William Somerset Maugham, CH (January 25 1874 – December 16 1965) was an English playwright, novelist and short story writer. He was one of the most popular authors of his era, and reputedly the highest paid of his profession during the 1930s.
Maugham's mother Edith Mary (née Snell) was consumptive, a condition for which the doctors of the time prescribed childbirth. As a result Maugham had three older brothers, already enrolled in boarding school by the time he was three and Maugham was effectively raised as an only child. Childbirth proved no cure for tuberculosis, and Edith Mary Maugham died at the age of 41, six days after the stillbirth of her final son. The death of his mother left Maugham traumatized for life, and he kept his mother's photograph by his bedside until his own death at the age of 91 in Nice, France. Two years after Maugham's mother's death, his father died of cancer. William was sent back to England to be cared for by his uncle, Henry MacDonald Maugham, the Vicar of Whitstable, in Kent. The move was catastrophic. Henry Maugham proved cold and emotionally cruel. The King's School, Canterbury, where William was a boarder during school terms, proved merely another version of purgatory, where he was teased for his bad English (French had been his first language) and his short stature, which he inherited from his father. It is at this time that Maugham developed the stammer that would stay with him all his life, although it was sporadic and subject to mood and circumstance.
Life at the vicarage was tame, and emotions were tightly circumscribed. Maugham was forbidden to lose his temper, or to make emotional displays of any kind — and he was denied the chance to see others express their own emotions. He was a quiet, private but very curious child, and this denial of the emotion of others was at least as hard on him as the denial of his own emotions.
Maugham was miserable both at the vicarage and at school. As a result, he developed a talent for applying a wounding remark to those who displeased him. This ability is sometimes reflected in the characters that populate his writings. At sixteen, Maugham refused to continue at The King's School and his uncle allowed him to travel to Germany, where he studied literature, philosophy and German at Heidelberg University. It was during his year in Heidelberg that he met John Ellingham Brooks, an Englishman ten years his senior, and with whom he had his first sexual experience. On his return to England his uncle found Maugham a position in an accountant's office, but after a month Maugham gave it up and returned to Whitstable. His uncle was not pleased, and set about finding Maugham a new profession. Maugham's father and three older brothers were all distinguished lawyers and Maugham asked to be excused from the duty of following in their footsteps.
A career in the church was rejected because a stammering minister might make the family seem ridiculous. Likewise, the civil service was rejected — not out of consideration for Maugham's own feelings or interests, but because the recent law requiring civil servants to qualify by passing an examination made Maugham's uncle conclude that the civil service was no longer a career for gentlemen. The local doctor suggested the profession of medicine and Maugham's uncle reluctantly approved this. Maugham had been writing steadily since the age of 20 and fervently intended to become an author, but because Maugham was not of age, he could not confess this to his guardian. So he spent the next five years as a medical student at King's College London.
Maugham kept his own lodgings, took pleasure in furnishing them, filled many notebooks with literary ideas, and continued writing nightly while at the same time studying for his degree in medicine. In 1897, he presented his second book for consideration. (The first was a biography of opera composer Giacomo Meyerbeer written by the 16-year-old Maugham in Heidelberg.)
Liza of Lambeth, a tale of working-class adultery and its consequences, drew its details from Maugham's experiences as a medical student doing midwifery work in the London slum of Lambeth. The novel is of the school of social-realist "slum writers" such as George Gissing and Arthur Morrison. Frank as it is, Maugham still felt obliged to write near the opening of the novel: "...it is impossible always to give the exact unexpurgated words of Liza and the other personages of the story; the reader is therefore entreated with his thoughts to piece out the necessary imperfections of the dialogue."
Liza of Lambeth proved popular with both reviewers and the public, and the first print run sold out in a matter of weeks. This was enough to convince Maugham, who had qualified as a doctor, to drop medicine and embark on his sixty-five year career as a man of letters. Of his entry into the profession of writing he later said, "I took to it as a duck takes to water."
The writer's life allowed Maugham to travel and live in places such as Spain and Capri for the next decade, but his next ten works never came close to rivalling the success of Liza. This changed dramatically in 1907 with the phenomenal success of his play Lady Frederick; by the next year he had four plays running simultaneously in London, and Punch published a cartoon of Shakespeare biting his fingernails nervously as he looked at the billboards.
Of Human Bondage (1915) initially received adverse criticism both in England and America, with the New York World describing the romantic obsession of the main protagonist Philip Carey as "the sentimental servitude of a poor fool". Influential critic and novelist Theodore Dreiser, however, rescued the novel, referring to it as a work of genius, and comparing it to a Beethoven symphony. This review gave the book the lift it needed and it has since never been out of print.
