Using ‘Saki’ as a pseudonym, Hector Hugh Munro was a British writer and journalist whose flippantly witty, mischievous and sometimes macabre stories satirized Edwardian society’s social pretentions, cruelty and stupidity.
Besides his short stories, which were first featured in newspapers before being collected into published volumes, he wrote a full-length play and numerous novels, many of them fantasising about historical possibilities such as the German invasion of the UK.
Hector Hugh Munro was born on 18 December 1870 to Charles and Mary Munro, in Akyab, British Burma, which was then still part of the British Raj, and was governed from Calcutta under the authority of the Viceroy of India. His father was an Inspector General for the Indian Imperial Police.
In 1872, after the death of Munro’s mother, Charles Munro sent his children, Ethel and the two-year-old Hector, home to England, to be raised by their grandmother and paternal maiden aunts, Charlotte and Augusta, in a strict and puritanical household in Pilton, a village near Barnstaple in Devon.
At the age of 12 the young Hector Munro was educated at Pencarwick School in Exmouth and then as a boarder at Bedford School.
In 1887, after his retirement, his father returned from Burma, and embarked upon a series of European travels with Hector and his sister.
When he was 23, Hector followed his father into the Indian Imperial Police and was posted to Burma, but successive bouts of fever meant his return home after only fifteen months.
In 1896, he decided to move to London to make a living as a writer.
Munro started his writing career as a journalist for newspapers such as the ‘Westminster Gazette’, the ‘Daily Express’, the ‘Morning Post’, and magazines such as the ‘Bystander’ and ‘Outlook’.
His first book ‘The Rise of the Russian Empire’, a serious historical study modelled upon Edward Gibbon’s ‘The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’, appeared in 1900, under his real name, but proved to be something of a false start.
He also tried short story writing and then moved into the world of political satire in 1900 with a collaboration with Francis Gould who produced the sketches and Munro wrote the text accompanying them, using the pen-name ‘Saki’ for the first time. The series, ‘Alice in Westminster’, lampooned political figures of the day and was published in the Liberal ‘Westminster Gazette’.
In 1902 he moved to the Tory party supporting ‘Morning Post’, to work as a foreign correspondent and was sent to the Balkans and then to Russia, where he witnessed to the 1905 revolution in St Petersburg. He then went on to Paris, before returning to London in 1908. Meanwhile he had become a well known writer with an established income. His compilation of stories which had appeared in the ‘Westminster Gazette’, ‘Reginald’, had been published in 1904 and he was kept busy writing sketches for the ‘Morning Post’ and the ‘Bystander’. Further stories followed – ‘Reginald in Russia ‘, ‘The Chronicles of Clovis’ , and ‘Beasts and Super-Beasts’ in 1914, along with many other short stories which appeared in newspapers. He also produced two novels, ‘The Unbearable Bassington’ and ‘When William Came’. His stories are written in a cynical style studded with epigrams and with well-contrived plots, often turning on practical jokes or surprise endings. In some stories he predates Roald Dahl in the darkly sinister plots and the final denouement of revenge for his heroes.
At the start of the First World War Munro was 43 and officially over-age to enlist, but he refused a commission and joined the 2nd King Edward’s Horse as an ordinary trooper. He later transferred to the 22nd Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, in which he rose to the rank of lance sergeant. More than once he returned to the battlefield when officially still too sick or injured. In November 1916 he was sheltering in a shell crater near Beaumont-Hamel, France, during the Battle of the Ancre, when he was killed by a German sniper. Munro has no known grave.
Much of Saki’s work contrasts the conventions and hypocrisies of Edwardian England with the ruthless, but straightforward life-and-death struggles of nature.