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“People Dined Against Each Other”: Social Practices in Sakian Satire

Lorene Birden


Edwardian humorist Saki (1870-1916) is still read today for short stories describing incredible situations so unusual as to get us laughing. At the same time, in these situations he enjoyed attacking “the prigs, snobs, bores, politicians, and other self-important comedians, spiteful old women, and silly, smug young ones” of his time (Lambert, “Jungle” 211). His intent was to satirise; for example, the comeuppance of a society woman like Sophie Chattel-Monkheim contains criticism of the society woman in general. However, he participated in English society’s usual activities and appeared at the dinner parties and country weekends that gave him his material. “He enjoyed its many amenities and luxuries, while he lashed at its follies, its blindness and its vulgarities” (Gore 316). This position, half out, half in, is mirrored in Saki’s characters, who yearn for life for entirely personal reasons, lack didacticism, and cannot be considered as characters who have a reforming goal in the narrative, or even a clear project in life. As Alexander Porterfield expresses it, paraphrasing Saki: “if … his tales point out an evil, they at least offer no solution …” (385; Saki, “Author’s Note”, Bassington x; Birden 29-30).

V. S. Pritchett uses similar terms in his comments on Saki:

He belonged … to an order more spirited, melancholy, debonair and wanton than the puddingly Anglo-Saxon world south of the Border, with its middle-class wealth, its worry and its conventions. He could not resist joining it, but he joined to annoy. … in the interests of satire Saki identified himself with his class. He was, by nature, a mocker and seems to have mainly been upset by the inertia of social life at that time. Boredom had become a kind of ideal … Saki caught exactly the spell of the transient spirit of social dementia, the play of restlessness upon boredom … (“Lynx” 18; “Saki” 614).

This play of restlessness on boredom can be seen as mirroring what George Dangerfield described as a new restlessness in the Edwardian period:

For nearly a century men had discovered in the cautious phrase, in the respectable gesture, in the considered display of reasonable emotions, a haven against those irrational storms which threatened to sweep through them. And gradually the haven lost its charms; … Its waters … ceased to reflect, with complacent ease, the settled skies, the untangled stars of accepted behaviour and sensible conviction: and men, with a defiance they could not hope to understand, began to put forth upon little excursions into the vast, the dark, the driven seas beyond (135).

These “excursions into the dark” are explorations of contingency, the act which forms the basis of comedy (Langer 333; Torrance viii), and as such constitute a gesture which would be seen as restless, if not dangerous, by a previous generation which refused to recognise the contingency of life.

These explorations, embedded in the Sakian text, use many different elements of London life. Urban London’s most frequent practices appear regularly, sometimes simply as a base, sometimes as a butt or as a tool for attacking a butt. In this latter case, the social practice is usually in some way destroyed. We will see in this study in what ways Saki uses social manners and mannerisms to fuel his satire.

If one can associate urban life with ease in society, Devonshire-born Saki had certainly found a way to make the transition from nature to “civilisation”. Several witnesses, such as Maurice Baring (332) and F. Anstey (qtd. in Lambert, introduction 34, 35), attested to his ease in dining or drawing room. Nonetheless, his urban behaviour was adopted. His outside origin helps Saki see the less sensible side of London habits and practices and leads him to impale them in many of his texts. Although the title of this article is drawn from Dangerfield (346), it expresses this “jungle boy’s” view of society.


One aspect of social practices which Saki likes to highlight is their incongruity. When Reginald is at the theater, it is not to watch the drama but to converse with the Duchess (in “Reginald at the Theatre”). He also hears the conversation of Miriam Klopstock (in “The Innocence of Reginald”). Saki foregrounds this habit of talking during plays with Reginald’s comment: “That is the worst of a tragedy … one can’t always hear oneself talk” (“Theatre” 21). Reginald’s comment on discussion during performance contains subtle irony about this habit.

