Characters Discussed

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Ashenden, a writer who is asked by Alroy Kear, another writer and a friend, to contribute his reminiscences of the younger days of still another writer, Edward Driffield, about whom Kear is planning to write a biography. Ashenden was a friend of Driffield and his first wife when they lived in the Kentish town where Ashenden lived, as a boy, with his uncle. Ashenden met the Driffields again in London when he was a medical student and became Driffield’s wife’s lover. Driffield’s wife, Rosie, ran off with another man, however, and Driffield divorced her. Ashenden was hurt that she would run away with someone else.

Alroy Kear

Alroy Kear, a novelist who is writing the official biography of an eminent Victorian author, Edward Driffield. He invites his friend Ashenden to lunch in order to get Ashenden’s impressions of Driffield in his younger days. Kear is not satisfied with Ashenden’s material, since it would tend to embarrass Driffield’s widow.

Rosie Driffield

Rosie Driffield, Edward Driffield’s first wife, a former barmaid. She had a great love of life and could not deny love to anyone. Ashenden became her lover, and for a time she visited his rooms regularly, but her great love was George Kemp. When she ran away with him to New York, Driffield divorced her. Years later Ashenden saw her again, a wealthy widow in New York. She confided that of all her lovers Kemp had been her favorite because he was always the perfect gentleman.

Edward Driffield

Edward Driffield, a famous English writer of the Victorian era. When Rosie ran away, he divorced her and married his nurse.

George Kemp

George Kemp, a contractor with whom Rosie was unfaithful to Driffield and with whom she finally ran away. She went with him to New York, and they were married.

Amy Driffield

Amy Driffield, Driffield’s nurse during his convalescence from pneumonia. She became his second wife.


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It is difficult to find a novel that is more of a roman a clef than Cakes and Ale. Two of the principal characters are thought by many critics to be based on famous persons: Driffield on Thomas Hardy and Kear on Hugh Walpole. Maugham denied the claim, saying that his characters were composites, formed from many sources, including himself. The case for Hardy can be doubted, despite some sharp similarities: Driffield's high reputation that reflected Hardy's; the depiction of the death of a child that shocked the reading public (found in Driffield's Cup of Life and Hardy's Jude the Obscure), and the parallels of the writers's second marriages.

The case for Walpole is easier (and more widely accepted): Maugham wrote this author—now viewed as second rate despite a popularity in his time that was enviable—claiming that he was not the basis for Alroy Kear. However, in 1950, nine years after Walpole's death, he admitted that this writer was much on his mind when he created Alroy Kear. There are numerous minor characters fashioned after lesser figures whom Maugham knew (or knew of) when he wrote Cakes and Ale, whose publication, in 1930, two years after Hardy's death, enforced the view that the towering late Victorian novelist was indeed the model for Driffield. These secondary and tertiary figures are of little importance. But, the basis of Rosie is not.

For many years, no one could be sure of the person upon whom Rosie was based, except that it was a woman with whom Maugham had a warm friendship. As he says in his preface to the novel, Rosie "is the most engaging heroine I have ever created." Only years after Maugham's death was the identity of this lady confirmed. She was Ethelwyn Sylvia Jones, the second daughter of the playwright Henry Arthur Jones. Ethelwyn was an accomplished actress and very probably met Maugham in the theater. She was different from Rosie in social station and level of education but apparently quite like her in warmth of heart and honesty of emotion.

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