I’m inclined to agree with the SLI typing of him.
- from Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham; pp. xvii-xxiii [Introduction by
GORE VIDAL]: In 1915, while Maugham was spying for England, Of Human Bondage
was published. Maugham now was seen to be not only a serious but a solemn novelist—in the
ponderous American manner. The best that can be said of this masterpiece is that it made a
good movie and launched Bette Davis’s career. I remember that on all the pre-Second War
editions, there was a quotation from Theodore Dreiser to the effect that the book “has
rapture, it sings.” Mr. Calder does not mention Dreiser but Mr. Frederic Raphael does, in
his agreeable picture book with twee twinkly text, Somerset Maugham and His World
(Scribner’s, 1977). Mr. Raphael quotes from Dreiser, whom he characterizes as “an earnest
thunderer in the cause of naturalism and himself a Zolaesque writer of constipated
power.” Admittedly, Dreiser was not in a class with Margaret Drabble but—constipated?
The Maugham persona was now perfected in life and work. Maugham’s wit was taken for true
evil as he himself was well known, despite all subterfuge, to be non-MMM&G. Mr. Calder is
disturbed by Maugham’s attempts at epigrams in conversation. Sternly, Mr. Calder notes:
“Calculated flippancy was none the less a poor substitute for natural and easy insouciance.” But
despite a near-total absence of easy insouciance, Maugham fascinated everyone. By 1929 he had
settled into his villa at Cap Ferrat; he was much sought after socially even though the Windsors,
the Churchills, the Beaverbrooks all knew that Haxton was more than a secretary. But the very
rich and the very famous are indeed different from really real folks. For one thing, they often
find funny the MMM&Gs. For another, they can create their own world and never leave it if they
It is a sign of Maugham’s great curiosity and continuing sense of life (even maturity) that he
never stopped traveling, ostensibly to gather gossip and landscapes for stories, but actually to
come alive and indulge his twin passions, boys and bridge, two activities far less damaging to the
environment than marriages, children, and big-game hunting. Haxton was a splendid organizer
with similar tastes. Mr. Calder doesn’t quite get all this but then his informants, chiefly nephew
Robin Maugham and the last companion, Alan Searle, would have been discreet.
During the Second War, Maugham was obliged to flee France for America. In Hollywood he
distinguished himself on the set of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. George Cukor had explained to
Willie how, in this version of the Stevenson story, there would be no horrendous makeup change
for the star, Spencer Tracy, when he turned from good Dr. Jekyll into evil Mr. Hyde. Instead, a
great actor, Tracy, would bring forth both evil and good from within. Action! Tracy menaces the
heroine. Ingrid Bergman cowers on a bed. Tracy simpers, drools, leers. Then Maugham’s uneasy
souciant voice is heard, loud and clear and stammerless. “And which one is he supposed to be
During this time, the movie of The Moon and Sixpence was released—the twenty-third
Maugham story to be filmed. Maugham himself traveled restlessly about the East coast, playing
bridge. He also had a refuge in North Carolina where, while writing The Razor’s Edge, Haxton
died. For a time Maugham was inconsolable. Then he took on an amiable young Englishman,
Alan Searle, as secretary-companion, and together they returned to the Riviera where Maugham
restored the war-wrecked villa and resumed his life.
One reason, prurience aside, why Mr. Calder tells us so much about Maugham’s private life
(many kindnesses and charities are duly noted) is that Maugham has no reputation at all in North
American academe where Mr. Calder is a spear-carrier. The result is a lot of less than half-praise:
His career had been largely a triumph of determination and will, the success in three genres
of a man not naturally gifted as a writer.
Only a schoolteacher innocent of how literature is made could have written such a line.
Demonstrably, Maugham was very talented at doing what he did. Now, this is for your final
grade, what did he do? Describe, please. Unfortunately, there aren’t many good describers
(critics) in any generation. But I shall give it a try, presently.
At seventy-two, Maugham went to Vevey, Switzerland, where a Dr. Niehans injected aging
human organisms with the cells of unborn sheep, and restored youth. All the great and not-so-
good came to Niehans, including Pius XII—in a business suit and dark glasses, it was said—an
old man in no hurry to meet his Jewish employer. Thanks perhaps to Niehans, Maugham
survived for nearly fifteen years in rude bodily health. But body outlived mind and so it was that
the senile Maugham proceeded to destroy his own great invention, W. Somerset Maugham, the
teller of tales, the man inclined to the good and to right action, and above all, to common sense.
By the time that old Maugham had finished with himself, absolutely nothing was what it seemed
and the double self-portrait that he had given the world in The Summing Up and A
Writer’s Notebook was totally undone by this raging Lear upon the Riviera, who tried to
disinherit daughter while adopting Searle as well as producing Looking Back, a final set of
memoirs not quite as mad as Hemingway’s but every bit as malicious. With astonishing
ingenuity, the ancient Maugham mined his own monument; and blew it up.
For seven decades Maugham had rigorously controlled his personal and his artistic life. He
would write so many plays, and stop; and did. So many novels, and stop; and did. So many short
stories . . . He rounded off everything neatly, and lay back to die, with a quiet world-weary smile
on those ancient lizard lips. But then, to his horror, he kept on living, and having sex, and
lunching with Churchill and Beaverbrook. Friends thought that Beaverbrook put him up to the
final memoir, but I suspect that Maugham had grown very bored with a lifetime of playing it so
It is very difficult for a writer of my generation, if he is honest, to pretend indifference to the
work of Somerset Maugham. He was always so entirely there. By seventeen I had
read all of Shakespeare; all of Maugham. Perhaps more to the point, he dominated the
movies at a time when movies were the lingua franca of the world. Although the French
have told us that the movie is the creation of the director, no one in the twenties, thirties,
forties paid the slightest attention to who had directed Of Human Bondage,
Rain, The Moon and Sixpence, The Razor’s Edge, The Painted
Veil, The Letter. Their true creator was W. Somerset Maugham, and a
generation was in thrall to his sensuous, exotic imaginings of a duplicitous world.
Although Maugham received a good deal of dutiful praise in his lifetime, he was never to be
taken very seriously in his own country or the United States, as opposed to Japan where he has
been for two thirds of a century the most read and admired Western writer. Christopher
Isherwood tells us that he met Maugham at a Bloomsbury party where Maugham looked most ill
at ease with the likes of Virginia Woolf. Later Isherwood learned from a friend of Maugham’s
that before the party, in an agony of indecision, as the old cliché master might have put it, he had
paced his hotel sitting room, saying, “I’m just as good as they are.”
I suspect that he thought he was probably rather better for what he was, which was not at all what
they were. Bloomsbury disdained action and commitment other than to Art and to Friendship
(which meant going to bed with one another’s husbands and wives). Maugham liked action. He
risked his life in floods, monsoons, the collapse of holy Russia. He was worldly like
Hemingway, who also stalked the big game of wild places, looking for stories, self. As for what
he thought of himself, Mr. Calder quotes Maugham to the headmaster of his old school: “I think
I ought to have the O.M. [Order of Merit]. . . . They gave Hardy the O.M. and I think I am the
greatest living writer of English, and they ought to give it to me.” When he did get a lesser order,
Companion of Honour, he was sardonic: “It means very well done . . . but.”
But. There is a definite but. I have just reread for the first time in forty years The Narrow Corner,
a book I much admired; The Razor’s Edge, the novel on which the film that I found the ultimate
in worldly glamour was based; A Writer’s Notebook, which I recalled as being very wise;
and, yet again, Cakes and Ale. Edmund Wilson’s famous explosion at the success of
Maugham in general and The Razor’s Edge in particular is not so far off the mark:
The language is 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
Maugham’s reliance on the banal, particularly in dialogue, derived from his long experience in
the theater, a popular art form in those days. One could no more represent the people on stage
without clichés than one could an episode of Dynasty: Maugham’s dialogue is a slightly
sharpened version of that of his audience.
Both Wilde and Shaw dealt in this same sort of realistic speech but Shaw was a master of the
higher polemic (as well as of the baleful clichés of the quaint workingman, rendered phonetically
to no one’s great delight) while Wilde made high verbal art of clichés so slyly crossed as to yield
incongruent wit. But for any playwright of that era (now, too), the mot juste was apt to be
the well-deployed mot banal. Maugham’s plays worked very well. But when Maugham
transferred the tricks of the theater to novel writing, he was inclined to write not only the same
sort of dialogue that the stage required but in his dramatic effects he often set his scene with
stage directions, ignoring the possibilities that prose with dialogue can yield. This economy won
him many readers, but there is no rapture, song. Wilson, finally, puts him in the relation of
Bulwer-Lytton to Dickens: “a half-trashy novelist who writes badly, but is patronized by half-
serious readers who do not care much about writing.” What ever happened to those readers?
How can we get them back?
Wilson took the proud modernist view that, with sufficient education, everyone would want to
move into Axel’s Castle. Alas, the half-serious readers stopped reading novels long ago while the
“serious” read literary theory, and the castle’s ruins are the domain of literary archaeologists. But
Wilson makes a point, inadvertently: If Maugham is half-trashy (and at times his most devoted
admirers would probably grant that) what, then, is the other half, that is not trash? Also, why is it
that just as one places, with the right hand, the laurel wreath upon his brow, one’s left hand starts
to defoliate the victor’s crown?
A Writer’s Notebook (kept over fifty years) is filled with descriptions of sunsets and people
glimpsed on the run. These descriptions are every bit as bad as Wilson’s (in The Twenties)
and I don’t see why either thought that writing down a fancy description of a landscape could or
should—be later glued to the page of a novel in progress. Maugham’s descriptions, like
Wilson’s, are disagreeably purple while the physical descriptions of people are more elaborate
than what we now put up with. But Maugham was simply following the custom of nineteenth-
century novelists in telling us whether or not eyebrows grow together while noting the exact
placement of a wen. Also, Dr. Maugham’s checklist is necessary for diagnosis. Yet he does
brood on style; attempts to make epigrams. “Anyone can tell the truth, but only very few of us
can make epigrams.” Thus, young Maugham, to which the old Maugham retorts, “In the nineties,
however, we all tried to.”
