Somerset Maugham: A Life 
by Jeffrey Meyers.
Vintage, 411 pp., £12, April 2005, 1 4000 3052 8
Show More
Show More

In Cakes and Ale (1930), William Somerset Maugham has Willie Ashenden – his narrator and stand-in – explain that, in reputation-building terms, ‘longevity is genius.’ He comes out with this idea while discussing the case of his friend Edward Driffield, a Hardy-like figure who becomes the Grand Old Man of English Letters after seeing off late Victorian accusations of impropriety. Ashenden, who finds most of Driffield’s novels rather boring and melodramatic, has decided that elderly authors who have ‘ceased for twenty years to write anything of interest’ are respected in part because younger writers stop seeing them as rivals, but chiefly because ‘intelligent people after the age of 30 read nothing at all. As they grow older the books they read in their youth are lit with its glamour and with every year that passes they ascribe greater merit to the author that wrote them.’ Longevity is also important because it gives the aspiring Grand Old Man enough time to be appropriately prolific. ‘It is no good his thinking that it is enough to write one or two masterpieces; he must provide a pedestal for them of forty or fifty works of no particular consequence . . . His production must be such that if he cannot captivate a reader by his charm he can stun him by his weight.’

‘Of all Somerset Maugham’s novels,’ as the blurb on my 1960s Penguin paperback winningly puts it, ‘Cakes and Ale is the gayest.’ But even allowing for Ashenden’s high spirits, his advice isn’t far removed from his creator’s master plan. Born in 1874, Maugham lived to be almost 92 and published 20 novels, eight short story collections, five travel books, nine books of essays and three memoirs. In addition, he wrote 29 plays and translated three more from Italian and French. Ashenden says that ‘posterity makes its choice not from among the unknown writers of a period, but from among the known’; and here too Maugham must have felt he was on the right track. He was the most highly paid writer of his day. During the 1950s he appeared on cinema screens, cigarette in hand, introducing adaptations of his work. In 1952, aged 78, he wrote to the headmaster of his old school confessing his ‘secret wishes’, one of which was to be given the Order of Merit. ‘I don’t want anything else – I would refuse anything like a knighthood. But they gave Hardy the OM and I think I am the greatest living writer of English, and they ought to give it to me.’

The headmaster – who extracted some sizeable donations from his correspondent – was not likely to demur, but Maugham was under no illusions about the ridicule such a claim would have drawn from paid-up members of the despised ‘intelligentsia’. Being unillusioned was his speciality, and in public he took a nicely self-deprecating line. ‘There are but two important critics in my own country who have troubled to take me seriously,’ he writes in The Summing Up (1938), ‘and when clever young men write essays about contemporary fiction they never think of considering me. I do not resent it. I look upon it as very natural.’ In the face of attacks from the likes of Edmund Wilson (who called him ‘a half-trashy novelist who writes badly, but is patronised by half-serious readers who do not care much about writing’), Maugham could, and did, point to his supersized audience, implying that you’d have to be very serious indeed to take much of an interest in the writers his critics preferred. He also suspected that people resented his lifestyle: the Cap Ferrat villa, the Picassos and Renoirs, the two-masted yacht complete with ‘sexually obliging crew’, and so on. He was probably right.

Maugham knew his own limitations and listed some of them: ‘No lyrical quality . . . small vocabulary . . . little gift of metaphor . . . Poetic flights and the great imaginative sweep were beyond my powers.’ Nevertheless, he became increasingly bitter about the way even regular visitors to the Villa Mauresque tended not to come up with the goods when it came to things like festschrift contributions. A diligent professional who announced that ‘I am a writer as I might have been a doctor or a lawyer,’ he was particularly annoyed by indolent celebrities – E.M. Forster was one offender – who didn’t go out of their way to stun by weight. As someone who preferred to end his short stories ‘with a full-stop rather than with a straggle of dots’, he also grew impatient with writers who ‘give you the materials for a dish and expect you to do the cooking yourself’. Towards the end of his life, his attacks on Henry James, Katherine Mansfield – a ‘neurotic, sick woman’ – and even Chekhov, whom he’d once admired, were frequent and hysterical. For good measure, he began to make disobliging remarks about mass-educated white-collar workers. ‘They have no manners,’ he wrote in fuddled praise of Lucky Jim (1954). ‘They are scum.’

