‘Angels of Grace’ and King Robert of Sicily

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

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

F.C. Gould and Joseph Chamberlain

I wanted to some cartoons for teaching about the European politics in the 1930s so I naturally searched first for anything by David Low, the pre-eminent cartoonist in Britain from the end of the First World War till the early 1960s.

David Low, self-portrait

David Low, self-portrait [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Low_self_portrait.jpg

I discovered only one David Low book in our library: British Cartoonists, Caricaturists and Comic Artists (Collins: London, 1942) but this turned out not to be a book of Low’s cartoons as I’d hoped but instead a short history of “pictorial satire”, starting off with William Hogarth and reviewing the most important artists and developments in the art of caricature up to Low’s day. Apart from the intrinsic interest of the topic, the book’s value is in revealing what a practitioner of the art has to say about others working in the same field.

Among these, there’s a page on Francis Carruthers Gould, mostly forgotten these days (if you compare him with Hogarth, Gillray, Cruikshank or George du Maurier) but hopefully familiar to readers of Saki as the illustrator of some of Munro’s earliest publications. Apparently Gould was the first cartoonist to commit to producing a daily cartoon for the newspaper he worked for. According to Low, Gould’s particular bent was for drawing Joseph Chamberlain, whom he depicted in over a hundred different guises. The illustration in the book (reproduced here) shows a few of these. Observant readers will spot the Red Queen and the Mad Hatter from The Westminster Alice (blogged about elsewhere on this website).

Caricatures of Joseph Chamberlain by F.C. Gould

Taken from British Cartoonists, Caricaturists and Comic Artists, by David Low (William Collins, 1942)

Here’s a drawing of Chamberlain, as “Brumbrumka, the Slim Fox”, from the first of Saki’s “The Political Jungle Book” stories (which I may post here some day).

Brumbrumka, the Slim Fox, as drawn by Francis Carruthers Gould

Brumbrumka, the Slim Fox, as drawn by Francis Carruthers Gould in the Westminster Gazette.

Review: The Edwardians by Roy Hattersley

Book cover of The Edwardians by Roy Hattersley

Image from goodreads.com

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.

‘The Woman Who Never Should’

The Prime Minister[1] sat in a deep, leather-lined chair in his new room, dreaming in the dusk of evening over the coming years and achievements of his Premiership as a brooding hen mothers in prospect the chickens she is yet to hatch. It was a long vista down which his fancy wandered, of peace and adroitness and delicate handlings, of careful managing and gentle rosewater revolutions, above all, of placid, unwavering majorities. A pleasant waking dream, through which the refrain “Toujours Balfour”[2] trickled with the soothing murmur of a meadow stream. A sigh at his elbow broke in upon his musings like a dead rook falling with insistent thud from the silence of a sleeping rookery, and he turned to find a woman standing beside him — a woman with pale, almost frightened face, but with an underlying air of resolution that bordered on defiance.

“Efficiency!” he said; “you here. Here, of all places!”

“You are displeased to see me here?”

“Not displeased, exactly, but I can scarcely believe it. You must see that you cannot possibly stay here.”

“Yet at one time you used to be proud to be seen with me. I suppose I was useful to you at election times, when things did not go so easily for you as they do now. You used to take me to your arms, then, and I think you really cared for me[,] just a little.”[3]

“Of course I admire you very much still, and I often talk about you[,] really I do, though we’ve seen so little of each other lately[.] But you can’t reasonably expect me to dislocate my whole career and habits.”[4]

“I might be so helpful to you. In times of crisis, for instance, the consciousness that you had me by your side—“

“In times of crisis and perplexity I simply get in a man from the street to act as caretaker, and I become again as a little child,[5] innocent of all things[.][6] I have always found that answer admirably hitherto[.] And it would never do, for many reasons, to take you into my establishment; you would inevitably make your presence felt in so many departments. There is my brother and other members of the family group[7] to be considered[—]they would never be able to fit into your ways.”

“You are keeping back the real reason from me, possibly because you wish to spare my feelings. You love another. Do I know her name?”

The Prime Minister hesitated for a moment, then answered softly, as one who caresses a tradition, “Laissez Faire.”[8]

“That old thing! I should have thought you were tired to death of her years ago.”

“Hush, don’t say spiteful things. She may not be brilliant or particularly modern, but you cannot think what a solace it is to a man, tired with his golf or jaded with his philosophical studies,[9] to turn to someone who asks little, exacts nothing.”

