The Lumber-Room by Saki

John Dawson Watson - The Collector's Home

“The Lumber-Room” by H.H. Monro (Saki) is one of the short stories from Beasts and Super-Beasts, published 1914, though it was first published in a newspaper. He died two years later in the war. Significantly for this short story, Saki was gay.

There’s something very Peter Rabbit about this short story for adults. Peter Rabbit was widely read to children at the time Saki’s story was published. It’s conceivable that the fictional adults in “The Lumber-Room” believed all children (as proxy rabbits) want to get up to mischief in gardens because they had read Beatrix Potter’s tale over and over.



STORYWORLD OF “THE LUMBER-ROOM”

  • Saki’s stories are set in upper-class Edwardian England.
  • A lumber-room is a room in an upper-class English house where items are stored when not in use.
  • Jagborough is a fictional seaside resort but has a likely-sounding English name.
  • Nicholas wants to go into the deepest, most secret part of the house (rather than outside in the garden) to see what’s there. This is his inner-world, his imagination, his subconscious.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE LUMBER-ROOM”

“The Lumber-Room” is a carnivalesque story, or certainly would be if it were written for children. A child goes on an adventure, has fun without adult supervision, then returns to the safe but restrictive adult world by the end of the story. Except in this one, there’s no return to safety. The child main character of Saki’s short story understands that adults can’t be trusted. This is not a message you typically (or ever) see in picture books for children, unless it refers specifically to ‘adults can’t see the same magic’.

Notice that the aunt manufactures a ‘carnivalesque’ adventure (‘something of a festival nature’) for the other children, but this is unlikely to be fun in the slightest. We can deduce this because the girl-cousin hurts herself getting into the car and cries loudly. When supervised and arranged by adults, especially in the spirit of punishment for the ostracised, carnivalesque adventures are nothing of the sort. Sure enough, we learn the other children had a terrible time. The boy’s boots were too tight (his conservative, mainstream life too constrictive), and the tide had been up, leaving no space for play.

Saki opens “The Lumber-Room” in an interesting way, by telling us a self-contained story in the first paragraph. This mini story describes why Nicholas is in disgrace. Hitchcock might have called the frog in the bread-and-milk a McGuffin — we never hear about the frog again, but it kicks the real story off. This initial micro-story lets Nicholas have his Self-revelation upfront. The story now progresses with a wiser, more knowing, less trusting child, because Nicholas has learned that adults can turn a blind eye to what’s right in front of them, insisting things are one way when they decidedly are not.

WEAKNESS/NEED

Nicholas is your classic trickster — very intelligent but believably so. Readers love tricksters. We identify with tricksters immediately.

Nicholas’s Weakness is that he is a child. This is true for almost all children in stories, because their freedom is severely limited.

Not only that, Nicholas is a misunderstood child. We know from this particular episode of his life story that he wants to look at a narrative tapestry while the adult assumes he wants to get into the gooseberries, but this must only scratch the surface of all the ways in which he is misunderstood.

Nicholas is an aesthete rather than an athlete — the two main types of man as decided in the 19th century. He likes to walk around and look at nice things, inhaling their scent, considering the stories behind them.

Nicholas might therefore be considered a proxy for a gay adult man living in the Edwardian era. This man is expected to like ‘gooseberries’ but is in fact drawn into the hidden, secret pleasures of the locked room, which contains many beautiful treasures.

DESIRE

Nicholas wants to get into the forbidden lumber-room and explore all the wonderful things hidden to him.

The off-the-page gay man can’t necessarily explain why he loves the forbidden treasures so much, but he does love it and takes every opportunity to go there. When he does go there, he hurts no one. And the things that are in there are off-limits for no good reason.

The aunt-by-assertion was one of those people who think that things spoil by use and consign them to dust and damp by way of preserving them.

This is not a story of someone who is acting in the world, where there is danger, but someone who is content to watch on, which is bearable so long as he understands his own inner self.

OPPONENT

The ‘aunt’ is his main opponent, though she is simply standing in for ‘correct and upright society’ more generally.

Saki himself ‘was brought up by two unmarried aunts with a fondness for the birch, and developed a lifelong aversion to spinsters’ (The Guardian).

