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Seven Ways of Looking at W. Somerset Maugham

RLF Fellow and playwright Marcy Kahan examines seven aspects of W. Somerset Maugham's remarkable life and career.

Portrait of playwright and novelist, William Somerset Maugham.

RLF Fellow and playwright Marcy Kahan examines seven aspects of W. Somerset Maugham’s remarkable life and career.

  1. Cosmopolitanism

The first twenty years of Maugham’s life set the pattern for his wide-ranging travels and expatriate life.  He was born abroad, in the British Embassy in Paris, where his father was a resident solicitor. He enjoyed a privileged childhood: his parents had a lavish apartment near the Champs-Elysees; eminent statesmen came to tea and heard the boy recite; his beautiful mother adored him.

This Proustian idyll ended with the death of both his parents by the time he was ten. The orphan was shipped to Kent to live with his Uncle, the unimaginative Vicar of Whitstable, and his German-born wife. His schooldays at King’s Canterbury were complicated by his French pronunciation and incurable stammer.

In 1891, aged 17, he enjoyed a stimulating gap year in Heidelberg, Germany, discovering Schopenhauer and Ibsen. He then trained as a doctor at St Thomas’s in London, but he never practised medicine. Determined to devote his life to writing, Maugham de-camped to Spain, then Italy, where he was deliriously happy.

He never stopped travelling:  Europe; the Pacific Islands; the United States; Russia; South East Asia and China; North Africa; India. The whole world provides the setting for his novels and stories.

Maugham famously placed himself “in the front rank of the second-raters.”

2.   Theatricality

Maugham spent the first ten years of his career writing novels, which provided only a modest income; what he really desired to be was a West End playwright.  This happened almost overnight in 1907.  Aged 33, he found himself with four plays running simultaneously in the West End. He acquired a flat in Mayfair, invitations from society hostesses and membership of the Garrick Club.

His most notable plays are the drawing-room comedies Our Betters, The Circle, and The Constant Wife and plays on more serious themes: For Services Rendered, The Sacred Flame, and Sheppey.

Many were given Broadway productions. But Maugham abandoned the stage in 1933. He had never been entirely happy with the collaborative aspects of a playwright’s life.And he had just turned 60, no longer in tune with his audience’s preoccupations.

3.  Story-telling

Maugham famously placed himself “in the front rank of the second-raters.” His work has been consistently absent from academic literature courses. Several commentators have speculated that his childhood bilingualism may be responsible for his curiously clichéd English prose.  It’s true that he was no stylist – his mantra was “Lucidity. Simplicity. Euphony” – but his talent for memorable characterisation and compelling narrative earned him millions of readers and millions of dollars. Maugham saw himself as an entertainer, content to win acclaim as a Teller of Tales.

4. Secrets

Maugham worked for British Intelligence during both World Wars. In 1917, he was sent to Petrograd; his mission was to bolster Kerensky’s Menshevik regime. He arrived too late: Kerensky was either making speeches – or bursting into tears. Two days after Maugham’s departure, Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolshevik party seized power.

Maugham’s collection of spy stories – Ashenden: or the British Agent [1928] – is notable for its realistic portrayal of the monotonous life of a secret agent.  Told with humour and emotional detachment, these stories influenced later masters of espionage fiction: Eric Ambler, Len Deighton, and John Le Carré.

5.      Colonialism

Many of Maugham’s most famous stories – The Letter, Rain, Before the Party, Footprints in the Jungle, The Vessel of Wrath – are set in the Pacific islands and the Malay states during the twilight of the British Empire. He records the lives of ordinary individuals in these exotic places: the District Commissioners, missionaries, rubber planters and traders. The stories feature scandalous passions for half-caste women, adultery, murder, and even incest.

His biographer, Selina Hastings, notes that during Maugham’s 1922 voyage to Burma, he never mentions politics, in contrast to George Orwell, who was in Burma at the same time, “intensely alive to the seething resentments of the native people”. But Orwell was 19 years old, Maugham 48. For a man who had spent his first twenty-five years as a Victorian, he was remarkably free of jingoism.

The Malaysian writer Tan Twang Eng’s novel The House of Doors was long-listed for the 2023 Booker Prize. It dramatises Maugham’s visit to Penang in 1921, accompanied by his secretary – and lover – Gerald Haxton. Secrets and scandals are revealed—a must-read for all fans of Maugham.

Maugham’s mantra was “Lucidity. Simplicity. Euphony.

6.      What to Read, What to Watch

Novels: Liza of Lambeth [1897] – a graphic and tragic tale of a slum community in South London, published when Maugham was 23; Of Human Bondage [1915], a portrait of its author’s early life; Cakes & Ale [1930] an effervescent literary satire; The Razor’s Edge[1944]- written when Maugham was 70 – about the search for spiritual enlightenment in India, although Maugham himself failed to find it. He was happiest playing bridge.

Stories:  These are myriad and various, urbane and melodramatic; it is worth plunging in and sampling as many as you can.

Biography: Selina Hastings’ The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham [2009] deftly untangles Maugham’s complicated private life: his love for the American Gerald Haxton, his unhappy marriage to Syrie Wellcome [a gifted interior designer], his nightmarish final years.

Maugham remains the writer with the most film and TV adaptations of his work – some 98 in all.

Films: Rain, starring Joan Crawford [1932]. Of Human Bondage starring Bette David and Leslie Howard [1934]. Secret Agent [dir. Hitchcock 1936]. The Letter starring Bette Davis [1940]. The Moon & Sixpence starring George Saunders [1942]. Being Julia starringAnnette Bening [2004]. The Painted Veil starring Naomi Watts and Edward Norton.[2006].

Television & Radio: The TV story anthology series – introduced by Maugham himself: Quartet [1948]; Trio [1950]; Encore [1951].  A collection of BBC radio dramatisations is available via Audible.

7.       Legacy

In 1947, he set up the Somerset Maugham Award, which enables writers under the age of 30 to enrich their work by gaining experience in foreign countries.

Maugham bequeathed his copyrights to the Royal Literary Fund after he died in 1965.

His two autobiographical works are enduringly inspirational for writers of all ages: The Summing Up [1938] Maugham’s attempt to figure out what he really thinks about writing, theatre, people, life, love, literature and A Writer’s Notebook [1949]  – packed with observations, experiments, confessions and jottings – over five decades.

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