Places Discussed

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*London. Britain’s great city, like New York and Paris, hosts the literary marketplace where Edward Driffield, perhaps the last of the great Victorian novelists, has risen from the modest ambience of Blackstable in rural Kent County to eminence largely because he outlived temporary fashions. An opportunist named Alroy Kear—a minor novelist but one seasoned in Bloomsburyan deceptions—finds, in orchestrating the dead Driffield’s life, that he must deal with Blackstable and what he deems the unmarketability of the “provincial.” Through the sensitive lens of novelist Willie Ashenden, now middle-aged and humanely cynical, W. Somerset Maugham ushers the reader into literary London, a breeding ground for self-importance and false appearances, a wasteland in which one writer’s longevity and another’s sycophancy can flourish under art’s protective canopy.


Blackstable. Class-conscious Victorian village in Kent, where a few ruling families rule the roost. When Alroy Kear, Driffield’s fatuous biographer, asks Willie Ashenden as a favor to recall his teenage encounters with the great author and his first wife, a former barmaid named Rosie Gann Driffield, Willie’s memories take over chapters 5 to 10. They go far beyond the superficial responses to Kear to become a social guide to Blackstable and its stratified townscape in late Victorian England. Snobbery is rampant and nowhere more prevalent than in the parentless Willie’s life in the household of his aunt and uncle, the vicar of Blackstable.

Blackstable is based on Whitstable, which lies six miles north of Canterbury and was the place where at age ten Maugham began the classically deprived life that he dramatized in his finest novel, Of Human Bondage (1915). Willie, at fifteen, has long since taken on the snobbish colorations of Blackstable. He shares his uncle’s attitude of superiority and his disdain for one of Blackstable’s economic props, the tourist trade, which the vicar refers to as the “rag-tag and bobtail” of summer visitors from London. “I accepted the conventions of my class and Blackstable as if they were the laws of Nature,” Ashenden admits. In this novel of passage, Blackstable, for all its provinciality, provides the setting for mostly good deeds, London for mostly bad.

It is in Blackstable that the tyro Willie learns that life offers more than conformity to the Calvinistic dictates of the Blackstable vicar. There he learns to ride a bicycle—a joyous new conveyance for late-Victorians—and to do brass rubbings. It is in Blackstable that he first experiences unconditional goodness—an essence in Rosie that he will powerfully defend to Kear and Amy Driffield. Not accidentally, it is in Blackstable, not London, that Willie squelches Kear and Amy with praise for Rosie, whom they hold in contempt, as one “who loved to make people happy [and who] loved love.”

Ferne Court

Ferne Court. Home of the Driffields in Blackstable where the widowed Amy lives alone but where, to her dismay, fans of Edward visit. This house is the scene of Willie’s vigorous defense of Rosie.


*Yonkers. City, a few miles west of New York which in the early years of the twentieth century was populated by immigrants like Rosie. It is the setting for Rosie’s climactic revelations in her book-ending reunion with Willie, who comes to Broadway for the opening of his play. In Yonkers, Rosie finds a place, conveniently remote from England, where she can reveal to the only person who will fully understand the one great sorrow of her life.

Literary Techniques

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The novel falls into a number of time frames. As Willie Ashenden is urged by Kear and Mrs. Driffield to recall incidents...

(This entire section contains 290 words.)

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relating to Edward Driffield for Kear's "sanitized" biography, the narrator remembers events from various periods when he associated with Rosie and, sometimes, her husband. They are not presented in temporal sequence; however, Maugham introduces each one in such a way that the time posting is clear. For instance, Willie's early recollections of meeting the Driffields in Blackstable do not appear until Chapter V, some fifty pages into the text. And, the last chapter relates Ashenden's final meeting with Rosie (long after everyone in England believes that she is dead) in New York; this meeting takes place before the events of the preceding several chapters.

As usual, the first person point of view serves Maugham well, partly because, aside from the realistic arrangement of recollections, it provides the author a chance to introduce his own opinions on authors, literature, and life. Perhaps the most intense of these attitudes is that one which appears on the penultimate page of the novel. After reviewing the "tribulation" of authorship (poverty, indifference by readers, and the like), Maugham states that there is one great "compensation" in which writing becomes an act of therapy:

Whenever he has anything on his mind, whether it be a harassing reflection, grief at the death of a friend, unrequited love, wounded pride, anger at the treachery of someone to whom he had shown kindness, in short any emotion or any perplexing thought, he has only to put it down in black and white, using it as a theme of a story or the decoration of an essay, to forget all about it. He is the only free man.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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Inasmuch as so much emphasis is placed on Rosie Gann/Driffield/Kemp, some thought might be given to the true moral worth of this leading character. She does, after all, in addition to her sexual liberality, run off with two men (in one case, leaving her husband), both of whom are deep in debt and are escaping their creditors. Could such an action be excused? Is Maugham treating this aspect of Rosie's behavior too lightly? Does the novel suffer because of this authorial generosity?

