When William Came by Saki (H H Munro) is a complicated novel. On the face of it, it’s a straight propagandist story at the peak of the anti-German pre-First World War war fever craze, to warn the British to start preparing for war and get the young men into the army as soon as possible. Underneath that, it’s a classic Saki story. It’s witty and sly about glossy boys who prey on middle-aged Edwardian matrons, who know perfectly well what they’re doing, and understand the duplicity of their upper-class society. At an unexpected third level, it’s a rather strongly-felt hymn to the English countryside, English values and the tragedy of not being able to live in England. And I say ‘England’ deliberately: this novel is about England, not Britain. And, finally, it’s a strangely subtle fantasy about the grafting of European values and culture onto London society, which has the surprising effect of letting us see what Saki thinks about the rest of Europe, about Germans, Italians, Jews and all. I’m going to try to avoid the word ‘offensive’ because one person’s outrage can be another person’s delighted amusement, especially in fiction from a historical period that we don’t live in.
When William Came isn’t at all a black and white, easily polarised narrative. This is what makes it probably the best of the war fever novels, because it is not simplistic, not single-level, and so it has survived as a novel, rather than as a novelty, beyond the fad of fear of Germany. No-one now would read The Battle of Dorking unless they were literary historians: there is no other excuse. No-one now would read The Swoop, or, How Clarence Saved England, unless they were completist P G Wodehouse fans. They certainly wouldn’t read it for the enjoyment of war fever fiction. I have a fat volume of these tales, lovingly and painstakingly collected by the late I F Clarke, the great pioneer in the recording of really obscure, very generic fiction from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He was interested in science fiction and feminist fiction too, any kind of genre fiction as long as it was from around this period, and war fever fiction was one of his specialities. His bibliographic achievements are invaluable to literary historians, but this particular fictional cul-de-sac has not been much visited by the average reader.
One hundred years later: is When William Came still worth reading? If you like Saki, absolutely. There’s a lot here for those who appreciate Saki’s particular style to enjoy. If you’re a war-fever collector: yes, certainly. This novel is a sophisticated addition to the canon, it’s by a most accomplished stylist and it’s actually a really fascinating read. There is no conventional plot: the novel is a series of scenes with political speeches laid on, but they are very cleverly arranged, have real characters, vintage Saki creations, who continue to live on after you’ve finished the book. The propaganda value is potentially immense, but I doubt whether anyone took the novel seriously because of who Saki was.
Saki was a satirist, a writer of light squibs, frothy cynical superficial fiction for amusement, and the after-dinner quotation. He made his name by sending up turn of the century Westminster political pretensions in The Westminster Alice, in which he rewrote topical political events in the style of Alice in Wonderland. These were published in weekly instalments, and as a book in 1902: he was really a newspaper columnist. He then became celebrated for his short stories. If you read these en masse in one of his collected fiction editions, they give you a total immersion into callous candour and heartless selfishness. They are brilliant: he had a gift for seeing straight through the pretension and pompousness of Edwardian upper-class society, and for being bitingly straightforward about the hypocrisies of daily life. When William Came was his last novel, because shortly after it was published, the First World War broke out, he joined up (over-age) and died in November 1916, killed by a sniper’s shot. His last words, to a fellow soldier, were ‘put that bloody cigarette out’.
When William Came is speculative fiction, a what-if story, so when it begins we are immediately intrigued by the something that has occurred. It is referred to, politely and discreetly, by the characters as the ‘catastrophe’, or is simply not mentioned at all, as if it were rather too unpleasant to discuss. ‘It’, of course, is the German invasion of Britain, which was accomplished very easily in only a few days because the British were too lazy to train their young men to be an active defence force. The mighty power of the massed German armed forces overwhelmed the puny and pathetic British attempts at self-defence, and in a remarkably bloodless takeover, Germanised the entire country. Actually, we only see London, and a bit of the countryside, but we are to take it that whatever happens in London, must have happened to the rest of the island. Streets have been renamed in German. Road signs and place-names now have signs in both languages. The British way of socialising has been transformed to German habits. There are no pubs any longer, only continental-style cafés where you argue, play chess and read the paper at set times in the morning (when Saki was writing, this was very un-British). A German monarch sits on the British throne, and many, many Britons have left the country to settle in other parts of the Empire. The British king now has his court at Delhi. There is a richly sentimental episode where a traveller in Mandalay, or somewhere similar, visits an English family who have settled there, where they can still raise the Union Jack on a flagpole. Charming German aristocrats are infiltrating the British social scene. The British middle and upper classes, already supine, are being slowly squashed, and British men have been emasculated. The only successful British men are the charming glossy boys whom Saki specialised in writing, who exist by flattering and serving their own interests. It is now illegal for British men to join the army, they have no masculine role any longer. But hope still exists: even if British men have been beaten and are unable to fight back, with fox-hunting their only active, physical pursuit, British youth will not lie down under the German yoke. At a grand review in Hyde Park, at which the Boy Scouts of the nation are to parade and salute the German emperor and his son, the gathered crowds are first embarrassed, then gleeful to see that British youth has decided to ignore the summons by the German Emperor, and simply do not turn up. It’s a sad sight to see an Emperor kept waiting by his subject race, and so the novel ends on this uplifting but flatly ridiculous sight. There is hope for the nation, even an unprepared nation, if its youth keep a proper attitude towards the enemy. At least, that’s what I think Saki is saying.
The scorn in this novel is very, very evident. It is a Tory rant. Decadent social customs are held up for ridicule: modern dance, couples who do not live together in harmony, the adoption of pretty boys by older women as agreeable social accessories. The most wonderful character in the novel is Joan Mardle, an irritating woman related to practically everyone in Society, who invites herself to events and then comments on them loudly at moments when the din of conversation has dropped. She is the spirit of inconvenient candour, a kind of anti-flatterer, whose ringing voice and piercing tones say aloud what everybody else has been thinking, or trying not to say, or would have preferred not to be noticed. She alone is worth reading this book for, but when she is part of a glorious satirical shower of scorn, she makes When William Came simply magnificent.
How does this novel fit into the literary scene of 1913? It’s obviously part of the anti-German war fever fad, and it’s also a nice example of early twentieth-century speculative fiction. It’s a strong example of Edwardian satire and dilettantism, the kind of literary alley down which you would also find E F Benson and Anthony Hope. These are minor sub-genres: Saki was not a major writer, but he was absolutely brilliant at what he did.