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”.
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.
‘La Reticencia de Lady Anne’  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).↩
H.H. Munro (Saki), Twayne’s English Authors Series (TEAS) #102 (Boston, 1969).↩
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 current 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.
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.
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.
A student of mine kindly sent me scans from the copy in Trinity College Dublin’s libary so I added one as an illustration to this post.
The History of the Prince of Wales’s Leinster Regiment, Volume 1, by Lieutenant-Colonel Frederick Ernest Whitton, p. 156.
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.)
However, it’s not him – although there seems to be a common misconception that it is:
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
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:
Some of his work, while good, is (to my eye) rather conventional:
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 (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) 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.
Just to remind you all (should a reminder be necessary!), here’s the ‘real’ Saki (looking decidedly more pugnacious):
Gibson, Brian, Reading Saki: The Fiction of H. H. Munro (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2014)
Waugh, Evelyn, A Little Order: A Selection from His Journalism, ed. by Donat Gallagher (London: Eyre Methuen, 1977)
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… ↩
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. ↩