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Somerset Maugham at 150 - by Mark McGinness

Blog | By Mark McGinness | Jan 24, 2024

Library of Congress portrait of Maugham

January 25th marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Somerset Maugham. He was, for much of his life, “the most famous writer in the world”, the most read since Dickens and probably the richest.

Born in 1874, a month before Disraeli succeeded Gladstone as prime minister for the second time; he died in the second year of Harold Wilson’s first term, in 1965, aged 91. He wrote his first novel in 1897, in the last years of Victoria's reign. His last short stories appeared in the reign of Elizabeth II.

Among his peers were Compton Mackenzie, Hugh Walpole, and John Galsworthy. Poor Mackenzie and Walpole have virtually sunk without trace, while television has kept the Nobel Laureate Galsworthy afloat.

Six decades on from his death, his reputation may not surprise him. As he wrote in his 1938 autobiography The Summing Up: “In my twenties the critics said I was brutal, in my thirties they said I was flippant, in my forties they said I was cynical, in my fifties they said I was competent, and now in my sixties they say I am superficial. I have gone my way, following the course I had mapped out for myself, and trying with my works to fill out the pattern I looked for.”

Yet some of his better novels are still in print; a few of his plays still produced and his best short stories still filmed. Only last year Maugham’s 1921 comedy of manners play, The Circle, was revived in Salisbury and Richmond and now in Bath and Oxford; and his 1927 classic short story The Letter was brilliantly recreated last year by Tan Twan Eng in The House with Doors. So, his work remains readable and watchable and his long, tortured life compelling.

The youngest of four sons, a child of the Paris Embassy on Faubourg St Honoré, where his solicitor father was a trusted advisor to the British community, he never recovered from the death of his adored mother when he was eight (“the only person who really loved me”). On the death of his father two years later, he was sent to live with a dim, chilly, self-centred clerical uncle in Kent. French was his first tongue and as a boarder at King’s School, Canterbury he would develop a stammer that he never sh-shed. His years there were miserable. Apparently his first serious passion was for a boy called Ashenden.

After a few years in Heidelberg under the influence of his first lover, John Ellingham Brooks, he enrolled as a student at St Thomas’ Hospital London. The result was his Liza of Lambeth (1897), a Zola-esque tale yet one influenced by Maupassant. It was remarkable for its lack of patriarchal Victorian social moralising - judgement would always be withheld in the fiction of, what one critic dubbed, this “diagnostician of human social ills”. Then there was Mrs Craddock (1902), Madame Bovary set in Kent.

By 1908, he had four plays showing in the West End. In 1907 after seventeen rejections, he had found a hit in Lady Frederick. And what the audiences wanted was the kind of witty, urbane society drama for which he became famous. But after a remarkable run of eight hit plays—he eventually wrote more than two dozen—by the twenties he had the money and leisure to devote himself to the form he loved best: the short story.

But in 1915 he had produced Of Human Bondage, a teeming memoir of his childhood and youth where his club-footed alter ego/protagonist, Philip Carey, is equally appalled and enticed by the earthy wanton waitress Mildred.

The Moon and Sixpence (1919) and The Painted Veil (1925) confirmed his popularity as a novelist. That continued right through from Theatre in 1937 to Catalina in 1948, the last of his novels.

In 1917 he had been selected by Sir William Wiseman to go to Russia, where the overthrow of the Tsar threatened their withdrawal from the war. He believed that, had he gone six months earlier, he might have averted the Bolshevik revolution and held Kerensky as an ally. By the time Lenin came to power, his health had failed, and he would remain an invalid for the next two years. His wartime experiences formed the basis of Ashenden (1928), tales of a secret agent. They became a training manual for MI6.

Reviewing a recent biography, Nicholas Shakespeare recounts Maugham watching a play in Russia that seemed familiar….. “on glancing at the programme saw the author’s name listed as “Mum”. Shakespeare continued, “Keeping mum was second nature to Maugham – not only in his work as a secret agent during two world wars), but in his sexual life.”

Just before the war, Maugham had met the love of his life, the athletic, rakish, bad-boy Gerald Haxton. They served together in the ambulance corps in the war before Maugham was sent to Russia. After 1919, when Haxton was refused re-entry to the UK he and Maugham travelled round the world and in 1927 set up home at the Villa Mauresque, Cap Ferrat, in the south of France, in 1927. Maugham dubbed the Riviera “that sunny place for shady people.”

But in the meantime, Maugham had met Syrie Wellcome, “a veritable walking compendium of brand names” — daughter of Dr Barnardo, estranged wife of Henry Wellcome and mistress of Gordon Selfridge. It seems she trapped Willie into marriage in 1917, having borne him a daughter, Liza, in 1915. He had given into convention; and while she craved his affection, he never loved her. They divorced finally - and acrimoniously - in 1929.

A decade of domestic misery was largely avoided by his travels with Haxton to India, Burma, the West Indies, Singapore, and Malaysia. Duncan Fallowell sees him as, perhaps with Conrad, the only 20th century writer to incorporate the imperial experience. As early as 1916 among expatriates in the South Pacific, Maugham wrote, "I was like a naturalist who comes into a country where the fauna are of an unimaginable variety.”

