The brilliant satirist of the mind and manners of an upper-crust Great Britain that World War I would obliterate, Saki (18 December 1870 – 14 November 1916) operates within a rich national tradition that stretches from the towering figure of Jonathan Swift well into the present, in which fresh wits such as Douglas Adams have obtained a certain stature. An intelligent, perceptive, and uncannily unsentimental observer, Saki focuses many of his deeply sarcastic pieces, which fill six volumes, on the criminal impulses of a privileged humanity. In his tightly wrought stories, for which surprise endings, ironic reversals, and practical jokes are de rigeur, Saki’s mischievous protagonists thus arrive on the scene to wreak havoc on victims who have invited their tormentors out of folly or a streak of viciousness of their own. The frequent inclusion of intelligent, independent, and improbable animal characters further betrays Saki’s fondness for the supernatural as a powerful satirical device.
Saki is a writer whose great strength and great weakness lie in the limits he set for himself. Firmly rooted in the British ruling class that enjoyed “dominion over palm and pine,” Saki wrote about the prosperous Edwardians among whom he moved. His stories, comedies of manners, emphasize the social side of the human animal as they survey the amusements, plots, and skirmishes that staved off boredom for the overripe leisure class whose leisure ended in August, 1914, with the onset of World War I.
Just as Saki wrote about a particular class, so he aimed his stories at a comparatively small and select readership. Although he was indifferent to wealth, Saki subsisted by his pen; he was, therefore, obliged to write stories that would sell. From the first, he succeeded in producing the “well-made” story savored by literate but not necessarily literary readers of such respected journals as the liberal Westminster Gazette and the conservative Morning Post. His debonair, carefully plotted stories full of dramatic reversals, ingenious endings, and quotable phrases do not experiment with new literary techniques but perfect existing conventions. Without seeming to strain for effect, they make of Hyde Park an enchanted forest or treat the forays of a werewolf as an ordinary country occurrence. Like the Paris gowns his fictional duchesses wear, Saki’s stories are frivolous, intricate, impeccable, and, to some eyes, obsolete.
If Saki’s background, subjects, and techniques were conventional, however, his values and sympathies certainly were not. As a satirist, he mocked the people he entertained. His careful portraits of a complacent ruling class are by no means flattering: They reveal all the malice, pettiness, mediocrity, and self-interest of people intent on getting to the top or staying there. His heroes—Reginald, Clovis, Bertie, and the like—are aristocratic iconoclasts who share their creator’s distaste for “dreadful little everyday acts of pretended importance” and delight in tripping the fools and hypocrites who think themselves exceptional but walk the well-worn path upward. “Cousin Theresa,” a variation on the theme of the Prodigal Son, chronicles the frustration of one such self-deluder.
In Saki’s version of the parable, the wandering brother—as might be expected in an age of far-flung Empire—is the virtuous one. Bassett Harrowcluff, a young and successful bearer of the “white man’s burden,” returns from the colonies after having cheaply and efficiently “quieted a province, kept open a trade route, enforced the tradition of respect which is worth the ransom of many kings in out of the way regions.” These efforts, his proud father hopes, might earn Bassett a knighthood as well as a rest.
The elder brother Lucas, however, a ne’er-do-well London bachelor, claims to have his own scheme for certain success—a refrain that, appended to a song and embodied in a musical revue, should catch the ear of all London: “Cousin Theresa takes out Caesar,/ Fido, Jock, and the big borzoi.” Fate bears out Lucas’s prophecy. Theresa and her canine quartet enthrall the city. Orchestras acquire the four-legged accessories necessary for proper rendition of the much-demanded melody’s special effects. The double thump commemorating the borzoi rings throughout London: Diners pound tables, drunks reeling home pound doors, messenger boys pound smaller messenger boys. Preachers and lecturers discourse on the song’s “inner meaning.” In Society, the perennial mystifications of politics and polo give way to discussions of “Cousin Theresa.” When Colonel Harrowcluff’s son is knighted, the honor goes to Lucas.
Saki’s parable offers two lessons: an obvious one for the “eminent,” a subtler one for the enlightened. If the reader takes the story as an indictment of a foolish society that venerates gimmicks and ignores achievements, that rewards notoriety rather than merit, he classes himself among the Bassett Harrowcluffs. For the same delicate irony colors Saki’s accounts of both brothers’ successes: Whether this treatment whimsically elevates the impresario or deftly undercuts the pillar of empire is problematic. As Saki sees it, administering the colonies and entertaining the populace are equally trivial occupations. To reward Lucas, the less self-righteous of two triflers, seems just after all.
Saki, then, does not profess the creed of the society he describes; both the solid virtues and the fashionable attitudes of the adult world come off badly in his stories. In contrast to other adults, Saki’s dandy-heroes and debutante-heroines live in the spirit of the nursery romp; and when children and animals appear (as they often do) he invariably sides with them. “Laura,” a fantasy in which a mischievous lady dies young but returns to life first as an otter and then as a Nubian boy to continue teasing a pompous fool, is one of many stories demonstrating Saki’s allegiance to Beasts and Super-Beasts at the expense of men and supermen.
