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“I have never quite got out of my astonishment at being a writer,” wrote Somerset Maugham when looking back at his long and successful career. Maugham’s apparently effortless, economical, and elegant style was to influence major modern novelists as disparate as George Orwell and V. S. Naipaul. Yet if the author’s mature fiction was popular throughout the twentieth century and is still widely read today, his earlier novels have perhaps been unjustly neglected. The three novels in this collection, Liza of Lambeth (1897), Mrs Craddock (1902), and The Magician (1908), were all written before their author achieved celebrity status. Their settings are various, ranging from the South London slums through the Kentish countryside to the British expatriate community in early twentieth-century Paris, and yet they have common qualities. Each is marked by a compelling plot, and by the detached narrational irony that would become a central feature of Maugham’s work. In each, the protagonist is isolated from or ostracized by a traditional community and yet unable to create the new bonds of reciprocity through personal relationships that might enable survival in a changing society. The three novels thus dramatize a dilemma Maugham faced in his own life that is also the central theme of much literature in the modern world.
Although he is best known as a playwright and writer of short stories, W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) enjoyed one of the longest and most varied literary careers of any author in the English language. He was born in Paris, orphaned at ten, and abruptly transported first to the house of a provincial English clergyman uncle and then the harsh environment of a British boarding school. After studying in Germany Maugham trained as a doctor in London, and the social deprivation he witnessed in the outpatient’s department at Saint Thomas’ Hospital, South London, provided background material for the gritty realism of his first novel, Liza of Lambeth. A closeted homosexual moving with increasing comfort in bohemian circles in London and Paris, Maugham took his revenge on his past suffering and present insecurities through fiction. His second important novel, Mrs Craddock, is a caustic portrayal of the sterility of middle-class provincial English life. The third novel collected here, The Magician, is a thinly-veiled account of his encounter in Paris in the early 1900s with the “wickedest man alive,” occultist Aleister Crowley. After the success of the play Lady Frederick in 1907, Maugham’s popularity and financial security were assured, and yet he continued to exhibit creative versatility. Returning to prose fiction with the autobiographical novel Of Human Bondage (1915), Maugham continued to write popular short stories and novels until well after the Second World War. In doing so, he drew on an intense and varied life. His work for British Intelligence in Switzerland provided material for the Ashenden stories, and later extensive travels in the South Pacific and Asia with his lover Gerald Haxton resulted in novels such as The Moon and Sixpence and The Narrow Corner. His short stories of the foibles of British colonialists in colonial Malaya were influential enough that Malaya in the twilight of British rule is often thought of as “Maugham Country.” In 1926, Maugham bought a villa at Cap Ferrat, France, where he would live, apart from a hiatus in the United States during the Second World War which provided material for the frame narrative of his most popular novel, The Razor’s Edge (1944), until his death in 1965. Maugham’s last book, Purely for My Pleasure, was published in 1962, when its author was eighty-eight years old.
In his autobiographical The Summing Up Maugham recalled his experience working in the outpatient department in St Thomas’. At one time he served as an obstetrics clerk. “I had,” the author noted, “to attend a certain number of confinements to get a certificate, and this meant going into the slums of Lambeth, often into foul courts that the police hesitated to enter, but in which my black bag amply protected me.” One of these confinements would give rise to the final scene of his first novel in which the unmarried Liza Kemp, pregnant by a married man, dies of an unspecified condition related to her pregnancy. Published in 1897, Liza of Lambeth made a strong impact on critics and the reading public. In a reader’s report for Unwin, who would later publish the book, Edward Garnett praised it as a “very clever and realistic study” but warned that critics might object to the strong language and unflinchingly realistic description of working class life. He was proved right. A review in the Academy condemned the work as “a sordid story of vulgar seduction,” while The National Review characterized it as “gratuitously brutal.” The novel was even the subject of a Sunday sermon at Westminster Abbey. As Maugham discovered later in his career, controversy sells books, and Liza of Lambeth soon went into its second printing.
