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Infidels, Freethinkers, Humanists, and Unbelievers
Maugham, William Somerset (1874-1965)
"No egoism is so insufferable as that of the Christian with regard to his soul."

"I cannot believe in a God that has neither honor nor common sense."

"What mean and cruel things men do for the love of God."

-- Somerset Maugham


William Somerset Maugham was an English playwright, novelist, and short story writer, reputedly the highest paid author of the 1930s.

Childhood and education
Maugham's father was an English lawyer handling the legal affairs of the British embassy in Paris. As under French law all children born on French soil could be conscripted for military service, Robert Ormond Maugham arranged for William to be born at the embassy, saving him from conscription into any future French wars and making it technically true that he was born in Britain.

His grandfather, another Robert, had also been a prominent lawyer and cofounder of the English Law Society, and it was taken for granted that William would follow in their footsteps. Events were to ensure this was not to be, but his older brother Frederic Herbert Maugham did go on to a distinguished legal career, becoming Lord Chancellor between 1938-1939.

Maugham's mother Edith Mary (nee Snell) was consumptive, a condition for which the doctors of the time prescribed childbirth. As a result Willie already had three older brothers, but these older siblings were already in boarding school by the time he was three and Maugham was effectively raised as an only child.

Unfortunately childbirth proved to be no cure for tuberculosis, and Edith Mary Maugham died at the age of forty-one, 6 days after the birth of her final son, an infant who himself died at birth. The loss of his mother left Maugham traumatised for the rest of his life, and he kept his mother's photograph by his bedside until his own death.

Two years afterwards Maugham's father died of cancer. Willie was sent back to England to be cared for by his uncle, Henry MacDonald Maugham, the Vicar of Whitstable, in Kent. The move was catastrophic. Henry Maugham proved cold and emotionally cruel. The King's School, Canterbury, where Willie was a boarder during school terms, proved merely another version of purgatory, where he was teased for his bad English (he had been raised with French as his first language) and his short stature, which he inherited from his father.

It is at this time that he developed the stammer that was to stay with him all his life, although it was somewhat sporadic and subject to mood and circumstance. The upshot was that Maugham was miserable, both at the vicarage and at school, where he was bullied because of his size and his stammer but this resulted in his developing the talent for applying a wounding remark to those that displeased him. This ability is sometimes reflected in the characters he portrayed in his writings.

At sixteen Maugham refused to continue at The King's School and his uncle allowed him to travel to Germany, where he studied literature, philosophy and German at Heidelberg University. It was during his year in Heidelberg that he met John Ellingham Brooks, an Englishman ten years his senior, and with whom he had his first sexual experience.

On his return to England his uncle found Willie a position in an accountant's office, but after a month he gave it up and returned to Whitstable. His uncle was not pleased, and the local doctor suggested the profession of medicine. Maugham had been writing steadily since the age of 15 and fervently intended to become an author, but he could not tell his guardian of his wish to become a writer as he was not of age, and so he spent the next five years as a medical student in London.

Career
Maugham continuing writing nightly whilst at the same time studying for his degree in medicine, and in 1897 he presented his second book for consideration. (The first had been a biography of Meyerbeer written by the 16 year old Maugham in Heidelberg). Liza of Lambeth, a tale of working-class adultery and its consequences, drew its details from Maugham's experiences as a medical student doing mid-wifery work in the slums of London, (Lambeth being then a slum district of London), and its over-all subject from the school of social-realist "slum-writers" such as George Gissing and Arthur Morrison. The book proved popular with both reviewers and the public, and the first print-run sold out in a matter of weeks. This was enough to convince Maugham to drop medicine (he qualified as a doctor but never practiced) and embark on his sixty-five year career as a writer.

The writer's life allowed Maugham to travel and 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 Lisa. This changed dramatically in 1907 with the phenomenal 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.

By 1914 Maugham was famous, with 10 plays produced and 10 published novels. Too old to enlist when World War I broke out, Maugham served in France as a member of the British Red Cross's so-called Literary Ambulance Drivers, a group of at some 23 well-known writers including Ernest Hemingway, 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. (Haxton appears as Tony Paxton in Maugham's 1917 play, Our Betters). Throughout this period Maugham continued to write; indeed, he proof-read Of Human Bondage at a location near Dunkirk during a lull in his ambulance duties.

Of Human Bondage (1915) was described at the time by critics as "one of the most important novels of the twentieth century." The book appeared to be closely autobiographical, (Maugham's stammer is transformed into Philip Carey's club foot, the vicar of Whitestable becomes the vicar of Blackstable, and Phillip Carey is a doctor) although Maugham himself insisted it was more invention than fact. Nevertheless, 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".

Maugham was clearly not exclusively homosexual: his affair with the then-married Gwendoline Maud Syrie Barnardo, a daughter of orphanage founder Thomas John Barnardo and wife of American-born English pharmaceutical magnate Henry Wellcome produced a daughter later officially named Elizabeth 'Liza' Mary Maugham (1915-1998); Syrie's husband Henry Wellcome then sued for divorce, naming Maugham as co-respondent. In May of 1916, following the decree nisi, Syrie and Maugham were married. Syrie became a noted interior decorator who popularized the all-white room in the 1920s. In 1922 he dedicated his short story collection On a Chinese Screen to her. They divorced in 1927/1928 after a tempestuous marriage complicated by Maugham's frequent travels abroad and his relationship with Haxton.

