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|W(illiam) Somerset Maugham (1874-1965)|
British novelist, playwright, short-story writer, highest paid author in the world in the 1930s. In spite of his popularity and international fame, Maugham did not receive critical attention for his fiction in Britain. Expressing his frustration with the situation Maugham wrote in his autobiography The Summing Up (1938), that he stood "in the very first row of the second-raters". Maugham's skill in handling plot has been compared with the manner of Guy de Maupassant. His stories are told in clear, economical style with cynical or resigned undertone.
"I have never pretended to be anything but a story teller. It has amused me to tell stories and I have told a great many. It is a misfortune for me that the telling of a story just for the sake of the story is not an activity that is in favor with the intelligentsia. In endeavor to bear my misfortunes with fortitude." (from Creatures of Circumstance, 1947)
Somerset Maugham was born in Paris, the son of Robert Ormond Maugham
(1823-1884), the solicitor to the British embassy, and Edith Mary
Snell, the daughter of an Indian army captain. Most of her life, Edith
had lived in France. Among her friends were Prosper Mérimee
Doré. As his native tongue, Maugham learned French. Maugham's mother
died when he was eight years old. Robert Maugham died of stomach cancer
Orphaned a the age of 10, Maugham was
sent to England to live with his uncle, the Reverend Henry MacDonald
Maugham. At King's School, Canterbury, Maugham developed a
stammer that he never outgrew. "The movements of his mouth as he
overcome his stammering gave him the look of a Galapagos
tortoise," recalled David Pryce-Jones when he met the author decades
later at Cap Ferrat. (Signatures: Literary Encounters of a Lifetime by David Pryce-Jones, 2020, p. 182)
Maugham studied philosophy at Heidelberg University for a year, and then returned to England to study medicine. He qualified in 1897 as doctor from St. Thomas's medical school, but totally changed the direction of his life after the success of his first novels and plays.
A small private income allowed Maugham to settle in Paris, where lived as a struggling young
author. His first novel, Liza of Lambeth
(1897), drew on his experiences of attending women in childbirth.
Elizabeth 'Liza' Mary Maugham, the author's daughter and his only
child, was named after
the title character. A Man of Honour, Maugham's first play, was
produced in 1903. Four of his dramas ran simultaneously in London in
Being both attracted and repelled by the extravagant personality of Aleister Crowley, Maugham used him as the model for Oliver Haddo in The Magician
(1908). The novel received mixed reviews and remained Maugham's only
tale of the supernatural. Maugham first met Crowley at the café Le Chat
Blanc, which appeared in the work as the Chien Noir. Hebbo is a
charismatic but ruthless
occultist, who is obsessed with desire to create new life, even if he
has to sacrifice the life of his young wife to reach his goal.
After reading the book, Crowley wrote – under the name Oliver Haddo
– a review for Vanity Fair,
titled 'How To Write A Novel! After W.S. Maugham,' in which he
demonstrated that Maugham had plagiarized passages from MacGregor
Mather's Kabbalah Unveiled and Eliphas Levi's Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magic. (Prophet of Evil: Aleister Crowley, 9/11 and the New World Order by William Ramsey, 2012, p. 51)
It is hardly surprising that from early on Hollywood took an
interest in the work of Maugham, who saw himself primarily as an
entertainer. Rex Ingram's screen adaptation of The Magician
(1926) is considered one of the most influential silent horrors.
Especially the film is remembered for its trance sequence, in which dancers circle around a bubbling witches' brew.
The New York Times wrote
in October 1926 that "Mr. Ingram again shows his genius in bolstering
up the interest in scenes by his imagination and his keen attention to
detail." ('The Magician' by HHL, in American Silent Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy Feature Films, 1913–1929 by John T. Soister and Henry Nicolella, 2012, p. 370)
However, in spite of being made for Metro-Goldwyn, the film was shot in
France, the original scene of Maugham's novel. The German actor Paul
Wegener, who was cast in the role of Oliver Haddo, had earlier played
the iconic character of Golem in Der Golem (1914), Der Golem und die Tanzerin (1917) and Der Golem: Wie er in die Welt Kam
(1920). "The saving of human life is a comparatively simple matter,"
Haddo declares. "It is the creation of life that calls for the powers
of a magician." (Rex Ingram: Hollywood's Rebel of the Silver Screen by Leonhard H. Gmuer, 2013, p. 47) Except the happy ending, Ingram's adaptation was relatively faithful to the novel. For decades, The Magician was believed to be a lost film, until it surfaced in the 1990s and later appeared on Turner Classic Movies.
