Somerset Maugham: A Life

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9780375414756: Somerset Maugham: A Life

He was an instinctive and magnificent storyteller, with a talent also for success. Of Human Bondage was his masterpiece; The Razor’s Edge his most spectacular best-seller. He lived nearly ninety-two years, wrote seventy-eight books (forty million sold worldwide) and once had four plays running in London simultaneously. “Rain,” reflecting his fascination with the South Seas, is among the most widely read stories of our time.

In World War I, he performed expertly and courageously as ambulance driver and as secret agent in Samoa and Russia. Eventually he knew “everybody”: Britain’s, Hollywood’s and literature’s royalty. He was seen as formidable, a cynic and the very emblem of worldliness. He wrote constantly about social and sexual entanglements but, in a closeted age, was increasingly secretive about his own–loving men, wanting to love women.

To the extraordinary life of Somerset Maugham and his development as a writer, Jeffrey Meyers brings all his gifts as biographer: of Hemingway (“simply the best book there is on Hemingway” –J. F. Powers), of Orwell (“moving and edifying” –Paul Theroux) and of D. H. Lawrence (“probably the best biography of him” –Times Literary Supplement).

Telling Maugham’s story, from his sad, orphaned childhood in the small English coastal town of Whitstable, through his Paris years and his wandering years, to his luxurious, indeed glamorous, old age at the Villa Mauresque on Cap Ferrat, Meyers reveals much that is new–about Maugham’s days at Heidelberg and on Capri, his medical training, his wartime espionage, his quarrels with D. H. Lawrence and Edmund Wilson, his friendship with Noël Coward, and about his longtime lover, Gerald Haxton. He writes of Maugham’s encounters with Winston Churchill, E. M. Forster, the Sitwells, T. S. Eliot, Bernard Berenson and the Windsors; of his affairs with four attractive and accomplished women; of his torturous ten-year marriage to one of them–Syrie, who became a celebrated decorator–and his wish to marry the actress Sue Jones, gentle, loving and promiscuous, who was his model for Rosie Driffield in Cakes and Ale.

Meyers describes Joseph Conrad’s influence on Maugham and Maugham’s on George Orwell and V. S. Naipaul. He provides a fascinating portrait of a brilliant and complex man whose talent has held and dazzled a cultivated audience from the late Victorian era to the twenty-first century.

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About the Author:

Jeffrey Meyers grew up in New York City, graduated from the University of Michigan and received his doctorate from Berkeley. He is the recipient of a Fulbright fellowship and a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation. He is the author of forty-three books, among them biographies of Katherine Mansfield, Joseph Conrad and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Meyers lives with his wife in Berkeley, California.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Paris and King's School
1874-1889

The early death of his parents and his consequent exile from home and country gave Somerset Maugham a wretched start in life. He shared Kipling's belief that "when young lips have drunk deep of the bitter waters of Hate, Suspicion, and Despair, all the Love in the world will not wholly take away that knowledge." "I had many disabilities," he wrote, looking back on his early days. "I was small; I had endurance but little physical strength; I stammered; I was shy; I had poor health. I had no facility for games." His miserable childhood left permanent scars, but provided rich material for the poignant, autobiographical Of Human Bondage and for the deeply moving Cakes and Ale. His stammer, a psychological and physical handicap, and his gradual awareness of his homosexuality made him furtive and secretive, and caused "an instinctive shrinking from my fellow men that has made it difficult for me to enter into any familiarity with them." A lifelong exile and wanderer, Maugham gave the impression of being icy, remote and arrogant. The love and affection, insight and sympathy that he repressed in everyday life were channeled into the creation of plays and stories. Maugham's teasing combination of passion and tenderness, coldness and cynicism was stamped on his life and work.

Maugham's family had for many generations been small farmers in the Lake District of northwest England. After his great-grandfather, ruined by the failure of a local bank during the Napoleonic wars, sent his son to London, the family moved from agriculture into the learned professions. Maugham's grandfather Robert (1799-1862), educated at Appleby Grammar School, was articled as a solicitor in 1817 and later taken into partnership. In 1825 he helped found the Law Society-which was and still is "responsible for the education and examination of all articled clerks and the admission of all Solicitors in England and Wales"-and was its secretary from 1831 to 1856. In 1830 he also established a weekly newspaper, the Legal Observer, which "combined current professional news with reports of cases and articles of practical interest," and remained its editor and sole proprietor until 1856. Soon after leaving the newspaper he told a friend that "After 26 years daily labour & constant anxiety in conducting the Legal Observer I was not sorry to retire, & devote in future my whole time & best exertions to the interests of this Society. In the last No. of the L.O. I was authorised to give the inclosed [Report] as a 'flourish of trumpets,' on leaving the field." Maugham's active and energetic grandfather-whose motto was In Finem Perseverans (persevering to the end)-wrote many books, including a Treatise on the Law of Attornies (1825), that provided lawyers "with a text-book covering every aspect of their professional activities."

This pillar of the legal establishment was capable of bizarre behavior. When a servant once handed him a dish of potatoes baked in their skins, he stopped carving the roast beef, picked up the offensive food and flung it at the pictures on the walls. Maugham, who twice in print recounts this iconoclastic story, gives no explanation of this eccentric behavior or the reactions of others at the table, who politely chose to ignore it. Why did his cook prepare potatoes in this way if he didn't like them? 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?

