William Somerset Maugham 1874 – 1965

William Somerset Maugham 1874 – 1965 was an English playwright, novelist and short story writer.

Maugham wrote about a homeopath in his play The Unattainable, and in Penelope, Dr. O’Farrell’s wife uses the homeopathic principle to cure her husband of his unfaithfulness (Claude S. McIver, William Somerset MaughamA Study of Technique & Literary Sources, (Folcroft Library Editions, 1936). Page 42.)   Maugham was possibly a homeopathic patient himself (Diwan Harish Chand, National Homeopathic Pharmacy (India), Homoeopathy in geriatrics, (National Homeopathic Pharmacy, 1991). Page 13.)

Maugham’s father Robert Ormond Maugham was an English lawyer handling the legal affairs of the British embassy in Paris, France. Since French law declared that all children born on French soil could be conscripted for military service, his father arranged for William to be born at the embassy, technically on British soil, saving him from conscription into any future French wars.

His grandfather, another Robert, had also been a prominent lawyer and cofounder of the English Law Society, and it was taken for granted that William would follow in their footsteps. Events were to ensure this was not to be, but his elder brother Frederic Herbert Maugham 1st Viscount Maugham did enjoy a distinguished legal career, and served as Lord Chancellor from 1938 to 1939.

Maugham’s mother Edith Mary (nee Snell) was consumptive, a condition for which her doctor prescribed childbirth. As a result, Maugham had three older brothers already enrolled in boarding school by the time he was three and he was effectively raised as an only child. Childbirth proved no cure for tuberculosis: Edith’s sixth and final son died on 25 January 1882, one day after his birth, on Maugham’s eighth birthday. Edith died six days later, on 31 January, at the age of 41. The death of his mother left Maugham traumatized for life, and he kept his mother’s photograph by his bedside until his own death at the age of 91 in Nice, France.

Two years after Maugham’s mother’s death, his father died of cancer. William was sent back to England to be cared for by his uncle, Henry MacDonald Maugham, the Vicar of Whitstable, in Kent. The move was catastrophic. Henry Maugham proved cold and emotionally cruel.

The King’s School, Canterbury, where William was a boarder during school terms, proved merely another version of purgatory, where he was teased for his bad English (French had been his first language) and his short stature, which he inherited from his father.

It is at this time that Maugham developed the stammer that would stay with him all his life, although it was sporadic and subject to mood and circumstance.

Maugham was miserable both at the vicarage and at school. As a result, he developed a talent for applying a wounding remark to those who displeased him. This ability is sometimes reflected in the characters that populate his writings.

At sixteen, Maugham refused to continue at The King’s School and his uncle allowed him to travel to Germany, where he studied literature, philosophy and German at Heidelberg University. It was during his year in Heidelberg that he met and had a sexual affair with John Ellingham Brooks, an Englishman ten years his senior.

On his return to England his uncle found Maugham a position in an accountant’s office, but after a month Maugham gave it up and returned to Whitstable. His uncle was not pleased, and set about finding Maugham a new profession. Maugham’s father and three older brothers were all distinguished lawyers and Maugham asked to be excused from the duty of following in their footsteps.

A career in the church was rejected because a stammering minister might make the family seem ridiculous. Likewise, the civil service was rejected — not out of consideration for Maugham’s own feelings or interests, but because the recent law requiring civil servants to qualify by passing an examination made Maugham’s uncle conclude that the civil service was no longer a career for gentlemen.

The local doctor suggested the profession of medicine and Maugham’s uncle reluctantly approved this. Maugham had been writing steadily since the age of 20 and fervently intended to become an author, but because Maugham was not of age, he could not confess this to his guardian. So he spent the next five years as a medical student at King’s College London.

Some critics have assumed that the years Maugham spent studying medicine were a creative dead end, but Maugham himself felt quite the contrary. He was able to live in the lively city of London, to meet people of a “low” sort that he would never have met in one of the other professions, and to see them in a time of heightened anxiety and meaning in their lives. In maturity, he recalled the literary value of what he saw 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 degree in medicine. In 1897, he presented his second book for consideration. (The first was a biography of opera composer Giacomo Meyerbeer written by the 16 year old Maugham in Heidelberg).