Whether wittingly or not, Maugham displayed impeccable timing in his publication of a novel of working class life. Novels showing the squalor of the conditions in city slums had become popular in England with the publication of George Gissing’s The Nether World (1889). More immediate models for Maugham were Arthur Morrison’s Tales of Mean Streets (1894) and A Child of the Jago (1896), the latter published in the year in which the author of Liza wrote the bulk of his novel. Morrison’s novels were set in working-class London, and attempted to represent Cockney slang phonetically in their dialogue. Yet Maugham’s bilingual background allowed him to draw on other influences. The author himself acknowledged the decisive impact of French fiction writer Guy de Maupassant on his first novel. His wide knowledge of French Literature would have suggested a further antecedent: Emile Zola’s L’Assomoir, with its naturalistic representation of Parisian working-class life, and Zola’s pioneering use of Parisian slang. Philosophically, Maugham was clearly also influenced by naturalistic conventions embodied in Zola’s writings. He would later claim that in Liza of Lambeth he “described without addition or exaggeration the people I met. . ., the incidents that had struck me when I went from house to house as the work called, or, when I had nothing to do, on my idle saunterings,” and note with considerable self-deprecation that the success of the book was due to the vividness of the material presented, not to his own skill or artistic imagination.
Despite Maugham’s modesty, Liza is clearly a novel of promise, which succeeds as much through technical virtuosity as it does through its subject matter. Its author did not have the direct experience of working-class life possessed by Gissing and Morrison, and attempted to overcome this through copious research, making careful notes to himself on Lambeth court and hospital cases as well as Cockney pronunciation for later use in the book. Yet Maugham’s need to work hard to enter into the world of working-class life does not damage the book, but rather proves its strength, developing it in a different direction from its predecessors. Gissing’s and Morrison’s novels of slum life, for all their illumination of the horror of inner-city squalor, were largely read by a firmly middle-class reading public. In Liza of Lambeth Maugham cultivates a close relationship with this middle-class readership. At one point Maugham’s narrator playfully describes Liza and her youthful suitor, Tom, as “Corydon and Phyllis,” the shepherd and shepherdess lovers of Classical mythology in a scene which culminates in a very unpastoral spitting competition. This, and the painterly narrational distance of several descriptive passages, foreshadows the detached and ironic narrator of Maugham’s later fiction. The doctor who appears at the end of the novel is clearly a self-portrait of Maugham himself, yet he appears distant from the scene, delivering harsh pronouncements with little emotional content in crisp Received Pronunciation. He might usefully be thought of as a precursor of a number of Maugham’s detached characters, observers, and narrators who have a close resemblance to the author, blurring the boundary between fiction and autobiography, a process culminating in the appearance of a character called “Somerset Maugham” in the novel The Razor’s Edge.
Mrs Craddock, written in 1899 but not published until 1902, extends Maugham’s encounter with naturalism. After an exuberant but unsuccessful foray into historical fiction with his second novel, The Making of a Saint, Maugham perhaps felt the need to return to material with which he was more familiar. Searching for experiences on which to draw, its author looked back beyond his time at Saint Thomas’ hospital to his teenage years in Kent. Place names in the novel are thus transparent adaptations of real ones, much in the style of Thomas Hardy’s use of “Casterbridge” for Dorchester. Whitstable, where Maugham lived with his clergyman uncle and his wife after he was orphaned, becomes, with rather wicked irony, “Blackstable,” while the first two syllables of Canterbury are transposed in the name of Maugham’s town “Tercanbury.” The parsimonious curate Mr. Glover in Mrs Craddock is a direct if rather jaundiced portrait of Maugham’s uncle, Henry MacDonald Maugham. Yet the protagonist of Mrs Craddock, Bertha Leys, loving life but married to the stolid and uninspiring Edward Craddock, is drawn not from Maugham’s life but from fiction. In temperament and situation, if not in eventual fate, she resembles the protagonist of one of Maugham’s favorite novels, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Indeed, the closeness of the titles is not incidental: in both Maugham’s and Flaubert’s novels, the protagonists find themselves constricted by the roles that they must play as wives in conservative provincial settings.
