Saki’s love for animals finds vent in satire

The Guardian


It is a rare thing for a ferret to be the eponymous hero of a work of literature. As far as I know, there is only one — Sredni Vashtar, the “lithe, sharp-fanged beast” whose story is told in Saki’s ‘The Chronicles Of Clovis’.

Sredni Vashtar is kept in a hutch, “fronted with close iron bars’’, by 10-year-old Conradin, who lives with his tyrannical guardian, Mrs De Ropp. Conradin’s pet is a “secret and fearful joy’’, which he zealously conceals from his guardian. The polecat-ferret becomes “a god and a religion”, and Conradin prays to the creature for vengeance. Sredni Vashtar does not disappoint. When Mrs De Ropp finally finds the ferret’s hiding place, she does not come out alive. The child watches with hope in his heart as the creature emerges with “dark wet stains around the fur of jaws and throat’’. Conradin makes another piece of toast.

Sredni Vashtar is typical of Saki’s short stories: sharp, cruel and macabre. Saki often used animals (which he loved) as agents of revenge on people (whom he was much less keen on). More than 100 years before Sredni Vashtar was written, Saki’s great-uncle was devoured by a tiger while hunting in India. This gruesome event fired the public imagination and became a popular subject for Staffordshire pottery figures.

Tippoo’s Tiger, a mechanical organ in the Victoria & Albert Museum Collection (in London), has the unfortunate victim absurdly waving his arm up and down as the triumphant tiger feasts on its prey. No doubt Saki would have been amused by this grisly and comic depiction of the family legend.

Saki was born Hector Hugh Munro in 1870. His father was an officer in the Burma police and Hector was soon shipped back to Britain to be brought up by his strict aunts. The young Munro spent his childhood loving his pets and hating his aunts. In 1899, Saki published a short story, ‘Dogged’, in which a canine antihero leads the mild-mannered hero into a life of ruin. The theme was to become a favourite refrain.

His stories are satires on the foibles and hypocrisy of upper-middle-class Edwardian Britain. His tales are loaded with death and destruction, as well as a heavy dose of flippancy and cynicism. They are peppered with clever, cutting epigrams and usually end with a grim twist. And there are animals — lots of them: racehorses, parrots, dogs, cats, cows and hyenas. Saki is like a sardonic Rudyard Kipling. If he’d written ‘The Jungle Book’, Mowgli would have been hugged to death by Baloo. In ‘Beasts And Superbeasts’, the human characters are revealed to be ridiculous, shallow, malicious or deceitful by their encounters with a variety of creatures.As well as physical death, Saki’s animals unleash social mortification. In ‘Tobermory’, Lady Blemley’s houseguests include Mr Appin, who has spent 17 years unsuccessfully trying to teach animals to speak.

Mr Appin’s announcement that he has educated the family cat is received with scepticism. But when Sir Wilfrid seeks out “dear old Tobermory’’, the cat “drawled out in a most horribly natural voice that he’d come when he dashed well pleased’’. The cat has acquired language but not social graces. Tobermory has witnessed all the intrigues and misdemeanours of the household and does not feel the need for discretion.

A flustered Mrs Cornett blusters, “Do you mean to encourage the cat to go out and gossip about us in the servants’ hall?’’ Clovis then contemplates procuring “a box of fancy mice as a species of hush money’’, while Lady Blemley concludes that the talkative cat must be poisoned to save the family’s blushes. The plot fails. Saki does not allow humans to have dominion over the animal kingdom. Mr Appin is later killed by an elephant he is trying to teach, and Tobermory is killed by one of his own — the big tomcat from the rectory.