W. Somerset Maugham Essay - Maugham, W(illiam) Somerset (Vol. 15)

Maugham, W(illiam) Somerset (Vol. 15)


Maugham, W(illiam) Somerset 1874–1965

A British playwright, short story writer, and novelist, Maugham was born in Paris and educated in England. He qualified as a doctor in London before he published his first work in 1897. Maugham's style was always rather Edwardian in its elegance. A skilled satirist, "his effectiveness as a critic of life," according to A. C. Ward, "is in inverse proportion to his solemnity." Best known for his autobiographical novel, Of Human Bondage, Maugham also achieved popular success with such plays as Caesar's Wife, The Breadwinner, and Our Betters. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)

Anthony Curtis

[Maugham wrote] novels about the kind of English society he knew best, doctors, the clergy, the military, the lawyers, and the formidable womenfolk who ruled their servants and their husbands with rods of iron: the good people who were the traditional fodder of the English novelist. (p. 35)

The main novels in which we find Maugham's anatomy of Edwardian England and its values are The Hero (1901), Mrs. Craddock (1902), The Merry-Go-Round (1904) and The Explorer (1909). All of them have at their centres situations in which the English gentleman finds his code of conduct woefully inadequate in dealing with the realities of life and in which he arrives through crisis at a painful maturity. (pp. 35-6)

The Hero (1901) is an early landmark in Maugham. It is his first sustained attack on contemporary middle-class values from within the framework of English society and it shows his remarkable ability among his countrymen to mount the attack in a spirit of truly Gallic concentration. (p. 39)

At this stage in his career Maugham did not have the self-confidence to appear in his own books in person; when he needed a reasoner to enunciate the truths of which the antagonists seemed unaware he used Miss Ley. She became the axle of his next book The Merry-Go-Round (1904) in which he tried the experiment of linking together dramas involving separate sets of people. (p. 42)

The Explorer contains patches of crude prentice work but it does show Maugham getting to grips for the first time with an individual of mythical potency, his relation to society and to the current morality. Alec is the first portrait in Maugham's gallery of exceptional individuals that will include such different kinds of people as Oliver Haddo, Charles Strickland and Larry Darrell. (p. 48)

Maugham's determination to storm the fortress of the theatre was unwavering throughout his twenties. Behind his persistence at writing fiction lay the hope that a reputation as a novelist would ease the way for acceptance of his plays. (p. 49)

[Shipwrecked] contains the seeds of ideas that were to flower theatrically from his pen over the next decade…. Urbane conversation floating along above a ground-swell of sex and money, culminating in doing your own thing, putting pleasure and inclination before honour and duty, these are the ingredients with which Maugham would flavour some of his most famous dishes. (p. 50)

In after years Maugham liked to give the impression that after so much [early] rejection he had turned himself into a sort of play-making computer, feeding into the programme all the elements required for a fashionable success: epigrams, an adventuress with a heart of gold, blackmail, and a touch of brogue. There is slightly more to [his first successful play, Lady Frederick (1908)], and those that followed it, than that. Maugham has found his own way of distilling the essence of that over-fed, exclusive, insolvent, elegantly covertly libidinous Edwardian society….

Society was still exclusive but because of its insolvency it was beginning to have to relax some of the qualifications required for membership and it is this process, threatening a widening of the ranks, which is what Maugham's early Society comedies are about. (p. 62)

[His next two comedies, Jack Straw and Mrs. Dot, both written in 1908,] show Maugham enlarging his satirical portrait of Edwardian society by caricaturing the different elements of which that society was composed—minor foreign royalty, impoverished peers …, exploited and insolent servants. They were all like so many coloured balls juggled about by Maugham with dazzling aplomb around the career of the adventurer hero/heroine who is the rude shock that brings them all momentarily to their senses. The plays have as much permanence as … clouds of cigar smoke…. (p. 64)

