baring, 1927; Beasts and Super-Beasts, introduction by H. W. Nevinson, 1928; Reginald [and] Reginald in Russia, and OtherSketches, introduction by Hugh Walpole, 1928; The Toys of Peace, and Other Papers, introduction by G. K. Chesterton, 1928; The Square Egg, and Other Sketches, with Three Plays, introduction by J. C. Squire, 1929; When William Came: A Story of London under the Hohenzollerns, introduction by Lord Charnwood, 1929; and The Westminster Alice, foreword by J. A. Spender, 1929), Viking Press (New York, NY), 1927-29.
The Short Stories of Saki (H. H. Munro) Complete, introduction by Christopher Morley, Viking Press (New York, NY), 1930, reprinted, Modern Library (New York, NY), 1958.
The Novels and Plays of Saki (H. H. Munro) Complete in One Volume, Viking Press (New York, NY), 1933, reprinted, Scholarly Press (New York, NY), 1971.
The Miracle-Merchant (play), published in One-Act Plays for Stage and Study, 8th series, preface by Alice Gerstenberg, Samuel French (New York, NY), 1934.
Two New Stories by 'Saki' (H. H. Munro) (contains "The Holy War" and "A Sacrifice to Necessity"), edited by James R. Thrane, published in Modern Fiction Studies, Volume 19, 1951.
The Best of Saki, selection and introduction by Graham Greene, Viking Press (New York, NY), 1961.
Incredible Tales, edited and with an introduction by Richard Corbin and Ned E. Hoopes, Dell (New York, NY), 1966.
The Complete Works of Saki, introduction by Noel Coward, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1976.
Saki Short Stories, chosen by Emlyn Williams, Dent (London, England), 1978.
The Complete Works of Saki, Bodley Head (London, England), 1980.
The Story-Teller: Thirteen Tales, illustrated by Jeanne Titherington, Godine (Boston, MA), 1982.
Short Stories and The Unbearable Bassington, edited by John Carey, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1994.
Sredni Vashtar, and Other Stories, Dover (New York, NY), 1995.
The Unrest-Cure and Other Beastly Tales, introduction by Will Self, Prion (London, England), 2000.
(Under name Hector H. Munro) The Rise of the Russian Empire (nonfiction), Grant Richards (London, England), 1900.
Also author of Not So Stories, illustrations by F. Carruthers Gould, published anonymously, 1902. Contributor to the Bystander and Daily Express.
Munro's stories "The Interlopers," "The Open Window," and "Sredni Vashtar" have been made into short films; Jules Tasca adapted several of Munro's stories for the stage and published them as Tales by Saki, Samuel French (New York, NY), 1989; Munro's stories have been adapted and broadcast on television in Great Britain and North America.
The reputation of British writer H. H. Munro—more commonly known as Saki—rests primarily on his short stories conveying whimsical humor, fascination with the odd and eerie, and worldly disillusionment with hypocrisy and banality. Written between the end of Queen Victoria's reign and the beginning of World War I, Saki's works memorialize the comfortable Edwardian world of upper-class town houses, tea parties, and weekends in the country that his characters deride but never completely lose faith in. The stories present characters who, through capriciousness or eccentric behavior, get into odd situations from which they usually escape by means of their quick wits. Owing something to the witty paradoxes of Irish playwright and poet Oscar Wilde, the clever remarks and cynical views of Saki's characters expose the arbitrariness and artificiality of their society. Like the fiction of American short-story writer William Sydney Porter (O. Henry), Saki's narratives often employ surprise endings, but his stories featuring children battling adults and strangely human animals go beyond O. Henry's relatively straightforward realism into the slightly bizarre and obsessive. Along with Rudyard Kipling, another popular British writer of his time, Saki clung to an orderly, even staid view of the world, despite the flaws he saw in it; but while Kipling promoted the values underlying that world, Saki enjoyed teasing them.
