Today is the birthday (1870) of Hector Hugh Munro, who usually wrote under the pen name Saki, but also as H. H. Munro. His works are not nearly as well known now as those of Oscar Wilde, who influenced his style, or P. G. Wodehouse who followed him. He satirized Edwardian society in short stories that were usually witty and mischievous, but also often had a dark, macabre side absent from Wilde and Wodehouse. Beside his short stories (which were first published in newspapers and then collected into several volumes), he wrote a full-length play, The Watched Pot, in collaboration with Charles Maude; two one-act plays; a historical study, The Rise of the Russian Empire, the only book published under his own name; a short novel, The Unbearable Bassington; the episodic The Westminster Alice (a parliamentary parody of Alice in Wonderland); and When William Came: A Story of London Under the Hohenzollerns, a fantasy about a future German invasion and occupation of Britain.
Munro was born in Akyab in British Burma, which was then still part of the British Raj, governed from Calcutta. He was the son of Charles Augustus Munro, an Inspector General for the Indian Imperial Police and Mary Frances Mercer (1843–1872), the daughter of Rear Admiral Samuel Mercer. In 1872, on a home visit to England, Mary Munro was charged by a cow, and the shock caused her to miscarry. She died soon after. After the death of Munro’s mother, Charles Munro sent his children, including two-year-old Hector, home to England. The children were sent to Broadgate Villa, in Pilton village near Barnstaple, North Devon to be raised by their grandmother and paternal aunts Charlotte and Augusta in a strict and puritanical household. It is said that they were most likely models for a few of his characters, notably ‘The Lumber Room’ and ‘Sredni Vashtar’. Leading slightly insular lives Munro and his siblings, during their early years were educated under tutelage of governesses. At the age of 12 Munro was educated at Pencarwick School in Exmouth and then as a boarder at Bedford School. In 1887, after his retirement, his father returned from Burma, and embarked upon a series of European travels with Hector and his siblings.
Munro followed his father in 1893 into the Indian Imperial Police and was posted to Burma, but successive bouts of fever caused his return to England after only 15 months. Munro started his writing career as a journalist for newspapers such as the Westminster Gazette, Daily Express, and Morning Post, and magazines such as the Bystander and Outlook. His first book The Rise of the Russian Empire, a historical study modelled upon Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, appeared in 1900, under his real name, but proved to be something of a false start.
Whilst he was writing The Rise of the Russian Empire, he made his first foray into short story writing and published a piece called ‘Dogged’ in St Paul’s in February 1899. He then moved into the world of political satire in 1900 with a collaboration with Francis Carruthers Gould entitled “Alice in Westminster”. Gould produced the sketches, and Munro wrote the text accompanying them, using the pen-name “Saki” for the first time. The series lampooned political figures of the day (‘Alice in Downing Street’ begins with the memorable line, ‘”Have you ever seen an Ineptitude?”‘ – referring to a zoomorphised Arthur Balfou, and was published in the Westminster Gazette.
In 1902 he moved to The Morning Post, to work as a foreign correspondent, first in the Balkans, and then in Russia, where he was witness to the 1905 revolution in St Petersburg. He then went on to Paris, before returning to London. In the intervening period his first collection of short stories (as opposed to collections of political satires), Reginald had been published in 1904, the stories having first appeared in the Westminster Gazette. He had also been contributing pieces for the Morning Post, Bystander, and Westminster Gazette. He kept a place in Mortimer Street, wrote, played bridge at the Cocoa Tree Club, and lived simply. Munro was gay, and because male homosexuality was illegal in England at the time, he kept his sexuality a secret.
The collection, Reginald in Russia, appeared in 1910, and The Chronicles of Clovis was published in 1911, and Beasts and Super-Beasts in 1914, along with many other short stories that appeared in newspapers not published in collections in his lifetime.
At the start of the First World War Munro was 43 and officially over-age to enlist, but he refused a commission and joined the 2nd King Edward’s Horse as an ordinary trooper. He later transferred to the 22nd Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, in which he rose to the rank of lance sergeant. More than once he returned to the battlefield when officially still too sick or injured. In November 1916 he was sheltering in a shell crater near Beaumont-Hamel, France, during the Battle of the Ancre, when he was killed by a German sniper. According to several sources, his last words were “Put that bloody cigarette out!” Munro has no known grave. He is commemorated on Pier and Face 8C 9A and 16A of the Thiepval Memorial.
