The Merry-Go-Round by W. Somerset Maugham

“As if hell were needed when every sin brings along with it its own bitter punishment.”

The Merry-Go-Round, an early and largely forgotten novel from W. Somerset Maugham is not considered his best, but it’s one of my favourites. The Merry-Go-Round was written in 1904 following Mrs Craddock (another great favourite) in 1902. The main character in Mrs Craddock is Bertha Ley, and she’s the niece of Miss Mary Ley, the main character in The Merry-Go-Round.

Set in Edwardian England, The Merry-Go-Round concerns the troubled relationships between several people. The central character is Miss Ley, a fifty-seven-year-old spinster who inherits a comfortable sum of money from a cantankerous elderly aunt. Independent and strong-willed in her youth, in middle-age Miss Ley has very definite ideas about male-female relationships.  As a keen observer of people, her sardonic, practical view of the foibles and vanities of human nature establish Miss Ley as a witty hostess. Soon her friends become involved in various relationships and mesalliances that put Miss Ley’s theories about life, love and marriage to the test. Miss Ley rather unexpectedly finds herself becoming a confidant, an advisor and also “a censor of morals.”

Shortly after the novel begins, Miss Ley invites a handful of acquaintances to dinner, and this event introduces the main characters and kickstarts their stories, dramas and tragedies. Guests for the evening include: Mrs. Castillyon (whose husband is a member of parliament), Basil Kent, Dr. Frank Hurrell, Reggie Bassett and his overbearing mother Mrs. Barlow-Bassett, the attractive widow Mrs. Murray, Miss Ley’s cousin, Algernon Langton, Dean of Tercanbury and his middle-aged daughter Bella.

Over the course of the book, these characters plunge into love affairs and marriages for a variety of reasons and with a range of results. Barrister Basil Kent, a promising writer, although attracted to Mrs Murray, decides to do the honourable thing and offer marriage to the beautiful barmaid Jenny. Dr Frank Hurrell, a man whose “passions were of the mind rather than of the body” chafes at his career in Harley Street and longs for something unknown. Mrs. Castillyon, bored with her marriage, abandons herself in a destructive affair with Reggie Bassett, and Bella Langton at age forty falls in love with a twenty-year-old bank clerk named Herbert Field.

Maugham explores the relationships between unequals in his masterpiece Of Human Bondage. It’s obviously a theme that fascinated Maugham and in The Merry-Go-Round, there are three  such inequitable relationships (one I shan’t mention due to spoilers). Bella Langton marries Herbert Field–a man considered her social ‘inferior’ and Basil marries Jenny against Miss Ley’s advice. The marriages have different results, and while Bella and Herbert love each other, there are additional factors which impact their relationship. Basil imagines a Pygmalion scenario–with himself, naturally, as the purveyor of culture and education, and Jenny as the eager, lowly and grateful pupil. After marriage, however, Jenny’s charms are lost on Basil and he quickly finds himself bored with his wife and ashamed to introduce her to his friends. He stashes her at home and then attends his social functions alone. Jenny of course, hasn’t essentially changed since Basil first cast eyes on her; Basil’s infatuation simply dies, and with his sexual enthrallment satiated, he loses interest. In doing the so-called honourable thing, and meeting the moral obligations he feels are demanded of him, Basil becomes unintentionally cruel and tragedy results.

It’s been more than 100 years since Basil’s creation, but many of us will still identify with his decision to ‘do the right thing.’ But just what is the ‘right thing’ is a question for some debate. Miss Ley is vehemently opposed to the match and she expresses her feelings unreservedly. In her view, Basil has already caused Jenny considerable damage which will only be compounded by marriage–an act she feels is motivated from “selfishness and cowardice.” Here’s Miss Ley giving Basil her opinion:

“Are you sure you don’t admire a little too much your heroic attitude?” she asked, and in her voice was a stinging coldness at which Basil winced. “Nowadays self-sacrifice is a luxury which few have the strength to deny themselves; people took to it when they left off sugar because it was fattening, and they sacrifice themselves wantonly, from sheer love of it, however worthless the object. In fact, the object scarcely concerns them; they don’t care how much they harm it so long as they can gratify their passion.”

In Basil’s case, Miss Ley sees the misguided passion as Basil’s drive to “sacrifice” himself by marrying Jenny. Basil is motivated by the desire to not seem like his mother, the one-time notorious Lady Vizard whose affairs (Basil imagines) scandalized society–when in fact prissy Basil was the only person outraged. Basil tends to place impossibly high standards of behaviour on people and is perhaps destined to be disappointed in his relationships:

“Basil had not the amiable gift of taking people as they are, asking no more from them than they can give: but rather sought to mould after his own ideas the persons with whom he came into contact.”

