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 Anagnorisis 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.

SHORTCOMING

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

Nicholas’s Shortcoming 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.

BIG STRUGGLE

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.

ANAGNORISIS

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 Anagnorisis.

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 SITUATION

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.

MORE

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”

SHORTCOMING

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 Shortcoming 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.

BIG STRUGGLE

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.

ANAGNORISIS 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 SITUATION

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

Tobermory Short Story by Saki

Tobermory” is a short story by Hector Hugh Munro, otherwise known as Saki. Anyone with a pet has probably wondered what that pet would say to you if it could talk. Many children’s stories have this premise, and this particular wish fulfilment fantasy. We imagine if our pets could talk they would say satisfying things.



Saki’s story, about a talking cat, reminds me of a cartoon in which a man wishes his dog could talk. But as soon as the dog starts talking the man is weirded out and says, “You’ve seen too  much.” He immediately takes the power of talking away from his pet.

Gary Larson has also mined this gag, also on dogs:

Man invents talking machine for dogs and they only say hey hey hey

But cats are thought to be more circumspect. We consider them haughty, knowing and at the top of their own hierarchy. The heterodiegetic narrator of Tobermory is like a cat himself, and as viewpoint character, sees through bluff and bluster of the assembled human party.

HUMOUR OF SAKI

The humour of Saki’s stories derives from an ironic gap between the highly formal register, most often used by the highly educated, and the subject matter, which is completely unbelievable. The register tips over into ostentatious and affected. Saki makes deliberate use of purple language such as ‘he expostulated’.

The comparisons he makes go way outside the bounds of the story itself. Here is a sentence which says ‘Cornelius Appin was crestfallen.’

An archangel ecstatically proclaiming the Millennium, and then finding that it clashed unpardonably with Henley and would have to be indefinitely postponed, could hardly have felt more crestfallen than Cornelius Appin at the reception of his wonderful achievement.

Australian author Kathy Lette writes in a similar fashion in some of her novels, such as The Boy Who Fell To Earth. This story gets a lot of its humour from its great many parenthetical asides.

It’s the ironic gap between register and subject matter that makes Saki’s humour feel irreverent. Add to that insights on human nature from his narrator and you have a wry social commentary. No better character than a talking cat to criticise humans.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “TOBERMORY”

SHORTCOMING

The great shortcoming of this group of people is that they don’t really like each other at all, yet here they are, all forced to commingle. They’ve been saying nasty things about each other behind backs.

DESIRE

Each has their own conflicting desire which they bring to the dinner party:

  • Mr Cornelius Appin wants to demonstrate his wonderful invention (foiled because the invention is terrible)
  • Sir Wilfrid does not want to be taken for a fool (foiled because he is revealed to be a fool anyway)
  • Lady Blemley wants to be a good hostess (foiled by the cat)
  • Mrs Cornett wants to be regarded a beauty (though she spends much time with make-up to get herself looking presentable)
  • Miss Scrawen, ironically, doesn’t want everyone to know she leads such a good and virtuous life
  • Odo Finsberry wants to keep his private life private since he is meant to be reading for the Church
  • Agnes Resker wants to enjoy a free meal since she is experiencing financial hardship
  • and so on

OPPONENT

The talking cat is the opponent, but only because the web of opposition has already been set up.

PLAN

Sir Wilfrid suggests they put strychnine in the table scraps and leave them out for the cat to eat.

The rest of the party do their best to paper over that a huge rift has emerged between the neighbours of the Tower.

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle of cat eating poison and dying is subverted. The death happens off-stage in an unexpected fight with a Tom. On the other hand, this is entirely expected. We might imagine the cat was able to articulate nastiness to other cats as well as to other humans.

ANAGNORISIS

This story includes an entire cast of characters but Saki has chosen to home in on one character’s response to all this: That of Lady Blemley, who ‘sufficiently recovers her spirits to write an extremely nasty letter to the Rectory about the loss of her valuable pet’.

This is displaced anger, of course. And this is the reader’s revelation. People deal with humiliation by branching out with it. It’s called lateral violence, when it happens as part of a system.

NEW SITUATION

Saki finishes in children’s picture book fashion (also utilised a lot by Paul Jennings) in which another similar story happens a second time, but with a different main character. This time it’s an elephant, and the reveal is that the elephant learned to talk and got sick of an Englishman who was trying German irregular verbs on it.

The joke is readily understood by any English speaker who has ever tried learning German verb conjugation. (Though English is far less regular than German.) Note that Saki has not waited until the final paragraph to mention the elephant — one of the characters suggested elephants at the dinner party, since elephants can’t sneak about under chairs and whatnot and therefore make a safe subject.

It’s a good idea to prepare the reader in this way if you mean to end your short story like this. This is how you get your ending to feel ‘both expected and surprising’. Otherwise, readers will complain that the ending feels ‘tacked on’.

Elephants are an excellent choice for this final episode. My father remembers a traveling circus coming to the small town of Amberley. This was the 1950s. He and another boy rode their bikes to see the animals before the circus opened, one evening in summer. The friend had nothing to offer the elephant, so offered it a stone. The elephant took the stone in its trunk, perhaps thinking it was a peanut. But after realising its mistake, the elephant heaved the stone at the boy. The elephant seemed to know it had been tricked, then exacted revenge.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

Compare “The Child” by Ali Smith, in which a woman finds a baby in her supermarket trolley. The child can talk, and it says nasty things.