Maugham's father, Robert Ormond Maugham, was born in 1823. As an adventurous young man he traveled to Greece, Turkey and Asia Minor as well as to Fez, in Morocco. His home was filled with exotic objects he'd acquired en route: pottery from Rhodes, Tanagra statuettes and Ottoman daggers with richly decorated hilts. In 1848 the young Robert, following his father's profession but keeping clear of his influence, established his firm in Paris. He eventually built up a flourishing practice among the British expatriate community and accepted a semi-official appointment as legal adviser to the British embassy. Then, as now, "it was the custom for every British embassy to have an Honorary Legal Adviser, who earned prestige but not money, for giving legal advice about local issues, such as leasing embassy property or engaging a local lawyer if a British subject was accused of a serious crime. Issues of international law would go to the Foreign Office Legal Advisers." Robert opened an office opposite the embassy at 54, Faubourg St. Honoré, and worked there from early in the morning until seven at night.

A friend told Maugham that his grandfather was "the ugliest little man I ever saw"; and Maugham told his nephew Robin that his jaundiced-looking father was also "very ugly-almost a monster to look at, with a large, very yellow face and very yellow eyes." Maugham, fascinated and repelled by his father's appearance, discussed personal ugliness in several of his works. In The Gentleman in the Parlour, a record of his travels in Southeast Asia, a French governor admits that he's ugly and regrets that his ugliness has inspired ridicule rather than terror or respect. When people first see him they don't shrink from horror, which could be flattering, but burst out laughing. In Maugham's early fiction, however, women-like his mother-fall in love with repulsive men. In Mrs. Craddock the heroine exclaims to her fiancé that "when a woman loves an ugly man, they say his ugliness only makes him more attractive, and I shall love your faults as I love everything that is yours." And in "The Force of Circumstance," a wife tells her husband: "You're an ugly, little fat man, Guy, but you've got charm. I can't help loving you."

Violet Hammersley, a childhood friend in Paris, saw the considerable charm beneath his father's forbidding appearance: "Mr. Maugham had a large, very sallow face one timidly explored, but when he took me on his knee to blow his watch open, I remember stealing over me a sense of complete safety and happiness." Maugham called his father "a very loving parent and wonderfully kind to children." But, infinitely closer to his beloved mother, he also told Robin that the remote and obsessively diligent lawyer "was a stranger to me when he was alive." Like his grandfather and father, Maugham was hardworking, ambitious and successful, professionally competent and financially astute. Like his father, he became a cosmopolitan traveler and art collector. He also thought he was physically unattractive, but believed he could overcome that formidable disadvantage.

Maugham's maternal grandfather, Major Charles Snell, served in India, where he died in 1841. After his death his wife, Anne, took her young daughter Edith, who "could prattle Hindustani much better than English," from India to England. The widow then moved to France, and supported herself by writing seventy novels and children's books in French. In 1863, the same year he opened his Paris law office, the forty-year-old Robert Maugham married the twenty-three-year-old Edith. They moved into an elegant apartment at 25, avenue d'Antin, facing the Champs-Élysées and close to the Rond-Point. Maugham, who often emphasized women's fine complexions in his letters and fiction, described his mother as "very small, with large brown eyes and hair of a rich reddish gold, exquisite features, and a lovely skin." When a lady friend asked his mother, who was very beautiful and attracted many charming young admirers, why she remained faithful to her ugly little husband, she smiled and gently answered that in all their married years he'd never hurt her feelings. She, presumably, was easily wounded and valued his kindness too much to hurt his feelings. Their first three sons were Charles Ormond (1865-1935), Frederic Herbert (1866-1958) and Henry Neville (1868-1904).

Violet Hammersley recalled the ominous atmosphere that surrounded the vivacious yet fragile young woman: "Mrs. Maugham was my god mother. She was lovely, with russet hair, brown eyes and a creamy complexion, and there was an air of romance and tragedy about her. My mother, who took me visiting with her of an afternoon, often had tea with Mrs. Maugham. She would give me a doll dressed like a fisherwoman to play with . . . while they talked in low and earnest tones. Mrs. Maugham died very young."

Maugham later recalled an anecdote that concerned the power of ugliness and revealed his mother's sympathetic character. Like the question about Edith's fidelity to her husband, it suggests the cynical sexual mores of that expatriate Jamesian society: "The Lady Anglesey of that time, an American, was a pretty and agreeable woman, in spite of which Lord Anglesey ran away with a Frenchwoman. Mrs. Maugham, calling upon the disconsolate deserted marchioness, tried to console her by saying that he would surely regret it and come back to her before long. 'For I have met this Madame X and she is, I can assure you, as ugly as sin.' 'Oh, oh dear,' said Lady Anglesey, 'if she really is as ugly as that he will never come back.' "

William Somerset Maugham, Edith's youngest son, was born in the British embassy in Paris (to protect him from later conscription into the French army) on January 25, 1874. In that year the French Impressionists held their first exhibition, Wagner's Götterdammerung and Verdi's Requiem were first performed, Flaubert's The Temptation of St. Anthony and Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd were published. Winston Churchill and Chaim Weizmann, G. K. Chesterton and Gertrude Stein, Robert Frost and Arnold Schönberg were born that year-and Maugham (who lived almost ninety-two years) outlived them all. Rooted in the nineteenth century but acutely sensitive to all the major artistic current...

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