This quotation comes from a series of short stories which show Reginald in an ongoing conflict with the Duchess: “Reginald at the Theater”, “Reginald at the Carlton” and “Reginald’s Rubaiyat”. While serving to highlight theatre and restaurant habits, it presents a prolonged version of what I call a “Punch and Judy situation” (Birden II.4), a designation which will be explained below. In “Reginald at the Theatre” the Duchess is presented as the purest of anal sadistics in the comic character typology that Susan Purdie elaborated from Freudian concepts. This type represents keeping, hoarding or withholding (Purdie 105-06). She spouts maxims at every turn in a feeble attempt to “keep” the status quo and parry Reginald’s puncturing verbal pillage. The necessity to refer to established ideas marks the Duchess’s discourse as false, and thus she can only be the most ineffectual of Judies against Punch-Reginald. He destroys the Duchess’s every sally through a witticism or a reference to reality; for example, when the Duchess talks about helping the poor the world over he mentions the London poor. In this first encounter Reginald’s final blow is to infer that Debrett’s Peerage is a holy book.

During their meal at the Carlton battle is renewed. Through this shift in setting Saki can use another type of familiar London landmark, the restaurant (usually represented by the Ritz, the Carlton, or Dieudonné’s) and satirise the social practices of the diners. Here, not only does the Duchess receive blows to her preconceived notions, but Reginald takes command of the whole conversation, exercising the Sakian havoc-wreaker’s characteristic powers of improvisation to lead the dialogue away from the Duchess’s pet concerns and into the domain of his choosing. The Duchess cannot even finish explaining her current preoccupation, a lecture on the moral aspects of travel that she is preparing, let alone encourage insights from him.

To mark a pause in this battle, Reginald shifts the object of conversation to a neighbour, thus allowing Saki a comment on restaurant behaviour: “Tell me, who is that woman with the old lace at the table on our left? Oh, that doesn’t matter; it’s quite the thing nowadays to stare at people as if they were yearlings at Tattersall’s” (“Carlton” 45-46). This is the most remarkable of many details of restaurant practices that Saki includes in this narrative. Others concern Reginald’s preoccupation with letting the Duchess choose the restaurant but not the wine and his depiction of the different ways in which diners enter the restaurant. The first, apparently mild comment brings in the usual Sakian caveat about women and decision-making. The second is an observation on London society in general, and parallels Reginald’s complacency about staring at diners. The whole question of dining as a spectacle in which one is both audience and performer is subtly represented in Reginald’s conversation.

The series ends outside of both theatre and restaurant, with Reginald earning the Duchess’s permanent enmity through his attack on another current practice, that of keeping autograph books. The Duchess repeatedly rejects Reginald’s fanciful but unusual entries until Reginald writes a mildly shocking piece of verse over the signature of the giver of the album, imitating her handwriting. The Duchess no longer dares to produce the album, defeating its true purpose.

Reginald returns to the theatre one last time in “The Innocence of Reginald”. This story comments more generally on social behaviour by noting the reactions of people who learn that Reginald intends to write his memoirs and “leave out nothing” (“Innocence” 78). It includes comment on theatre behaviour through the description of Miriam Klopstock destroying her neighbours’ enjoyment of the play to show her panic-stricken reaction to the rumour. This dialogue contains the most explicit example of this fear of Reginald “telling all”. Saki is playing on the Edwardian approach/avoidance, love/hate, attraction/repulsion relationship to scandal, a combination of shock and delectation.

The theatre and its surrounding practices also serve as a basis for comment in “Cousin Teresa”. Here two elements are brought forth: the enthusiasms that theatrical events and activities can inspire and the contrast in the types of knighthoods that can be conferred. All of this is placed within the context of a “Punch and Judy” struggle between two half brothers. As this image has already been evoked, it would be useful here to explain its function in this analysis. It designates a narrative that is structured around two antagonists and their conflict, as opposed to the other frequent Sakian situation, in which a havoc-wreaker leads a staid Victorian or Edwardian a manic dance ending with total discomfiture of the victim. Like the original Punch and Judy, the Sakian characters exchange blows, although usually merely verbal ones. The dialogue resembles the show in its rhythm: “it seemed to be the province of everybody to hit everybody else in every vulnerable part as hard as possible, …” (Calthrop 4). Also as in the original, the Sakian Punch comes out victorious, but not without bruises. Punch is thus the model for an equal struggle with one final victory at the end. Inequalities between antagonists can exist; they do not guarantee the result of the conflict.

