It’s a bit off-topic, but the latest issue of the journal Critical Survey is devoted to writer William Le Queux and in particular his novel The Invasion of 1910 (published 1906), which is a notable example of the short-lived sub-genre that Munro also essayed with When William Came: the invasion-of-Britain fantasy (though the authors wouldn’t have accepted the description “fantasy” so readily).
I’ve not yet had a chance to see if Munro’s novel is mentioned in any of the articles.
This was published a good number of years ago but I’ve only got around to reading it now.
Although there is no mention of Munro at all, the book provides useful and entertaining background information about the period when he was writing and publishing. Hattersley begins with the death of Queen Victoria and continues with a panoramic sweep across politics, society, culture and science, ending (inevitably) with the outbreak of the First World War.
The author (who I should perhaps explain for non-UK readers was for many years a Labour MP and served as a member of the government in the 1970s) is particularly good on the politics and personalities of the time. Such knowledge is really indispensable if you want to properly appreciate early satires such as The Westminster Alice. His treatment of the trade union movement and the founding of his own party is similarly well-informed (though less relevant to readers of Munro).
The whole story is told in an engaging and lively way. He has some nice turns of phrase and a good eye for an interesting detail. A highlight was the section on the pioneers of motoring, from which I can’t resist quoting the following, describing one episode in the Automobile Club of Britain’s first attempt at “what, today, would be called a rally”:
Halfway to the summit of the Cumbrian Hills, the Ariel tricycle’s clutch failed and it began to roll backwards – accelerating as it descended towards the valley floor. It was then that the driver discovered, to his surprise, that the brakes only worked when the vehicle was going forwards. He managed to steer successfully to safety with his left hand while turned in his seat to watch the road over his right shoulder. Unfortunately that required him to push his passenger out on to the road. (p. 431)
I even found the section on cricket (a sport I have no understanding of or interest in) readable.
Years ago I read his sort-of-sequel Borrowed Time: The Story of Britain Between the Wars and I remember the chapters on literature in that being a real weakness, so it was a relief to find a more detailed and considered discussion of writers and their works in The Edwardians – one that actually gives the impression Hattersley had read the books and formed his own opinions on them rather than copying sections out of some undergraduate guide to Twentieth Century Eng. Lit.
Possibly he read a little too much Virginia Woolf, though. How else to explain his calling the Belfast shipyard that built the Titanic “Harland and Woolf”? Coming from Northern Ireland, I feel I must put on record that it is Harland and Wolff. (One of the founders was a German, which is a little ironic when you consider that one of the big issues of the period was Anglo-German rivalry, particularly when it came to building ships.)
Despite that error (and the bizarre typo that has the Balkan Wars against the Ottoman Empire starting two years late in September 1914), this book is definitely to be recommended.
Recently acquired as part of my research into the context of Saki’s writings: biographies of two prominent politicians of the time: Joseph “Joe” Chamberlain and George Curzon (Lord Curzon).
Both were flamboyant politicians who never reached the absolute peak of the premiership. Chamberlain was a successful businessman and pioneering local politician in Birmingham before he went into national politics. He was first a liberal, then a Conservative, and had an independent personality strong enough to cause splits in both parties when he disagreed with their policies. Curzon showed extreme promise from early in life and as an undergraduate at Oxford inspired a poem which you still find sometimes in anthologies of light verse:
My name is George Nathaniel Curzon,
I am a most superior person.
My cheeks are pink, my hair is sleek,
I dine at Blenheim once a week.
Understandably, both were (along with the languid, golf-playing Arthur Balfour) favourite targets of satirists and caricaturists. Chamberlain appears in The Westminster Alice as the Red Queen and later as the Mad Hatter; in “John Bull’s Christmas Tree” he is drawn by Francis Carruthers Gould as a monocle-wearing machine gun. Curzon comes up less frequently in Munro’s works. He is “Kedzon” in “Ministers Of Grace” (The Chronicles of Clovis), a nom à clef made from his title “Lord Curzon of Kedleston”. I suspect he is also the butt of Clovis’s quip “My aunt has been known to learn humility from an ex-Viceroy”, Curzon having served as Viceroy of India from 1899–1905 (“The Jesting Of Arlington Stringham”, also in The Chronicles of Clovis).
Hopefully, reading these two books will deliver some more insights into Munro’s political satire.
Yahoo republishes an article in the Daily Telegraph about the Victorian bathhouse. While most of the article is about the fashion for orientalism in architecture and design in the nineteenth century, it does begin with a picture of the Jermyn Street Turkish bath where Saki set ‘The Recessional’.
Turkish baths occur occasionally in Saki’s stories. (I speculated a bit about the reasons here.) The habit of going to such places also provoked the following bit of wisdom about human nature:
Spayley had grasped the fact that people will do things from a sense of duty which they would never attempt as a pleasure. There are thousands of respectable middle-class men who, if you found them unexpectedly in a Turkish bath, would explain in all sincerity that a doctor had ordered them to take Turkish baths; if you told them in return that you went there because you liked it, they would stare in pained wonder at the frivolity of your motive. (‘Filboid Studge’)
I did some more digging on the topic of “the City, where the patriotism comes from” (‘Reginald on Worries’) after posting about it last week and it seems that my suspicions were correct. The City (meaning, when capitalised, the financial and business district of London) was very active patriotically, especially at the time of the Boer War:
In December 1899, the City decided to subsidize, equip, train, and send to South Africa a volunteer force to fight in the Boer War […] The lord mayor, Sir Alfred J. Newton, Bart., was the moving spirit behind this enterprise. On December 21 the Court of Common Council of the City of London agreed, at his urging, to provide £25,000 toward the regiment, henceforth to be known as the City Imperial Volunteers, or CIV, which would number 1,000 men. Something like fifty City companies contributed an additional £34,000, while individual City gentlemen found yet another £55,000 for the project. The entire sum of £114,000 was raised within days. Simultaneously three great shipping families, Wilson, Currie, and Evans, announced that they would transport the volunteers to South Africa free of charge. It took only three weeks for the volunteers, all Londoners, all bachelors, many employed in the City itself, and numbering 1,550 in the end, to be registered, medically certified, trained, and sent off to Africa.
