Study Guide

W. Somerset Maugham

W. Somerset Maugham Biography

Biography (Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

William Somerset Maugham was born in the British Embassy in Paris, which ensured his British citizenship. He passed his early life in France and, although he was staunchly English, he never lost his attachment to France, living and vacationing there whenever he could and, in the end, dying in his longtime home, the Villa Mauresque on Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat.

Maugham was born into a “legal” family: His father, Robert Ormond Maugham, was a solicitor for the British Embassy in Paris; his grandfather was reputedly one of the founders of the Law Society in England; and Maugham’s brother Frederick Herbert Maugham, first viscount Maugham of Hartfield, was an outstanding lawyer, politician, and writer. His mother, Edith Mary Snell Maugham, a woman of great beauty and sensitivity, was socialite of some note in Paris. Her death at forty-one (January 13, 1882) was a shock from which Maugham never fully recovered. Her portrait stood at his bedside for the rest of his life. Edith Maugham bore six sons in all. Among those who survived to adulthood, Henry Neville Maugham was an unsuccessful writer who committed suicide in 1904, while Charles Ormond Maugham went into the law and eventually headed the family law firm in Paris.

In 1884, Maugham was uprooted from his Parisian home and was sent to live with his uncle, the Reverend Henry MacDonald Maugham, vicar of Whitstable, Kent, and his aristocratic German wife. While his older brothers were romping their way through Dover College, young Maugham was enrolled in the famous King’s School in Canterbury. There, the stuttering youngster had a very hard time of it until he left behind what was, in his opinion, the brutal staff of the lower forms. In later life, he became one of the school’s chief benefactors and established a library there, which bears his name.

In 1890, Maugham was sent to the Riviera to recover from lung disease, a complaint that plagued him in one form or another periodically throughout his life. There he discovered French literature, an influence that was to be lasting. In The Summing Up, Maugham declared that it was the fiction of Guy de Maupassant that most influenced him when he set about becoming a writer.

In 1891, Maugham left the king’s school and persuaded his uncle to send him to Heidelberg, where he acquired a lasting taste for philosophy from Kuno Fischer, attended his first play, and became much involved with the students’ informal discussions of drama.

From 1892 to 1895, Maugham studied medicine at St. Thomas’s Hospital in London, gaining much experience of life in the wards, in the clinic, and as an obstetrical clerk in the Lambeth district of London, then a slum of incredible squalor. The first fruit of his medical experience was the novel Liza of Lambeth, the success of which so encouraged Maugham that he turned down the offer of an assistantship at St. Thomas’s. He decided later that this had been a great mistake, since it robbed him of a further chance to study human nature under stress and at its most primitive. Abandoning medicine, except for his wartime tour in the ambulance corps, Maugham began his writing career in earnest. He also began his lifelong habit of travel.

In the next several years, Maugham traveled in Spain and Italy, saw his first full-length play, A Man of Honor, performed by the Imperial Theatre Stage Society in 1903 (an error, he ultimately concluded, because it labeled his work as “intellectual” and frightened off the commercial managers), and even tried his hand at editing. After finding editing uncongenial, he...

(The entire section is 1480 words.)

W. Somerset Maugham Biography (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

When William Somerset Maugham was eight, his mother died, and his father, a solicitor for the British Embassy in Paris, died two years later. Shy and speaking little English, Maugham was sent to Whitstable in Kent to live with an uncle, the Reverend Henry MacDonald Maugham, and his German-born wife, and thence almost immediately to King’s School, Canterbury. These wretched and unhappy years were later detailed in Maugham’s first masterpiece, the novel Of Human Bondage (1915). A stammer which stayed with him for life seems to have originated about this time. At seventeen, Maugham went to Heidelberg and attended lectures at the university. His first play, Schiffbrüchig (Marriages Are Made in Heaven), was written during this year abroad and first performed in Berlin in 1902.

Returning to London, he began the study of medicine at St. Thomas’ Hospital, where the misery of the nearby Lambeth slums profoundly impressed him. He took his medical degree in 1897, the same year Liza of Lambeth, his first novel, was published, then abandoned medicine. By 1908, Maugham had an unprecedented four plays running simultaneously in London, and by 1911, he had become successful enough to buy a fashionable house in Mayfair.

