The general plot of Saki’s “A Matter of Sentiment” is quite similar to that of a number of his previous short stories: A group of familiar characters gathers under the auspices of a particularly stuffy English hostess and undertakes a decidedly aristocratic activity. But at the core of the story rests a decided phobia toward the rising Prussian empire and German people, as well as a pronounced anxiety about the international dynamic of the time and England’s own position within it, themes that would predominate in Saki’s later stories. “A Matter of Sentiment” marks a particular shift in Saki’s perception from a respect for, to an outright concern over, England’s lack of preparation for the eventual military conflict with the Germans that Saki felt to be lurking on the horizon.
The story opens with the various members of Lady Susan’s house party furtively discussing a horse race, an activity Lady Susan strongly disapproves of, just as she seems to disapprove of almost every other activity. Nevertheless, the members of the house party are able to telegraph in their bets after receiving advice about which horses to bet on through a butler who has a relative working at a nearby racing establishment. The bitter disappointment over losing leads one member of the party to blurt out the name of the winning horse, Sadowa, in front of Lady Susan. To the surprise of everyone gathered, Lady Susan reveals that she herself had placed a wager on Sadowa, despite her purported objection to horse racing. She explains that she placed the bet because she was intrigued by the horse’s name. Lady Susan reveals that Sadowa was named after a battle during the Franco-Prussian War, which began on her wedding day and ended on the day her first child was born. Her placement of the bet, which, as she admits, goes entirely against her inclinations and beliefs, is merely a matter of sentiment. The story concludes with a chorus of frustrated groans from the members of the house party.
“A Matter of Sentiment” is very much a story of its time. The horse race mirrors the international situation from the English perspective throughout the 1910s. Furthermore, none of Lady Susan’s guests are quite sure which horse to support and place their money on, just as England, at the time, was undecided regarding whom it should support in the increasingly volatile and tense European arena. The sense of doubt surrounding the race can be seen as indicative of England’s own hesitation and anxieties about the nature of international alliances. Sadowa was not, in fact, a battle in the Franco-Prussia War, as Lady Susan claims it was, but rather a battle in the earlier Prussian War with Austria. Lady Susan’s apparent confusion about Sadowa might be Saki’s mockery of what he considered the intellectual and historical ignorance of the English upper-classes. Also, Sadowa, an early victory for the Prussians, might have been a source of the evolving English fear of the Germans, who had developed into a significant threat since the Prussian-Austrian war. In that respect, Lady Susan’s interest in that particular historical event can be said to mirror the general mentality of the English people at the time, in Saki’s view. The fact that her bet was placed simply as “a matter of sentiment” strongly suggests Saki’s concern that any rumor or notion about the Prussian empire was capable of shifting, without reason or logic, the popular opinion and sentiment of the English people.
Birden, Lorene M. “Saki’s ‘A Matter of Sentiment.’ ” Explicator 56, no. 4 (1998): 201–204.
Langguth, A. J. Saki. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981.
Saki. The Complete Saki. New York: Penguin Classics, 1998.
Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story
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