Maugham drew his title from the remark of Sir Toby Belch to Malvolio in William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night: "Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?" Cakes and ale are the emblems of the good life in the tagline to the fable attributed to Aesop, The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse: "Better beans and bacon in peace than cakes and ale in fear".
The story is told by a first-person narrator and well-to-do author, William Ashenden, who, at the beginning of the novel is suddenly and unexpectedly contacted by Alroy Kear, a busy-body literary figure in London who has been asked by the second Mrs. Driffield to write the biography of her deceased husband, Edward Driffield. Driffield, once scorned for his realist representation of late-Victorian, working-class characters, had in his later years become lionized by scholars of English letters. The second Mrs. Driffield, a nurse to the ailing Edward after his first wife left him, is known for her propriety and interest in augmenting and cementing her husband's literary reputation. Her only identity is that as caretaker to her husband in life and to his reputation in death. It is well known, however, that Driffield wrote his best novels while married to his first wife/muse, Rosie, who seems similar to James Joyce's character, Molly Bloom.
Amy Driffield requests that Alroy Kear write the biography of her late husband. Kear, who is trying to prove his own literary worth, jumps at the opportunity to ride the coat-tails of the great Edward Driffield. It is Kear, knowing that William Ashenden had a long acquaintanceship with the Driffields as a young man and as a young writer, who contacts Ashenden to get privy information about Edward's past -- including information about his first wife who has been oddly erased from the official narrative of Edward's genius.
The plot revolves around how much information the narrator will divulge to Driffield's second wife and Kear (while exposing it all to the reader), who ostensibly wants a "complete" picture of the famous author, but who routinely glosses over the untoward stories that might upset Driffield's surviving wife. It is William Ashenden who holds the key to the deep mystery of love, and the act of love, in the life of each character as he recounts a fascinating literary history of creativity, infidelity and literary memory.
Alroy Kear: "You don't know America as well as I do. . . .They always prefer a live mouse to a dead lion" (279).
William Ashenden: "On his advice I read The Craft of Fiction by Mr Percy Lubbock, from which I learned that the only way to write novels was like Henry James; after that I read Aspects of the Novel by Mr E M Forster, from which I learned that the only way to write novels was like Mr E M Forster; then I read The Structure of the Novel by Mr Edwin Muir, from which I learned nothing at all."
Mrs Hudson: ‘Don’t talk to me about the country. The doctor said I was to go there for six weeks last summer. It nearly killed me, I give you my word. The noise of it. All them birds singin’ all the time, and the cocks crowin’ and the cows mooin’. I couldn’t stick it. When you’ve lived all the years I ’ave in peace and quietness you can’t get used to all that racket goin’ on all the time.’ A few doors away was the Vauxhall Bridge Road and down it trams were clanging, ringing their bells as they went, motor buses were lumbering along, taxies were tooting their horns. If Mrs Hudson heard it, it was London she heard, and it soothed her as a mother’s crooning soothes a restless child.