Category Archives: Maugham, W. Somerset

Of Human Bondage: W. Somerset Maugham (1915)

“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. “

W. Somerset Maugham’s novel, Of Human Bondage, is an intense character study of Philip Carey from his unhappy childhood through his life as a young man. The book is labelled a bildungsroman, and in this case, the label is a reductive. Of Human Bondage had been in my to-read list for years, and this wonderful book makes my Best-of-Year list.

Philip’s life does not begin well. He is born with a club foot, a deformity which shapes his entire life. His father, a London doctor, spent above his means and died unexpectedly, leaving a widow, pretty Helen and his small son just a tiny amount of money. When Philip is 9, his mother dies and he’s left in the care of his paternal uncle, William Carey, a Vicar and his wife, Louisa. William and Louisa are a childless couple, and life at the vicarage is dull and restrictive. While Aunt Louisa loves Philip and tries to do her best for the boy, life at the vicarage is built around the selfishness and self-importance of the vicar. William Carey earns just 300 pounds a year, not a great deal, so he is the one who eats an egg while his wife nibbles nervously at bread and butter. The pompous, miserable, querulous vicar is the one who goes on holiday while Louisa stays home. If Philip is a ‘good boy’ he may get the top of his uncle’s boiled egg. With the household built around the idea that the vicar is the most important creature in the house, the addition of a small, lonely, unhappy boy is not easy. The vicar, who did not approve of Philip’s parents, intends that Philip should enter the church. Shipped off to boarding school, Philip, due to his club foot, suffers great torments at the hands of the other boys. It’s at boarding school, Philip finally finds a friend, but it’s a friendship based in Philip’s deep insecurities and need for love.

When he’s a young man, Philip refuses to try for an Oxford scholarship and instead, using his small inheritance, goes to Germany. He’s desperate to ‘live’ and escape the suffocating life in the vicarage. His aunt’s sad, dreary existence seems to be an incentive to gain experience abroad. Philip returns home and studies accounting but decides that is not for him, and so, possessing a little artistic talent, he moves to Paris to study Art. Eventually realizing that he will never be a great artist, he returns to England and begins his training as a doctor. Philip meets a cockney waitress named Mildred and she becomes the bête noire of his life.

Our lives are defined by our experiences and our choices and so it is with Philip. He obsessively pursues the dreadful Mildred, and she treats him abominably. She drifts in and out of Philip’s life, using him shamelessly, and each time she returns and leaves, her degrading treatment of Philip is worse and worse. She is a horrid creature; she understands Philip in terms of how she can manipulate him, but she sees his code of behaviour, his ‘niceness’ as weakness. Philip falls as low as a human being can go in terms of money, and it’s only when he hits rock bottom that he begins to surface.

It’s through Philip’s interactions with Mildred we see how relationships fill a need. Philip has nothing in common with Mildred, but think of a key and a lock, they ‘fit’ together, and while even Philip recognises that the awful passion he has for Mildred is self-destructive, he can’t stop.

He did not care if she was heartless, vicious and vulgar, stupid and grasping, he loved her. He would rather have misery with one than happiness with the other.

So enough of the plot, but onto some of the significant people Philip meets. He has a sexual relationship with an older woman in his uncle’s home and after her successful conquest, he abandons her without hesitation. He meets a repellent young female art student in Paris, and fails to see her deep poverty until it is too late. He meets a fellow artist who gives him a rug saying it explains the meaning of life, and through his hospital work, he befriends a patient, Thorpe Athelny–a man of grandiose ideas who has a large, lively family.

After finishing the novel, I chewed over the entire ‘bondage’ idea. Philip is hostage to many things: his deformity, religion, money, sexual desire and his need for love. Philip tries to find freedom, the illusory idea of freedom, by leaving the stifling atmosphere of the vicarage, but he carries his human limitations with him to Germany and later Paris. He experiences many failures and disappointments while observing the failures of others who also seek freedom, fame or the meaning of life. Maugham addresses the idea of what it means to be ‘free’ and this is the question that haunts Philip until the novel’s conclusion. Freedom isn’t ‘out there,’–it’s not a geographical location–it’s metaphysical and Philip must overcome his emotional and mental hurdles in order to achieve freedom of the mind. Only then does he have a shot at happiness.