All told, Maugham’s plans for a serenely grand old age did not work well. From a reputation-consolidating point of view, he’d have done better to die a bit earlier. Especially since the publication of Ted Morgan’s biography in 1980, his earlier life has been overshadowed by his ‘Lear on the Riviera’ period: the memoir detailing what a bitch his wife had been, the effort to disinherit his daughter, the routine but widely publicised infirmities. And, long before then, it had become clear that many of the people who’d read him in their youth were more likely to speak of his ‘slickness’ than to invest him with nostalgic glamour. Books such as Catalina (1948) and Great Novelists and Their Novels (1954) made a wobbly pedestal, and Maugham Studies never stood much chance. He might reasonably have hoped to become a touchstone in anti-Modernist polemics, but if so, he would have been disappointed. There was some half-hearted praise from Movement types, but when John Carey, for example, needed an honourable popular writer to batter the highbrows with in The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992), he turned to Arnold Bennett.

Morgan’s biography had a memorable centrepiece: a description of the senile Maugham crapping on somebody’s rug and scooping up ‘a handful of faeces like a guilty child’. In his new biography, Jeffrey Meyers quotes one of the two alleged witnesses denying all knowledge of ‘this nonsensical story’. Although he thinks that Maugham’s career boils down to a ‘struggle between sexual repression and artistic expression’, Meyers – a fantastically prolific biographer who’s written forty or fifty books himself – is out to treat his subject with more tact. Yes, Beverley Nichols called Maugham ‘the most sexually voracious man I’ve ever known’, and, yes, there are one or two anecdotes about his adventures in this line. On the whole, though, Meyers wants to emphasise his industry, generosity and hardihood: ‘Somerset Maugham was a jock!’ And his enemies’ motives are darkly scrutinised. Slapping down myths with one hand and sketching expansive generalisations with the other, Meyers hustles through the life in essayistic blocks, pausing here and there to identify the real-life models for fictional characters.

Maugham was born in Paris, where his father was a legal adviser to the British Embassy, and spoke mostly French for the first ten years of his life. His much-loved mother died when he was eight, followed two years later by his father. Maugham, aged ten, was sent back to England, where his older brothers were already being educated. (One of them, Frederic, became lord chancellor in 1938.) He lived with an uncle and aunt in Whitstable – lightly disguised as ‘Blackstable’ in his novels – and developed a stammer, perhaps as a result of being teased about his Frenchified ways. ‘I have never forgotten the roar of laughter,’ he wrote years later, ‘when in my preparatory school I read out the phrase “unstable as water” as though unstable rhymed with Dunstable.’ After a semi-miserable public schooling in Canterbury (‘Tercanbury’), he persuaded his uncle to send him to Heidelberg. He saw Ibsen drinking beer in a café, looking ‘angry, vexed and disagreeable’, and read Ruskin, Pater, Schopenhauer, Goethe. After Germany, Cambridge looked worryingly like school, so in 1892 he became a medical student at St Thomas’s Hospital.

He never practised medicine. Instead, he used his student experiences delivering babies in London slums – ‘sinister courts where the police hesitated to penetrate, but where your black bag protected you from harm’ – to write Liza of Lambeth (1897), ‘a very clever realistic study of factory girl and coster life’, as his publisher’s reader put it. Further novels and a Spanish travel book followed, but they didn’t make much money – and money, Maugham believed, was ‘like a sixth sense without which you could not make the most of the other five’. He launched a parallel career in the theatre, violently determined not to make the same mistakes as Henry James, whom he knew and disliked. (According to Leon Edel, he was fond of ‘telling his friends of an alleged attempt by Hugh Walpole to violate the Master, and of James’s passionate recoil’.) Maugham was present on the opening night of Guy Domville in 1895 and seems not to have sympathised when his rival was booed offstage. ‘Do you know why Uncle Henry’s plays don’t succeed? I’ll tell you why,’ Meyers has him telling ‘a theatrical friend’: ‘They’re lousy, that’s why they don’t succeed.’

