Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Saki/Edward Gorey's "Reginald at the Carlton"

"Scandal is merely the compassionate allowance which the gay make to the humdrum. Think how many blameless lives are brightened by the blazing indiscretions of other people."
I enjoyed every last morsel of The Unrest-Cure by Saki (H. H. Munro).  Combined with dozens of illustrations by Edward Gorey, this little edition is just perfection. The first story, "Reginald at the Carlton," is such a hoot I had to share it with you. Another howler, "Tobermory," is often found in anthologies about cats.
"What I'm really interested in is everyday life." Gorey told Newsweek in 1977. "It's dreadfully hazardous. I never could understand why people always feel they have to climb up Mount Everest when you know it's quite dangerous getting out of bed." Taken from The Chronicles of Clovis, Beasts and Super-Beasts, The Toys of Peace, and other Saki volumes, all of the mordant and macabre tales in this collection prove his point with panache. (If names like Lady Whortleberry, the Mudge-Jervises, Baroness Booblestein, Dolores Sneep, Loona Bimberton, Lady Bastable, Mrs. Philidore Stossen, Octavian Ruttle, and Peter Pigeoncote seem funny, this book is for you!)
 Reginald at the Carlton
"A most variable climate," said the Duchess; "and how unfortunate that we should have had that very cold weather at a time when coal was so dear! So distressing for the poor."
"Someone has observed that Providence is always on the side of the big dividends," remarked Reginald.
The Duchess ate an anchovy in a shocked manner; she was sufficiently old-fashioned to dislike irreverence towards dividends.
Reginald had left the selection of a feeding-ground to her womanly intuition, but he chose the wine himself, knowing that womanly intuition stops short at claret. A woman will cheerfully choose husbands for her less attractive friends, or take sides in a political controversy without the least knowledge of the issues involved--but no woman ever cheerfully chose a claret.
"Hors d'oeuvres have always a pathetic interest for me," said Reginald: "they remind me of one's childhood that one goes through, wondering what the next course is going to be like--and during the rest of the menu one wishes one had eaten more of the hors d'oeuvres. Don't you love watching the different ways people have of entering a restaurant? There is the woman who races in as though her whole scheme of life were held together by a one-pin despotism which might abdicate its functions at any moment; it's really a relief to see her reach her chair in safety. Then there are the people who troop in with an-unpleasant-duty-to-perform air, as if they were angels of Death entering a plague city. You see that type of Briton very much in hotels abroad. And nowadays there are always the Johannesbourgeois, who bring a Cape-to-Cairo atmosphere with them--what may be called the Rand Manner, I suppose."
"Talking about hotels abroad," said the Duchess, "I am preparing notes for a lecture at the Club on the educational effects of modern travel, dealing chiefly with the moral side of the question. I was talking to Lady Beauwhistle's aunt the other day--she's just come back from Paris, you know. Such a sweet woman" -
"And so silly. In these days of the over-education of women she's quite refreshing. They say some people went through the siege of Paris without knowing that France and Germany were at war; but the Beauwhistle aunt is credited with having passed the whole winter in Paris under the impression that the Humberts were a kind of bicycle . . . Isn't there a bishop or somebody who believes we shall meet all the animals we have known on earth in another world? How frightfully embarrassing to meet a whole shoal of whitebait you had last known at Prince's! I'm sure in my nervousness I should talk of nothing but lemons. Still, I daresay they would be quite as offended if one hadn't eaten them. I know if I were served up at a cannibal feast I should be dreadfully annoyed if anyone found fault with me for not being tender enough, or having been kept too long."
"My idea about the lecture," resumed the Duchess hurriedly, "is to inquire whether promiscuous Continental travel doesn't tend to weaken the moral fibre of the social conscience. There are people one knows, quite nice people when they are in England, who are so different when they are anywhere the other side of the Channel."
"The people with what I call Tauchnitz morals," observed Reginald. "On the whole, I think they get the best of two very desirable worlds. And, after all, they charge so much for excess luggage on some of those foreign lines that it's really an economy to leave one's reputation behind one occasionally."
"A scandal, my dear Reginald, is as much to be avoided at Monaco or any of those places as at Exeter, let us say."
"Scandal, my dear Irene--I may call you Irene, mayn't I?"
"I don't know that you have known me long enough for that."
"I've known you longer than your god-parents had when they took the liberty of calling you that name. Scandal is merely the compassionate allowance which the gay make to the humdrum. Think how many blameless lives are brightened by the blazing indiscretions of other people. Tell me, who is the 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."
"Mrs. Spelvexit? Quite a charming woman; separated from her husband" -
"Incompatibility of income?"
"Oh, nothing of that sort. By miles of frozen ocean, I was going to say. He explores ice-floes and studies the movements of herrings, and has written a most interesting book on the home-life of the Esquimaux; but naturally he has very little home-life of his own."
"A husband who comes home with the Gulf Stream would be rather a tied-up asset."
"His wife is exceedingly sensible about it. She collects postage-stamps. Such a resource. Those people with her are the Whimples, very old acquaintances of mine; they're always having trouble, poor things."
"Trouble is not one of those fancies you can take up and drop at any moment; it's like a grouse-moor or the opium-habit--once you start it you've got to keep it up."
"Their eldest son was such a disappointment to them; they wanted him to be a linguist, and spent no end of money on having him taught to speak--oh, dozens of languages!--and then he became a Trappist monk. And the youngest, who was intended for the American marriage market, has developed political tendencies, and writes pamphlets about the housing of the poor. Of course it's a most important question, and I devote a good deal of time to it myself in the mornings; but, as Laura Whimple says, it's as well to have an establishment of one's own before agitating about other people's. She feels it very keenly, but she always maintains a cheerful appetite, which I think is so unselfish of her."
"There are different ways of taking disappointment. There was a girl I knew who nursed a wealthy uncle through a long illness, borne by her with Christian fortitude, and then he died and left his money to a swine-fever hospital. She found she'd about cleared stock in fortitude by that time, and now she gives drawing-room recitations. That's what I call being vindictive."
"Life is full of its disappointments," observed the Duchess, "and I suppose the art of being happy is to disguise them as illusions. But that, my dear Reginald, becomes more difficult as one grows older."
"I think it's more generally practised than you imagine. The young have aspirations that never come to pass, the old have reminiscences of what never happened. It's only the middle- aged who are really conscious of their limitations--that is why one should be so patient with them. But one never is."
"After all," said the Duchess, "the disillusions of life may depend on our way of assessing it. In the minds of those who come after us we may be remembered for qualities and successes which we quite left out of the reckoning."
"It's not always safe to depend on the commemorative tendencies of those who come after us. There may have been disillusionments in the lives of the mediaeval saints, but they would scarcely have been better pleased if they could have foreseen that their names would be associated nowadays chiefly with racehorses and the cheaper clarets. And now, if you can tear yourself away from the salted almonds, we'll go and have coffee under the palms that are so necessary for our discomfort."
* * *
"To be among people who are smothered in furs when one hasn't any oneself makes one want to break most of the Commandments."—from the story "Fur," by Saki. [above right: Edward Gorey in one of his trademark fur coats]


