(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

W. Somerset Maugham was one of the most secretive, wealthy, and—so it might seem, given this biography—most dislikable authors of the twentieth century. Maugham’s personal wish was that a biography about him never be written. He requested that friends destroy all his correspondence, and quite formally, he asked his literary executor, Spencer Curtis Browne, to resist any requests for cooperation in any attempts at writing Maugham’s life story. In spite of all of these obstacles, and after numerous less informed biographical attempts, Ted Morgan has succeeded in writing a major and probably the definitive account of the mystery that was W. Somerset Maugham.

Not only does Morgan outline the important events and people in Maugham’s life, but he also presents them as ingredients, as experiential subject matter for Maugham’s plays, novels, and short stories. He also places Maugham’s life fully (some might say too fully) in the context of his times so that the literary biography of Maugham becomes a literary history of the several eras through which Maugham lived: Victorian, Edwardian, and Modern. As one might expect, given the wars and social disruptions of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Morgan’s account of Maugham’s life and times is not a pretty one. Yet, in spite of Maugham’s many flaws as a man and, to a lesser extent as an artist, the overall result is somehow inspiring because Maugham’s perserverance and accomplishments are notable.

Morgan takes the attitude that his role as biographer is not so much either to glorify or condemn Maugham as man and artist; rather, his stance as a biographer is one of utmost objectivity. Maugham is a famous author, was an inscrutable character, and posterity deserves to know the details of the Maugham story—without excessive editorializing and passing of judgment. Maugham himself said about the biographer’s “problem” of presentation, that it is wisest to know both the failings and the successes of an individual for both can be inspirational to others’ lives. (He did not, however, feel this way about his own biography, and his autobiography is maliciously distorted against his wife and daughter.)

It is something of the attitude of objectivity too that led Maugham’s literary executor to assist Morgan in presenting the version of Maugham that is this book. Of course, Maugham’s enemies would cast his failings in an even worse light; his friends (and he did have true friends, one of whom was Winston Churchill) would place him, doubtlessly, in a better light. Maugham, like anyone, might be analyzed and thus portrayed in many ways. Morgan’s approach, by no means psychoanalytical as is often the modern biographer’s tendency, is to discuss Maugham’s friends—in what becomes at times a tedious chain of mini-biographies—to examine the wider social-political-cultural milieu, and to place Maugham in it. Evaluative judgments and the attribution of motive, as enjoyable as they might be, are few and far between in Morgan’s presentation. Rather than criticize him for the choices he did not make in this portrait sketch of Maugham, it is best to comment on the choices Morgan does make in his objective, plodding, and most comprehensive telling of a life in its times.

Without getting at the “figure beneath the carpet” in any detail, as is the wont of the master of modern biography, Leon Edel, suffice it to say by way of summary that Maugham’s salvation as a person and his talent as an artist were enmeshed in his ability to convert his experiences, his feelings of loneliness and alienation into the narrative stance of a detached but inquiring observer. As a very young boy, he developed a stammer, a handicap that prevented him from following in his father’s law profession with its requirements of ability at oration. The death of his mother when he was eight years old and an unhappy childhood in the home of his uncle, Henry Maugham, gave him the materials for his early autobiographical novels, Of Human Bondage (1915) and Cakes and Ale (1930).

Plagued by a dual nature and pulled in opposite directions, his life became a paradox which nourished an inquisitive, searching view of things. He was reared in France for the first ten years of his life and learned first to speak French; and yet he was to spend much of his life in England as an “Englishman” never really sympathetic to things English. He loved and revered his mother more than anyone in his life, and yet he developed into a thoroughgoing misogynist who disliked most of the women he knew and especially his wife, Sarah Louise (Syrie) Barnardo, and eventually their daughter, Liza Maugham Hope (Lady Glendevon). Although married and a father, he was by preference homosexual and had two obsessive male loves of his life—his secretary-companions Gerald Haxton, and after Haxton’s death, Alan Searle. (Maugham was also from time to time a pederast, going to bed with young boys solicited by Haxton.) He was a physically small man, five...

(The entire section is 2058 words.)