“And does nothing, knows nothing, and is dowdy without being cheap. So it is for her that I am put on one side!”

“And you, are you so very constant in your affections? Why do people couple your name so freely with that of my rival and sometime predecessor in the Premiership?”[10]

“Perhaps because he has shown me attention where you have only offered neglect. Remember, if I have no longer attractions for you, there are others.”

The Minister flushed with a sudden unreasoning jealousy. “He cannot give you what I can, a permanent home and a share in all that is going—“[5]

Then, checking himself, he added more gently, “What am I saying? Dear lady, I can never be more to you than a friend. You may come and drink tea with me sometimes on the Terrace,[11] and I shall always be glad to see you — at Manchester.[12] But you must never come here again. It is no place for you.”

Then he held the door open for his unbidden guest. Her foot-steps sounded down the staircase like the hollow menace of a receding drum, and he tried to fancy that its time-beat remotely harmonised with the lingering refrain “Toujours Balfour.”

With a sigh of relief he sank back into the depths of his armchair.

“It was dreadful” he murmured, “but how brave I was! That shall be the keynote of my Administration; we will be gently courageous. Every notable Administration gets a nickname: they will call us—yes, they will call us the League of the Poor Brave Things.”[13]

(First published in The Westminster Gazette, Tuesday, July 22, 1902. I have added a few pieces of punctuation that are either invisible or missing from the copy I worked from.)


  1. Arthur James Balfour (1848–1930), British Conservative politician, Prime Minister 1902–1905.  ↩
  2. ”Balfour for ever“ (French).  ↩
  3. The need for “national efficiency” had become a political watchword from the end of the nineteenth century, prompted by Britain’s military failures in the Second Boer War (1899–1902) and by increased competition from Germany. Demands for efficiency, i.e. modernisation, were made by politicians from all parties. Balfour’s 1902 Education Act was to be one product of this drive. 
  4. Balfour was often characterised as indolent and lacking passion or drive. Winston Churchill once commented “If you wanted nothing done, Arthur Balfour was the best man for the task. There was no equal to him”.  ↩
  5. Reference to Matthew 18:3.  ↩
  6. Was Munro perhaps remembering John Dryden’s Prologue to Joseph Harris’ The Mistakes (1690)? “’Tis innocent of all things–even of wit.”  ↩
  7. Balfour came from a political family: his father and grandfather had been MPs and his brother Gerald (1853–1945) also entered parliament. His maternal grandfather was the second Marquess of Salisbury, who was an MP before inheriting his title and later served as Lord Privy Seal and Lord President of the Council. His son (and consequently Arthur’s uncle), the 3rd Marquess, was Prime Minister three times in the later nineteenth century.  ↩
  8. Political ideology that governments should interfere as little as possible, especially in economic matters.  ↩
  9. Balfour made a name for himself with philosophical writings, including his The Foundations of Belief (1895) and Defence of Philosophic Doubt (1879); his love of golf was well known and often exploited by caricaturists and political sketch writers.  ↩
  10. Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery, (1847–1929), Liberal Prime Minister 1894–1895.  ↩
  11. Of the Houses of Parliament, overlooking the Thames.  ↩
  12. Balfour represented the constituency of Manchester East from 1885–1906.  ↩
  13. “The League of the Poor Brave Things” was the name of one of the many voluntary charitable organisations looking after deprived children.  ↩

A Pair of Politicians

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).

Joseph Chamberlain by Travis L Crosby - book cover

Curzon by David Gilmour - book cover

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.

John Bull’s Christmas Tree

(After the manner of Hans Andersen.)

The Frozen LambkinMr. R. J. Seddon.
Church-House SparrowLord Hugh Cecil.
Grand VizierMr. A. J. Balfour.
Clockwork CawmilSir H. Campbell-Bannerman.
Josephus MaximusMr. Joseph Chamberlain.
Dalmeny Auto-CarThe Earl of Rosebery.
Cavendish Sleeping-CarThe Duke of Devonshire.
Money-PigMr. C. T. Ritchie.
King-DollThe King.

JOHN BULL was sleeping placidly. He has been known to do so, occasionally. Santa Claus, which is Nickolas, entered very softly from G.K.W., which is the official abbreviation for Goodness Knows Where. How or whence he had come nobody could have told, which was just as well, as there was at least a possibility that his reindeer team might have come under the head of foreign cattle, and been stopped at one of the ports. And even saints have tempers, particularly in these competitive days, when so many of their special lines are being exploited by the Penitent Rich. Never, if you are praying to a saint, ask for a Free Library or a University education; you won’t get it.