James compared his tormentors to ‘a cage of beasts at some infernal zoo’. Maugham developed a more practical appraisal. ‘Now the audience is a very curious animal,’ he explains in The Summing Up. ‘It is shrewd rather than intelligent. Its mental capacity is less than that of its most intellectual members. If these were graded from A to Z, decreasing with succeeding letters to the zero of the hysterical shop-girl, I should say its mental capacity would come round about the letter O.’ Operating according to this theory of the audience’s just-more-than-average thickness, Maugham became the most popular playwright of the Edwardian age. There were a few false starts, but Lady Frederick was an unexpected hit in 1907, and soon he had four plays running simultaneously in London. Most of his drawing-room comedies have been forgotten, although The Constant Wife, The Circle and For Services Rendered are said to stand up quite well. And the plays brought in a lot of money. ‘I had achieved what I wanted . . . Bernard Partridge drew a cartoon for Punch in which William Shakespeare was shown biting his fingers in front of the boards that advertised my plays.’

As a wit-about-town, Maugham had various dalliances with women. His lust for chaps was a fairly open secret in his circle – he had discovered the delights of Capri with John Ellingham Brooks in 1895 – but in the wake of the Wilde trial he kept up a formidable public reserve. Unfortunately, one of his girlfriends, Syrie Barnardo Wellcome, became pregnant with his child in 1914. This was a momentous year for Maugham. He finished Of Human Bondage (published in 1915), his first heavyweight novel, and corrected the proofs while serving with the Red Cross in France. There, a few months before Syrie’s pregnancy, he had also met Gerald Haxton, a louche American expatriate who became the most important man in his life. Maugham eventually married Syrie for the child’s sake – their daughter, Elizabeth, was born in 1915 – but he continued to see Haxton. Gossip proliferated. Maugham, it was said, had taken to hiding behind the sofa whenever his ‘coarse and irritating’ wife was at home. Fanciful tales about the exotic arrangements required to overcome his ‘homosexual nervosity’ in the marital bed began to do the rounds.

To complicate matters further, the intelligence services identified Maugham as promising agent material and recruited him at around the time of Elizabeth’s birth. He was sent to Switzerland, where, sustaining his cover by working on a play, he acted as a courier for spies in Germany. In November 1916, he set off for the South Seas, taking Haxton with him. Meyers suspects he was after vital information about German activities in Western Samoa. He also snapped up a Gauguin in Tahiti for 200 francs. Then, in 1917, he was sent to Petrograd ‘to prevent the Bolshevik revolution and to keep Russia in the war’, as he explains in the preface to Ashenden (1928). He performed creditably, it seems, but ‘the reader will know that my efforts did not meet with success.’ Elsewhere, he informs the reader that ‘I do not ask him to believe me when I state that it seems to me at least possible that if I had been sent six months before I might quite well have succeeded.’ Maugham left two days before the Revolution and was promptly laid low by tuberculosis. He wrote two light comedies while recuperating in a Scottish sanatorium.

After the war, Maugham travelled with Haxton in China, Malaya, Borneo, Hawaii, Australia, Siam, Burma, Guatemala. Of Human Bondage found a readership in Britain and the US; The Moon and Sixpence (1919) became a bestseller, and Maugham’s travels provided material for story collections, starting with The Trembling of a Leaf (1921). In 1926, he bought the Villa Mauresque – the original structure was built in 1906 by Leopold II of Belgium for his personal confessor – and settled in France. Syrie stayed in London, where she was taking a profitable interest in interior design (a reliable mark of bad character in her husband’s later books). They were divorced in 1929: ‘Glad to be rid of her at last,’ Meyers writes, ‘Maugham threw in the chauffeur with the Rolls.’ There were further travels, further books. The world-famous Maugham persona fell into place. Noël Coward caricatured it neatly in a play called Point Valaine (1935): ‘I always affect to despise human nature. Cynical, detached, unscrupulous, an ironic observer and recorder of other people’s passions. It is a nice façade to sit behind, but a trifle bleak. Perhaps I am misunderstood. I often toy with that idea. Perhaps I have suffered a great deal and am really a very lonely, loving spirit.’