There was no meaning in life, and man by living served no end. It was immaterial whether he was born or not born, whether he lived or ceased to live. Life was insignificant and death without consequence. Philip exulted, as he had exulted in his boyhood when the weight of a belief in God was lifted from his shoulders: it seemed to him that the last burden of responsibility was taken from him; and for the first time he was utterly free. His insignificance was turned to power, and he felt himself suddenly equal with the cruel fate which had seemed to persecute him; for, if life was meaningless, the world was robbed of its cruelty. What he did or left undone did not matter. Failure was unimportant and success amounted to nothing. He was the most inconsiderate creature in that swarming mass of mankind which for a brief space occupied the surface of the earth; and he was almighty because he had wrenched from chaos the secret of its nothingness.


Filed under Fiction, Maugham, W. Somerset

Before the Party: W. Somerset Maugham

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.


Filed under Fiction, Maugham, W. Somerset

The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham

Time for a re-read of another wonderful W. Somerset Maugham novel, The Moon and Sixpence, published nearly 100 years ago in 1919. This novel is inspired by the life of Paul Gauguin, but in this fictionalized account, the protagonist is British, a man called Charles Strickland. In some ways, the novel reminds me of the best of Henry James, for we have a narrator who isn’t exactly involved but is a peripheral canny observer to crucial events. We don’t ever find out a great deal about the life of our narrator as this is the story of Charles Strickland, and when the novel opens we know that Strickland is an artist of some renown. We also know that there is some controversy about Strickland’s life with the intriguing information that his son and biographer, the Rev. Robert Strickland has “an astonishing ability for explaining things away.”

the moon and sixpenceThe narrator goes back in time to his youth as an aspiring author in London, part of a circle of writers, and his introduction to Mrs. Strickland, one of a number of women who hosts luncheons for those in the literary world. The narrator rather likes Mrs. Strickland, a woman in her late 30s, as she’s kind and has a genuine “passion for reading.” Unlike many of these literary groupies, she has no ambitions of her own, and is apparently content to have these young authors in her home–as if their mere acquaintance makes her own life more interesting. Mr. Strickland is noticeably absent, but since he’s a broker on the stock exchange, and according to his wife, “a perfect philistine,” his absence seems both expected and no loss to the literary society that gathers at Mrs. Strickland’s table. But all hell breaks loose when rumours abound that Strickland, after 17 years of seemingly-happy married life, has deserted his wife and family and run off to Paris with a woman. Shortly afterwards, Mrs. Strickland summons the narrator and begs him to go to Paris, track down her husband, and bring him back. The narrator somewhat reluctantly accepts…

Over the course of a number of years, the narrator runs into Strickland. One time is, of course, an intentional meeting with Strickland, in theory, being lectured about his ‘moral obligations.’ Strickland, however, is the most curious character. How can one appeal to morality and conscience when the person who’s receiving the lecture has simply opted out of the moral system he’s supposed to adhere to?

When people say they do not care what others think of them, for the most part they deceive themselves. Generally they mean only that they will do as they choose, in the confidence that no one will know their vagaries; and at the upmost only that they are willing to act contrary to the opinion of the majority because they are supported by the approval of their neighbours. It is not difficult to be unconventional in the eyes of the world when your unconventionality is but the convention of your set. It affords you then an inordinate amount of self-esteem. You have the self-satisfaction of courage without the inconvenience of danger. But the desire for approbation is perhaps the most deeply seated instinct of civilized man.

No one, of course, forced Strickland to marry, have children or become a mediocre stock broker, but he seems, in his youth, to have made the decision, as most of us do, to go with the flow, and now, at forty, seeing the years ahead, he has taken drastic, one might say callous measures, to change his life. Strickland’s genuine lack of concern of the opinions of others “gave him a freedom which was an outrage.”

A second meeting with Strickland 5 years later would seem to reveal more information about his character, but instead a tragic chain of events involving Strickland only creates a chasm of questions and ambiguities. One thing is clear, however, if those involved or connected with Strickland expect him to abide by any traditional code of morality or behavior, they are going to be hurt. Strickland is a toxic and destructive man. He takes and uses and expects the same in return.

