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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)
William Somerset Maugham was born in Paris, the sixth and youngest son of the solicitor to the British embassy. Maugham learned French as his native tongue. At the age of 10, Maugham was orphaned and sent to England to live with his uncle, the Reverend Henry MacDonald Maugham. Educated at King's School, Canterbury, where he developed a stammer that he never outgrew, and Heidelberg University, Maugham then studied six years medicine in London. He qualified in 1897 as doctor from St. Thomas' medical school, but abandoned medicine after the success of his first novels and plays.
Maugham lived in Paris for ten years as a struggling young
author. In 1897 appeared his first novel, Liza of Lambeth,
which drew on his experiences of attending women in childbirth. Maugham
named his daughter and only child, Elizabeth 'Liza' Mary Maugham, after
the title character. His first play, A Man of Honour, was
produced in 1903. Four of his dramas ran simultaneously in London in
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".
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. Disguising
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; they were divored in 1927-8. On his return from Russia, he spent a year in a sanatorium in Scotland. Maugham then set off with Haxton 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. 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 ('For Maugham It's Cakes and Ale, New York Times Book Review, 19 March, 1950), who met the author only once, at a large dinner party at
Lady St Helier's in 1908.
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. 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."
Although Maugham became world famous he was never knighted. His relationship with Gerald Haxton, his secretary, prompted speculations. 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 the homosexual esthete John Ellingham Brooks, and Edward Frederic Benson he purchased shares of the Villa Cercole. Maugham's closest 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 demantia. To keep his personal life hidden, Maugham burned much of his correspondence. 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 $1.4m. Maugham died in Nice on December 16, 1965. It is said that as he lay dying he asked Sir Alfred Ayer visit him and reassure him that there was no life after death.
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. His style has
not impressed everyone. "Maugham's overall debt to Conrad is so
evident," wrote Christopher Hitchens in his review of Somerset Maugham: A Life by Jeffrey Meyers, "that one usually finishes by putting him down and picking up the real thing (The Atlantic, May 2004).
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, ed. 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 (2010) - 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