Wednesday, 11 July 2001

Saki: When William Came (1914)

Edition: Penguin, 1982
Review number: 867

In 1914, Monro felt that appeasement was the wrong way to deal with Germany; he wanted to sound a warning that if the British did not prepare for war, the consequence would be subjugation. This novel is the consequence, propaganda swiftly overtaken by events; he wanted to portray a Britain which had lost a war and been annexed by Germany to shock public opinion towards war preparation.

From the perspective of those who lived after that war when it cane, who know how horrific it was, to have tried to bring it about seems quite an immoral act - though of course Monro felt he was doing his duty. There are certainly parts of the novel which now seem obscene, in the light of later twentieth century events (one of the results of the German victory which is deplored is a massive influx of German Jews into British society). As the war virtually destroyed the gentlemanly way of life which is the essence of Saki's writing, it may well be the case that had Monro survived the war - he enlisted in 1914 and was killed in France in 1916 - he might have preferred the occupation he depicted. Indeed, from a late twentieth century perspective, one really striking thing about the novel is the naivéte of the "horrors" of the occupation comparted with, say, the treatment of the Poles by Nazi Germany.

Some of the predictions are interesting, given the aftermath of the war. One particularly ironic comment is the reasoning given by German newspapers campaigning for the annexation of a defeated Britain: "They pointed out that Britain, defeated and humiliated, but with enormous powers of recuperation, would be a dangerous and inevitable enemy for the Germany of tomorrow..." This is a pretty good description of the situation in postwar Germany which was so important in the rise of the Nazis to power.

Because of the purpose for which it is written, When William Came is the least amusing of Saki's fiction; it would certainly be forgotten today were it not for his other stories. It is in parts interesting, but perhaps it would be better if it had been forgotten.

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