The narrator admits a deep curiosity about Strickland which has morphed into fascination with a character that cannot be dissected, understood, analyzed or neatly boxed:

It was tantalizing to get no more than hints into a character that interested me so much. It was like making one’s way through a mutilated manuscript.

Years later, the narrator’s fascination with Strickland leads him to Tahiti where the truth, if there is indeed a truth about Strickland, is revealed in his nebulous legacy.

Our narrator is almost, but not quite, a tabula rasa, and even though this is predominantly Strickland’s story, if we dig carefully enough, flashes of the narrator’s character appear. We see not just fascination with Strickland but also perhaps a deeply buried sympathy. At first the narrator admits to a “touch of envy” for the “pleasant family life” at the Stricklands, but after an evening with them, he admits that while he understands the “social value” of the family unit, he desires a “wilder course. There seemed to me something alarming in such easy delights.” And then there are the narrator’s comments about the nature of women:

I did not then know the besetting sin of woman, the passion to discuss her private affairs with anyone who is willing to listen.


It requires the feminine temperament to repeat the same thing three times with unabated zest.

Strickland’s use of women is divided in two simple groups: sex and models, and if the two become one temporarily, well so much the better:

What poor minds women have got! Love. It’s always love. They think a man leaves them only because he wants others. Do you think I should be such a fool as to do what I’ve done for a woman?

While the narrator is fascinated with Strickland simply as a previously-unknown character type, there also are strains of the doppelgänger in their relationship.

There is something disconcerting to the writer in the instinct which causes him to take an interest in the singularities of human nature so absorbing that his moral sense is powerless against it. He recognizes in himself an artistic satisfaction in the contemplation of evil which a little startles him; but sincerity forces him to confess that the disapproval he feels for certain actions is not nearly so strong as his curiosity in their reasons. The character of a scoundrel, logical and complete, has a fascination for his creator which is an outrage to law and order. I expect that Shakespeare devised Iago with a gusto which he never knew when, weaving moonbeams with his fancy, he imagined Desdemona. It may be that in his rogues the writer gratifies instincts deep-rooted in him, which the manners and customs of a civilized world have forced back to the mysterious recesses of the subconscious. In giving to the character of his invention flesh and bones he is giving life to that part of himself which finds no other means of expression. His satisfaction is a sense of liberation.

W. Somerset Maugham is a subtle writer, much under-read these days. When I reread these favourites, even though it seems as though I’ve returned to an old friend, there’s always something fresh to uncover. Certainly the test of an excellent novel is to return to it 2, 3, or 4 times and to find it new and intriguing each time.


Filed under Fiction, Maugham, W. Somerset

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

“What was it in the human heart that made you despise a man because he loved you?”

Several events led me back to W. Somerset Maugham, a great favourite, and in my opinion much underappreciated. I selected The Painted Veil to reread–in some ways a very strange unfathomable novel that tells the tale of a thoughtless pretty, self-centred frivolous woman who commits an act that condemns her in society, and who then undergoes some form of redemption. I use the term Redemption a little awkwardly as this usually have some sort of religious connotation, and while religion does have a place here in the novel, Maugham doesn’t use religion in any traditional sense, but more of that later.

The Painted Veil (and yes it’s been made into a film) is the story of Kitty Fane–or Kitty Farstin as she is named before her marriage. Kitty is the eldest of two daughters, the product of Bernard Garstin and his insufferable social-climbing wife, “a hard, cruel, managing, ambitious, parsimonious, and stupid woman.” Mrs Garstin, the daughter of a Liverpool solicitor,  married her husband, not for love, but because she thought he would “go far. He hadn’t.” Mrs Garstin’s bitter disappointment and frustrated ambition at her lack of social position festers and then contaminates her relationships with her two daughters. The youngest, Doris, is plain, but Kitty is a beauty, and it’s on Kitty that Mrs. Garstin’s ambitions and energies rest.

