When I was researching H H Munro, he began to appear rather like a character from one of his own, gloriously eccentric stories, which he wrote under the pen-name Saki. His mother died following a miscarriage after she’d been attacked by a runaway cow; he was killed during a rest-break in a shell crater in November 1916. His last words were said to be ‘Put that bloody cigarette out’, before he was shot through the head. I guess the sniper was aiming for ‘that bloody cigarette’.
Saki’s marvellously un-PC short story ‘The Unrest Cure’, is, as far as I’m concerned, a brilliant example of the genre. Indeed, it’s Munro’s short stories which are his masterpieces. The characters he created – a cornucopia of beautiful, well bred boys and snooty, spirited women – are exceedingly well drawn. I’ve loved Clovis Sangrail, with his fondness for the good things in life, for years and have always had my suspicions about his sexuality. When I came across the theory that Saki himself (who never married) was actually gay, I felt I had to re-read the stories to see if, like E M Forster, he was leaving us any little clues.
I have to say that’s there’s even less evidence of ‘hidden desires’ than there was with Forster. There are, however, two striking young men who I’d put money on their being gay – the aforementioned Clovis and Reginald.
Reginald is obsessed with clothes, being extremely vain (he sends a pair of gloves he’s received from an Aunt to a ‘boy whom I hated intimately’ because they are size nines. He is anarchic, arranging a treat for the church choir which involves letting the boys bathe in the river, sitting on their clothes so they can’t get dressed, then leading them on a Bacchanalian procession through the village, the boys wearing no more than spotted handkerchiefs should they possess them.
Clovis is equally obsessed with clothes and food. “Clovis relapsed for a few golden moments into tender intimacies with a succession of rapidly disappearing oysters’. He’s the one to bring chaos with his ‘unrest cure’, and when a child goes missing he’s more concerned with ensuring the cook produces the correct sauce – hollandaise – with the asparagus.
Why should I have assumed, right from the start, that both of these chaps are gay? I’m not sure whether I’m falling into the ‘stereotype’ trap, but they do both remind me of the sort of effete characters who inhabit the works of Oscar Wilde. Or the Guy Bennetts, Sebastian Flytes of flim and book
And what else could I find, apart from this charming pair? Two little stories which rang bells in my slashy mind. ‘Wratislaw’ concludes with the eponymous hero running away to Mexico in disgrace for misdemeanours unknown – ‘It’s other people’s consciences that send one abroad in a hurry’. All we know is that Wratislaw is a black sheep – ‘If half the things they say about him are true…’ I bet I know what some of those things are.
Most intriguing is a tale called ‘Adrian, a chapter in acclimatization’. Adrian (born with the duller name John Henry) is a draper’s assistant from Bethnal Green who acquires (it’s never specified how) a roomlet in a posh area and is taken out, immaculately dressed, to dine at The Ritz or some such place by Lucas Croyden, another of Saki’s food obsessed young men. Adrian gets ‘acquired’ afresh by a wealthy lady who takes him off round Europe where he causes chaos. Again, I can guess exactly what services he’s performing to get himself out of Bethnal Green, where his mother works in a laundry.
Am I reading too much into the text? Or am I too used to ‘looking for the signs’ in novels of an era which was strictly in the closet? See what you think – if you haven’t yet read Saki, please do take the plunge. His works are witty, anarchic and a textbook in the art of the short story.