Like Kipling, Munro was born in the Far East to well-to-do parents. His father, Colonel Charles Augustus Munro, was an officer in the British military police in Burma; his mother, Mary Frances Mercer, was the daughter of a rear admiral in the British Navy. The Munros' third child in as many years, Hector Hugh was born in 1870. When Mrs. Munro again found herself pregnant, the family returned to England, but she was tragically killed before the baby was born. On a country lane, Mary Munro was charged at by a cow, "an incident that did not prevent her son writing about women skewered by stags or otherwise rent by wild beasts," noted E. S. Turner in the London Review of Books many years later. Colonel Munro sent his surviving children—Ethel, Charles, and Hector—to Pilton, a small village in Devon near Barnstaple, to live with his two sisters and his mother; then he returned to his post in Burma.
Raised by Aunts
The aunts, Charlotte and Augusta (called Aunt Tom), squabbled endlessly over trivialities, involved the children in their petty jealousies, and enforced on their young charges a strict Victorian regimen that included permanently closed windows and little outside play. Hector, being the youngest, slight of build, delicate, and pale, escaped the worst of the aunts' tyranny, and he soon became adept at devising ways to bend their inflexible and contradictory rules. Ethel, two-and-a-half years older than Hector, assumed roles she would play throughout his life, becoming both a protector and an admiring audience for his antics. Reginald, Clovis Sangrail, and Comus Bassington, Saki's witty and self-absorbed comic heroes, were clearly developed from Munro's own experience of being the unwilling captive of stern, idiosyncratic older women whose rules had ostensibly to be obeyed but not believed in for a minute.
After some casual tutoring at home, ten-year-old Hector was sent off to a nearby school, Pencarwick, and four years later he entered Bedford Grammar School, a public school that attracted the sons of British Indian Army officers. In 1887, Colonel Munro retired and returned to England to look after his nearly full-grown children. Over the next few years, he completed their education by traveling with them on the Continent: first the seaside in Normandy, then a "grand tour" of Germany, eastern Europe, Austria, and Switzerland that included months-long stays in Dresden and Davos, a newly fashionable Alpine resort in Switzerland.
Because Hector was still undecided on a career at twenty-three, his father arranged a position for him with the police in Burma. Though the fastidious young Munro disliked the heat and filth of the East, he loved the plants and animals, going so far as to keep a tiger cub for a pet. Munro's love of animals, wild or tame, was a constant in his life, and he wrote many stories in which humans and animals exchange characteristics: a cat talks; a man begins to resemble his pets—a parrot, a monkey, and finally a turtle; a ferret grants the fervent wish of a sick boy that he be rid of his spiteful elderly guardian. After about a year in Burma, Munro caught malaria and was sent home to Devon to recuperate with his family.
By 1894, Munro had determined to become a writer and, subsidized by his father, went off to London. He installed himself in the British Museum to write, and enjoyed his first published success in St. Paul's magazine with the short story "Dogged," about a high-strung bachelor named Artemius Gibbon who finds himself in possession of a fierce fox-terrier. The dog wrecks Artemius's living quarters, attacks his landlady, and develops a penchant for jumping into taxicabs. "It is not one of his best," maintained Contemporary Review essayist Adam Frost about this debut story, "lacking his usual elegance and concision, and it was never reprinted in his lifetime, but it still bears all the hallmarks of a distinctive new talent."
Publishes First Book
Munro published nothing else until the following year, when publisher Grant Richards brought out The Rise of the Russian Empire. Munro's first book, a well-researched history of Russia up to the early seventeenth century, was widely reviewed on both sides of the Atlantic. An anonymous critic in the Nation credited Munro with bringing early Russian history to life but also said that he approached "perilously near flippancy at times when the dignity of the occasion and of history demands a certain gravity of statement." In general, The Rise of the Russian Empire failed either to earn the respect of academic historians or to capture the interest of the reading public.
Munro's next writing venture was a collaboration with popular cartoonist Francis Carruthers Gould, whose work appeared regularly in the Westminster Gazette, an influential, liberal London daily newspaper. Gould and Munro conceived the idea of producing a series of cartoons using figures from Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to satirize current political events, including the increasingly confused situation surrounding the Boer War in South Africa. Gould drew caricatures of the lethargic Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour, as the Cheshire Cat, the Archbishop of Canterbury as the Caterpillar, the secretary of war as the White Knight, and Alfred Austin, the poet laureate, as the White Rabbit. Devising seemingly innocent questions for Alice to ask the politicians and dignitaries, Munro planted hilariously absurd answers in their mouths. The cartoons by Gould and the comic sketches written under Munro's pseudonym, Saki, were an immediate success ("Saki," the name of the cupbearer to the gods, was borrowed from Edward Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam). Under this pen name, Munro achieved public recognition and approval for his work. In 1902 the cartoons were published in book form as The Westminster Alice.