PLAN

Nicholas understands the concepts of reverse psychology and diversion.

  1. He will reinforce the aunts beliefs about him by making a show of crawling into the gooseberry garden.
  2. While the aunt is busy hunting him down in the overgrown garden he will use the key to get into the lumber-room.

BATTLE

There’s something very fairytale about the Battle scene, in which Nicholas knows full well the ‘aunt’ stuck in the tank is exactly who she says she is, but he makes us of superstition and folklore to pretend naïveté, cracking on that he really believes she’s a changeling of some sort.

SELF-REVELATION

As mentioned above, this story structure is a bit unusual because the mini-story upfront gives Nicholas his revelation.

The big reveal for the reader is that Nicholas is not interested in gooseberries, but in the more adult, less understandable pleasures of the treasures in the lumber-room.

Nicholas didn’t know what he’d find inside this forbidden room, but once he entered it, the pleasures were more than he could have imagined, especially when he found the book of beautiful birds.

Before that he observes a tapestry meant as a fire screen. Saki describes it for the reader. When writers describe a painting or photo within a story this is known as ekphrasis, which was a popular Greek pastime. Short story writers make use of it even now, and the tapestry in “The Lumber-Room” seems to function as an indirect way of arriving at a character’s Self-revelation.

What does Nicholas understand by looking at the hunters and the stag?

A man, dressed in the hunting costume of some remote period, had just transfixed a stag with an arrow; it could not have been a difficult shot because the stag was only one or two paces away from him; in the thickly-growing vegetation that the picture suggested it would not have been difficult to creep up to a feeding stag, and the two spotted dogs that were springing forward to join in the chase had evidently been trained to keep to heel till the arrow was discharged. That part of the picture was simple, if interesting, but did the huntsman see, what Nicholas saw, that four galloping wolves were coming in his direction through the wood? There might be more than four of them hidden behind the trees, and in any case would the man and his dogs be able to cope with the four wolves if they made an attack? The man had only two arrows left in his quiver, and he might miss with one or both of them; all one knew about his skill in shooting was that he could hit a large stag at a ridiculously short range. Nicholas sat for many golden minutes revolving the possibilities of the scene; he was inclined to think that there were more than four wolves and that the man and his dogs were in a tight corner.

There are plenty of interpretations, but here’s mine:

  • ‘It would not have been difficult to creep up to a feeding stag’ and it would not be difficult for heteronormative society to work out what’s going on right under their noses if only they were to look.
  • But when they do look, it is very dangerous for the stag.
  • It is pleasurable in this forbidden room but it is also dangerous. Perhaps danger is part of the pleasure itself.
  • There’s no easy way to win the big struggle when you are the stag.

Nicholas’s secret is now a safe thing. He comes up with a way the story on the tapestry could end that could be all right. Will Eaves, on the Neuromantics podcast says this crops up a lot in Greek myth: How can these sexually irresponsible labile figures have an effect in the world that ends up restoring balance? (Myth is very important to Saki’s literary world. A lot of the macabre stories have roots in green man figures and whatnot.)

 NEW EQUILIBRIUM

The aunt who is — significantly — not Nicholas’s own aunt doesn’t really know him. So she is obliged to believe that perhaps he was naive enough to think that she had been swapped out by some evil witch. We don’t get to know of any further consequences for Nicholas but we can extrapolate that the aunt has either got the measure of him now (that he is much smarter than he cracks on) or else much dumber. I bet she’s keeping a close eye on him, to work out which of those it is.

The gay man sort of gets away with entering the metaphorical lumber-room because people simply assume he wants something else entirely. While they are assuming that, they aren’t looking for him in there. But he doesn’t get away with it entirely. Others know something is up. They know that he is tricking them in some way, though can’t quite get the measure of him, in a society where sexuality and orientation isn’t discussed. People don’t even have the language to discuss it. In that way, the adult gay man is similar to a child — children know things, but are often ill-equipped with language to describe these things.

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Credit goes to Episode 3 of the Neuromantics podcast for alerting me to the gay subtext of this story. I’d otherwise have missed it. (At 29 minutes) The Neuromantics talk about “The Lumber-Room” in a discussion about people’s inner-world. Nicholas’s inner world is so much more important and satisfying to him than anything else.

