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Somerset Maugham

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Somerset Maugham

W. Somerset Maugham
Carl Van Vechten in 1934
Born William Somerset Maugham
(1874-01-25)25 January 1874
UK Embassy, Paris, France
Died 16 December 1965(1965-12-16) (aged 91)
Nice, France
Occupation Playwright, novelist, short story writer
Notable work(s) Of Human Bondage
The Letter
The Razor's Edge
Spouse(s) Syrie Wellcome(1917-1929)
Children Mary Elizabeth Maugham
Alan Searle (adopted, 1962)

William Somerset Maugham CH (/ˈmɔːm/ ; 25 January 1874 – 16 December 1965) was a British playwright, novelist and short story writer. He was among the most popular writers of his era and reputedly the highest paid author during the 1930s.[1]

After losing both his parents by the age of 10, Maugham was raised by a paternal uncle who was emotionally cold. Not wanting to become a lawyer like other men in his family, Maugham eventually trained and qualified as a doctor. The first run of his first novel, Liza of Lambeth (1897), sold out so rapidly that Maugham gave up medicine to write full-time.

During the First World War, he served with the Red Cross and in the ambulance corps, before being recruited in 1916 into the British Secret Intelligence Service, for which he worked in Switzerland and Russia before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. During and after the war, he traveled in India and Southeast Asia; all of these experiences were reflected in later short stories and novels.

Childhood and education

Maugham's father, Robert Ormond Maugham, was a lawyer who handled the legal affairs of the British embassy in Paris.[2] Since French law declared that all children born on French soil could be conscripted for military service, his father arranged for Maugham to be born at the embassy, technically on British soil.[3] His grandfather, another Robert, had also been a prominent lawyer and co-founder of the English Law Society.[4] It was taken for granted that Maugham and his brothers would follow in their footsteps. His elder brother Viscount Maugham enjoyed a distinguished legal career and served as Lord Chancellor from 1938 to 1939.

Maugham's mother, Edith Mary (née Snell), had tuberculosis (TB), a condition for which her doctor prescribed childbirth.[5] She had Maugham several years after the last of his three older brothers; they were already enrolled in boarding school by the time he was three. Being the youngest, he was effectively raised as an only child.

Edith's sixth and final son died on 25 January 1882, one day after his birth, on Maugham's eighth birthday. Edith died of TB six days later on 31 January at the age of 41.[6] The early death of his mother left Maugham traumatized; he kept his mother's photograph by his bedside for the rest of his life.[7] Two years after Edith's death, Maugham's father died in France of cancer.

Maugham was sent to the UK to be cared for by his uncle, Henry MacDonald Maugham, the Vicar of Whitstable, in Kent. The move was damaging, as Henry Maugham proved cold and emotionally cruel. The boy attended The King's School, Canterbury, which was also difficult for him. He was teased for his bad English (French had been his first language) and his short stature, which he inherited from his father. Maugham developed a stammer that would stay with him all his life, although it was sporadic and subject to mood and circumstance.[8]

Miserable both at his uncle's vicarage and at school, the young Maugham developed a talent for making wounding remarks to those who displeased him. This ability is sometimes reflected in Maugham's literary characters. At sixteen, Maugham refused to continue at The King's School. His uncle allowed him to travel to Germany, where he studied literature, philosophy and German at Heidelberg University. During his year in Heidelberg, Maugham met and had a sexual affair with John Ellingham Brooks, an Englishman ten years his senior.[9] He also wrote his first book there, a biography of Giacomo Meyerbeer, an opera composer.[10]

On Maugham's return to Britain, his uncle found his nephew a position in an accountant's office, but after a month, Maugham gave it up and returned to Whitstable. His uncle 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. His uncle rejected the civil service, not because of the young man's feelings or interests, but because his uncle concluded that the civil service was no longer a career for gentlemen; a recent law required applicants to pass an entry examination. The local doctor suggested the medical profession and Maugham's uncle agreed.

Maugham had been writing steadily since the age of 15 and fervently wished to become an author, but as he was not of age, he refrained from telling his guardian. For the next five years, he studied medicine at St Thomas' Hospital in Lambeth, London.