[With Penelope (1912) and Smith (1909) we are] unmistakably into the twentieth century even if human beings are still subject to the same laws of pique and pride, avarice and snobbery, that they were in the latter days of the nineteenth; if anything they have got meaner and more petty and lost much of the preposterous grandeur of the Edwardian fantasticks. What has not changed at all is the play-wright's skill in moulding his work around a single starring role without sacrificing opportunities for the other characters to make their marks. Indeed with each fresh play Maugham's stagecraft grows more assured, his construction neater and happier. (pp. 69-70)

In Penelope and Smith Maugham had at last found his own tone, his place in the tradition of artificial comedy in the English theatre reaching back through the Restoration playwrights to Beatrice and Benedick, Katherine and Petruchio. The main concern was to expose the nature of marriage to its audience, marriage à la mode; and latterly it was always trying and nearly always failing to do this with the style and elegance and symmetry of the French. (p. 73)

[In 1911] Maugham put away his cap and bells for the moment, and resumed his more private persona as a novelist…. He was to become one of the small band of writers in English who have contributed significantly to both the novel and the drama. (pp. 75-6)

A novel in which the hero is really a portrait of the author may be read in different ways at different times. The first readers read it for the story, later ones for the autobiography. Maugham succeeded in Of Human Bondage [1915] in integrating the two aspects to a point where they are almost inseparable. He avoids mere self-indulgent reminiscence by the rigour of his narrative method. He uses the straightforward 'biographical' approach of the great Victorian novelists but with the advantage of shorter chapters and freedom from the exigencies of serial or part publication. The movement of the book is classically linear without flashbacks or short-cuts…. [Throughout, Philip Carey's] life is viewed as a chronological sequence of actions each of which has its own dramatic development. It is the donnée of orphanhood that gives a peculiarly mid-Victorian air to the whole operation. (p. 76)

[Of Human Bondage] is itself a most illuminating retrospective one-man show; as we patiently wander through its rooms absorbing one rich full canvas after another we take in an unforgettable series of impressions of what life was like at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. (pp. 88-9)

In his plays even more than his novels Maugham had a journalist's eye for good copy and many of them have their origin in some passing mood which they preserve with great zest. Maugham dismissed their chances of survival with a wave of the hand, saying that he regarded the prose drama as 'hardly less ephemeral than yesterday's newspaper'. It is my purpose to suggest that Maugham was an even better dramatist than he was a journalist and that working from his own urbane vantage point within the tradition of Ibsen and Becque he succeeded in dramatizing some of the more significant social tensions of English life in the period between the wars. (p. 115)

If Maugham had shocking views about women, particularly … [regarding the] mistake it was for an artist, or anyone who wished to lead the creative life, to become involved with them, this misogynistic attitude was combined with the most remarkable empathy with the sex. Maugham understood women much better than any other playwright of this period whether it was women of the political and social aristocracy, the wives of the professional middle-class or the common prostitute. He understood them much better than Shaw, for...

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The most mature fiction about the South Pacific is symbolic in nature. Works of Melville, Conrad, and Maugham … move beyond the superficial and the ephemeral into the realm of mythology. However, what these writers have in common is that they all make strong instinctive responses to the South Seas. (pp. 165-66)

[Those works of] Maugham which are related to the South Seas follow the design of the adventure of the mythological hero described by Joseph Campbell: 'A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into the region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons...

(The entire section is 1610 words.)

Robert L. Calder

[The] charge that Maugham was merely a commercial hack pandering to the tastes of a middlebrow audience is unjustified. A young author at the end of the Victorian era wanting to achieve popular success does not write a realistic and pessimistic slum novel (Liza of Lambeth, 1897), an iconoclastic story of a young man's suicide (The Hero, 1901), an account of a failed marriage, from which the wife is freed by her husband's timely death (Mrs. Craddock, 1902), or a bitterly cynical novel of a self-destructive concept of "honour" (The Merry-Go-Round, 1904). Furthermore, neither the philosophical core in Of Human Bondage (1915)—the meaninglessness of life—nor the amorality of the hero...

(The entire section is 662 words.)