Serendipity in my online reading group means that there will be times when we all want to read the same book at the same time. It’s like viral marketing. It’s usually not the latest blockbuster though, it’s more likely to be a book published 50-100 years ago. Last week, Simon who blogs at Stuck In A Book & Hayley from Desperate Reader discovered that they were both reading Saki’s The Unbearable Bassington. Their enthusiasm led to several other members muttering that they were sure they had a Complete Saki somewhere or racing out to their nearest charity shop on the off-chance of finding an ancient Penguin lurking on the shelves. One of our members who loves to quote funny or extraordinary passages from her latest book began tantalising the Saki-less ones with quotes. I tried to borrow a copy from the library but it was out so I downloaded a copy to my e-reader. Suddenly, half a dozen of us were all reading this wonderful novella, a totally unplanned group read. Elaine from Random Jottings has also just posted about it.
The story is about the relationship between mother & son. Francesca Bassington is still a beautiful woman in her 40s but she is now a widow & not well-off. She lives in a house bequeathed to her by a friend but only until the friend’s daughter marries. Then the daughter will inherit. When the story begins, Francesca is scheming to marry her son, Comus, to this girl, Emmeline Chetrof. Comus is a very handsome young man but seems to have no moral compass & no instinct for self- preservation either. He seems almost wilfully determined to sabotage his chances, as Francesca realises,
“Comus,” she said quietly and wearily, “you are an exact reversal of the legend of Pandora’s Box. You have all the charm and advantages that a boy could want to help him on in the world, and behind it all is the fatal damning gift of utter hopelessness.” ”I think,” said Comus, “ that is the best description that anyone has ever given of me.”
We first meet him as a prefect at his school, about to punish a new boy who is Emmeline’s younger brother. Naturally when Emmeline hears of this, any chance of romance for Comus is dashed. Francesca’s brother Henry, a pompous politician, organises a job for Comus as secretary to the next Governor of the West Indies. Comus puts his name to a scathing letter accusing the said Governor of undiplomatic doings & sends it to the Times. The actual writer of the letter, Courtenay Youghal, is a rising young politician & Comus’s mentor. Francesca encourages Comus to court Elaine de Frey, a young heiress & soon Comus & Youghal are rivals in love.
At this point, I wasn’t sure who the unbearable Bassington of the title was meant to be. Both Francesca & Comus seemed to have no redeeming features at all. Comus is a selfish sponger & Francesca a bored society woman whose only interest in her son appears to be finding a way to get him off her hands – preferably in the direction of a wealthy wife. Gradually though, Comus’s flippancy is shown to hide a degree of self-awareness & this only deepens the sense of cross purposes & missed chances for both Comus & his mother. Then, Saki turns everything around with a couple of chapters that are so poignant & moving that all my judgments & expectations had to be turned around.
Saki is a clever, witty writer. He’s best-known for his short stories, which I haven’t read but am now very keen to get my hands on. There’s something almost Wildean about the comments & observations in this book. Here he is on an unwelcome guest,
“Hostesses regarded her philosophically as a form of social measles which everyone had to have once.”
on a woman who supports Free Trade,
“I wonder,” said Lady Caroline, in her gently questioning voice; “a woman whose dresses are made in Paris and whose marriage has been made in heaven might be equally biased for and against free imports.”
and on a fashionable young artist,
“There are two manners of receiving recognition: one is to be discovered so long after one’s death that one’s grandchildren have to write to the papers to establish the relationship; the other is to be discovered, like the infant Moses, at the very outset of one’s career.”
The Unbearable Bassington is, on one level, a portrait of Edwardian society, a portrait of bored, self-absorbed people with no moral conscience or real feeling about anything. On another level, it’s the poignant story of a mother-son relationship haunted by misunderstandings & faults on both sides. So much emotion packed into such a short book, a novella really, only just over 100pp. I loved it & I’ll definitely be looking out for more Saki. Capuchin Classics have recently reprinted The Unbearable Bassington & I downloaded my free copy from Manybooks.net.