W. Somerset Maugham

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W. Somerset Maugham Biography

W. Somerset Maugham is beloved by Hollywood. Many of Maugham’s plays, novels, and short stories have been adapted into films. In part, this can be attributed to his enormous output, but it is even more closely tied to his enduring popularity. That popularity and the lucrative financial benefits that it brought had a negative impact on Maugham’s literary reputation. A writer who was too often written off as well-liked rather than well-respected, Maugham frequently joked about his own apparent inferiority. Despite his modesty, Maugham created a body of work characterized by incredible range. While he was known for fluffy tales like Theatre (which was adapted into the 2004 film Being Julia), his dark, late-career novel The Razor’s Edge proved Maugham was an author of substance.

Facts and Trivia

  • Although of British descent, Maugham was born in Paris. To prevent Maugham from being drafted into the military under French law, Maugham’s father arranged for his son to be born on British Embassy grounds.
  • Despite his gift with language on the page, Maugham suffered from a severe stutter throughout his life.
  • Maugham was one of the “Literary Ambulance Drivers” of World War I. The moniker was a slang term for the unusually high number of literary greats (such as Ernest Hemingway and E. E. Cummings) who served as ambulance drivers during the war.
  • Maugham briefly did intelligence work at the end of the First World War. The written account of his experiences was highly influential on Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond.
  • For half a decade, Maugham studied medicine. Though the experience would continue to influence his writing for the rest of his life, it was particularly crucial to his first and highly successful novel, Liza of Lambeth.

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William Somerset Maugham was born in the British Embassy in Paris, which ensured his British citizenship. He passed his early life in France and, although he was staunchly English, he never lost his attachment to France, living and vacationing there whenever he could and, in the end, dying in his longtime home, the Villa Mauresque on Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat.

Maugham was born into a “legal” family: His father, Robert Ormond Maugham, was a solicitor for the British Embassy in Paris; his grandfather was reputedly one of the founders of the Law Society in England; and Maugham’s brother Frederick Herbert Maugham, first viscount Maugham of Hartfield, was an outstanding lawyer, politician, and writer. His mother, Edith Mary Snell Maugham, a woman of great beauty and sensitivity, was socialite of some note in Paris. Her death at forty-one (January 13, 1882) was a shock from which Maugham never fully recovered. Her portrait stood at his bedside for the rest of his life. Edith Maugham bore six sons in all. Among those who survived to adulthood, Henry Neville Maugham was an unsuccessful writer who committed suicide in 1904, while Charles Ormond Maugham went into the law and eventually headed the family law firm in Paris.

In 1884, Maugham was uprooted from his Parisian home and was sent to live with his uncle, the Reverend Henry MacDonald Maugham, vicar of Whitstable, Kent, and his aristocratic German wife. While his older brothers were romping their way through Dover College, young Maugham was enrolled in the famous King’s School in Canterbury. There, the stuttering youngster had a very hard time of it until he left behind what was, in his opinion, the brutal staff of the lower forms. In later life, he became one of the school’s chief benefactors and established a library there, which bears his name.

In 1890, Maugham was sent to the Riviera to recover from lung disease, a complaint that plagued him in one form or another periodically throughout his life. There he discovered French literature, an influence that was to be lasting. In The Summing Up, Maugham declared that it was the fiction of Guy de Maupassant that most influenced him when he set about becoming a writer.

In 1891, Maugham left the king’s school and persuaded his uncle to send him to Heidelberg, where he acquired a lasting taste for philosophy from Kuno Fischer, attended his first play, and became much involved with the students’ informal discussions of drama.

From 1892 to 1895, Maugham studied medicine at St. Thomas’s Hospital in London, gaining much experience of life in the wards, in the clinic, and as an obstetrical clerk in the Lambeth district of London, then a slum of incredible squalor. The first fruit of his medical experience was the novel Liza of Lambeth, the success of which so encouraged Maugham that he turned down the offer of an assistantship at St. Thomas’s. He decided later that this had been a great mistake, since it robbed him of a further chance to study human nature under stress and at its most primitive. Abandoning medicine, except for his wartime tour in the ambulance corps, Maugham began his writing career in earnest. He also began his lifelong habit of travel.

In the next several years, Maugham traveled in Spain and Italy, saw his first full-length play, A Man of Honor, performed by the Imperial Theatre Stage Society in 1903 (an error, he ultimately concluded, because it labeled his work as “intellectual” and frightened off the commercial managers), and even tried his hand at editing. After finding editing uncongenial, he established residency in Paris.