In the preface, Maugham expatiates on Jules Renard’s notebooks, one of the great delights of
world literature and, as far as I can tell, unknown to Anglo-Americans, like so much else. Renard
wrote one small masterpiece, Poil de Carotte, about his unhappy childhood—inhuman bondage
to an evil mother rather than waitress.
Renard appeals to Maugham, though “I am always suspicious of a novelist’s theories, I have
never known them to be anything other than a justification of his own shortcomings.” Well, that
is commonsensical. In any case, Maugham, heartened by Renard’s marvelous notebook, decided
to publish his own. The tone is world-weary, modest. “I have retired from the hurly-burly and
ensconced myself not uncomfortably on the shelf.” Thus, he will share his final musings.
There is a good deal about writing. High praise for Jeremy Taylor:
He seems to use the words that come most naturally to the mouth, and his phrases, however
nicely turned, have a colloquial air. . . . The long clauses, tacked on to one another in a string
that appears interminable, make you feel that the thing has been written without effort.
Here, at twenty-eight, he is making the case for the plain and the flat and the natural sounding:
There are a thousand epithets with which you may describe the sea. The only one which, if
you fancy yourself a stylist, you will scrupulously avoid is blue; yet it is that which most
satisfied Jeremy Taylor. . . . He never surprises. His imagination is without violence or
Of Matthew Arnold’s style, “so well suited to irony and wit, to exposition. . . . It is a method
rather than an art, no one more than I can realize what enormous labour it must have needed to
acquire that mellifluous cold brilliance. It is a platitude that simplicity is the latest acquired of all
qualities. . . .” The interesting giveaway here is Maugham’s assumption that Arnold’s style must
have been the work of great labor. But suppose, like most good writers, the style was absolutely
natural to Arnold and without strain? Here one sees the hard worker sternly shaping himself
rather than the natural writer easily expressing himself as temperament requires:
My native gifts are not remarkable, but I have a certain force of character which has enabled
me in a measure to supplement my deficiencies. I have common sense. . . . For many years I have
been described as a cynic; I told the truth. I wish no one to take me for other than I am, and on
the other hand I see no need to accept others’ pretenses.
One often encounters the ultimate accolade “common sense” in these musings. Also, the conceit
that he is what you see, when, in fact, he is not. For instance, his native gifts for narrative were of
a very high order. While, up to a point, he could tell the truth and so be thought cynical, it was
always “common sense,” a.k.a. careerism, that kept him from ever saying all that he knew. Like
most people, he wanted to be taken for what he was not; hence, the great invention W. Somerset
- from W. Somerset Maugham’s Collected Stories; pp. ix-xi [Introduction (by
When you come down to brass tacks the value of a work of art depends on the
W. Somerset Maugham
Towards the end of his life, the most widely read English writer since Dickens, and the
highest paid in history, was observed by an old woman on Vevey railway station trying to
play hide-and-seek with his male secretary. ‘Yoo-hoo,’ he called from behind a pillar.
When the secretary began to reprimand him, the woman moved to intercede: ‘You should be
gentle with that nice old man. He thinks he’s Somerset Maugham.’
Hide-and-seek was a game that Maugham had made his profession, a game of concealment and
catching other people out. At the height of his powers he would have savoured the excruciating
irony: the writer in decline accused of impersonating himself. This was the type of story
closest to his heart. Perhaps like the old lady, and perhaps because he was so adept at
constructing a monolithic persona, we all feel we know who Somerset Maugham is. But
his large audience, swollen by screen and television adaptations, has tended to undermine
his critical reputation. There hangs over his name a suspicion of something middle-brow that
his personality has failed to dispel. Among the words he attracted were: misogynist, cynic,
mysterious, sensitive, malicious, vulnerable, racist, suspicious, sophisticated, inscrutable. His
authorial gaze has the expression of a tribal mask nailed to the wall, surmising you. A friend
commented: ‘Not once in all the years that I’ve known him have I seen the mask drop. He’s on
guard all the time, alert as a hawk, watching everything he does and says.’ Only at one
remove, in remarks he made about others – El Greco, Arnold Bennett, Maupassant – does there
appear the occasional suggestive crack. Otherwise he maintains the pose in Graham Sutherland’s
portrait of him. The defiant, unblinking, arms-crossed pose of a mandarin in a smoking-jacket.
Maugham was more than happy to probe into the lives of other writers, especially those he
admired, but he was a litigious curmudgeon when it came to anyone investigating his
biography. He behaved as if he could control its shape and content like one of his stories, but
life has a tremendous resistance to being twisted and squeezed. It is not—as Maugham knew to
his cost—a mask. In his essay The Art of Fiction, he observed with habitual common
sense: ‘Sometimes people carry to such perfection the mask they have assumed that in due
course they actually become the person they seem. But in his book or picture the real man
delivers himself defenceless.’ Maugham proved no exception to his own rule. He understood
that what a writer writes is ‘the expression of his personality and the manifestation of his
instincts, his emotions, his intuitions and his experience’. In a body of seventy-three works
nowhere does Maugham’s truest self call out louder to be recognized than in two or three of his
novels and in his twelve volumes of short stories.
Interviewed in 1933, Maugham remarked: ‘It has always seemed to me that literature can only
find its fullest and freest expression in the essay or short story.’ He wrote more than one hundred
stories, at least fourteen of which he burned on one of his ‘bonfire nights’, after Winston
Churchill warned that they contravened the Official Secrets Act. Of the stories that do
survive, he estimated that maybe a dozen would find their way into anthologies, ‘if only
because some of them deal with circumstances and places to which the passage of time and the
growth of civilization will give a romantic glamour’. When assessing his worth, Maugham had
not too many illusions.
In a writing career spanning sixty-five years, he produced much that is well forgotten. At his
worst, as David Garnett said of him, he reads like ‘a choppy sea’. He has a fatal fondness for the
surprise twist which can, on occasions, rip the head right off a story. There are moments when he
stirs in the reader the uneasy sense that he shares the prejudices of those he dissects with such
pitilessness. (‘I think of those thin black arms of hers around you and it fills me with a physical
nausea.’) As for his women! When a woman in Maugham says: ‘One must behave like a
gentleman’, you suspect that that is what originally she was. It comes hardly as a surprise, for
instance, to learn that the model for the parlourmaid in ‘The Treasure’ was a valet. Then
there is the accusation that for all his genius at narrative, he has no depth. You wait for him to go
to another level, but something always pulls him back, as in his own description of the fever
bird. ‘It has three notes and it just misses the fourth which would make the chord and the ear
waits for it maddeningly.’ He lacks, in other words, that extra note which might rank him with
Maugham demanded, quite rightly, that a writer should be judged by his best work. He
believed that this, rather like his talent at the bridge table, placed him ‘in the very first row of the
second-raters’ – a judgement with which the intelligentsia whom he loathed concurred.
‘Division II, Class I,’ reckoned Lytton Strachey, after reading one of Maugham’s books
during a bout of flu. His harshest critics, such as Edmund Wilson, positioned him still
further back, on the level of ‘one of the less brilliant contributions to a prep-school
magazine’. Perhaps his talent was, in the final analysis, a Gentleman’s Relish that he
spread too thin, but his finest stories leave a taste that is not in doubt. At his best, his clear,
painterly prose seems written by the light of the Mediterranean sun that fell across his
page at the Villa Mauresque, streaming into his study through the Gauguin glass
window of a Tahitian woman and a rabbit. To Desmond MacCarthy, he was ‘the English
Maupassant’; to Cyril Connolly, who rated him the best short-story writer of the
twentieth century, ‘the Kipling of the Pacific’. His admirers number Evelyn Waugh (‘the
only living studio-master under whom one can study with profit’), Gabriel Garcia Marquez
(‘one of my favourite writers’) and George Orwell (‘I believe the modern writer who has
influenced me most is Somerset Maugham, whom I admire immensely for his power of
telling a story straightforwardly and without frills.’).
- Of Human Bondage; p. xii [Introduction by Gore Vidal (from The New York Review of
Books, 1990)]: On balance, the tragic wound to which he was to advert throughout a long
life strikes me as no more than a scratch or two. Yes, he wanted to be taller than five foot
seven; yes, he had an underslung jaw that might have been corrected; yes, he stammered.
But . . . tant pis, as he might have observed coldly of another (used in a novel, the
phrase would be helpfully translated).
Yet something was gnawing at him. As he once observed, sardonically, to his nephew Robin
Maugham, “Jesus Christ could cope with all the miseries I have had to contend with in life. But
then, Jesus Christ had advantages I don’t possess.” Presumably, Jesus was a six-foot-tall blond
blue-eyed body-builder whereas Maugham was slight and dark with eyes like “brown velvet”;
and, of course, Jesus’ father owned the shop. On the other hand, Maugham was not obliged to
contend with the sadomasochistic excitement of the Crucifixion, much less the head-turning
rapture of the Resurrection. It is the common view of Maugham biographers that the true tragic
flaw was homosexuality, disguised as a club foot in Of Human Bondage—or was that the
stammer? Whatever it was, Maugham was very sorry for himself. Admittedly, a liking for boys
at the time of Oscar Wilde’s misadventures was dangerous but Maugham was adept at passing
for MMM&G—Married, Mature, Monogamous, and Good: he appeared to have affairs with
women, not men, and he married and fathered a daughter. There need not have been an either/or
Maugham’s career as a writer was singularly long and singularly successful. The cover of each
book was adorned with a Moorish device to ward off the evil eye: the author knew that too much
success overexcites one’s contemporaries, not to mention the gods. Also, much of his
complaining may have been prophylactic: to avert the furies if not the book-chatterers, and so he
was able to live just as he wanted for two thirds of his life, something not many writers—or
indeed anyone else—ever manage to do.