In 1901 Munro began contributing short sketches to the Westminster Gazette about the adventures of a witty, acerbic young man named Reginald, and taking place in fashionable drawing rooms, at garden parties, the theater, art museums, and country house weekends. These sketches, narrated either by Reginald himself or by an older friend called "the Other," reveal Reginald to be a humorous observer of upper-class manners and mores as well as a somewhat dandified self-admirer. He is fond of turning his opinions and attitudes into categorical pronouncements; he creates outrageous stories from the amusing eccentricities of his elderly aunts; he takes pride in dressing well and in being the confidant of a duchess. Reginald is an affable young man with expensive tastes and no visible source of income who possesses an inexhaustible supply of clever jokes and deadpan comments of the sort that had entertained London theatergoers attending Wilde's plays during the early 1890s.
War Correspondent in the Balkans
Trying to repeat the success of the Alice sketches, Munro and Gould parodied Kipling's The Jungle Book and Just So Stories in the "The Political Jungle Book" and "Not So Stories" for the Westminster Gazette, but these political satires were not nearly as popular as the Alice series. Munro next decided to widen his horizons by becoming a foreign correspondent in the Balkans for the Morning Post, a conservative newspaper. At the turn of the twentieth century, the Bulgarians and the Ottoman Turks were fighting over Macedonia, the Turks' last foothold in Europe. The Morning Post sent Munro to the area to cover the protracted guerrilla war, which had the potential for involving Russia on the side of Bulgaria and thus could incite a wider conflict. Since the fighting was sporadic, Munro sent pieces back to London describing local political figures and local life, in addition to news of the war. Returning to London for a short break in 1903, Munro continued writing his "Reginald" stories. In early 1904 he returned to the Balkans and then worked his way slowly north through Europe, reporting from Vienna, Warsaw, and finally St. Petersburg in Russia.
Munro's first collection of stories, titled simply Reginald, was published in 1904 while he was reporting on the increasing tension in St. Petersburg between the czar's government and the people. Ethel Munro arrived for a visit in January, 1905, in time to witness with her brother a bloody riot by striking workers in front of the Winter Palace. As he had done in his reporting from the Balkans, Munro used his dispatches to analyze the politics of the situation and to speculate on the Russian national character. Munro remained in St. Petersburg through 1906, covering the czar's convening of the Duma (the Russian Parliament) in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to quell the unrest.
From 1907 to 1909, Munro was based in Paris, writing reviews of plays, operas, and art shows, and sending home short feature articles on life in Paris. His father died in 1907, leaving an inheritance sufficient for Munro to consider abandoning journalism in favor of full-time fiction writing. In 1909 Munro bought a cottage outside London in Surrey, moved Ethel in, and settled down to write; for relaxation he kept an apartment in London and joined several clubs there.
As A. J. Langguth pointed out in Saki: A Life of Hector Hugh Munro, with Six Short Stories Never before Collected, some of Munro's efforts reflect the influence of O. Henry, the master of the trick ending. However, Saki's stories are not innocent or sentimental like O. Henry's, but mix wit with outrageousness, humor with seemingly justified malice. In 1910, Munro's second collection of short fiction was published, misleadingly titled Reginald in Russia, since only the title story concerns Reginald. The rest of the stories venture into fable-like lessons, like "The Saint and the Goblin," or continue Saki's satiric examination of upper-class country life, like "The Bag," in which a fox mistakenly killed by a Russian weekend guest turns out to be a polecat. "Gabriel-Ernest" tells the macabre story of a man living in the country who thinks that a boy he has found, named Gabriel-Ernest, may be a werewolf. Entrusted with walking a young child home from Sunday school, Gabriel-Ernest devours the child and disappears, leaving only the man who suspects the truth. Like many other Saki heroes, Gabriel-Ernest manages both to get his way and to preserve his spotless reputation in spite of his actions. Of stories like this one, V. S. Pritchett, in a New Statesman review, observed: "Saki writes like an enemy. Society has bored him to the point of murder. Our laughter is only a note or two short of a scream of fear."