The social composition of the CIV suggests that a surprising number of London’s gentlemanly capitalists were prepared to fight and die for empire. Forty-four employees of London’s leading banks volunteered, according to one count, fifty-two according to another, including “a very good percentage of Bank of England officers.” Twenty-one lawyers from the Inns of Court served. Something like two hundred brokers, jobbers, and clerks at the Stock Exchange served as well. “The Stock Exchange has had some very nasty things said about it,” boasted the Financial Times of January 15, but “what other similar body of private individuals in the country has sent anything like so large a proportion?”
It was not only the elite of the City who volunteered, however, but rather a broad cross section of its working population.
Common sense suggests, and research confirms almost immediately, that the empire tugged not only at purse strings but at heartstrings too. Men were unlikely to volunteer for service in South Africa and to risk their lives solely for their profit margins. They fought and died for something better, something larger.
They accepted British rationales for the conflict at face value and repeated them to one another. “We have been forced to the arbitrament of war,” declared the lord mayor to five hundred CIVs at their swearing-in ceremony, ”and we shall not sheathe the sword until our supremacy in South Africa is established – a supremacy which will be universally welcomed as securing in that country equality before the law to all nationalities, and, in consequence, real freedom in its best and only true sense.” Some may have fought, in part, because they believed that British rule in South Africa would benefit the Africans themselves. “In time, by God’s blessing, we may hope to be enabled to extend the benefits of peace, justice and mercy throughout all the dark places of the earth,” said one gentlemanly capitalist. More common was the statement of Lord Gifford to the shareholders of the Bechuanaland Exploration Company: the war would assure “equal rights to all white men.” This would be “true liberty as we understand it.”
But to many in the City the empire stood for more than political principles; it stood for something mystical, based upon blood ties which united the Anglo-Saxon race. “The British Empire is no mere name, no congeries of independent peoples bound together only by the fact that they choose to colour all their lands pink on the map,” boasted the Financial Times of June 1, 1900. Rather the empire was an organic whole, a family, as the “magnificent enthusiasm with which the colonies have thrown themselves into the fight [against the Boers] and have clamoured for the forefront in the battlefield” demonstrated.
On numerous occasions the City turned out as one to greet returning soldiers or sailors from South Africa, suspending business to wave flags and national emblems, to cheer and sing “Rule Britannia” and “God Save the Queen,” above all, it would appear, to drink. When the City learned that Lord Dundonald’s troops finally had broken the Boer siege of Ladysmith, for example, “by one o’clock the whole of the year’s stock of champagne was sold out [at Mabey’s restaurant] and other restaurants enjoyed a similar experience.” Upon the relief of Mafeking, the stock exchange devoted three full days to celebrations. Its members arranged even for a movie camera to record these activities, so that later generations could witness the intensity of gentlemanly capitalism’s patriotic and imperial sentiment.
It’s always a pleasant experience to come across something useful when you’re not expecting it. At the minute I’m reading John Carey’s . While Carey does mention Munro in passing — specifically the stories ‘The Mappined Life’ and ‘The Music on the Hill’ (in relation to the dichotomy of suburban life and respectability versus the wild and pagan) — the sentence that caught my attention was in relation to the characterisation of Hall Pycroft, “The Stockbroker’s Clerk” in the Sherlock Holmes story of that name. “Clerk”, Carey has already explained, was a late nineteenth-century term that covered that broad swathe of “the middle and lower-middle class employed in commerce, banks, insurance and real estate” (58). Such people mostly lived in the newly constructed suburbs and commuted every day to their offices in the centre of cities.
Dr Watson writes:
The man whom I found myself facing was a well-built, fresh-complexioned young fellow, with a frank, honest face and a slight, crisp, yellow moustache. He wore a very shiny top-hat and a neat suit of sober black, which made him look what he was — a smart young City man, of the class who have been labelled cockneys, but who give us our crack volunteer regiments, and who turn out more fine athletes and sportsmen than any body of men in these islands.
Carey notes that “Richard Price, studying middle-class jingoism in the late nineteenth century, has found that there was a disproportionate number of clerks among volunteers for the Boer War” (64).
Is this what Reginald is getting at when he refers in passing to “the City, where the patriotism comes from” in ‘Reginald on Worries’? I’d previously assumed it was a more general cynical hit at big business (whose fondness for Imperial causes was likely not unconnected to the financial benefits the Empire brought with it). But it seems as if there may be a more concrete reference. I should probably check out Richard Price’s essay.
Carey, John, The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939, Paperb. ed., 1. publ. (London: Faber, 1992)
Doyle, Arthur Conan, ‘The Adventure of the Stockbroker’s Clerk’, first publ. in The Strand Magazine, March 1893. Collected in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (London: George Newnes Ltd., 1893)
Munro, H. H., ‘Reginald on Worries’, in The Complete Annotated Reginald Stories, ed. by Bruce Gaston, 1st edition (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016)
Price, Richard N., ‘Society, Status and Jingoism: The Social Roots of Lower Middle Class Patriotism, 1870-1900’, in Crossick, Geoffrey, ed., The Lower Middle Class in Britain: 1870-1914, Repr. (London: Helm, 1978)
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.
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 ), 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 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,, 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. 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.
“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.)
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.  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.
In the article ‘The Love that dare not speak its name’, 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.
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—”
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.)
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.
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
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).
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. ↩