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