Coward was unusual among Maugham’s celebrity friends in not finding him intimidating. Evelyn Waugh didn’t either, but even he was made to feel uncomfortable after calling someone ‘a pansy with a stammer’ in Maugham’s presence. On another occasion, Maugham ‘gave him an icy stare’ as Ann Fleming – wife of Ian – chastised him ‘by banging a serving spoon on his offensively prominent ear trumpet’. Christopher Isherwood, on the other hand, found that Maugham’s stammer ‘somehow made you feel that you were stammering, not he’. Raymond Mortimer noted his ‘very violent temper’. In his later years, visitors described him as ‘saurian’ or compared him to ‘a primeval crab’. But few turned down invitations to his villa, where ‘discreet, well-trained staff’ served absinthe martinis and meals prepared by ‘the best cook on the Riviera’. On fine days, an awed American publisher reported, Maugham could be seen waterskiing off Cap Ferrat: ‘Seated on a high chair on top of his aquaplane, tethered to his speedy launch, he skips over the Mediterranean at a speed of fifteen to twenty knots an hour.’ Haxton was in charge of rounding up sailors to decorate the poolside, where water flowed from a marble faun carved by Bernini.

Haxton was also an alcoholic, and sometimes there were scenes. Beverley Nichols was indignant about finding him displaying his winnings after a night on the tables: ‘On floor, stark naked, covered with thousand-franc notes. Never seen so much money in my life. On the bed, over his legs, practically in his hair. Gerald trying to be sick and sometimes succeeding.’ Maugham indulgently picked up his bar tabs, but Haxton came to resent his subordinate status. By the early 1930s, Maugham was complaining that he ‘liked the bottle better than he liked me’. ‘Though I have been in love a good many times,’ he told his readers in 1938, ‘I have never experienced the bliss of requited love . . . I have most loved people who cared little or nothing for me.’ The couple sat out the Second World War in America, where Maugham wrote The Razor’s Edge (1944) while Haxton carried on drinking despite contracting tuberculosis. He died in November 1944. On his deathbed, it was rumoured, he showered Maugham with ‘appalling, venomous obscenities’.

Maugham carried on for another two decades. There were further travels, further books. Alan Searle, a former social worker whose ‘pronounced cockney accent’ gave rise to much comment, replaced Haxton in the role of lover-factotum. (Grand visitors disliked him, and Meyers does too.) Fortified – or so he hoped – by regular injections of lamb-foetus serum at a sinister clinic in Switzerland, Maugham played bridge with Eisenhower and lunched with Churchill. He set up the Somerset Maugham Award and lavished funds on his old school – the wily headmaster had ensnared him by mentioning Hugh Walpole’s benefactions – but the Order of Merit never materialised. Meanwhile, his dependents slugged it out over the future division of his estate. Maugham sold his paintings and tried to adopt Searle, but his daughter sued and won. He retaliated with ‘Looking Back’ (1962), a score-settling memoir serialised by Beaverbrook in the Sunday Express, before complete decrepitude set in. Born while Anna Karenina was being serialised, he died – on 15 December 1965 – while the Beatles were promoting Rubber Soul. A month earlier, Ken Tynan had said ‘fuck’ on TV. Maugham, by most accounts, had been saying it in public quite a lot as well.

Meyers clearly works at great speed, and although his biography is better than it might be, there are times when it reads like an extended cuttings job. He also gets unnervingly worked up about an anecdote Maugham liked to tell about his grandfather, who apparently once expressed his displeasure at being served baked potatoes by throwing them at the pictures on the walls. ‘Did his grandfather feel a sudden antagonism to the family portraits or a need to liven up the dinner party? Did he, overworked and under pressure, seize this trivial occasion to vent his long-repressed rage? Or was it a mental aberration, preceding a nervous breakdown?’ We’ll never know, but the dramatic escalation doesn’t build confidence in Meyers’s mind-reading powers, which are frequently on display as he asks – and answers – similar questions about his subject. And he loves to point out superficial resemblances. Maugham and Isherwood, for instance, ‘were both homosexuals who lived abroad’ and ‘wrote in a clear prose style’.

Some of these comparisons and character sketches allow Meyers to dwell on his previous subjects: he has already tackled Orwell, Conrad, D.H. Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield and Edmund Wilson, among many others. But his obsessive cross-referencing also seems aimed at elevating Maugham by association. Meyers dismisses his weaker efforts, and even quotes some of the lines that drew fire. (From Great Novelists and Their Novels: Tolstoy ‘was an old man. He was 80. A year passed and another. He was 82.’) But he’s full of praise for most of the best-known books. Of Human Bondage is described as ‘a magisterial achievement’. In general, ‘his canvas was colourful, his characters vivid, his plots excellent.’ Lionel Trilling and Leon Edel are ticked off for calling him shallow and, worse, a boring subject for literary criticism: ‘Such critics attacked Maugham for not being a different sort of writer – a Dostoevsky or a Henry James – instead of appreciating his extraordinary dramatic and narrative talents.’ As for Wilson, Meyers believes that his ‘extremely unfair’ pronouncements sprang from a mistaken belief that his victim had said something rude about one of his novels.