Maugham's breakthrough novel was the semi-autobiographical Of
Human Bondage (1915), which is usually considered his outstanding
achievement. The story follows the childhood, youth, and early manhood
of Philip Carey, who is born with a clubfoot. Philip never knew his
father and his mother only for a brief space. He is raised by a
religious aunt and uncle, but the real process of his education, after
the end of an unsatisfactory social life, begins in Heidelberg. Philip
goes to Paris to study art. Mildred Rogers, a waitress in a teashop,
becomes his great love, which nearly destroys him. Philip
neglects his studies, and gives Mildred gifts he cannot afford. "I
never liked you, not from the beginning, but you forced yourself on me,
I always hated it when you kissed me," she says after falling in
love with Philip's penniless friend, who eventually leaves her. Mildred
becomes a prostitute, Philip meets her again, she has contracted
veneral disease and he buys her medicine. At the age of thirty he
qualifies as a doctor, marries Sally Athelny, a normal, healthy, happy
girl, but is unable to forget his thirst for his "strange, desperate
thirst for that vile woman," Mildred.
Noteworthy, Of Human Bondageis one of the few classic
novels about a working-class mistress. Bette Davis, who played Mildred
in the film adaptation of the novel, said that when Maugham visited the
set of The Little Foxes,
"it was difficult for me to realize that this mild-mannered man who had
such difficulty speaking had written all those great books." Graham
Greene wrote that her performance in the film was "wickedly good".
With the outbreak of WW I, Maugham volunteered for the Red Cross, and was stationed in France. Due to his medical qualification he worked as an ambulance man. At the Western Front he met Gerald Haxton (1892-1944), an American, who became his companion for the next several decades.
himself as a reporter, Maugham served as a chief agent for British
Secret Intelligence Service in Saint Petersburg in 1916-17, but his
and poor health hindered his career in this field. Moreover, he did not
speak Russian, and contributed to the failure of intelligence to
predict the course of the Russian revolution.
In 1917 Maugham married
Syrie Barnardo Wellcome, an interior decorator. His marriage was wretchedly unhappy and
they divored in
1927. "Sylvie was a greedy and impossible bitch to begin with, and did
not improve upon intimate acquaintance, or want of acquainrance, of
that kind." ('W. Somerset Maugham: Poor Old Willie,' in Arguably by Christopher Hitchens, 2012, p. 244)
On his return from Russia, Maugham spent a year in a sanatorium in Scotland. With Haxton, he then set off on a series of travels to eastern Asia, the Pacific Islands, and Mexico. In many novels the surroundings also are international. Maugham's most famous story, which became the play Rain and has been adapted for the screen several times, was inspired by a missionary and prostitute among his fellow passengers on a trip to Pago Pago.
The Moon and the Sixpence (1919) told of Charles Strickland (or actually Paul Gauguin), an artist, whose rejection of Western civilization led to his departure for Tahiti. There he is blinded by leprosy but still continues painting. Maugham reused elements of his Pacific diaries in Trembling of a Leaf (1921), which included the story 'Rain.' It was made into a stage production by John Colton and Clemence Randolph in 1922.
1928 Maugham settled in Cape Ferrat in France. The villa Mauresque, in
which he made his home, had been built by the infamous King Leopold II
of Belgium. It was frequented by a number of artists and writers,
Christopher Isherwood, Don Bachardy, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Noël
Coward, Cecil Beaton, and others.
