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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 1904.

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".

With 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 stuttering 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.

In 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. When the modernist artist Graham Sutherland and his wife were staying in the south of France, they were invited to Mauresque. Sutherland had never attempted a portrait but Maugham sat several times to  him.  The now famous finished picture from 1949 shows the author seated on a bamboo stool, slightly hunched, the mouth down-turned. "The first time I saw it I was shocked," confessed Maugham, "and then I began to realize that here was far more of me than I ever saw myself." The English caricaturist and satirist Max Beerbohm said that Maugham looked "as if he had died under torture."

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

Selected works:

  • Liza of Lambeth, 1897
  • The Making of a Saint, 1898
  • Orientations, 1899
  • The Hero, 1901
  • Mrs Craddock, 1902
    - Rouva Craddock (suom. Sirpa Kauppinen, 1957)
  • A Man of Honour: A Tragedy in Three Acts, 1903
  • The Land of the Blessed Virgin: Sketches and Impressions in Andalusia, 1905
  • The Bishop's Apron: A Study in the Origins of a Great Family, 1906
  • The Magician, 1908
    - film 1926, prod. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), dir. Rex Ingram, starring Alice Terry, Paul Wegener, Iván Petrovich (the central character, lightly disguised, is the occultist Aleister Crowley)
  • Penelope: A Comedy in Three Acts, 1909
  • Lady Frederick: A Comedy in Three Acts, 1912
    - film 1963 (TV play), prod. Kleine Komödie München, dir. Hans Quest, starring Hilde Krahl, Trude Hesterberg, Karl Schönböck, Christian Wolff
  • Jack Straw: A Farce in Three Acts, 1912
    - film 1920, dir. prod. Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, William C. de Mille, starring Robert Warwick
  • Mrs Dot, 1912
  • The Explorer: A Melodrama in Four Acts, 1912
  • The Tenth Man: A Tragic Comedy in 3 Acts, 1913
  • Smith: A Comedy in Four Acts, 1913
  • Landed Gentry. A Comedy in Four Acts, 1913
  • Of Human Bondage, 1915
    - Elämän kahle (suom. Sirpa Kauppinen, 1958)
    - films: 1934, prod. RKO Radio Pictures, dir. by John Cromwell, starring Bette Davis, Leslie Howard, Frances Dee, Kay Johnson; 1946, prod. Warner Bros. Pictures, dir. by Edmund Gouldig, starring Paul Henreid, Eleanor Parker; 1964, dir. Ken Hughes, starring Kim Novak, Laurence Harvey, Robert Morley
  • The Moon and Sixpence, 1919
    - Kuu ja kupariraha (suom. Liisa Johansson, 1949)
    - films: TV film 1959, prod. National Broadcasting Company (NBC), dir. Robert Mulligan, starring Laurence Olivier, Jessica Tandy, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Hume Cronyn; 1943, dir. by Albert Lewin, starring George Sanders, Herbert Marshall, Doris Dudley
  • The Unknown: A Play in Three Acts, 1920
  • The Circle, 1921
    - Ympyrä (suom.)
    - films: 1925, prod. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), dir. Frank Borzage; Strictly Unconventional (1930), prod, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), dir. David Burton; Der Kreis (1964, TV prod.), dir. Karl John, Heribert Wenk
  • Sadie Thompson, 1921
    - films: 1928, prod. Gloria Swanson Pictures, dir.  Raoul Walsh, starring Gloria Swanson, Lionel Barrymore; Rain (1932), prod. Feature Productions, dir. by Lewis Milestone, starring Joan Crawford, Walter Huston; Dirty Gertie from Harlem, U.S.A. (1946), prod. Sack Amusement Enterprises, dir. Spencer Williams; Miss Sadie Thompson (1953), dir. Curtis Bernhardt, starring Rita Hayworth, Mel Ferrer, Aldo Ray
  • The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands, 1921
    - Väräjävä lehti (suom. Sirppa Kauppinen, 1959)
  • East of Suez: A Play in Seven Scenes, 1922
    - film: 1925, prod. Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, dir. Raoul Walsh, starring Pola Negri
  • On A Chinese Screen, 1922 (with an introduction by H.J. Lethbridge, 1984)
  • Caesar's Wife, 1922
  • Home and Beauty. A Farce in Three Acts, 1923
  • Our Betters: A Comedy in Three Acts, 1923
    - film 1933, prod. RKO Radio Pictures, dir. George Cukor, starring Constance Bennett, Violet Kemble Cooper, Phoebe Foster
  • Loaves and Fishes. A Comedy in Four Acts, 1924
  • The Painted Veil, 1925
    - Kirjava huntu (suom. Helvi Vasara, 1947)
    - films: 1934, dir. Richard Boleslawski, starring Greta Garbo and Herbert Marshall; The Seventh Sin (1957), dir. Ronald Neame, starring Eleanor Parker, Jean-Pierre Aumont, George Sanders; 2006, dir.  John Curran, starring Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Liev Schreiber
  • The Constant Wife, 1925
    - Viisas aviovaimo (suom. Seere Salminen, 1945)
    - films: Charming Sinners (1929), dir. Robert Milton, starring Ruth Chatterton, Clive Brook, Mary Nolan, William Powell; Finden sie, dass Constanze sich richtig verhält? (1962), dir. Tom Pevsner, starring Lilli Palmer, Peter van Eyck, Carlos Thompson; Eine Konsequente Frau (1971, TV comedy), prod. Saarländischer Rundfunk (SR), dir. Wolfgang Liebeneiner
  • The Casuarina Tree, 1926
  • The Letter, 1927
    - Kirje (suom. Kristiina Kivivuori, 1972)
    - films: 1929, prod. Paramount Pictures, dir. Jean de Limur, starring Jeanne Eagels; La donna bianca (1930), prod. Paramount Pictures, dir. Jack Salvatori; La Lettre (1930), prod. Les Studios Paramount, dir. Louis Mercanton; Weib im Dschungel (1931), prod. Les Studios Paramount, dir. Dimitri Buchowetzki; La Carta (1931), prod. Paramount Pictures, dir. Adelqui Migliar, starring Carmen Larrabeiti, Carlos Díaz de Mendoza; 1940, prod. Warner Bros. Pictures, dir. William Wyler, starring Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall; TV film 1982, prod. Hajeno Productions, dir. John Erman, starring Lee Remick, Ronald Pickup, Jack Thompson, Ian McShane
  • The Sacred Flame: A Play in Three Acts, 1928
    - films: 1929, prod. Warner Bros. Pictures, dir. Archie Mayo; La Llama sagrada (1931), prod. Warner Bros. Pictures, dir. William C. McGann, Guillermo Prieto Yeme; Die Heilige Flamme (1931), prod. Warner Bros. Pictures, dir. William Dieterle, Berthold Viertel; The Right to Live (1935), prod. Warner Bros. Pictures, dir. by William Keighley, starring Josephine Hutchinson, George Brent, Colin Clive
  • Ashenden: Or the British Agent, 1928
    - Salainen asiamies (suom. Kristiina Kivivuori, 1958)
    - films: Secret Agent (1936), based on the 'The Traitor' and 'The Hairless Mexican', and the play by Campbell Dixon, dir. Alfred Hitchcock, starring John Gielgud, Madeleine Carroll, Peter Lorre, Robert Young, Percy Marmont; TV mini-series 1991, prod. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), dir. Christopher Morahan, starring Alex Jennings, Joss Ackland, Ian Bannen, Harriet Walter
  • The Bread-Winner: A Comedy in One Act, 1930 
  • Cakes and Aleor: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard, 1930
    - Elämältä se maistui (suom. Kristiina Kivivuori, 1955)
  • - TV series 1974, prod. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), starring Michael Hordern, Judy Cornwell, Mike Pratt, Lynn Farleigh, Barbara Atkinson
  • The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey From Rangoon to Haiphong, 1930