With the gregarious Haxton as his retriever, he noted and crafted some of the stories, like Rain, that made him the richest writer alive. The New Yorker's James Wood sees a Maugham tale as “a smoothly machined artifact—psychologically astute, coolly satirical, mildly subversive, and a bit sexy. Malarial British colonies provided excellent conditions for humid, erotic undercurrents.”

“My lack of imagination . . . obliged me to set down quite straightforwardly what I had seen with my own eyes and heard with my own ears.” Time and again – in his major plays, East of Suez, Caesar’s Wife, and The Circle; some of his best stories, ‘Virtue’ and ‘P. & O.’; and in novels such as The Painted Veil and The Narrow Corner, he examines the mess and melancholy of conventional marriage.

In 1930 came his ruefully funny Cakes and Ale, arguably his most enjoyable novel and his personal favourite. Despite the cruel depiction of his friend Hugh Walpole as the sycophantic, second-rate Alroy Kear; there was the free-loving, free-spirited Rosie.

He lived carefully in America through the second war, conscious of the privations of his countrymen; returning to France after the liberation and resuming life at the Villa Mauresque.

In 1944 he published his last substantial novel, The Razor's Edge, a tribute to the ascetic mysticism he had seen in India. Reviewing it, Cyril Connolly wrote, that Maugham was “the worldliest of our novelists, and yet is fascinated by those who renounce the world.”

Apart from Of Human Bondage, all of Maugham’s mature and major fiction was written during his three decades with Haxton. On his death in 1944, wracked by drink and TB, Haxton’s place as secretary/companion/lover was taken by the docile, guileful Bermondsey-born autodidact, Alan Searle. One of their coterie put it, “Gerald was vintage; Alan was vin ordinaire.”

His last notable publication, prompted by Searle (“that podgy Iago”), the memoir Looking Back (1962), was a low point. It followed the sale of paintings promised to his daughter and an attempt to adopt Searle, but Liza sued and won. The book was a vengeful swipe at Syrie (who had died in 1955), a sidelining of Haxton and the author’s claim that he was heterosexual. Had it been like his prose at its best, he might have called it Straight Talking.

The sumptuousness of Villa Mauresque drew the great and the grand, the literati and young men with promise. An invitation was a profane version of a papal audience. The arch old host once confessed “how pleasant it was to look up a departed guest in the Almanach de Gotha.”

There was apparently no doorbell “for the crunch of tyres over gravel was sufficient to alert the servants.” A staff of thirteen ensured Edwardian luxury and, on the surface, a decorous ritual was observed among the cypresses & flowering mimosa.

He held court there for 4 decades but lived too long. At one of his last birthdays a guest tried to jolly the table with, “You know, Willie, a woman in Marseilles was 103 last week?” The guest of honour’s response, “F-F-F-F *** 103.”

Kept not just vigorous but priapic by injections of lamb foetuses in Vevey (Noel Coward quipped ‘How ve-ve non-ewe’) he lost his mind and died on 16 December, 1965, at 91. A wretched end – worthy of Balzac – and, well, Maugham.

Having forbidden his publishers and executor to allow one and ordered friends to destroy their correspondence, he was initially ill-served by his biographers. His clever but feckless nephew Robin outed his Uncle Willie soon after his death and wrote Somerset and All the Maughams (1966), Conversations with Willie (1978), and Willie (1979). Terrence Rattigan was moved to quip, “Robin Maugham couldn’t write bum on a wall, and if he did, he would spell it ‘Baugham’.”

Frederic Raphael made a creditable attempt with Somerset Maugham and His World in 1976, and Anthony Curtis the following year; but then in 1980, Pulitzer Prize winner, Ted Morgan (ne Sanche de Gramont), with the permission of the lovely, long-suffering Liza (by then Lady Glendevon), produced a 700-page life as revelatory and ground-breaking in its way as Michael Holroyd’s Lytton Strachey. Morgan summed up his subject as combining “an Edwardian sense of propriety about the details of his own life with a pirate’s instincts towards his literary material…. He had a low opinion of the human species but a high tolerance of human frailty.”

Robert Calder in 1989, Bryan Cannon in 1997 and Jeffrey Meyers in 2004 followed with assessments that were generally well-received. Most recently, that consummate biographer, Selina Hastings produced what is arguably her best work, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham (2009). She was hailed for her “cool playful elegance, imaginative sympathy and occasional barbs.” Nicholas Shakespeare proclaimed, “Selina Hastings has written the literary equivalent of [Graham] Sutherland’s portrait.”

This was the 1949 picture of the hunched, sallow, long-cheeked cosmopolitan oracle cross-armed, cross-legged, chin up - at 75, who observed “The first time I saw it I was shocked and then I began to realise that here was far more of me than I ever saw myself.”

Claiming to have declined a knighthood, he said, “If I went into a party and they announced Mr Arnold Bennett, Mr H. G. Wells, Mr Hugh Walpole, Mr Rudyard Kipling and Sir William Somerset Maugham, I thought I'd look rather silly.” He was appointed Companion of Honour in 1954 – but the Order of Merit he craved, bestowed on Galsworthy and Hardy, never materialised.

Yet, he would say, “I know just where I stand - in the very front row of the second-rate.”

Well, if that be so, here’s to the Second Eleven.