There is one main difference between Punch and Saki’s characters. Michael Byrom suggests that “Punch and Judy” was originally inspired by the legend of St. George and the dragon (1). Saint George and Punch both fight villains who are identified immediately through their traits, their gestures, and their position in relation to the hero. On the other hand, Saki can create “villains” without announcing a clear “good/bad” opposition until the end of the story. In fact, Saki sometimes presents the characters in a way which makes the reader mistake the relation, as in “Cousin Teresa”. By analyzing these characters in terms of discursive exchange and of character types, one can discern the difference; the “winner” of the beginning of the story is revealed to be the “loser” precisely because of these typological details. The “loser” of the beginning is presented as such, not from Saki’s point of view, but from that of the types represented; thus, through their judgements skewed by their preconceptions, the other is seen as socially ill adjusted and therefore a “loser”. In Saki’s reality, this “loser” is a cousin to the havoc-wreaker in perceptions but not in inventive capacity. Through his perceptions he is tagged as being outside, a refuser of conventions, like Punch: “he just wants to live his own life, think what he likes, and sing in the streets. And the only reason he gets into trouble is because so many people try to stop him doing just this” (Byrom xii; see also Fraser 6). However, this “Punch” does not have to show this “outside” character to create antagonism in the stories. Thus their relation to the others is never characterized by the tension that develops between a victim and a havoc-wreaker. There is a primary equality in the underlying attitudes and goals and the means of combat in these stories, as opposed to those of a havoc-wreaker story.

The main example of a Punch and Judy situation analysed here, “Cousin Teresa”, begins with a difference in realms. The rivalry is between two half-brothers, Basset and Lucas. Neither feels that he is competing; Basset, confident of his superiority, based on his usefulness to the empire in the form of colonial military service, has no consideration for the feverish activities of Lucas, taken up for the moment in the whirl of the music-hall; Basset thus shows “the educated scorn of the vulgar herd” (Nevinson ix; see also Hynes 339). Lucas is hindered precisely by his febrile state of mind from even noticing Basset’s activities. The battle is therefore engaged not with considered, directed blows, but through actions and underlying attitudes that ipso facto put them in competition.

The first blow is administered before the narration begins. Basset is home after four years of distinguished service which, he surmises, has been noticed by the government. His father hopes to see his name on the list of Honours. The counter-blow is more insidious; Lucas invents a music-hall number. His inspiration is presented from the point of view of Basset, who smirks at the enthusiasm of his half-brother; he is used to seeing him announce with great fanfare a great discovery which amounts to nothing. Unfortunately for Basset, the idea snowballs, taking on the momentum which Henri Bergson considers essential to comedy (425), and becomes extremely popular in the music-halls, hummed in the streets and played by all the restaurant orchestras. However, this popularity does not represent the final blow; that comes when Lucas is put on the list of Honours instead of Basset.

This narrative finishes in an ironic circular surprise ending; the earlier representation of all of Lucas’s exertions as futile is followed by Lucas obtaining his Punch-like victory in knighthood. As has been indicated, our point of view comes from Basset; it sets the tone and creates an expectation that Basset will prove to be the Punch of this conflict. This expectation is then thwarted when the award is given to Lucas. This surface effect of surprise is, however, mitigated when one analyses the characters of Basset and Lucas. It is clear that Lucas shows, more than Basset and as much as any Sakian Punch, the insouciance of his model, his “delightful irreverence in dealing with conventional beliefs and attitudes. He just does what he likes and gets away with it!” (Fraser 6). This explanation of Punch’s character shows that Basset does not conform to type. He is an oral sadistic, a type characterised by displaced confidence or inordinate ambition (Purdie 102-03). Basset buys his social status through acts of repression considered to be heroic in the society he belongs to, and as such must be a Sakian victim.[1]

Behind “Cousin Teresa’s” Punch and Judy conflict, there is the question of the London theatre. Lucas’s melody puts in motion a wave of popularity which begins when Lucas “flies into town” to present London something which will soon be “It”. From Lucas’s headquarters at Gambrinus, London’s theatre enthusiasm soon spreads the melody all over town, and it appears finally in the restaurant with its resident orchestra. Saki’s comment is thus operating on multiple levels; the cultural practice of sending sons to colonial postings is belittled in the face of a seemingly ridiculous man’s social triumph. The triumph is based on the London public’s practice of being carried away by a new thrill in the music hall. The thrill’s momentum is aided and abetted by the word of mouth of restaurant diners, from Gambrinus outward, and by the bandwagon behaviour of the restaurant orchestras, always ready to cater to public thrills by playing the most popular melodies of the moment. Behind a seemingly simple tale of irony Saki has impaled a wealth of principles and fads. They are not all urban, but those that are make an important contribution to the humour.

