24 November, 2014Issue 26.4BiographyLiterature

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Between a Dandy and a Soldier

Emily Anderson

Brian Gibson
Reading Saki: The Fiction of H. H. Munro
Jefferson: McFarland & Co, 2014
296 pages
ISBN: 978-0-7864-7949-8

The First World War is one of the last subjects that might be associated with humorous literature. Laughter usually has to be prompted by something, like a joke by a favourite comedian or an unexpectedly slapstick moment. And there doesn’t seem to be anything remotely funny, remotely capable of provoking amusement, attached to the events of the Great War. When we think of literary representations of the war, both Rupert Brooke’s patriotic sonnets and Wilfrid Owen’s and Siegfried Sassoon’s solemn, anti-elegiac portrayals of front line horrors come to mind. Their poems, though largely published after the war and, in the case of Brooke and Owen, posthumously, have been hugely influential in shaping how the war has been imagined and remembered.

Yet for those who were directly involved in the war and for subsequent generations of writers, humour was an important way of approaching and attempting to make sense of the conflict. Many soldiers on active service contributed to and read trench newspapers, which were full of jokes about, and satires of, their everyday lives in the fighting. Today, the poignant ending of Blackadder Goes Forth remains so moving in part because the characters “going over the top” contrasts sharply with the laughter they have previously been eliciting, trading on the absurdity and futility of life in the trenches. And significant to the ways in which humour has been used to convey the experience of the Great War are the profound alternations the conflict made to the work of one of the most popular comic writers of the Edwardian age: H.H. Munro, who wrote under the pseudonym of Saki.

Munro joined the army in 1914, despite being five years older than the required age, and was eventually killed in 1916 during the Battle of the Ancre, near Beaumont-Hamel. The short stories he wrote about the conflict had a touch of the witty, satirical, and subversive tone that had made him famous in the pre-war period, but what fascinates many critics about Munro, and what also fascinates Brian Gibson about him, is the apparent lack of connection between his earliest writing and his work and actions surrounding the war. It’s hard to reconcile the Munro who was an author who produced cheeky, camp satires, often adopting dandiacal narrators, and who created characters who undermined the status quo, with the Munro who volunteered as a solider—he could have been a commissioned officer—at the outbreak of the war, having encouraged others to do likewise in his relatively serious novel, When William Came (1913).

Gibson frames this strange gap between humorist and soldier as one between “Munro and Saki”, between the man and his authorial persona. His premise is that biographers and critics should not attempt to infer information about Munro through the works of Saki. As Gibson rather effectively puts it, “Munro consistently tried to separate himself from Saki; he did so by taking a pen name.” However Gibson rightly resists the temptation to treat Saki and Munro as entirely unrelated entities. He develops a model of analysis according to which Munro, who was part of an upper class, conservative, London-based society, adopted the persona of Saki to create humorous portrayals of that society and its mores. For Gibson, Saki’s work is characterised by a concept he calls “dependent dissidence.” Saki relied on the world of Munro for its humour, just as Munro relied on Saki to distance himself from being ostracised by the same society he so often satirised.

In When William Came, Munro created a work that was a “co-opting and repudiation” of the kinds of effete, outrageous, male, Wildean characters he had (as Saki) previously championed. These rebellious figures were sacrificed in “the name of a militant masculinity.” Gibson links Munro’s quelling of Saki’s dissent with his eventual death “for the very nationalistic, heteronormative, bourgeois establishment” that he had once lampooned via his comic persona. There is certainly much to be said for such an argument. In his invasion novel, Munro imagines the kinds of social butterflies that seemingly delighted Saki as sitting back and doing nothing as German forces invade Britain—and gives such inaction a highly negative inflection.

Whilst this, Gibson’s overarching argument, is largely convincing, some of his readings of individual stories are a little too ingenious to be entirely plausible. A good example is his analysis of “Gabriel Ernest”, a tale in which a country gentleman, Van Cheele, and his sister take in an adolescent boy who turns out to be a werewolf. The eponymous Gabriel Ernest is initially described in a sexualised manner, with Saki’s narrator suggesting that Van Cheele is highly embarrassed by his languid, nude pose. Van Cheele later realises that Gabriel is a supernatural beast, but decides against warning his sister via a telegram (“Gabriel Ernest is a werewolf”) in case she assumes it is some kind of code. Gibson suggests that Van Cheele’s embarrassment signals a suppressed attraction to Gabriel, and takes his hesitation as a sly joke on Saki’s part, as a hint that the boy’s hidden nature is a coded message for his homosexual appeal.

Such an interpretation of the story is innovative, and convincing up to a point. But by looking for evidence of (what was, at the time) subversive sexuality in Saki’s work, Gibson interleaves an aspect of Munro’s life—his homosexuality—in Saki’s work. Such a practice surely violates the practice of bifurcating “Saki-Munro” that Gibson earlier advocated, namely, failing to realise gaps between the man and the persona.

Similarly problematic are Gibson’s occasional attempts to examine Munro’s character based on scant biographical information. He claims, for instance, that the author’s enlistment at the start of the First World War represented both an attempt to deny effeminacy, by joining the ranks of imperial manliness, and an admission of same-sex masculinity “that edges into homosocial- and emasculation-anxiety.” Munro could well have had such motivations, whether consciously or otherwise, but it is highly speculative to make such assertions given that—as Gibson himself notes—Munro’s sister burnt his personal papers, leaving scholars with no evidence of his emotional or personal life.

Despite such breaches, Gibson’s work is an illuminating and refreshingly original review of the ways in which Saki’s writing engaged with Munro’s society. For, whilst all authors are perhaps products of their time, few have offered such vivid and amusing sketches of a particular period and place. Gibson’s efforts should also be viewed as welcome attention to an author who was very much a writer of the Great War, but whose work has not entered the canon of “war literature.” In this, the centenary year of the conflict’s commencement, it is surely fitting to expand our understanding of the Great War in as many ways as possible, including reassessments of the writing that surrounded it.

Munro’s eagerness to serve his nation in 1914 suggests that, for all the jokes he made at the expense of his society, he was deeply committed to its protection. In this respect, we might be tempted to find an apt description of the humorist himself in his description of Courtenay Youghal in The Unbearable Bassington: “behind his careful political flippancy and cynicism one might also detect a certain careless sincerity.” Yes, Saki took great satisfaction from creating characters who scandalised the sometimes prim and often frivolous groups of which Munro was a part. But behind his cutting humour one senses a deep affection for the people and the nation on which he based his work. By focusing on the space between Munro’s flippancy and sincerity, therefore, Gibson illuminates a key tension in Munro’s work.

In a strangely fitting twist of fate for the man who once wrote that he hated “posterity—it’s so fond of having the last word,” there is scarcely a volume about Munro in which his final utterance is not quoted. An instant before he was shot by a sniper, he exclaimed, “Put that bloody cigarette out!” If it is the business of critics to be always manipulating the “last words” on the literature and writers they analyse, then the year 2014 is an apposite moment in which to explore how Munro’s last utterance, the keen soldier’s shout, connects with those of the dandy in Saki’s short stories.

Emily Anderson plans to begin her DPhil in English at Oxford in 2015. Her research is on humorous literature of the First World War.