If you want to incubate an author who will show lifelong sympathy for children and animals, it seems best to sequester him at an early age and then subject him to a long regime of domestic torture. This was the formula that worked so well for Kipling, as evidenced in his frightening autobiographical story, “Baa Baa, Black Sheep,” and it is almost uncanny to see how closely Saki’s early life followed the same course. Abandoned to the care of cold and neurotic aunts in England while his father performed colonial duties in India, he and his siblings had to learn how to do without affection, and how to resist and outpoint adult callousness and stupidity. But without those terrible women—and the villains in Saki’s gem-like tales are almost always female—we might not have had the most-fearsome aunts in fiction, outdoing even Wodehouse’s Aunt Agatha or Wilde’s Lady Bracknell.
Wodehouse happily admitted to being influenced by Saki, and it would be interesting to know to what extent Saki was himself influenced by Wilde. There is a good deal of evidence to suggest that he was, because some of his epigrams (“Beauty is only sin deep”) betray an obvious indebtedness, and one (“To lose an hotel and a cake of soap in one afternoon suggests willful carelessness”) is an almost direct appropriation from The Importance of Being Earnest. But in that epoch, Wilde’s name lay under a ban, and Saki would have been well advised to not challenge the unstated rules that underlay that prohibition. (I find the speculation about his own homosexuality pointless because there is nothing about which to speculate: he was self-evidently homosexual and, just as obviously, deeply repressed.)
As is by no means uncommon in such cases, Saki was of the extreme right, and even an admirer must concede that some of his witticisms were rather labored and contrived as a consequence. Several of his less amusing stories are devoted to ridicule of the women’s suffrage movement, which was cresting during his heyday, while a persistent subtext of his work is a satirical teasing of his contemporary and bête noire, the ponderously socialistic Bernard Shaw (“Sherard Blaw, the dramatist who had discovered himself, and who had given so ungrudgingly of his discovery to the world”). And, like another of his great contemporaries, Arthur Balfour, future author of a famous Declaration, Saki harbored a suspicion of Jews. One of his feral ephebes, Reginald, tells a duchess while chatting at the theater that what she terms “the great Anglo-Saxon empire” is, in fact, “rapidly becoming a suburb of Jerusalem.”
That same empire, and its survival, was at the center of the contradictions in Saki’s personality. Byrne’s insightful and sprightly book makes plain that his affectless poseurs and dandies may have reflected one half of the man, just as his repeated portrayals of lithe and lissome and amoral young men must have expressed his banked-down yearnings. But this other hemisphere of his character also admired wildness and risk and cruelty and warfare, and associated the concepts of empire and nation with manly virtue.