Ashenden: Or, The British Agent (1928) consists of sixteen stories and sketches bound by the central character, an authorial persona. Ashenden’s experiences are based on W. Somerset Maugham’s work with MI6 during 1915-1917, though Maugham carefully notes that the accounts are fictional. The name Ashenden, like many in Maugham’s work, is common in Kent and was the surname of a schoolmate of the author at King’s School in Canterbury. Maugham continued to use the name after the spy series, most notably in Cakes and Ale: Or, The Skeleton in the Cupboard (1930), where the authorial persona is given the first name Willie, as Maugham was called by his friends. Ted Morgan reports that sometimes Maugham introduced himself as Willie Ashenden, and there can be little doubt that the author of the stories is closely identified with his hero.
Maugham is noted for introducing the life of the workaday spy or intelligence officer, a hero who is neither heroic nor idealistic. When Ashenden is recruited by R., a British colonel who becomes his chief, the latter narrates a story of a recent event that might be useful in fiction. An agent meets an attractive woman, forms a liaison with her, and together they go to a hotel room. During the evening she manages to drug him, and when he awakens she and his secret papers are missing. This premise, R. says, should make a good story. Ashenden’s response gives the writer’s perspective: “We’ve been putting that incident on the stage for sixty years, we’ve written it in a thousand novels. Do you mean to say that life has only just caught up with us?” In reality, an agent’s work proves far less dramatic. In his preface to a later edition (1941), Maugham points out that intelligence work is often monotonous and uncommonly useless to a writer. To form coherent plots, an author must impose organization and provide logical connections.
Ashenden is more an intermediary than an actor in events; he receives his orders from R. and transmits information to other agents. Sometimes he serves as a supervisor, sometimes as paymaster; at other times his mission is not entirely clear even to himself. He gives the impression that he grasps a small part of a large puzzle while operating in an atmosphere rife with intrigue. When Ashenden is in Switzerland, he serves without pay; he has been told that his success will not be rewarded; thus, his failure will be his own responsibility. Skeptical, detached, analytic, and even cynical at times, he never questions his own loyalty. He would no more think of betraying his nation or its interests than of appearing to be lower class. When he finds out that R. has been receiving reports on his activities, including social ones, he reacts with wry amusement. Among the other characters in the series, only R. recurs with any regularity. Ashenden’s chief is humorless and somewhat self-conscious about his lack of culture, but he is cunning, masterful, single-minded, and completely devoted to his profession.
Ashenden is first sent to Geneva with access to codes and a diplomatic passport under the name Somerville. He assures the skeptical Swiss authorities that he has come there only to write a play, since wartime England is in too much turmoil for artistic creation. The Swiss know that their country is filled with spies for both sides and accept the situation, though they are always on the lookout for flagrant and open violations of their neutrality.
“The Flip of a Coin”
The conflicts faced by Ashenden in his role as an agent are revealed in the brief story “The Flip of a Coin,” which Maugham omitted when he prepared the Ashenden material for his volumes of collected short stories. An assassin has approached Ashenden with the idea of killing the King of B., a monarchy allied with Germany, and for the deed he wants five thousand pounds. Ashenden takes the matter to R., who reponds, “It’s not the kind of thing we can have anything to do with. We don’t wage war by those methods. We leave them to the Germans. Damn it all, we are gentlemen. . . .” Shortly afterward he suggests that having the king out of the way would be quite a good thing, and that if from a sense of patriotism anyone chose to arrange it, he could not object. Ashenden snaps back that he would not pay for a mission of that kind out of his own pocket. He then has to resolve the main conflict, deciding whether a saboteur should be sent to blow up German factories. The problem is that many...
(The entire section is 1841 words.)