Of Human Frailty

The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

Books Literature

The distinguished American critic Edmund Wilson called Somerset Maugham “a half-trashy novelist who writes badly, but is patronised by half-serious readers who do not care much about writing”. Selina Hastings observes that Wilson hadn’t read Maugham before reviewing his penultimate, rather poor, novel Then and Now, and dismissing him in this lordly fashion. If he was right, there were enough “half-serious readers” in those days to make a modern novelist green with envy. Maugham’s last major novel, The Razor’s Edge (1944), sold half a million copies in the USA within a few weeks of publication, and had notched up three million sales there by the end of the decade. A less ambitious novel, Christmas Holiday (1939), sold almost 100,000 copies in Britain alone. It’s reasonable to suppose that Wilson’s judgment may have been tainted by envy.

Whether you despise Maugham as Wilson did or admire him like Evelyn Waugh, you have to admit that his success as novelist, dramatist, short-story writer, essayist, and provider of material for movies and television was phenomenal. He was fortunate in his period, of course. There were then unprecedented numbers of readers, serious or half-serious as may be, not as yet seduced by television. He pleased them for more than half a century and still pleases today when collections of his short stories and some of his novels remain in print. This is in part doubtless because he offers easy reading. But he has other merits, of which more later.

He was well rewarded. In the 1930s a household staff of 13 served him at the Villa Mauresque in the South of France where he spent a large part of his life. On visits to London he stayed at the Dorchester or the Ritz. His books were widely translated; he was a best-seller in Japan as well as in Britain and the USA. His long-short story Rain, filmed at least twice, made him a million dollars. More than 90 films and TV adaptations have been made of his work. 

He became the Grand Old Man of English Letters and, on his friend Winston Churchill’s recommendation, was made a Companion of Honour. Maugham himself thought that he should have received the OM. The CH meant “very well done, but…”

Selina Hastings, or her publisher, has given her admirable biography a misleading title. The old boy’s secret, carefully kept from his readers, was revealed long ago. He was no sooner dead than he was dragged from the closet and his sex life exposed to the world, by his nephew Robin and by an old boyfriend, Beverley Nichols, who called him “the most sexually voracious man I ever knew”. (And he knew a few.) Subsequent biographies by Ted Morgan and Robert Calder gave the details, Morgan dwelling on every sexual encounter with salacious disapproval. Selina Hastings has little to add but she treats the matter with sense and good taste as nothing much out of the ordinary. 

Maugham himself said that his tragedy — or perhaps it was misfortune — was to have pretended that he was three-quarters straight and a quarter gay when really it was the other way round. Some have doubted, either despite or because of, his turbulent marriage to Syrie, Dr Barnardo’s daughter, whether he was even as much as a quarter straight. Selina Hastings however, describing his long affair with an actress, Sue Jones, the daughter of a well-known late Victorian playwright, leads one to conclude that his own summing-up of his condition was accurate. He was homosexual in youth, bisexual until he was middle-aged, then exclusively homosexual again; quite a common pattern. Sue Jones was the model for his most engaging heroine, Rosie, in his best novel Cakes and Ale

The love of his life was an American, Gerald Haxton, denied entry to Britain for undisclosed reasons. Haxton was what used to be called a bounder, but a charming one who was also a promiscuous alcoholic. He brought Maugham joy and suffering. He was also very useful. Travelling the world as Maugham’s secretary, he gathered material for the stories Maugham wrote. When Haxton died he was replaced by Alan Searle who, jealously devoted to Maugham, fed the old man’s deluded fantasies as he entered a miserable old age, and eventually senile dementia. 

Of course everyone who was anyone knew all about Maugham’s sexual tastes. His brother Fred, briefly Lord Chancellor, was once required to warn him to be more discreet on his visits to London. But the secret was kept from the people who mattered — those who bought his books and went to see his plays.

None of this is of much importance now, though it would be hypocritical to pretend that it isn’t of interest, and Hastings sensibly makes no such pretence. Nevertheless, what really matters is the work, and, given Wilson’s dismissal of him, it is remarkable how much of it still reads well and gives pleasure. Modestly — or displaying a tactful false modesty — he himself suggested that two or three of his plays might “retain for some time a pale kind of life, for they are written in the tradition of English comedy” and that some of his best stories would find their way into anthologies: “slender baggage…but it is better than nothing.”

This is too modest a claim. Maugham’s faults are obvious. His imagination rarely takes off. He wrote in a plain man-of-the-world style, replete in clichés. (But this is better than a style that is always drawing attention to itself.) In dialogue he rarely caught, or attempted to catch, the rhythms of speech, and his characters mostly sound much the same. He has certain stylistic tricks which he repeats time and again, as, for example: “He was so much the perfect English diplomat that you would never have guessed that his father had been a Silver Ring bookie and his mother had gone out charring” (I made that one up, but it is characteristic).

His merits, however, outweigh his defects. He had a remarkable gift for narrative. The range and variety of characters and settings are great and almost always interesting. He was an acute observer of human frailty. He knew people and assessed them intelligently, and he wrote very well about women; unusually for a writer of his time he showed that they had sexual appetites every bit as keen as men’s. His best novels are beautifully and satisfyingly constructed. Many of them have dated, as almost all novels do, but half a dozen at least remain fresh. I shall never again read his long autobiographical Of Human Bondage, compelling though its treatment of sexual obsession is; but it is still in print, almost 100 years after its first publication. But I return often to Cakes and Ale, a perfect comic novel, and to The Narrow Corner, The Painted Veil and Christmas Holiday. Despite Edmund Wilson’s envy, parts of The Razor’s Edge remain delightful. Most of the short stories still read well, notably those in Ashenden, arguably one of the best spy stories. 

Would he have done better if he had come clean about his homosexuality? It seems unlikely. Meanwhile, Selina Hastings has done him proud. Her book is well written, continuously interesting, generous and fair. This is unusual among biographies today.