Theatre and restaurant practices are the most prevalent among those that fuel Saki’s commentaries, but others also appear. Letter-sending is a major element in the construction of “Shock Tactics”, in which Mrs. Heasant witnesses the destruction of her false position of authority, based on what her generation perceives as the negative development of the succeeding generation. She insists on reading her children’s mail, and this is interfering with Bertie’s courtship of Ella. Clovis decides to help with a series of extravagant letters that put Mrs. Heasant in a frenzy, then one last letter admitting the joke. She sees that she has made a fool of herself, and when her son threatens to make a fool of her before a doctor, she promises to cease opening his mail as a bribe. Her plaintive tone after the discovery of the ruse shows, more than anything, how much she is part of a precise comic class: “[those] illegitimately, and therefore ineptly, holding their power” (Purdie 65).

Club culture is evoked in “A Defensive Diamond”, in which Treddleford ignores a first attempt by the club bore to bring him into conversation. Amblecope is not easily discouraged, and Treddleford quickly realizes that he must use desperate means. For each of Amblecope’s assaults, Treddleford answers with the most fantastical story he can think of. Three salvos are necessary to reduce Amblecope to silence, three long stories which smother the three little phrases which had inspired them. In this way Treddleford, now self-dubbed the club liar, forces his enemy to capitulate and proudly proclaims his victory. The establishment of club types within club routines is thus brought to the fore.

Finally, shopping figures prominently in “Fur” and “Louise”. In the latter particularly, Saki mocks female shopping and visiting habits while embedding them in a nest of urban references. Failure to buy wished for items is couched in direct references to Harrod’s and Selfridge’s. A quick jab at Berkeley Square and its accommodations is slipped into a reference to the practice of leaving cards. Tube lifts become the place for pretending to invent epigrams. Urban geography combines with facetiousness to provide a clever instance of cattiness: “‘She’s leaving her present home and is going to Lower Seymour Street.’ ‘I dare say she will, if she stays there long enough,’ I said” (18). Mornay’s and Sloane Street are evoked in one of many examples of female forgetfulness. Finally, a forgotten niece risks becoming subject to the recent Cat and Mouse Act, designed to control Suffragettes by rounding up women lingering in public. Through a voluble monologue, Saki makes a tour both of London and of his perception of women’s foibles.

Practices Destroyed

This mention of shopping leads to another aspect of these views of London; practices could be completely dismembered and destroyed in Saki’s prose. We have had reminders already that what Saki was writing was humour and satire, and that his satire was aimed at the stuffier side of London life. In the following sections, and through this destruction, the practices take on a more active role in the humour in order to impale the stuffiness.

Shopping is an activity that receives particular negative attention. Adela’s act of shopping in Walpurgis and Nettlepink’s in “The Dreamer” and the different examples presented in “The Sex that Doesn’t Shop” are all meant, of course, to criticise the sex in question and to reveal what is considered in these narratives as irrational behaviour. They are also clearly marked as urban forms of behaviour; Walpurgis and Nettlepink’s is obviously an imitation of a department store, and “The Sex that Doesn’t Shop” is explicitly indicated as being inspired by the opening of a new West End shopping centre. The latter tale specifically contains a contrast between male and female shopping: “A cat that spreads one shrew-mouse over the greater part of a long summer afternoon, and then possibly loses him, doubtless feels the same contempt for the terrier who compresses his rat into ten seconds of the strenuous life” (113). This is followed by an example of women’s wandering during shopping; she leaves a store that sells blotting paper insisting that it should be bought at Wink’s and Pink’s, but never buys it (114-15).

The case of Cyprian in “The Dreamer” involves a lie which is gratuitous (and perhaps fortuitous as well) while he demonstrates the possibilities for wreaking havoc on shopping practices. Cyprian accepts to accompany his aunt during her shopping. She is apprehensive when she sees him waiting for her at Walpurgis and Nettlepink’s without his hat, a necessary article for any proper man at the time: “You are not going to be what they call a Nut, are you?” (177). He assures her that it is only for convenience, and they begin the female shopping frenzy which Saki adores ridiculing. They are separated for a moment, then Adela later finds Cyprian selling items and pocketing the money.