Publishes The Chronicles of Clovis
The Chronicles of Clovis introduces two new main characters, Clovis Sangrail and Bertie Van Tahn. Although both characters are akin to Reginald, Clovis is more likeable than either Reginald or Bertie; while he delights in absurd situations and in deflating the pretensions of others, he often has sympathy for those in real trouble. By contrast, the perpetually adolescent Bertie fails to see when his humor at the expense of others turns into cruelty. Clovis is a shrewd practical joker—as were Munro and his sister Ethel—and in "The Unrest Cure," he shakes up a torpid middle-aged man and his equally staid sister by appearing at their house one day and announcing the imminent arrival of their bishop and a Colonel Alberti for lunch. Clovis concocts an afternoon of secret meetings in the study between the bishop and the colonel, who supposedly plan to massacre all the Jews in the area. Having panicked not only the man and his sister, but the entire neighborhood, Clovis secretly leaves the house, knowing he has shaken dull lives out of their routines. One of Saki's short stories in the collection, "Tobermory," puts Clovis in the background. Tobermory is an utterly self-possessed talking cat who completely unnerves a weekend party in the country by threatening to reveal the guests' secrets he has overheard. In his introduction to The Short Stories of Saki, Christopher Morley characterized the mixture of humor and almost evil intent of these stories: "Delicate, airy, lucid, precise, with the inconspicuous agility of perfect style, [Saki] can pass into the uncanny, the tragic, into mocking fairy-tales grimmer than Grimm."
Another animal story shows how some of Saki's stories appeal to his readers' unfulfilled childhood fantasies of revenge. In "Sredni Vashtar," sickly, ten-year-old Conradin develops an attachment to a Houdan hen and a ferret who live in an unused tool shed the boy has turned into a secret playhouse. Conradin develops a cult around the ferret, whom he worships as a god in defiance of the religion his guardian cousin, Mrs. De Ropp, forces on him. When Mrs. De Ropp, who enjoys pressuring the boy to do things "for his own good," decides to stop Conradin from spending so much time in his hideaway, she sells the hen and vows to clean out the shed. While she is investigating the tool shed, Conradin prays fervently to his god Sredni Vashtar, chanting: "Sredni Vashtar went forth, / His thoughts were red thoughts and his teeth were white. / His enemies called for peace, but he brought them death. / Sredni Vashtar the beautiful." The ferret emerges from the tool shed with "dark wet stains around the fur of jaws and throat." While Mrs. De Ropp's maid screams hysterically and others wonder who will break the news to the child, Conradin calmly enjoys his supper. Kenneth Jankiewicz, writing in Supernatural Writers, found that "Nowhere in Saki's work is this careful balance between compassion and cruelty better evidenced than in 'Sredni Vashtar' (The Chronicles of Clovis), possibly—and deservedly—his most famous and most frequently anthologized tale. All of Saki's mordantly Darwinist themes are manipulated beautifully here: domestic propriety versus the law of the jungle, the powerless child versus the hated female authority figure, the dark irony of how these conflicts are resolved." Saki's stories of pompous, self-righteous adults being tricked into their own destruction led British novelist Graham Greene to locate the source of Saki's imaginative energy in his recollections of childhood. In his introduction to The Best of Saki, Greene wrote, "Unhappiness wonderfully aids the memory, and the best stories of Munro are all of childhood, its humor and its comedy as well its cruelty and unhappiness." Jankiewicz noted that Saki possessed "a fascination with and understanding of the sensibilities of children, especially their sense of powerlessness in an overwhelming adult world and their ruthlessness when they can momentarily gain the upper hand."