- pp. xiii-xiv: “Few authors,” Mr. Calder tells us, “read as widely as Maugham and his works are
peppered with references to other literature.” So they are—peppered indeed—but not always
seasoned. The bilingual Maugham knew best the French writers of the day. He tells us that he
modelled his short stories on Maupassant. He also tells us that he was much influenced by Ibsen,
but there is no sign of that master in his own school of Wilde comedies. Later, he was awed by
Chekhov’s stories but, again, he could never “use” that master because something gelled very
early in Maugham the writer, and once his own famous tone was set it would remain perfectly
pitched to the end.
In his first published novel, Liza of Lambeth (1897), Maugham raised the banner of Maupassant
and the French realists but the true influence on the book and its method was one Arthur
Morrison, who had made a success three years earlier with Tales of Mean Streets. Robert Calder
[Maugham’s biographer] notes that Morrison,
writing with austerity and frankness, . . . refused to express sympathy on behalf of his readers
so that they could then avoid coming to terms with the implications of social and economic
inequality. Maugham adopted this point of view in his first novel, and was therefore, like
Morrison, accused of a lack of conviction.
In general realists have always been open to the charge of coldness, particularly by romantics
who believe that a novel is essentially a sermon, emotional and compassionate and so inspiring
that after the peroration, the reader, wiser, kinder, bushier indeed, will dry his eyes and go forth
to right wrong. This critical mindset has encouraged a great deal of bad writing. The unemotional
telling of a terrible story is usually more effective than the oh, by the wind-grieved school of
romantic (that is, self-loving) prose. On the other hand, the plain style can help the dishonest,
pusillanimous writer get himself off every kind of ideological or ethical hook. Just the facts,
ma’am. In this regard, Hemingway, a literary shadow self to Maugham, was our time’s most
artful dodger, all busy advancing verbs and stony nouns. Surfaces coldly rendered. Interiors
unexplored. Manner all.
For someone of Maugham’s shy, highly self-conscious nature (with a secret, too) the adoption of
classic realism, Flaubert with bitters, was inevitable. Certainly, he was lucky to have got the tone
absolutely right in his first book, and he was never to stray far from the appearance of plain
storytelling. Although he was not much of one for making up things, he could always worry an
anecdote or bit of gossip into an agreeable narrative. Later, as the years passed, he put more and
more effort—even genius—into his one triumphant creation, W. Somerset Maugham, world
weary world-traveler, whose narrative first person became the best-known and least wearisome
in the world. At first he called the narrator “Ashenden” (a name carefully chosen so that the
writer would not stammer when saying it, unlike that obstacle course for stammerers,
“Maugham”); then he dropped Ashenden for Mr. Maugham himself in The Razor’s Edge
(1944). Then he began to appear, as narrator, in film and television dramatizations of his work.
Thus, one of the most-read novelists of our time became widely known to those who do not read.
Shaw and Wells invented public selves for polemical reasons, while Mark Twain and
Dickens did so to satisfy a theatrical need, but Maugham contrived a voice and a manner that not
only charm and surprise in a way that the others did not, but where they were menacingly larger
than life, he is just a bit smaller (5’ 7”), for which he compensates by sharing with us something
that the four histrionic masters would not have dreamed of doing: inside gossip. It is these
confidences that made Maugham so agreeable to read: nothing, he tells us with a smile, is
what it seems.[/I] That was his one trick, and it seldom failed. Also, before D. H. Lawrence, Dr.
Maugham (obstetrician) knew that women, given a fraction of a chance, liked sex as much as
men did. When he said so, he was called a misogynist.
- pp. xv-xvii: Maugham enjoyed his celebrity; he was a popular diner-out; he was, when he could
get the words out, something of a wit. He was eminently marriageable in Edwardian eyes. So
which will it be—the lady or the tiger/man? Mr. Calder cannot get enough of Maugham the
f****t in conflict with Maugham the potential MMM&G. Will the good drive out evil? Maturity
Unhappily, the witch-doctor approach to human behavior still enjoys a vogue in academe and
Mr. Calder likes to put his subject on the couch, while murmuring such Freudian incantations as
“loss of a beloved mother, the lack of a father with whom to identify . . . follow a common
pattern in the development of homosexuality.” That none of this makes any sense does not alter
belief: in matters of faith inconvenient evidence is always suppressed while contradictions go
unnoticed. Nevertheless, witch doctors to one side, witches did—and do—get burned, as Oscar
Wilde discovered in 1895, and an entire generation of same-sexers was obliged to go
underground or marry or settle in the south of France. I suspect that Maugham’s experiences
with women were not only few but essentially hydraulic. Writers, whether same-sexers or other-
sexers, tend to have obsessive natures; in consequence they cross the sexual borders rather less
often than the less imaginative who want, simply, to get laid or even loved. But whereas a same-
sexer like Noel Coward never in his life committed an other-sexual act (“Not even with Gertrude
Lawrence?” I asked. “Particularly not with Miss Lawrence” was the staccato response), Dr.
Maugham had no fear of vaginal teeth—he simply shut his eyes and thought of Capri.
At twenty-one Maugham was well and truly launched by one John Ellingham Brooks, a
litterateur who lived on Capri, then known for the easy charm of its boys. “The nasty procuring
side” of Maugham started in Capri and he kept coming back year after year. At ninety, he told a
reporter, “I want to go to Capri because I started life there.” In old age, he told Glenway
Westcott that Brooks was his first lover. This is doubtful. Maugham told different people
different things about his private life, wanting always to confuse. Certainly, for sheer energetic
promiscuity he was as athletic as Byron; with a club foot, what might he not have done! Even so,
“He was the most sexually voracious man I’ve ever known,” said Beverly Nichols, the journalist
and one-time Maugham secretary, who knew at first hand. Robin Maugham and the last
companion, Alan Searle, agreed.
Ironically, within a dozen years of Wilde’s imprisonment, Maugham was the most popular
English playwright. Unlike the reckless Oscar, Maugham showed no sign of ever wanting to
book so much as a room at the Cadogan Hotel. Marriage it would be. With Syrie Barnardo
Wellcome, an interior decorator much liked in London’s high bohemia. Fashionable wife for
fashionable playwright. A daring woman of the world—an Iris March with a green hat pour le
sport, Syrie wanted a child by Maugham without wedlock. Got it. As luck—hers and his
would have it, Maugham then went to war and promptly met the great love of his life, Gerald
For a time Maugham was a wound dresser. Gerald was in the Ambulance Corps. They were to be
together until Gerald’s death twenty-nine years later, “longer than many marriages,” observes the
awed Mr. Calder. But there was a good deal of mess to be cleaned up along the way. Haxton
could not to go to England: he had been caught by the police in bed with another man. Maugham
himself did not want, finally, to be even remotely MMM&G. Syrie suffered. They separated.
Toward the end of his life, Maugham tried to disinherit his daughter on the ground that she was
not his but, ironically, he had got a door prize for at least one dutiful attendance and she was very
much his as anyone who has ever seen her or her descendants can attest: the saturnine Maugham
face still gazes by proxy upon a world where nothing is ever what it seems.
During the war, Maugham was hired by the British secret service to go to Moscow and shore up
the Kerensky government. He has written of all this in both fiction (Ashenden—literary
ancestor to Eric Ambler, Ian Fleming, John Le Carre) and two books of memoirs. Unfortunately,
the mission to Moscow was aborted by the overthrow of Kerensky.
Maugham developed tuberculosis. During twenty months in a Scottish sanitarium he wrote four
of his most popular plays, including The Circle and the highly successful novel The Moon
and Sixpence, where a Gauguin-like English painter is observed by the world-weary Ashenden
amongst Pacific palms. Maugham wrote his plays rather the way television writers (or
Shakespeare) write their serials—at great speed. One week for each act and a final week to pull it
all together. Since Mr. Calder is overexcited by poor Willie’s rather unremarkable (stamina to
one side) sex life, we get far too little analysis of Maugham’s writing and of the way that he
worked, particularly in the theater. From what little Mr. Calder tells us, Maugham stayed away
from rehearsals but, when needed, would cut almost anything an actor wanted. This doesn’t
sound right to me but then when one has had twenty play productions in England alone, there is
probably not that much time or inclination to perfect the product. In any case, Mr. Calder is, as
he would put it, “disinterested” in the subject.
- Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham; pp. 67-68 (XVIII): But Philip could
not live long in the rarefied air of the hilltops. What had happened to him when first he was
seized by the religious emotion happened to him now. Because he felt so keenly the beauty of
faith, because the desire for self-sacrifice burned in his heart with such a gem-like glow, his
strength seemed inadequate to his ambition. He was tired out by the violence of passion.
His soul was filled on a sudden with a singular aridity. He began to forget the presence
of God which had seemed so surrounding; and his religious exercises, still very
punctually performed, grew merely formal. At first he blamed himself for this
falling away, and the fear of hell-fire urged him to renewed vehemence; but the
passion was dead, and gradually other interests distracted his thoughts.
Philip had few friends. His habit of reading isolated him: it became such a need that after being
in company for some time he grew tired and restless; he was vain of the wider knowledge he
had acquired from the perusal of so many books, his mind was alert, and he had not the skill to
hide his contempt for his companions’ stupidity. They complained that he was conceited; and,
since he excelled only in matters which to them were unimportant, they asked satirically
what he had to be conceited about. He was developing a sense of humour, and found that he
had a knack of saying bitter things, which caught people on the raw; he said them because they
amused him, hardly realizing how much they hurt, and was much offended when he found
that his victims regarded him with active dislike. The humiliations he suffered when first he
went to school had caused in him a shrinking from his fellows which he could never
entirely overcome; he remained shy and silent. But though he did everything to alienate the
sympathy of other boys he longed with all his heart for the popularity which to some was so
easily accorded. These from his distance he admired extravagantly; and though he was
inclined to be more sarcastic with them than with others, though he made little jokes at
their expense, he would have given anything to change places with them . . . . He would
imagine that he was some boy whom he had a particular fancy for; he would throw his soul, as it
were, into the other’s body, talk with his voice and laugh with his laugh; he would imagine
himself doing all the things the other did. It was so vivid that he seemed for a moment really to
be no longer himself. In this way he enjoyed many intervals of fantastic happiness.
