If I mention the author ‘Saki’, you probably think of darkly funny short stories, if you think of anything at all. If you were around during the brief spate where lots of bloggers were reading The Unbearable Bassington (which is exceptionally good) then perhaps that comes to mind. What I have yet to see mentioned is his 1913 novel When William Came, which I have just finished. The ‘William’ in question is Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, and the ‘coming’ is his invasion of Britain. Although such an invasion never took place, of course, Saki is essentially predicting the First World War – a war in which, in 1916, he would be killed.
If you’ve seen Went The Day Well? – a film based on a Graham Greene story about a similar invasion in the Second World War – then you might expect When William Came to have similar resistance and trauma as its keynotes. In fact, the invasion is over, and much is continuing as ever before. A lot of British people have fled to the colonies, but those that remain continue their social whirl with much jollity, only some of which is forced. Cicely Yeovil is the chief socialite here, determined that a small thing like a new monarch and official language won’t prevent her surrounding herself by beautiful young pianists and gossipy older women.
“My heart ought to be like a singing-bird to-day, I suppose,” said Cicely presently.
“Because your good man is coming home?” asked Ronnie.
“He’s expected some time this afternoon, though I’m rather vague as to which train he arrives by. Rather a stifling day for railway travelling.”
“And is your heart doing the singing-bird business?” asked Ronnie.
“That depends,” said Cicely, “if I may choose the bird. A missal-thrush would do, perhaps; it sings loudest in stormy weather, I believe.
Cicely’s husband, Murray Yeovil, is returning from lands afar, having picked up only bits and pieces of the news. He is rather horrified by the response of those known as the fait accompli – who may have considered resistance, fleetingly, but have instead settled down to dinner parties and modern dance.
I don’t know what it says about me, but I much preferred the goings-on of the fait accompli to the anxieties of the patriotic, militaristic types. My heart leapt within me whenever Joan Mardle appeared – she is described in one of Saki’s characteristically wonderful, brief descriptive entrances:
She cultivated a jovial, almost joyous manner, with a top-dressing of hearty good-will and good-nature which disarmed strangers and recent acquaintances; on getting to know her better they hastily rearmed themselves.
Always knowing what will most wound her acquaintances, but delivering these blows with disingenuous innocence, Joan Mardle would be a terrible friend, but is a wonderful character. I love any b*tchy exchanges in high social circles – here’s another one I loved:
“I should have put on rubies and orange opals for you. People with our colour of hair always like barbaric display -”
“They don’t,” said Ronnie, “they have chaste cold tastes. You are absolutely mistaken.”
“Well, I think I ought to know!” protested the dowager; “I’ve lived longer in the world than you have, anyway.”
“Yes,” said Ronnie with devastating truthfulness, “but my hair has been this colour longer than yours has.”
Ouch! But this is tempered with much more straight-faced reactions to the invasion and the possibility of Britain regaining its independent feet. Here, for example, is someone arguing the point with Yeovil:
“Remember all the advantages of isolated position that told in our favour while we had the sea dominion is in other hands. The enemy would not need to mobilize a single army corps or to bring a single battleship into action; a fleet of nimble cruisers and destroyers circling round our coasts would be sufficient to shut out our food supplies.”
In The Unbearable Bassington, Saki ingeniously balanced the comic and tragic, letting tragedy flow as an undercurrent to comedy until the climax of the novel. In When William Came, I found the combination of insouciance and politics rather disjointed. Comedy and tragedy are closely aligned, of course. Anger and resignation could have worked in the same two-sides-of-the-coin way in When William Came, but the social merry-go-round didn’t really work alongside the militaristic angst. The competing elements (in a very short novel) felt simply too different, and I ended up being a little disappointed.
Having said that, When William Came is worth reading if only for those parts of it I did love. Nobody writes a social scene quite as bitingly as Saki, and few authors have his economy of words. Once you’ve exhausted the short stories and The Unbearable Bassington, this is certainly worth reading, if only because we (sadly) have so little of Saki’s work to read.