In his lifetime, Somerset Maugham was the most successful writer in the Anglophone world. By the time he was 90, 80 million copies of his books had been sold, he was a media celebrity and a very rich man. He had also lived, as Selina Hastings says, ‘much of his life under cover’. He went to great lengths to erase evidence of his private life, systematically destroying his personal papers, asking friends to burn his letters, and instructing his executors to discourage would-be biographers. In company, he was notorious – at least in late middle and old age – for being aloof and misanthropic: ‘An unpleasant man,’ P.G. Wodehouse told an interviewer in the 1970s. Kenneth Clark, with whom Hastings says Maugham enjoyed a ‘firm friendship’, described him as ‘an extremely mysterious character’; Christopher Isherwood likened him to a Gladstone bag: ‘God only knows what is inside.’ (Maugham said much the same about Isherwood.)
In contrast to his reserve in company, however, Maugham was addicted in his writing to self-disclosure: ‘Most of what one writes is to a greater or lesser degree autobiographical.’ Though his narrative persona was cynical and detached, his books were filled with accounts of his own miserable experiences of childhood, love and marriage; as well as with thinly (sometimes un-) disguised portraits of people he’d met and stories he’d been told. (Sadie Thompson, an American call-girl, appeared – name, fat legs and all – in the short story ‘Rain’.) It was a habit which left a ‘trail of angry people’.
Maugham was born in 1874 in Paris, the youngest of four boys, to an English solicitor who looked after the affairs of the British expat community. His mother, remembered as a model of selfless love whose loss he never got over, died when he was eight; his father, who he said ‘was a stranger to me’, when he was ten. Maugham père left little money and the boys were separated; the older ones were sent to boarding school, Willie to live with an unloveable vicar uncle in Whitstable, virtually losing contact with his brothers. The next few years were miserable and lonely, and Maugham acquired a stammer for which he was teased. Unsurprisingly, he hated the public school he was sent to: King’s Canterbury. The most odious of the masters, Mr Campbell – famed for making boys erase their mistakes by rubbing their noses across the blackboard – was later portrayed as the hateful Mr Gordon in Of Human Bondage.
It wasn’t all bad, however. Quite soon, Maugham was spotted by the new headmaster and began to win prizes, and to acquire a reputation for caustic wit. As with a subsequent generation of writers, spies and homosexuals (all of which Maugham would become), boarding school provided a fine training in outsiderdom, and distrust of authority. It’s likely that Maugham conceived his first serious passion for another boy at King’s, and Hastings speculates that the boy might have been called Ashenden, the name Maugham later used for the narrator of his spy stories and of Cakes and Ale.
Maugham escaped from King’s as soon as he could. He went first to Heidelberg to learn German, then in 1892 enrolled as a medical student at St Thomas’s Hospital. His first book, Liza of Lambeth, published in 1897, when he was 23, owed much to Maupassant and Zola. It was a grimy realist novel about the South London underclass he’d come into contact with through the hospital – a first instance of his cannibalising of his own experiences. It got some respectable reviews, and he was taken up by critics like Edmund Gosse, literary hostesses like Lady St Helier, and grandes dames like Violet Hunt, a former mistress of H.G. Wells and Ford Madox Ford. He now established himself as a prolific writer of novels, short stories and plays, and perfected his public persona: polite but cynical, with a streak of cruelty. He told a story of meeting Churchill at a house party, when Churchill was so taken aback by a cutting remark Maugham made at another guest’s expense that the next day he said to him: ‘I want to make a compact with you. If you will promise never to be funny at my expense, I will promise never to be funny at yours.’ Virginia Woolf later described the character of Alroy Kear – Maugham’s instantly recognisable portrait of the amiable, self-promoting Hugh Walpole (who regarded Maugham as a friend) in Cakes and Ale – as ‘a clever piece of torture’, a ‘flaying alive’.