In 1915, he married Syrie Barnardo Wellcome. Divorced in 1927, they had one daughter, Liza, who became Lady Glendevon. During World War I, Maugham served as a medical officer in France and as an agent for the British Secret Service in Switzerland and Russia, where he was to prevent, if possible, the Bolshevik Revolution. During and after the war, he traveled extensively in Hawaii, Samoa, Tahiti, China, Malaysia, Indochina, Australia, the West Indies, various Central and South American countries, and the United States. In 1928, Maugham settled on the French Riviera, buying Villa Mauresque. Maugham died in Nice, France, on December 16, 1965.

W. Somerset Maugham Biography (Survey of Novels and Novellas)

William Somerset Maugham, son of an English solicitor, was born in the British embassy in Paris and spent his early childhood in France, learning French as his first language. Following the early death of both parents, Maugham went at age ten to England to live with his uncle, the Reverend Henry Maugham, Vicar of Whitstable, and his German-born wife. The rigid routine and disciplined family life of the Whitstable rectory contrasted with the casual, carefree existence and close warmth that Maugham had known in France. He was enrolled in the King’s School, Canterbury, where he spent several unhappy years. A permanent stammer that developed during this period of his life destroyed any possibility of following the profession of his father and two of his brothers. Instead of enrolling in a university, Maugham chose to travel abroad to Germany, where at Heidelberg he saw Henrik Ibsen’s dramas and attended lectures by Kuno Fischer on the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. Returning to London, he enrolled in the medical school at St. Thomas’s Hospital, where he received his M.D. in 1897.

Maugham’s stronger interests, however, were literary and aesthetic, and when his first novel, Liza of Lambeth, achieved a modest success, he resolved to enter upon a career as a writer. None of the novels that Maugham wrote during the following decade repeated the success of Liza of Lambeth, yet he achieved sudden and unexpected acclaim through a series of plays, modern comedies of manners, beginning with Lady Frederick (1907). In 1908, four of his plays were running in London simultaneously. During World War I, Maugham served with British Intelligence in Switzerland and Russia. In 1915, he married Syrie Bernardo Wellcome, a marriage that ended in divorce in 1927. Following World War I, Maugham traveled to more remote areas of the world: the South Seas, Southeast Asia, and America, accompanied by his secretary, a gregarious American named Gerald Haxton, who aided the author in finding material for his fiction. Maugham acquired the Villa Mauresque on the French Riviera in 1928, an estate that became his home for the remainder of his life, though he continued his frequent travels and spent several years during World War II living in the United States. Creative work during his later years centered principally on short stories, novels, and autobiography.

W. Somerset Maugham Biography (Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

William Somerset Maugham, the fourth son of an English solicitor, was born in the British Embassy in Paris on January 25, 1874. He spent his early childhood in France, but following the deaths of his parents he went to England to live with an uncle, the Reverend Henry Maugham, vicar of Whitstable. In a nearby boarding school, King’s School, Canterbury, Maugham found that the bitterness of his childhood only increased. A permanent stammer that developed at the time prevented his becoming a lawyer like his father and two brothers. Instead of entering an English university after his schooling, he traveled to Heidelberg, where he learned German, attended lectures by Kuno Fischer on the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, and saw the dramas of Henrik Ibsen. On his return to England, he enrolled in the medical school at St. Thomas Hospital in London.

Although Maugham received his doctor of medicine degree in 1897, he found that his interest in writing overshadowed his desire to become a practicing physician. With the publication of Liza of Lambeth (1897), a naturalistic novel, he resolved to devote his career to writing. Although none of the numerous novels he wrote during the next decade approached the success of Liza of Lambeth, Maugham was to become one of the most prolific and successful English authors. He achieved sudden and unexpected fame with drama, producing numerous comedies of manners for the London stage. In 1915, Maugham...

(The entire section is 464 words.)

W. Somerset Maugham Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111201563-Maugham.jpgW. Somerset Maugham Published by Salem Press, Inc.

