Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a W. Somerset Maugham fan, so when I saw a 47 page short story available for the kindle for a mere 99 cents, I couldn’t pass it up. Before the Party, published in 1922, is classic Maugham territory–the relationship between a man and a woman set against the backdrop of colonialism.
The Skinners, a middle-aged married couple, are preparing to attend a garden-party, and we know almost immediately that there’s been a death in the family–the Skinners’ “poor” son-in-law Harold has been dead now for 8 months. In attendance at the garden party will be his young widow, Millicent, and her sister, Kathleen. The preparations for the party mostly concern the appropriate clothing and whether or not Millicent intends to appear in mourning.
This central theme of appearances–the keeping up of appearances and also the issue of how appearances can be deceiving–are at the heart of this simple little story in which Millicent who’s been “strange since her return from Borneo,” is clearly holding back a great deal of information about the dearly departed Harold and exactly how he died.
Maugham sets up the story perfectly. It’s a beautiful summer day and the event which the Skinners plan to attend is a garden party organized by Canon Haywood. Here’s a perfect quote that epitomizes the occasion:
It was going to be quite a grand affair. They were having ices, strawberry and vanilla, from Boddy the confectioner, but the Heywoods were making the iced coffee at home. Everyone would be there. They had been asked to meet the Bishop of Hong Kong, who was staying with the Canon, an old college friend of his, and he was going to speak on the Chinese missions. Mrs. Skinner, whose daughter had lived in the East for eight years, and whose son-in-law had been Resident of a district in Borneo, was in a flutter of interest. Naturally it meant more to her than to people who had never had anything to do with the Colonies and that sort of thing.
The English summer day and well-trimmed lawns are a far cry from the jungles of Borneo, but as time wears on before the party, Millicent brings the darkness of her home life in Borneo into the staid, respectable lives of her family and gets little thanks for it. Before the Party is a clever little story for its plot but also its wisdom. Yes those in support of the Empire can attend their little ‘fact-filled’ parties and nod with enthusiasm and self-righteousness about the missions, but when the dark facts behind the glamour are uncovered, ‘decent’ people would rather not know….
In Maugham’s wonderful novel, The Painted Veil, we see how some a couple of British people, far from their home shores, behave rather badly, and that’s the same idea found in Before the Party. Whereas as in The Painted Veil, a tale of adultery turns into a tale of redemption (with an aside into self-destruction), the plot in Before the Party is primarily about appearances. Of course, if the topic is the behaviour of exiles living on far-flung shores, we must also consider that some people who lived abroad were sent there because they either didn’t fit in with society’s norms and that the various colonial outposts are seen as last-ditch attempts to reform. This topic: exile to the colonies and various corners of the Empire for reform is found in M. E. Braddon’s Henry Dunbar , the story of a dissolute banking heir who’s packed off to India as punishment for engaging in forgery. In the non-fiction book, White Mischief, we see a community of ex-pats, many shunned by society, establishing their own notorious culture in Happy Valley.
It’s always fascinating to read about the dominant, ruling races running amok among the natives. Take Bernardo Atxaga’s Seven Houses in France , for example, an excellent novel set in the Belgian Congo. The atrocities against the native population are horrendous, but indulging their bestial natures dehumanizes the officers and the soldiers stationed at the crude outpost. And that’s the thing about colonialism; it’s bad for everyone.
It’s probably no coincidence that after finishing Before the Party, I immediately picked up Joseph Conrad.