The Unbearable Bassington by Saki

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Reviewed by Elaine Simpson-Long

Francesca Bassington sat in the drawing room of her house in Blue Street regaling herself and her estimable brother Henry with China tea and small cress sandwiches. The meal was of that elegant proportion which, while ministering sympathetically to the desires of the moment, is happily reminiscent of a satisfactory luncheon and blessedly expectant of an elaborate dinner to come.

It is the Edwardian era and Francesca has a son, rather inaptly named Comus by his long dead father, and she doesn’t know what to do with him.  He is charming, witty and fun, and totally unfitted for any profession in life save that of man about town, but alas there is the problem of an income and the knotty problem of how to fund his lifestyle.  He and his mother have become estranged over the years; both of them love each other, but the misunderstandings between them are too deep to be bridged.

Comus has a friend, Courtney Youghal, a rising star in the House of Commons, dashing and handsome. He and Comus both decide to court Elaine de Frey, a wealthy young heiress who would make a marvellous political wife for Courtney and a life support for Comus.  Elaine rather yearns towards Comus, but his habit of borrowing money from her, and his careless attitude towards her likes and dislikes, make her decide upon Courtney as the better of the two. Frances is bereft, and angry with her son, blaming him for losing his one chance of matrimony and financial security.

The castle of hopes was a ruin, a hideous mortification of dust and debris with the skeleton outlines of its chambers still standing to make mockery of its discomfited architect….Comus watched her without a trace of embarrassment or concern at her mortification. He had come to her feeling rather sorry for himself and bitterly conscious of his defeat and she had met him with a taunt and without the least bit of sympathy.

By this time I had the powerful longing to give Comus a good shake and tell him what a layabout and idiot he was, but there was no need, as from this stage on it becomes clear that Comus knows what he has done and foresees the future, or rather lack of it, that lies before him.  His uncle Henry has a job for him in West Africa and it is there that he is to go.  The life of parties, banquets and balls is all that he knows and now it is to be taken from him.

Up to now The Unbearable Bassington had been full of brilliance and style, each paragraph a witty and pointed bon mot, all positively Wildean.  There was a glittering quality about the writing which began to pall slightly as I felt that every single line had been taken out and polished by the author so that it was perfect with nary a flaw; but after a while I realised that this layer of layer of artificiality was just that and it was there for a purpose.   We know that this mad Edwardian merry go round was to come to an abrupt end, this gilded existence would vanish and that many of the useless, careless young men would end up as cannon fodder in the Great War to come – Comus escapes this but his fate is almost as pointless. The contrast between the end of the book with the previous portrait of gaiety gives the story depth and poignancy.

It is easy to despise Comus for his shallowness and lack of moral fibre, and so when we realise that he truly loves his mother and will miss her when he leaves, and she him, it has a tremendous effect.  He leaves and suffers a feeling of desolation and loneliness.

For a moment he could almost capture the sensation of being once again in those haunts that he loved; then he looked around and pushed the book wearily from him……one person in the whole world had cared for him, for longer than he could remember, cared for him perhaps more than he knew, cared for him perhaps now.  But a wall of ice had mounted up between him and her and across it there blew that cold breath that chills or kills affection….in his unutterable loneliness he bowed his head on his arms.

When reading these last pages I freely admit I had a lump in my throat. The brightness, charm and epigrammatic style of Saki’s writing had given place to a simplicity and sadness that was deeply moving. 

Saki was the pen name of Hector Hugh Munro, who was considered a master of the short story and was often compared to O Henry and Dorothy Parker. I was familiar with the short stories, but had never read any of his other works until I came across The Unbearable Bassington. I was unsure about it when I began reading but by the end I was totally captivated.

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Elaine blogs at Random Jottings.

Saki, The Unbearable Bassington (Michael Walmer, 2020) 978-0648690993, 270pp., hardback

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  1. Great review, Elaine – totally agree about the clash of superficial wit and that ending, and how powerful it is.

    1. It was you who recommended it to me Simon!

  2. Brilliant, Elaine – thanks so much for your review. I love the combination of glitter and sadness too.

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