Today is the birthday (1874) of William Somerset Maugham CH, English novelist, playwright, and short story writer. He was among the most popular writers of his era and reputedly the highest-paid author during the 1930s.
Maugham was the fourth of six sons born in his family. Their father, Robert Ormond Maugham, was a lawyer who handled the legal affairs of the British Embassy in Paris. Since French law declared that all children born on French soil could be conscripted for military service, his father arranged for Maugham to be born at the embassy, diplomatically considered British soil. His grandfather, another Robert, was a prominent lawyer and co-founder of the Law Society of England and Wales. His family assumed Maugham and his brothers would be lawyers. His elder brother, Viscount Maugham, did become a lawyer, enjoying a distinguished legal career and serving as Lord Chancellor from 1938 to 1939.
Maugham’s mother, Edith Mary (née Snell), contracted tuberculosis, a condition for which her physician prescribed childbirth. She had Maugham several years after the last of his three elder brothers was born. By the time Maugham was three, his older brothers were all away at boarding school. Edith’s sixth and final son died on 25 January 1882, one day after his birth. It was Maugham’s eighth birthday. Edith died of tuberculosis six days later on 31 January at the age of 41. The early death of his mother left Maugham traumatized. He kept his mother’s photograph at his bedside for the rest of his life. Two years after Edith’s death, Maugham’s father died in France of cancer.
Maugham was sent back to the UK to be cared for by his paternal uncle, Henry MacDonald Maugham, the Vicar of Whitstable, in Kent. The move was emotionally damaging, as Henry Maugham was cold and emotionally cruel. Maugham attended The King’s School, Canterbury, which was also difficult for him. He was teased for his bad English (French had been his first language) and his short stature. Maugham developed a stammer that stayed with him all his life. It was sporadic, being subject to his moods and circumstances. Miserable both at his uncle’s vicarage and at school, Maugham developed a talent for making wounding remarks to those who displeased him, which ability is sometimes reflected in Maugham’s literary characters.
At age 16, Maugham refused to continue at The King’s School. His uncle allowed him to travel to Germany, where he studied literature, philosophy and German at Heidelberg University. After Maugham’s return to Britain, his uncle found him a position in an accountant’s office. After a month Maugham gave it up and returned to Whitstable. His uncle tried to find Maugham a new profession. Maugham’s father and three older brothers were distinguished lawyers, but Maugham was not interested in this profession. He rejected a career in the Church because of his stutter. His uncle rejected the Civil Service, believing that it was no longer a career for gentlemen after a new law requiring applicants to pass an entrance examination. The local physician suggested the medical profession and Maugham’s uncle agreed.
Maugham had been writing steadily since he was 15, and wanted to be an author, but he did not tell his guardian. For the next five years, he studied medicine at St Thomas’s Hospital Medical School in Lambeth. Maugham was living in London, meeting working-class people whom he would never have met otherwise, and seeing them at a time of heightened anxiety and meaning in their lives. In maturity, he recalled the value of his experience as a medical student: “I saw how men died. I saw how they bore pain. I saw what hope looked like, fear and relief …”
Maugham kept his own lodgings, took pleasure in furnishing them, filled many notebooks with literary ideas, and continued writing nightly while at the same time studying for his medical degree. In 1897, he published his first novel, Liza of Lambeth, a tale of working-class adultery and its consequences. It drew its details from Maugham’s experiences as a medical student doing midwifery work in Lambeth (which was a slum at the time). Maugham wrote near the opening of the novel: “… it is impossible always to give the exact unexpurgated words of Liza and the other personages of the story; the reader is therefore entreated with his thoughts to piece out the necessary imperfections of the dialogue.” Liza of Lambeth‘s first print run sold out in a matter of weeks. Maugham, who had qualified as a medic, dropped medicine and embarked on his 65-year career as a writer.
The writer’s life allowed Maugham to travel and to live in places such as Spain and Capri for the next decade, but his next ten works never came close to rivaling the success of Liza. This changed in 1907 with the success of his play Lady Frederick. By the next year, he had four plays running simultaneously in London, and Punch published a cartoon of Shakespeare biting his fingernails nervously as he looked at the billboards. Maugham’s supernatural thriller, The Magician (1908), based its principal character on the well-known and somewhat disreputable Aleister Crowley. Crowley took some offence at the treatment of the protagonist, Oliver Haddo. He wrote a critique of the novel, charging Maugham with plagiarism, in a review published in Vanity Fair. Maugham survived the criticism without much damage to his reputation.
