Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Saki in Singapore

The obvious choice of reading for a trip to Singapore must be Rudyard Kipling, one of the writers associated with Raffles Hotel which is named after Britain’s colonial administrator par excellence and founder of Singapore, Sir Stamford Raffles. I hadn’t got any Kipling with me, but I had got some Saki (Hector Hugh Munro). This seemed to me a decent substitute as both authors are associated with British colonialism. They were contemporaries; both were born in British colonies - Munro in Burma and Kipling in India; both endured unhappy English childhoods away from their parents; both returned to the land of their birth when they were adults; and both wrote original and exotic short stories – though only one of them was brilliant, and that was Kipling.

However, it was Saki’s stories I had with me: The Chronicles of Clovis (1911) and Beasts and Super-Beasts (1914). The tales are often cruel, and not only because they are set in a world insensitive to the suffering of other creatures where cub hunting and kitten drowning pass without comment. Dreadful things happen to possibly but not necessarily dreadful people: a gypsy child is eaten by a hyena, a woman is blinded, another is gored to death. They are wonderful exercises in table turning and hypocrisy exposing, often by the use of practical jokes played on the foolish or greedy. As is the way of practical jokes, the ruses are often nasty.

Saki is a dab hand at overthrowing expectations: although the stories are located in the most civilised settings imaginable – clubs and drawing rooms - there is an undertone of savagery. Many have magical or supernatural elements: politicians are replaced by angels, animals talk, Pan plays his pipes. At their best the stories are very funny. In Tobermory, Lady Blemley’s cat learns to talk, with embarrassing consequences for the household for he is not a discreet cat. His favourite promenade is “a narrow ornamental balustrade…in front of most of the bedroom windows…whence he could watch the pigeons - and heaven knew what else besides” .

Practical jokes – talking cats – angels: there’s the spirit of a child in Saki’s stories, but it’s not a charming one. The boy who points out the Emperor’s nakedness is an innocent, but the child in Saki is a mean little beast. You could imagine him pulling the legs off spiders. His stories are irreverent, witty, satirical; they are also nasty, spiteful, insensitive (see, for instance, the treatment of the Jewish couple in A Touch of Realism). No kindness tempers Saki’s vision; he is a compassionless recorder of human folly. Of course, writers don’t have to have bleeding hearts: too much sympathy and you end up with sentimental mush.

The western front was no place for sentimental mush and it was perhaps here that Saki’s literary ruthlessness came into its own in his exquisite description of birds on the battle ground. The prose is precise, the observation sharp, the refusal to privilege the merely human typical of a writer whose urbane settings are constantly threatened by wild beasts, pagan gods, inhuman forces. Yet the effect is deeply moving.

“At the corner of a stricken wood (which has had a name made for it in history, but shall be nameless here), at a moment when lyddite and shrapnel and machine-gun fire swept and raked and bespattered that devoted spot as though the artillery of an entire Division had suddenly concentrated on it, a wee hen-chaffinch flitted wistfully to and fro, amid splintered and falling branches that had never a green bough left on them. The wounded lying there, if any of them noticed the small bird, may well have wondered why anything having wings and no pressing reason for remaining should have chosen to stay in such a place. There was a battered orchard alongside the stricken wood, and the probable explanation of the bird’s presence was that it had a nest of young ones whom it was too scared to feed, too loyal to desert.”

(From The Bedside Book of Birds: An Avian Miscellany, Graeme Gibson.)

Munro welcomed the war, and had nothing good to say for pacifists. He enlisted although he did not have to (he was 43). He was shot dead by a sniper in 1916.

The Chronicles of Clovis (1911) and Beasts and Super-Beasts (1914) are available from Project Gutenberg

Read The Guardian blog on Saki

And Neil Clark in The Telegraph

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Eminent Victorian

For they stood in one of the famous wood and common lands of Southern England – great beeches towering overhead – glades opening to right and left – ferny paths over green turf-tracks, and avenues of immemorial age, the highways of a vanished life – old earth-works, overgrown – lanes deep-sunk in the chalk where the pack horses once made their way – gnarled thorns, bent with years, yet still white-mantled in the spring: a wild, enchanted no-man’s country, owned it seemed by rabbits and birds, solitary, lovely and barren – yet from its furthest edge, the high spectator, looking eastward, on a clear night, might see on the horizon the dim flare of London.

I think this is a lovely description. I particularly like the sense of history on the landscape, the “old earth-works, overgrown” and “avenues of immemorial age”. It evokes for me coming across the grassy remains of mine shafts or pits for washing ore in the lead lands near Charterhouse in the Mendips, or stumbling on the embankment of a long-gone tramway that once served the Somerset Coal Canal. There’s a fine, ghostly feeling about walking through “ferny paths” that once rang with industry, the clatter of trams, the cries of workers. You can go further back too, to other vanished lives: tramping along sections of the Fosseway near Radstock; standing on the edge of an iron-age hill fort at Cadbury Camp.

The description is from Mrs Humphry Ward’s novel The Testing of Diana Mallory (1908). John Sutherland thinks the novel marks a “distinct decline in the quality of her writing”, and it certainly isn’t the best novel in the world. But it’s far from being the worst, and I think it’s a shame that Mrs Ward is not more widely read. Her authorial name is enough to put off the modern reader: a woman who doesn’t even have her own identity but hides – or is hidden – behind her husband. And of course she made the huge mistake of backing the reactionaries in the struggle for women’s suffrage, being a firm “anti” even when other opponents of votes for women had begun to accept the inevitable.

Her views did, of course, permeate her novels. In Diana Mallory suffragist Isabel is a most unpleasant woman who would in other times “have been a religious bigot of the first water”. But I don’t think Mrs Ward can be too glibly dismissed as a bigot herself for creating such a monstrous feminist. In the same novel socialist Marion, challenging Diana’s opposition to votes for women (it would unsex us) utters the “very same ideas which Isabel Fotheringham made hateful, clothed in light, speaking from the rugged or noble faces of men and women who saw in them the salvation of their kind”. (Elaine Showalter includes a brief discussion of the tensions in Ward’s views – a woman who campaigned for education for women and the disabled and whose books show sympathy between and for women yet who opposed the female franchise – in A Literature of Their Own.)

Mrs Ward may have been old fashioned in her own time – Virginia Woolf thought so – but her books are still worth reading. Diana Mallory has a page-turning melodramatic mystery at its heart and if the paeans to “England” do not sit well with us these days, nor the earnest political discussions, there’s still much to enjoy. Indeed, I’m fascinated as much by these elements of the novel as the story and characters. It seems odd to me to read a Victorian or Edwardian novel while at the same time wanting to discount its “Victorianism” or “Edwardianism”; they are as much a part of the book as plot and setting. So, on to my next Mrs Humphry Ward – her anti-suffrage novel Delia Blanchflower! And I’m putting John Sutherland’s Mrs Humphry Ward: Eminent Victorian, Pre-eminent Edwardian on my reading list.