When the modernist artist Graham
Sutherland and his wife were staying in the south of France, they were
invited to Mauresque. Sutherland had never attempted a portrait but
Maugham sat several times to him. The now famous finished
picture from 1949 shows the author seated on a bamboo stool, slightly
hunched, the mouth down-turned. "The first time I saw it I was
shocked," confessed Maugham, "and then I began to realize that here was
far more of me than I ever saw myself." The English caricaturist and
satirist Max Beerbohm said that Maugham looked "as if he had died under
Maugham's plays, including The Circle (1921), a satire of social life, Our Betters (1923), about Americans in Europe, and The Constant Wife (1927), about a wife who takes revenge on her unfaithful husband, were performed in Europe and in the United States. Cakes and Ale (1930) was social satire on a famous novelist, Edward Driffield, supposedly modelled on Thomas Hardy. "It was in vain that I denied it," complained Maugham, who met the author only once, at a large dinner party at Lady St Helier's in 1908. ('For Maugham It's Cakes and Ale, New York Times Book Review, 19 March, 1950)
During World War II Maugham lived in Hollywood, where he worked on the screen adaptation of his novel Razor's Edge (1944). "This book consists of my recollections of a man with whom I was thrown into close contact only at long intervals, and I have little knowledge of what happened to him in between," Maugham said in the beginning. "I have invented nothing." Maugham tells of a young American veteran who moves through superbly described settings: Italy, London, the Riviera, Montparnasse. He seeks in the end relief in India from the horrors of war and gains a sense of being at one with the Absolute, through the Indian philosophical system known as Vedanta. Maugham himself had in 1938 visited India, where fainted in an ashram, and met a holy man named Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi.
As an agent and writer Maugham was a link in the long
tradition from Christopher Marlowe,
Ben Johnson and Daniel Defoe to the modern day writers Graham Greene, John Le Carré, John
Dickson Carr, Alec Waugh and Ted Allbeury, who all have worked for the
secret service. It is said that the modern spy story began with
Maugham's Ashenden; or, the British Agent (1928), a
collection of six short stories set in Switzerland, France, Russia, and
Italy. It was partly based on the author's own experiences. The
protagonist, Ashenden, appeared also in Cakes and Ale
and The Moon and the Sixpence.
The director Alfred Hitchcock used in Secret Agent (1936) specifically the stories 'The Traitor' and 'The Hairless Mexican.' In the film, set in Switzerland, an agents kill a wrong man and then goes after the right one. A chocolate factory is used by the crooks' as a headquarters.
Maugham believed that there is a true harmony in the contradictions of mankind and that the normal is in reality the abnormal. "The ordinary is the writer's richest field," he stated in The Summing Up (1938). In the satirical short story 'The Ant and the Grasshopper' Maigham juxtaposed two brothers, the unscrupulous and carefree Tom and the hardworking, respectable George, who expects that Tom would end in the gutter. However, Tom marries a rich old woman, she dies and leaves him a fortune. "I burst into a shout of laughter as I looked at George's wrathful face. I rolled in my chair, I very nearly fell in the floor. George never forgave me. But Tom often asks me to excellent dinners in his charming house in Mayfair, and he occasionally borrows a trifle from me, that is merely from force of habit."
Maugham became world famous he was never knighted.
His relationship with Gerald Haxton, his secretary, started when sexual
activity between men was illegal in England. After Haxton's death, he
found a new companion, Alan
Searle, and wanted to adopt him as his son. While in Capri, Maugham
enjoyed the company of the homosexual and lesbian colony there. With
John Ellingham Brooks and Edward Frederic
Benson, he purchased shares of the Villa Cercole.
woman friend was Barbara Nash Back, the wife of Dr. Ivor Back, who was
left penniless in 1951 after the death of her husband. In the 1960s,
Maugham began to suffer from dementia. To keep his personal life
hidden, Maugham burned much of his correspondence. In addition, Maugham
said to his literary executors, that no biography should be authorized.
His efforts to
disgrace his wife in Looking Back (1962)
caused a deep
rift between the author and his daughter Liza, later Lady Glendevon; he
denied that she was her daughter. The case went to court and she won
W. Somerset Maugham died in Nice on
December 16, 1965. It is claimed that as he lay dying he asked Sir Alfred
Ayer visit him and reassure him that there was no life after death.