Then in 1907, the Royal Court put on his comedy Lady Frederick, which had been offered around for several years. No sufficiently successful actress would touch it because of a scene in which the eponymous heroine shocks her younger lover into breaking off their relationship by appearing in front of him without her make-up on. The play was a roaring success, and within a year Maugham had four plays – a mixture of world-weary society comedies and contemporary melodramas – on in the West End. He would write 24 plays in all – they were the foundation of his very considerable wealth – and most were carefully calibrated to titillate his audiences with their advanced views on social convention and snobbery, while at the same time portraying the glamour of the upper classes.
In 1915, he published Of Human Bondage, his tenth novel, a book Hastings describes as ‘magnificent’, and ‘teeming’ with Maugham’s memories of his boyhood and youth. Whitstable was disguised as Blackstable, Canterbury as Tercanbury (names Maugham would use again 15 years later in Cakes and Ale), and the hero’s club foot was substituted for his own stammer. This hero, Philip, has an agonisingly masochistic relationship with a coarse and uneducated waitress, Mildred, who half-disgusts him but whose contempt turns him on.
Maugham regarded himself as similarly vulnerable and prone to disastrous relationships. What neither school nor his uncle’s home had provided was any experience of being cared for or loved, and he believed this left him unable to respond to affection or to develop ‘a normal point of view’. He seemed socially adept – Christopher Isherwood wrote of ‘his courtly politeness and his hypnotic stammer’ – but in his own mind he never lost the awkwardness that his stammer betrayed. His writing is littered with descriptions of his loneliness. ‘People told him he was unemotional,’ he wrote of Philip in Of Human Bondage, ‘but he knew that he was at the mercy of his emotions; an accidental kindness touched him so much that sometimes he did not venture to speak in order not to betray the unsteadiness of his voice.’ (Hastings presents this as directly autobiographical.) ‘I have never experienced the bliss of requited love,’ he wrote in 1938 in The Summing Up, an autobiographical essay, ‘I am incapable of complete surrender … I have most loved people who cared little or nothing for me, and when people have loved me I have been embarrassed.’ With time he became attached to his detachment and would dread other people’s emotional claims: ‘The main thing I’ve always asked from life is freedom. Outer and inner freedom, both in my way of living and my way of writing.’
Maugham’s personal relationships seem to have been characterised by painful imbalances of feeling, education and social status. One of his earliest serious affairs was with a pretty Oxford undergraduate, Harry Philips, for whom he had to compete, he said, with a series of richer admirers, who bought the young man with treats – ‘an invitation to some great house made him affectionate for a week’ – though Philips would later say that he left Maugham because ‘his cynicism distressed me & … I found it difficult to live with someone who believed that no one did anything without a motive.’ What Maugham liked was sex – ‘the keenest pleasure to which the body is susceptible’. Beverley Nichols, who had an affair with him in the 1930s, said he was ‘the most sexually voracious man I’ve ever known’.
There were a few notable heterosexual relationships. According to Hastings, Maugham fell genuinely in love with Sue Jones, a warm, easygoing actress on whom he based the character of Rosie in Cakes and Ale. They had an on-off eight-year affair, and he eventually proposed to her. Rosie is portrayed as flirty, carnal, not especially bright and more than a little vulgar. ‘She wasn’t a woman who ever inspired love,’ Maugham wrote. ‘Only affection.’ And rather more ickily: ‘She was like a clear deep pool in a forest glade into which it’s heavenly to plunge, but it is neither less cool or less crystalline because a tramp and a gypsy and a gamekeeper have plunged into it before you.’ Perhaps it’s not altogether surprising that Jones turned him down.
