Maugham, W(illiam) Somerset 1874–1965
French-born British novelist and short story writer, best known for Of Human Bondage. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)
By the nineteen-thirties, after having for many years been either despised or ignored by intellectuals, Somerset Maugham had moved unobtrusively to a high place both as a dramatist and as a writer of fiction. In his case, popular favour preceded critical acclaim, and his satirical mind must have found a wry satisfaction in the spectacle of the experts belatedly hastening to catch up with independent public approval….
[Of Human Bondage (1916)] is a fine achievement, but work of a more distinctively personal kind was to come. Cakes and Ale (1930) has incisiveness, brilliance, genuine pathos, and beauty. It is his best novel, for, here, sardonic wit and satire do not drive out human sympathy and understanding…. The character of Rosie, the barmaid who becomes Driffield's first wife, is Somerset Maugham's masterpiece and one of the great creations in English fiction. In Cakes and Ale the main characteristic of the mature Maugham—absence of romantic illusion—is less productive of what often seems in his short stories to be a cynically sterile view of life….
In the illuminating preface to a single-volume collection of his short stories, Altogether (1934), Somerset Maugham acknowledged a debt to Maupassant, though he himself contributed far more than he borrowed from the Frenchman. The short stories are often dazzling, though occasionally only glittering. The impish audacity of his wit and his disrespect for self-righteousness are breathtaking in The Vessel of Wrath, the perfect story of its kind. The tragic note is not outside his range (see Red), but his celebrated story, Rain—of a prostitute, Sadie Thompson, converted by a missionary who then succumbs to lust, solicits her, and commits suicide—misses tragedy and achieves only a painful sordidness. Tragedy is, indeed, a will-o'-the-wisp to Somerset Maugham. It led, in the novel, A Christmas Holiday (1939), to his one major failure. Maugham's output of novels and short stories during the nineteen-forties showed little diminution of his sharp-focused curiosity concerning the behaviour and motives of men and women. If he then wrote nothing that increased his reputation, he nevertheless indulged certain wider personal interests by taking up semi-historical themes in Then and Now (1946) and Catalina (1948), and a quasi-mystical one in The Razor's Edge (1944), without sacrificing his ironical scepticism and incisive humour. The cynicism with which it became a lazy cliché to charge him was in truth and in the main a humorous appreciation of human oddity and incalculability, though he was never unaware of nor unresponsive to the pathos and pain which human relationships may generate. (pp. 59-60)
[As a playwright,] Somerset Maugham resembled, at first, the Society dramatists of the eighteen-nineties, combining the technical methods of Pinero with the verbal mannerisms of Oscar Wilde. His plays (from A Man of Honour, 1903, to Our Betters, 1923) reflect the changes in taste among playgoers who liked to see on the stage an imitation of the 'high life' of their own day….
Somerset Maugham bridges the twenty-five years between Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward. Free on the one hand from Victorian ready-made morality, and on the other hand from neo-Georgian licentiousness and cynicism, Caesar's Wife (1919) is among Maugham's best plays; while The Circle (1921) and Our Betters (1923) have been praised for their careful craftsmanship and acute social criticism; the latter has, in fact, been ranked as the best comedy of its kind since Restoration times. The Breadwinner (1930) brings the wheel...
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full circle from Ibsen, for, reversingA Doll's House, it shows a husband revolting from the bondage of a happy home and family and going out 'to lead his own life'. The Breadwinner presents not only the long-overdue revolt of the male, but also the revolt of Middle Age against Youth, and in this particular Somerset Maugham is more convincing as well as wittier than St John Ervine…. [His] two pieces—For Services Rendered (1932) and Sheppey (1933)—[are] deeply felt and deeply serious in intention. Neither was on the level of his best work, however, for his effectiveness as a critic of life is in inverse proportion to his solemnity. Through wit, humour, gaiety, and an incisive illusion-proof mind, he was capable of more in the way of the correction of absurdities and abuses than when he permitted a deliberate seriousness to dull his natural gifts. (pp. 129-30)
A. C. Ward, in his Twentieth-Century English Literature 1901–1960, Methuen-University Paperbacks, 1964.
It must be admitted that there are worse popular novelists than Maugham. He himself once proclaimed that he considered his chief function as a novelist was to entertain…. [But], in a sense, the first (if not necessarily the prime) function of a novelist, of any artist, is to entertain…. Maugham's limitation as an artist is that he is equipped to do no more than entertain, and that in consequence he achieves no more than his immediate aim. He is working always at the frontiers of his meagre imagination, and the talents that he undoubtedly possesses are not, in themselves, sufficient to sustain one's interest in his narrative.
Part of the trouble is that Maugham places far too heavy an emphasis on narrative. He was always at great pains to describe himself as a story-teller; but stories as such lack resonance. Any idiot can tell a story: only an artist of imagination can tell it significantly. Maugham lacks intellectual imagination. At his best he was a good reporter—a slightly superior Galsworthy.
Brigid Brophy, Michael Levey, and Charles Osborne, in their Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without, Stein & Day, 1968, pp. 125-27.