Her first season passed without the perfect suitor presenting himself, and the second also; but she was young and could afford to wait. Mrs Garstin told her friends that she thought it a pity for a girl to marry till she was twenty-one. But a third year passed and then a fourth. Two or three of her old admirers proposed again, but they were still penniless; one or two boys younger than herself proposed.; a retired Indian Civilian, a K.C.I. E., did the same: he was fifty-three. Kitty still danced a great deal, she went to Wimbledon and Lord’s and Ascot and Henley; she was throughly enjoying herself; but still no-one whose position and income were satisfactory asked her to marry him. Mrs Garstin began to grow uneasy. She noticed that Kitty was beginning to attract men of forty and over. She reminded her that she would not be any longer so pretty in a year or two and that young girls were coming out all the time. Mrs Garstin did not mince words in the domestic circle and she warned her daughter tartly that she would miss her market.

With the prospect of an ever-diminishing shelf life, combined with the embarrassing reality that her plain sister makes a brilliant match, Kitty in a “panic” accepts the first halfway suitable proposal that comes along. The proposal is made by the very quiet, very shy Walter Fane, a bacteriologist doctor who’s stationed in Hong Kong.  And so Kitty finds herself, in a bit of a daze, living in Hong Kong with a man she doesn’t know, doesn’t understand and doesn’t particularly like.  

Stuck in a mis-matched marriage, Kitty falls madly in love with a married man, an ambitious but gregarious official, who seems to be more her speed. Leaving some blanks here, I’ll just say that Walter whisks Kitty off to a remote rural area–to the middle of a cholera epidemic.  

One of Maugham’s frequent themes is relationships between unequals. In Of Human Bondage, the inequality is class, and in The Painted Veil, one of Maugham’s most complex novels, the inequity between Walter and Kitty is morality; they are simply two very different people. Kitty Fane isn’t a bad person, but she is shallow, thoughtless, and frivolous. Walter is a man of great integrity, capable of deep, lasting emotions, and theirs is a hellish match as they are destined to make one another deeply unhappy. Here’s Walter arguing with Kitty:

“I had no illusions about you,” he said. “I knew you were silly and frivolous and empty-headed. But I loved you. I knew your aims and ideals were vulgar and commonplace. But I loved you. It’s comic when I think how hard I tried to be amused by the things that amused you and how anxious I was to hide from you that I wasn’t ignorant and vulgar and scandal-mongering and stupid. I knew how frightened you were of intelligence and I did everything I could to make you think me as big a fool as the rest of the men you knew. I knew you’d only married me for convenience. I loved you so much, I didn’t care.”

A simpler story would utilise religion as a source of redemption, and while Kitty finds herself in proximity to religion through the convent in the cholera-stricken city, Maugham does not take the easy way out by granting Kitty some sort of succor in religious redemption. Kitty admits to Waddington, a strange character who often acts as Kitty’s moral sounding board:

I’m looking for something and I don’t know what it is. But I know that it’s very important for me to know it, and if I did it would make all the difference. Perhaps the nuns know it; when I’m with them I feel that they hold a secret which they will not share with me.

Kitty’s redemption comes finally, not through religion, but from an ultimate realisation of the sort of person she is. She acknowledges her human weaknesses and knows that she must struggle against these characteristics all her life.  Her last visit to Hong Kong yields a final humiliation, and she is forced to acknowledge something she’s rather forget.

My Penguin copy includes a preface from Maugham in which he explains that at age 20 he was on a trip to Florence when he became struck with a line from Dante’s Inferno. He states that “this is the only novel I have written in which I started from a story rather from a character.” He goes on to explain that “the characters were chosen to fit the story I gradually evolved.” Due to legal issues, he changed Hong Kong to “an imaginary colony of Tching-yen,” but for this edition, it’s altered back to Hong Kong. Published in 1925.


Filed under Fiction, Maugham, W. Somerset

Up at the Villa by W. Somerset Maugham

It’s cold; it’s winter, and what better time to pick up a book that falls into that fascinating category: Women Who Go Wild in Italy. Is there such a category? Well if there isn’t I’m making one. I can think of a few books that qualify for inclusion: Tennessee Williams’s The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone, E.M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread, Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes, Muriel Spark’s The Drivers’ Seat, Gladys Parrish’s Madame Solario and  A Month by the Lake by H.E. Bates. I started thinking about this category after reading author Charles Lambert’s list of best books set in Rome (The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone makes his list). Women Who Go Wild in Italy is entirely my own, and it’s really an offshoot of my weakness for books in which people go off on holiday and engage in behaviours they wouldn’t dream of on their home turf.