Maugham’s novel was largely well received. Novelist Arthur St John Aldcock noted in the Bookman that the narrative marked “a distinct advance on what Mr Maugham had previously accomplished,” and praised Maugham’s capacity to “reflect the truth” of unhappy marriages rather than writing “improbable romances of ideal men and women.” If anything, Maugham was perhaps too liberal with the truth. Publishers initially objected to the explicitness of his descriptions of Bertha’s passion for her husband and lover, and Heinemann only consented to publish the novel if a key passage was deleted. Maugham had been unhappy about the paucity of royalties received from Fisher Unwin for Liza of Lambeth, and the book’s publication marked the beginning of his long and lucrative publishing relationship with Heinemann, which would last for his lifetime. The cut passage was quietly restored in a later edition.
Re-reading the novel half a century after its composition, Maugham confessed that the late Victorian milieu it described was now unfamiliar to him, and he felt impelled to discuss its author in the third, rather than the first person. The “author of Mrs Craddock,” he remarked in a 1955 preface to the book, “was not only a foolish young man; he was supercilious, cocksure and often wrongheaded,” although he did note elsewhere that the novel was “not unsuccessful” in giving a picture of a now vanished world. The novel is certainly very much of its time, describing with acerbic penetration the torpor of upper- and middle-class late Victorian provincial life. Bertha’s frustration in a marriage to a man who is not her social, intellectual, and emotional equal allows Maugham to respond to the “Woman question” that vexed late Victorian and Edwardian England. Bertha does not make the same choices as “New Women” such as Herminia Barton in Grant Allen’s The Woman Who Did (1895), who would support themselves through newly open professions such as teaching, and live a life independent of men. However, her restlessness in her role reflects societal changes at the end of the nineteenth century in which women were gradually gaining visibility in the public sphere. Maugham’s sympathetic portrayal of Bertha, like his portrait of Liza in his first novel, complicates a commonplace but mistaken view of him as an unrepentant misogynist.
Maugham’s ability to observe with precision and wry humor the antics of the provincial upper and upper-middle classes was no doubt honed by his own experiences. His seven years as a child and teenager at Whitstable had produced both an intimate knowledge of and yet a continued sense of distance from Kentish landscape and society. After the excitement of an early childhood in Paris, Whitstable seemed dull and stifling, and Maugham exorcised some demons of the past through his portrayal of Mr. Glover’s narrow-mindedness and Edward Craddock’s boorish love of hunting, farming, King, and Country. Yet in describing the setting of Mrs Craddock, Maugham encountered a problem which he was later to note with reference to Flaubert: How might a writer “describe a boring time without boring the reader”? The author achieves this through a variety of strategies, allowing Bertha trips to London and abroad where she encounters the seductions of Bohemia, while at the same time making her a fully-realized character with a strongly drawn inner life. We thus follow Bertha through her initial infatuation with Edward to her growing realization of his shallowness. In doing so, we encounter what is perhaps the central theme in Maugham’s fiction. Musing on Edward’s unresponsiveness, Bertha’s confidante Miss Ley quotes a maxim from the French moralist François La Rochefoucauld, “entre deux amants il y a toujours in qui aime et un qui se laisse aimer” (of any two lovers there is always one who loves and the other who allows him or herself to be loved). Bertha’s passion causes her “to abase herself before the strong man, to be low and humble before him,” and yet such self-denial eventually leads to her resentment at her loss of personal autonomy, her love slowly being transformed into hatred.
Most significant in terms of Maugham’s future career, however, is not characterization but his use of dialogue. Many of the early exchanges between Bertha, Miss Ley, and other characters are extremely witty in their trenchant irony and double entendre, and read more like a play script than a novel. Such dialogue would not be out of place in the Shropshire country house of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), and indicates that Maugham was already honing skills that he would put to use as a popular playwright in the next phase of his literary career.
