by Ethel M. Munro
Hector Hugh Munro was born in Akyab, Burma on December 18, 1870. Hector’s father was Inspector-General of the Burma Police. The youngest of three children, Hector spent most of his early childhood at Broadgate Villa, in Pilton village near Barnstaple, North Devon. Their father had left the children there in the care of his two sisters and mother before leaving for India. Charles, Ethel and Hector grew up in a house populated by three adults, their aunts Charlotte (Tom) and Augusta, and their grandmother. Some of Saki’s characters come from this very household, his aunts were to serve as prototypes on which to base a number of his characters. Aunt Augusta is the inspiration for the women in both Sredni Vashtar and The Lumber Room while Aunt Tom was the creative impetus for The Sex that never Shops. Ethel Munro recalls that their tastes in reading (or being read to) centered around Robinson Crusoe, Masterman Ready, Alice in Wonderland. Saki was especially fond of Johnnykin and the Goblins.
Hector was not a very strong child, neither of the three children were. The family doctor had declared that neither of the siblings would reach adulthood. Out of concern for Hector’s health his departure for school was delayed and he was coached for many years by governesses. The children lived insular lives rarely meeting other children their age, both aunts lacked the demeanor necessary to raise young children. The three children got by on regular doses of excitement supplied by their Uncle Wellesly (who visited once a year), trips to family on their mothers side and visits from their father (who could only come down once every four years).
Hector was finally sent to Exmouth at age 12, the year after his grandmother passed away. Charlie had been to Exmouth as well and Hector spent three enjoyable years there before moving to Bedford Grammar at age 15. By the time he was 16, Hector’s father had retired and was back to spend more time with his children. For the next few years the three children spent time with their father, often travelling to the continent. Ethel remembers fondly a few winters spent in Davos, Switzerland.
In June 1893, Saki left for Burma; his father had arranged a post for him in the military police. Hector spent 13 months in Burma, he was sick on a number of occasions but found time to persue his study of Burmese animals, even raising a tiger-cub for a while. He continued collecting eggs, a hobby he had begun while in England. His love for wild animals solidified in Burma as he found a more varied and exotic fauna towards which to direct his attention. In 1894 Saki had to return to England after a particularly severe bout of Malaria. In 1896, after spending some time convalescing in Westward Ho, where his father and sister had settled.
In 1896 Saki left for London and began to write political satires for the Westminster Gazette. The satires were illustrated by Carruthers Gould and depicted public figures as characters in Alice in Wonderland, these essays were later collected and published as The Westminster Alice. A collection called Not so stories was published soon after in 1902. Saki had earlier published a work called The rise of the Russian Empire which was his only work of serious non-fiction. 1902 also saw him in the Balkans as a correspondent for the Morning Post. Saki came to love the upheaval of the region, something that is apparent in his story The cupboard of the Yesterdays.
In early 1904 his job with the Morning Post took him to Warsaw and by that autumn he was in St. Petersburg where Ethel joined him for a while, together they watched fighting erupt all over St. Petersburg. Saki stayed in Petersburg for two years. In 1906 he moved to Paris, writing for the Morning Post and a French paper. In May 1907 Hector had to rush back to England as his father’s health had taken a turn for the worse. A couple of days after Saki’s arrival, his father died. Ethel accompanied Saki to Pourville later that summer and by September he was back in Paris. In 1908 he returned to London and began to stay at 97 Mortimer Street. Saki spent evening at his club, The Cocoa Tree while in London. He’d also bought a cottage in Surrey Hills where Ethel stayed with him.
Saki wrote for the Morning Post, Bystander, Westminster Gazette and the Daily Express. In 1910 Reginald in Russia was published. This was followed in 1912 by The Chronicles of Clovis and in 1913 by When William Came. By the Spring of 1914 Saki was writing a column called Potted Parliament for Outlook and in 1914 Beasts and Super Beasts was published. When war was declared in late 1914, Hector rushed to enlist and was stationed with the 22nd Battalion, Royal Fusiliers in Horsham, Sussex. Hector’s brother Charlie attempted to enlist as well but was not given leave from his position as Governor of Mountjoy Prison in Dublin. The next year was hectic for Saki, he spent a number of months training in Horsham with one brief visit back to Barnstaple when his Aunt Tom died in January 1915.
In November 1915 Saki’s company was sent to France after rumours that they were to be sent to Serbia were not substantiated. Saki would have liked to return to the Balkans as a soldier. Hector spent the next year with his troops in France. He was still a Non Commissioned Officer, and he left for France as a Corporal, having refused a number of opportunities for commission. In June 1916 Saki returned to London on a short leave and spent a few days with Ethel and Charles.
In September Saki was promoted to Lance-Sergeant, he’d always held that he would learn to be a soldier before he’d feel ready to command other soldiers. Saki suffered another bout of Malaria in October and spent about a month at the battalion’s hospital. When he heard of the impending attack on Beaumont-Hamel he returned to his Battalion in the weakened state his illness had left him.
Hector Hugh Munro, Saki was killed by a sniper early in the early hours of a wintry dawn on November 13, 1916.
Saki’s sister, Ethel M. Munro, has written a biography of Saki that is included in a number of collections of Saki’s stories. It is well worth reading, not only for the insight it gives into Saki’s life and writing but also because it is extremely well written.