BORN: 1870, Akyab, Burma
DIED: 1916, Beaumont-Hamel, France
Reginald in Russia (1910)
The Chronicles of Clovis (1912)
Beasts and Super-Beasts (1914)
The Watched Pot (1914)
The reputation of Hector Hugh Munro (pen name: Saki) rests primarily on his short stories, which convey 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, Munro's works memorialize the luxurious world of the upper class. 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; at the same time, their clever remarks and cynical views expose the arbitrariness and artificiality of their society.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
From the Far East to Victorian England Munro was born in the Far East, where his father was a colonel in the British military police. Upon the death of his mother, Munro and his two siblings were sent to live with their grandmother and aunts in Devon, England. The aunts, Charlotte and Augusta, squabbled endlessly over trivialities, involved the children in their petty jealousies, and enforced on their young charges a strict Victorian regimen. Munro, being the youngest, quite 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. Reginald, Clovis Sangrail, and Comus Bassington, witty and self-absorbed comic heroes in Munro's future work as Saki, clearly developed from his own experiences.
Government Service When Munro was seventeen years old, his father retired and returned to England to look after his nearly grown children. Over the next few years, they traveled as a family throughout the Continent. Munro followed in his father's footsteps and subsequently spent about a year as part of the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. He returned to England in 1894 because of failing health. He worked at the British Museum and published only a short story, “Dogged,” during the next six years. Munro wrote a historical study, The Rise of the Russian Empire, in 1900 and, from 1902 to 1909, was a foreign correspondent for the Morning Post in the Balkans and Paris.
Career as a Writer While working as a foreign correspondent, Munro published his first collection of stories, titled Reginald (1904). In 1910, his second collection of short fiction was published, misleadingly titled Reginald in Russia—only the title story concerns Reginald. The rest of the tales continue Saki's satiric examination of upper-class country life or venture into fable-like lessons. This successful collection was followed by The Chronicles of Clovis (1912), which introduced two of his more popular characters, Clovis Sangrail and Bertie Van Tahn.
In 1912, Munro published a novel, The Unbearable Bassington, whose hero, Comus Bassington, resembles Reginald with an undeniable mean streak. Munro continued writing stories for newspapers. These works were collected in Beasts and Super-Beasts (1914); as the title suggests, animal stories take up a large part of the collection. Munro's second novel, When William Came: A Story of London under the Hohenzollerns (1914), is a fantasy about life in England under German occupation led by Kaiser Wilhelm. It is one of the first examples of “invasion literature,” a genre that emerged with the onset of World War I and dealt with the anxieties of invading foreign powers.
The Watched Pot and Other Drama Although he is best known for his fiction, drama seems to be the genre best suited to Munro's abilities. His plays show his strengths—witty dialogue, complexity of plot, and energetic pace—to advantage, while his weaknesses, which appear in his fiction as gratuitous witticisms and pompous asides in the narrative, are absent. For example, in 1914, he wrote The Watched Pot, a comedy of manners centered on several women who are determined to marry a wealthy man and are thwarted by his territorial aunt.
World War I Less than a month after war was declared in early August 1914, Munro enlisted in the cavalry. Munro saw 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 being 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.
He 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,” 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.”
In June 1916, Munro spent a short leave in London with his sister and brother. He then returned to the front to fight in several battles, during which time he suffered a return of his old malaria. On November 14, he received a fatal wound while in no man's land during a night march. Two collections of Munro's stories appeared posthumously, The Toys of Peace (1919) and The Square Egg (1924).
Works in Literary Context
Respected as a master of the short story during his own lifetime, Munro has been ranked with the Frenchman Guy de Maupassant and the American O. Henry as a craftsman of the first order. As A. J. Langguth has 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 the master of the trick ending, O. Henry. However, Saki's stories are not innocent or sentimental like O. Henry's, but mix wit with outrageousness, humor with seemingly justified malice.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Saki's famous contemporaries include:
Wilhelm II (1859–1941): The last German kaiser(emperor), Wilhelm reversed the careful diplomacy of his grandfather Wilhelm I and his advisor Otto von Bismarck in favor of a more forceful, bellicose policy. These changes upset the diplomatic of the European powers and led to the outbreak of World War I. At the end of the war, he abdicated the throne and lived out his life in exile.
L. Frank Baum (1856–1919): American author of children's fantasy, Baum is most noted for the Oz series, which began with the classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900).
Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919): The twenty-sixth President of the United States and a leading Progressive politician, Roosevelt made a name for himself with his exploits as a soldier and naturalist. His larger-than-life personality made him a popular and much-admired public figure; the teddy bear was created in his honor.
Hermann Hesse (1877–1962): A German author, Hesse wrote about the pursuit of enlightenment in such books as Siddhartha (1922) and Journey to the East (1932). These themes led to a revival of interest in his work among American counterculture readers during the 1960s.
W. B. Yeats (1865–1939): The first Irishman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Yeats stands as one of the central figures of Irish literature in the twentieth century. Both his poetry and his work with the Abbey Theatre as dramatist and manager were hugely influential in their respective fields.
