Mapping Saki and Borges

Cover of La reticencia de Lady Anne

The cover of La reticencia de Lady Anne

Is it possible to establish a connection between Saki and Argentina? It is indeed. Saki mentions Argentina on two occasions. In ‘The Way to the Dairy’ we find: “The Brimley Bomefields had a collective attack of nervous prostration on the day when she sold out a quantity of shares in Argentine rails”, and then in ‘Fur’ we also find: “Well, old Bertram Kneyght is over in England just now from the Argentine”.

Furthermore, the link between Saki and Borges is even more fascinating. They never physically met each other: Saki died tragically in 1916 and Borges was born in 1899. Different ages, different places. Yet a certain “relationship” between these two authors does reveal itself as true.

Intellectually, Borges grew up in his father’s personal library, a collection full of English books. Moreover, Borges inherited his father’s literary idols such as Swinburne, Keats, Spencer and Shelley. Guillermo Borges translated Edward FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát into Spanish and his version of the famous Persian poem was finally published in Proa, a literary magazine established by his son and Ricardo Güiraldes, in the year 1924. Later on, Borges wrote a poem about Omar Khayyám’s masterpiece. As we know, Saki took his peculiar penname from the Rubáiyát stanzas. In his preface to ‘The Reticence of Lady Anne’, Borges confirms this conjecture: “His name, Munro, belongs to an ancient Scottish family; his penname, Saki, comes from the Rubáiyát (this word in Persian means cupbearer)”.1

Saki and Borges were cosmopolitans. About Saki’s cosmopolitanism, we should recall A.A. Milne’s words: “A strange creature, this Saki, to us many others who were trying to do it too. For we were so domestic, he so terrifyingly cosmopolitan”.2 During his youth, Saki travelled around Europe with his father and siblings. In nineteenth-century Victorian England, it was common for upper-class young adults like Saki, who had recently finished grammar school, to travel to the Continent, visiting museums, recreational resorts and art galleries in France, Germany and Switzerland.  This “educational trip” allowed Hector Munro to absorb entirely the historical, cultural and social Mitteleuropa atmosphere. As Charles Gillen declares: “This tour, too, helped to make Munro the true cosmopolitan”.3 In his adulthood, Saki also discovered Russia and the Balkans as a journalist working for The Morning Post. Yet Saki always returned to London. England was his shelter, far from the madding crowd. Borges asserts:

His life was a cosmopolitan one, but all his work (with the exception of one short story that we will mention later on)4 happens in England, in that England of his melancholic childhood. He never got over that period, whose irreparable misfortune was his literary matter. There is nothing special about this fact; unhappiness is, as they said, one of the elements of poetry. That England he suffered and took advantage of, was that of the Victorian middle class, ruled by boredom, organisation and by the eternal repetition of certain habits. Munro satirised that society with a quintessentially English dry humour.

In 1914, just before the Great War began, Borges and his family moved to Europe because his father’s eyesight had started to fail (Borges would inherit his father’s congenital blindness). In Geneva, a famous eye doctor treated Guillermo Borges while his son “Georgie” went to school. This tour to Europe was also considered essential for an Argentinian upper-class young adult: a chance to gain first-hand acquaintance with the Western culture. Besides, in those days the Argentine peso was strong.

Apparently, Borges was unhappy in Geneva because he couldn’t get used to the misty, damp and cold weather. He summarises his gloomy experience there: “I spent the war years in Geneva; [it was] a no-exit time, tight, made of drizzle, which I’ll always remember with some hatred”.

Later on, the Argentine fiction author Adolfo Bioy Casares (a very close friend of Jorge Luis Borges) became Saki’s first Spanish translator in 1940 with his version of ‘Sredni Vashtar’. It was published by Sur, one of the most important literary magazines in Buenos Aires during the 20th century. Borges and Bioy Casares were fascinated by this tale. Both certainly enjoyed speculative as well supernatural fiction. Borges declares particularly about ‘Sredni Vashtar’: “If we have to choose between two short stories of our anthology (and we are certainly not compelled to that duality), we would focus on ‘Sredni Vashtar’ and ‘The Interlopers’. The first one, as in every good story, is ambiguous: We can assume that Sredni Vashtar was really a god and that the unfortunate child sensed it, but the hypothesis that the child’s cult made a divinity from the ferret is also reasonable, nor is it prohibited to think that the force of the animal came from the child that might have really been the god and didn’t know it. It is fine that the ferret goes  back to the unknown from where it came; not less admirable is the disproportion between the happiness of the freed child and the trivial fact of making toast”.

