With his career at its zenith, known universally for his three volumes of magnificently witty stories, Saki in 1912 was ready to branch out. He decided to apply his genius to a single long narrative in a novel.
The Unbearable Bassington sports his famous raillery at its highest pitch:
“…she came of a family whose individual members went through life, from the nursery to the grave, with as much tact and consideration as a cactus-hedge might show in going through a crowded bathing tent.”
“…I’m living so far beyond my income that we may almost be said to be living apart.”
“…if one hides one’s talent under a bushel one must be careful to point out to everyone the exact bushel under which it is hidden.”
This story introduces us to another of the author’s louche young men, basking in the glow of society whilst also managing to undermine it stealthily. The handsome and infuriatingly nonchalant Comus Bassington and his mother Francesca are struggling along at the edges somewhat — an advantageous marriage would certainly help. And Comus has met an heiress who appeals, Elaine de Frey. But he has a rival, his friend Courtenay Youghal, who is an up and coming young politician of great surface charm.
Francesca is relying on Comus, and there’s no accounting for what she might do if he doesn’t come up trumps. It will not only be embarrassing to his and his mother’s pride, it will also place a terrible strain on their resources.
The tracing of not only the simmering and uproarious repartee, but also the implicit tragedy in the venal expectations of high society in The Unbearable Bassington introduced a new note in Saki’s repertoire. Their combined power made for a book which was instantly celebrated as one of the great novels of its decade.
After the obligatory years at Eton College he went to Trinity College, Cambridge.
His early career in the diplomatic service was cut short but it gave him a thirst for travel and he did so widely, particularly in Russia. During the Russo-Japanese war of 1904/5 he reported as an eye-witness for the London Morning Post.
In 1909 Baring, who thought of himself as agnostic, converted to Roman Catholicism. A decision which he stated was "the only action in my life which I am quite certain I have never regretted."
When the horror of World War I enveloped Europe in 1914 he enlisted with the Royal Flying Corps, and served as an assistant to David Henderson and Hugh Trenchard (the two responsible for establishing the RFC) on the Western Front in France.
In 1918, Baring served as a staff officer in the Royal Air Force and was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire in the 1918 Birthday Honours List.
With the end of the war came his development as a writer. Before the war his works had mainly centrered on journalism, short stories and poetry. Now Baring began to write novels.
In 1925 he gained an honorary commission as a wing commander in the Reserve of Air Force Officers. After his death, Trenchard was to write, "He was the most unselfish man I have ever met or am likely to meet. The Flying Corps owed to this man much more than they know or think."
The last decades of his life proved to be a descent into chronic health problems. For the final 15 years of his life he was debilitated by the increasing onset of Parkinson's Disease.
He was widely known socially, and especially frequented with some of the Cambridge Apostles (an intellectual society at the University founded in 1820), The Coterie (a fashionable group of aristocrats and intellectuals of the 1910s). Baring was staunch in his anti-intellectualism with respect to the arts, and often displayed a lighter side with his pranks on others.
"By all accounts, the real Baring was a charming, affable gentleman who knew how to laugh and had no fear of making a fool of himself."
Maurice Baring, dramatist, poet, novelist, translator, essayist, travel writer and war correspondent, died at Beaufort Castle on 14th December 1945 at the age of 71.
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