Maugham returned to England from his ambulance unit duties to promote Of Human Bondage but once that was finalised, he became eager to assist the war effort once more. Unable to return to his ambulance unit, Syrie arranged for him to be introduced to a high ranking intelligence officer known only as "R", and in September 1915 he began work in Switzerland, secretly gathering and passing on intelligence while posing as himself - that is, 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 those journeys through the late-Imperial world of the 1920s and 1930s which were to establish Maugham forever in the popular imagination as the chronicler of 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 himself was painfully shy, and Haxton's extroverted personality allowed him to gather the human material that Willie steadily turned into fiction.

In June, 1917 he was asked by Sir William Wiseman, chief of the British Secret Intelligence Service (later named MI6) to undertake a special mission in Russia to keep the Mensheviks in power and Russia in the war by countering German pacifist propoganda. Two and a half months later the Bolsheviks took control. The job was probably always impossible, but Willie subsequently claimed that if he had been able to arrive 6 months earlier, he might have succeeded. Never losing the opportunity to turn real life into a story, his spying experiences became a collection of short stories about a gentlemanly, sophisticated, aloof spy, Ashenden, (1928), a volume which Ian Fleming cited as an influence on his character of James Bond.

In 1928 he bought Villa Mauresque on twelve acres at Cap Ferrat on the French Riviera, which would be his home for most of the rest of his life, and one of the great literary and social salons of the 1920s and 30s. His output continued to be prodigious, producing plays, short stories, novels, essays and travel books. By 1940, when the collapse of France decreed that Maugham should leave the French Riviera and take up the life of a well-heeled refugee, he was already one of the most famous writers in the English-speaking world, and one of the wealthiest.

Maugham, by now in his sixties, spent most of World War II 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 encouraged by the British government to make patriotic speeches to impel the US to help Britain, if not get involved in the war effort. Gerald Haxton died in 1944, and Maugham moved back to England, and then in 1946 to his villa in France, where he lived, interrupted by frequent and long travels, until his death.

The gap left by Haxton's death in 1944 was filled by Alan Searle. Maugham had first met Searle in 1928. Searle was a young man from the London slum area of Bermondsey and he had already been kept by older homosexuals. He proved a devoted if not a stimulating companion. Indeed one of Maugham's friends, describing the difference between Searle and Haxton, said simply: "Gerald was champagne."

Maugham's last years were marred by several quasi-scandals which can probably be set down to a progressive loss of judgement as he grew older. The worst of these, and one which cost him many friends, was a bitter attack on the deceased Syrie in his 1962 volume of memoirs, Looking Back. In his last years Willie adopted Searle as his son in order to ensure that he would inherit his estate, a move hotly contested by his daughter Liza and her husband, Lord Glendevon, and which exposed Maugham to much public ridicule.

Achievements
Commercial success with high book sales, successful play productions and a string of film adaptations, backed by astute stock market investments, allowed Maugham to live a very comfortable life. Yet despite his triumphs, he never attracted the respect of the critics or of his peers, and his own opinion of his abilities remained low, to the extent of describing himself towards the end of his career as "in the very first row of the second-raters". He was made a Companion of Honour in 1954.

Maugham had begun collecting theatrical paintings before the First World War and continued to the point where it was second only to that of the Garrick Club. In 1948 he announced that he would bequeath this collection to the Trustees of the National Theatre and from 1951, some 14 years before his death they began their exhibition life and in 1994 they were placed on loan to the Theatre Museum in Convent Garden.

Significant works
Maugham's masterpiece is generally agreed to be Of Human Bondage, an autobiographical novel which deals with the life of the main character Philip Carey, who like Maugham, was orphaned and brought up by his pious uncle. Maugham's severe stutter has been replaced by Philip's clubfoot.

Among his short stories, some of the most memorable are those dealing with the lives of Western, mostly British, colonists in the Far East, and are typically concerned with the emotional toll exacted on the colonists by their isolation. Some of his more outstanding works in this genre include Rain, Footprints in the Jungle, and The Outstation. Rain, in particular, which charts the moral disintegration of a missionary attempting to convert the Pacific island prostitute Sadie Thompson, has kept its fame and been made into a movie several times.

Maugham said that many of his short stories presented themselves to him in the stories he heard during his travels in the outposts of the Empire. He left behind a long string of angry former hosts, and a contemporary anti-Maugham writer retraced his footsteps and wrote a record of his journeys called "Gin and Bitters". Maugham's restrained prose allows him to explore the resulting tensions and passions without descending into melodrama. 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 which might almost be notes for short stories that were never written.

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

His commercial success and his careful highly polished prose style virtually assured that he would be an object of scorn to many of his fellow authors. One of very few later writers to praise his influence was Anthony Burgess, who included a complex fictional portrait of Maugham in the novel Earthly Powers. George Orwell also stated that his writing style was influenced by Maugham. The American writer Paul Theroux, in his short story collection The Consul's File, updated Maugham's colonial world in an outstation of expatriates in modern Malaysia.

 
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