- pp. 175-176: He began on the head, thinking that he would work slowly downwards,
but, he could not understand why, he found it infinitely more difficult to draw a head
from the model than to draw one from his imagination. He got into difficulties. He
glanced at Miss Price. She was working with vehement gravity. Her brow was wrinkled
with eagerness, and there was an anxious look in her eyes. It was hot in the studio, and
drops of sweat stood on her forehead. She was a girl of twenty-six, with a great deal of dull
gold hair; it was handsome hair, but it was carelessly done, dragged back from her
forehead and tied in a hurried knot. She had a large face, with broad, flat features and
small eyes; her skin was pasty, with a singular unhealthiness of tone, and there was no
colour in the cheeks. She had an unwashed tone, and you could not help wondering if she
slept in her clothes. She was serious and silent. When the next pause came, she stepped
back to look at her work.
‘I don’t know why I’m having so much bother,’ she said. ‘But I mean to get it right.’
She turned to Philip. ‘How are you getting on?’
‘Not at all,’ he answered, with a rueful smile.
She looked at what he had done.
‘You can’t expect to do anything that way. You must take measurements. And you
must square out your paper.’
She showed him rapidly how to set about the business. Philip was impressed by her
earnestness, but repelled by her want of charm. He was grateful for the hints she gave him
and set to work again. Meanwhile other people had come in, mostly men, for the women
always arrived first, and the studio for the time of year (it was early yet) was fairly full.
Presently there came in a young man with thin, black hair, an enormous nose, and a face so
long that it reminded you of a horse. He sat down next to Philip and nodded across him to
‘You’re very late,’ she said. ‘Are you only just up?’
- pp. 179-181: Philip walked down the Boulevard du Montparnasse. It was not at all
like the Paris he had seen in the spring during his visit to do the accounts of the Hotel St
Georges—he thought already of that part of his life with a shudder—but reminded him of
what he thought a provincial town must be. There was an easy-going air about it, and a
sunny spaciousness which invited the mind to day-dreaming. The trimness of the trees,
the vivid whiteness of the houses, the breadth, were very agreeable; and he felt himself
already thoroughly at home. He sauntered along, staring at the people; there seemed an
elegance about the most ordinary, workmen with their broad red sashes and their wide
trousers, like soldiers in dingy, charming uniforms. He came presently to the Avenue de
l’Observatoire, and he gave a sigh of pleasure at the magnificent, yet so graceful, vista. He
came to the gardens of the Luxembourg: children were playing, nurses with long
ribbons walked slowly two by two, busy men passed through with satchels under their
arms, youths strangely dressed. The scene was formal and dainty; nature was
arranged and ordered, but so exquisitely, that nature unordered and unarranged seemed
barbaric. Philip was enchanted. It excited him to stand on that spot of which he had
read so much; it was classic ground to him; and he felt the awe and the delight which
some old don might feel when for the first time he looked on the smiling plain of
As he wandered he chanced to see Miss Price sitting by herself on a bench. He
hesitated, for he did not at that moment want to see anyone, and her uncouth way
seemed out of place amid the happiness he felt around him; but he had divined her
sensitiveness to affront, and since she had seen him thought it would be polite to
speak to her.
‘What are you doing here?’ she said, as he came up.
‘Enjoying myself. Aren’t you?’
‘Oh, I come here every day from four to five. I don’t think one does any good if one
works straight through.’
‘May I sit down for a minute?’ he said.
‘If you want to.’
‘That doesn’t sound very cordial,’ he laughed.
‘I’m not much of a one for saying pretty things.’
Philip, a little disconcerted, was silent as he lit a cigarette.
‘Did Clutton say anything about my work?’ she asked suddenly.
‘No, I don’t think he did,’ said Phillip.
‘He’s no good, you know. He thinks he’s a genius, but he isn’t. He’s too lazy, for one
thing. Genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains. The only thing is to peg away. If one
only makes up one’s mind badly enough to do a thing one can’t help doing it.’
She spoke with a passionate strenuousness which was rather striking. She wore a sailor
hat of black straw, a white blouse which was not quite clean, and a brown skirt. She had no
gloves on, and her hands wanted washing. She was so unattractive that Philip wished he
had not begun to talk to her. He could not make out whether she wanted him to stay or go.
“I’ll do anything I can for you,’ she said all at once, without reference to anything
that had gone before. ‘I know how hard it is.’
‘Thank you very much,’ said Philip, then in a moment: ‘Won’t you come and have tea
with me somewhere?’
She looked at him quickly and flushed. When she reddened her pasty skin acquired a
curiously mottled look, like strawberries and cream that had gone bad.
‘No, thanks. What do you think I want tea for? I’ve only just had lunch.’
‘I thought it would pass the time,’ said Philip.
‘If you find it long you needn’t bother about me, you know. I don’t mind being left
At that moment two men passed, in brown velveteens, enormous trousers, and basque
caps. They were young, but both wore beards.
‘I say, are those art-students?’ said Philip. ‘They might have stepped out of the Vie de
‘They’re Americans,’ said Miss Price scornfully. ‘Frenchmen haven’t worn things like that for
thirty years, but the Americans from the Far West buy those clothes and have themselves
photographed the day after they arrive in Paris. That’s about as near to art as they ever get.
But it doesn’t matter to them, they’ve all got money.’
Philip liked the daring picturesqueness of the Americans’ costume; he thought it
showed the romantic spirit.
- p. xxvii [COMMENTARY (AS A REALIST SEES IT by Theodore Dreiser, from The New
Republic, 1915)]: Sometimes in retrospect of a great book the mind falters, confused by the
multitude and yet the harmony of the detail, the strangeness of the frettings, the brooding,
musing intelligence that has foreseen, loved, created, elaborated, perfected, until, in this middle
ground which we call life, somewhere between nothing and nothing, hangs the perfect thing
which we love and cannot understand, but which we are compelled to confess a work of art. It is
at once something and nothing, a dream, a happy memory, a song, a benediction. In viewing it
one finds nothing to criticise or to regret. The thing sings, it has color. It has rapture. You wonder
at the loving, patient care which has evolved it.
Only recently I finished reading Mr. W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. It was with
some such feeling as this that I laid it down.
Here is a novel or biography or autobiography or social transcript of the utmost importance. To
begin with it is unmoral, as a novel of this kind must necessarily be. The hero is born with a club
foot, and in consequence, and because of a temperament delicately attuned to the miseries of life,
suffers all the pains, recessions, and involute self tortures which only those who have striven
handicapped by what they have considered a blighting defect can understand. He is a youth,
therefore, with an intense craving for sympathy and understanding. He must have it. The thought
of his lack and the part which his disability plays in it soon becomes an obsession. He is tortured,
In pursuit of his ideal from his earliest youth he clings to both men and women in a pathetic way,
a truly moving spectacle.
- pp. xxix-xxx: Compact of the experiences, the dreams, the hopes, the fears, the
disillusionments, the ruptures, and the philosophisings of a strangely starved soul, it is a beacon
light by which the wanderer may be guided. Nothing is left out; the author writes as though it
were a labor of love. It bears the imprint of an eager, almost consuming desire to say truly what
is in his heart.
Personally I found myself aching with pain when, yearning for sympathy, Philip begs the
wretched Mildred, never his mistress but on his level, to no more than tolerate him. He finally
humiliates himself to the extent of exclaiming, “You don’t know what it means to be a cripple!”
The pathos of it plumbs the depths. The death of Fannie Price, of the sixteen-year-old mother in
the slum, of Cronshaw, and the rambling agonies of old Ducroz and of Philip himself, are perfect
in their appeal.
There are many other and all equally brilliant pictures. No one short of a genius could rout the
philosophers from their lairs and label them as individuals “tempering life with rules agreeable to
themselves,” or could follow Mildred Rogers, waitress of the London A B C restaurant, through
all the shabby windings of her tawdry soul. No other than a genius endowed with an immense
capacity for understanding and pity could have sympathized with Fannie Price, with her futile
and self-destructive art dreams; or old Cronshaw, the wastrel of poetry and philosophy; or M.
Ducroz, the worn-out revolutionary; or Thorne Athelny, the caged grandee of Spain; or Leonard
Upjohn, airy master of the art of self advancement; or Dr. South, the vicar of Blackstable, and his
wife—these are masterpieces. They are marvelous portraits; they are as smooth as a Vermeer, as
definite as a Hals, as brooding and moving as a Rembrandt.
- pp. xxxi-xxxii [NOTES ON SOMERSET MAUGHAM by Graham Greene]: Kinglake once
referred to ‘that nearly immutable law which compels a man with a pen in his hand to be
uttering every now and then some sentiment not his own,’ and compared an author with a
French peasant under the old regime, bound to perform a certain amount of work upon the
public highways. I doubt if any author has done—of recent years—less highway labour than
Maugham. I say ‘of recent years’ because, as he himself admits in this summing-up of his life
and work,* he passed like other writers through the stage of tutelage—and to the most unlikely
people, the translators of the Bible and Jeremy Taylor. That stage lasted longer with Maugham
than with most men of equal talent—there is at the heart of his work a humility and a
self-distrust rather deadening in their effects, and his stories as late as The Painted Veil
were a curious mixture of independent judgement, when he was dealing with action, and of
clichés, when he was expressing emotion.