  • First Person Singular, 1931
  • Collected Plays, 1931-34
  • The Narrow Corner, 1932
    - Ahtaan asuinsijat (suom. J.A. Hollo, 1950)
    - film 1933, prod. Warner Bros. Pictures, dir. Alfred E. Green, starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Patricia Ellis, Ralph Bellamy
  • For Services Rendered, 1932
  • Collected Plays, 1933
  • Sheppey: A Play in Three Acts, 1933
    - Päävoitto (suom.)
  • Ah King: Six Stories, 1933
  • Cosmopolitans: Very Short Stories, 1936
    - Herra Kaikkitietävä (suom. Martta Eskelinen, 1967)
  • Don Fernando: or, Variations on Some Spanish Themes, 1935
  • Theatre, 1937
    - Näyttelijätär (suom. J.A. Hollo, 1951)
    - films: Bezaubernde Julia (1960, TV play), prod. Südwestfunk (SWF), dir. Wilm ten Haaf; Julia, Du bist zauberhaft (1962), dir. Alfred Weidenmann, starring Lilli Palmer, Charles Boyer,Jean Sorel; Teatris (1978), dir. Janis Streics; Poniro thilyko... katergara gynaika! (1980), prod. Karagiannis-Karatzopoulos, dir. Kostas Karagiannis; Adorable Julia (1988, TV drama), dir. Yves-André Hubert; Being Julia (2004), dir. Istvan Szabo, starring Annette Bening, Jeremy Irons, Shaun Evans
  • The Summing Up, 1938
  • Christmas Holiday, 1939
    - film: 1944, prod. Universal Pictures, dir. Robert Siodmark, starring Deanna Durbin, Gene Kelly
  • The Mixture As Before, 1940
  • France At War, 1940
  • Books and You, 1940
  • Up at the Villa, 1941
    - Huvila kukkulalla (suom. Mario Talaskivi, 1959)
    - film: 2000, dir. Philip Haas, starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Sean Penn
  • Strictly Personal, 1941
  • Altogether, 1941
  • The Hour Before Dawn, 1942
    - film 1944, prod. Paramount Pictures, dir. Frank Tuttle, starring Franchot Tone, Veronica Lake
  • The W. Somerset Maugham Sampler, 1943 (edited by Jerome Weidman)
  • The Razor's Edge, 1944
    - Veitsen terällä (suom. Helvi Vasara, 1947)
    - films: 1946, dir. Edmund Goulding, starring Tyrone Power, Gene Tierney, John Payne, Anne Baxter; 1984, dir. John Byrum, starring Bill Murray, Theresa Russell and Denholm Elliott
  • The Somerset Maugham Pocket Book, 1944 (edited with an introd. by Jerome Weidman)
  • Then and Now, 1946
    - Eikä mikään muutu (suom. Martta Eskelinen, 1955)
  • Creatures of Circumstance, 1947
    - Olosuhteiden oikkuja (suom. Aarre Nenonen, 1956)
  • Catalina, 1948
    - Catalina (suom. Aarre Nenonen, 1954)
  • Great Novelists and Their Novels: Essays on the Ten Greatest Novels of the World, and the Men and Women Who Wrote Them, 1948
  • A Writer’s Notebook, 1949
  • The Maugham Reader, 1950 (with an introduction by Glenway Wescott)
  • The Complete Short Stories, 1951 (3 vols.)
  • The Collected Plays, 1952 (3 vols.)
  • The Vagrant Mood: Six Essays, 1952
  • Mr. Maugham Himself, 1954 (selected by John Beecroft)
  • Far and Wide: Nine Novels, 1955 (2 vols.)
  • Best Short Stories, 1957 (selected, and with an introd. by John Beecroft)
  • Points of View, 1958
  • Looking Back, 1962
  • Selected Prefaces and Introductions, 1963
  • Wit and Wisdom of Somerset Maugham, 1966 (collected by Cecil Hewetson)
  • A Maugham Twelve, 1966 (stories selected and with an introduction by Angus Wilson)
  • Seventeen Lost Stories, 1969 (compiled and with an introd. by Craig V. Showalter)
  • Letters of William Somerset Maugham to Lady Julit Duff, 1982 (edited, and with an introduction, by Loren R. Rothschild) 
  • Traveller in Romance: Uncollected Writings, 1901-1964, 1984 (edited by John Whitehead)
  • Collected Stories, 2004 (with an introduction by Nicholas Shakespeare)
  • The Skeptical Romancer Selected Travel Writing, 2009 (edited and introduced by Pico Iyer)


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