It is Adela who suggests implicitly that Cyprian’s lie could have developed fortuitously. When she sees a customer approaching him, she supposes it is because, without a hat, he is mistaken for a salesman. This could in fact be how the idea came to him; this possibility shows both the role of chance in the forming of a prank and Cyprian’s capacity to improvise, an important trait in a farceur. All the same, Cyprian is playing the game with a pleasure that is subtly marked in the narration: “The dream look was deeper than ever in his eyes” (182). His aunt was probably right; no doubt behind the dreamy eyes (which suggest those of Reginald) is the mind of a Nut, of one who has loosed the moors of convention.

In this short story the main comic gesture is presented from a decentred position. Until the end of the story, there is no proof of rebellion in Cyprian; the prank only appears to the reader in the last two paragraphs. Until then the reader seems to be witnessing a simple shopping day, already rendered humorous enough by Saki’s description of Adela’s shopping techniques. This begins with Adela’s assurance that “‘I’m not a bargain hunter, … but I like to go where bargains are.’ Which showed that beneath her surface strength of character there flowed a gracious undercurrent of human weakness” (176). It continues with the thorough examination of napkins which she has no intention of buying, the purchase of unforeseen items rather than looked for ones and a request addressed to Cyprian to suggest the right color for writing paper (a suggestion immediately ignored) (178-79). After these activities, the sudden new orientation of Cyprian and of the story, coming at the end of the narrative, is a surprise for the reader. The combination of subjective perspective (through Adela) and decentred gesture contribute to the comic effect of the prank by presenting a delayed revelation of the rebellion.

Eating features prominently in the repertoire of disturbed practices. The social dinner receives its image of catastrophe in “The Byzantine Omelette”. Obsequiousness before people of rank, the coup of attracting a prestigious guest to one’s table, the necessity of counting on the performance of servants for a successful evening and the pomp of parading to the dining room are the urban practices which Saki brings to the fore. He adds the Fabian Society and two strikes to complete the urban scene.

Sophie Chattel-Monkheim is “a Socialist by conviction and a Chattel-Monkheim by marriage” (160). This description reveals her counterfeit; Sophie espouses Socialist ideas and gives speeches to the Fabian Society, but keeps servants and plans upper-class social events. This contradiction is laid bare in her confrontation with the house servants, who announce a strike because she has hired a former strike-breaker as emergency cook. This threatens disaster for the planned dinner honouring the Duke of Syria, for which her maid was preparing Sophie’s hair, because the entire house would cease to function: “she was helpless without the personal assistance of a servant … the Edwardian lady was a triumph of artificiality and concealment …” (Thompson 19). The social practice of keeping and becoming dependent on servants forms a secondary target of Saki’s satire in this story, as does the habit of striking, which had become regular at that period (in “The Unkindest Blow”, a Duke does it).

Thus begins a series of blows and counter-blows for Sophie; this defender of workers’ rights whines and groans about the coming disaster; her Socialist façade falls immediately before the threat of this basically Socialist movement to her social position. Until this crisis, Sophie has considered that her ability at public speaking sufficed to put her in a stable, even an unattackable, position. The strike shows that her discourse is false, empty, and that her idea of the power of it was exaggerated. The fragility of her position is reflected in the fragility of her character; she begins an eighteen-month bout of nervous prostration when, giving in to the house servants’ demands and firing the cook, she is confronted with a sympathy strike by the kitchen staff. This snowballing structure highlights the comic effect produced by Sophie’s aristophile raideur (Bergson 425).

This story presents an exceptional situation in the sense in which the victim is facing a collective Punch, the domestic staff, which in turn represents an abstract adversary, trade unionism. As a new notion (Ensor 298), too new to be assimilated by an anal sadistic character, it goes counter to all ideas of respectability in Edwardian behaviour. Sophie’s social position is played against that of the unionists, and the aristophile Sophie cannot accept this Punch-and-Judy rivalry as being among equals.

Tea as a ritual receives ironic treatment in “Tea”. On his way through the Park, James hears church bells warning him that he will arrive at tea time at the home of the woman he is about to propose to. As he detests the “tea ceremony”, with its tinkling porcelain and tinkling voices, he deviates form this path to drop in on his cousin Rhoda, whom he discovers having a simple, impromptu tea in the middle of her hat-making, and proposes to her.