An author of talent is his own best critic—the ability to criticize his own work is inseparably
bound up with his talent: it is his talent, and Maugham defines his limitations perfectly: ‘I
knew that I had no lyrical quality. I had a small vocabulary and no efforts that I could make to
enlarge it much availed me. I had little gift of metaphor; the original and striking simile seldom
occurred to me,’ and in a passage—which is an excellent example of his hard-won style at its
best, clear, colloquial, honest—he relates his limitations to his character:
It did not seem enough merely to write. I wanted to make a pattern of my life, in which writing
would be an essential element, but which would include all the other activities proper to man.... I
had many disabilities. I was small; I had endurance but little physical strength; I stammered; I
was shy; I had poor health. I had no facility for games, which play so great a part in the normal
life of Englishmen; and I had, whether for any of these reasons or from nature I do not know, an
instinctive shrinking from my fellow-men that has made it difficult for me to enter into any
familiarity with them. . . . Though in the course of years I have learned to assume an air of
heartiness when forced into contact with a stranger, I have never liked anyone at first sight. I do
not think I have ever addressed someone I did not know in a railway carriage or spoken to a
fellow-passenger on board ship unless he first spoke to me. . . . These are grave disadvantages
both to the writer and the man. I have had to make the best of them. I think it was the best I could
hope for in the circumstances and with the very limited powers that were granted to me by
* The Summing-Up
- W. Somerset Maugham’s Collected Stories; pp. ix-xi [Introduction by Nicholas
Shakespeare] pp. xii-xxi: When a medical student in London, Maugham often revisited Paris,
where he had passed his first ten years, and combed the book-stores for editions of Maupassant,
reading them sometimes standing up and ‘peering between the uncut pages’. He singled out ‘La
Parure’as a model: ‘You can tell it over the dinner-table or in a ship’s smoking-room and hold
the attention of your listeners. It relates a curious, but not improbable incident. The scene is set
before you with brevity, as the medium requires, but with clearness; and the persons concerned,
the kind of life they lead and their deterioration, are shown to you with just the amount of detail
that is needed to make the circumstances of the case plain.’ Another model was Chekhov, who
taught him to rid his story of anything superfluous, to keep his description of nature brief, and to
narrate the facts, leaving it to the reader to decide what should be done about them. Lucidity,
euphony, simplicity—these were his lodestars.
The stories Maugham most liked to tell were sparked by incidents that he had heard about, or,
preferably, witnessed himself. Those that made up Ashenden (1928) were, he wrote, ‘on
the whole a very truthful account of my experiences during the war when I was in the Secret
Service’. In his other collections, too, he depended on that confirmative grain of truth before he
could let his imagination run. ‘To know a thing actually happened gives it a poignancy, touches a
chord, which a piece of acknowledged fiction misses.’ Like many writers, he was not good at
In his most famous story, ‘Rain’, Maugham did not even bother to change the name of the
plump, pretty prostitute, Miss Thompson, whom he had met on the deck of a cruise ship from
Honolulu. About ‘The Vessel of Wrath’, he maintained: ‘All the people I have described in this
story I met at one time or another.’ An entry in his notebook, describing a Resident in an
outstation who took a bottle of whisky to bed every night, was the source of ‘Before the Party’.
A story he particularly liked, ‘The Alien Corn’, was based on a young man he knew who had
made ‘a hash of his life’ – while ‘The Colonel’s Lady’ incubated for many years on the back
of an envelope, Maugham dashing off the anecdote that he had heard when staying at the
New York Ritz.
Three of his best stories – ‘The Letter’, ‘Footprints in the Jungle’, ‘The Book-bag’ – were told to
him straight. He came upon the incidents described in ‘The Letter’ while on a visit to the Far
East where he learned how Mrs Ethel Proudlock, wife of the acting head of the Victoria
Institution in Kuala Lumpur, had shot dead on her veranda the manager of a tin-mine, not once
but six times, after he tried to kiss her. ‘I had nothing to do but make them probable, coherent
and dramatic.’ Likewise, the story behind ‘Footprints in the Jungle’, involving another murder,
was given to him ‘word for word’ one evening in a club in a town in Malaya. ‘I was shown two
of the people concerned in it and, believe me, when I looked at them, knowing their story, I
could hardly believe my eyes.’ The rest, he maintained, were invented ‘by the accident of my
happening upon persons here and there, who in themselves or from something I heard about
them, suggested a theme that seemed suitable for a short story’.
His themes elaborate a sceptical world view derived from Schopenhauer and La Rochefoucauld.
Many of his stories read like dramatized maxims. Only a trembling leaf separates hope from
despair. Suffering doesn’t ennoble. The murderer doesn’t get caught. The wages of sin aren’t
always death. Men hate those they have injured. Beneath the mousiest woman lurks the most
If he had few illusions about himself, he had none whatsoever about his characters. ‘As a
rule my characters are suggested by someone I have known,’ he told The Bookman in
1926, in answer to a questionnaire. He was drawn to those men and women who were
destroyed by a code of honour, an appetite, a passion. By the time he had finished with them,
however, little remained of the original. Asked about his favourite characters, he singled out two
for the reason that they were ‘gay, amusing and unscrupulous’. Rather like Maugham himself.
‘The I who writes is just as much a character in the story as the other persons with whom it
By common consent, Maugham’s most satisfying character is the ‘I’ who sets the scene, the
Marlow-like narrator who beckons you closer into the lamplight, the cigar-smoke, and over a gin
pahit guides you by the elbow through several discussions until the conversation, so to speak,
gets into its shirtsleeves and the guts of the story are laid out bare. To start with, though, we
meet him in evening dress or white ducks. In the majority of stories, he is a middle-aged
English author, married, although appearing to travel alone, which he does first-class, with
infinite time on his hands, gliding at leisure through the South Seas, the Far East, the French
penal colonies, the Riviera, Capri, Mayfair. He is at ease equally with prisoners, parlourmaids
and Foreign Secretaries. By the same token, he cares precious little for those people whose
tragedies he is swift to tap, his deeper emotions being reserved for a fine Havana or a cold
grouse. ‘My sympathies were not deeply engaged in the matter,’ is his typical response. For
Anthony Burgess, who lived in Malaya, this narrator was ‘something that English fiction
needed – the dispassionate commentator, the “raisonneur”, the man at home in Paris and
Vienna but also in Seoul and Djakarta, convivial and clubbable, as ready for a game of poker as
for a discussion on the Racine alexandrine, the antithesis of the slippered bookman’. Burgess
was not alone in considering this pokerfaced persona the character of Maugham’s most likely to
endure. To V. S. Pritchett, Maugham’s uninvolved and cosmopolitan narrator was ‘the Great Dry
Martini in person’ and gratified the reader’s wish ‘to see oneself as worldly-wise and sagacious,
to have impenetrable savoir-faire, to call for that dry Martini and light a sceptical cigar at the
end of the day’. He reminds you of none other than the character he helped to inspire, save that
unlike James Bond he would not have wished to be disturbed in bed. Whatever hidden steps
Maugham’s narrator takes elsewhere in the territory of sex, almost the only lapse in the entire
short-story canon is Ashenden’s flirtation with Baroness von Higgins – a flirtation he considers,
Maugham, of course, took pains to point out that the first-person narrator is a convention as
old as the caves, the object being to create credibility. It had also the virtue of compactness, of
limiting time and space. ‘When you are shut up with a man for ten days in a railway carriage
you can hardly fail to learn most of what there is to know about him.’ But the narrator in
Maugham’s confined setting is much more than a technical device. He is also a thin
disguise for the author. In a few places is he so thinly disguised as in the character he
named Willie Ashenden, a figure cited by Goebbels in a 1941 radio speech as an
example of the repellent cynicism of the British Secret Service to which Maugham once
belonged . . . .
Maugham’s formula changes little, causing him to title one of his collections The
Mixture as Before. An ordinary-looking man, thin, elderly, bald, at first sight with
nothing to attract his attention – or it could be a prim, demure wife, ‘the sort of woman
you simply didn’t notice’ – sinks into a cane chair, glares at the narrator with pregnant eyes
and says: ‘I’m afraid you’ll think it awfully strange of me to talk to you like this. I’m at the
end of my tether. If I don’t talk to somebody I shall go off my head’ – whereupon out tumbles a
melodrama of incest, jealousy and parricide. It was a discovery of terrific consequence to
Maugham that people at the end of their tether at the end of the world ‘find it a relief to tell
someone whom in all probability they will never meet again the story that had burdened perhaps
for years their waking thoughts and their dreams at night’. And, of course, the more cold,
distinguished and snobbish the British official whom Ashenden/Maugham encounters, the
more consuming and degrading the passion to which inevitably they confess. The nectar
sucked, the narrator is free to flutter on. ‘I like meeting people whom I shall never meet
again. No one is boring whom you will never see but once in your life.’
Maugham rooted his stories in direct observations that beg certain questions of the unrooted
author. He defined a work of fiction as ‘an arrangement which the author makes of the facts of
his experience with the idiosyncrasies of his own personality’. In the end, the point of
Henry James – for Maugham – was his personality, not his artistry. What, after all, has a
writer to give you but himself? A writer has to write as he can ‘and as he must because he is a
certain sort of man’. But what sort of man was Maugham? He exploited the ‘I’ more so than
most authors, and yet about himself he was astonishingly reticent.
It was well observed by one of his biographers, Anthony Curtis, that ‘everything there is to
say about Maugham has (so it seems) already been said by Maugham himself’. The facts of
his life are well known, but as Maugham observed, ‘fact is a poor story-teller’. They deserve
The author [Maugham] . . . was a stateless atheist born in an Embassy and raised from the age of
ten to seventeen in a vicarage. His birthplace in 1874 was a parcel of English territory abroad,
the second floor of the British Embassy in Faubourg St Honore that had been turned into a
maternity ward in order to exempt him from French military service. His russet-haired
mother was known to British diplomats as ‘Beauty’; his father, a diminutive, sallow-faced
solicitor who worked for the Embassy, as ‘the Beast’. Willie, their fourth son, resembled his
father. He looked in point of fact like a ‘sick monkey’, wrote Evelyn May Wiehe. As for his
short height, this no doubt contributed to the fierce, Napoleonic angle of his gaze. ‘The world is
an entirely different place to the man of five foot seven from what it is to the man of six foot
two.’ His smallness gave him the perspective and the disadvantages of a child. Travelling with
his lover, Gerald Haxton in Sarawak in 1921, his boat capsized in circumstances that he
describes in ‘The Yellow Streak’. ‘Gerald cried out that he could touch bottom. I put down my
legs, but could feel nothing.’ Feeling nothing was an emotion with which Maugham was
familiar. While he had few scales in front of his eyes, plenty encased his heart.