Hastings insists that Maugham wasn’t the misogynist he’s usually made out to be. This is hard to square with the facts, even in her account. ‘No woman that I have ever known fails to exact her money’s worth,’ he told a friend in 1936. Women both physically attracted and emotionally repelled him. Those he chose as friends tended to be either self-consciously glamorous – actresses, for example – or else society hostesses who mothered him. When he did get married, in 1917, to Syrie Wellcome, Dr Barnardo’s daughter and the former wife of the pharmaceutical millionaire Henry Wellcome, it was a disaster. She twice used the threat of pregnancy to entrap him (the second time Maugham should surely have seen it coming – unless he wanted to be forced into marriage) and was, according to Hastings, ‘frivolous, selfish and self-indulgent’. By the time of the wedding Maugham was so overcome with loathing he could hardly look at her. He had agreed to marry her as long as she let him do exactly as he wanted and for much of their relationship he was abroad, often travelling with his lover Gerald Haxton. Syrie made the mistake of falling in love with him, or at least becoming desperate for his affection and attention; he was brutally uninterested. They finally divorced in the late 1920s, when Syrie got a big settlement in return for keeping quiet about his homosexuality. Maugham resented paying the money and his hatred of her festered long after they’d split. When she died in 1955, he sang, ‘tra la la, no more alimony, tra la la,’ and refused to go to the funeral.
Syrie’s rival, Haxton, a charming half-American chancer 18 years younger than Maugham, was as venal as she was: he told Maugham that what he wanted from life was ‘fun and games … someone to look after me and give me clothes and parties’. They were together for nearly 30 years. Haxton became Maugham’s lover, ‘secretary’, and a kind of procurer, both of rent boys and of the stories on which Maugham drew for his writing. Like Isherwood and Auden a generation or so later, Maugham felt freer away from Britain: ‘I have never felt entirely myself till I had put at least the Channel between my native country and me.’ Maugham and Haxton went to the Pacific, South-East Asia, India, China, Mexico, Australia, America. Unlike Maugham, Haxton was good at striking up shipboard friendships, drawing out old colonial hands and then retailing their tales to Maugham. Some of Maugham’s friends saw Gerald as a corrupting influence, and he certainly had a vicious streak – he once threw a puppy belonging to Maugham’s sad, spoilt daughter, Liza, out of the window of a moving car. But in the end he was the one who was destroyed: utterly dependent on Maugham, he became an ugly drunk and died of TB in 1944, when he was 52, screaming that Maugham had ruined his life.
His place was taken by Alan Searle, working-class, an autodidact, dependable but dull, whom Maugham put to work as his factotum running the Villa Mauresque, the Moorish folly on Cap Ferrat he had bought in 1926 and ran like a grand hotel. Searle was devoted, but Maugham, increasingly tetchy and difficult in old age, was often cruel to him: Isherwood said he never knew ‘anyone so mistreated as Alan, so pissed on, kicked and shamed and disbelieved’. Searle later succumbed to a hysterical anxiety that he would be dispossessed at the writer’s death, and took the precaution of orchestrating a falling out between Maugham and his daughter over the proceeds from the sale of some paintings Maugham had promised to give her – persuading Maugham in the process to make him his heir. The result was a court case that brought Maugham the kind of publicity he’d always dreaded. Then, in 1962, encouraged by Searle, he published a furious, rambling, seven-part memoir in the Sunday Express, ‘Looking Back’, notable for its venomous portrait of the long-dead Syrie. He died four years later, aged 91, raging, lonely and senile.
For all his success, Maugham minded that the critical establishment didn’t take him as seriously as he would have liked. He said that the intelligentsia ‘turned a cold shoulder on me’, though he had admirers in Cyril Connolly and Desmond MacCarthy. He thought the reason he wasn’t admired was that his prose was too plain – no lyrical flights, no metaphors. In Cakes and Ale he has a pop not just at Hugh Walpole, but at the whole edifice of literary London: men of letters, lady hostesses, literary fashion and reputations, and also at Driffield, the literary grand homme he was said to have based on Thomas Hardy. ‘I had never been able to see in him the astonishing merit that the best critical opinion eventually ascribed to him … my own heart sank when he led me into the forecastle of a sailing ship or the taproom of a public house and I knew I was in for half a dozen pages in dialect of facetious comment on life, ethics and immortality.’ It says something about the feelings he provoked that an attempt to publish a festschrift to him in 1954 was abandoned when only Anthony Powell and Raymond Mortimer agreed to contribute. He was deeply disappointed, that unlike Hardy and Galsworthy, he was never given the Order of Merit, having to settle instead for being made a Companion of Honour. ‘I am the greatest living writer,’ he said a few years before his death, ‘they ought to give it to me.’
