I became a fan of William Somerset Maugham when I lived first in England and then in Anglophile countries such as Botswana and Kenya, where English novels were available and American ones weren’t. I always liked his declaration that “I forget who it was that recommended men for their soul's good to do each day two things they disliked... it is a precept that I have followed scrupulously; for every day I have got up and I have gone to bed.” Maugham was a curious
mélange of dedicated writer (he never let his private struggles interfere with his work, which was a constant), money maven (someone once said that an evening with Willie was like an evening with a stockbroker) and party animal. This new biography is huge, exhaustive, and tirelessly researched, drawing on little-known observations from Maugham’s daughter, Liza, victim of a protracted and humiliating court battle to win her inheritance when diffident daddy Maugham, in his dotage, was in the thrall
to a rather boring homosexual houseboy named Alan Searle.
Maugham’s long life (1874-1965) began sadly and proceeded thus into a maturity that offered fame and fortune but little real happiness. His mother died when he was eight, and his life at boarding school left him with the unusual ability to make nasty personal remarks about anyone who displeased him, presumably because as a very reserved, stammering, short child, he was unlikely to best anyone in a physical fight. He was steered towards a medical career by his family though he secretly cherished the ambition to be a writer, tucking away copious notebook of ideas for plays and novels. Studying medicine took him into the London slums where he got material for his first
- and quite successful - novel, Liza of Lambeth, story of a hard-boiled slum girl who suffers the ultimate penalty for her adultery. The fecund and sexually generous female emerged later in the lovely character of Rosie in Cakes and Ale, a tale about a soft, sweet, passionate lower-class female who offers herself to men out of kindness, pity and her own ability to enjoy.
Arguably, these loose women were projections of Maugham’s homosexual longings, which were unacceptable at the time. He was well aware of the trial of Oscar Wilde. He married, badly, to an over-the-hill society woman who tormented him by being actually in love with him. They had one child, oddly called Liza, but Maugham made no secret of the fact that his favorite “child” was a nephew, a pretty young man named Robin. After he divorced, with times changing, Maugham became more openly gay, at least behind the closed doors of his long-time home, Villa Mauresque. His greatest love was fortune-hunting bright young Gerald Haxton whom Maugham supported, and who for his part entertained Maugham’s guests and solicited younger men for Maugham’s pleasure.
Maugham wrote plays and some of the great novels of his time: Of Human Bondage, The Moon and Sixpence, and The Razor’s Edge. Critics never quite gave him the kiss of full approval that he longed for, the view being that his books were rather too simple, his language too spare. But audiences adored his creations. He rested well on his creative laurels and died with a considerable estate, though one that had been picked and pulled apart in a dreary and undignified catfight between his daughter and his lover, which Maugham could have prevented but instead provoked. Ever the sad-eyed cynic and the dedicated dramatist, Maugham was probably secretly pleased with the melodramatic ending.