Maugham's last words were said to be, "Dying is a very dull, dreary
affair. And my advice to you is to have nothing whatever to do with
A number of Maugham's short stories have been filmed. Quartet (1948) consists of four stories introduced by the author - 'The Facts of Life,' 'The Alien Corn,' 'The Kite,' and 'The Colonel's Lady.' In 'The Kite' the protagonist, Herbert, starts to fly kites with his parents in childhood. After marriage Herbert continues his hobby, although his wife Betty considers it childish. When Herbert wants to buy a new kite, Betty packs his bag and Herbert returns to his parents' house; Betty smashes the kite. The magistrate orders him to pay Betty alimony, twenty-five shillings a week, but Herbert refuses to obey the order and chooses the prison. "It may be that in some queer way he identifies himself with the kite flying so free and so high above him, and it's as it were an escape from the monotony of life. It may be that in some dim, confused way it represents an ideal of freedom and adventure, And you know, when a man once gets bitten with the virus of the ideal not all the King's doctors and not all the King's surgeons can rid him of it."
After the 1930s Maugham's reputation abroad was greater than
in England. Maugham once said, "Most people cannot see anything, but I
can se what is in front of my nose with extreme clearness; the greatest
writers can see through a brick wall. My vision is not so penetrating."
His literary experiences Maugham collected in The Summing Up,
which has been used as a guidebook for creative writing. Maugham's
writing style did not appeal to Edmund Wilson, who said: "I have never
been able to convince myself that he was anything but second-rate . . .
My experience with Maugham has always been that he disappoints my
literary appetite and so discourages me from going on." (The World of Somerset Maugham: An Anthology, edited by Klaus W. Jonas, 1959, p. 22)
Interest in Maugham revived again in his 80th birthday, which he celebrated by the special republication of Cakes and Ale, a novel satirizing London literary circles and "Grand Old Men." Maugham portrayed himself as Ashenden, Thomas Hardy was Driffield, and Hugh Walpole was Kear. Barbara Belford listed in Violet: The Story of the Irrepressible Violet Hunt and Her Circle of Lovers and Friends (1990) Maugham among the lovers of Violet Hunt, along with such names as H. G. Wells and Ford Madox Ford.
The novelist Hugh Walpole portrayed Maugham as the arrogant pessimist in John Cornelius (1937), he appeared as John-Blair-Kennedy in Noël Coward's South Sea Bubble (1956), Leverson Hurle in Gin and Bitters by A Riposte, the homosexual novelist in Coward's Point Valaine (1935), Kenneth Marchal Toomey in Anthony Burgess Earthly Powers (1980), Willie Tower in S.N. Behrman's Jane (1946), and Gilbert Hereford Vaughn in Ada Leverson's The Limit (1911).
For further reading: Somerset Maugham: A Guide by L. Brander (1963); Maugham: A Biography by Ted Morgan (1980); The Critical Heritage, edited by J. Whitehead (1987); Willie: The Life of W. Somerset Maugham by Robert Calder (1990); The Dramatic Comedy of Somerset Maugham by R.E. Barnes (1990); W. Somerset Maugham by S.W. Archer (1993); An Appointment With Somerset Maugham and Other Literary Encounters by Richard Hauer Costa (1993); Orienting Masculinity, Orienting Nation: W. Somerset Maugham's Exotic Fiction by Philip Holden (1996); A William Somerset Maugham Encyclopedia by Samuel J. Rogal (1997); The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings (2009); 'The Magician' by HHL, in American Silent Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy Feature Films, 1913–1929 by John T. Soister and Henry Nicolella (2012); The Lost Mother and the Replacement Mother Figures in the Life of William Somerset Maugham (1874-1965): A Study of a Failed Mother-son Dyad by Samuel J. Rogal (2015); 'W. Somerset Maugham, Don Fernando,' in Signatures: Literary Encounters of a Lifetime by David Pryce-Jones (2020) - Other film adaptations: Vessel of Wrath (1938), directed by Erich Pommer; Quartet (1948), directed by Smart & French & Crabtree & Annakin; Trio (1959), directed by French and Annakin; Encore (1951), directed by Jackson & Pélissier & French; The Beachcomber (1954), directed by Muriel Box; The Seventh Sin (1957), directed by Ronald Neame. See also: Eric Ambler