Wit and Irony, with a Touch of Lyric Epigrammatic wit, a strong dramatic sense, and a satiric concern with the ironies of social life mark Munro's stories, in which the traditions of the comedy of manners give dialogues central importance. However, in turning to the uncanny, Munro at times moved beyond satire altogether, yet even then he often returned to irony and further extended the comedy of manners by transforming the supernatural and the animal into subjects of a social wit. The descriptive developments in Munro's later fiction likewise accommodate a pervasive sense of the ironies of human life—even if a lyrical voice emerges briefly, at the end, from the battlefield.
Suppressed Sexuality Significantly, women in Munro's work are usually hateful guardian aunts or elderly duchesses; they only rarely are 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 circulated in publishing circles during his lifetime. But sexuality is kept far below the surface in Munro's work. While the artist in Munro learned much from Oscar Wilde's writing, he also may have learned from Wilde's notorious trial and imprisonment in 1895—which concerned Wilde's homosexuality—what kind of public behavior would not be tolerated by English society.
Fairy Tale Cruelty? Readers and critics often mention the apparent cruelty and heartlessness in Munro'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…. He deliberately chose a pseudonym for his writings—Saki, the cupbearer whose ‘joyous errand’ was to serve the guests with wine in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. He never sought intimacy with his readers, or gave them his confidence.” To see the cruelty in Saki as fantasy, and to set it next to the unsparing details of nursery rhymes and fairy tales, is to understand that even though in Saki's stories terribly unfair things happen, he provides a satisfying sense of justice done and human decency restored that can appeal to children and adults alike.
Influence Popular and respected as a master of the short story during his lifetime, throughout the twentieth century 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 clearly has 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. The world of Wodehouse's characters Bertie and Jeeves is essentially the same as that of Reginald and Clovis. In these worlds, it is always about the turn of the century; England is the unquestioned center of the universe; life has been made comfortable for one by others; and a young man need only think about his social life, the quality of the food, drink, and entertainment provided, and the fun he can dream up.
Works in Critical Context
Some literary critics in the 1960s and 1970s argued that there is a serious side to Munro that goes beyond mere entertainment to explore weighty moral issues. Certainly 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. For better or worse, 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.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
These works, like those of Munro/Saki, are considered by many critics to be paragons of the short-story genre:
“Big Blonde” (1929), a short story by Dorothy Parker. One of the icons of the Jazz Age, Parker turned her famous caustic intellect towards examining the role of women at the end of a decade that supposedly saw their liberation, instead finding sadness and bitterness.
“Gift of the Magi” (1906), a shorty story by O. Henry. This story features a classic O. Henry “twist ending” and a moral message on the power of love and the transient importance of material possessions.
“The Garden of Forking Paths” (1941), a short story by Jorge Luis Borges. The first of Borges' works to be translated into English, this story of espionage and literary adventures through time-space anticipates later theories in quantum mechanics.
“Bernice Bobs Her Hair” (1920), a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Before he made his name as a novelist, Fitzgerald developed a following as a short story author; this tale, which was a featured cover story in The Saturday Evening Post, anticipates Fitzgerald's later tales of flappers and “liberated women.”
Perhaps responding to the strain of seriousness in Munro's writings, the English critic J. W. Lambert, in a 1956 essay in the Listener, noted 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.”
Responses to Literature
- Contrast Munro's use of irony to that of O. Henry's. Choose a story from each author that features an ironic twist or ending and, in an essay, discuss how their literary techniques—in both the build-up to and the payoff of the ironic twist—are similar and different.
- With a classmate, discuss how Munro's journalistic experience seems to inform his literary style. Use examples from a text to support your ideas.
- Choose two Munro stories that feature eerie or supernatural elements. In an essay, analyze his use of these elements in his story and compare them to supernatural elements used in two stories by H. P. Lovecraft, another master of short horror.
- With a classmate, discuss the significance of the hyena in Munro's “Esme.” What do you feel the author is satirizing in this tale? Report your findings to the rest of the class.
Gillen, Charles H. H. H. Munro (Saki), Boston: Twayne, 1969.
Langguth, A. J., Saki: A Life of Hector Hugh Munro, With Six Short Stories Never Before Collected, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1981.
Ullmann, Carol, ed. “The Interlopers.” Short Stories forStudents, vol. 15. Detroit: Gale, 2002.
Wilson, Kathleen, ed. “The Open Window.” Short Stories for Students, vol. 1. Detroit: Gale, 1997.
Atlantic Monthly (July 1940).
English Literature in Transition, vol. 9, no. 1(1966), vol.11, no. 1 (1968).
Modern British Literature, vol. 4 (1979).
New York Times (August 25, 1981).
Spectator (May 30, 1952; December 21, 1956).
Times Literary Supplement (November 21, 1963; May 13, 1989).