He spent his first ten years in France and until he was twelve spoke better French than
English. It was a Proustian childhood, of salons and servants and excursions to the coast. The
first author he read was La Fontaine, whose fables he recited to his mother at teatime; the first
sand that he played on was the beach at Deauville where he once spotted Lillie Langtry. ‘It
was France that educated me, France that taught me to value beauty, distinction, wit and good
sense, France that taught me to write.’ Right up until the Second World War, his stories were
more popular in France than in Britain. His French upbringing instilled in him two codes of
life, two liberties, two points of view. But this duality, he believed, had a dislocating effect—and
‘prevented me from ever identifying myself completely with the instincts and prejudices of one
people or another’.
From his ravishing mother he inherited an impossible, idealized notion of love as well as a
susceptibility to tuberculosis. Mrs Maugham’s doctor believed that having another child would
cure her. Actually, it killed both the child, who died on Maugham’s eighth birthday, and six days
later the mother. Her death at the age of forty-one was the tragedy of his life, concluded another
of Maugham’s biographers, Ted Morgan. ‘If in some lives there is an original sin, in Maugham’s
there was an original wound, from which, by his own admission, he never recovered.’ Nearly
sixty years later he broke down and wept as he talked of it. ‘I shall never get over her death. I
shall never get over it,’ he railed to his nephew. In his most persistent dream he would wake to
find himself at home with his mother. When he died, her picture was on his bedside table. Her
sudden disappearance, so early on, coloured his subsequent dealings with women. He never
trusted any woman enough to replace her in his affections. At the same time, he clenched
himself against the likelihood of being abruptly deserted. One of his favourite aphorisms
was by Logan Pearsall Smith: ‘If we shake hands with icy fingers, it is because we have
burnt them so horribly before.’ There smoulders in the name of his alter ego the aroma of
someone irredeemably scalded. ‘The first syllable had to me a particular connotation which I
found suggestive.’ Where Graham Greene had a splinter of ice in his heart, Maugham had a
small mound of ash.
Two years later, in 1884, his father died and he was properly alone. His French nurse took him to
Whitstable, to stay with his uncle Henry, a deep-eyed, snobbish parson married to a German
aristocrat. Almost Henry’s first act was to sack the nurse. Maugham took eventual revenge on
his uncle by drawing on him for the missionary figure in the story ‘Rain’—prompting Greene to
observe that Maugham had done more than anyone ‘to stamp the idea of the repressed
strait-laced clergyman on the popular imagination’.
The effect of being orphaned and uprooted had a further alienating impact. ‘Tell him I stammer,
Uncle,’ said the ten-year old Willie as they prepared to meet the headmaster of King’s School,
Canterbury, where he would board for the next seven years. It was the stammer, wrote Morgan,
of someone getting stuck on one word ‘like a typewriter key’, and it started more or less upon
Maugham’s arrival at the ivy-covered vicarage, when overnight he had to exchange his primary
language. Whatever the cause of his speech impediment, it indicated the separateness that
already he felt from others, the sense that he did not fit in. As often is pointed out, his
handicap was no less attention-drawing than the clubfoot that he gives to his autobiographical
hero in Of Human Bondage. In Maugham’s case, it encouraged his natural shyness which
he later described as a ‘mixture of diffidence and conceit’. He admitted: ‘My life and my
production has been greatly influenced by my stammer.’ Without it, he probably would have
become a lawyer like his father and his brother Freddy, who rose to be Lord Chancellor. Instead,
it hastened his retreat into the aloof, unobtrusive observer of the sort that he detected in Arnold
Bennett, who suffered from the same thing: ‘It may be that except for the stammer which
forced him to introspection, Arnold would never have become a writer.’
On top of everything, there was his homosexuality. The first glimmerings appear in an
attachment he formed at King’s School, Canterbury. Possibly the other boy was Leonard
Ashenden, with whom he shared a prize. At any rate, his sexual make-up – three-quarters
‘queer’, one quarter ‘normal’ in Maugham’s arithmetic – was made conspicuous to him
during a year he spent in Heidelberg, arranged by his German aunt. His seduction by a
twenty-six-year-old Cambridge graduate, John Ellingham Brooks, who later fled to Capri,
launched Maugham into a life of unavoidable pretence and facade that must have been
especially galling for a man who in most respects could not look at a facade without wishing to
In Heidelberg, he discovered also the European writers and philosophers who would shape his
literary tastes. La Rochefoucauld, Maupassant, Racine, Ibsen, whose influence saturates his
earliest stories like ‘A Bad Example’ and ‘Daisy’; and Schopenhauer, who believed, as
Maugham came to believe, that religion was an illusion to help us endure the accident of
existence. Their outlook chimed with Maugham’s association of love with suffering and his
pessimistic view of human nature following his mother’s death. An entry in his notebook
reads: ‘Everything in life is meaningless, the pain and the suffering are fruitless and futile.
There is no object in life.’ He returned to England equipped to see the worst in anything. To
recreate Whitstable as Blackstable.
Turning down a chance to go to Cambridge – a decision he later regretted – he worked for a
firm of accountants, a situation that he could only tolerate for a few weeks. He had started
writing in a dedicated way from the age of fifteen, but could not explain to his uncle that this
was the profession on which he had set his heart. ‘Why not try medicine?’ suggested his
uncle’s doctor in Whitstable, and so he enrolled at St. Thomas’s. If he could not yet be a
writer, at least he could study medicine like some of the writers he admired: Chekhov,
Conan Doyle, Keats.
He was grateful for his five years’ training at the London hospital. ‘There I saw human
nature in the raw.’ As it had granted Chekhov, his profession gave him access to places
where his stammer and his reticence denied him. In the slums of Lambeth, in kerosene-smoked
rooms, he opened his doctor’s black bag, as later he opened the notebooks that he bought
from the Papeterie Brocchi, 30 Faubourg St Honore—and experienced the privilege and thrill of
having utter strangers trust him with their lives. In one period of three weeks, he calculated that
he delivered sixty-three babies.
He had no intention of practising. He had a mind, as Edward Garnett said, like a pair of
scissors, but he would not have made a good surgeon. ‘One of our failures, I’m afraid,’
recalled a doctor who had worked alongside him as a dresser. Fumbling to dissect a body in
anatomy class, he could not for the life of him find an obvious nerve. His professor helped him to
locate it, with a remark that Maugham took as his motto: ‘You see, the normal is the rarest thing
in the world.’ Once the pen had replaced the scalpel, as shortly it did, he never lost the vital
habit of regarding all he met as patients to be dispassionately listened to and diagnosed. He
behaved like Willie Ashenden, unmoved by the grief of Giulia Lazzari: ‘He felt his relation to
her as impersonal as a doctor’s in the presence of a pain that he cannot alleviate. He saw now
why R. had given him this peculiar task; it needed a cool head and an emotion well under
- pp. xxi-xxii: Maugham’s Swiss winter affected his lungs. It was partly to recover his health
that in 1916 he travelled to the South Seas with his lover Gerald Haxton, a San Franciscan whom
he had met two years earlier, in Flanders. Both were serving in the same ambulance unit.
Maugham was forty at the time; Haxton twenty-two, with a pock-marked face that sometimes he
disguised with make-up, and an appetite for gambling and alcohol. ‘He stank,’ wrote Beverly
Nichols, who considered Haxton a liar, a forger and a cheat. ‘If he thought it would be of the
faintest advantage he’d jump into bed with a hyena.’ Maugham in his stories makes
extraordinarily few glances to his personal life, but the rare nod speaks volumes. ‘I know
nothing more shattering than to love with all your heart . . . someone who is worthless.’ That
Haxton led Maugham on a dance as merry as it must have been painful is suggested by an
uncharacteristic flight into verse (In weariness, and not in death or parting, is / The
bitterness of love. Spent is my passion / Like a river dried up by the sun’s fierce rays) and
further supported by his confession to Godfrey Winn: ‘You do not know what it is like,
Godfrey, and I hope you never will, to be married to someone who is married to drink.’ But
Maugham loved Haxton, and his best stories were collected and written in his company. As he
revealed in Ashenden: ‘In these stories no more than the barest suggestion has been made
that Ashenden was capable on occasions of the passion ironically called tender . . . but even
when suffering most acutely from the pangs of unrequited love he had been able to say to
himself, albeit with a wry face, after all, it’s grist to the mill.’
In 1915, Haxton was arrested in a Convent Garden hotel and indicted on six counts of gross
indecency. A cloud hung over him—‘a cloud no bigger than a boy’s hand,’ sighed a friend of
Maugham’s on Capri, exiled for a similar reason. Not long afterwards Haxton was deported as an
undesirable alien. The refusal of the authorities ever to let his lover enter England was the
principal reason that Maugham left England, to live in France, but there were other factors, as he
mentioned in The Summing Up: ‘I am attached to England but I have never felt myself
very much at home there. I have always been shy with English people. To me England has been
a country where I had obligations that I did not want to fulfil and responsibilities that irked me. I
have never felt entirely myself till I had put at least the Channel between my native country and
me. Some fortunate persons find freedom in their own minds; I, with less spiritual power than
they, find it in travel.’
- from Theatre by W. Somerset Maugham; p. i (Praise for W. Somerset Maugham):
“Maugham remains the consummate craftsman. . . . [His writing is] so compact, so
economical, so closely motivated, so skillfully written, that it rivets attention from the
first page to last.”
--Saturday Review of Literature
- pp. 19-26: When Julia was sixteen and went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in Gower
Street she knew already much that they could teach her there. She had to get rid of a certain
number of tricks that were out of date and she had to acquire a more conversational style. But
she won every prize that was open to her, and when she was finished with the school her good
French got her almost immediately a small part in London as a French maid. It looked for a
while as though her knowledge of French would specialize her in parts needing a foreign accent,
for after this she was engaged to play an Austrian waitress. It was two years later that Jimmie
Langton discovered her. She was on tour in a melodrama that had been successful in London; in
the part of an Italian adventuress, whose machinations were eventually exposed, she was
trying somewhat inadequately to represent a woman of forty. Since the heroine, a blonde
person of mature years, was playing a young girl, the performance lacked verisimilitude.
