“No,” said Janetta, with a note of tired defiance in her voice; “I’ve written eleven letters to-day expressing surprise and gratitude for sundry unmerited gifts, but I haven’t written to the Froplinsons.”
“Some one will have to write to them,” said Egbert.
“I don’t dispute the necessity, but I don’t think the some one should be me,” said Janetta. “I wouldn’t mind writing a letter of angry recrimination or heartless satire to some suitable recipient; in fact, I should rather enjoy it, but I’ve come to the end of my capacity for expressing servile amiability. Eleven letters to-day and nine yesterday, all couched in the same strain of ecstatic thankfulness: really, you can’t expect me to sit down to another. There is such a thing as writing oneself out.”
“I’ve written nearly as many,” said Egbert, “and I’ve had my usual business correspondence to get through, too. Besides, I don’t know what it was that the Froplinsons sent us.”
“A William the Conqueror calendar,” said Janetta, “with a quotation of one of his great thoughts for every day in the year.”
“Well, it was William Wordsworth, then,” said Janetta; “I know William came into it somewhere.”
“That sounds more probable,” said Egbert; “well, let’s collaborate on this letter of thanks and get it done. I’ll dictate, and you can scribble it down. ‘Dear Mrs. Froplinson – thank you and your husband so much for the very pretty calendar you sent us. It was very good of you to think of us.’ ”
“You can’t possibly say that,” said Janetta, laying down her pen.
“It’s what I always do say, and what every one says to me,” protested Egbert.
“We sent them something on the twenty-second,” said Janetta, “so they simply HAD to think of us. There was no getting away from it.”
“What did we send them?” asked Egbert gloomily.
“Bridge-markers,” said Janetta, “in a cardboard case, with some inanity about ‘digging for fortune with a royal spade’ emblazoned on the cover. The moment I saw it in the shop I said to myself ‘Froplinsons’ and to the attendant ‘How much?’ When he said ‘Ninepence,’ I gave him their address, jabbed our card in, paid tenpence or elevenpence to cover the postage, and thanked heaven. With less sincerity and infinitely more trouble they eventually thanked me.”
“The Froplinsons don’t play bridge,” said Egbert.
“One is not supposed to notice social deformities of that sort,” said Janetta; “it wouldn’t be polite. Besides, what trouble did they take to find out whether we read Wordsworth with gladness? For all they knew or cared we might be frantically embedded in the belief that all poetry begins and ends with John Masefield, and it might infuriate or depress us to have a daily sample of Wordsworthian products flung at us.”
“Well, let’s get on with the letter of thanks,” said Egbert.
“Proceed,” said Janetta.
” ‘How clever of you to guess that Wordsworth is our favourite poet,’ ” dictated Egbert.
“Do you realise what that means?” she asked; “a Wordsworth booklet next Christmas, and another calendar the Christmas after, with the same problem of having to write suitable letters of thankfulness. No, the best thing to do is to drop all further allusion to the calendar and switch off on to some other topic.”
“But what other topic?”
“Oh, something like this: ‘What do you think of the New Year Honours List? A friend of ours made such a clever remark when he read it.’ Then you can stick in any remark that comes into your head; it needn’t be clever. The Froplinsons won’t know whether it is or isn’t.”
“We don’t even know on which side they are in politics,” objected Egbert; “and anyhow you can’t suddenly dismiss the subject of the calendar. Surely there must be some intelligent remark that can be made about it.”
“What did she send?”
“I forget; I think it was a calendar.”
There was a long silence, the forlorn silence of those who are bereft of hope and have almost ceased to care.
Presently Egbert started from his seat with an air of resolution. The light of battle was in his eyes.
“Let me come to the writing-table,” he exclaimed.
“To neither,” said Egbert, drawing a stack of notepaper towards him; “I’m going to write to the editor of every enlightened and influential newspaper in the Kingdom, I’m going to suggest that there should be a sort of epistolary Truce of God during the festivities of Christmas and New Year. From the twenty-fourth of December to the third or fourth of January it shall be considered an offense against good sense and good feeling to write or expect any letter or communication that does not deal with the necessary events of the moment. Answers to invitations, arrangements about trains, renewal of club subscriptions, and, of course, all the ordinary everyday affairs of business, sickness, engaging new cooks, and so forth, these will be dealt with in the usual manner as something inevitable, a legitimate part of our daily life. But all the devastating accretions of correspondence, incident to the festive season, these should be swept away to give the season a chance of being really festive, a time of untroubled, unpunctuated peace and good will.”
“Of course, I have thought of that,” said Egbert; “every present that was sent off would be accompanied by a ticket bearing the date of dispatch and the signature of the sender, and some conventional hieroglyphic to show that it was intended to be a Christmas or New Year gift; there would be a counterfoil with space for the recipient’s name and the date of arrival, and all you would have to do would be to sign and date the counterfoil, add a conventional hieroglyphic indicating heartfelt thanks and gratified surprise, put the thing into an envelope and post it.”
“It sounds delightfully simple,” said Janetta wistfully, “but people would consider it too cut-and- dried, too perfunctory.”