Early works

Some critics have assumed that the years Maugham spent studying medicine were a creative dead end, but Maugham felt the contrary. He was living in the great city of London, meeting people of a "low" sort whom he would never have met otherwise, and seeing them at a time of heightened anxiety and meaning in their lives. In maturity, he recalled the value of his experience as a medical student: "I saw how men died. I saw how they bore pain. I saw what hope looked like, fear and relief ..."

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 medical degree. In 1897, he wrote his second book, Liza of Lambeth, a tale of working-class adultery and its consequences. It drew its details from Maugham's experiences as a medical student doing midwifery work in Lambeth, a South London slum. Maugham wrote near the opening of the novel: " 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."[11]

Liza of Lambeth's first print run sold out in a matter of weeks. Maugham, who had qualified as a doctor, dropped medicine and embarked on his 65-year career as a man of letters. He later said, "I took to it as a duck takes to water."[12]

The writer's life allowed Maugham to travel and to 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 in 1907 with the 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.

Maugham's supernatural thriller, The Magician (1908), based its principal character on the well-known and somewhat disreputable Aleister Crowley. Crowley took some offence at the treatment of the protagonist, Oliver Haddo. He wrote a critique of the novel, charging Maugham with plagiarism, in a review published in Vanity Fair.[13] Maugham survived the criticism without much damage to his reputation.

Popular success, 1914–39

By 1914, Maugham was famous, with 10 plays produced and 10 novels published. Too old to enlist when the First World War broke out, he served in France as a member of the British Red Cross's so-called "Literary Ambulance Drivers", a group of some 24 well-known writers, including the Americans John Dos Passos and E. E. Cummings.

During this time, he met Frederick Gerald Haxton, a young San Franciscan, who became his companion and lover until Haxton's death in 1944.[14] Throughout this period, Maugham continued to write. He proofread Of Human Bondage at a location near Dunkirk during a lull in his ambulance duties.[15]

Of Human Bondage (1915) initially was criticized in both England and the United States; the New York World described the romantic obsession of the protagonist Philip Carey as "the sentimental servitude of a poor fool". The influential American novelist and critic Theodore Dreiser rescued the novel, referring to it as a work of genius and comparing it to a Beethoven symphony. His review gave the book a lift, and it has never been out of print since.[16]

Maugham indicates in his foreword that he derived the title from a passage in Baruch Spinoza's Ethics:

“The impotence of man to govern or restrain the emotions I call bondage, for a man who is under their control is not his own that he is often forced to follow the worse, although he see the better before him." [17]

Of Human Bondage is considered to have many autobiographical elements. Maugham gave Philip Carey a club foot (rather than his stammer); the vicar of Blackstable appears derived from the vicar of Whitstable; and Carey is a doctor. Maugham insisted the book was more invention than fact. 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."

Marriage and family

Although Maugham's first and many other sexual relationships were with men, he also had sexual relationships with a number of women. He had an affair with Syrie Wellcome, the wife of Henry Wellcome, the American-born English pharmaceutical magnate. They had a daughter named Mary Elizabeth Wellcome, (1915–1998).[18] Henry Wellcome sued his wife for divorce, naming Maugham as co-respondent.

In May 1917, following the decree absolute, Syrie Wellcome and Maugham were married. Syrie Maugham became a noted interior decorator who in the 1920s popularized "the all-white room." Their daughter was familiarly called Liza and her surname was changed to Maugham.

Syrie finally divorced him in 1929, finding his relationship and travels with Haxton too difficult to live with.

Intelligence work

Maugham returned to England from his ambulance unit duties to promote Of Human Bondage. With that completed, he was eager to assist the war effort again. As he was unable to return to his ambulance unit, Syrie arranged for him to be introduced to a high-ranking intelligence officer known as "R;" he was recruited by John Wallinger.[19] In September 1915, Maugham began work in Switzerland, as one of the network of British agents who operated against the Berlin Committee. Its members included Virendranath Chattopadhyay, an Indian revolutionary trying to use the war to create violence against the British in his country. Maugham lived in Switzerland 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 his journeys through the late-Imperial world of the 1920s and 1930s which inspired his novels. He became known as a writer who portrayed 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 was painfully shy, and Haxton the extrovert gathered human material which the author converted to fiction.

In June 1917, Maugham was asked by Sir William Wiseman, an officer of the British Secret Intelligence Service (later named MI6), to undertake a special mission in Russia.[19][20] It was part of an attempt to keep the Provisional Government in power and Russia in the war by countering German pacifist propaganda.[21] Two and a half months later, the Bolsheviks took control. Maugham subsequently said 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.[19][22]

Maugham used his spying experiences as the basis for Ashenden: Or the British Agent, a collection of short stories about a gentlemanly, sophisticated, aloof spy. This character is considered to have influenced Ian Fleming's later series of James Bond novels.[23] In 1922, Maugham dedicated his book On A Chinese Screen to Syrie. This was a collection of 58 ultra-short story sketches, which he had written during his 1920 travels through China and Hong Kong, intending to expand the sketches later as a book.[24]

Dramatised from a story first published in his collection The Casuarina Tree (1924), Maugham's play The Letter, starring Gladys Cooper, had its premiere in London in 1927. Later, he asked that Katharine Cornell play the lead in the 1927 Broadway version. The play was adapted as a film by the same name in 1929, and again in 1940, for which Bette Davis received an Oscar nomination. In 1951, Cornell was a great success playing the lead in his comedy, The Constant Wife.[25]

In 1926, Maugham bought Villa Mauresque, on 9 acres (3.6 hectares) at Cap Ferrat on the French Riviera. His home for most of the rest of his life, he hosted one of the great literary and social salons of the 1920s and 30s. He continued to be highly productive, writing plays, short stories, novels, essays and travel books. By 1940, when the collapse of France and German occupation in the Second World War forced Maugham to leave the French Riviera, he was a refugee but one of the most famous and wealthiest writers in the English-speaking world.

Maugham's novel, An Appointment in Samarra (1933), is based on an ancient Babylonian myth: Death is both the narrator and a central character.[26][27] The American writer John O'Hara credited Maugham's novel as a creative inspiration for his own novel Appointment in Samarra.

Grand old man of letters

Maugham, by then in his sixties, spent most of the Second World War in the United States, first in Hollywood (he worked on many scripts, and was one of the first authors to make significant money from film adaptations) and later in the South. While in the US, he was asked by the British government to make patriotic speeches to induce the US to aid Britain, if not necessarily become an allied combatant. After his companion Gerald Haxton died in 1944, Maugham moved back to England. In 1946 he returned to his villa in France, where he lived, interrupted by frequent and long travels, until his death.

Maugham began a relationship with Alan Searle, whom he had first met in 1928. A young man from the London slum area of Bermondsey, Searle had already been kept by older men. He proved a devoted if not a stimulating companion. One of Maugham's friends, describing the difference between Haxton and Searle, said simply: "Gerald was vintage, Alan was vin ordinaire."[28]

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."[29][page needed]

In 1962 Maugham sold a collection of paintings, some of which had already been assigned to his daughter Liza by deed. She sued her father and won a judgment of £230,000. Maugham publicly disowned her and claimed she was not his biological daughter. He adopted Searle as his son and heir. In his 1962 volume of memoirs, Looking Back, he attacked the late Syrie Maugham and wrote that Liza had been born before they married. The memoir cost 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. But, in 1965 Searle inherited £50,000, the contents of Villa Mauresque, Maugham's manuscripts and his revenue from 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 Maugham, Lady Glendevon, died aged 83 in 1998, survived by her four children (a son and a daughter by her first marriage to Vincent Paravicini, and two more sons to Lord Glendevon). One of her grandchildren is Derek Paravicini, who is a musical prodigy and autistic savant.


Commercial success with high book sales, successful theatre productions and a string of film adaptations, backed by astute stock market investments, allowed Maugham to live a very comfortable life. Small and weak as a boy, Maugham had been proud even then of his stamina, and as an adult he kept churning out the books, proud that he could. Yet, despite his triumphs, he never attracted the highest respect from the critics or his peers. Maugham attributed this to his lack of "lyrical quality", his small vocabulary, and failure to make expert use of metaphor in his work. In 1934 the American journalist and radio personality Alexander Woollcott offered Maugham some language advice: "The female implies, and from that the male infers." Maugham responded: "I am not yet too old to learn."[30]

Maugham wrote at 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".[31]

For a public man of Maugham's generation, being openly gay was impossible. Whether his own orientation disgusted him (as it did many at a time when homosexuality was widely considered a moral failing as well as illegal) or whether he was trying to disguise his leanings, Maugham wrote disparagingly of the gay artist. In Don Fernando, a non-fiction book about his years living in Spain, Maugham pondered a (perhaps fanciful) suggestion that the painter El Greco was homosexual:

"It cannot be denied that the homosexual has a narrower outlook on the world than the normal man. In certain respects the natural responses of the species are denied to him. Some at least of the broad and typical human emotions he can never experience. However subtly he sees life he cannot see it whole ... I cannot now help asking myself whether what I see in El Greco's work of tortured fantasy and sinister strangeness is not due to such a sexual abnormality as this."[32]

But Maugham's homosexuality or bisexuality is believed to have shaped his fiction in two ways. Since he tended to see attractive women as sexual rivals, he often gave his women characters sexual needs and appetites, in a way quite unusual for authors of his time. Liza of Lambeth, Cakes and Ale, Neil MacAdam and The Razor's Edge, all featured women determined to feed their strong sexual appetites, heedless of the result. As Maugham's sexual appetites were then officially disapproved of, or criminal, in nearly all of the countries in which he traveled, the author was unusually tolerant of the vices of others. Some readers and critics complained that Maugham did not condemn what was bad in the villains of his fiction and plays. Maugham replied: "It must be a fault in me that I am not gravely shocked at the sins of others unless they personally affect me."[33]

Maugham's public view of his abilities remained modest. Toward the end of his career he described himself as "in the very first row of the second-raters".[34] In 1948 he wrote "Great Novelists and Their Novels" in which he listed the ten best novels of world literature in his view.[35] In 1954, he was made a Companion of Honour.

Maugham had begun collecting theatrical paintings before the First World War; he continued to the point where his collection was second only to that of the Garrick Club.[36] In 1948 he announced that he would bequeath this collection to the Trustees of the National Theatre. 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.[37][38]

Significant works

Maugham's masterpiece is generally agreed to be Of Human Bondage, a semiautobiographical novel that deals with the life of the main character Philip Carey, who, like Maugham, was orphaned, and brought up by his pious uncle. Philip's clubfoot causes him endless self-consciousness and embarrassment, echoing Maugham's struggles with his stutter and, as his biographer Ted Morgan notes, his homosexuality.

Two of his later novels were based on historical people: The Moon and Sixpence is about the life of Paul Gauguin; and Cakes and Ale contains what were taken as thinly veiled and unflattering characterizations of the authors Thomas Hardy (who had died two years previously) and Hugh Walpole. Maugham himself denied any intention of doing this in a long letter to Walpole:[39] "I certainly never intended Alroy Kear to be a portrait of you. He is made up of a dozen people and the greater part of him is myself." Maugham's last major novel, The Razor's Edge (1944), was a departure for him in many ways. While much of the novel takes place in Europe, its main characters are American, not British. The protagonist is a disillusioned veteran of the First World War who abandons his wealthy friends and lifestyle, traveling to India seeking enlightenment. The story's themes of Eastern mysticism and war-weariness struck a chord with readers during the Second World War. It was quickly adapted as a movie.