Pseudonym for Hector Hugh Munro. Nationality: Scottish. Born: Akyab, Burma, of British parents, 18 December 1870; grew up in Pilton, Devon. Education: Pencarwick school, Exmouth, Devon; Bedford Grammar School, 1885-87; traveled with his father in Europe, 1887-90; tutored at home, 1891-92. Military Service: Served as a corporal in the 22nd Royal Fusiliers, 1914-16: killed in action in France, 1916. Career: Military policeman in Burma, 1893-94; returned to Devon, and moved to London, 1896; wrote political satires for the Westminster Gazette from 1900; foreign correspondent, London Morning Post, in the Balkans, 1902; foreign correspondent, Warsaw and St. Petersburg, 1904-06; foreign correspondent, Paris, 1906-08; freelance sketch writer from 1908; parliamentary columnist, Outlook, 1914. Died: 14 November 1916.
Works. 8 vols., 1926-27.
Short Stories. 1930.
The Novels and Plays. 1933.
The Bodley Head Saki, edited by J. W. Lambert. 1963.
The Complete Works. 1976.
Selected Stories. 1978.
Selected Stories 2, edited by Peter Haining. 1983.
The Complete Stories of Saki. 1993.
Short Stories and Sketches
Reginald in Russia and Other Sketches. 1910.
The Chronicles of Clovis. 1912.
Beasts and Super-Beasts. 1914.
The Toys of Peace and Other Papers. 1919.
The Square Egg and Other Sketches, with Three Plays. 1924.
The Stalled Ox and Other Stories. 1993.
The Unbearable Bassington. 1912.
When William Came: A Story of London under the Hohenzollerns. 1914.
The East Wing, in Lucas' Annual, 1914.
The Watched Pot, with Cyril Maude (produced 1924). In The Square Egg, 1924.
The Death Trap, and Karl-Ludwig's Window, in The Square Egg. 1924.
The Miracle-Merchant, in One-Act Plays for Stage and Study 8, edited by Alice Gerstenberg. 1934.
The Rise of the Russian Empire. 1900.
The Westminster Alice. 1902.
The Satire of Saki by G.J. Spears, 1963; "The Performing Lynx" by V. S. Pritchett, in The Working Novelist, 1965; Munro (Saki) by Charles H. Gillen, 1969; Saki: A Life of Munro, with Six Stories Never Before Collected by A. J. Langguth, 1981.* * *
H. H. Munro was born in 1870 in Burma, where his father was a senior official in the Burma Police. Young Munro was sent back to England and brought up in Devonshire. He began writing political sketches for the Westminster Gazette and traveled in the Balkans, Russia, and France as a foreign correspondent for the Morning Post. Many of his short stories first appeared in the Westminster Gazette under the pseudonym "Saki," which he took from the last stanza of Fitzgerald's Rubáiyát. In all, Saki published five collections of short stories and also wrote three novels and several plays.
Saki's two most famous stories are "Sredni Vashtar"—sometimes regarded as an example of almost the perfect short story—and "Tobermory," both from his collection The Chronicles of Clovis. "This gifted Lynx," as V. S. Pritchett called him (in The Working Novelist) was part of the sadistic revival in English comic and satirical writing that arose during the final decade of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth century. He belonged to the world in which Wilde flourished, the world of Hilaire Belloc's A Bad Child's Book of Beasts and Harry Graham's Ruthless Rhymes.
The stories in the first two collections, Reginald and Reginald in Russia, positively cascade sardonic aphorisms, some of which were clearly inspired by Wilde. As Pritchett observed, the characters are "done in cyanide," though "the deed is touched by a child's sympathy for the vulnerable areas of the large mammals." Or, as Walter Allen puts it, in Saki's stories the real world is "ever so slightly rearranged."
The unreal social world of Mrs. Jollett, the Bromly Bomefields, Bassington, the Baroness, and Clovis Sangrail was blown to pieces by the guns in Flanders. It is as impossible to imagine the writings of a postwar Saki as it is the music of an elderly Mozart. The escapades of Saki's characters belong to an age where relationships are both superficial and artificial. Only the verbal wit survives.
"Tobermory" affords the author a brilliant device for unmasking hypocrisy. A guest at Lady Blemly's house party, Mr. Cornelius Appin, has been invited because someone has said he was clever. For 17 years he had been working on thousands of animals trying to get them to speak. At last he had succeeded with the cat Tobermory, who is brought before the company to be tested. To the consternation of all, the cat's answers to patronizing questions strip away the conventional pretenses of its questioners. Major Barfield tries to return the conversation to cat matters, asking Tobermory, "How about your carryings-on with the tortoise-shell puss up at the stables, eh?"
They agree that Tobermory would have to be disposed of, and attempts are made to induce it to eat poisoned food. The cat did, indeed, die, but in a cat-like manner: "From the bites in its throat and the yellow fur which coated his claws it was evident that he had fallen in unequal combat with the big Tom from the Rectory."
Saki's prose is crisp and economical, his debunking of human snobbery and upper class fatuity merciless, his wit sharp and seemingly inexhaustible. His gifts are displayed to their best advantage in his short stories, where what today we would call his "black" humor can be employed in a more deadly precise manner than in the more extended compass of his novels. Within his limitations the sharp-eyed chronicler of upper-class English society foibles of behavior in late Victorian and Edwardian times was undoubtedly a master of the short story, if an amusingly mannered master.
See the essays on "The She-Wolf" and "Sredni Vashtar."