“It is not a bit more perfunctory than the present system,” said Egbert; “I have only the same conventional language of gratitude at my disposal with which to thank dear old Colonel Chuttle for his perfectly delicious Stilton, which we shall devour to the last morsel, and the Froplinsons for their calendar, which we shall never look at. Colonel Chuttle knows that we are grateful for the Stilton, without having to be told so, and the Froplinsons know that we are bored with their calendar, whatever we may say to the contrary, just as we know that they are bored with the bridge-markers in spite of their written assurance that they thanked us for our charming little gift. What is more, the Colonel knows that even if we had taken a sudden aversion to Stilton or been forbidden it by the doctor, we should still have written a letter of hearty thanks around it. So you see the present system of acknowledgment is just as perfunctory and conventional as the counterfoil business would be, only ten times more tiresome and brain-racking.”
“Your plan would certainly bring the ideal of a Happy Christmas a step nearer realisation,” said Janetta.
“There are exceptions, of course,” said Egbert, “people who really try to infuse a breath of reality into their letters of acknowledgment. Aunt Susan, for instance, who writes: ‘Thank you very much for the ham; not such a good flavour as the one you sent last year, which itself was not a particularly good one. Hams are not what they used to be.’ It would be a pity to be deprived of her Christmas comments, but that loss would be swallowed up in the general gain.”
“Meanwhile,” said Janetta, “what am I to say to the Froplinsons?”
Who would have thought a topic as sterile as the writing of a thank-you note could have occasioned such a bit of effusively brilliant frippery as this offering from H.H Munro – a.k.a Saki?
The English upper-classe of a few generations was quite unsurpassed at a species of mildly derisive self -deprecating humour, which despite its understated tone, had, and still retains that subversive ability to make one, like it or not, dissolve in unrestrainable and almost hysterical laughter, -‘Tobermory’ – (perhaps it will be reserved for a later post) by this same authour comes to mind.
This story exactly explains the reason I continue to love such polished exponents of this genre as P.G. Wodehouse, and always will. There is something quite remarkable and unique to English culture, which permits – and even encourages – a simultaneous display of preening and sniggering. I bet you won’t find anything to equal it amongst either the French or Germans.
Americans, no matter how much they would like to, don’t have an upper class it is doubtful they ever did – (sorry Mr. James and Mrs. Wharton), because steel barons and railroad men, and even the pretensions of the founding fathers do not cut the mustard here. Unless one is so terribly undiscerning as to mistake money for class, which I am happy to say is next to impossible to do even for the least discerning among us, Donald Trump and Warren Buffet also fail to crash the gate.
But even if we had an ‘upper-class’, it would only be found among the routs (gaggles, or murders – you are welcome to choose the appropriate collective noun of your choice) of pinch-mouthed Republicans who have shares in the sorts of companies that reap their profits from anti-social enterprises such as genetically modified foods and stock market shenanigans. Precious little scope for comedy there I’m afraid, and anyone prospecting for a laugh in that direction is sure to come up a cropper.
So to give us the hoi-polloi, Horace’s common crowd an unrestricted a sly inside-look at the slightly dithery formalities and unbreakable tribal rituals a certain class was constrained to religiously observe, we must resort to the likes of Mr. H. H. Munro.
Thank-you notes written with fountain pens, and stamps which had to be licked and pasted on brown envelopes …. Oh where have they all gone? The rueful answer must be ‘The way of all flesh’.
But I would be forever and unforgivably remiss if I prevented the intrusion of a very serious note amidst all this levity. ‘Saki’ – Hector Hugo Munro – was in my opinion a war hero. Munro died when he was struck by a sniper’s bullet in Beaumont-Hamel France. His last words were said to be “Put that bloody cigarette out”. He had volunteered at age 43 at the beginning of WW1 to join the British Srmy Royal Fusiliers as a low-ranking soldier, when he could have so easily and honourably refrained from doing so. He was well beyond conscription age, and had contracted Malaria (in those days a debilitating and incurable disease) while serving in the police force in Burma. What was more, he was volunteering to uphold the interests of a nation which could have if it had so wished, prosecute and jail him for simply living his life as who and what he was. Hector Hugo Munro was a gay man. We would never have guessed that – would we! and as such, he lived at a time when being one was in effect a criminal offense. The prosecution and trial and sentencing of Oscar Wilde 19 years before, when Munro was a young man of 25 could not have been forgotten.
The horrible scandal and the ruination of Oscar Wilde’s life must have also been fresh in the mind of Munro’s sister Ethel when she destroyed most of his papers after his death. I am sure she meant well, and was no doubt anxious to get rid of ‘incriminating evidence’ which had the real potential to sully her brother’s name and reputation, even after he had so gallantly given his life for his country.
While we can laugh at the innocent falsehoods and pretensions of a society anxious to uphold a self-preserving – and relatively harmless sense of propriety, we cannot be amused when that hypocrisy takes on a punitive cast, and leads to the persecution of people who depart from sexual norms which are priggishly upheld in public ( though who could guess at the degree to which they were violated in private by that same ‘moral majority’) by its mainstream practitioners.
We must regret and deplore the enormous and incalculable amount of material expunged and lost to our own history as gays and lesbians, through the acts of well meaning – and perhaps not so well meaning people, and material which was destroyed even by gays and lesbians themselves because of the need for secrecy and dissimulation.
Those pages and chapters and entire books of or our past are lost forever, but we must never forget that they existed.