I’m going to admit that Up at the Villa does not make my favourite W. Somerset Maugham list, but more of that later. One of Maugham’s frequent themes is the exploration of relationships between the classes; it’s a theme that dominates Maugham’s most famous novel, Of Human Bondage, and the same theme sneaks into Up At the Villa. Most of the characters in the novel are members of the British leisure class with just a couple of servants and service industry people in the background, and the whiff of colonialism enters the picture through the novel’s stuffiest character, Sir Edward Swift.  As for the date, it’s not mentioned, but it’s some time between the 1938 Nazi invasion of Austria and Britain’s declaration of war in 1939. For Maugham’s British holiday crowd in Florence, the brittle political situation has not yet pierced through their moneyed cocoon; they’re relaxing, eating, drinking and soaking up the sunshine with very few cares to trouble their thoughts. The intrusion of a young Austrian refugee into the picture, however, shakes up the life of a British woman. When the classes mix in Up at the Villa, tragedy results.

Mary Panton is a young widow whose wastrel husband has been dead for about a year. The marriage began in love but ended badly with Matthew Panton gambling away his fortune and whooping it up with other women. Mary is staying in a villa near Florence that belongs to friends. When the novel begins, it’s June, and Mary has been at the villa for about three months. The word ‘recuperating’ isn’t used, but there’s the sense that Mary is healing slowly from the trauma of the last few tumultuous years with Matthew. She is satisfied “to lounge about the garden and read books.”

 Thanks to Matthew’s excesses, most of his fortune is gone: 

at first [when] the lawyers, with glum faces, had told her that after the debts were paid there would be nothing left at all.

But things are looking up, and after the final tally, Mary will have enough to live on for the rest of her life if she uses “rigid economy.” Prior to that little financial detail, I’d been feeling a twinge of sympathy for Mary–the poor woman who’s getting some much deserved R&R after living with a rotter of a husband for eight miserable years. This is the point at which my attitude shifted away from sympathy for Mary. I think we’re supposed to feel sorry about that “rigid economy,” but that information set my teeth on edge. Here’s this 30-year-old beautiful woman, finally free of the encumbrance of her ridiculous husband, lounging in the sun in Florence. The fact that she will never have to work a day in her life doesn’t exactly engender a modicum of sympathy from this reader. “Rigid economy”? Boo-hoo.

Back to the plot:

Mary has a suitor: that bastion of colonialism, Sir Edward Swift. As an old friend of Mary’s deceased father, Swift is an interesting marriage prospect. On one hand, since he’s well into middle-age, his course and career are set. There will be no surprises there, and with any luck no hidden vices. Swift is dependable but he’s also very stuffy. He appears on the scene to announce a prestigious appointment in India and a short departure to work out the details. Up to this point, Swift has been biding his time. He’s always loved Mary, and now he feels that the time is ripe to make a proposal.

In Swift’s absence, Mary is supposed to weigh the proposal and make a decision:

There was a curious sense of apprehension in her heart. He was certainly very handsome. It would be thrilling to be the wife of the Governor of Bengal and very nice to be grand and have the  ADCs [Aide de Camps] running about to do one’s bidding 

This glimpse into Mary’s mind confirmed my suspicions. This is a character I disliked.

With visions of colonialism running in her head, Mary tries to make a decision about marriage to Swift. Fellow Britisher, Rowley, a wealthy man with a scandalous reputation and considered to be a “wastrel and a rotter,” tries to persuade her against making a match with Swift. This serves to cement Mary’s determination, and then tragedy appears in the form of Karl Richter, an Austrian who’s fled the Nazis only to end up playing the violin badly in a restaurant for the bored, wealthy tourists.

Karl is little more than a literary device to help Mary make up her mind about her future. Maugham reveals immense sensitivity in many of his novels that explore the disastrous relationships between the classes, but that sympathy is absent in Up At the Villa. Instead there is a chasm of misunderstanding and objectification.