Nickolas had brought a large fir-tree with him, as well as a bag stuffed full of presents to be hung upon it; it was advisable to bring the tree along, as John Bull was not likely to have provided one himself, though the Intelligence Department had warned him that Christmas would in all probability fall on the 25th of December. And it was an extremely lively bag that the saint proceeded to unpack; some of the toys would keep pushing them­selves to the top, and others couldn’t be made to move in any direction. A frozen, woolly lamb came out with a flop as soon as there was an opening, which looked as if the bag must have been made up at the Antipodes, and after that there was a general scramble and an awful amount of quarrelling as to who should go where. The fact that they were all carefully labelled and ticketed only made matters worse, because some of them weren’t at all pleased with their descriptions, and tried to exchange them quickly with others, so that there was really a great deal of confusion.

The Frozen Lambkin

The Frozen Lambkin sulked furiously because it was stuck on an inconspicuous branch, and it objected strongly to its distinguishing label of “Maori had a little lamb,” but the Church-House sparrow was obviously pleased with his ticket, setting forth that:

“A Sweet Cecilia on a Tree
Delighted every passer by.”

Still, that was no reason why he should have started whistling “Marching thro’ Lloyd-Georgia.”

“A political career would be endurable if it wasn’t for its politics,” said the Grand-Vizier doll, as it was being fitted on to a front branch.

The Grand Vizier

“And one could lead so comfortably if people wouldn’t push one about so,” remarked the clock-work Cawmil, as it went on to the branch opposite.

The Grand-Vizier and the Cawmil were the two most amiable toys in the bag, but each had its private troubles. The Cawmil felt it would get along much better if the other members of its caravan weren’t always examining its works and putting spokes in its wheels. And the Grand-Vizier felt that he had sacrificed one of life’s most cherished birthrights; he could not quarrel with his family relations without disorganising the whole Council of the Caliphate. Not that the Grand-Vizier wanted to quarrel with anybody, but no one likes to have virtue turned into a political necessity.

The Party Machine Gun

Right in the centre of the tree, because it would really go nowhere else, the saint had slung the great Party-machine gun, the Josephus Maximus, with self-repeating non-recoiling action, cast at the make-them-feel-small arms factory at Birmingham. When in action this weapon of precision could volley chilled steel with astonishing aim and velocity from a disappearing platform, but at present it had been converted into a smooth-Boer instrument of delicate calibre.

 

The Money Pig

There were other mechanical toys in great variety. There was the Dalmeny auto-car, that went by itself, stopping now and then at wayside inns to throw out suggestions. And there was the Cavendish sleeping-car, which never went at all, but generally managed to be well placed, nevertheless. And a tremendous buzzing and jarring accompanied the unpacking of the Irish jaunting-car, which sometimes went beyond prescribed limits, but never seemed to get any further for all that.

A large new box of soldiers looked very imposing, but no one could tell what was inside, because the lid was fastened down with a quantity of red-tape. “It may be all cotton-wool and imagination,” said the new Money-pig, gloomily, “but I shall have to find the money for it all the same.”

The Money-pig, who came out of the bottom of the bag, looked very squeezed, but there was an air of saturnine satisfaction about him, as if he had been pinching back where he could, and his crumpled ticket, which read, “Infinite Ritchies in a little room,” suggested that he was in for an exchequered career. But the Money-pig’s reflections were cut short by a loud burst of cheering from all the toys, and a lighting up of all the little candles, for Santa Claus had just put the King-Doll on the top branch of all, and the King-Doll was extremely popular. And Santa Claus, desiring to remain anonymous, even in these days of extensive advertising, withdrew quietly and unobserved just as John Bull was awakened by the noise of all the toys and dolls wishing each other a Happy Christmas.

[This early piece of light-hearted political satire was published in The House Annual, 1902  – a fund-raising publication in aid of “The Referee” Children’s Dinner Fund, one of a number of charities that fed children from poor families. (The speech marks are like that in the original.) The story is billed as “by Saki”. The (uncredited) illustrations are by Francis Carruthers Gould, who had already collaborated with Saki on The Westminster Alice. I am grateful to Brian Gibson (author of Reading Saki: The Fiction of H. H. Munro) for providing me with a copy of this story.]