Recoiling before the tinkling mannerisms of society tea à la Joan Sebastable, James dreams of tea presided over from a comfortable divan and served by a Nubian page, all in silence. The image of tinkling teas is associated in the text with Mayfair, and is juxtaposed to the tea in Esquimault Street (an apparently invented and clearly inferior side street near Mayfair) served by Rhoda on the edge of a worktable with scrounged-up cups and accompanied by talk about anything but sugar, milk and hot water. But at the end of the narrative Rhoda succumbs to the tinkling twenty-question mode of tea that James hates. It can be inferred that her new environment, Granchester Square (again an invented name representing the affluence of James and his family) has had some influence on her.

This story shows a circular snap ending which allows for happy or humorous endings, but in Saki’s hands is more often ironic or even catastrophic (Birden I.5). Through its evocation of different quarters of London, “Tea” parodies the traditional belief in marriage as a union of spirits. James shares with the havoc-wreakers a certain disdain for conventions, which he incarnates in the tea ritual. His hostility towards this ceremony is such that he is ready to give up an advantageous marriage so as not to have to spend the rest of his life suffering these mannerisms. He believes he has found salvation in Rhoda, but suddenly civilisation sucks him back in; the tinkling voice and gleaming porcelain and silver return in the hands and mouth of Rhoda. This circular ending marks an entire short story that is in circular form, with James leaving home and crossing the Park to propose to Joan, veering off into a side street to see Rhoda, and returning to a new, upper-class home and tea.

This is one of the few short stories in which stifling Society triumphs and the cocoon succeeds in absorbing its victim. The circular snap ending is used to complete the absorption that James so wants to avoid. The most detested element, the insipid voice, returns to close James in his world and in the narrative. The comic quality of this short story is contained entirely in this threefold ending. First, the comic quality of the tea ceremony forms a direct comment on social ritual. Second, James’s awareness of this comic element marks him as a comic hero, “outside” because of his consciousness of the stiffness of ceremony (Bergson 408). Thirdly, the comic element of inevitability and futility is highlighted in James’s failed attempt to escape (Bergson 424-27).

The restaurant tradition also receives ironic treatment. “The Chaplet” continues the commentary of “Cousin Teresa” about the habits of restaurant orchestras. In this tale, a conflict arises spontaneously when a chef’s new dish is presented to the diners just as the restaurant orchestra strikes up the popular tune of the moment, the title song. The rage of the chef when the conductor insists on immediately repeating the melody leads him to drown the latter in a soup tureen. Saki satirises at the same time the tendency for restaurant orchestras to play the same song ad nauseum and that of the diners to appreciate it ad infinitum, the latter encouraging the former and fraying the nerves of the staff.

“The Phantom Luncheon” attacks the ardent search on the part of some people to be invited to a restaurant. As represented in Saki’s texts, avoiding the restaurant bill is a London sport. For example, Reginald finds it necessary to announce to a friend that the latter will invite him to dine out on the 14th, as Reginald has offended the Duchess and can no longer hope for her largesse (“Reginald’s Rubaiyat” 76). In “The Phantom Luncheon”, irony is engaged in at the expense of the Smithly-Dubb sisters, who take advantage of their offers for help during political campaigns to be offered meals; by extension, this irony is at the expense of all women who participate in politics. When Lady Drakmanton, impatient with their importunities, plays a trick on them which leaves them obliged to pay the bill, the narrator indicates the effect of this trick on the sisters in the last sentence: “They have given up politics, and taken to doing good.” (“Phantom” 86) The implication of a binary opposition – participate in politics/do good – expresses all the futility of the sisters’ efforts (Birden 289).

The oral sadistic bluffing of the Smithly-Dubb sisters is geared expressly to take advantage of their position of political support in order to extort meals from others; this is an example of false exchange through a gestural bluff rather than a verbal one. Sir James Drakmanton reveals the false situation early in the narrative: “‘I don’t suppose they influence very many votes […]” (81); he thus reveals that the value of their support does not equal that of the meals they extort in exchange. This is why Lady Drakmanton develops her prank specifically in order to make them pay for the meal. Their currency of exchange is returned to them, rejected as a counterfeit, and they are obliged to present currency of real value (Purdie 99).