After these successes as a short story writer, Munro tried his hand at a novel. The Unbearable Bassington, published in 1912, is an extended Saki short story that contains a more serious tone than is usual in Munro's fiction. Its hero, Comus Bassington, is another version of Reginald, but this time Munro makes him almost completely unlikable by giving him a mean streak. It may be, as Langguth has suggested, that as he reached middle age, Munro came to feel that the antics of a good-looking, cynical, witty young man were no longer so funny and used the novel to turn against his creation. Readers may feel that Comus best describes himself at the end of the novel; Munro has sent him off alone to Africa, away from the whirl of London society of which he makes such fun and away from the attention which he secretly craves: "Comus Bassington, the boy who went away. He had loved himself very well and never troubled greatly whether any one else really loved him, and now he realized what he had made of his life. And at the same time he knew that if his chance were to come again he would throw it away just as surely, just as perversely." This despondency may be a reflection of Munro's sadness over his departing youth, but the author's treatment of Comus also shows him struggling to get beyond the comic creations that gave him his early success, whether Reginald, Bertie Van Tahn, Clovis Sangrail, or Comus Bassington. Significantly, Munro leaves Comus to die alone in Africa.
Publishes "The Open Window"
Munro also continued writing stories for newspapers, and these works were collected in Beasts and Super-Beasts. As the title suggests, animal stories take up a large part of the collection, but Munro also introduced a new main character, Vera, whose name, suggesting truthfulness, is at odds with her role in the stories. Vera is a practical joker like Clovis, and perhaps her best moment occurs in "The Open Window." In it, fifteen-year-old Vera tells an unexpected guest, Framton Nuttel, recovering from a nervous condition, that her family is in the habit of leaving a particular French window open year round. Three years ago today, her uncle and cousins were lost in a bog while hunting. Her distraught aunt still believes that they will at any moment return through that window. Nuttle shows sympathy, believing the aunt to be regrettably mad. But later, when he sees the missing men approaching the house, carrying hunting rifles and accompanied by their dog, Nuttel runs madly from the house, convinced that he is seeing ghosts. It is only after his sudden departure that we realize Vera has made up the whole story. In fact, to explain away Nuttel's abrupt departure, she tells her aunt yet another, equally wild, story about him. "Romance at short notice was her specialty," reads the story's final line. "Saki," Thomas March wrote in Short Stories for Students, "increases the ironic amplitude of the story by making the reader a victim of the very same hoax that Vera perpetrates on Mr. Nuttel." Rena Korb, in an essay for Short Stories for Students, found that, unlike other of Saki's humorous stories, "'The Open Window' demonstrates a far more sophisticated joke, propelling it to the heights of a classic. Not only does it depict the age-old battle between those in power—adults—and those who must submit—children—while unexpectedly turning the usual order of this relationship completely around, it also gives a realistic setting for the unveiling of pure fantasy. That Vera's story, blending elements of the realistic and the supernatural, is so believable attests to Saki's power as a writer. In addition to these theoretical and literary elements, 'The Open Window' surely draws a good deal of its effectiveness from the knowledge in every reader that he or she has the potential to fall prey to such a clever girl and thus become another foolish Framton Nuttel."
Munro's second novel, When William Came, marks a definite advance in his development as a writer. Drawing upon his own and his family's military experience, an aspect of Munro's life that previously had been suppressed in his fiction, and tapping the familiarity with European politics gained during Munro's years as a foreign correspondent, the novel focuses on the approaching war in Europe. When William Came is a fantasy about life in England under German occupation after a very short struggle in which superior German forces quickly overpower the English. "William" is Kaiser Wilhelm, and in the novel, Munro imagines the reaction of English society to being an appendage of the German empire. The main character, Murrey Yeovil, who is off hunting in Siberia when the war begins, returns to England to find people in varying states of resignation to the apparently inevitable. He finds he is almost alone in his anger over what has happened and with the failure of nearly everyone to object to the occupation. Murrey's attempts to discover exactly what caused England's capitulation provide Munro with an opportunity to examine English society and to criticize qualities that he had earlier treated flippantly. The self-righteousness of the working classes is taken to task, as is the self-indulgence of aesthetic young men or "lounge lizards." In what Langguth saw as a striking reversal of Saki's usual values, the fortitude and determination of civic-minded, elderly women are extolled. After searching for grounds for sincere patriotism and reasons to affirm the best of English society, the novel ends ambiguously as Londoners assemble at Hyde Park for a march by the Boy Scouts, who mysteriously never appear.
