William Somerset Maugham was an English playwright, novelist, and short story writer. He was among the most popular writers of his era and reputedly the highest-paid author during the 1930s.
Both Maugham's parents died before he was 10, and the orphaned boy was raised by a paternal uncle who was emotionally cold. He did not want to become a lawyer like other men in his family, so he trained and qualified as a physician. His first novel Liza of Lambeth sold out so rapidly that Maugham gave up medicine to write full-time.
During the First World War, he served with the Red Cross and in the ambulance corps before being recruited in 1916 into the British Secret Intelligence Service. He worked for the service in Switzerland and Russia before the October Revolution of 1917 in the Russian Empire. During and after the war, he travelled in India, Southeast Asia and the Pacific. He drew from those experiences in his later short stories and novels.
Childhood and educationMaugham 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. Maugham refers to this grandfather's writings in Chapter 6 of his literary memoir, The Summing Up:
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, 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. The boy attended The King's School, Canterbury, which was also difficult for him. He was teased for his bad English and his short stature, which he inherited from his father. 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, the young Maugham developed a talent for making wounding remarks to those who displeased him. This 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. During his year in Heidelberg, Maugham met and had a sexual affair with John Ellingham Brooks, an Englishman ten years his senior. He also wrote his first book there, a biography of Giacomo Meyerbeer, an opera composer.
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.
Early worksMaugham was living in the great city of London, meeting people of a "low" sort 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, a South London slum. 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 man of letters. He later said, "I took to it as a duck takes to water."
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 rivalling 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, 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.
Popular success, 1914–1939By 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 some 24 well-known writers, including the Americans John Dos Passos, E. E. Cummings, and Ernest Hemingway.
During this time he met Frederick Gerald Haxton, a young San Franciscan, who became his companion and lover until Haxton's death in 1944. Throughout this period, Maugham continued to write. He proofread Of Human Bondage at a location near Dunkirk during a lull in his ambulance duties.
Of Human Bondage 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 American 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.
Maugham indicates in his foreword that he derived the title from a passage in Baruch Spinoza's Ethics:
Of Human Bondage is considered to have many autobiographical elements. Maugham gave Philip Carey a club foot ; 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."
Marriage and familyMaugham entered into a relationship with Syrie Wellcome, the wife of Henry Wellcome, an American-born English pharmaceutical magnate. They had a daughter named Mary Elizabeth. Henry Wellcome sued his wife for divorce, naming Maugham as co-respondent.
In May 1917, following the decree absolute, Syrie Wellcome and Maugham were married. Syrie Maugham became a noted interior decorator who in the 1920s popularized "the all-white room". They changed their daughter's surname, originally registered as Wellcome and reflecting Syrie's marriage. She was familiarly called Liza and her surname was changed to Maugham.
The marriage was unhappy, and the couple separated. Maugham later lived in the French Riviera with his partner Gerald Haxton until Haxton's death in 1944. He next lived with Alan Searle until his own death in 1965.
SexualityMaugham has been described both as bisexual
and as homosexual. In addition to his 13-year marriage to Syrie Wellcome, he had affairs with other women in his youth.
In later life Maugham was exclusively homosexual, and lived successively with two men. Frequently quoted in this connection is Maugham's statement to his nephew Robin:
Religious viewsMaugham said that he remained agnostic to the questions concerning the existence of God. He considered that the misery and bitterness of the world suggested that God did not exist. He said that "the evidence adduced to prove the truth of one religion is of very much the same sort as that adduced to prove the truth of another."
Maugham did not believe in God or an afterlife. He considered notions of future punishment or reward to be outrageous.
Intelligence workMaugham returned to Britain from his ambulance unit duties in order to promote Of Human Bondage. With that completed, he was eager to assist the war effort again. As he was unable to return to his ambulance unit, Syrie arranged for him to be introduced to a high-ranking intelligence officer known as "R"; he was recruited by John Wallinger. In September 1915, Maugham began work in Switzerland, as one of the network of British agents who operated against the Berlin Committee, whose members included Virendranath Chattopadhyay, an Indian revolutionary trying to resist colonial Britain's rule of India. Maugham lived in Switzerland as a writer.
In June 1917, Maugham was asked by Sir William Wiseman, an officer of the British Secret Intelligence Service, to undertake a special mission in Russia. It was part of an attempt 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. Maugham subsequently said 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 judgment and the ability to avoid being deceived by facile appearances.
