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Article link: ‘For the duration of the war’: The radical self-abnegation and anti-anthropocentrism of Munro/Saki’s front-line writings

Brian Gibson, well known to readers of this website as the author of Reading Saki, has published an article on Munro’s writings during the First World War. It can be found in the journal First World War Studies and is entitled “‘For the duration of the war’: The radical self-abnegation and anti-anthropocentrism of Munro/Saki’s front-line writings”.

Here’s the abstract, reproduced from the journal’s homepage:

With the advent of the First World War, H. H. Munro (1870–1916), eagerly enlisting at 43, attempted to patriotically simplify his selves, conscripting his authorial persona, Saki – whose fiction usually shimmers with metamorphosis and surprise – for jingoistic exhortations and denunciations of unmanly non-soldiers in ‘An Old Love’ (in the Morning Post) and four pieces for the 22nd Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers’ Fortnightly Gazette, April to June 1915. Yet this reductively pro-Empire, pro-military stance turned into a self-distancing retreat from the front lines after Lance-Sergeant Munro arrived in Northern France in late 1915. In the radically self-reflexive and self-reflective story ‘For the Duration of the War’, Saki parodies the poem from which his pseudonym-persona had sprung, pokes fun at his fiction’s dominant themes – especially Fate and savage nature – and even questions the point of literature at a time of war. And in his final two works, set near the front, Munro and/or Saki muddies the genre, removes himself far more from events (as if anticipating his death), and questions the artifice of writing itself amid his species’ ravaging of the natural landscape. In ‘The Square Egg’, Munro/Saki offers one-part essay and one-part story, with the former written at a marked remove and the latter told by an unidentified ‘Acquaintance’. In ‘Birds of the Western Front’, Munro/Saki relates a detached study of bird-life in and around the trenches, the ‘one’ of the narrative-voice no unitary, pro-England spokesman but a barely human observer of winged wild creatures. These final writings by Munro and/or Saki are both radical and transcendent, looking beyond the soldier-self and the author-self at the non-human world to offer a pointed, poignant selflessness at a time of mass European self-annihilation. There is a profound generosity through self-effacement that is not seen in any of the works by the major English writers of the war.

Bibliography

First World War Studies, Volume 11, 2020 – Issue 1.
http://www.firstworldwarstudies.org/journal.php?s=volume-11-2020-issue-1

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19475020.2021.1873161?needAccess=true

Where Saki was published

Munro was fortunate as a freelance writer because he did not have to hawk around his stories. As you can see from the “first publication” table, the vast majority of them were printed in one of three  outlets. In order of Munro’s connection with them, they were:

1. The Westminster Gazette

The front page of the Westminster Gazette, 25 September 1901, with Saki’s first Reginald story.

Founded in 1893, it quickly became one of the pre-eminent Liberal daily newspapers. In Munro’s day it supported the Asquith/Grey wing of party. It was an evening paper, printed on green paper to make it easier on the eyes when read under artificial light.1 A prestigious newspaper with a wide influence despite its small circulation (20,000 copies sold but read by an estimated 100,000),2 it never made a profit, relying instead on subsidies from wealthy Liberal supporters. It was required reading in “clubland” and political circles. It also published sketches and short stories and could make a writer’s reputation. Munro was introduced to the paper’s editor J.A. Spender by its renowned cartoonist Francis Carruthers Gould; the result was the collaboration The Westminster Alice. It was owned by George Newnes till 1908, then sold to a consortium headed by Alfred Mond/Sir John Brunner/Weetman Pearson (different sources name different men as the key mover behind the purchase).

2. The Morning Post

Founded in 1772, it first supported the Whigs but reoriented to the Tories from 1795 when bought by Daniel Stuart. From 1876 it belonged to the Borthwick family. It is said to have been the first daily newspaper in London to regularly feature notices of plays and concerts (from the early 20th century.) It was highly respected and had a tradition of publishing good writing: Dr. Johnson, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Charles Lamb, George Meredith, Thomas Hardy and Rudyard Kipling were all contributors. It employed Munro as a foreign correspondent in the Balkans, eastern Europe, Russia, and Paris from 1902 to 1909.

3. The Bystander

Advertisment in the Daily Mail for The Bystander.

This was a magazine of about eighty pages established in 1903 by the proprietors of the Graphic. Published weekly on Wednesdays in ‘tabloid’ form, it was targeted at “persons of refinement and taste” (according to its advertisements). It was attractively produced, being printed on high-quality, glossy paper, and included a colour supplement. Illustrations, photos and cartoons complemented its coverage of social, literary and theatrical news, as well as of sport (“for both sexes”, the Daily Mail noted), travel and fiction. It also printed short stories; Daphne du Maurier was another prominent author featured early in its pages. At the time of Munro’s connection with it its editor was William Comyns Beaumont.