William Somerset Maugham (mawm) was born in the British Embassy in Paris, France, on January 25, 1874, and was therefore a British subject. French was his first language, however, and he spent much of his life in France. His father, Robert Ormond Maugham, an attorney whose firm, Maugham and Sewell, was located in Paris, was married to Edith Mary Snell Maugham, twenty-one years his junior.

Willie, as Maugham was familiarly called, was the family’s fourth son and was reared virtually as an only child. He was six years younger than his next youngest brother Henry Neville, who, with the other two brothers, Frederic Herbert (born in 1866) and Charles Ormond (born in 1865), was sent to the Dover School in England before...

(The entire section is 982 words.)

W. Somerset Maugham Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

W. Somerset Maugham was a highly competent dramatist who succeeded best in his fiction after he had learned to apply the devices he had used successfully in drama to other genres. His novels prior to Of Human Bondage lacked the dramatic tension and thematic intensity of such works as that autobiographical novel and of such later novels as The Moon and Sixpence, Cakes and Ale, and The Razor’s Edge. If sophisticated literary scholars found his work disappointing, the general readers whom he defined as his audience read his novels and short stories with considerable appreciation and enthusiasm. In their eyes, he was a highly successful author who entertained them genially and who, in novels like those...

(The entire section is 126 words.)

W. Somerset Maugham Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111201563-Maugham.jpgW. Somerset Maugham Published by Salem Press, Inc.

William Somerset Maugham (mawm) was among England’s most versatile, prolific, and successful authors of the twentieth century. He was born in the British embassy in Paris on January 25, 1874, the fourth son of a British solicitor and his socialite wife. By age ten he had suffered the loss of both parents and was placed under the guardianship of his uncle, the Reverend Henry Macdonald Maugham, vicar of Whitstable, a childless man in his fifties with a German-born wife. At the lonely vicarage Maugham experienced an unhappy childhood; his only solace was found in reading his uncle’s books. Enrolled in the nearby King’s School, Canterbury, Maugham experienced further unhappiness despite his academic success. A permanent stammer...

(The entire section is 809 words.)

W. Somerset Maugham Biography

341_1192048480.jpg
W. Somerset Maugham
341_1192048492.jpg

Introduction

Hollywood loves W. Somerset Maugham. More than the works of most other twentieth-century writers, Maugham’s plays, novels, and short stories have been adapted into films. In part, this was attributable to his enormous output, but it is even more closely tied to his enduring popularity. That popularity and the lucrative financial benefits that it brought had a negative impact on Maugham’s literary reputation. A writer who was too often written off as well liked rather than well respected, Maugham frequent joked about his own apparent inferiority. Yet, despite his modesty, Maugham created a body of work characterized by incredible range. While he was known for fluffy tales like Theatre (which was adapted into the 2004 film Being Julia), his dark, late-career novel The Razor’s Edge proved Maugham was an author of substance.

Essential Facts

  1. Although of British descent, Maugham was born in Paris. To prevent Maugham from being drafted into the military under French law, Maugham’s father arranged for his son to be born on British Embassy grounds.
  2. Despite his gift with language on the page, Maugham suffered from a severe stutter throughout his life.
  3. Maugham was one of the “Literary Ambulance Drivers” of World War I. The moniker was a slang term for the unusually high number of literary greats (such as Ernest Hemingway and E. E. Cummings) who served as ambulance drivers during the war.
  4. Maugham briefly did intelligence work at the end of the First World War. The written account of his experiences was highly influential on Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond.
  5. For half a decade, Maugham studied medicine. Though the experience would continue to influence his writing for the rest of his life, it was particularly crucial to his first and highly successful novel, Liza of Lambeth.

W. Somerset Maugham Biography (Short Stories for Students)

William Somerset Maugham was born at the British Embassy in Paris on January 25, 1874. His mother died when he was eight and his father, an...

(The entire section is 482 words.)

W. Somerset Maugham Biography (Drama for Students)

William Somerset Maugham was born on January 25, 1874, in Paris, France. Maugham’s father, Robert, worked for the British Embassy as a...

(The entire section is 408 words.)

W. Somerset Maugham Biography (Novels for Students)

Playwright, short story writer, and novelist William Somerset Maugham was one of Britain's finest twentieth-century writers. He was born in...

(The entire section is 461 words.)