Jimmie was taking a short holiday which he spent in going every night to the theatre in one
town after another. At the end of the piece he went round to see Julia. He was well enough
known in the theatrical world for her to be flattered by the compliments he paid her, and
when he asked her to lunch with him next day she accepted.
They had no sooner sat down to table than he went straight to the point.
“I never slept a wink all night for thinking of you,” he said.
“This is very sudden. Is your proposal honourable or dishonourable?”
He took no notice of the flippant rejoinder.
“I’ve been at this game for twenty-five years. I’ve been a call-boy, a stage-hand, a
stage-manager, an actor, a publicity man, damn it, I’ve even been a critic. I’ve lived in
the theatre since I was a kid just out of a board school, and what I don’t know about acting
isn’t worth knowing. I think you’re a genius.”
“It’s sweet of you to say so.”
“Shut up. Leave me to do the talking. You’ve got everything. You’re the right height, you’ve
got a good figure, you’ve got an indiarubber face.”
“Flattering, aren’t you?”
“That’s just what I am. That’s the face an actress wants. The face that can look anything, even
beautiful, the face that can show every thought that passes through the mind. That’s the face
Duse’s got. Last night, even though you weren’t really thinking about what you were doing,
every now and then the words you were saying wrote themselves on your face.”
“It’s such a rotten part. How could I give it my attention? Did you hear the things I had to
“Actors are rotten, not parts. You’ve got a wonderful voice, the voice that can wring an
audience’s heart, I don’t know about your comedy, I’m prepared to risk that.”
“What d’you mean by that?”
“Your timing is almost perfect. That couldn’t have been taught, you must have that by
nature. That’s the far, far better way. Now let’s come down to brass tacks. I’ve been
making enquiries about you. It appears you speak French like a Frenchwoman and so they
give you broken English parts. That’s not going to lead you anywhere, you know.”
“That’s all I can get.”
“Are you satisfied to go on playing those sort of parts for ever? You’ll get stuck in them and
the public won’t take you in anything else. Seconds, that’s all you’ll play. Twenty pounds a
week at the outside and a great talent wasted.”
“I’ve always thought that someday or other I should get a chance of a straight part.”
“When? You may have to wait ten years. How old are you now?”
“What are you getting?”
“Fifteen pounds a week.”
“That’s a lie. You’re getting twelve, and it’s a damned sight more than you’re worth. You’ve
got everything to learn. Your gestures are commonplace. You don’t know that every gesture
must mean something. You don’t know how to get an audience to look at you before you
speak. You make up too much. With your sort of face the less make-up the better. Wouldn’t
you like to be a star?”
“Come to me and I’ll make you the greatest actress in England. Are you a quick study? You
ought to be at your age.”
“I think I can be word-perfect in any part in forty-eight hours.”
“It’s experience you want and me to produce you. Come to me and I’ll let you play twenty
parts a year. Ibsen, Shaw, Barker, Sudermann, Hankin, Galsworthy. You’ve got magnetism
and you don’t seem to have an idea how to use it.” He chuckled. “By God, if you had, that
old hag would have had you out of the play you’re in now before you could say knife. You’ve
got to take an audience by the throat and say, now, you dogs, you pay attention to me. You’ve
got to dominate them. If you haven’t got the gift no one can give it you, but if you have you can
be taught how to use it. I tell you, you’ve got the makings of a great actress. I’ve never been so
sure of anything in my life.”
“I know I want experience. I’d have to think it over of course. I wouldn’t mind coming to you for
“Go to hell. Do you think I can make an actress of you in a season? Do you think I’m going to
work my guts out to make you give a few decent performances and then have you go away to
play some twopenny-halfpenny part in a commercial play in London? What sort of a bloody
fool do you take me for? I’ll give you a three years’ contract, I’ll give you eight pounds a week
and you’ll have to work like a horse.”
“Eight pounds a week’s absurd. I couldn’t possibly take that.”
“Oh, yes, you could. It’s all you’re worth and it’s all you’re going to get.”
Julia had been on the stage for three years and had learnt a good deal. Besides, Jane
Taitbout, no strict moralist, had given her a lot of useful information.
“And are you under the impression, by any chance, that for that I’m going to let you sleep with me
“My God, do you think I’ve got time to go to bed with the members of my company? I’ve got
much more important things to do than that, my girl. And you’ll find that after you’ve
rehearsed for four hours and played a part at night to my satisfaction, besides a couple of
matinees, you won’t have much time or much inclination to make love to anybody. When you go
to bed all you’ll want to do is to sleep.”
But Jimmie Langton was wrong there.
Julia, taken by his enthusiasm and his fantastic exuberance, accepted his offer. He started her in
modest parts which under his direction she played as she had never played before. He
interested the critics in her, he flattered them by letting them think that they had discovered a
remarkable actress, and allowed the suggestion to come from them that he should let the public
see her as Magda. She was a great hit and then in quick succession he made her play Nora in
The Doll’s House, Ann in Man and Superman, and Hedda Gabler. Middlepool was
delighted to discover that it had in its midst an actress who it could boast was better than any
star in London, and crowded to see her in plays that before it had gone to only from local
patriotism. The London paragraphers mentioned her now and then, and a number of enthusiastic
patrons of the drama made the journey to Middlepool to see her. They went back full of praise,
and two or three London managers sent representatives to report on her. They were doubtful. She
was all very well in Shaw and Ibsen, but what would she do in an ordinary play? The managers
had had bitter experiences. On the strength of an outstanding performance in one of these
queer plays they had engaged an actor, only to discover that in any other sort of play he was no
better than anybody else.
When Michael joined the company Julia had been playing in Middlepool for a year. Jimmie
started him with Marchbanks in Candida. It was the happy choice one would have
expected him to make, for in that part his great beauty was an asset and his lack of warmth no
Julia reached over to take out the first of the cardboard cases in which Michael’s photographs
were kept. She was sitting comfortably on the floor. She turned the early photographs over
quickly, looking for that which he had had taken when first he came to Middlepool; but when she
came upon it, it gave her a pang. For a moment she felt inclined to cry. It had been just like him
then. Candida was being played by an older woman, a sound actress who was cast generally for
mothers, maiden aunts or character parts, and Julia with nothing to do but act eight times a week
attended the rehearsals. She fell in love with Michael at first sight. She had never seen a more
beautiful young man, and she pursued him relentlessly. In due course Jimmie put on
Ghosts, braving the censure of respectable Middlepool, and Michael played the boy and
she played Regina. They heard one another their parts and after rehearsals lunched, very
modestly, together so that they might talk of them. Soon they were inseparable. Julia had
little reserve; she flattered Michael outrageously. He was not vain of his good looks, he knew he
was handsome and accepted compliments, not exactly with indifference, but as he might have
accepted a compliment on a fine old house that had been in his family for generations. It was a
well-known fact that it was one of the best houses of its period, one was proud of it and took care
of it, but it was just there, as natural to possess as the air one breathed. He was shrewd and
ambitious. He knew that his beauty was at present his chief asset, but he knew it could not
last for ever and was determined to become a good actor so that he should have something
besides his looks to depend on. He meant to learn all he could from Jimmie Langton and then go
“If I play my cards well I can get some old woman to back me and go into management. One’s
got to be one’s own master. That’s the only way to make a packet.”
Julia soon discovered that he did not much like spending money, and when they ate a meal
together, or on a Sunday went for a small excursion, she took care to pay her share of the
expenses. She did not mind this. She liked him for counting the pennies, and, inclined to be
extravagant herself and always a week or two behind her rent, she admired him because he
hated to be in debt and even with the small salary he was getting managed to save up a little
every week. He was anxious to have enough put by so that when he went to London he need not
accept the first part that was offered him, but could afford to wait till he got one that gave him a
real chance. His father had little more than his pension to live on, and it had been a sacrifice to
send him to Cambridge. His father, not liking the idea of his going on the stage, had insisted on
“If you want to be an actor I suppose I can’t stop you,” he said, “but damn it all, I insist on your
being educated like a gentleman.”
- my Mom (regarding The Constant Wife by W. Somerset Maugham): “I like the gossip
and the cheating.”
- from The Constant Wife by W. Somerset Maugham; pp. 5-10 --
MARTHA (moving down a little and seeing MRS. CULVER): Mother!
MRS. CULVER (very calmly): Yes, darling. (She does not look up from the
page she is studying.)
MARTHA (moving to the L. end of the sofa): You’re the last person I expected to
find here. You never told me you were coming to see Constance.
MRS. CULVER (good-humouredly: I didn’t intend to till I saw in your beady eye
that you meant to. I thought I’d just as soon be here first. (She puts down the
MARTHA: Bentley says she’s out.
MRS. CULVER: Yes. Are you going to wait?
MARTHA (crossing down to the fireplace): Certainly.
MRS. CULVER: Then I will too.
MARTHA: That’ll be very nice.
MRS. CULVER: Your words are cordial, but your tone is slightly frigid, my dear.
MARTHA (turning): I don’t know what you mean by that, mother.
MRS. CULVER: My dear, we’ve known one another a great many years, haven’t we? More
than we always find it convenient to mention.
MARTHA: Not at all. I’m thirty-two. I’m not in the least ashamed of my age. Constance is
MRS. CULVER: And yet we still think it worth while to be a trifle disingenuous with one
another. Our sex takes a natural pleasure in dissimulation.
MARTHA: I don’t think anyone can accuse me of not being frank.
MRS. CULVER: Frankness, of course, is the pose of the moment. It is often a very
effective screen for one’s thoughts.
MARTHA (moving in, to R. of the sofa: I think you’re being faintly disagreeable to me,
MRS. CULVER: I, on the other hand, think you’re inclined to be decidedly foolish.