The pen name “Saki” is most commonly assumed to be a reference to the cupbearer in the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam. Both close friend Rothay Reynolds and sister Ethel Munro confirm this in their published accounts of Munro.
I was not particularly taken with Saki’s short stories when I was a teenager because the Edwardian world they were satirizing was alien to me. To be fair, I felt the same way about Wilde, but I warmed to him later on. Saki got lost in the shuffle. Here’s some quotes that restore my interest, to a degree:
He is one of those people who would be enormously improved by death.
The young have aspirations that never come to pass, the old have reminiscences of what never happened.
A little inaccuracy sometimes saves a ton of explanation.”
Romance at short notice was her specialty.
The cook was a good cook, as cooks go; and as cooks go, she went.
Every reformation must have its victims. You can’t expect the fatted calf to share the enthusiasm of the angels over the prodigal’s return.
Confront a child, a puppy, and a kitten with a sudden danger; the child will turn instinctively for assistance, the puppy will grovel in abject submission, the kitten will brace its tiny body for a frantic resistance.
I hate posterity – it’s so fond of having the last word.”
To be clever in the afternoon argues that one is dining nowhere in the evening.
I’m living so far beyond my means that we may almost be said to be living apart.
The censorious said she slept in a hammock and understood Yeats’s poems, but her family denied both stories.
For our recipe of the day we can start here:
I think oysters are more beautiful than any religion. They not only forgive our unkindness to them; they justify it, they incite us to go on being perfectly horrid to them. Once they arrive at the supper-table they seem to enter thoroughly into the spirit of the thing. There’s nothing in Christianity or Buddhism that quite matches the sympathetic unselfishness of an oyster.
I am sure he is thinking about oysters on the half shell, and that would certainly be an appropriate treat for today. I’ve not had oysters on the half shell in over 8 years. I miss them, but Asia is not where I want to sample them. Oyster soup might be a better bet, and, of course, I must turn to Mrs Beeton. Six dozen oysters for soup for 8 people might seem a bit over the top, but in Victorian and Edwardian days oysters were cheap and plentiful. She does get a bit carried away at the end.
- INGREDIENTS.—6 dozen of oysters, 2 quarts of white stock, 1/2 pint of cream, 2 oz. of butter, 1-1/2 oz. of flour; salt, cayenne, and mace to taste.
Mode.—Scald the oysters in their own liquor; take them out, beard them, and put them in a tureen. Take a pint of the stock, put in the beards and the liquor, which must be carefully strained, and simmer for 1/2 an hour. Take it off the fire, strain it again, and add the remainder of the stock with the seasoning and mace. Bring it to a boil, add the thickening of butter and flour, simmer for 5 minutes, stir in the boiling cream, pour it over the oysters, and serve.
Time.—1 hour. Average cost, 2s. 8d. per quart.
Seasonable from September to April.
Sufficient for 8 persons.
Note.—This soup can be made less rich by using milk instead of cream, and thickening with arrowroot instead of butter and flour.
- INGREDIENTS.—2 quarts of good mutton broth, 6 dozen oysters, 2 oz. butter, 1 oz. of flour.
Mode.—Beard the oysters, and scald them in their own liquor; then add it, well strained, to the broth; thicken with the butter and flour, and simmer for 1/4 of an hour. Put in the oysters, stir well, but do not let it boil, and serve very hot.
Time.—3/4 hour. Average cost, 2s. per quart.
Seasonable from September to April.
Sufficient for 8 persons.
SEASON OF OYSTERS.—From April and May to the end of July, oysters are said to be sick; but by the end of August they become healthy, having recovered from the effects of spawning. When they are not in season, the males have a black, and the females a milky substance in the gill. From some lines of Oppian, it would appear that the ancients were ignorant that the oyster is generally found adhering to rocks. The starfish is one of the most deadly enemies of these bivalves. The poet says:—
The prickly star creeps on with full deceit
To force the oyster from his close retreat.
When gaping lids their widen’d void display,
The watchful star thrusts in a pointed ray,
Of all its treasures spoils the rifled case,
And empty shells the sandy hillock grace.