As a writer Maugham seems fascinated by the relationships between the classes.  While Maugham was from a privileged background, his writing shows some understanding of the struggles of his working class characters. This is mainly seen through the exploration of the obstacles presented by class differences within relationships. Class differences are minimized or overlooked in the love and courtship phase, but then those differences become glaringly obvious as the day-to-day routine kicks in. Consider The Merry-Go-Round for example–a novel in which upper-class Basil Kent marries barmaid Jenny and their subsequent marriage becomes hell for them both. In Mrs Craddock, Bertha Ley marries capable farmer Craddock. For Bertha and Basil, the traits that were so admirable in courtship take on a repugnant, wearing aspect in wedlock.

When I read Up at the Villa, I found myself making comparisons to E. M. Forster’s superb novel, Howard’s End. In the novel, Leonard Bast enters the lives of the wealthy Schlegel sisters Leonard Bast is an impoverished, self-educated man who dreams of books, art, and culture (rather like Maugham’s Herbert Field in The Merry-Go-Round) but as a member of the working-class, Bast finds his days consumed by the drudgery of scraping by with barely enough to eat. After he meets the Schlegel sisters, disaster results in a way that can certainly be compared to Up at the Villa. Indeed there are some intriguing parallels to be drawn between the behaviour and motivations of Mary Panton and Helen Schlegel. Forster’s Howard’s End is a superior treatment of the same scenario.

Up at The Villa‘s Mary is a superficial woman who gains no depth from her relationship with the young Austrian, Karl. Her act towards Karl–a sort of inverted Droit de Seigneur–is driven by her complete inability to understand hunger or poverty. Ok, so perhaps that’s not her fault, but the trivialization of Karl, by the other characters and by Maugham, results in a lesser book. He’s just a device to move the plot along, and the novel’s most interesting stuff spews from Swift–a man for whom love is subsumed to service to the British Empire. Part of the novel’s superficiality springs from the problem that the crux of the story isn’t what happens with Karl but rather the emphasis is on Mary, Rowley, and Swift’s reactions to the incident. While in other Maugham novels, his characters undergo a moral shift through their relationships, emerging at the other side somewhat battered but a better person for the experience, there’s no indication that Mary has undergone one iota of change (beyond her decisions regarding matrimony).

Many criminally underrated Maugham novels make my re-read list:  Mrs Craddock (1902), The Merry-Go-Round (1904), Of Human Bondage (1915), The Moon and Sixpence (1919),  The Painted Veil (1925), and  Cakes and Ale (1930). Up at the Villa (1941) seems quite superficial and light in comparison.


Filed under Fiction, Maugham, W. Somerset

Boris Savinkov and W. Somerset Maugham

Boris Savinkov is not a name I’d readily link with W. Somerset Maugham, but I came across a chapter about these two vastly different men in the marvellous book A Traveller in Romance: Uncollected Writings 1901-1964– W. Somerset Maugham (edited by John Whitehead). In the chapter The Terrorist: Boris Savinkov, Maugham recalls meeting Savinkov years before. Here’s how the chapter begins with Maugham on a ship:

I suppose it was something in the air. No one in the ship could sleep. One went to bed tired, but no sooner had one laid one’s head on the pillow than all one’s senses grew alert and one was wide awake. This was not the case only with a few bad sleepers, but with the passengers in general, and as night followed night, knowing there would be no rest in our rooms, we stayed up later and later.

One evening, having played bridge till our eyes ached and our brains were dizzy, we sat in the smoking-room, half a dozen of us, weary but unwilling to face a sleepless bed. We drank and smoked. We talked of one thing and another and presently one of those present threw out a question.

‘Who is the most remarkable man you’ve ever met?’ he asked.

As the conversation continues into the night, Maugham listens:

I sat silent, for no one spoke to me, and within myself considered whether really the most extraordinary men were to be found among those who have made a splash in the world; I had a notion that perhaps they were to be found rather among the obscure, living secret lives in a great and populous city, solitary on some island in the South Seas.