The book appeared to be closely autobiographical (Maugham's stammer is transformed into Philip Carey's club foot, the vicar of Whitstable becomes the vicar of Blackstable, and Philip Carey is a doctor) although Maugham himself insisted it was more invention than fact. Nevertheless, the close relationship between fictional and non-fictional became Maugham's trademark, despite the legal requirement to state that "the characters in [this or that publication] are entirely imaginary". In 1938 he wrote: "Fact and fiction are so intermingled in my work that now, looking back on it, I can hardly distinguish one from the other."
Although Maugham's first and many other sexual relationships were with men, he also had sexual relationships with a number of women. Specifically his affair with Syrie Wellcome, daughter of orphanage founder Thomas John Barnardo and wife of American-born English pharmaceutical magnate Henry Wellcome, produced a daughter named Liza (born Mary Elizabeth Wellcome, 1915–1998). Henry Wellcome then sued his wife for divorce, naming Maugham as co-respondent. In May 1917, following the decree absolute, Syrie and Maugham were married. Syrie became a noted interior decorator who popularized the all-white room in the 1920s.
Maugham returned to England from his ambulance unit duties to promote Of Human Bondage but once that was finalised, he became eager to assist the war effort once more. As he was unable to return to his ambulance unit, Syrie arranged for him to be introduced to a high ranking intelligence officer known only as "R", and in September 1915 he began work in Switzerland, secretly gathering and passing on intelligence while posing as himself — that is, as a writer.
In 1916, Maugham travelled to the Pacific to research his novel The Moon And Sixpence, based on the life of Paul Gauguin. This was the first of those journeys through the late-Imperial world of the 1920s and 1930s which were to establish Maugham forever in the popular imagination as the chronicler of the last days of colonialism in India, Southeast Asia, China and the Pacific, although the books on which this reputation rests represent only a fraction of his output. On this and all subsequent journeys he was accompanied by Haxton, whom he regarded as indispensable to his success as a writer. Maugham himself was painfully shy, and Haxton the extrovert gathered human material that Maugham steadily turned into fiction.
In June, 1917 he was asked by Sir William Wiseman, chief of the British Secret Intelligence Service (later named MI6), to undertake a special mission in Russia to keep the Provisional Government in power and Russia in the war by countering German pacifist propaganda. Two and a half months later the Bolsheviks took control. The job was probably always impossible, but Maugham subsequently claimed that if he had been able to get there six months earlier, he might have succeeded. Quiet and observant, Maugham had a good temperament for intelligence work; he believed he had inherited from his lawyer father a gift for cool judgement and the ability to be undeceived by facile appearances. Never losing the chance to turn real life into a story, Maugham made his spying experiences into a collection of short stories about a gentlemanly, sophisticated, aloof spy, Ashenden, a volume that influenced the Ian Fleming James Bond series. In 1922, Maugham dedicated On A Chinese Screen, a book of 58 ultra-short story sketches collected during his 1920 travels through China and Hong Kong, to Syrie, with the intention of later turning the sketches into a book.
Dramatised from a story which first appeared in his collection The Casuarina Tree published in 1924, Maugham's play The Letter, starring Gladys Cooper, had its premiere in London in 1927. The play was later adapted for film in 1929 and again in 1940.
Syrie and Maugham divorced in 1927–8 after a tempestuous marriage complicated by Maugham's frequent travels abroad and strained by his relationship with Haxton.
In 1928, Maugham bought Villa Mauresque on twelve acres at Cap Ferrat on the French Riviera, which would be his home for most of the rest of his life, and one of the great literary and social salons of the 1920s and 30s. His output continued to be prodigious, including plays, short stories, novels, essays and travel books. By 1940, when the collapse of France forced Maugham to leave the French Riviera and become a well-heeled refugee, he was already one of the most famous writers in the English-speaking world, and one of the wealthiest.
The gap left by Haxton's death in 1944 was filled by Alan Searle. Maugham had first met Searle in 1928. Searle was a young man from the London slum area of Bermondsey and he had already been kept by older men. He proved a devoted if not a stimulating companion. Indeed one of Maugham's friends, describing the difference between Haxton and Searle, said simply: "Gerald was vintage, Alan was vin ordinaire.
Maugham's love life was almost never smooth. He once confessed: "I have most loved people who cared little or nothing for me and when people have loved me I have been embarrassed... In order not to hurt their feelings, I have often acted a passion I did not feel."