Maugham used his spying experiences as the basis for , a collection of short stories about a gentlemanly, sophisticated, aloof spy. This character is considered to have influenced Ian Fleming's later series of James Bond novels. In 1922, Maugham dedicated his book On A Chinese Screen to Syrie. This was a collection of 58 ultra-short story sketches, which he had written during his 1920 travels through China and Hong Kong, intending to expand the sketches later as a book.
Travels and writingIn 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 his journeys through the late-Imperial world of the 1920s and 1930s that inspired his novels. He became known as a writer who portrayed the last days of European 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 Haxton, whom he regarded as indispensable to his success as a writer. Maugham was painfully shy, and Haxton the extrovert gathered human material which the author drew from for his fiction.
Maugham's play The Letter, starring Gladys Cooper, had its premiere in London in 1927. Later, he asked that Katharine Cornell play the lead in the 1927 Broadway version. He had adapted it for the stage from a story published in 1924 in Hearst's International; it was reprinted in his collection The Casuarina Tree.
The play was adapted as a film by the same name in 1929. Jeanne Eagels had the lead. A second film adaptation was released in 1940, starring American actress Bette Davis, who was nominated for an Oscar as Best Actress for her performance. In 1951, Katherine Cornell was a great success playing the lead in Maugham's comedy The Constant Wife.
In 1926, Maugham bought the Villa La Mauresque, on 9 acres at Cap Ferrat on the French Riviera. It was his home for most of the rest of his life. There he hosted one of the great literary and social salons of the 1920s and 30s. He continued to be highly productive, writing plays, short stories, novels, essays and travel books. By 1940, when the collapse of France and its occupation by the German Third Reich forced Maugham to leave the French Riviera, he was a refugee—but one of the wealthiest and most famous writers in the English-speaking world.
Maugham's short fable "An Appointment in Samarra" is based on an ancient Babylonian myth: Death is both the narrator and a central character. The American writer John O'Hara credited Maugham's tale as the inspiration for the title of his novel Appointment in Samarra.
Grand old man of lettersIn his sixties, Maugham lived for most of the Second World War in the United States, first in Los Angeles, where he worked on many screenplays, and was one of the first authors to make significant money from film adaptations. He later lived in the South. While in the US before that country's entry into the war, 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. After his companion Gerald Haxton died in 1944, Maugham returned to England. In private, Maugham espoused antisemitic conspiracy theories about Jewish refugees, noting that "the Gestapo is known to have had spies among refugees, and these have not seldom been Jews". After the war, in 1946 Maugham returned to his villa in France. He lived there until his death, with time away for frequent and long travels.
In that period, Maugham began a relationship with Alan Searle, whom he had first met in 1928. A younger man from the London slum area of Bermondsey, Searle had already been kept, or supported by older men. He proved a devoted if not a stimulating companion. One of Maugham's friends, describing the difference between 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 Maugham sold a collection of paintings, some of which had already been assigned by deed to his daughter Liza. She sued her father and won a judgment of £230,000. Maugham publicly disowned her and claimed she was not his biological daughter. He adopted Searle as his son and heir, but the adoption was annulled. In his 1962 volume of memoirs, Looking Back, he attacked the late Syrie Maugham and wrote that Liza had been born before they married. The memoir cost 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.
But after Maugham's death, in 1965 Searle inherited £50,000, the contents of the Villa La Mauresque, Maugham's manuscripts, and his revenue from 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 Maugham, Lady Glendevon, died aged 83 in 1998, survived by her four children. Among her grandchildren is Derek Paravicini, who is a musical prodigy and autistic savant.
AchievementsCommercial success with high book sales, successful theatre productions and a string of film adaptations, backed by astute stock market investments, allowed Maugham to live a very comfortable life. Small and weak as a boy, Maugham had been proud even then of his stamina, and as an adult he kept churning out the books, proud that he could. Yet, despite his triumphs, he never attracted the highest respect from the critics or his peers. Maugham attributed this to his lack of "lyrical quality", his small vocabulary, and failure to make expert use of metaphor in his work. In 1934 the American journalist and radio personality Alexander Woollcott offered Maugham some language advice: "The female implies, and from that the male infers." Maugham responded: "I am not yet too old to learn."
Maugham wrote at a time when experimental modernist literature such as that of William Faulkner, Thomas Mann, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf was gaining increasing popularity and winning critical acclaim. In this context, his plain prose style was criticized as "such a tissue of clichés that one's wonder is finally aroused at the writer's ability to assemble so many and at his unfailing inability to put anything in an individual way".