As I read this passage, I thought how typical it was of Maugham to include the South Seas into the equation. Here’s an observation made by Maugham as the discussion continues:

But I noticed that no one had said what he meant by extraordinary. Had it any reference to goodness? Had it to do with force of character or was it the sense of power that is manifest in certain men, which had led the speaker to claim for one or other of the persons mentioned that he was the most extraordinary man whom he had ever met? Or was it just strangeness?

Not the best discussion for the insomniac, and later Maugham returns to his cabin, tries to sleep, and instead goes onto the ship’s deck and recalls his meeting with Boris Savinkov in 1917 in Petrograd (Saint Petersburg):

I suppose few remember his name now, but [it] is a name that might have well been as familiar to us all as that of Lenin, and if it had, Lenin’s would have remained obscure. Boris Savinkov might easily have become a man of tremendous authority in Russia; I do not know whether he failed owing to some defect in his character or because the circumstances of the time were such that no man could have altered the course of events. There is no more sometimes than a trembling of a leaf between success and failure.

Maugham gives no hint as to why he was in Petrograd in 1917–hardly a tourist destination at that time in history. He just states that he’d “been sent there on business.” What sort of business, I wondered, and why did he contact Savinkov? There is no explanation. At that time Maugham had read two of Savinkov’s novels and knew of his reputation as a terrorist. When he meets the Russian, Maugham reports that Savinkov  “had the prosperous, respectable look of the manager of a bank.”

Maugham meets Savinkov in order to conduct this mysterious business more than once, and the chapter discusses the various topics of conversation that took place between the two men. At one point, the conversation turns to the Bolsheviks:

Savinkov hated the Bolsheviks. When he spoke of them, though his voice remained soft, his eyes grew steely. The last words he ever spoke to me were these:

‘Between me and Lenin, it’s war to the death. One of these days, perhaps next week, he will put me with my back to the wall and shoot me, or I shall put him with his back to another wall and shoot him. One thing I can tell you is that I shall never run away.’ 

Savinkov spoke those words to Maugham in 1917. Shaplen, the translator of Savinkov’s memoirs, states that Savinkov provided Socialist-Revolutionary Dora Kaplan with a gun with which to shoot Lenin in 1918. Considering the quote from Maugham, well, it all falls into place. While the wounds were not lethal, Lenin never fully recovered, and later suffered a series of strokes before his death in 1924. Dora Kaplan was executed. 

Savinkov lived in exile for a few years before being lured back to Russia in 1924  through the encouraging letters of a friend. He was arrested immediately in Minsk. Then came the trial, news of his ‘repentance,’ and a ten-year prison sentence. Then came the suicide. (I’m injecting here that suicide by ‘falling out of a window’ is a a popular but highly suspicious end–I’m thinking Giuseppe Pinelli as one example).

Shaplen appears to struggle with this final phase of Savinkov’s life. He takes the trial and the suicide at face value while speculating exactly what was going on in Savinkov’s mind when he ‘repented.’ Shaplen asks whether Savinkov returned to Russia thinking that his moment had come to seize his place in Russian history:

Lenin had been dead eight months and the Communist Party was beginning to be torn by the internal strife which, being in large part a struggle of the epigones for the succession to Lenin’s power, resulted ultimately in the elimination one after another of most of the Bolshevik old guard, the exile of Trotsky and the enthronement of Stalin. Did Savinkov believe that the moment was propitious for his reappearance on the stage? Did he see in the schism which was beginning to rend the Bolshevik Party an opportunity to impose himself upon the situation?

Maugham’s thoughts gel well with Shaplen’s speculations. Here’s Maugham on the subject of Savinkov living in exile and waiting for what he considered the perfect moment:

He went into hiding till the fitting opportunity to strike presented itself. For all his passion there was a certain coldness in his temperament; he was not a man to allow his emotions to interfere  with his judgement. He had that great gift, the capacity to wait till the moment was ripe.

Maugham’s memories of Savinkov occupy just a few pages in the book, and yet the recalled acquaintance underscores Maugham’s power as a story-teller. It’s a haunting tale of a disturbing moment in Maugham’s life and also in the history of Russia. Although the story is told, there’s no sense of closure. It’s only fitting that remembering the episode leaves Maugham on the ship’s deck unable to sleep, in a deck chair and staring “at the starry night.”