This novel shows what direction Munro's fiction might have taken had he lived longer; it reveals, too, that the writer had firmly planted himself in a world already fading into memory—the Victorian and Edwardian eras—the values of which were laughed at but at the same time vigorously defended when under serious attack. In this regard, the earnestness of When William Came can be linked to the comedy in Saki's stories. In his introduction to The Complete Works of Saki, Noel Coward pointed out that Saki's "satire was based primarily on the assumption of a fixed social status quo which, although at the time he was writing may have been wobbling a bit, outwardly at least, betrayed few signs of imminent collapse." When it became possible for Saki to imagine a collapse of that fixed status quo, the moral indignation of the satirist rose to the surface and appeared without the disguising mask of comic intent.
Perhaps responding to this strain of seriousness in Saki, J. W. Lambert noted in the Listener Saki's affinities to Kipling and to two other English writers, William Makepeace Thackeray and, surprisingly, George Orwell: "All four had Anglo-Indian backgrounds and divided childhoods. They were all fascinated by the social display and organization of life 'at home'; their works [express] the colonial mentality, a little disappointed, sometimes more than a little embittered. Thackeray's self-conscious moralizing bubbled up often in Saki; so did Kipling's emotional afflatus. . . . The same feelings, in different generations, drove Orwell to prodigies of bleak panache and turned his snobberies upside down, and drove Saki in 1914 not only to join the Army when well over age but consistently to refuse a commission."
When William Came was well received, and Munro's ambitions rose. In 1914 he wrote a play, The Watched Pot. A comedy of manners set in a drawing room like that found in many of Saki's stories, the play concerns the efforts of several young women to marry a wealthy man whose aunt resists their attempts to displace her as ruler of her nephew's household. The Watched Pot tries to translate the epigrammatic wit of Saki's stories to the theater. Never reaching the stage in Munro's lifetime, the play was eventually produced during World War II as an example of an Edwardian drawing-room comedy.
Enlists in the British Army
Less than a month after war was declared in early August, 1914, Munro enlisted in the cavalry as an ordinary soldier. Though he was well past the age when social pressure stemming from war hysteria might influence him to join up, Munro shared the feelings of thousands of younger men who experienced the declaration of war as a chance to act nobly and heroically in an unquestionably good cause. Hoping to get into the fighting more quickly, Munro transferred into the infantry, joining the Royal Fusiliers. He enjoyed the life of a soldier, hiking for miles with heavy backpacks, serving long hours as camp orderly, and expressing contempt for those who had not enlisted. Proud of his ability to keep up with much younger men, Munro rose to the rank of corporal and eventually lance sergeant, but he refused offers of a commission as an officer, content to be a simple soldier among his comrades.
Munro was shipped off to France in 1915, and his wit and macabre sense of humor survived the horrific conditions he found on the battlefield. In her "Biography of Saki," which first appeared in the 1924 collection, The Square Egg, Ethel Munro recalled that at Christmas 1915, her brother sent her this version of a carol: "While Shepherds watched their flocks by night / All seated on the ground / A high-explosive shell came down / And mutton rained around." Moreover, Munro once wrote home that a fellow soldier had found "a perfectly good ear" which, he said, was "no use to me so I threw it over the parapet to the rats, remembering that rats were traditionally very fond of ears." Along with several other men, Munro formed an eating club, whose members were to pool their food and always act as gentlemen. Though Munro loved the life of a soldier, one wonders whether, had he lived through two more years of the war in the trenches, he would have become disillusioned and embittered, as did many other soldier-writers in World War I.
In June 1916, Munro spent a short leave in London with his sister and brother, during which he decided to buy land in Siberia to farm and hunt after the war—plans made, of course, before the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. Munro returned to the front to fight in several battles, suffering a return of his old malaria and, on November 14, received a fatal wound in no man's land during a night march. Langguth reported that when two officers stopped to talk, the men took cover where they could. Near Munro, who had crouched at a shell crater, a soldier lit a cigarette. Fearing the light would be seen, Munro barked, "Put that bloody cigarette out!" Almost immediately, a German sniper's bullet hit and killed him.
Two collections of Munro's stories appeared posthumously, The Toys of Peace and The Square Egg. Various groupings of his stories have been in print almost continuously since then, and in 1976 The Complete Works of Saki was published with an introduction by Noel Coward, a writer whose love of Saki's wit and style is reflected in Coward's own plays. In 1981 Langguth, who drew on letters and materials held by the family, produced the first full-length, well-researched biography of Munro.