Perhaps Wilson did nurse a grudge, but even so, he had a point: Maugham’s writing is devitalising in large doses. His dialogue is deliberately stuffed with clichés, as in: ‘He was the kind of breezy, hearty cove whom you’d expect to be as keen as mustard on having kids.’ He liked to observe that ‘man in moments of emotion expresses himself naturally in the terms of a novelette,’ but in straight narrative, too, he often produced such sentences as: ‘Philip listened with all his ears, and though he felt a little out of it, his heart leapt with exultation. The time flew.’ ‘It can only be described in a hackneyed phrase, because it was a hackneyed thing’ was one justification, and hackneyed things turn up quite a lot in his work. Cyril Connolly – who, according to Meyers, was once caught stealing the home-grown avocadoes at the Villa Mauresque – wrote persuasively about Maugham’s ‘agitated dullness’ in Enemies of Promise (1938). Long sentence, short sentence, short sentence, long sentence, few commas on the horizon: at his worst, ‘the phrases rattle like peas being shelled into a tin.’

Maugham told various stories about the origins of his famous plain style. He claimed to reread Candide each time he was about to start a novel. In The Summing Up, he describes learning to aim for ‘lucidity, simplicity and euphony’ after growing embarrassed by his youthful attempts to write like Walter Pater. Writing for the theatre also taught him ‘the value of succinctness’: in his novels and stories, he gave up on brocaded descriptions and concentrated on dialogue, narrative development and manipulating the reader’s expectations. But his heavy-handed effects have more than a touch of lordly talking-down, as if the writing is self-consciously directed towards ‘the letter O’. In his most celebrated story, ‘Rain’, for instance, a missionary called Davidson comes to grief through his relentless hounding of a strangely attractive prostitute. Maugham indicates that the missionary has more on his mind than prayer:

‘This morning he told me that he’d been dreaming about the mountains of Nebraska,’ said Mrs Davidson.

‘That’s curious,’ said Dr Macphail.

He remembered seeing them from the windows of the train when he crossed America. They were like huge mole-hills, rounded and smooth, and they rose from the plain abruptly. Dr Macphail remembered how it struck him that they were like a woman’s breasts.

The last sentence is provided in much the same spirit as the translations Maugham appends whenever he uses French phrases or Latin tags. (According to Meyers – who factors in the stage and screen adaptations – this story earned its author $1 million.)

The other major obstacle for any attempt to rehabilitate Maugham is Of Human Bondage. It’s easy to see why post-1918 adolescents – including George Orwell – thrilled as the scales fell from the eyes of Philip Carey, the club-footed but otherwise Maugham-like student hero:

It is an illusion that youth is happy, an illusion of those who have lost it; but the young know they are wretched, for they are full of the truthless ideals which have been instilled into them, and each time they come in contact with the real they are bruised and wounded. It looks as if they were victims of a conspiracy; for the books they read, ideal by the necessity of selection, and the conversation of their elders, who look back upon the past through a rosy haze of forgetfulness, prepare them for an unreal life. They must discover for themselves that all they have read and all they have been told are lies, lies, lies; and each discovery is another nail driven into the body on the cross of life.

And so on. In 1936, Orwell still thought that, though ‘stuffed full of literary faults’, Of Human Bondage was ‘not likely to drop out of favour.’ Confronted with Philip’s wretched childhood, during which his selfish uncle hogs the boiled eggs while priding himself on letting Philip eat the tops, readers these days are more likely to agree with Gore Vidal, who called it the novel in which Maugham’s lifelong self-pity came ‘to a full rather ghastly flowering’. Philip’s agonised pursuit of Mildred – a green-skinned waitress who holds her knife like a pen, calls him a cripple, and, in addition, is ‘the sort of woman who was unable to realise that a man might not have her own obsession with sex’ – is also hard to take seriously. ‘I’m not lucky with women,’ Philip says to himself as she scrounges the money for a dirty weekend with his best friend (he’s already paid for her childcare). He learns that love and suffering are strangely intermixed, a point Mildred rams home by trashing his flat and becoming a syphilitic prostitute.