Saki’s favorites are never sweetly pretty or coyly innocent. The children, as we see in “The Lumber-Room,” “The Penance,” and “Morlvera,” are cruel, implacable, the best of haters. The beasts, almost as fierce as the children, tend to be independent or predatory: wolves and guard dogs, cats great and small, elk, bulls, and boars figure in Saki’s menagerie. Embodied forces of nature, these animals right human wrongs or counterpoise by their example the mediocrity of man throughout Saki’s works, but nowhere more memorably than in the chilling tale of “Sredni Vashtar.”
In “Sredni Vashtar,” Conradin, a rather sickly ten-year-old, suffers under the restrictive coddling of his cousin and guardian, Mrs. De Ropp, a pious hypocrite who “would never, in her honestest moments, have confessed to herself that she disliked Conradin, though she might have been dimly aware that thwarting him ‘for his good’ was a duty which she did not find completely irksome.” Conradin’s one escape from her dull, spirit-sapping regime is the toolshed where he secretly cherishes Sredni Vashtar, the great ferret around whom he has fashioned a private religious cult. Offering gifts of red flowers, scarlet berries, and nutmeg that “had to be stolen,” Conradin prays that the god Sredni Vashtar, who embodies the rude animal vitality the boy lacks, will smite their common enemy the Woman. When Mrs. De Ropp, suspecting that the toolshed harbors something unsuitable for invalids, goes to investigate, Conradin fears that Sredni Vashtar will dwindle to a simple ferret and that he, deprived of his god, will grow ever weaker under theWoman’s tyranny.
Eventually, however, Conradin sees Sredni Vashtar the Terrible, throat and jaws wet with a dark stain, stalk out of the shed to drink at the garden brook and slip away. Mrs. De Ropp does not return from the encounter, and Conradin, freed from his guardian angel, helps himself to the forbidden fruit of his paradise—a piece of toast, “usually banned on the ground that it was bad for him; also because the making of it ‘gave trouble,’ a deadly offense in the middle-class feminine eye.”
The Open Window
The brutal vengeance of “Sredni Vashtar” demonstrates that Saki’s preference is not founded on the moral superiority of children and animals. “The Open Window,” probably Saki’s most popular story, makes the point in a more plausible situation, where a “self-possessed young lady of fifteen” spins from the most ordinary circumstances a tale of terror that drives her visitor, the nervous and hypochondriacal Mr. Frampton Nuttel, to distraction. In the Saki world the charm and talent of the liar makes up for the cruelty of her lie; the reader, cut adrift from his ordinary values, admires the unfeeling understatement of Saki’s summing up: “Romance at short notice was her specialty.” The reader joins in applauding at the story’s end not injustice—the whimpering Nuttel gets no worse than he deserves— but justice undiluted by mercy, a drink too strong for most adults most of the time.
What Saki admires about the people and animals he portrays is their fidelity to absolutes. They follow their natures single-mindedly and unapologetically; they neither moralize nor compromise. Discussing the preferences of a character in his novel When William Came (1913), Saki indirectly explains his own austere code: “Animals . . . accepted the world as it was and made the best of it, and children, at least nice children, uncontaminated by grown-up influences, lived in worlds of their own making.” In this judgment the satirist becomes misanthrope. Saki endorses nature and art but rejects society.
It is this moral narrowness, this refusal to accept compromise, that makes Saki, despite the brilliance of his artistry, an unsatisfying writer to read in large doses. His dated description of a vanished world is really no flaw, for he does not endorse the dying regime but clearly shows why it ought to die. His lack of sentiment is refreshing; his lack of emotion (only in such rare stories as “The Sheep,” “The Philanthropist and the Happy Cat,” and “The Penance” does Saki credibly present deep or complex feelings) does not offend present-day readers long inured to black comedy. Saki’s defect is sterility. He refuses to be generous or make allowances as he considers society, that creation of adults, and he sends readers back empty-handed to the world of compromise where they must live.
Other major works
Plays: Karl-Ludwig’s Window, pb. 1924; The Death-Trap, pb. 1924; The Square Egg, and Other Sketches, with Three Plays, pb. 1924; The Watched Pot, pr., pb. 1924 (with Cyril Maude).
Novels: The Unbearable Bassington, 1912; When William Came, 1913.
Nonfiction: The Rise of the Russian Empire, 1900; The Westminster Alice, 1902.
Birden, Lorene M. “Saki’s ‘A Matter of Sentiment.’” Explicator 5 (Summer, 1998): 201-204.
Gillen, Charles H. H. H. Munro (Saki). New York: Twayne, 1969.
Lambert, J.W. Introduction to The Bodley Head Saki. London: Bodley Head, 1963.
Langguth, A. J. Saki. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1981.May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Munro, Ethel M. “Biography of Saki.” In The Square Egg and Other Sketches, with Three Plays. New York: Viking Press, 1929.
Salemi, Joseph S. “An Asp Lurking in an Apple-Charlotte: Animal Violence in Saki’s The Chronicles of Clovis.” Studies in Short Fiction 26 (Fall, 1989): 423-430.
Spears, George J. The Satire of Saki. New York: Exposition Press, 1963.