MARTHA: Because I want to tell Constance something she ought to know?
MRS. CULVER: Ah, I was right then. And it’s to tell her that you’ve broken an
engagement and left three wretched people to play cut-throat.
MARTHA: It is.
MRS. CULVER: And may I ask why you think Constance ought to know?
MARTHA: Why? Why? (Moving down R. to the easy chair.) That’s one of those
questions that really don’t need answering.
MRS. CULVER: I’ve always noticed that the questions that really don’t need answering are
the most difficult to answer.
MARTHA: It isn’t at all difficult to answer. She ought to know the truth because it’s the
truth. (She sits in the easy chair down R.)
MRS. CULVER: Of course truth is an excellent thing, but before one tells it one should be
quite sure that one does so for the advantage of the person who hears it rather than for one’s own
MARTHA: Mother, Constance is a very unhappy person.
MRS. CULVER: Nonsense. She eats well, sleeps well, dresses well and she’s losing
weight. No woman can be unhappy in those circumstances.
MARTHA: Of course, if you won’t understand it’s no use my trying to make you. You’re a
darling, but you’re the most unnatural mother. Your attitude simply amazes me.
(The door opens and BENTLEY ushers in MRS. FAWCETT. MRS. FAWCETT
is a trim, businesslike woman of forty. MARTHA rises.)
BENTLEY: Mrs. Fawcett.
MRS. CULVER: Oh, Barbara, how very nice to see you.
BARBARA (crossing down and kissing her): Bentley told me you were here and
Constance was out. What are you doing?
MRS. CULVER: Bickering.
BARBARA (crossing below the sofa): What about? (She sits R. of MRS.
MRS. CULVER: Constance.
MARTHA (R. of the sofa): I’m glad you’ve come, Barbara . . . Did you know that
John was having an affair with Marie-Louise?
BARBARA: I hate giving a straight answer to a straight question.
MARTHA: I suppose everyone knows but us. How long have you known? They say
it’s been going on for months. I can’t think how it is we’ve only just heard it.
MRS. CULVER (ironically): It speaks very well for human nature that with the
masses of dear friends we have it’s only today that one of them broke the news to us.
BARBARA: Perhaps the dear friend only heard it this morning.
MARTHA: At first I refused to believe it.
MRS. CULVER: Only quite, quite at first, darling. You surrendered to the evidence with an
outraged alacrity that took my breath away.
MARTHA: Of course I put two and two together. After the first shock I understood
everything. I’m only astonished that it never occurred to me before.
BARBARA: Are you very much upset, Mrs. Culver?
MRS. CULVER: Not a bit. I was brought up by a very strict mother to believe that men were
naturally wicked. I am seldom surprised at what they do and never upset.
MARTHA: Mother has been simply maddening. She treats it as though it didn’t matter a row of
MRS. CULVER: Constance and John have been married for fifteen years. John is a very
agreeable man. I’ve sometimes wondered whether he was any more faithful to his wife than
most husbands, but as it was really no concern of mine I didn’t let my mind dwell on it.
MARTHA: Is Constance your daughter, or is she not your daughter?
MRS. CULVER: You certainly have a passion for straight questions, my dear. The answer is
MARTHA: And are you prepared to sit there quietly and let her husband grossly deceive her
with her most intimate friend?
MRS. CULVER: So long as she doesn’t know I can’t see that she’s any the worse. Marie-Louise
is a nice little thing, silly of course, but that’s what men like, and if John is going to deceive
Constance, it’s much better that it should be with someone we all know.
MARTHA (to BARBARA): Did you ever hear a respectable woman—and mother is
respectable . . .
MRS. CULVER (interrupting: Oh, quite.
MARTHA: . . . talk like that? (She turns down to the fireplace.)
BARBARA: You think that something ought to be done about it?
MARTHA (turning to face them): I am determined that something shall be done about it.
MRS. CULVER: Well, my dear, I’m determined that there’s at least one thing you shan’t do, and
that is to tell Constance.
BARBARA (to MARTHA; a trifle startled): Is that what you want to do?
MARTHA: Somebody ought to tell her. If mother won’t, I must.
BARBARA: I’m extremely fond of Constance. Of course, I’ve known what was going on for a
long time, and I’ve been dreadfully worried.
MARTHA (moving a pace towards the sofa): John has put her into an odious position. No
man has the right to humiliate his wife as he has humiliated Constance. He’s made her perfectly
MRS. CULVER: If women were ridiculous because their husbands are unfaithful to them, there
would surely be a great deal more merriment in the world than there is.
BARBARA ([I]delighted to have a good gossip[I]): You know they were lunching together
MARTHA: We hadn’t heard that. But they were dining together the night before last.
MRS. CULVER (brightly): We know what they had to eat for dinner. Do you know
what they had to eat for lunch?
MARTHA: Mother! (She moves down again to the fireplace.)
MRS. CULVER: Well, I thought she seemed rather uppish about the lunch.
MARTHA: You have no sense of decency, mother.
MRS. CULVER: Oh, my dear, don’t talk to me about decency. Decency died with dear Queen
(MARTHA sits, down R.)
BARBARA (to MRS. CULVER): But you can’t approve of John having an open and
flagrant intrigue with Constance’s greatest friend.
MRS. CULVER: It may be that with advancing years my arteries have hardened. I am unable to
attach any great importance to the philanderings of men. I think it’s their nature. John is a very
hard-working surgeon. If he likes to lunch and dine with a pretty woman now and then, I don’t
think he’s much to blame. It must be very tiresome to have three meals a day with the same
woman for seven days a week. I’m a little bored myself at seeing Martha opposite me at the
dinner-table. And men can’t stand boredom as well as women.
MARTHA: I’m sure I’m very much obliged to you, mother.
BARBARA (significantly): But they’re not only lunching and dining together.
(MARTHA sits erect and looks at BARBARA.)
MRS. CULVER: You fear the worst, my dear?
BARBARA (with solemnity): I know the worst.
MRS. CULVER: I always think that’s such a comfort. With closed doors and no one
listening to us, so long as a man is kind and civil to his wife, do you blame him very much if he
strays occasionally from the narrow path of virtue?
MARTHA (rising and moving up to the R. end of the sofa): Do you mean to say that
you attach no importance to husbands and wives keeping their marriage vows?
MRS. CULVER: I think wives should.
BARBARA: But that’s grossly unfair. Why should they any more than men?
MRS. CULVER: Because on the whole they like it. We’re naturally faithful creatures and
we’re faithful because we have no particular inclination to be anything else.
BARBARA: I wonder.
(MARTHA moves slowly across, above the sofa.)
MRS. CULVER: My dear, you are a widow and perfectly free. Have you really had any
great desire to do anything that the world might say you shouldn’t?
BARBARA: I have my business. When you work hard eight hours a day you don’t much
want to be bothered with love.
MRS. CULVER: A man about the house if often useful. It’s nice to have someone around to tell
you you’re quite right when you know in your heart you’re quite wrong.
MARTHA (to BARBARA; turning, below the piano): By the way, how is your
BARBARA: Growing by leaps and bounds. As a matter of fact I came here today to ask
Constance if she would like to come in with me.
MRS. CULVER: Why should she? John earns plenty of money.
BARBARA: Well, I thought if things came to a crisis she might like to know that her
independence was assured.
(MARTHA moves slowly down L.C.)
MRS. CULVER: Oh, you want them to come to a crisis, too?
BARBARA: No, of course I don’t. But you know, they can’t go on like this. It’s a miracle
that Constance hasn’t heard yet.
MARTHA: I hope she’ll find out as quickly as possible. I still think it’s mother’s duty to tell her.
MRS. CULVER: Which I have no intention of doing.
MARTHA: And if mother won’t, I think I ought.
MRS. CULVER: Which I have no intention of permitting.
MARTHA (moving to C.): Her position is intolerable. He’s humiliated her beyond
endurance. I have no words to express my opinion of Marie-Louise, and the first time I see
her I shall tell her exactly what I think of her. She’s a horrid, ungrateful, mean and
contemptible little cat.
BARBARA (rising, breaking R., and turning): Anyhow, I think it would be a comfort to
Constance to know that if anything happened she has me to turn to.
MRS. CULVER: But John would make her a handsome allowance. He’s a very generous man.
MARTHA (indignantly): Do you think Constance would accept it?
BARBARA (to below and R. of the sofa): Martha’s quite right, Mrs. Culver. No
woman in those circumstances would take a penny of his money.
MRS. CULVER: That’s what she’d say. But she’d take care that her lawyer made the best
arrangement he could. Few men know with what ingenuity women can combine the
disinterested gesture with an eye for the main chance.
BARBARA (easing a little, up R. of the sofa): Aren’t you rather cynical, Mrs.
MRS. CULVER: I hope not. But when women are alone together I don’t see why they
shouldn’t tell the truth now and then. It’s a rest from the weary round of pretending to be
something that we quite well know we’re not.
MARTHA (stiffly): I’m not aware that I’ve ever pretended to be anything I wasn’t.
(She moves away, down L.C., above the low table.)
MRS. CULVER: I daresay not, my dear. But I’ve always thought you were a little stupid. You
take after your poor father. Constance and I have the brains of the family.
(CONSTANCE enters up L.C. She is a handsome woman of five and thirty. She has been out
and wears a hat. She carries a few small packages.)
BARBARA (eagerly, crossing above the sofa to C.): Constance!
CONSTANCE (putting her packages on the piano): I’m so sorry I wasn’t in.
(Moving down.) How nice of you all to wait. How are you mother darling?
([I]She kisses them—first BARBARA, then MRS. CULVER, and then MARTHA.)
MARTHA: What have you been doing all day, Constance?
CONSTANCE: Oh, I’ve been shopping with Marie-Louise. She’s just coming up.
BARBARA (with dismay): Is she here?
CONSTANCE (turning to BARBARA): Yes. She’s telephoning.
MARTHA (ironically): You and Marie-Louise are quite inseparable.
CONSTANCE (crossing to the fireplace): I like her. She amuses me.