The English fiction writer and playwright H.H. Munro (1870–1916) is best known by his pen name Saki. The author of acidly satirical short stories, he examined the weaknesses of members of the British upper class in the years before World War I. Toward the end of his life, he also wrote novels and plays of a wider scope.
Extremely widely read during the middle of the 20th century under his pen name Saki, British writer H.H. Munro declined in popularity as the political views he espoused—pro-imperialist, he was convinced of British cultural superiority, had a disdain for women's suffrage, and was sometimes openly anti-Semitic—fell out of favor. Still, his short fiction is entertaining, falling into a long tradition of English seriocomic writing. While Munro was influenced by Oscar Wilde, with whom he shared a closeted gay orientation, his influence on others includes such linguistically precise writers as P.G. Wodehouse. Another admirer was playwright and composer Noel Coward, who wrote an introduction to a complete edition of Munro's works. A prominent contemporary Munro defender, the Anglo-American cultural critic Christopher Hitchens, wrote in the Atlantic Monthly: “I have the impression that Saki is not very much appreciated in the United States. Good. That means I can put into my debt many of you who are reading these words. Go and get an edition of this Edwardian master of the short story.”
Hector Hugh Munro was born December 18, 1870, in Akyab, a city in British colonial Burma (now Sittwe, Myanmar). His father, Charles Augustus Munro, was a British army officer. When Munro's mother, Mary, died in 1872 from complications after a miscarriage, the two-year-old Munro and his two siblings—sister Ethel and brother Charles—were sent to England to live with a grandmother and two aunts on a country estate. Taught by governesses while growing up, he was rarely given the opportunity to leave the house. Both Munro's aunts suffered a variety of ailments, and he later recalled his childhood as repressed and unhappy.
Things improved somewhat when Munro was sent away to a boarding school called Pencarwick in the town of Exmouth. At age 14 he attended Bedford Grammar School in the Bedfordshire region. Termed public schools in British nomenclature, both Pencarwick and Bedford Grammar corresponded to elite private schools in the United States, and Munro's classmates were members of the British upper class. He not only became familiar with upper-class ways; he acquired, under the school's rigorous literary curriculum, the precise and disciplined use of language that would enable him to examine such lives critically in his later creative writing. When Charles Munro returned from service in Burma, he took his three children out of school and the family made a tour of Europe. Their father then tutored Hector and his sister Ethel for two years.
In 1893 Munro joined the British military and was sent to Burma to take up a post arranged for him by his father as a military police officer. He seems to have approached the job without enthusiasm, and after several bouts with malaria and other tropical diseases, he returned to England after 15 months. During his long recovery, he likely began to consider a career change because in 1896 he moved to London with the intention of becoming a writer. For several years, Munro survived by writing short pieces for the West-minster Gazette and other newspapers and magazines. In 1900 he published a book of history, The Rise of the Russian Empire, but it was poorly received by reviewers.
Also in 1900, Munro began writing satirical sketches to accompany various cartoons published in the Westminister Gazette;these stories and cartoons used familiar characters from British children's literature to poke fun at the activities of the country's parliament. He published these sketches in two books, 1902's The Not So Stories, derived from Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories, and The Westminster Alice, featuring Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland character. In these sketches, featuring children unable to make sense of the actions of their elders, his distinctive voice began to emerge. He first used the pen name Saki during this period; there is some debate over the origin of the name, but most sources, including Munro's sister have stated that it referred to the name of a character, a cupbearer to the gods, in the Rubaiyat poems of Persian writer Omar Khayyam.
In 1908 Munro began writing full time, publishing many of his stories in newspapers, a common venue for such fiction at the time. In 1912 a group of his stories featuring a recurring character was published in book form as The Chronicles of Clovis; a second collection, Beasts and Super-Beasts, appeared two years later.
Notable for their brevity, many of Munro's stories are constructed around some outlandish incident, and their sardonic tone has drawn comparison to the short fiction of American writer O. Henry (William Sydney Porter). Many feature children, animals, or both; the animals sometimes represent the world of nature and the wild, standing in the greatest possible contrast to the well-manicured and contrived world of the British aristocracy among which the stories are set. In one famous story, “Esmé,” a hyena, having escaped from a nearby estate, follows two women walking during a fox hunt. The hyena eats a gypsy child it finds but is then struck and killed by a car. One of the women tells the car's owner that he has killed her dog, and the owner tells his chauffeur to bury the “dog” and buys the woman a diamond brooch to console her.
Even during his own lifetime, Munro took criticism for the political viewpoints expressed in some of his tales. He hinted at anti-Semitism when the protagonist in one of his stories complains that England is becoming a suburb of Jerusalem. Munro also opposed and often ridiculed the idea of giving the vote to women (instituted in Britain in 1918, two years after his death), and such stances dampened his popularity among later-20th-century academics. “Saki was of the extreme right,” Hitchens admitted, “and even an admirer must concede that some of his witticisms were rather labored and contrived as a consequence.” Not shy about defending himself, Munro carried on a longstanding feud with the left-leaning (and appropriately urbane) playwright George Bernard Shaw. Characteristically, the upper-class characters in Munro's stories are often ridiculed and portrayed as dishonest or lacking in common sense.
In the years before World War I, Munro began to turn his attention to longer fiction. His first novel, The Unbearable Bassington, appeared in 1912 and features a cynical upper-class protagonist resembling Munro in several respects: Comus Bassington avoids marriage and finally moves to West Africa for work. The novel features a twist ending reminiscent of those crafted by O. Henry. Munro's second novel, When William Came, anticipated his decision to fight in World War I; it depicted a near-future world in which Great Britain was ruled by Germany. He also wrote several plays that remained unproduced until after his death.
With the outbreak of World War I, Munro enlisted in the British army, although he was old enough to avoid military service. He refused an officer's commission and insisted on being sent to the front. “It is hard to imagine Saki's languid young protagonists, Reginald and Clovis, enlisting in the ranks in 1914, and people have often wondered at the apparent discontinuity between Munro, the patriotic high Tory journalist, and the subversive, even anarchic characters of his stories,” noted Peter Parker in the London Telegraph. His motivation was apparently a pure belief in the British cause.
Munro was accepted into the 2nd King Edward's Horse Guard, but transferred to the 22nd Battalion of Royal Fusiliers when the cavalry proved too taxing to his health. He continued to write for British publications up until June of 1916, when he traveled to France as a lance-sergeant. Hospitalized in August due to malaria, Munro had himself released when the 22nd was called to action. He was killed by a sniper on November 14, 1916, during the Battle of the Somme, in Beaumont-Hamel, France, one of more than 400,000 Britons and about a million men to die during that clash. Many of Munro's stories were left uncollected at his death, although two anthologies appeared posthumously: The Toys of Peace (1919) and The Square Egg and Other Sketches (1924).
Byrne, Sandie, The Unbearable Saki: The Work of H.H. Munro, Oxford University Press, 2007.
Langguth, A.J., Saki: A Life of Hector Hugh Munro with Six Short Stories Never Before Collected, Hammish Hamilton, 1981.
Atlantic Monthly, June, 2008, Christopher Hitchens, “Where the Wild Things Are.”
Telegraph (London, England), http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/fictionreviews/3669439/The-man-who-wasSaki.html (November 15, 2018), Peter Parker, “The Man Who Was Saki.”□