Popular and respected as a master of the short story during his lifetime, Saki has been ranked with the Frenchman Guy de Maupassant and the American O. Henry as a craftsman of the first order. Funny, original, sometimes bizarre, and at times creepily frightening, Saki's work left its mark on the British writer P. G. Wodehouse, whose farcical stories of well-heeled, empty-headed young men about town are reminiscent of the Reginald stories. Significantly, women in Saki and Wodehouse are usually hateful guardian aunts or elderly duchesses; only rarely are they young attractive girls of sexual interest to the main characters. Munro remained a bachelor throughout his life, and this fact plus some suggestiveness in his work has led modern readers to conclude he was homosexual; moreover, rumors of Munro's homosexuality were whispered in publishing circles during his lifetime. Sex is very far below the surface in Saki's work, and it seems to have been so in Munro's life as well. While the artist in Munro learned much from Wilde's writing, he also may have learned from Wilde's experience of a notorious trial and imprisonment what kind of public behavior would not be tolerated by English society, even in the relatively relaxed Edwardian years.
Readers and critics often mention the apparent cruelty and heartlessness in Saki's stories. Writing in 1940 in the Atlantic Monthly, Elizabeth Drew explained and justified this lack of fellow feeling: "The cruelty is certainly there, but it has nothing perverted or pathological about it.... It is the genial heartlessness of the normal child, whose fantasies take no account of adult standards of human behaviour, and to whom the eating of a gypsy by a hyena is no more terrible than the eating of Red Ridinghood's grandmother by a wolf. The standards of these gruesome tales are those of the fairy tale; their grimness is the grimness of Grimm." To see the cruelty in Saki as fantasy, and to compare it to the unsparing details of nursery rhymes and fairy tales, is to understand that even though unfair things happen in Saki's stories, he provides a satisfying sense of justice done and human decency restored, that can appeal to children and adults alike.
Both "Tobermory" and "Sredni Vashtar" have endured as two of Saki's most popular stories. The latter highlighted the 1995 volume, Sredni Vashtar, and Other Stories, and prompted London Review of Books critic Turner to observe that it has become one of the most analyzed of Saki's tales. Turner viewed it as emblematic of the child-rearing attitudes common to the British Empire's Edwardian era, noting that the story has "been hailed as the ultimate revenge on the empire-builders who left the raising of their children to women relatives back home. It has also been seen as a masterly psychological insight into the mind of a lonely and sensitive, if precociously learned, ten-year-old."
Some literary critics in the 1960s and 1970s argued that there is a serious side to Saki that goes beyond mere entertainment to explore weighty moral issues. Certainly Munro was trying to be taken in this way, and some of his stories can be analyzed to discover serious concerns. But it would be misleading to maintain that Saki's greatness rests on the breadth of his moral imagination. His genius resides in his stories, in which the qualities defined by Coward as "the verbal adroitness of Saki's dialogue and the brilliance of his wit" shine most brightly. Turner conceded that "it is impossible not to admire the craftsmanship, the precision, the unerring selection of the right asp to do the lethal job." Various collections of his works continue to appear in print since his death, enduring "because of their subversiveness as well as their genuine wit," noted an essayist in the St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost and Gothic Writers. "Saki loved to unleash strange beasts and disquieting violence in those Edwardian drawingrooms. Again and again there are darkly grotesque episodes where the epigrammatic glitter takes on the chill of ice." According to Kenneth Jurkiewicz in Supernatural Writers, "Saki utilized his curious literary talents with an attention to detail and a single-minded pursuit of the unified emotional effect that are at once sadistic and satirically insightful. The aesthetic satisfaction comes from witnessing the orchestration of such effects, which is perhaps why Saki rarely strayed from the sketch-length form: these effects demand total control on the part of the writer, and such control can best be sustained in short spurts. This total control is probably necessary in describing the cruel, savage world that Saki envisioned, since the author's ruthless conciseness and cold detachment both reflect and respond to the grotesque, fatal ironies abruptly visited upon his hapless characters."
If you enjoy the works of H. H. Munro
If you enjoy the works of H. H. Munro, you might want to check out the following books:
Patricia Highsmith, The Selected Stories, 2001.