Liza of Lambeth, a tale of working class adultery and its consequences, drew its details from Maugham’s experiences as a medical student doing midwifery work in the London slum of Lambeth. The novel is of the school of social realist “slum writers” such as George Gissing and Arthur Morrison….

Liza of Lambeth proved popular with both reviewers and the public, and the first print run sold out in a matter of weeks. This was enough to convince Maugham, who had qualified as a doctor, to drop medicine and embark on his sixty five year career as a man of letters. Of his entry into the profession of writing he later said, “I took to it as a duck takes to water.”

The writer’s life allowed Maugham to travel and 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 dramatically in 1907 with the phenomenal 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.

By 1914 Maugham was famous, with 10 plays produced and 10 novels published. Too old to enlist when World War I broke out, Maugham served in France as a member of the British Red Cross’s so called “Literary Ambulance Drivers”, a group of some 23 well known writers including John Dos Passos and Edward Estlin Cummings.

During this time he met Frederick Gerald Haxton, a young San Franciscan who became his companion and lover until Frederick Gerald Haxton‘s death in 1944 (Frederick Gerald Haxton appears as Tony Paxton in Maugham’s 1917 play, Our Betters).

Throughout this period Maugham continued to write; indeed, he proof read Of Human Bondage at a location near Dunkirk during a lull in his ambulance duties.

However, Maugham is also known to have worked for British Intelligence in mainland Europe during the war, having been recruited by John Wallinger, and was one of the network of British agents who operated in Switzerland against the Berlin Committee, notably Virendranath Chattopadhyay. Maugham was later recruited by William Wiseman to work in Russia.

Of Human Bondage (1915) initially received adverse criticism both in England and America, with the New York World describing the romantic obsession of the main protagonist Philip Carey as “the sentimental servitude of a poor fool”. Influential critic and novelist Theodore Dreiser (who also chose a homeopath over an allopath in his novel Jennie Gerhardt) , however, rescued the novel, referring to it as a work of genius, and comparing it to a Beethoven symphony. This review gave the book the lift it needed and it has since never been out of print.

The book appeared to be closely autobiographical (Maugham’s stammer is transformed into Philip Carey’s club foot, the vicar of Whitstable becomes the vicar of Blackstable, and Philip Carey is a doctor) although Maugham himself insisted it was more invention than fact. Nevertheless, the close relationship between fictional and non fictional became Maugham’s trademark, despite the legal requirement to state that “the characters in [this or that publication] are entirely imaginary”.

In 1938 he wrote: “Fact and fiction are so intermingled in my work that now, looking back on it, I can hardly distinguish one from the other.”

Although Maugham’s first and many other sexual relationships were with men, he also had sexual relationships with a number of women. Specifically his affair with Syrie Wellcome, daughter of orphanage founder Thomas John Barnardo, and wife of American born English pharmaceutical magnate Henry Wellcome, produced a daughter named Liza (born Mary Elizabeth Wellcome, 1915–1998).

Henry Wellcome then sued his wife for divorce, naming Maugham as co-respondent. In May 1917, following the decree absolute, Syrie Wellcome and Maugham were married. Syrie Wellcome became a noted interior decorator who popularized the all white room in the 1920s.

Maugham returned to England from his ambulance unit duties to promote Of Human Bondage but once that was finalised, he became eager to assist the war effort once more. As he was unable to return to his ambulance unit, Syrie Wellcome arranged for him to be introduced to a high ranking intelligence officer known only as “R”, and in September 1915 he began work in Switzerland, secretly gathering and passing on intelligence while posing as himself — that is, as a writer.

In 1916, Maugham travelled to the Pacific to research his novel The Moon and Sixpence, based on the life of Paul Gauguin. This was the first of those journeys through the late Imperial world of the 1920s and 1930s which were to establish Maugham forever in the popular imagination as the chronicler of the last days of colonialism in India, Southeast Asia, China and the Pacific, although the books on which this reputation rests represent only a fraction of his output.

On this and all subsequent journeys he was accompanied by Frederick Gerald Haxton, whom he regarded as indispensable to his success as a writer. Maugham himself was painfully shy, and Frederick Gerald Haxton the extrovert gathered human material that Maugham steadily turned into fiction.