Header painting: John Dawson Watson — The Collector’s Home

The She-Wolf by Saki

The She-Wolf” is a comedic short story by Saki. Clovis the prankster gets up to tricks. This is a twist on the transgression comedy. In order to write a story like this, the writer must embody the prankster. The satisfying thing about writing this kind of story is that the writer’s pranks always work on our fictional victims.

But it’s not so easy to satisfy the readers with a prank plot… How did Saki do it?



STORY STRUCTURE OF “SHE-WOLF”

WEAKNESS/NEED

The most fleshed-out character is Leonard Bilsiter, the victim of a prank.

Saki explains Leonard Bilsiter’s shortcoming up front:

one of those people who have failed to find this world attractive or interesting, and who have sought compensation in an “unseen world” of their own experience or imagination — or invention.

So, a bit of a Walter Mitty character. Except Walter Mitty doesn’t try to gain prestige with his fantasies — Mitty deludes his own self.

Bilsiter’s particular Weakness is going to be both psychological and moral in nature, since you can’t make up stories without hurting other people. (Because other people must be told.)

The reader needs to feel that Leonard is deserving of the prank.

DESIRE

The Desire to tell people amazing stories is at its core the Desire for acceptance and respect. It is also the Desire for others to reflect your own fantasies, thereby making them feel true.

OPPONENT

Clovis, the witty prankster. Also Mary, whose function is like the male magician’s pretty assistant.

PLAN

The Plan is hatched by the prankster.

Leonard has been boasting about magic that turns people into wolves. So Clovis will borrow a wolf and arrange with Mary to make it look as if Bilsiter has turned Mary into a wolf.

BATTLE

Everyone else at the gathering is terrified of the wolf and flabbergasted at the  ‘magic’. The wolf is considered dangerous. Several people think they are going to die.

SELF-REVELATION THE MASK COMES OFF

Because this is a comedy, there’s no need for character growth.

So far, Bilsiter has been trying to crack on that he is more knowledgeable and worldly and magical than he is. Usually in a transgression comedy like Tootsie or About A Boy, everyone in the liar’s orbit is fooled for a while (or successfully suspends disbelief).

In this particular story, no one around Bilsiter believes his stories for a second. So a flip occurs at this point: People who did not believe him before do believe him now. People who did not believe him before appear to believe him now.

Clovis and Mary, our pranksters, not only scare Bilsiter but Clovis makes sure he doesn’t leave Bilsiter with any social prestige. So he takes the mantle of magical transmogrifier for himself.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

The reader is not let in on the extent to which Bilsiter truly believes in the magic he blusters on about, but we do know this for sure: Bilsiter hates Clovis.

Header photo by Tahoe Beetschen

Mrs Tiggy-Winkle by Beatrix Potter

Beatrix Potter wrote Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle specifically to appeal to girls. She thought that Lucie’s feminine garb, with its emphasis on the lost clothing items (o, calamity!), would appeal to girls especially.

Even today, authors and publishers are creating children’s books for the gender binary* e.g. this book will appeal to boys because X; this will appeal to girls because Y.

*Gender binary is not an ideal term, though it’s used widely. We don’t live in a gender binary — that suggests two categories which are equal. We live with gender isomorphism, in which there are ‘men’ and ‘failed men’.

Potter’s concept was a hard sell — publisher Norman Warne (about to become her fiancé) couldn’t see the appeal but he must’ve conceded he wasn’t a girl himself so Beatrix would know better, and Beatrix won (as she often did).

But Beatrix was wrong about the appeal of Lucie. Everyone who sets out to write ‘boy books’ and ‘girl books’ is always completely wrong, of course. Lucie didn’t garner much of an audience at all — everyone preferred the character of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle.

Norman hadn’t been keen on a ‘hedgehog book’, either. He didn’t think dirty hedgehogs would appeal to kids — probably because they’re not fluffy. (The spines are modified hairs, Norman.) Perhaps it was Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle herself who paved the way for an entire raft of animal children’s books featuring non-cute creatures. Now we see reptiles, naked mole rats, fish, likeable insects and almost anything you can think of in picture books.



