Despite being dismissed by the literary intelligentsia, William Somerset Maugham sold more books in the nineteen thirties than any of his contemporaries. His lack of lyrical quality has often been attributed his weakness but I find his work to be refreshingly uncomplicated and direct. He may not have been selected to sit with the elite, Virginia Wolff or James Joyce for example, but the public thought him good enough buying his novels by the truck load.
Born in Paris on 25th January 1874 in the British Embassy into a well-to-do family, Somerset Maugham’s early years must have been blissful. Sadly, eight years to the date of his own birth his mother’s newly born son, William's brother, died. His mother followed her infant child some six days later. This tragic event scarred Somerset Maugham for the rest of his life. He kept a framed photograph of his mother by his bed for the remainder of his days.
If such a traumatic event wasn’t enough, William’s father died two years later. The young ten year old was sent to his uncle, Henry MacDonald Maugham, a vicar in Kent to live. It was a move that proved as damaging but conversely influential as his mother’s passing.
William did not like his uncle nor did he enjoy vicarage life. His uncle was an emotional tyrant who had a cruel way with words. This cruelty possibly led to the stammer Somerset Maugham had endure throughout his life. It was something he could control but which, when under pressure, would materialise to embarrass him.
His time at school was horrendous with his classmates acting in the way children can at times. They teased him about his stammer which only made the condition all the more pronounced.
As soon as he left the tiresome slog of Kings School, having refused to attend beyond sixteen, his uncle sent him to Germany where the teenage William studied, among other subjects, English literature. It was whilst in Germany that he had his first homosexual encounter with a man ten years older than himself.At a time when such activity was not only frowned upon but illegal, this must have been both alarming but also thrilling.
During his adolescence he seemed destined to follow in both his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps by entering into law. It was not to be. Under the dictates of his Uncle Maugham studied medicine at St. Thomas’s Hospital in Lambeth, London. He was there for five long years. It seemed to be the common sense thing to do. Or so his uncle thought.
Of course common sense would have robbed us of a fine author so gods bless his wayward spirit for ignoring such a practical vocation. By turning to writing he guaranteed himself a career that would grant him fame and wealth.
It has been suggested that his time spent studying medicine was time wasted. As anyone who writes even for the pure joy of it will tell you, working with people, the subject matter of novels, seeing their peculiarities first hand, noting them then using those sketches to build characters is never a waste. However, the time spent at St. Thomas Hospital whilst living out of digs was to prove of enormous value. Not only did he continue to write during that period he also stored all the things he saw for future reference.
As I said earlier, William Somerset Maugham was often ridiculed for his style but considering his work, the sheer volume, breadth and longevity of it the only thing mildly ridiculous was the critics. It is that stupid desire to elevate some forms of literature to pretentious heights that irritates me. Not the fact the folk feel the need to scoop up and gather together those they feel think better but their desire to belittle anything that doesn't quite match up, or indeed those that read anything but high art that bugs me. Get a life.
“Cakes and Ale” may have been a little mischievous but what of it? I think Thomas Hardy would have enjoyed it. “Of Human Bondage” has been long recognised as his masterpiece and of being a classic. George Orwell, whose “Homage to Catalonia” has been credited as being third greatest non-fiction book of the 20th century had this to say on the subject of Willaim Somerset Maugham: "the modern writer who has influenced me the most."
What higher praise could there be?
William Somerset Maugham died on 16th December 1965. A literary giant.
Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.