For a public man of Maugham's generation, being openly gay was impossible. Whether his own orientation disgusted him or whether he was trying to disguise his leanings, Maugham wrote disparagingly of the gay artist. In Don Fernando, a non-fiction book about his years living in Spain, Maugham pondered a suggestion that the painter El Greco was homosexual:
It cannot be denied that the homosexual has a narrower outlook on the world than the normal man. In certain respects the natural responses of the species are denied to him. Some at least of the broad and typical human emotions he can never experience. However subtly he sees life he cannot see it whole...I cannot now help asking myself whether what I see in El Greco's work of tortured fantasy and sinister strangeness is not due to such a sexual abnormality as this.
But Maugham's homosexuality or bisexuality is believed to have shaped his fiction in two ways. Since he tended to see attractive women as sexual rivals, he often gave his women characters sexual needs and appetites, in a way quite unusual for authors of his time. Liza of Lambeth, Cakes and Ale, The Painted Veil, Neil MacAdam and The Razor's Edge all featured women determined to feed their strong sexual appetites, heedless of the result. As Maugham's sexual appetites were then officially disapproved of, or criminal, in nearly all of the countries in which he travelled, the author was unusually tolerant of the vices of others. Some readers and critics complained that Maugham did not condemn what was bad in the villains of his fiction and plays. Maugham replied: "It must be a fault in me that I am not gravely shocked at the sins of others unless they personally affect me."
Maugham's public view of his abilities remained modest. Toward the end of his career he described himself as "in the very first row of the second-raters". In 1948 he wrote "Great Novelists and Their Novels" , in which he listed the ten best novels of world literature in his view.
Maugham was appointed a Companion of Honour in the 1954 Birthday Honours.
Maugham had begun collecting theatrical paintings before the First World War; he continued to the point where his collection was second only to that of the Garrick Club. In 1948 he announced that he would bequeath this collection to the Trustees of the National Theatre. From 1951, some 14 years before his death, his paintings began their exhibition life. In 1994 they were placed on loan to the Theatre Museum in Covent Garden.
Significant worksMaugham's masterpiece is generally agreed to be Of Human Bondage, a semi-autobiographical novel that deals with the life of the main character Philip Carey, who, like Maugham, was orphaned, and brought up by his pious uncle. Philip's clubfoot causes him endless self-consciousness and embarrassment, echoing Maugham's struggles with his stutter and, as his biographer Ted Morgan notes, his homosexuality.
Two of his later novels were based on historical people: The Moon and Sixpence is about the life of Paul Gauguin; and Cakes and Ale contains what were taken as thinly veiled and unflattering characterisations of the authors Thomas Hardy and Hugh Walpole. Maugham himself denied any intention of doing this in a long letter to Walpole: "I certainly never intended Alroy Kear to be a portrait of you. He is made up of a dozen people and the greater part of him is myself"—yet in an introduction written for the 1950 Modern Library edition of the work, he plainly states that Walpole was the inspiration for Kear. Maugham's last major novel, The Razor's Edge, was a departure for him in many ways. While much of the novel takes place in Europe, its main characters are American, not British. The protagonist is a disillusioned veteran of the First World War who abandons his wealthy friends and lifestyle, traveling to India seeking enlightenment. The story's themes of Eastern mysticism and war-weariness struck a chord with readers during the Second World War. It was adapted into a major motion picture, released in 1946, starring Tyrone Power as Larry Darrell, with Herbert Marshall as W. Somerset Maugham. Another film adaptation was issued in 1984, starring Bill Murray.
Among his short stories, some of the most memorable are those dealing with the lives of Western, mostly British, colonists in the Pacific Islands and Asia. They typically express the emotional toll the colonists bear by their isolation. "Rain", "Footprints in the Jungle", and "The Outstation" are considered especially notable. "Rain", in particular, which charts the moral disintegration of a missionary attempting to convert prostitute Sadie Thompson, has kept its reputation. It has been adapted as a play and as several films. His The Magician is based on British occultist Aleister Crowley.
Maugham was one of the most significant travel writers of the inter-war years, and can be compared with contemporaries such as Evelyn Waugh and Freya Stark. His best efforts in this line include The Gentleman in the Parlour, dealing with a journey through Burma, Siam, Cambodia and Vietnam, and On a Chinese Screen, a series of very brief vignettes that might have been sketches for stories left unwritten.
InfluenceIn 1947 Maugham instituted the Somerset Maugham Award, awarded to the best British writer or writers under the age of thirty-five for a work of fiction published in the past year. Notable winners include V. S. Naipaul, Kingsley Amis, Martin Amis and Thom Gunn. On his death, