W. Somerset Maugham’s travels in the Far East greatly influenced his approach to literature, and The Gentleman in the Parlor and On a Chinese Screen were clearly the products of his immersion in Asian cultures. Princess September and the Nightingale, while a very brief short story – more an allegory than anything else – was similarly influenced by his time in Asia, in this case, the Southeast Asian countries of Siam (now, Thailand) and Cambodia.
Princess September is the story of girl, the youngest of nine sisters to the king of Siam, whose practice of naming his daughters after seasons and months resulted in the ninth daughter being named for the ninth month of the calendar year, September. Being the youngest, and very beautiful, Princess September is subject to ridicule and bullying on the part of her older siblings. Their father, the king, has a tradition of handing out gifts on the occasion of his own birthday, and on this particular birthday he presents each of his daughters a beautiful green parrot. September’s parrot dies, and the young girl is inconsolable until a nightingale flies into her room and begins to enchant her with its beautiful songs. Princess September is restored to her previous gaiety, but her sisters, jealous of September’s good fortune, trick her into keeping the bird in a golden cage, ostensibly for its own good. The bird, however, slips into a seriously deep funk, including lying prone as if dead, and refusing food or drink. Pleading for it to return to hits happier, musical state, September finally coaxes out of the bird its reason for letting itself slowly pass away: “I cannot sing unless I am free, and if I cannot sing, I die.” The princess complies, the bird is rejuvenated, and the princess goes on to marry the king of neighboring Cambodia. A happy ending for Princess September and the nightingale.
The theme of W. Somerset Maugham’s story is clearly the need to allow living beings the freedom to prosper and engage life without the strictures of confinement. The nightingale could be the princess, or any other person or animal arbitrarily confined against its wishes. The spirit, Maugham seems to be saying, dies in direct proportion to the limitations imposed on one’s ability to shine through. Also, that Princess September is the one among the nine daughters to marry into royalty and live happily ever after is a message to those who would vindictively discriminate against another. Maugham’s own existence as a stutterer and homosexual during an age when the former was grounds for repudiation and the latter for persecution probably provided a subtext for this particular fable.