Cakes and Ale is a characteristic Somerset Maugham novel, a combination of social satire, autobiography, and roman à clef. It is a masterfully structured story, told largely in retrospect, with the Maugham touch of the unanticipated ending. Like many of the author’s plays, novels, and stories, it underscores his conviction that human morals are relative, rather than absolute.
The title is taken from William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: Or, What You Will (pr. c. 1600-1602, pb. 1623), in which the happy libertine, Sir Toby Belch, upbraids the priggish, hypocritical Malvolio with the pronouncement: “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no cakes and ale?” Sir Toby’s question applies to all who would shape the world around them to fit a preconceived, narrow code of conduct and behavior in which joy and earthy pleasure play little or no part. Maugham’s Cakes and Ale offers a response to Sir Toby’s question. The novel is about the self-discovery that comes through a young man’s awareness of joy and carnal passion. Maugham sees these elements of life as vitally important. To those for whom human nature is more a failing than a triumph, joy and passion are subsumed by respectability and conformity to arbitrary standards of social conduct. Initially, young Ashenden, the narrator and Maugham’s persona, is a petty snob, one who without thought or consideration embraces the strictures and prejudices of class-obsessed Victorian England. To Ashenden and to those with whom he shares a certain stratum of society, outspoken and uninhibitedly good-natured working-class people are considered beneath any social interaction beyond the most rudimentary formal politeness—men such as George Kemp, the coal merchant, for example, whose friendly camaraderie serves only to demonstrate to young Ashenden that Kemp is a man “who doesn’t seem to know his place.” Rosie’s intrinsic goodness and the love she offers—of a nature entirely different from anything Ashenden has previously experienced—break through his barriers and teach him how shallow his preconceptions of human nature are.
Maugham’s social satire in the novel centers on the contemporary literary society of the late 1920’s, taking to task, in particular, its often shallow and self-serving pretensions, as well as its subservience to contemporary trends of fashionable literature. Created for particular parody in this regard is the character of Alroy Kear, the popular novelist with a decided penchant for managing the commercial and public relations side of his career, undoubtedly to compensate for the limitations of his creative ability. At the behest of Amy Driffield, Kear has undertaken to create a literary icon. He is in the preliminary stages of writing the authorized biography of the late Edward Driffield, Amy’s recently deceased husband and a highly acclaimed Victorian author. As Driffield’s second wife, she has chosen as her task in life to be the “keeper of the flame,” the curator of all that his life and work have become. She is determined to reconstruct—or at least censor—that life, with Kear’s aid and compliance, into an acceptable portrait for public view, devoid of scandal and above reproach. Kear’s motives, however, fall far short of scholarly interest and integrity. He envisions his work on Driffield, as he explains it to Ashenden, as “a sort of intimate life, with a lot of those little details that make people feel warm inside . . . woven into this a really exhaustive criticism of his literary work, not ponderous . . . although sympathetic”—in brief, an insubstantial formula biography tailored to the mass market.
The character of Kear is based on Hugh Walpole, a highly popular novelist of the late 1920’s; Walpole is now relegated to the...
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occasional footnote in English literary history. Edward Driffield is largely drawn from Thomas Hardy. Although for many years Maugham denied the roman à clef identification, in later years he admitted to the Kear-Walpole creation. Walpole, according to Maugham, was a man he found “easy to like but difficult to respect.” Literary posterity has generally agreed with Maugham and has credited Walpole with being a man who made the most of a moderate talent, even to the point of parlaying it into a knighthood, in 1937, for his service to literature.
The Driffield-Hardy conception is largely creative conjecture based on contemporary gossip. Hardy was a widower who married a second time late in life; he lived until 1928. Driffield’s novel, The Cup of Life, seems to be a composite drawn from the public outcry associated with two Hardy novels, Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) and Jude the Obscure (1895).
The enduring heart of the novel, however, is Rosie, the warm center in the otherwise dreary lives of the men of Blackstable. She is a generous and loving woman whose childlike amorality and carpe diem philosophy enable her to endure and survive her own hidden suffering (the loss of the daughter she had with Driffield). She is a woman, the mature Ashenden tells the incredulous and contemptuous Kear and Amy Driffield, who “gave herself as naturally as the sun gives heat or the flowers their perfume.”
In intellectual circles in the 1920’s, it was fashionable to be in revolt against all things Victorian. One of the immutable laws of Victorian fiction decreed that “a woman who falls may never rise.” Lost virtue may never be supplanted by regained respectability. Hardy himself was subjected to considerable criticism for permitting Sue Bridehead, in Jude the Obscure, to return to her husband; she had been insufficiently punished after her long sojourn with Jude Fawley, despite the fact that her children had all died tragic deaths. Rosie, whose love is readily available to any man who will be made happy by it, remains triumphantly unrepentant into old age, living in relative prosperity, with no regrets. She is Somerset Maugham’s literary prototype of the twentieth century liberated woman, a free spirit who lives her life unfettered by pointlessly repressive convention.