Maugham’s women aren’t always such scarifying figures. If they’re caught in unsuitable relationships or unjustly condemned by hypocrites like the missionary in ‘Rain’, he’s firmly on their side. But the most noble thing a woman can do – even in plays written long before he met Syrie – is turn down an opportunity to trap a man in marriage. A lack of interest in weddings excuses almost anything, although the female characters depicted with most sympathy often come across as gay men in disguise. The narrator of ‘The Human Element’ is unfazed when he learns that Lady Betty Welldon-Burns has shacked up with a rough youth in a splendid villa on the Mediterranean coast. Maugham, himself the narrator of The Razor’s Edge, refuses to condemn poor Sophie Macdonald, who comes to a bad end through boozing, picking up sailors and frequenting male brothels. ‘That doesn’t mean she’s bad,’ he tells Isabel Bradley, a much less likeable character (married, strong views on interior design). ‘After all,’ he continues, ‘quite a number of highly respectable citizens get drunk and have a liking for rough trade.’

The ‘native’ women in his colonial stories are another question. As representatives of the mysterious East, they’re inscrutable, given to casting spells and contemptuous of men who don’t beat them. ‘What he had done did not outrage her,’ we learn when some blows are dealt out in ‘The Pool’. ‘When she looked at herself in the glass and arranged her hair, her eyes were shining . . . Perhaps then she was nearer loving him than she had ever been before.’ This is of a piece with the ideas about passion expounded at such length in Of Human Bondage, but it also shows the limits of Maugham’s disillusionment. His travels filled his prop-box with solar topees, gin pahits and boiled shirts, and he sometimes remarks on the kind of fellow who ‘would not have hesitated to fight a dozen unarmed niggers with nothing but a revolver to help him’. But if Maugham’s prototypical jaded administrator shouldn’t really be there, it’s because ‘their’ ways are not his, not because of economic exploitation or the psychic costs exacted by colonial role-playing.

Edel was right: in many ways, Maugham is ‘a dull subject for literary criticism’. There are few subtle strands of imagery to tease out, few pregnant ambiguities; above all, his relentless clarity means there’s nothing much to decode. ‘It is certainly worth reading,’ Conrad remarked when Liza of Lambeth was published, ‘but whether it’s worth talking about is another question.’ If you read too many of his books in one go, you start wondering what was wrong with the people who bought them in such staggering numbers (Meyers puts his sales near 40 million).

If you happen to pick up one of his better efforts, however, it’s possible to find yourself thinking that Uncle Willie is slightly underrated. Despite – or because of – the flatness of his language, his storytelling powers are impressive. Writing in a starched-collar vernacular style, projecting an antique vision of social sophistication, he can still hold a reader with plots that are little more than anecdotal. This kind of talent is hard to get to grips with in critical terms, and when Maugham discussed it he usually started sounding like a screenwriting manual. He was fond of revealing that a plot should have ‘a beginning, a middle and an end’ and that ‘a novelist must arrange the facts to entertain his readers.’ (In one of his parodies, Woody Allen has Maugham advising: ‘At the end of an interrogatory sentence, place a question mark. You’d be surprised how effective it can be.’) Waugh described him as a master of ‘creating the appetite for information . . . withholding it until the right moment, and then providing it surprisingly.’ It might sound like a fairly mechanical accomplishment – you could say the same of Dan Brown – but when Maugham gets his machine cranked up, it runs amazingly smoothly.

The Razor’s Edge is a good example of this because, in most ways, it’s a total mess. He bulks it out by recycling elements of his earlier short stories as subplots, while the main plot – in which Larry Darrell travels to India in search of enlightenment, apparently finds it, and then decides to become a mystical taxi driver – is strikingly ridiculous. When Larry spends forty pages explaining ‘the three manifestations of the Ultimate Reality’ over late-night drinks, Mr Maugham responds with a semi-sardonic ‘Golly!’ Larry uses similarly elevated language while enthusing about Descartes: ‘The ease, the grace, the lucidity. Gosh!’ Maugham was one of the world’s least plausible mystics, but he sensed that there was a market for enlightenment and pitched his novel accordingly without concealing his amused disbelief. Nevertheless, the hooks go in from the moment he strolls on-stage and says that, although the story is true, he’s going to make up the dialogue because obviously he can’t remember it all. His storyteller’s tricks are corny but effective, and by the time he’s sidled into the plot by describing Larry’s fiancée’s uncle – an arch-snob with a heart of gold and a morocco-bound collection of 18th-century pornography – the reader is settling in for the long haul.