In 1962 he sold a collection of paintings, some of which had been assigned to his daughter Liza by deed. She sued her father and won a judgment of £230,000. Maugham responded by publicly disowning her and claiming she was not his biological daughter; adopting Searle as his son and heir; and launching a bitter attack on the deceased Syrie in his 1962 volume of memoirs, Looking Back, in which Liza discovered she had been born before her parents' marriage. The memoirs lost him several friends and exposed him to much public ridicule. Liza and her husband Lord Glendevon contested the change in Maugham's will in the French courts, and it was overturned. Nevertheless, in 1965 Searle inherited £50,000, the contents of Villa Mauresque, and his manuscripts and copyrights for 30 years. Thereafter the copyrights passed to the Royal Literary Fund.
There is no grave for Maugham. His ashes were scattered near the Maugham Library, The King's School, Canterbury. Liza, Lady Glendevon, died aged 83 in 1998, survived by Somerset Maugham's four grandchildren (a son and a daughter by Liza's first marriage to Vincent Paravicini, and two more sons to Lord Glendevon).
Maugham wrote in a time when experimental modernist literature such as that of William Faulkner, Thomas Mann, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf was gaining increasing popularity and winning critical acclaim. In this context, his plain prose style was criticized as "such a tissue of clichés that one's wonder is finally aroused at the writer's ability to assemble so many and at his unfailing inability to put anything in an individual way".
Maugham's homosexual leanings also shaped his fiction, in two ways. Since, in life, he tended to see attractive women as sexual rivals, he often gave the women of his fiction sexual needs and appetites, in a way quite unusual for authors of his time. "Liza of Lambeth," Cakes and Ale and "The Razor's Edge" all featured women determined to service their strong sexual appetites, heedless of the result. Also, the fact that Maugham's own sexual appetites were highly disapproved of, or even criminal, in nearly all of the countries in which he travelled, made Maugham unusually tolerant of the vices of others. Readers and critics often complained that Maugham did not clearly enough condemn what was bad in the villains of his fiction and plays. Maugham replied in 1938: "It must be a fault in me that I am not gravely shocked at the sins of others unless they personally affect me."
Maugham's public view of his abilities remained modest; towards the end of his career he described himself as "in the very first row of the second-raters". In 1954, he was made a Companion of Honour.
Maugham had begun collecting theatrical paintings before the First World War and continued to the point where his collection was second only to that of the Garrick Club. In 1948 he announced that he would bequeath this collection to the Trustees of the National Theatre, and from 1951, some 14 years before his death, his paintings began their exhibition life. In 1994 they were placed on loan to the Theatre Museum in Covent Garden.
Among his short stories, some of the most memorable are those dealing with the lives of Western, mostly British, colonists in the Far East, and are typically concerned with the emotional toll exacted on the colonists by their isolation. Some of his more outstanding works in this genre include Rain, Footprints In The Jungle and The Outstation. Rain, in particular, which charts the moral disintegration of a missionary attempting to convert the Pacific island prostitute Sadie Thompson, has kept its fame and been made into a movie several times. Maugham said that many of his short stories presented themselves to him in the stories he heard during his travels in the outposts of the Empire. He left behind a long string of angry former hosts, and a contemporary anti-Maugham writer retraced his footsteps and wrote a record of his journeys called "Gin And Bitters". Maugham's restrained prose allows him to explore the resulting tensions and passions without appearing melodramatic. His The Magician (1908) is based on British occultist Aleister Crowley.
Maugham was one of the most significant travel writers of the inter-war years, and can be compared with contemporaries such as Evelyn Waugh and Freya Stark. His best efforts in this line include The Gentleman In The Parlour, dealing with a journey through Burma, Siam, Cambodia and Vietnam, and On A Chinese Screen, a series of very brief vignettes which might almost be notes for short stories that were never written.
Influenced by the published journals of the French writer Jules Renard, which Maugham had often enjoyed for their conscientiousness, wisdom and wit, Maugham published in 1949 selections from his own journals under the title "A Writer's Notebook". Although these journal selections are, by nature, episodic and of varying quality, they range over more than 50 years of the writer's life and contain much that Maugham scholars and admirers find of interest.
One of very few later writers to praise his influence was Anthony Burgess, who included a complex fictional portrait of Maugham in the novel Earthly Powers. George Orwell also stated that Maugham was "the modern writer who has influenced me the most". The American writer Paul Theroux, in his short story collection The Consul's File, updated Maugham's colonial world in an outstation of expatriates in modern Malaysia. Holden Caulfield, in J. D. Salinger's 1951 The Catcher in the Rye, mentions that although he read Of Human Bondage the previous summer and liked it, he wouldn't want to call Maugham up on the phone.