Rowling’s Professor Binns on Saki

Stubbs letter to Haining fantasy 001
Found among the Haining Archive at Jot HQ is this typewritten letter dated 6thJune 1984 from the Classical historian H(ugh). W. Stubbs (1917 – 2012) of Exeter University, who was the model for J. K. Rowling’s Professor Binns in the Harry Potter novels. While at Exeter University in the early eighties reading French, Rowling had chosen Ancient History and Culture as a supplementary subject and had attended some of Stubbs’s soporific lectures. Though not a charismatic speaker, Stubbs was far from boring as a person. In the letter he dilates on the joys of Saki, among other topics.


Most of the letter is taken up with Haining’s 1983 edition of stories by Saki and with the editor’s Preface in particular, but Stubbs is also good value on supernatural literature in general, as well as philology and folklore. There are also a few acerbic asides on Chips Channon ( ‘ that horrible man ‘ ) on the horror anthologies ( ‘ a singular repulsive series ‘)  edited by Christine Campbell and on the American academic Langguth  ( ‘ abysmally ignorant ‘ ). Stubbs himself seems to have taken a keen academic interest in the supernatural genre. He tells Haining that in the 1950’s he corresponded with Peter Penzoldt, author of a  pioneering study, The Supernatural in English Fiction(1952).


On Saki Stubbs answers various points made by Haining. Firstly, he tackles the famous Saki story ‘Sredny Vashtar’.


‘Are you aware that Sredny Vashtar is as near as makes no difference, Bulgarian for “ Happy Resurrection” . This might tie in with the Purple of the Balkan Kingstheme. ( In Serbo-Croat, with which I think S. was less familiar, it seems more to suggest “ Central Rising”,. Which might be taken as vaguely phallic is S. had been interested in such things: which, part from a few vaguely homosexual themes cryptically inserted ( his own pseudonym, and the word Joyeuse in Bassington) he doesn’t seem to have been. )’


Stubbs also suggests that Saki’s ‘Westminster Alice’, ‘was perhaps influenced by a Boer War satire entitled Clara in Blunderland (1902) which he had encountered on ‘secondhand bookstalls’. This book, published pseudonymously by ‘ Caroline Lewis’, but actually the work of three male writers, poked fun at leading politicians like Balfour (as Alice) and Campbell-Bannerman ( as Crumpty-Bumpty). It was reprinted in 2010. In addition he feels that the Saki character ‘Courtney’,‘ a sexless, if not homosexual, creature ‘was modelled on the politician F. E. Smith, later Lord Birkenhead. One of the final observations made by Stubbs concerned Saki’s apparent lack of interest in sport.


‘… rare among Edwardian authors, he never seems to mention the word “cricket” , and football only when the unfortunate Chetrof ( what a name!—“chetif”?) is flogged for “ missing a footer practice” (shades of Greyfriars—which was just about starting then!).


The author would like to thank Professor Peter Wiseman of the department of Classics at Exeter for valuable information on his former colleague.  [R.M.Healey]

Stubbs letter page 2 001


2 thoughts on “Rowling’s Professor Binns on Saki

  1. Roger

    Could you put up the whole letter? It sounds very interesting – or would that reduce its value?
    Courtney is probably Courtenay Youghal in The Unbearable Bassington, who is both the hero’s mentor and the man who saved the heroine “from making the greatest mistake she could have made—marrying that young Bassington” by helping her “her to make the next biggest mistake of her life—marrying Courtenay Youghal.”
    If he was based on F. E. Smith, Saki showed considerable prescience: “Behind his careful political flippancy and cynicism one might also detect a certain careless sincerity, which would probably in the long run save him from moderate success, and turn him into one of the brilliant failures of his day.” sums up Smith’s career pretty well, though drink didn’t help him.
    I can’t remember if I’ve msuggested it here, but the interesting book about Saki would be one about his career and despatches as a journalist and war-correspondent in eastern Europe and the Balkans. Wonderful though his own work is, I’ve always been sorry Saki didn’t translate Dostoevski. They’d be travesties, no doubt, but much more entertaining – and probably nearer to Dostoevski himself – than Constance Garnett’s versions.


  2. Jot 101 Post author

    Roger– have uploaded 2nd page, slight technical issue may have lead to it not being clickable and slight loss of the first page, tech guy away..funnily enogh he had the nickname Sredni at school (after Saki)…


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