STORY STRUCTURE OF MRS. TIGGY WINKLE

Since Potter intended Lucie to be the main character, that’s where I’ll go with it.

WEAKNESS/NEED

Lucie’s shortcoming is that she keeps losing things.

DESIRE

Lucie wants her handkerchief and pinnies back, which sets her out on her journey.

OPPONENT

This is a carnivalesque story, so the Opponent is replaced by a fun creature who allows the child to enter fully into a world of fantasy.

Any sense of danger comes only from the ‘hair-pins’ poking through Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle’s bonnet, wrong end out. This suggests she could snap at any time… though she doesn’t, of course! She’s a working class woman and remains deferential to Lucie, who comes from a middle-class household. (Back then it was very easy to tell socio-economic status from clothing.)

Although I’m sure most readers won’t bring the story of Chicken Little to front-of-mind when reading Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, Chicken Little exists in a corpus of scary folk and fairy tales in which children go off looking for something, enter a wild creature’s house and come to a messy end. Goldilocks and The Three Bears is another example. So with those tales as palimpsest, there’s an ominous atmosphere to Potter’s Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, despite the fact that Lucie is always very safe with the hedgehog, despite her dagger-like spines.

PLAN

There are elements of many classic tales here, not only Chicken Licken, which involves a character going from character to character asking the same question. (Also birds. Lots of birds.) In this case Lucie is looking for her handkerchief as a kind of McGuffin. (Not technically, because she does get her things back at the end.)

Jon Klassen uses a similar story structure in I Want My Hat Back.

Eventually Lucie’s plan is to follow a particular bird, who appears to be leading her somewhere — to the top of a hill where she has a revelation. See: The Symbolism of Altitude.

Potter is also making use of the Miniature in Storytelling technique, starting when it appears Lucie can drop a pebble down a chimney, even from the top of a hill. This is describing how Little-town looks tiny from the elevated vantage point, like a dollhouse. She is about to enter a world of play.

When Lucie finds the footprints she follows them, almost in spite of herself. This has the vibe of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland — she eventually finds a portal — not a rabbit hole but a door straight into the hill. (Pied Piper, anyone?) The Alice imagery continues when Lucie enters the hedgehog’s house and seems to shrink, though she hasn’t literally changed size within the setting — it’s just that the ceiling is low and everything is in miniature. This is the wish fulfilment fantasy of shrinking down and entering your own dollhouse. I can imagine this appealed, though not just to girls.

BATTLE

Although this story begins as a mythic journey, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle is still a pretty standard Domestic Story, set inside the home, with female characters doing feminine things. But because this is a hedgehog washer-woman, this alone is enough to thrill the young audience of its era, and the carnivalesque ‘fun’ involves watching Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle wash clothing items belonging to a variety of woodland creatures.

When Lucie is excited to meet Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny, this is a clear early example of intertextual marketing. You’ll see the same thing done today. For instance, some of the later Babymouse books make sure to mention the authors’ ‘boy book’ companion series about the amoeba.

Finally, the visit concludes when Lucie and Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle sit down and drink tea.

SELF-REVELATION

In a carnivalesque story like this, the Self-revelation phase is replaced by a stage that marks the end of fun and passage back into the real world. In this case, the stile marks the portal back into the real world.

The inevitable message: Magic must be real. If you can imagine it, perhaps it might come true. Lucie realises this, and so might the reader.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

(Now some people say that little Lucie had been asleep upon the stile—but then how could she have found three clean pocket-handkins and a pinny, pinned with a silver safety-pin?

And besides—I have seen that door into the back of the hill called Cat Bells—and besides I am very well acquainted with dear Mrs. Tiggy-winkle!)

Mrs Tiggy-Winkle is an early example of what TV Tropes calls “Or Was It A Dream?” Potter is very clear about what she’s doing, with a note at the end. These days the reader is given no such hand-holding. You see an example of this trope in a picture book like The Polar Express, in which the child seems to go off on a fantasy adventure but is left with a token of proof.

The Tale of Timmy Tiptoes by Beatrix Potter

Beatrix Potter was already popular by the time she published The Tale of Timmy Tiptoes (1911). The introduction to our 110th anniversary copy says the tale was created specifically to appeal to a new, American audience, with the inclusion of chipmunks.