Maugham established his procedures as a first-person narrator in The Moon and Sixpence, in which the narrator sets off on the trail of Charles Strickland, a painter modelled on Gauguin. Issuing disparaging references to earlier studies of Strickland by Edward Leggatt and Hugo Weitbrecht-Rotholz PhD, he tells the story with many complaints about the difficulty of fixing real people on the page: ‘I have been able to invest them with none of those characteristics which make the persons of a book exist with a real life of their own.’ If they seem a bit shadowy, ‘my only excuse is that the impression they made on me was no other.’ He also establishes his resigned, out-of-date pose by comparing himself to Crabbe, who ‘continued to write moral stories in rhymed couplets’ in the age of Wordsworth and Coleridge. Partly because he really did moan about condescending reviewers and stitch up acquaintances in books, the pretence of dropping all artifice and giving you the inside gossip works well. Even his mistakes – if they are mistakes – help to sustain the illusion, as when, having located Blackstable in East Anglia in Cakes and Ale, he starts praising the ‘Kentish elms’ and ‘Kentish girls’ of that ‘remote part of Kent’.

In Cakes and Ale, his most effective novel, Driffield’s biography is being written by Alroy Kear, a vastly successful novelist whose talent ‘might have gone into a heaped-up tablespoon’. Kear plans to overlook Driffield’s lowly origins, uncouth habits and, most of all, his first wife, a barmaid called Rosie who left the great man for some cad and is now presumably dead. Ashenden could tell him a story or two about Rosie, but instead he watches in appalled fascination as Kear and the second Mrs Driffield set out to expunge her from the planned biography. Florence Hardy, Thomas’s widow, and Hugh Walpole, who was instantly identified as the model for Kear, were horrified by these blatant caricatures. But malice brought out the best in Maugham:

It sounds a little brutal to say that when [Kear] had got all he could get from people he dropped them; but it would take so long to put the matter more delicately, and would need so subtle an adjustment of hints, half-tones and allusions, playful or tender, that such being at bottom the fact, I think it as well to leave it at that. Most of us when we do a caddish thing harbour resentment against the person we have done it to, but Roy’s heart, always in the right place, never permitted him such pettiness. He could use a man very shabbily without afterwards bearing him the slightest ill-will.

The ‘hints, half-tones and allusions’ are probably a swipe at Henry James, yet Cakes and Ale is the closest Maugham came to a Jamesian novella. Like Clare Vawdrey in James’s ‘The Private Life’, Driffield is seen as a divided self: ‘I had an impression that the real man, to his death unknown and lonely, was a wraith that went a silent way unseen between the writer of his books and the man who led his life, and smiled with ironical detachment at the two puppets that the world took for Edward Driffield.’

You could say the same about Maugham, but you could also say that, like Rosie, he’s not quite as dead as people think. Without being on any reading lists, he still enjoys a sort of fame. He’s always turning up in guidebooks to Sarawak or dispensing ironic murmurs in other people’s biographies: there are few topics, it sometimes seems, that don’t come with an appropriate anecdote about Somerset Maugham. Graham Greene – who succeeded him as the world’s world-weariest traveller – complained that no one had done more ‘to stamp the idea of the repressed prudish man of God on the popular imagination’. V.S. Naipaul – who succeeded Greene – felt obliged to settle Maugham’s hash in Half a Life (2001). And even truly minor works like Christmas Holiday (1939) and The Magician (1908) are still in print, helping to keep the Royal Literary Society in funds. Those X-ray eyes that scan potential buyers from the back covers of fresh paperbacks, are set in a beefy, moustachioed face photographed during the 1920s rather than the wrinkled mask made famous by Graham Sutherland’s portrait of 1949. As Meyers might ask, was he thinking reproachfully about neglectful future generations as he faced the camera? Or was it a case – as Maugham so often put it – of ‘I tittered in my heart’?

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences