W. Somerset Maugham Biography

At a Glance

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.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 1480 words.)