Filed under Maugham, W. Somerset, Non Fiction, On Writers, Savinkov Boris

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.


Filed under Maugham, W. Somerset

Mrs. Craddock by W. Somerset Maugham

“Irony is a gift of the gods, the most subtle of all the modes of speech. It is an armour and a weapon; it is a philosophy and a perpetual entertainment; it is food for the hungry of wit and drink to those thirsting for laughter. How much more elegant is it to slay your foe with the roses of irony than to massacre him with the axes of sarcasm or to belabour him with the bludgeons of invective.”

Mrs. Craddock begins with a love story between Bertha Ley, a fairly affluent young heiress, owner of Ley Court and Craddock, and a burly, handsome young farmer. Bertha, who’s orphaned and lives with her aunt Polly, falls in love with twenty-seven-year old Edward Craddock, a local tenant farmer who works part of the Ley land. Against all advice from her aunt and acquaintances, Bertha insists on marrying Craddock. Craddock is seen by Bertha’s acquaintances as a fortune hunter, and everyone predicts disaster. But Bertha, headstrong and obstinate, marries Craddock, and the Craddocks settle down to married life.

The opening line of the novel states “this book could be called the Triumph of Love,” and Maugham’s ironic meaning becomes apparent only when the novel has concluded. In some ways the novel is a tragedy–not on the grand scale of things–but on the everyday level through the gradual wearing down of hopes and dreams. This is the story of a marriage–a relationship that begins with hope and devoted, passionate love that fizzles with time, disillusionment and familiarity.

Because of the vast differences in class between Craddock and Bertha, everyone disapproves of the match, but it’s total incompatibility that spells trouble for the pair, and this glaring fact escapes Bertha during the tumultuous, brief courtship phase. This vast incompatibility and its predictable consequences do not escape the attention of sagacious Aunt Polly, one of Maugham’s great characters. As an observer of human nature, Aunt Polly is fascinated by Bertha’s relationship, but she is also well aware that the marriage that will end in great unhappiness. Miss Ley, a consummate spinster who believes that “marriage is always a hopeless idiocy for a woman who has enough of her own to live on” chooses to see everything in life as a “source of amusement.”

Divided by class and education, one of the biggest divides between the Craddocks is Edward’s insensitivity and complete lack of imagination. And this is best seen in Edward’s philosophy on the treatment of women:

“Women are like chickens,” he told a friend. “Give ’em a good run, properly closed in with stout wire setting so that they can’t get into mischief, and when they cluck and cackle just sit tight and take no notice.”

A handful of significant incidents hammer home the depth of Craddock’s insensitivity, and while Bertha becomes increasingly unhappy with her marriage, her neighbours come to respect and admire Edward as a manager and as a husband. Craddock is not a bad person by any means, and the Craddocks’ marital woes are more an issue of incompatibility than anything else. Craddock thoroughly enjoys the role of country squire, but as he becomes a respected member of the country community, he simultaneously sinks in Bertha’s eyes. Love turns to hate, then boredom and then indifference….

Maugham tackles the subject of class differences in other novels (Of Human Bondage, The Merry Go Round), but Mrs. Craddock–a deceptively simple tale, is one of my all-time favourites. This is not a grand tale with exotic locations, but this is a tale that most of us can relate to–the death of love. The novel charts Bertha’s relationship in its first throes of excited passion, her idealization of the love object, and her denial of their very basic incompatibility. Once Bertha and Edward are married the novel explores the metamorphosis of Bertha’s delight in aspects of Edward’s personality. Then as disillusionment sets in, these same characteristics that attracted and delighted her pall, and her mundane relationship drives her to depression. And, ironically, as Bertha grows more and more unhappy and withdrawn, Edward flourishes and decides that marriage is quite a perfect state–and so it is, for him at least. Trapped in a loveless marriage, Bertha has few options, and these options only grant a temporary respite from the endless days that stretch before her. Tempted by the distractive qualities of a younger lover, Bertha finally comes to terms with her marriage in the most unexpected manner.

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Filed under Maugham, W. Somerset