There is no record of the breed of runaway cow that killed Hector Hugh Monroe’s mother. Which is a pity. It would have been another interesting detail to add to a life that was full of them.
His mother, having already borne three children in Burma where his father was a colonial military policeman, had been sent back to Devonshire so that the child she was carrying could make a less risky entry into the world. No doubt such an ironic tragedy had a long-lasting effect on Monroe who, at the time in 1872, was 2 years old. Perhaps if it had been his father who had been killed, and by a charging bull, he would have grown up to be Ernest Hemingway, but it wasn’t, and he didn’t. He grew up to be Saki, the greatest British writer no one reads any more.
Second-hand copies of The Penguin Complete Saki can be bought on Amazon for a very reasonable £5.60. The book contains 135 short stories, 3 novels and 3 plays. There’s also a foreword by Noël Coward. Which is only fitting because, if you want to fit Saki into a literary lineage, he is the missing link between Mr Coward and Oscar Wilde. These days, a tall skinny caramel machiatto from Mmm Coffee! can set you back nigh on a fiver if you throw in a biscuit, so £5.60 for 960 pages of genius is unbelievable value for money.
Ah, but I hear you say, I’m over-selling Saki. I’m not. At his best he writes short stories of sublime elegance and wit, each rendered with a miniaturist’s eye for detail. In them upper-crust Edwardian life is not so much lampooned as subtly eviscerated. And the stories are funny. Very funny. Laughter in the dark, in many cases, but laughter nonetheless. However, as with all the best satirists’ work, behind them lurk both morality and idealism.
H. H. Monroe changed his name (and made his name) when, working in collaboration with the political cartoonist Francis Carruthers Gould, he produced a parody of Alice in Wonderland that first appeared in th
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