Sources

Boyce, George, et al., editors. Newspaper History from the Seventeenth Century to the Present Day. Constable; Sage Publications, 1978.

https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/titles/the-bystander

The Edinburgh History of the British and Irish Press. Edinburgh University Press, 2020.

Hindle, Wilfried. The Morning Post 1772-1937: Portrait of a Newspaper. 1. publ., Routledge, 1937.

Koss, Stephen E.. The Rise and Fall of the Political Press in Britain 1. – the Nineteenth Century. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1981.

Lee, Alan J. The Origins of the Popular Press in England: 1855-1914. Croom Helm, 1976.

“Multiple Classified Advertising Items.” Daily Mail, 9 Dec. 1903, p. 6. Daily Mail Historical Archive, link.gale.com/apps/doc/EE1862524833/DMHA?u=heidel&sid=bookmark-DMHA&xid=3293eaad. Accessed 9 Sept. 2021.

“The Bystander.” Daily Mail, 7 Dec. 1903, p. 5. Daily Mail Historical Archive, link.gale.com/apps/doc/EE1862524516/DMHA?u=heidel&sid=bookmark-DMHA&xid=30377c87. Accessed 9 Sept. 2021.

“The Bystander.” Daily Mail, 10 Dec. 1903, p. 3. Daily Mail Historical Archive, link.gale.com/apps/doc/ EE1862524964/DMHA?u=heidel&sid=bookmark-DMHA&xid=c95acde9. Accessed 9 Sept. 2021.


  1. See Whitaker, Brian (ed.). Notes & Queries. 3. London: Fourth Estate, 1992, p. 206.
  2. Lee p. 166; Langguth p. 60.

‘Louis’

“It would be jolly to spend Easter in Vienna this year,” said Strudwarden, “and look up some of my old friends there. It’s about the jolliest place I know of to be at for Easter—”

“I thought we had made up our minds to spend Easter at Brighton,” interrupted Lena Strudwarden, with an air of aggrieved surprise.

“You mean that you had made up your mind that we should spend Easter there,” said her husband; “we spent last Easter there, and Whitsuntide as well, and the year before that we were at Worthing, and Brighton again before that. I think it would be just as well to have a real change of scene while we are about it.”

“The journey to Vienna would be very expensive,” said Lena.

“You are not often concerned about economy,” said Strudwarden, “and in any case the trip to Vienna won’t cost a bit more than the rather meaningless luncheon parties we usually give to quite meaningless acquaintances at Brighton. To escape from all that set would be a holiday in itself.” Continue reading

‘The Metamorphoses of Lobelia Jabb, Suffragette’

Presented below for the first time since they originally appeared on 12 March 1913 in The Bystander are Saki’s satirical verses on a suffragette, with illustrations by ‘Pat’. The views expressed are in line with the tenor of stories such as ‘The Gala Programme’ (The Square Egg) and ‘Hermann the Irascible–A Story of the Great Weep’ (The Chronicles of Clovis).

Saki fans will no doubt also note parallels with ‘Laura’ (Beasts and Super-beasts), which also takes for its plot the repeated reincarnation of an annoying woman.

For the sake of the search engines, here is the text by itself. You can see the actual illustrated version if you scroll down.

A Suffragette Lobelia was,
She early left this life because
(She had the rottenest of luck)
She too sincerely hunger-struck.
Mere death her spirit could not tame,
A super-nuisance she became:
On every club she made her raids
–They slew her with the ace of spades.
She wrecked, with penetrating scorn,
the après-midi of the Faun;
And now another shape she wore,
She propaganda’d more and more.
Fierce androphobia winged her feet,
she bit three men in Downing Street.
The men were pasteurised – her bark,
was silenced in St. James’s Park.
Then took she yet another shape,
The larger, fiercer breed of ape.
She met a military man,
Who in the wrong direction ran.
It scarcely served her wrath to cool,
To find herself a boy at school;
She sought the other boys to vex
–And now she really loathes the sex.

The Metamorphoses of Lobelia Jabb, Suffragette, p. 1

The Metamorphoses of Lobelia Jabb, Suffragette, p. 2

My thanks are due to Brian Gibson for sending me a photocopy of the original. Interested readers are advised to consult pages 143–146 of his book Reading Saki: The Fiction of H.H. Munro for a discussion of this piece.

“Some confusion having arisen…”

“Some confusion having arisen owing to the similarity of names, Mr. Hector H. Munro (who usually writes under the pen-name of ‘Saki’) asks us to state that he is not the author of the novel ‘Mrs. Elmsley,’ by Mr. Hector Munro, published by Messrs. Constable and Co.”
― ‘Notice in the Westminster Gazette, Monday 3 April 1911, p. 4.’