  1. I fully agree with Gorey that the hazards of everyday life are as much exercise as climbing Mt. Everest or facing a lion in Kenya. This is all the hazard I require of life!
    Thanks for a pleasant afternoon interlude among people who make me feel smug and underdressed.
    I had the pleasure of reading Tobermory (or The Cat Who Knew Too Much). Felixity (who is staying with relatives) used to say that the yellow Tom would have been no problem for him. He had the acquaintance of a lovely yellow dam who would have smoothed things over nicely.

  2. Love the Gorey! Some of his illustrations almost look like woodcuts.

  3. The dark,dry wit of Saki is a perfect match for the drawings of Gorey!
    Saki's last line before his death, "Put out that bloody cigarette!" coupled with the fact that he was killed in a shell crater by a German sniper in 1916, leads to the inevitable conclusion that he died from another man's smoking habit.

    1. Odd demise may run in the family. His mother was killed by a run-in with a cow. Not often do cows become lethal.

  4. I just recently encountered the wit of Saki for the first time within the pages of Anne and Jeff VanderMeer's "The Weird," a massive tome collecting "weird" fiction from the late 19th through the late 20th centuries. "Sredni Vashtar" was the title they chose to include, and I found it both effective as witty satire of the repressive bourgeois English culture of the time, as well as evocative of the strange and subtly fantastic in the vein of Lord Dunsany. I was delighted to see that Daedalus was carrying a collection of his stories and barely hesitated to snatch up a copy for myself.

    I had heard that story of the cigarette and the sniper in WWI and some notable figure's darkly comic last words, but had never connected it to Saki. Seems oddly fitting. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Sredni Vashtar is one of the greatest ... that name! Gorey's illustration of the boy eating his toast after exacting his revenge is too perfect.

    2. One might also see in the tale a subtle criticism of religion, or of what worshippers demand of their personal deities. "I chant your name. Now do what I say."