By 1914, Maugham was famous, with 10 plays produced and 10 novels published. Too old to enlist when the First World War broke out, he served in France as a member of the British Red Cross’s so-called “Literary Ambulance Drivers”, a group of around 24 well-known writers, including John Dos Passos, E. E. Cummings, and Ernest Hemingway. The experience is a crucial component in the opening chapters of The Razor’s Edge, one of my favorites of his.
Of Human Bondage (1915) initially was criticized in both England and the United States; the New York World described the romantic obsession of the protagonist Philip Carey as “the sentimental servitude of a poor fool”. The influential US novelist and critic Theodore Dreiser rescued the novel, referring to it as a work of genius and comparing it to a Beethoven symphony. His review gave the book a lift, and it has never been out of print since.
Of Human Bondage is considered to have many autobiographical elements. Maugham gave Philip Carey a club foot (rather than his stammer); the vicar of Blackstable appears derived from the vicar of Whitstable; and Carey is a medic. Maugham insisted the book was more invention than fact. The close relationship between fictional and non-fictional became Maugham’s trademark. He wrote in 1938: “Fact and fiction are so intermingled in my work that now, looking back on it, I can hardly distinguish one from the other.”
Here are some typical quotes:
There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.
It’s a funny thing about life; if you refuse to accept anything but the best, you very often get it.
To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life.
Money is like a sixth sense without which you cannot make a complete use of the other five.
Impropriety is the soul of wit.
Tradition is a guide and not a jailer.
The tragedy of love is indifference.
The important thing was to love rather than to be loved.
The love that lasts longest is the love that is never returned.
If a man hasn’t what’s necessary to make a woman love him, it’s his fault, not hers.
When you choose your friends, don’t be short-changed by choosing personality over character.
We are not the same persons this year as last; nor are those we love. It is a happy chance if we, changing, continue to love a changed person.”
The only important thing in a book is the meaning that it has for you.
I always find it more difficult to say the things I mean than the things I don’t.
This quote used to be more salient than it is nowadays, although the ignorescanti have the stupid habit of going on and on about how bad English food is, and this blog probably won’t change many minds.
If you want to eat well in England, eat three breakfasts.
I have given recipes for a “full English” and kedgeree already. Deviled kidneys were a beloved favorite at the Edwardian breakfast sideboard, and are one of my cherished dishes. Lamb kidneys work best, but ox or pork will also serve. Lamb kidneys need to be split in half and it is best to remove all the white tubules (although not absolutely necessary). Some cooks also soak the kidneys in milk to reduce the strong flavor, but I don’t. Ox kidneys need to be cut into bite-sized pieces, and pig kidneys should be quartered. You can use mushrooms in the dish or not as you please. If you do, I suggest porcini or crimini or the like (I use Asian mushrooms these days). Button mushrooms can serve if you find them to your taste.
½ lb fresh mushrooms, cut into large pieces (optional)
2 to 4 kidneys (preferably lamb)
¼ cup flour
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 ½ tsp dry English mustard
1 tsp salt
1 tsp ground black pepper
6 tbsp unsalted butter, divided
3 tbsp beef stock
If you are using the mushrooms, sear them in a hot pan with 3 tablespoons of unsalted butter until nicely browned on their edges. Remove them and set aside.
Place the flour, cayenne, mustard, salt, and black pepper in a heavy brown paper bag. Add the kidneys and shake vigorously to coat thoroughly.
Heat a heavy skillet over high heat, then add 3 more tablespoons of butter. Brown the kidneys on all sides in the butter. Return the mushrooms to the pan and add a big splash of Worcestershire sauce and the stock, and shake the pan to combine all the ingredients.
Remove the kidneys and mushrooms and set them on top or beside a slice of toast. Reduce the sauce in the skillet and then pour it over the kidneys.
Serves 1 (if it is me) or 2