The year 1907 was a gala one for Maugham. After years of struggle, he had determined in 1903 to write plays with the deliberate goal of producing “surefire” commercial successes. Lady Frederick, his first attempt under the program, languished for several years before being produced at the Court Theatre; however, within the year, four of Maugham’s plays were running simultaneously in London: Lady Frederick, Jack Straw, Mrs. Dot, and The Explorer. All but the last were resounding commercial successes. This triumph freed Maugham from nagging money worries, and he would never again be forced to resume them.

A series of commercially successful but artistically mediocre plays followed, with only Smith, Loaves and Fishes, and The Land of Promise having some pretense to addressing serious themes, namely social caste and religious hypocrisy.

In 1913, Maugham began having an affair with Syrie Wellcome, a married woman. The alliance was quite open and was accepted by Maugham’s set. The outbreak of World War I found Maugham signing up for ambulance service, an occupation he found to be physically rigorous but oddly free from responsibility in that he was under orders and thus free from personal decision making. In 1915, through Syrie, with whom he was sharing an apartment in Rome and whom he was to marry that same year, he transferred to the intelligence branch of the British forces and was sent as a spy to Lucerne and Geneva, Switzerland. The Swiss police were at once suspicious, and he found that writing was necessary for a cover. In August, he published his great novel, Of Human Bondage, which he had begun in 1911 and in which autobiography and imaginative invention were so intertwined that he observed in his later life that he could not distinguish one from the other.

In 1916, Maugham went to the South Seas for his health, his always weak lungs having given way to bronchitis during the rugged Swiss winter. It is an open question whether he was also traveling on an intelligence assignment. His companion was Gerald Haxton, a dashing American whom Maugham had met in the ambulance service and who was to be his special friend for years to come. The trip gave Maugham the material for his short story “Miss Sadie Thompson” (better known under the later title “Rain”) as well as for his novel The Moon and Sixpence, about the art and career of Paul Gauguin.

The Russian Revolution was well under way when Maugham, in 1917, was posted to St. Petersburg to keep the Kerensky government in the war. Maugham seems not to have fully realized the preposterousness of the mission and later suggested that, had he been sent earlier, he might have had a chance of success. Once again, his lungs gave way, this time with tuberculosis, and he entered Banchory Sanitorium in Scotland. He found the hospital a perfect place in which to relax and write, in spite of the bitter cold, which, according to the medical theories of the time, had to be freely admitted into the sickroom along with the fresh air.

During 1919, Maugham determined to enter on unlimited travels. The Moon and Sixpence having been seen through the press, he visited the South Seas again and toured the Far East, the United States, Europe, and North Africa. Meanwhile, he kept up a regular flood of publication of all kinds.

In 1927, Syrie and Maugham were divorced. The parting was not friendly, and Maugham observed at her death in 1955 only that he was at last free of alimony payments. In 1928, Maugham bought the charming Villa Mauresque on Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, west of Nice, France, which remained his home for the rest of his life except for the period of World War II. In the same year, Ashenden: Or, The British Agent was published, and in 1930, Cakes and Ale, one of Maugham’s best works, appeared.

In 1933, Maugham announced his retirement from playwriting, stating quite simply that he had lost touch with the public and had no desire to resume the contact, since it would require him to master the tastes of a new generation of theatergoers, which was a drudgery he was not willing to undertake.

After a visit to the West Indies in 1936 and another to India in 1938, Maugham was dislocated by World War II. No friend of the Germans, he found it prudent to put his treasured art in the care of French friends and flee Nice to escape probable arrest. London proved incompatible, and he weathered the war in South Carolina and Massachusetts.

In 1944, The Razor’s Edge, Maugham’s mystic novel, which expresses his deep belief that human kindness is the central fact of life, was published. To Maugham’s grief, Haxton died the same year.

From the war years onward, Maugham’s interest in film deepened, climaxing, a few years after his return to Villa Mauresque, with the filming of Quartet (1949). Trio (1950) and Encore (1951) followed, along with a new interest in television as a medium.

Honors came to the aging author: In 1952, Oxford University awarded Maugham a doctorate, and two years later, the Garrick Club made him a Companion of Honor. In 1959, Maugham made his final visit to the Far East. In 1962, he published Looking Back. From that point on, he lived a rather solitary and antisocial life until he died on December 16, 1965, at a hospital in Nice.

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