El ala este : Y otros cuentos (Saki in Spanish)

Saki fan, researcher and contributor to this blog Juan Facundo Araujo has published a book of Spanish translations, including (if I understand correctly) the previously untranslated ‘The East Wing’ and ‘A Jungle Story’. He also wrote an introductory essay.

Here’s the Spanish description from Amazon:

“El ala este” incluye tres relatos inéditos en español del genial autor inglés, con un estudio preliminar de Facundo Araujo y una elegante selección anotada de cuentos, ilustrados por los artistas Néstor Martín y Pablo Castillo.

‘Reginald on Christmas Presents’

I wish it to be distinctly understood (said Reginald) that I don’t want a “George, Prince of Wales” Prayer-book1 as a Christmas present. The fact cannot be too widely known.

There ought (he continued) to be technical education classes on the science of present-giving. No one seems to have the faintest notion of what anyone else wants, and the prevalent ideas on the subject are not creditable to a civilised community.

There is, for instance, the female relative in the country who “knows a tie is always useful,” and sends you some spotted horror that you could only wear in secret or in Tottenham Court Road.2 It might have been useful had she kept it to tie up currant bushes with, when it would have served the double purpose of supporting the branches and frightening away the birds—for it is an admitted fact that the ordinary tomtit of commerce has a sounder æsthetic taste than the average female relative in the country.

Then there are aunts. They are always a difficult class to deal with in the matter of presents. The trouble is that one never catches them really young enough. By the time one has educated them to an appreciation of the fact that one does not wear red woollen mittens in the West End, they die, or quarrel with the family, or do something equally inconsiderate. That is why the supply of trained aunts is always so precarious. Continue reading

‘The East Wing’

“I’m so glad you have come,” she said; “servants are so little help in an emergency of this kind. My husband has gone off in the car to summon the fire-brigade.”

“Haven’t you telephoned to them?” asked the Major.

“The telephone unfortunately is in the east wing,” said the hostess; “so is the telephone-book. Both are being devoured by the flames at this moment. It makes one feel dreadfully isolated. Now if the fire had only broken out in the west wing instead, we could have used the telephone and had the fire-engines here by now.”

“On the other hand,” objected Lucien, “Canon Clore and Major Boventry and myself would probably have met with the fate that has overtaken the telephone-book. I think I prefer the present arrangement.”

“The butler and most of the other servants are in the dining-room, trying to save the Raeburns and the alleged Van Dyke,”1 continued Mrs Gramplain, “and in that little room on the first landing, cut off from us by the cruel flames, is my poor darling Eva. Eva of the golden hair. Will none of you save her?”

“Who is Eva of the golden hair?” asked Lucien.

“My daughter,” said Mrs Gramplain.

“I didn’t know you had a daughter,” said Lucien, “and really I don’t think I can risk my life to save some one I’ve never met or even heard about. You see, my life is not only wonderful and beautiful to myself, but if my life goes, nothing else really matters to me. I don’t suppose you can realise that, to me, the whole world as it exists to-day, the Ulster problem, the Albanian tangle, the Kikuyu controversy,2 the wide field of social reform and Antarctic exploration, the realms of finance, and research and international armaments, all this varied and crowded and complex world, all comes to a complete and absolute end the moment my life is finished. Eva might be snatched from the flames and live to be the grandmother of brilliant and charming men and women; but, as far as I should be concerned, she and they would no more exist than a vanished puff of cigarette smoke or a dissolved soda-water bubble. And if, in losing my life, I am to lose her life and theirs, as far as I personally am concerned with them, why on earth should I, personally, risk my life to save hers and theirs?” Continue reading

‘Angels of Grace’ and King Robert of Sicily

The following narrative poem by Longfellow provided the inspiration for Saki’s story ‘Ministers of Grace’ (originally published in The Bystander and later collected in The Chronicles of Clovis).

Robert of Sicily, brother of Pope Urbane
And Valmond, Emperor of Allemaine,
Apparelled in magnificent attire,
With retinue of many a knight and squire,
On St. John’s eve, at vespers, proudly sat
And heard the priests chant the Magnificat,
And as he listened, o’er and o’er again
Repeated, like a burden or refrain,
He caught the words, “Deposuit potentes
De sede, et exaltavit humiles”;
And slowly lifting up his kingly head
He to a learned clerk beside him said,
“What mean these words?” The clerk made answer meet,
“He has put down the mighty from their seat,
And has exalted them of low degree.”
Thereat King Robert muttered scornfully,
“’T is well that such seditious words are sung
Only by priests and in the Latin tongue;
For unto priests and people be it known,
There is no power can push me from my throne!”
And leaning back, he yawned and fell asleep,
Lulled by the chant monotonous and deep. Continue reading