Also, the whole matter of the literary world (essentially that of London) shown by Maugham might be viewed as both unnecessary and distracting. Can reasons be found to support the view that these passages advance the plot, help to develop an important theme, or the like? Further, do Maugham's asides on writers, authorship, and other related topics mar the effect of the text? Would the novel be better if it were shorter and focused more on the Rosie theme?

Then, does this point of view, which Maugham favored so frequently, really "work" the most effectively? Would a reader like to know just what is in the mind of another character besides Ashenden? Could providing such information deepen the texture of the book and help to develop a more substantial theme?

1. Are the central "conflicts" in the plot clearly enough developed? For example, the novel is often cited as an example of Art versus Life, a philosophical idea widely discussed during the Victorian era. The question being, should artists (and writers) mire themselves in the realities of life, or should they confine their sensibilities to beauty? How does Rosie reflect this idea? Does Life prevail in a believable manner?

2. The presentation of "Lord" George Kemp is not an extended one. Should he be developed as a fuller character, especially since Rosie abandons Driffield and her marriage vows for him?

3. Maugham is often praised for the reality of his settings, partly because he used places he knew well (Whitstable and London) as models for locations in the novel. Is this praise valid? Would the novel be more lively and interesting if the settings were less "realistic" and presented with more imaginative flair?

4. The point is often made that Driffield changes, for the worse, in the course of the plot, chiefly because of his growing fame and the adulation of many readers. Does this change seem genuine? Does the wink that he gives Ashenden late in the story suggest that he has not really changed but is only playing a part?

5. Since Maugham's own marriage failed, many readers believe him to have scorned the marital state. Does that belief appear to be supported by the action in this work? Does the author seem to believe, for example, that marriage often is very harmful to the talents of a gifted author? Can any evidence be adduced for this assertion?

6. Can a useful comparison be made between the second Mrs. Driffield and Mrs. Trafford, especially in their treatment of Driffield and his reputation? Do these women have essentially the same goal in mind, what Ashenden calls, with Mrs. Trafford, a clear view of "the main chance"?

7. In view of the modern attitude toward sexual relations, does Rosie's vision of the man-woman association seem defensible? Does Maugham offer a sufficiently compelling picture to support a positive reaction to her?

8. Apart from the narrator and Rosie, who is the most engaging and admirable character in the book? Does the author appear to want such a judgment to be made by the reader?

9. Does Rosie's reaction to the death of her child, spending the night with a man other than her husband, signify that she is of a lower moral character, or is it another example of Maugham's realistic psychology?

Social Concerns

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While the main title of this book relates directly to the principal theme, the subtitle indicates a social phenomenon that interested W. Somerset Maugham, represented by the narrator, Willie Ashenden (Maugham's favorite name for his narrators, and the tide character of a later novel), in this very autobiographical novel. In brief, much of the text is devoted to showing that social snobbery is not only unjust but simply misguided and wrong.

The class system has always been stronger in England than in the United States, but the phenomenon persists in most of the world (albeit in various forms). The "skeleton" in the subtitle is Rosie Gann, a character who is derided and almost despised because of her humble origins (a poor family and the post of barmaid at a local tavern, the Railway Arms). Rosie, whose marriage to the writer Edward Driffield helps to set many of the citizens of Blackstable (the name reflects the name of the town where Maugham spent much of his youth, Whitstable) against Driffield, whose repute also suffers from the fact of his various jobs before settling down to writing: the sea and, as the curate says, "all sorts of things since then."

The narrator is quick to admit that he had imbibed the snobbery of his town and of his guardian, his uncle, the vicar of Blackstable (a model of class consciousness), who believes that Willie should never associate with such common folk as the Driffields: "I think it would be most undesirable." This attitude extends to a number of other characters in the town, including the "wild" and brash "Lord" George Kemp and another man who is looked down upon because he is "in trade." After Willie comes to know the Driffields (surreptitiously), and after he has learned more of life and the world (the novel is formed of some nine time frames, with many flashbacks), he achieves the essential truth of his background:

I do not know that the people I lived among were pretentious in the sense of making themselves out to be richer or grander than they really were, but looking back it does seem to me that they lived a life of pretenses. They dwelt behind a mask of respectability.