All of the preceding stories contain a version of Saki’s art of playing with the reader, an art that Peter Bilton considers as the essence of Saki: “the wit works — as wit does — through the trick it plays on our conditioned expectations and responses, which were what Saki constantly tried to break down. … conventional expectations are upset, and life is shown as Saki thought it ought to be seen, as a source of constant surprise, shock — and interest” (440). Sophie and James would disagree with the idea of life as a source of constant shock, but Reginald and Lady Drakmanton are born shockers, representing here the true havoc-wreaker spirit that one finds in Saki’s liveliest characters. They are also the ones who most resemble him. Saki and his characters all try to embark on the great exploration of contingency which is the goal of the comic hero. That they embark in the middle of theatres and dining rooms, disrupting the practices of these places in their passage is a key element of their quest and the essential part of our enjoyment in reading them.


[1] An anonymous reviewer of Beasts and Super-Beasts considers “Cousin Teresa” an illustration of the bizarre, of “[the] wonderful gift of grotesque characterization” that he found in Saki (61). However, he does not specify which character he finds grotesque. If he adheres to the fading principles of Victorianism, he must find the victory of Lucas over Basset unacceptable, perhaps immoral; if he is possessed of the spirit of rebelliousness that was fomenting during the time of Edward and George, it is Basset who is caricatured. As this critic shows few signs of this latter state of mind, it is quite probable that the character of Basset is perceived by him (and by many of the Morning Post’s readers) as a neglected hero. This would be why Saki satirised him (Birden 230).

Works Cited

Baring, Maurice. The Puppet Show of Memory. London: William Hienemann, 1922.

“Beasts and Super-Beasts.” Rev. of Beasts and Super-Beasts. By Saki. Spectator 11 July 1914: 60-61.

Bergson, Henri. Le rire: essai sur la signification du comique. Œuvres. Paris: P U F, 1970. 381-485.

Bilton, Peter. “Salute to an N.C.O.” English Studies 47.6 (1966): 439-42.

Birden, Lorene Mae. “‘One’s bitterest friends’: dynamique de caractère et humour chez Saki.” Diss. U Nice. 1996.

Byrom, Michael. Punch and Judy: Its Origin and Evolution. Aberdeen: Shiva, 1972.

Calthrop, Dion. Punch and Judy: A Corner in the History of Entertainment. N. p.: n. p., 1926.

Dangerfield, George. The Strange Death of Liberal England. New York: Harrison Smith and Robert Haas, 1936.

Ensor, R. C. K. England 1870-1914. Oxford: O U P, 1992.

Fraser, Peter. Punch and Judy. London: Batsford, 1970.

Gore, John. “Saki.” Leonard Russell, ed. English Wits. London: Hutchinson, 1940. 307-326.

Hynes, Samuel. The Edwardian Turn of Mind. London: Oxford U P, 1968.

Lambert, J. W. Introduction. The Bodley Head Saki. By Saki. London: The Bodley Head, 1963.

_____. “Jungle Boy in the Drawing Room: J. W. Lambert on Saki.” Listener 15.1406 (9 Feb 1956): 211-12.

Langer, Susanne K. Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art Developed from Philosophy in a New Key. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953.

Nevinson, H. M. Introduction. Beasts and Super-Beasts. The Collected Works of Saki. By Saki. London: John Lane The Bodley Head, 1926. vii-xii.

Porterfield, Alexander. “Saki.” London Mercury 12.70 (Aug 1925): 385-94.

Pritchett, V. S. “The Performing Lynx.” New Statesman 5 Jan 1957: 18-19.

_____. “Saki.” New Statesman 1 Nov 1963: 614-15.

Purdie, Susan. Comedy: The Mastery of Discourse. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993.

Saki [Hector Hugh Munro]. The Collected Works of Saki. London: John Lane The Bodley Head, 1926.

From this edition was quoted:

“Author’s Note”. The Unbearable Bassington. x.
“The Byzantine Omelette.” Beasts and Super-Beasts 160-67.
“The Chaplet.” Chronicles of Clovis 111-18.
“Cousin Teresa.” Beasts and Super-Beasts 143-50.
“A Defensive Diamond.” Beasts and Super-Beasts 239-46.
“The Dreamer.” Beasts and Super-Beasts 175-82.
“Fur.” Beasts and Super-Beasts 285-93.
“The Innocence of Reginald.” Reginald 77-82.
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To Cite This Article:

Lorene M. Birden, ‘”People Dined Against Each Other”: Social Practices in Sakian Satire’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 2 Number 2 (September 2004). Online at Accessed on [date of access]