Villa Mauresque, meanwhile, entertained a stream of Continental princesses and dispossessed royalty, Hollywood luminaries and English aristos, established literary types and promising young men – from the ex-queen of Spain to Wallis Simpson to Noël Coward and, on one occasion, Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt. Maugham’s appetite for society sat oddly alongside his aloofness. One guest recalled that he would come to meet new arrivals with outstretched arms in a gesture of welcome, then ‘the arms would drop back again to the sides without contact.’ He revelled in his grand friendships. ‘Maugham was not a snob in the sense of rating people solely by social status,’ Hastings writes, ‘yet he did love dining with a duke.’ Anthony Powell considered him ‘immensely ambitious in just these areas in which he complains of others’ ambitions, snobbery and literary pretensions’.
Hastings could have said more about Maugham’s preoccupation, even obsession, with money. His father’s lack of it was what had sent him to live with the parsimonious old vicar, and it determined the avowedly populist writer he became. The Hollywood screenwriter Garson Kanin reported that, in the 1950s at the Villa Mauresque, he was shown a suitcase containing $100,000 in $100 bills. Money helped to destroy most of his closest relationships: with Syrie, with his daughter and with his homosexual nephew Robin, whom he tried to befriend. Robin became accustomed to his uncle’s largesse, and failing to make a living as a writer (his best story became the basis of Joseph Losey’s The Servant), he eventually blackmailed Maugham into paying out £50,000 in return for allegedly turning down a commission to write a biography of him. He outed Maugham in a British newspaper only weeks after his death.
Hastings is a cool and thorough biographer of her tortured subject. She lets the story tell itself, mindful of older biographical squabbles about whether to portray Maugham as monster or pitiful victim. At times even-handedness makes her draw back for fear that his behaviour will seem too ugly. His prolificness also forces her to give us an awful lot of plot synopses, when it would have been better to make a more general argument for his work, since she makes large claims for it: in the last two decades there has been, she says, a ‘remarkable revival of the work of this extraordinary man … it is safe to say that he will again hold generations in thrall, that his place is assured.’
As it is, Hastings doesn’t make the case for reading Maugham and I have no sense that many people really are reading him today. There have been a couple of recent lush film adaptations (The Painted Veil, Being Julia), but his plays are period pieces, and for all his geographical exoticism, his preoccupation with the conventions, constrictions and prejudices of the English upper-middle class, at home and abroad, was always liable to date him. Maugham’s life, however, was a prototype for a later generation of writers and intellectuals whose attempts to deal with being homosexual in a world where it was illegal produced both creative fecundity and also chaos and pain. That he has never been bracketed with them is partly because his success was on a different scale from theirs, and because he so wholeheartedly embraced his outwardly conventional life and luxuriated in its trappings. But like Anthony Blunt, for example, though Blunt was some 30 years his junior, he lived much of his life in secret; like Blunt, he was regarded as distant and enigmatic. For both, work was solace and sanity. Both liked, as Isaiah Berlin said of Blunt, to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds, and both saw their success and position as a defence against the possibility of exposure. And towards the end, their lives publicly combusted and the secrets tumbled out, Maugham’s in the court case and the serialised memoir, which it’s hard not to see as an act of self-immolation. He ‘mined his own monument’, Gore Vidal observed, ‘and blew it up’.