This last word fairly well defines the kind of society that Willie learns to judge accurately and to deal with on his own terms—so that, when Alroy Kear, a writer who wishes to pen a biography of the late Edward Driffield, now viewed as "one of the greatest of the later Victorian novelists," asks Ashenden if he recalls the first Mrs. Driffield (Rosie), whom Kear regards as "dreadfully common," Willie says, "Yes, very distinctly . . . She was sweet."

It is Kear's project that forms the basic framework for the plot of the novel, stimulating Ashenden's memories of the Driffields and his own past. Since Mrs. Driffield (the second one; Rosie had left Edward) is involved in the undertaking, and since Kear (and, later, the narrator) is deep into the London literary scene, Willie finds many opportunities to provide disquisitions on the importance of social prominence in the building and maintenance of a literary career. This involves being at the right parties and being nice to the right people, the most notable one in the book being Mrs. Barton Trafford, whose influence can and does help to "make or break" authors. She is, however, something of a genuine critic herself: "She was a great reader. Little that was noteworthy escaped her attention, and she was quick to establish personal relations with any young writer who showed promise." Mrs. Trafford is equally hasty in dropping any author who has lost favor with the public. So, there is, in the literary London of Ashenden's time, a sort of class system, in which the successful are upper class, and the failures are definitely second-class citizens of this confined world.

As the narrator recalls more and more about such circumstances and about Rosie and Edward, and becomes more acquainted with Alroy Kear and Mrs. Trafford and the second Mrs. Driffield, he turns further away from the social (and, by extension, the artistic) snobbery that so marked the days of his youth, when he, for example, first encountered Edward Driffield (Willie was fifteen at the time): "He was a smallish man with a beard and he was dressed rather loudly in a bright brown knickerbocker suit, . . . Knickerbockers were uncommon then, at least in Blackstable, and being young and fresh from school I immediately set the fellow down as a cad." The rest of Cakes and Ale is largely the development of a correction of this early attitude. It develops an image of the intelligent, sensitive young artist (writer) who overcomes his own snobbery.

Literary Precedents

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Maugham never claimed to have a lively imagination, and he readily admitted that he took characters from people he knew or at least had observed. There is, however, a long tradition of such a practice. In the English novel, both Sterne and Smollett attacked enemies by unflattering fictional portrayals. So did Dickens and Disraeli. In later years, the same was done by H. G. Wells and Aldous Huxley. In France, after the publication of Madame Bovary (1857), Flaubert was accused of painting a nasty picture of an acquaintance— he replied that Emma Bovary was actually himself. In America, Hemingway formed a character on Sherwood Anderson, and Thomas Wolfe created characters after Sinclair Lewis and a number of other contemporaries. Not all of the portraitures are negative; and the practice, while not invented by Maugham, was brought by him to a high level (many readers believe that he "played fair" more readily with his "models" than did many other authors). And, as several critics have noted, people who have never heard of Hugh Walpole and find Hardy difficult reading, enjoy Cakes and Ale immensely.

To find a precedent for the creation of a flawed but admired "heroine," one need look no further than Fielding's Amelia (1751) and Richardson's Pamela (1740).


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Cordell, Richard. Somerset Maugham: A Biographical and Critical Study. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1961. Thorough analysis of Maugham as a writer proficient in all genres of literature.

Curtis, Anthony. The Pattern of Maugham: A Critical Portrait. New York: Taplinger, 1974. Analysis of Maugham’s more prominent works, with insights into the role of his insecurities and his frequent digressions in Cakes and Ale and other novels, when he offers personal commentary on the state of society and the world of arts and letters.

Curtis, Anthony, and John Whitehead, eds. W. Somerset Maugham: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1987. Particularly valuable for tracing the critical reception of Cakes and Ale since its initial publication. Contemporary reviews by noted literary figures such as Ivor Brown, Evelyn Waugh, and Leslie Marchand.

Loss, Archie K. W. Somerset Maugham. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1987. An in-depth analysis of the roman à clef aspects of the novel, emphasizing Maugham’s disparaging treatment of Hugh Walpole and Thomas Hardy.

Morgan, Ted. Maugham. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980. A comprehensive overview of Maugham’s life and career, with an extended discussion of the character of Rosie in Cakes and Ale. Morgan emphasizes her pragmatic morality and adaptability in a socially repressive atmosphere.


Critical Essays