Among his short stories, some of the most memorable are those dealing with the lives of Western, mostly British, colonists in the Far East. They typically express the emotional toll the colonists bear by their isolation. "Rain", "Footprints in the Jungle", and "The Outstation" are considered especially notable. "Rain", in particular, which charts the moral disintegration of a missionary attempting to convert the Pacific island prostitute Sadie Thompson, has kept its reputation. It has been adapted as a play and as several films. Maugham said that many of his short stories were inspired by accounts he heard during his travels in the outposts of the Empire. After publication, he left behind a long string of angry former hosts. Maugham's restrained prose allows him to explore the 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 that might have been sketches for stories left unwritten.

Influenced by the published journals of the French writer Jules Renard, which Maugham had enjoyed for their conscientiousness, wisdom and wit, Maugham published selections from his own journals under the title A Writer's Notebook (1949). 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.


In 1947 Maugham instituted the Somerset Maugham Award, awarded to the best British writer or writers under the age of thirty-five for a work of fiction published in the past year. Notable winners include V. S. Naipaul, Kingsley Amis, Martin Amis and Thom Gunn. On his death, Maugham donated his copyrights to the Royal Literary Fund.

Other writers acknowledged his work. Anthony Burgess, who included a complex fictional portrait of Maugham in the novel Earthly Powers, praised his influence. George Orwell said that Maugham was "the modern writer who has influenced me the most."

Portraits of Maugham

Many portraits were painted of Somerset Maugham, including that by Graham Sutherland[40] in the Tate Gallery, and several by Sir Gerald Kelly. Sutherland's portrait was included in the exhibit Painting the Century 101 Portrait Masterpieces 1900-2000 at the National Portrait Gallery.


Film adaptations

See also

References and notes


  • Hastings, Selina, 2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham - A biography. London, John Murray. ISBN 978-0-7195-6554-0
  • Hastings, Selina, 2009 "A blackstable boyhood"
  • Mander, Raymond & Mitchenson, Joe, 1955 The Artist and the Theatre. William Heinemann Ltd
  • Mander, Raymond & Mitchenson, Joe, 1980 Guide to the Maugham Collection of Theatrical Paintings. Heinemann & the National Theatre
  • Maugham, Robin, 1970, Escape from the Shadows. Wiedenfeld and Nicholson Publishers.
  • Maugham, Robin, 1977, Somerset and all the Maughams. Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-8371-8236-0
  • Maugham, Robin, 1977, Search for Nirvana. W.H. Allen.
  • Maugham, W. Somerset, 1938, The Summing Up. Garden City Publishing Company.
  • Maugham, W. Somerset, 1962, Looking Back. As serialised in Show, June, July & August.
  • Meyers, Jeffrey, 2004, Somerset Maugham: A life. Knopf. ISBN 978-0-375-41475-6
  • Milton, Giles Russian Roulette: How British Spies Thwarted Lenin's Global Plot, Sceptre, 2013. ISBN 978 1 444 73702 8
  • Morgan, Ted, 1980, Somerset Maugham Jonathan Cape. ISBN 0-224-01813-2
  • Morgan, Ted, 1984, Maugham Touchstone Books. ISBN 0-671-50581-5.
  • Nichols, Beverley 1966, A Case of Human Bondage
  • Vidal, Gore, 1 February 1990, The New York Review of Books.
  • .
  • .
  • Venkataramiah, Munagala, 15th October 1938, Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi.
  • .

External links

  • The British Library
  • Caxton Club Biography
  • The British Empire, Biographies, Authors
  • Project Gutenberg
  • LibriVox (audiobooks)
  • WorldCat catalog)
  • Internet Movie Database
  • Internet Broadway Database
  • Internet Off-Broadway Database
  • National Theatre, Maugham's Theatrical Collection
  • National Theatre, Shakespearean Characters
  • Maugham's The Razor's Edge
  • William Somerset Maugham's stories on Malaya, Borneo and Singapore
  • W. S. Maugham: correspondence, contracts & manuscripts in Indiana University
  • W. Somerset Maugham at the Internet Book List
  • W. Somerset Maugham and Beaufort County, South Carolina – Beaufort County Library
  • "The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham" – A Biography of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings.
  • W. Somerset Maugham, age 37, 1911(Univ. of Washington, J. Willis Sayre collection)

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