In June, 1917 he was asked by William Wiseman, an officer of the British Secret Intelligence Service (later named MI6), to undertake a special mission in Russia to keep the Provisional Government in power and Russia in the war by countering German pacifist propaganda. Two and a half months later the Bolsheviks took control. The job was probably always impossible, but Maugham subsequently claimed that if he had been able to get there six months earlier, he might have succeeded.

Quiet and observant, Maugham had a good temperament for intelligence work; he believed he had inherited from his lawyer father a gift for cool judgement and the ability to be undeceived by facile appearances.

Never losing the chance to turn real life into a story, Maugham made his spying experiences into a collection of short stories about a gentlemanly, sophisticated, aloof spy, Ashenden, a volume that influenced the Ian Fleming James Bond series.

In 1922, Maugham dedicated On A Chinese Screen, a book of 58 ultra short story sketches collected during his 1920 travels through China and Hong Kong, to Syrie Wellcome, with the intention of later turning the sketches into a book.

Dramatised from a story which first appeared in his collection The Casuarina Tree published in 1924, Maugham’s play The Letter, starring Gladys Cooper, had its premiere in London in 1927. The play was later adapted for film in 1929 and again in 1940.

Syrie Wellcome and Maugham divorced in 1927–8 after a tempestuous marriage complicated by Maugham’s frequent travels abroad and strained by his relationship with Frederick Gerald Haxton.

In 1928, Maugham bought Villa Mauresque on 12 acres (49,000 m2) at Cap Ferrat on the French Riviera, which was his home for most of the rest of his life, and one of the great literary and social salons of the 1920s and 30s. His output continued to be prodigious, including plays, short stories, novels, essays and travel books.

By 1940, when the collapse of France forced Maugham to leave the French Riviera and become a well heeled refugee, he was already one of the most famous and wealthiest writers in the English speaking world.

Maugham, by now in his sixties, spent most of World War II in the United States, first in Hollywood (he worked on many scripts, and was one of the first authors to make significant money from film adaptations) and later in the South. While in the US he was asked by the British government to make patriotic speeches to induce the US to aid Britain, if not necessarily become an allied combatant.

Frederick Gerald Haxton died in 1944, and Maugham moved back to England, then in 1946 to his villa in France, where he lived, interrupted by frequent and long travels, until his death.

The gap left by Frederick Gerald Haxton‘s death in 1944 was filled by Alan Searle. Maugham had first met Searle in 1928. Searle was a young man from the London slum area of Bermondsey and he had already been kept by older men. He proved a devoted if not a stimulating companion. Indeed one of Maugham’s friends, describing the difference between Frederick Gerald Haxton and Searle, said simply: “Gerald was vintage, Alan was vin ordinaire.”

Maugham’s love life was almost never smooth. He once confessed: “I have most loved people who cared little or nothing for me and when people have loved me I have been embarrassed… In order not to hurt their feelings, I have often acted a passion I did not feel.”

In 1962 he sold a collection of paintings, some of which had been assigned to his daughter Liza by deed. She sued her father and won a judgment of £230,000. Maugham responded by publicly disowning her and claiming she was not his biological daughter; adopting Searle as his son and heir; and launching a bitter attack on the deceased Syrie Wellcome in his 1962 volume of memoirs, Looking Back, in which Liza discovered she had been born before her parents’ marriage. The memoirs lost him several friends and exposed him to much public ridicule. Liza and her husband Lord Glendevon contested the change in Maugham’s will in the French courts, and it was overturned. Nevertheless, in 1965 Searle inherited £50,000, the contents of Villa Mauresque, and Maugham’s manuscripts and copyrights for 30 years. Thereafter the copyrights passed to the Royal Literary Fund.

There is no grave for Maugham. His ashes were scattered near the Maugham Library, The King’s School, Canterbury. Liza, Lady Glendevon, died aged 83 in 1998, survived by Somerset Maugham’s four grandchildren (a son and a daughter by Liza‘s first marriage to Vincent Paravicini, and two more sons to Lord Glendevon). One of the next generation is autistic savant and musical prodigy Derek Paravicini.

One thought on “William Somerset Maugham 1874 – 1965”

  1. Very interesting article on one of my favourite authors. A most prolific writer and one of the most interesting men of that generation. Thank you for keeping his memory alive.

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