Unfortunately, Beatrix had never seen a chipmunk in real life. She must have relied upon photos when illustrating the chipmunks, but good reference photos wouldn’t have been easy to come by in England at the time.



The publisher pointed out that Potter’s chipmunks looked more like rabbits. She initially insisted chipmunks DO look like rabbits, but was required to re-do them regardless.

Chipmunks are small mammals with distinct stripes, while the tree squirrel is larger and doesn’t have stripes. Rabbits are… um… also mammals.

This story is notable for its depiction of bird calls set to words. Like the riddles found in other Beatrix Potter books, and like nursery rhymes in general, my generation of parents may be skipping the teaching of these bird calls set to words. e.g. “A little bit of bread and no cheese” to describe the call of a yellowhammer, introduced to New Zealand by Acclimatisation Societies between 1865 and 1879. My own father taught this to me, but I remain unfamiliar with the calls of European birds.

The calls in Aristophanes’ Birds (produced in 414 bce) must be some of the oldest examples of this on record: Torotorotorotix, Epopoi popopopopopopoi and so on.

Aaaaw to Zzzzzd: The Words of Birds North America, Britain, and Northern Europe is a book by John Bevis. Its marketing copy reads: The distinctive and amazing songs and calls of birds: a meditation and a lexicon.

We do have a few New Zealand-specific bird calls set to words, most notably from Denis Glover’s famous poem “The Magpies”, which I learned in school. My parents’ generation were required to memorise poetry and this was one that New Zealanders over about 75 will be able to recite for you, but the skill of poetry recital had died by the time I went through primary school in the eighties. I didn’t memorise a single poem (outside Bible verses).

New Zealand’s magpies are from Australia. Now I live in Australia, surrounded by an array of outstandingly noisy birds. The magpie barely makes an impact against the cockatoos, so it’s no surprise the poem was written in New Zealand, where the magpie remains distinctively loud.

When it comes to birds, regional dialects develop. Haha. So yellowhammers probably sing with a Kiwi accent these days.

VIOLENCE in timmy tiptoes

The Tale of Timmy Tiptoes is a remarkably violent story of the kind you won’t see published anew today. The scene where Timmy is wrangled through a very small hole leaves him close to dead. This is Tony Soprano stuff.

A MODERN THEORY

But it’s also a tender story of two male characters spending time together, one looking after another in a way far more typical of feminine caring. I just did an Internet search in case my thoughts on this are already done to death in literary circles, but found nothing. I may plough a lonely furrow, and this may sound facetious, but through my contemporary lens Chippy Hackee reads as a gay man, perhaps gender queer, or some related combo.

STORY STRUCTURE OF TIMMY TIPTOES

This story is written in classic mythic structure. Timmy leaves home, encounters baddies and goodies, must decipher which is which and eventually returns home slightly changed. Beatrix Potter mixes things up a bit by switching the squirrel main character out for a chipmunk, who continues this same linear journey into darkness. It is the chipmunk who faces the biggest big struggle (with the bear). Potter’s empathetic character remains safe.

WEAKNESS/NEED/PROBLEM

Timmy Tiptoes starts out with a remarkably hygge vibe — life is good for this young married couple, living in a utopian woodland with plenty of food and meditative days out collecting food for winter.

Timmy and Goody in utopia

DESIRE

Timmy Tiptoes and his wife want to collect enough nuts for winter.

Chippy wants a different lover from the one he’s got, or maybe he only wants the freedom to express the feminine-coded act of caregiving in an era where that’s not permitted for men. But that’s just my reading. (It would not have been Potter’s intention.)

OPPONENT

The name Silvertail sounds vaguely piratey

Something must happen to upset Timmy’s idyllic life. Turns out this is no utopia at all — only an snail under the leaf setting. There are baddies in these woods. Thieves.

If you are a hibernating creature and your food store gets stolen, that’s a life and death matter.

The birds are unwitting opponents by outing where the Tiptoe couple are hiding their stash.

Squirrels go to great lengths to hide their nuts — they meticulously arrange leaves to make them look undisturbed. (I think Potter would’ve seen that herself.)

