“The Schartz-Metterklume Method” is one of Edwardian writer Saki’s mordantly humorous stories of rebellion against rigid, stodgy adulthood, but this time the attack is launched by another adult rather than a child. The story, which first appeared in the Westminster Gazette on October 14, 1911, offers one of Saki’s favorite conceits—an elaborate hoax that rattles bourgeois Edwardians’ pretense and certitude—wrapped in Saki’s exact prose and sparkling wit, the lightness of tone masking dark farce and disturbing undercurrents.
Lady Carlotta, taking a brief stroll at a small country station while she waits for her train to resume its journey, notices a horse burdened by a carter’s heavy load and tries to intervene. The train then leaves without her, and Lady Carlotta is suddenly confronted with an “imposingly attired lady” who confuses her for her children’s new governess, just arrived. Lady Carlotta pretends she is the “Miss Hope” that Mrs. Quabarl was expecting and drives with the mother of four to her new home. After suggesting better automobiles and, at dinner, recommending wines superior to the vintage on offer, “Miss Hope” reassures her employers, who wish their children to be immersed in the stories of historical figures, that she will be teaching history according to the “Schartz-Metterklume method.” The next day, Mrs. Quabarl finds her immobile daughter Irene personifying Rome, while sister Viola, clad in a wolf skin, is Romulus and Remus, and brothers Claude and Wilfrid have left, in Irene’s words, “to fetch the shabby women.” Mrs. Quabarl rushes to the lawn and finds her two sons dragging off the lodge keeper’s daughters while Lady Carlotta, wielding a cricket bat, looks on impassively. Appalled by her governess’s method of teaching history to her children by having them reenact it, Mrs. Quabarl dismisses her, and Lady Carlotta tells her to hold onto her luggage until she telegraphs them her address. Her luggage, she adds, consists merely of “a couple of trunks and some golfclubs and a leopard cub”; with that, “Lady Carlotta strode out of the Quabarl horizon.”
Saki, often considered a misogynist writer because of his attacks on female guardians and satires of suffragettism in some of his stories, reveals a much more conflicted attitude toward women in this story, which champions the single female over the married mother within a tale of infi ghting between two bourgeois ladies. Lady Carlotta is a strong-willed, single new woman, (“You may be very clever and modern, Miss Hope,” her employer tells her), yet her fierce independence is brought out by Mrs. Quabarl, a typically Sakian battleaxe wife. Mrs. Quabarl’s imperious, condescending attitude irritates Lady Carlotta, who cattily pursues an elaborate hoax—with children as the secondary victims— in order to undermine the self-satisfi ed mother who, along with her husband, is easily cowed by anyone who seems more cultured or lofty than she.
Lady Carlotta is no more petty than, and just as witty as, Saki’s dandy protagonists Clovis or Reginald when she flippantly concocts and then justifies Canon Teep’s assault on his wife with a “soda-water syphon” because “Mrs. Teep is quite the most irritating bridgeplayer that I have ever sat down with.” This comment, typical of Saki’s religion-mocking antiheroes, also suggests Saki had as much common with his devious female antihero Lady Carlotta as he did with his male pranksters, for he was an avid bridge-player. As a child Munro also, according to his sister Ethel, relished acting out historical battles, tormented governesses, and was once scolded by an aunt for using the word “debauchery” after a Roman history lesson.
Saki, who often uses wild beasts or vengeful children to mischievously undermine prosaic adults who wish to stifle creativity and ignore the power of fantasy, not only uses a woman here as the maverick trickster and victimizes children—who are shockingly taught about rape by Lady Carlotta—but reveals the contradictions of his class views. Lady Carlotta, as Miss Hope, is a problem for Mrs. Quabarl because she does not know her place and thus presages the class confusion and disintegration that would envelop England after the war: “When the new governess failed to express wondering admiration of the large newly purchased and expensive car, and lightly alluded to the superior advantages of one or two makes which had just been put on the market, the discomfiture of her patroness was almost abject.” Yet in Saki’s canon, the lower classes are rarely represented in a complex way, and here they are dismissed as the brief butts of Lady Carlotta’s elaborate pedagogical prank. Lady Carlotta, resentful at her employer’s condescending treatment of her supposed governess, has her young charges abduct the lodge keeper’s children, pretending they are the soon-to-be-raped Sabine women.
As disturbing as Lady Carlotta’s “Schartz-Metterklume method” (the name may be a shot at the militancy of pre-World War I Germany) is, however, Saki’s argument seems to be that history is often a series of messy, bloody events, from war and conquest to repression and rape. The use of supposedly innocent women and children to illustrate such a lesson only makes Saki’s point more disturbingly powerful. In “The Toys of Peace,” too, Saki mocks the attempt of pacifist educators to have children play with peaceful toys by having the children quickly resort to acting out gory battles with the playthings instead; often in Saki’s stories, children and animals conquer the adult world because they are closer to the wild, natural order of things than the bland, supposedly civilized world of Edwardian England.
Many critics have noted Saki’s clever reworking of his own plots in other stories. This tale resembles Clovis’s tricking of a sheltered rural couple in “The Unrest- Cure,” while the use of children in the reenactment of a classical myth with sexual undertones recalls Reginald’s bacchanalian expedition with a church youth group in “Reginald’s Choir Treat.” In its conceit of reenacting history, “The Schartz-Metterklume Method” echoes the overly realistic charades in “A Matter of Sentiment.” Indeed, an early scene detailing Lady Carlotta’s refusal to leave her painting and extricate an annoying neighbor from the attentions of a boar-pig may have sowed the seeds of inspiration for Saki’s later stories “The Stalled Ox” and “The Boar-Pig.”
Saki. The Complete Saki. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1982.
Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story
You must be logged in to post a comment.