The relationship between Reggie Bassett and Mrs Castillyon remains, for me at least, the most fascinating relationship in the novel. While the vast social differences in Basil and Jenny’s marriage are certain to leave bitter recrimination, it’s uncertain just who is going to be the casualty in the twisted relationship between the shallow, spoiled, selfish, petulant Reggie, and the bored superficial Mrs Castillyon. Socially, Reggie is used to prostitutes and at first can’t believe his luck at discovering a ‘loose’ woman of his own class (a woman, he assumes, who will pay her own way). Reggie fails to understand that Mrs Castillyon is mainly a tease and initially has no intention of becoming his mistress. The scenes detailing the first steps in the affair between Reggie and Grace Castillyon are especially delightful. Invitations to tea and to the theatre mask elaborate games in which Reggie and Grace test and exploit each other’s boundaries.

Miss Ley doles out advice when asked and sometimes when she isn’t asked, and throughout the novel, she is also an observer of the silliness and hypocrisy of others. Lady Vizard’s compulsion to drop the occasional French word into conversation provides just the right degree of snobbery and pretension to the upper class set, and this develops into scorn when she discovers Basil’s marriage to Jenny. Some of the narrative is stiff, and the novel seems a little unkind to most of the working class characters who either steal (Jimmy Bush), get drunk (Bridger) or get “into trouble” (Fanny Bridger, Jenny Bush). On the other hand, the upper classes suffer from priggishness (Castillyon, Basil) and selfishness induced by boredom (Grace Castillyon, Reggie).

The first time I read The Merry-Go-Round many years ago, I thought that Maugham’s novel preached virulently against marriages between different classes. Now, however, I find myself moving away from that opinion. While Basil’s marriage to Jenny is disastrous, the third, completely unexpected, marriage that takes place between two characters may or may not be successful. Miss Ley seems to think that the marriage could well be the making of the weaker, shallow character–in spite of the class differences between the newlyweds. Perhaps it is safer to say that a marriage that begins as a “favour” to the other person or as a “sacrifice” is doomed to failure, and that at the very least, respect, if not affection must be present in order for the union to have a chance of success.

Maugham’s characters share a great capacity to make themselves unhappy, and Miss Ley realizes that most of this stems from humans’ failure to understand their deepest motivations. So much unhappiness could have been spared these characters if they’d only understood themselves a little better. Here’s Basil blaming his mistakes on society:

“In this world we’re made to act and think things because others have thought them good; we never have a chance of going our own way; we’re bound down by the prejudices and the morals of all and sundry….The world held up an ideal, and I thought they meant one to act up to it; it never occurred to me that they would only sneer.”

I don’t buy Basil’s theory that his actions were dictated by society–in his case it was rather the opposite. Everyone advised him not to marry Jenny. But it is that vast dichotomy that exists in most of us–the gap between who we think we are and who we really are–that trips up Basil. He thinks he can marry Jenny and make the best of it when in reality he patronizes her, is deeply ashamed of her and imagines that she “drags him down” to her level.

So at the end of the novel, The Merry-Go-Round has stopped. Some characters alight and some continue with their delusions. Some fortunate characters get a second chance at life, and some…do not.

About these ads

2 Comments

Filed under Maugham, W. Somerset

2 responses to “The Merry-Go-Round by W. Somerset Maugham

  1. Jack Dreamster

    Thoroughly enjoyed your entry of “The Merry-Go-Round”. Despite everything, I think that Basil did the wisest thing by marrying Jenny when she was pregnant. If he hadn’t, she may well have committed suicide at that point: she does mention in the book that that is what she would have done. I think that he would have suffered a great deal if that happened.

    I think that Basil had found him self in one of those situations where he was stuck between a rock and hard place… I think he was in for a great deal of suffering no matter what course he took.

    I wonder how Basil and Jenny’s marriage would have played out had the baby survived?

    Reading Maugham is a tonic for me in that he deals with relationship issues that are so relevant to me. On the other hand, he has a certain bad influence on me in that he makes me want to give up all my responsibilities and give in to all my most selfish desires. Despite all of Miss Ley’s sarcasm and worldly understanding, I do think there is something in “self-sacrifice” and human relationships, even the best of them, couldn’t function with out it.

    cheers,

    Jack

    • Jack: Thanks for your comment. I’ve been thinking of Maugham recently and I’ve been dipping into the book Traveller in Romance.

      The situation with Basil and Jenny is a dilemma, and a dilemma that is no less anguished today. I agree about the rock and the hard place. Another man might not have found the choice so difficult. As you say, what would have happened if the child had lived?

      I value Maugham a great deal too. There’s so much wisdom in his novels, and he’s one of my great favourites.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s