Bioy Casares, Ocampo y Borges

Adolfo Bioy Casares, Victoria Ocampo (founder of ‘Sur’) and Jorge Luis Borges in 1935.
Photo credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/ File:Bioy_Casares,_Ocampo_y_Borges.jpg

The only “discrepancy” between Borges and Saki was another British author: George Bernard Shaw. Borges esteemed him intensely and listed Shaw as one of his four favorite authors (the others were Cervantes, Chesterton and Emerson). Borges once declared drastically, “Shaw seems the only author I’ve read”. On the other hand, Saki couldn’t bear Shaw at all. In fact, he parodied him as “Sherard Blaw” in The Unbearable Bassington. In addition, the title of his book Beasts and Super-Beasts is just a mere satire of Shaw’s four-act drama Men and Super-Men. Bernard Shaw’s socialism and popularity were so unbearable for Hector Munro…

In conclusion, Saki and Borges were both remarkable and irreplaceable storytellers with a unique sense of irony. Borges was also a very fine reader and he explored British literature with a singular mastery. Definitively, Saki was part of his vast group of literary idols.


  1. ‘La Reticencia de Lady Anne’ [1986] was part of Jorge Luis Borges’s famous anthology: “La Biblioteca de Babel” or The Library of Babel. This anthology included many Borges’s preferred authors like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, Gustav Meyrink, Franz Kafka, Rudyard Kipling, Herman Melville, Giovanni Papini, Edgar Allan Poe, León Bloy, Leopoldo Lugones, G.K. Chesterton, Oscar Wilde, etc. This preface in particular was published by Siruela Ediciones (Madrid, Spain).
  2. A. A. Milne, introduction to The Chronicles of Clovis. Online at  https://americanliterature.com/author/hh-munro-saki/book/the-chronicles-of-clovis/introduction.
  3. H.H. Munro (Saki), Twayne’s English Authors Series (TEAS) #102 (Boston, 1969).
  4. Borges is referring to his own selection of stories rather than to Munro’s entire oeuvre.

This is a guest blog post by Juan Facundo Araujo of the Universidad de Buenos Aires. He has both published and given presentations on various aspects of Saki. His currently research is into the depiction of suffragettes in Munro’s work. My thanks to him for agreeing to write something for this blog about Saki and Latin America.

Which Version of FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát Did Munro Know?

The Quatrains of Uttar Al Ghibe Part I, from The Westminster Gazette, March 4, 1901. My thanks to Brian Gibson (author of Reading Saki) for sending me a copy.

Possibly I am the only person in the world to care about this question, but what the heck…

Anyone with even a passing acquaintance with Munro’s work can hardly miss its references to that nineteenth-century poetic sensation, Edward FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám.[1]

The most obvious link is Munro’s pen-name. The FitzGerald versions contain the word “Sákí” (meaning “cupbearer”). One of Munro’s earliest published pieces were some quatrains supposedly by a Middle Eastern poet named “Uttar Al Ghibe” in which he mocked the politicians of the time:

In marvel at each man’s allotted sphere
I mused “We know not wherefore we are here”;
Said One who ruled o’er markets and bazaars
“I had an Uncle once.” His case was clear.[2]

Munro’s biographer A. J. Langguth conjectures that it was this early work that led Munro to pick “Saki” as his nom de plume.[3]

There are other obvious references too, such as ‘Reginald’s Rubaiyat’,[4] or the reference in ‘A Young Turkish Catastrophe’ to “the heretic poet of Persia”. The Rev. Wilfrid Gaspilton’s invented poet Ghurab in ‘For the Duration of the War’ is inspired by (and compared to) Omar Khayyám, as well as Persia’s other great poet Hafiz.[5]

Fitzgerald revised and expanded his translation throughout his life. There were five editions (the last being published posthumously based on his notes):

  1. 1st edition – 1859 (75 quatrains)
  2. 2nd edition – 1868 (110 quatrains)
  3. 3rd edition – 1872 (101 quatrains)
  4. 4th edition – 1879 (101 quatrains)
  5. 5th edition – 1889 (101 quatrains)[6]

When checking references to the work in Munro’s writings, I’ve often wondered which edition I should consult. From that question came the idea for this article.

As a young man, Munro copied some lines from FitzGerald into his commonplace book, including the quatrain that contains his future nom de plume:

Yet ah, that Spring should vanish with the Rose!
That Youth’s sweet-scented manuscript should close!
The Nightingale that in the branches sang,
Ah whence, and whither flown again, who knows!

Yon rising Moon that looks for us again
How oft hereafter will she wax and wane;
How oft hereafter rising look for us
Through this same Garden—and for one in vain!

And when like her, oh Sákí, you shall pass
Among the Guests Star-scatter’d on the Grass,
And in your blissful errand reach the spot
Where I made One—turn down an empty Glass!

Perplext no more with Human or Divine,
To-morrow’s tangle to the winds resign,
And lose your fingers in the tresses of
The Cypress-slender Minister of Wine.

So when that Angel of the Darker Drink,
At last shall find you by the river-brink,
And, offering his Cup, invite your Soul
Forth to your Lips to quaff—you shall not shrink.

Oddly, Munro has shuffled the order: he copied the quatrains in the order 96, 100, 101, 41, 43. More significantly for my inquiry, these versions were only found from the third edition onwards.

However, a few other allusions in other stories muddy the waters:

For example, in the early satire ‘The Angel and his Lost Michael’ (1903), the line “The Tabernacle is prepared within, why lags the lazy worshipper outside?” parodies a quatrain (number 2) that was added in the second edition and which runs “When all the Temple is prepared within,/Why lags the lazy worshipper outside?”. In the fifth edition, however, this has been changed to “When all the Temple is prepared within,/Why nods the lazy worshipper outside?”.

In addition, in ‘Reginald’s Rubaiyat’ Reginald pens the lines:

“The hen that laid thee moons ago, who knows
In what Dead Yesterday her shades repose;
To some election turn thy waning span
And rain thy rottenness on fiscal foes.”

The phrase “Dead Yesterday” is taken directly from FitzGerald, in lines which occur only in the first edition (ruba’i[7] no. 37, to be exact).

In the same story, Reginald (or Munro?) misunderstands or misremembers a reference in the Rubáiyát:

“Hast thou the pen that once the gardener had?
I have it not; and know, these pears are bad.
Oh, larger than the horses of the Prince
Are those the general drives in Kaikobad.”

There is no place called Kaikobad: it is the name of a king of ancient Persia. The references can be found in rubáiyát 8 and 9 of the first edition, 9 and 10 of second (with slight alterations) and 9 and 10 of the fifth (again with small changes).

I had hoped that perhaps one of the versions would be more ambiguous, allowing me to identify which version it was that misled Munro, but as far as I can see they are all more or less equal: if you read fairly attentively you can see that the various names mentioned are those of people rather than of places (especially if you note the reference to Rustum, which ought to be well known to readers of English poetry because of Matthew Arnold’s 1853 poem Sohrab and Rustum).

So, in the end, there is no clear answer to my questions. Maybe that’s not so surprising, as Fitzgerald’s work was so enormously well known and widely quoted that there are over 130 separate references to it in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, encompassing around half the work.[8]

Or perhaps Reginald’s terse comment “I am not collecting copies of the cheaper editions of Omar Khayyám”[9] was inspired by something Munro wanted to tell his acquaintances?

References:

I worked from a 1953 Collins edition of Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám and Other Writings by Edward FitzGerald, which contains the first, second and fifth editions in full. I also found the following website useful: http://www.bobforrestweb.co.uk/The_Rubaiyat/verse_by_verse_notes.htm


  1. FitzGerald (1809–1883), a gentleman poet and scholar, had discovered a set of Persian four-line poems (the technical name is ‘rubáiyát’) which had been written by an 11th century polymath named Omar Khayyám. FitzGerald translated and arranged a selection of these, publishing them in 1859. Taken up by Rossetti and Swinburne, among others, Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám became—after a slow start—extremely popular. (Quoted from the introduction to The Complete Annotated Reginald Stories.)  ↩
  2. Short historical note: “Al Ghibe” means A.J.B. (which was how Prime Minister Arthur Balfour was sometimes referred to); Balfour’s predecessor in the job was his uncle, the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury.  ↩
  3. Langguth also suggests that the difficulty of typesetting foreign accent marks was what led to “Sákí” becoming just “Saki” (pp. 60–64).  ↩
  4. Again, printed without accents.  ↩
  5. These stories can be found in the collections Reginald (obviously), Reginald in Russia and The Toys of Peace, respectively.  ↩
  6. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rubaiyat_of_Omar_Khayyam#Editions  ↩
  7. The singular form of rubáiyát, apparently.  ↩
  8. Sources: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/non_fictionreviews/3668163/An-enthusiasts-reading-of-the-Rubaiyat.html and http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20180111-the-rubaiyat-historys-most-luxurious-book-of-poetry  ↩
  9. ‘Reginald on Christmas Presents’.  ↩

Saki and the Leinsters’ Magazine

The-Journal-of-the-Leinster-Regiment-vol.1-no.4-1910-frontispiece

The Journal of the Leinster Regiment vol.1, no.4 (1910) frontispiece

It’s fairly well known that Munro published most of his short stories in newspapers and periodicals first; only later were they collected and published in book form. Principal recipients were the Westminster Gazette and the Bystander. The acknowledgements to his third collection, The Chronicles of Clovis, also mention a journal I’d never heard of:

‘The Background’ originally appeared in the ‘Leinsters’ Magazine’.

So, of course, I decided to look it up.

Slightly surpisingly, the magazine was the ‘in-house’ newspaper of a regiment of the British Army. The Prince of Wales’s Leinster Regiment (Royal Canadians), to give it its full name, was an infantry regiment formed in 1881 by merging the 100th (Prince of Wales’s Royal Canadian) Regiment of Foot and the 109th Regiment of Foot (Bombay Infantry). I managed to find a history of the regiment online  which has the following to say about its magazine:

It while the Battalion was at Devonport [i.e. from 1909] that its second regimental paper was born. The Journal of the Leinster Regiment, or as it was called later, the Leinsters’ Magazine owed its success to the ability and demoniac energy of its editor, Captain R. F. Legge, assisted by Captain R. M. Raynsford as its sub-editor. It struck a completely new note in regimental journalism by subordinating regimental intelligence to general articles grave and gay, and, speaking with that impartiality which only the lapse of years can ensure, the opinion may be hazarded that neither before nor since has the Leinsters’ Magazine had a serious rival. It enlisted some distinguished outside writers, including the present Lord Rawlinson, Hilaire Belloc, C. B. Fry, the late Frank Richardson, Stephen Gwynn, Major Drury, L. S. Amery, Aliph Cheem, Saki, and many others. It was splendidly illustrated, turned out in Messrs. Gale & Polden’s very best style, and the amount of advertisements was the despair of rival regimental journals. It made a feature in each issue of humorous verse and was the only regimental paper which ever published a comic opera on the subject of manoeuvres. Alas! when the Battalion  was ordered abroad the editor got a home job and the inevitable upheaval caused by the change to India killed the magazine which perished after just two years’ brilliant existence.

I wonder what exactly were the circumstances behind Munro’s involvement? Why not go with one of his more regular ‘customers’? There’s nothing military about ‘The Background’ that would have made the Leinsters’ Magazine a particularly suitable place for it. Langguth’s biography doesn’t mention it at all, nor is there anything in Byrne or Gibson’s books. With so many of Saki’s papers lost forever, perhaps we’ll never know.

[Edit]

I subsequently noticed that ‘The Baker’s Dozen’ in Reginald in Russia also originally appeared in the same magazine, though in this case it is credited with its full title The Journal of the Leinster Regiment.

[Second edit]

A student of mine kindly sent me scans from the copy in Trinity College Dublins libary so I added one as an illustration to this post.

Sources

The History of the Prince of Wales’s Leinster Regiment, Volume 1, by Lieutenant-Colonel Frederick Ernest Whitton, p. 156.

The Leinster Regiment Association website at http://www.leinster-regiment-association.org.uk/regiment.html

The Man who wasn’t Saki

If you do an online search for images of H.H. Munro, then you are likely to find the following photo:

Taken from https://assets.americanliterature.com/al/images/author/h-h-munro.png

It ought to be instantly familiar to many readers of this website because it was used on the front cover of Penguin Popular Classics’ The Collected Saki. (It happens to be the addition I own myself.)

Cover of the Penguin Complete Saki

However, it’s not him – although there seems to be a common misconception that it is:

American website with wrong photo of H H Munro

What more is there to say? Screenshot of https://americanliterature.com/author/hh-munro-saki

I’ll happily admit it’s an error I made myself when I first bought the book.

In fact, this young gentleman is Adrian Allinson (1890-1959) and he was a painter best known for his landscapes. Here’s a self-portrait which shows an unmistakeable resemblance to the photo:

Adrian Allinson - self-portrait

Adrian Allinson – self-portrait

I had never heard of him and he’s not in my Chambers Biographical Dictionary either, but when I looked him up I realised I probably had seen some of his work as he was one of the artists who produced those wonderful tourism advertisements of the interwar period:

Ilfracombe poster by Adrian Allinson

Some of his work, while good, is (to my eye) rather conventional:

The Fisher by Adrian Allinson

The Fisher (date unknown)

However, other paintings suggest something more interesting and make me wonder why he isn’t better known:

Static water at Cumberland Place by Adrian Allinson

Static water at Cumberland Place (ca. 1943-4)

All of which is, though, rather outside the chronological ambit of this website. According to Wikipedia, Allinson graduated from art school only in 1910, which makes one wonder why some picture editor at Penguin decided he would make a suitable cover for Munro’s works. Is he meant to be an embodiment of a Sakian dandy such as Reginald, Clovis or Comus Bassington? I can’t see it. (Reginald would never have hidden his Titian-coloured hair under such a hat, surely?) And though painters do feature in Munro’s stories, they tend to be figures of mockery (think Laurence Yorkfield in ‘The Bull’, Mark Spayley in ‘Filboid Studge’, Theophil Eshley in ‘The Stalled Ox’ or Gebhard Knopfschrank in ‘On Approval’). My instinctive feeling is that Munro (who had definite ideas about illustrations of his characters)[1] wouldn’t have been so impressed. And the fact that Allinson was a conscientious objector in the First World War definitely would have made him persona non grata to a man who enlisted to serve in the trenches despite being over-age.[2]

Just to remind you all (should a reminder be necessary!), here’s the ‘real’ Saki (looking decidedly more pugnacious):

References

  • Gibson, Brian, Reading Saki: The Fiction of H. H. Munro (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2014)
  • Wikpedia page on “Adrian Allinson” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adrian_Allinson
  • Waugh, Evelyn, A Little Order: A Selection from His Journalism, ed. by Donat Gallagher (London: Eyre Methuen, 1977)

Footnotes

1. Letter no. 9 in the appendix to Brian Gibson’s book is from Munro to his publishers about the choice of an illustration for the cover of The Chronicles of Clovis, which featured a young man in white flannels lazing in a hammock (presumably Clovis himself, in an allusion to ‘The Quest’).

2. A tangentially related speculation presents itself here – would Reginald or Clovis have fought or objected? Evelyn Waugh imagined Comus as “cannon-fodder” in the introduction he wrote in 1947 for The Unbearable Bassington (republished in A Little Order), but the aesthete Perceval Plarsey in When William Came should probably be introduced as contrasting evidence. Maybe there’s another blog post in this…

“Suddenly I became aware of a naked boy, a bather from some neighbouring pool…”

There is definitely a PhD waiting to be written on the subject of Saki and painting.

In her memoir of her brother Ethel Munro describes visiting museums and art galleries in Europe with her father and siblings.

We saw an immense number of picture galleries in Berlin, Munich, etc., and were impressed by the love of Germans artists for St. Sebastian (the arrow-struck saint), so we started bets on the gallery which would have the most: Berlin won.[1]

Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian by Il Sodoma – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. (was corrupt, new version from [1]), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=159059

Although it is doubtful Ethel realised its significance, the choice of St. Sebastian may have been not been completely arbitrary, for this saint was something of a homosexual icon[2] and in this post I want to explore some possible ways Munro’s interest in particular niche genres of art may reveal aspects of his sexuality.

Before beginning I may as well include the usual disclaimer. As Brian Gibson is at pains to point out in his book,[3], most critics and commentators (recent ones at least) have taken Munro’s homosexuality as established fact when there is no proof one way or the other. (There may once have been, before Ethel Munro did her censorship job on her brother’s papers after his death. Indeed, the fact that she tried so rigorously to present a particular image of him posthumously very much suggests there was something to hide – but here again we see how easy it is to slip into speculation based on circumstantial evidence.) The second part of the disclaimer is the standard warning against the biographical interpretation of fiction, as taught to every undergraduate studying literature: one must be extremely wary of drawing conclusions about a writer’s life from his fiction, or vice versa.

I suppose at this point I could stop writing.

However, were I to continue along this route, then I might want to begin with the uncontroversial assertion that art was clearly an aspect of culture that Munro had a great deal of interest in and (judging by its presence in many of his works) a fair amount of knowledge of too. There are numerous references in his work to painters and paintings, both real and imagined. One of his early stories was even entitled ‘Reginald on the Academy’ (a reference to London’s Royal Academy of Arts). The Academy and the types of paintings it bought and displayed were the subject of some discussion at the time Munro was writing. In particular, its acquisition policy, financed through the Chantry Bequest (referred to in that story), had come under fire for being conservative and parochial.[4] The Academy’s Summer Exhibition, which showed amateur works, was similarly unadventurous. It is the Summer Exhibition that is the recipient of Theophil Eshley’s paintings in the story ‘The Stalled Ox’:

Theophil Eshley was an artist by profession, a cattle painter by force of environment. It is not to be supposed that he lived on a ranch or a dairy farm, in an atmosphere pervaded with horn and hoof, milking-stool, and branding-iron. His home was in a park-like, villa-dotted district that only just escaped the reproach of being suburban. On one side of his garden there abutted a small, picturesque meadow, in which an enterprising neighbour pastured some small picturesque cows of the Channel Island persuasion. At noonday in summertime the cows stood knee-deep in tall meadow-grass under the shade of a group of walnut trees, with the sunlight falling in dappled patches on their mouse-sleek coats. Eshley had conceived and executed a dainty picture of two reposeful milch-cows in a setting of walnut tree and meadow-grass and filtered sunbeam, and the Royal Academy had duly exposed the same on the walls of its Summer Exhibition. The Royal Academy encourages orderly, methodical habits in its children. Eshley had painted a successful and acceptable picture of cattle drowsing picturesquely under walnut trees, and as he had begun, so, of necessity, he went on. His “Noontide Peace,” a study of two dun cows under a walnut tree, was followed by “A Mid-day Sanctuary,” a study of a walnut tree, with two dun cows under it. In due succession there came “Where the Gad-Flies Cease from Troubling,” “The Haven of the Herd,” and “A Dream in Dairyland,” studies of walnut trees and dun cows. His two attempts to break away from his own tradition were signal failures: “Turtle Doves alarmed by Sparrow-hawk” and “Wolves on the Roman Campagna” came back to his studio in the guise of abominable heresies, and Eshley climbed back into grace and the public gaze with “A Shaded Nook where Drowsy Milkers Dream.”

However, it is a couple of passing references to the works of a different (real, this time) Academician that set me thinking (speculating might be a better word) about the controversial topic of Munro’s sexuality.

The reference comes in the story ‘The Lull’, in which a young girl fools a visiting country house guest into believing there has been a great flood. The bathroom, she reports, is full of Boy Scouts.

“Boy Scouts?”

“Yes, thirty of them came to rescue us while the water was only waist-high; then it rose another three feet or so and we had to rescue them. We’re giving them hot baths in batches and drying their clothes in the hot-air cupboard, but, of course, drenched clothes don’t dry in a minute, and the corridor and staircase are beginning to look like a bit of coast scenery by Tuke.”

“Tuke” here is Henry Scott Tuke (1858–1929). He was one of a number of artists in the late Victorian and the Edwardian period with a fascination for the male nude, and is particularly remembered for his paintings of boys swimming or boating in the open air. (He lived on the Cornwall coast.)

‘Ruby, gold and malachite’ by Henry Scott Tuke. Via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tuke,_Henry_Scott_(1858%E2%80%931929),_Ruby,_gold_and_malachite,_1902.jpg#/media/File:Tuke,_Henry_Scott_(1858%E2%80%931929),_Ruby,_gold_and_malachite,_1902.jpg

The reader will find more undressed young boys in ‘Reginald’s Choir Treat’. In that story Reginald takes a church outing to a bathing spot and then makes them parade, undressed, back home.

Reginald said he had seen something like it in pictures […]

Brian Gibson suggests that the pictures may be like those taken by the photographer Wilhelm von Gloeden. [5] Von Gloeden, a German nobleman, lived in Sicily and used local models. Although he took landscape photos as well, he took many nude photographs of boys and young men, usually with some kind of classical imagery or props such as pillars or amphorae.[6]

Wilhelm von Gloeden, ‘Hypnos’. Via Wikimedia Commons https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilhelm_von_Gloeden#/media/File:Gloeden,_Wilhelm_von_(1856-1931)_-_n._1744_-_Hypnos.jpg

In the article ‘The Love that dare not speak its name’,[7] Emmanuel Cooper lists other artists around the 1890s, such as Frederick Rolfe (aka Baron Corvo), who created similar classically inspired artworks.

Many of these men were homosexual and used classical Greek art (principally sculpture) as a model/legitimation for their own studies of nudes.

Homosexual acts were of course illegal at that time and therefore had to be carried out clandestinely. An interest in classical nudes represented a kind of grey area where the normal Victorian prudery and abhorrence of homosexuality did not apply as it did in society at large. It was within “transgressive spaces” such as these that homosexuals were forced to operate.

As a result, objects, cultural artefacts, people (such as St. Sebastian) and even places had a double meaning, creating a kind of code developed which only initiates could ‘read’. For example, when Munro presents Clovis reclining in the Jermyn Street Turkish baths, the average reader was probably unaware that they were a popular rendezvous for homosexual men.[8]

Clovis sat in the hottest zone but two of a Turkish bath, alternately inert in statuesque contemplation and rapidly manoeuvring a fountain-pen over the pages of a note-book.

“Don’t interrupt me with your childish prattle,” he observed to Bertie van Tahn, who had slung himself languidly into a neighbouring chair and looked conversationally inclined; “I’m writing deathless verse.”

Bertie looked interested.

“I say, what a boon you would be to portrait painters if you really got to be notorious as a poetry writer. If they couldn’t get your likeness hung in the Academy as ‘Clovis Sangrail, Esq., at work on his latest poem,’ they could slip you in as a Study of the Nude or Orpheus descending into Jermyn Street. They always complain that modern dress handicaps them, whereas a towel and a fountain-pen—”

(‘The Recessional’)

Clovis and Bertie’s presence at this location are incidental to the story itself, which deals with Clovis’ composition of an execrably bad poem to celebrate an important imperial occasion. (A recycling of an idea already used twice in stories about Reginald.)[9]

Nevertheless, Clovis’s position represents another of the many occurrences of the ‘naked young man near water’ motif in Munro’s short stories. The quintessential one is to be found in a relatively early tale, one of Munro’s best-known: ‘Gabriel-Ernest’:

On a shelf of smooth stone overhanging a deep pool in the hollow of an oak coppice a boy of about sixteen lay asprawl, drying his wet brown limbs luxuriously in the sun. His wet hair, parted by a recent dive, lay close to his head, and his light-brown eyes, so light that there was an almost tigerish gleam in them, were turned towards Van Cheele with a certain lazy watchfulness.

‘Gabriel-Ernest’

As Brian Gibson and Sandie Byrne point out, the bachelor Van Cheele’s encounter with this naked teenager is charged with homoeroticism. Bringing us full circle, Adam Frost in his study of “Saki’s Context and Development” links Gabriel-Ernest’s pose to Tuke’s ‘The Diving Place’:

‘The Diving Place’ by Henry Scott Tuke (The only photo I could find online, unfortunately.)

Summarising, it’s indisputable that Munro was familiar with Tuke’s paintings. Whether he knew the works any of the other artists and photographers mentioned by critics such as Cooper is less clear. But the references in his stories imply a kindred interest. Would it be fair to say that ‘Gabriel-Ernest’ is – at least in part – a prose version of these visual works?

Suddenly I became aware of a naked boy, a bather from some neighbouring pool, I took him to be, who was standing out on the bare hillside also watching the sunset. His pose was so suggestive of some wild faun of Pagan myth that I instantly wanted to engage him as a model […]

‘Et in Arcadia’ by Wilhelm von Gloeden. Via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gloeden,_Wilhelm_von_(1856-1931)_-_n._0425_-_da_Et_in_Arcadia,_p._90.jpg

Bibliography

  • Byrne, Sandie, The Unbearable Saki: The Work of H. H. Munro, 1. publ. (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2007).
  • Cooper, Emmanuel, ‘The Love that dare not speak its name’ in High Art and Low Life: The Studio and the Fin-de-Siecle ; Incorporating the Catalogue to the Exhibition High Art and Low Life: The Studio and the Arts of the 1890s, Victoria and Albert Museum, 23 June–31 October 1993 (London: Studio International, 1993).
  • Frost, Adam, Saki: His Context and Development (Diss. Univ. of Cambridge, 2000).
  • Gibson, Brian, Reading Saki: The Fiction of H. H. Munro (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2014).
  • Hoare, Philip, Oscar Wilde’s Last Stand: Decadence, Conspiracy, and the Most Outrageous Trial of the Century, 1st North American edition (New York: Arcade Publishing, 1998).
  • Hynes, Samuel, The Edwardian Turn of Mind (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1968).
  • Munro, E.M., ‘Biography of Saki’, in The Short Stories of Saki (H.H. Munro), with an introduction by Christopher Morley, New York, 1945, pp. 637–715.
  • Munro, H. H., The Complete Annotated Reginald Stories, ed. by Bruce Gaston, 1 edition (Favoriten Press, 2016).
  • Munro, H. H., The Short Stories of Saki (H.H. Munro), with an introduction by Christopher Morley, New York, 1945.
  • Saville, Julia F., ‘The Romance of Boys Bathing: Poetic Precedents and Respondents to the Painting of Henry Scott Tuke’, in Dellamora, Richard, ed., Victorian Sexual Dissidence (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1999).

  1. Munro, E.M., p. 655. 
  2. https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/arrows-of-desire-how-did-st-sebastian-become-an-enduring-homo-erotic-icon–779388.html  ↩
  3. Note 8 on p. 250. 
  4. The history can be found in some detail in Samuel Hynes’ The Edwardian Turn of Mind.  ↩
  5. Note that I disagree with him when he says the choir group is “presumably co-ed” (Gibson p. 41); the Anglican Church has a long tradition of all-male choirs.  ↩
  6. Gibson, note 25, p. 252.  ↩
  7. In High Art and Low Life: The Studio and the Fin-de-Siecle ; Incorporating the Catalogue to the Exhibition High Art and Low Life: The Studio and the Arts of the 1890s, Victoria and Albert Museum, 23 June–31 October 1993.  ↩
  8. Gibson, note 43, quoting Hoare p. 123. 
  9. In Reginald’s Peace Poem’ and ‘Reginald’s Rubaiyat’, and if you’re interested in knowing more can I recommend The Complete Annotated Reginald Stories? https://www.annotated-saki.info/reginald-stories-now-even-jokes/  ↩

Saki’s Blue Plaque

Earlier this year, the Guardian newspaper published an article on the blue plaques put up on buildings in Britain to commemorate famous people who lived /worked there, together with interviews with the celebrities asked to unveil them. In Saki’s case, the plaque is on Mortimer Street, London W1, and the novelist Will Self (a Saki fan) was the invitee. Here’s what he wrote about it:

Will Self unveils Saki plaque

‘A somewhat unorthodox day’ … Will Self unveils the plaque for HH Munro. (From The Guardian)

I unveiled a blue plaque for English Heritage once – it’s the one on Mortimer Street for HH Munro (Saki, the short story writer). Scaffolding had been set up outside the building, and Loyd Grossman and I (at that time he was the head of the blue plaque committee) crawled over a desk and out of a window to access it. As I recall, the tenant of the desk didn’t even stop working. Later we went to the Fitzroy Tavern for a celebratory drink, and I ended up chatting with Saki’s biographer, a portly American gentleman in a trench coat, who told me how, when he was doing his research, he tracked down two descendants of the writer: suitably enough, a couple of ageing spinsters in a mouldering house somewhere in Northern Ireland. (Remember the fate of such types in Saki’s stories, such as Shredni Vashtar.) And in the attic of the mouldering house the biographer found a tin trunk, and in the tin trunk he found a cache of Saki’s papers, including “account books” in which the man-about-town had set down, um, accounts of all the young men he’d had about town, including their vital penile statistics. It was a fitting end to a somewhat unorthodox day.

Reposted here under the terms of the Guardian’s (very generous) Open License.

R.I.P. Lance Serjeant H.H. Munro

Tomorrow (16th November) marks the hundredth anniversary of Hector Hugh Munro’s death. He was killed by a sniper’s bullet while taking a rest in a shell-hole with members of his company, near the French town of Beaumont-Hamel, on the western front.

Memorial at Thiepval

Thiepval Memorial to the Missing. (Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/martin55/15138020499)

His last words were addressed to one of the other men he was with: “Put that bloody cigarette out!” and it was presumably either the glowing tip of that cigarette or the noise of Munro’s order that alerted the German sniper to potential targets. It is tempting, if perhaps fanciful, to think that Munro, who as ‘Saki’ had dispatched so many of his characters to macabre, often arbitrary fates, might have seen some irony in the manner of his own death.

When the the First World War broke out in 1914, Munro was actually in the Houses of Parliament and witnessed the Prime Minister’s announcement. He was 43 by then and thus too old for the army. He hurried to enlist nonetheless. A year earlier he had written When William Came, a bitter fantasy of Britain under German rule (“William” being the Kaiser Wilhelm). In it he castigated the weak-willed Edwardian Britons whose lack of martial spirit had contributed to British defeat. Munro, it seems, was determined not to be like that. “It is only fitting that the author of When William Came should go to meet William halfway,” he wrote in a letter to John Lane, his publisher.[1] He ended up in the 22nd Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers after transferring from King Edward’s Light Horse.

After training, Munro and his battalion arrived in France in late 1915. The picture that emerges of him as a soldier is as distant as is imaginable from the effete and amoral dandies of his short stories. There is a photo of him carrying a bucket, his uniform rumpled, sleeves rolled up, a scrubby moustache on his top lip. If he was unrecognisable, then that perhaps suited him. Always an intensely private individual, he may have been happy that only a few of his fellows recognised the witty satirist Saki.

He continued to write nonetheless. As well as a few short stories-cum-reports from the front, such as ‘The Square Egg’, as well as more inconsequential pieces. He clearly retained his taste for black humour. Around Christmas 1915 he composed a mock carol:

While shepherds watched their flocks by night
All seated on the ground,
A high explosive shell came down
And mutton rained around.

Critics and biographers have viewed Munro’s actions as an expression of his political conservatism. If one wants to get more Freudian, then joining up could perhaps also be understood as a sublimation of his (presumed) homosexuality, allowing him to live within an environment that was all-male yet socially approved and assertively heterosexual. Whatever the reason, his apparent joy in army life (as recorded in his letters) as well as his conspicuous bravery under fire indicate that his decision to risk his life for his country as a common soldier was sincere. His social class and his education, such as his knowledge of German and familiarity with Mitteleuropa, made him an obvious candidate for officer rank, or even something like intelligence work, but he refused such offers more than once.

He was by all accounts a much liked and respected member of his troop. Writing about him after his death was reported, the second-in-command of his battalion said:

You will see in the papers that Sgt. Munro [sic], Hector Munro ‘Saki’ the writer was killed, one of the men that I really and honestly admire and revere in this war. He steadfastly refused a commission, and loved his friends in A Coy. […] when he got really ill two months ago, instead of going home and making the most of it as those other blighters do, he managed to get back to us about a week ago.[3]

The reference here is to a bout of malaria Munro came down with in the autumn. (He had first caught the disease two decades earlier while working in Burma.) He was sent to recover in hospital, but, knowing that a ‘push’ was imminent, he discharged himself early and returned to the front on 11 November.

The battle of Beaumont-Hamel was one of the last major engagements of the Somme. Beaumont-Hamel was the name of one of the German’s ‘fortress villages’, heavily fortified to control the valley it was in. The Allies had already tried to take it back in July, with a horrendous loss of life (particularly among Canadian regiments – in Newfoundland the date of the start of the battle is a day of remembrance). On November 12th they launched another attempt again. Four days later, during a brief respite in the fighting, Munro uttered his fateful final words.

His name is recorded on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing:

"H.H. Munro" among the names of the war dead. (Photo credit: http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=12293752)

“H.H. Munro” among the names of the war dead. (Photo credit: http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=12293752)

(The biographical details in this article are mostly drawn from Langguth’s biography.)


  1. Quoted by Langguth, p. 253  ↩
  2. Quoted in Langguth, p. 267  ↩
  3. Quoted by Tim Connell in ‘The grinning shadow that sat at the feast: In commemoration of Hector Munro, ‘Saki’’, online at http://www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/the-grinning-shadow-that-sat-at-the-feast-in-commemoration-of-hector-munro-saki