The Magician, the last of the novels collected here, was published in 1908, having been written during Maugham’s residence in Paris from 1904 onwards. The novel represents a new departure for its author, constituting an early attempt to synthesize the sharp social observation of Liza of Lambeth and Mrs Craddock with an interest in the spiritual and the fantastic which marked less successful novels such as The Making of a Saint. Like Maugham’s earlier fiction, The Magician proved controversial. Its publication was delayed because its original publishers read it while in proof, and were shocked enough by the content to promptly return the manuscript to its author. “I have always thought that publishers should never learn to read,” Maugham commented dryly on the incident. “It is enough if they can sign their names.”
If the events of the plot are fictional, many of the early scenes of the novel are again drawn from life: In this case they are replete with thinly disguised portraits of the Parisian expatriate community in which Maugham moved. The two lovers in the novel, solid Englishman Arthur Burdon and his fiancée Margaret Dauncy, rendezvous at the Chien Noir (Black Dog) restaurant; in actuality, the restaurant was a meeting place for artists and intellectuals in the rue d’Odessa known as the Chat Blanc (White Cat). Many of the regulars at the café in the novel are identifiable as members of Maugham’s circle, and the villain of the novel, Oliver Haddo, is clearly the occultist Aleister Crowley, with whom Maugham was acquainted in Paris. Haddo, indeed, is pivotal in bringing together the two halves of the book. He enslaves Margaret mentally, marries her, and then takes her to England where she dies in diabolic experiments to create new forms of life on Haddo’s country estate. Arthur’s pursuit of Margaret transforms the book from a nuanced observation of expatriate life into a reprise of the late Victorian gothic quest. Haddo’s magnetic personality, country house, and spiritual possession of a woman are reminiscent of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), while the relationship between Haddo and Margaret, and the Parisian expatriate setting suggest the influence of George du Maurier's Trilby (1894). The novel’s central theme of the struggle between rationality and what lies beyond the rational, as well as some of the descriptive passages towards the end of the narrative, are perhaps influenced by Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886).
Since Maugham was already a successful playwright by the time of its publication, critical attention was elsewhere, and this might explain why The Magician attracted only a smattering of contemporary interest. The most vehement response was from Crowley himself, who reviewed the book in Vanity Fair under the pseudonym “Oliver Haddo,” and noted that the “photographically-accurate portrait” of the Chat Blanc set was Maugham’s attempted revenge for the “cutting contempt” in which members of the group held the writer. Crowley argued that the novel was both extremely derivative, rewriting scenes from popular novelist Mabel Collins’ The Blossom and the Fruit and H. G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau. He also, more devastatingly, located and documented passages that were plagiarized from contemporary books about the occult. Accusations of lack of originality and of wafer-thin fictionalization of reality would dog Maugham for the rest of his career. In 1925, for instance, his publishers had to physically cut out pages from the first edition of The Painted Veil and replace them with new ones in order to head off a threatened libel suit.
Retrospectively, Maugham would also belittle The Magician as the last of a series of “exercises by which I sought to learn my business.” Re-reading his novel when it was re-published half a century after he wrote it, the author did find that the narrative “held my interest,” although he now felt the style to be overly “lush and turgid.” Since the novel was published at a time when its author had made his breakthrough on the London stage, it closes the early, formative phase of his literary career. He would move away from fiction in the next few years, and only return to writing fiction in the next decade.
Despite these criticisms, however, The Magician foreshadows important themes in Maugham’s later, and more substantial fiction. Like Maugham’s earlier novels, and in particular Mrs Craddock, it explores the tyranny of unreciprocated love. Margaret is infatuated with Haddo despite recognizing his innate evil; Arthur is almost destroyed by Margaret’s rejection of him on the day of their marriage; and Susie Boyd, Margaret’s companion in Paris, is motivated by a deeply sublimated infatuation with her friend’s fiancé. This, as we have seen, is perhaps the most persistent of Maugham’s themes: In an 1894 entry in A Writer’s Notebook he would note that “the love that lasts longest is the love that is never returned.” Such concerns would become central in Maugham’s partially autobiographical novel, Of Human Bondage, and remain prominent in his later novels and short stories, and indeed be exemplified in his long and frequently tortured relationship with Gerald.