Chippy is also an opponent to Timmy despite his caregiving — Timmy just wants to go home to his wife, but Chippy keeps offering up all this delicious food. He becomes too fat to fit back through the hole.

PLAN

Our main character has no plan other than to get on with his happy, day-to-day life, so in this case the baddies are the ones with the plan — they steal the Tiptoes’ nuts.

Silvertail is a forgetful squirrel, so his plan is to just dig up whosever nuts he finds. Potter was right about squirrels forgetting the location of some of their nut stores, but their memory is far more amazing than even naturalists knew back then:

Depending on the squirrel species and the type of nut, squirrels are generally able to retrieve up to 95 percent of their buried food, research shows.

Live Science

BATTLE

Timmy has his near-death moment when he is squeezed through the hole in the tree. He lies semi-conscious upon his own store of nuts. Meanwhile we are subjected to the heartbreaking scene of Goody, his wife, searching everywhere for him. This Battle happens at about the midway point in the story. But Timmy is saved by the tender care of an (at first) non-gendered, unidentified chipmunk (referred to as the distancing ‘it’), who tucks Timmy into his own bed and even lends Timmy his night cap. Then he keeps Timmy captive by feeding him nuts so he will never make it back out through the woodpecker’s hole. This is Emma Donahue’s Room mashed up with Se7en mashed up with Brokeback Mountain.

Conveniently for the story, wind blows Chippy’s tree over. This allows Timmy to escape and the mythic journey now switches to the chipmunk, whose name we learn is Chippy Hackee, but only after the wives get together to lament their missing husbands.

Mrs Chippy Hackee has been abandoned for reasons that remain unexplained within the world of the story. Nor are we given any clues — she seems a perfectly adequate wife — everything one would want in a chipmunk. I deduce the setting reason for Chippy leaving his wife must be this: Timmy has been busy filling their marital home with his nut store and Chippy is dissatisfied because his wife fails to keep their house clean — the main job of a wife in 1911, and perfectly obvious to Potter’s contemporary audience. An obvious plot hole: Chippy’s new hiding place is no less full up with nuts. The nuts are not the problem in that relationship, people.

We learn via Mrs Chippy Hackee that her husband ‘bites’; i.e. he bites her. She assumes he bites everyone. But we have seen the opposite behaviour from Chippy in his tender loving care for the larger, injured (male) squirrel.

Chippy refuses to go home to his wife even when the tree blows over, leaving him exposed to the elements. He would rather CAMP OUT IN THE ACTUAL RAIN than go home to his wife, who pleads with him nonetheless. He’s in a total slump. He had a soul mate in Timmy — now Timmy has gone home, arm in arm with his own wife, and if Chippy can’t have Timmy he would rather have no one.

The only thing that shoos Chippy home is the appearance of a hangry bear.

SELF-REVELATION

And when Chippy Hackee got home, he found he had caught a cold in his head; and he was more uncomfortable still.

More uncomfortable because of the head cold? His wife is nursing him back to health despite his previously biting her. Perhaps Chippy is more comfortable in the caregiver’s role. He’s had a taste of his gender expansive freedom and now he’s stuck being someone’s reluctant husband forever in the strict gender binary of 1911.

I don’t believe for one second that this was Beatrix Potter’s intent for the story. So what is the 1911 Self-revelation of her Timmy Tiptoes tale?

That home with your wife is better, because wives take care of you. Go home to your family. Be loyal to your heteronormative family.

As for the Tiptoes, they buy a lock for their nut stash. Moral: If you don’t want your stuff nicked, lock it up. Hey, that’s what Chippy thought. (‘Lock up what you love’ doesn’t apply to living creatures, Chippy. You can’t just force feed a lover so he can’t escape through the hole, Chippy.)

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

The Tiptoes have new babies, which makes Goody’s earlier scene all the more upsetting — she was pregnant with at least three when she thought she’d been abandoned by her husband.

The final illustration suggests the chipmunks remain unhappy. Their discord is symbolised by the bird who swoops down, poked at angrily by the wife with that battered and broken umbrella, to symbolise the battered and broken relationship.