A nervous young man, convalescing in the country, arranges a courtesy call on a lady in a nearby house. Arriving early, he is entertained by a self-possessed 15-year-old niece. Conversation is stilted, and the niece apologizes for the French window being left open onto the garden. She quietly explains that two years ago her aunt’s husband and two brothers walked through the window and were never seen again, presumed drowned in moorland bog. The aunt is still convinced one day they will return. Hence the open window.
Minutes later the aunt arrives to meet the newcomer, apologising for the open window and explaining the reason. The young man is tongue-tied. Yet no sooner has she uttered the words than he sees the husband and brothers indeed walking towards the window across the lawn. He screams and runs from the house. Everyone is baffled. The niece smiles and considers a career in fiction.
In 1916 on the western front, the writer H.H. Munro was killed by a German sniper. Despite being 43, well-off and qualified as an officer, Munro had enlisted as an ordinary soldier. Thus died Saki, master of the English short story.
Saki’s settings are those of fin de siècle Edwardian society, wealthy, leisured, conventional, faintly doomed. Normality is constantly victim to surreal events, to the oddball guest, the peculiar child, the poor, animals tame and wild, and eccentric weekend hostesses. Aunts are also a Saki speciality. His style is supremely economical. Not a word is wasted. His ability to imagine horror in the mundane is reminiscent of M.R. James. Yet his gift for upper-crust humour is worthy of P.G. Wodehouse, who acknowledged his influence.
Saki wrote other words, but his abiding facility was for the short story, mostly appearing first in newspapers. He was an admirer of Oscar Wilde, whose homosexuality and cynical view of the world he shared. His influence can be clearly seen in Wodehouse and Noel Coward, though his was a darker, subtler humour. His characters always had fantastical names, his chief commentator, Clovis Sangrail, was a toned down Wilde (if not himself).
In retrospect, we can see in Saki’s work the Victorian age approaching its end. Everywhere is money ill-spent, lives decaying, hordes of servants, gentlemen moving easily from colonial hill stations to London clubs. Yet his genius lay in twisting reality into knots, in bringing pomposity down to earth. He strayed easily into fantasies of ghosts, werewolves, anthropomorphic dogs and supernatural humans, toying with his readers yet never leaving them incredulous.
That Saki was never an FRSL I assume to be a comment on the literary snobbery of his day. Like Dickens and Thackeray, his style of fiction did not qualify as literature. Worse, it appeared in newspapers. Yet he was unique in his style, a master of the English language, of plot structure, characterisation and wit. I never finish a Saki story without either a wry smile or a laugh out loud. He was incomparable.
Simon Jenkins is an award-winning journalist and author of several books on Britain’s politics, history and architecture. He writes a column for the Guardian. His most recent books are the best-selling A Short History of London and Europe’s Hundred Best Cathedrals.
Hector Hugh Munro (1870-1916), also known by the pseudonym Saki, was a Scottish novelist, short story writer and journalist. His work depicts the quiet horrors of the Edwardian social scene through the use of satire and surprise endings.