William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero, 1848.
Adam Frost, commemorating the centenary of Munro's first published story, "Dogged," in Contemporary Review, considered the writer's unique style to have aged well. "Saki's stories of ingenuous assassination and puerile immorality seem apt" at the present time, Frost observed. "Likewise, the supreme brevity of the stories, which responded to the fragmentation and anxiety of his own fin de siecle, has seemed enduringly apposite in a disorientating, breakneck century and especially in our own fin de siecle in which the collective attention span has never been shorter and soundbite culture never more prevalent."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Books and Their Writers, Grant Richards (London, England), 1920, S. P. B. Mais, "The Humour of Saki," pp. 311-330.
Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, Volume 5: Late Victorian and Edwardian Writers, 1890-1914, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1991.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 34: British Novelists, 1890-1929: Traditionalists, 1985, Volume 162: British Short-Fiction Writers, 1915-1945, 1996.
Gillen, Charles H., H. H. Munro (Saki), Twayne (New York, NY), 1969.
Langguth, A. J., Saki: A Life of Hector Hugh Munro, with Six Short Stories Never before Collected, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1981.
Reference Guide to English Literature, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1991.
Reference Guide to Short Fiction, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1994.
St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost and Gothic Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1998.
Saki, The Unbearable Bassington, John Lane (London, England), 1912.
Saki, The Square Egg, and Other Sketches, with Three Plays, biography by sister, Ethel M. Munro, John Lane (London, England), 1924.
Saki, The Short Stories of Saki (H. H. Munro) Complete, introduction by Christopher Morley, Viking Press (New York, NY), 1930, reprinted, Modern Library (New York, NY), 1958.
Saki, The Best of Saki, selected with introduction by Graham Greene, Viking Press (New York, NY), 1961.
Saki, The Complete Works of Saki, introduction by Noel Coward, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1976.
Short Stories for Students, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 1, 1997, Volume 15, 2002.
Short Story Criticism, Volume 12, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1988.
Spears, G. J., The Satire of Saki: A Study of the Satiric Art of Hector H. Munro, Exposition (New York, NY), 1963.
Supernatural Fiction Writers, Scribner (New York, NY), 1985.
Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Volume 3, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1980.
World Literature Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.
Atlantic Monthly, July, 1940.
Bookman, January, 1927.
Contemporary Review, December, 1999, Adam Frost, "A Hundred Years of Saki," p. 302.
English Fiction in Transition, Volume 5, number 1, 1962, Robert Drake, "Saki: Some Problems and a Bibliography," pp. 6-26.
English Literature in Transition, Volume 9, number 1, 1966, Philip Stevick, "Saki's Beasts"; Volume 11, number 1, 1968, H. E. Gerber and Philip Armato, "H. H. Munro ('Saki')," pp. 54-55; Volume 21, 1978, Miriam Quen Cheikin, "Saki: Practical Jokes as a Clue to Comedy," pp. 121-133.
English Studies, Volume 47, number 6, 1966, Peter Bilton, "Salute to an N. C. O.," pp. 439-442.
Listener, February 9, 1956.
London Review of Books, August 24, 2000, E. S. Turner, "Blowing Cigarette Smoke at Greenfly," pp. 26-27.
Modern British Literature, Volume 4, 1979, Harold Orel, "H. H. Munro and the Sense of Failed Community," pp. 87-96.
Nation, March 7, 1901.
New Statesman, January 5, 1957; November 1, 1963.
New York Times, August 25, 1981.
Spectator, May 30, 1952; December 21, 1956.
Texas Quarterly, autumn, 1964, Janet Overmyer, "Turn Down an Empty Glass," pp. 171-175.
Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Number 5, 1963, Robert Drake, "Saki's Ironic Stories," pp. 374-388.
Times Literary Supplement, November 21, 1963; May 13, 1989.
Wisconsin Studies in Literature, Number 2, 1965, Robert Thrane, "'Saki': The Achievement of the Cat," pp. 46-53.*
"Munro, H. H.." Authors and Artists for Young Adults. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/munro-h-h
"Munro, H. H.." Authors and Artists for Young Adults. . Retrieved September 20, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/munro-h-h
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