No more alimony, tra la la

Miranda Carter

  • The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings
    John Murray, 614 pp, £25.00, September 2009, ISBN 978 0 7195 6554 0

In his lifetime, Somerset Maugham was the most successful writer in the Anglophone world. By the time he was 90, 80 million copies of his books had been sold, he was a media celebrity and a very rich man. He had also lived, as Selina Hastings says, ‘much of his life under cover’. He went to great lengths to erase evidence of his private life, systematically destroying his personal papers, asking friends to burn his letters, and instructing his executors to discourage would-be biographers. In company, he was notorious – at least in late middle and old age – for being aloof and misanthropic: ‘An unpleasant man,’ P.G. Wodehouse told an interviewer in the 1970s. Kenneth Clark, with whom Hastings says Maugham enjoyed a ‘firm friendship’, described him as ‘an extremely mysterious character’; Christopher Isherwood likened him to a Gladstone bag: ‘God only knows what is inside.’ (Maugham said much the same about Isherwood.)

In contrast to his reserve in company, however, Maugham was addicted in his writing to self-disclosure: ‘Most of what one writes is to a greater or lesser degree autobiographical.’ Though his narrative persona was cynical and detached, his books were filled with accounts of his own miserable experiences of childhood, love and marriage; as well as with thinly (sometimes un-) disguised portraits of people he’d met and stories he’d been told. (Sadie Thompson, an American call-girl, appeared – name, fat legs and all – in the short story ‘Rain’.) It was a habit which left a ‘trail of angry people’.

Maugham was born in 1874 in Paris, the youngest of four boys, to an English solicitor who looked after the affairs of the British expat community. His mother, remembered as a model of selfless love whose loss he never got over, died when he was eight; his father, who he said ‘was a stranger to me’, when he was ten. Maugham père left little money and the boys were separated; the older ones were sent to boarding school, Willie to live with an unloveable vicar uncle in Whitstable, virtually losing contact with his brothers. The next few years were miserable and lonely, and Maugham acquired a stammer for which he was teased. Unsurprisingly, he hated the public school he was sent to: King’s Canterbury. The most odious of the masters, Mr Campbell – famed for making boys erase their mistakes by rubbing their noses across the blackboard – was later portrayed as the hateful Mr Gordon in Of Human Bondage.

It wasn’t all bad, however. Quite soon, Maugham was spotted by the new headmaster and began to win prizes, and to acquire a reputation for caustic wit. As with a subsequent generation of writers, spies and homosexuals (all of which Maugham would become), boarding school provided a fine training in outsiderdom, and distrust of authority. It’s likely that Maugham conceived his first serious passion for another boy at King’s, and Hastings speculates that the boy might have been called Ashenden, the name Maugham later used for the narrator of his spy stories and of Cakes and Ale.

Maugham escaped from King’s as soon as he could. He went first to Heidelberg to learn German, then in 1892 enrolled as a medical student at St Thomas’s Hospital. His first book, Liza of Lambeth, published in 1897, when he was 23, owed much to Maupassant and Zola. It was a grimy realist novel about the South London underclass he’d come into contact with through the hospital – a first instance of his cannibalising of his own experiences. It got some respectable reviews, and he was taken up by critics like Edmund Gosse, literary hostesses like Lady St Helier, and grandes dames like Violet Hunt, a former mistress of H.G. Wells and Ford Madox Ford. He now established himself as a prolific writer of novels, short stories and plays, and perfected his public persona: polite but cynical, with a streak of cruelty. He told a story of meeting Churchill at a house party, when Churchill was so taken aback by a cutting remark Maugham made at another guest’s expense that the next day he said to him: ‘I want to make a compact with you. If you will promise never to be funny at my expense, I will promise never to be funny at yours.’ Virginia Woolf later described the character of Alroy Kear – Maugham’s instantly recognisable portrait of the amiable, self-promoting Hugh Walpole (who regarded Maugham as a friend) in Cakes and Ale – as ‘a clever piece of torture’, a ‘flaying alive’.

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