The freedom accorded by the Parisian setting and the structure of the horror tale used in The Magician enabled its author to introduce new motifs. Maugham’s novel is Orientalist in the sense used by Edward Said, in that it draws a binary opposition between Western rationality and Eastern spirituality. Haddo ensnares Margaret by telling her of “strange Eastern places” and, of “many-colored webs and of silken carpets” that promise “a life of vivacity” in contrast to the “narrow round” of humdrum marriage to the stolid Arthur. Yet Maugham’s use of this binarism is not simple. Arthur is in fact born in Egypt and only defeats Haddo by recognizing the irrational, “oriental” side of his personality long suppressed by a British education. Here Maugham is creating an imaginary, textual Orient in order to provide a place of refuge from, and critique of, the West. The Egypt of The Magician is thus the first in a long line of exotic locations that would be thematically central in his later writing: The Tahiti that enables English painter Charles Strickland to discover a primordial selfhood in The Moon and Sixpence, for example, or the India which causes Larry Darrel to reject his affluent American background in The Razor’s Edge.
Bohemian Paris also gives Maugham greater scope to represent homosexual desire, albeit in a coded manner. Wandering in the Louvre, Arthur finds that a statue of a Greek athlete attracts his “prolonged attention.” Later, Maugham devotes an elaborate and sensuous descriptive passage to a painting which is easily identifiable as Bronzino’s Portrait of a Man Holding a Statuette, a work of art used by Marcel Proust to indicate the homosexual desire of Charlus for Morel in The Captive. Extended quotation from Oscar Wilde’s Salome is matched by further passages from Walter Pater’s The Renaissance. While Maugham would later affect to despise Pater, both Pater and Wilde would have been associated with the representation of male homosexual desire in the community in which Maugham moved. In a note written before the composition of The Magician Maugham writes of “the hothouse beauties of Pater’s style,” of being overwhelmed by its oppressive sensuality. The displacement of homosexual desire into prolonged sensual descriptive passages would become a staple of short stories such as “Red,” and indeed it is significant that Maugham’s only published discussions of homosexuality are in reference to artistic and literary texts, in essays concerning the painter El Greco and the American novelist Herman Melville.
Collectively, the three novels show the development of Maugham’s writing talent. Each is written following the conventions of a different genre, and each succeeds on its own terms as more than simply a curiosity of literary history. Liza of Lambeth extends the genre of the slum novel through its detached narrational strategies, while Mrs Craddock, in its depiction of provincial ennui, displays the other side of women’s experiences to fiction regarding the New Woman. The Magician mixes the genres of the expatriate novel and the gothic tale, and, in its representation of exoticism, aestheticism, and homosexual desire, is an important precursor for Maugham’s subsequent fiction.
Maugham’s long career provided him many opportunities to look back at his earlier work, and in doing so he was acutely conscious of his strengths and limitations as a writer. His best work, he was aware, was of limited but detailed scope, skillfully written yet without the breadth of theme or imagination possessed by the great novelists of the nineteenth century whom he read and admired. “I have painted easel pictures, not frescoes,” he noted aiming for detailed observations rather than grand thematic gestures, and cultivating an ironic detachment from the subjects of his fiction. Yet Maugham’s pictures of late Victorian and Edwardian life reproduced here would have a lasting influence on his own writing practice and on that of his literary successors. And, as Maugham would repeatedly stress, there are virtues in limited scope, and in distance. “There is no need for the writer to eat a whole sheep to be able to tell you what mutton tastes like,” he wrote in A Writer’s Notebook. “It is enough if he eats a cutlet. But he should do that.”
Philip Holden is Associate Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at the National University of Singapore. He is the author of three books and many articles about literary production under colonialism.
Posted September 21, 2008
Great collection of Maugham's works BUT this printing has more typos than a rough draft!! Not only are there lots of misspelled words but there are also incorrect pronouns causing the reader to make some sleuth work and make some assumptions as to which dialogue belongs to which character. I have never come across so many typos in any publication.
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Posted August 13, 2010
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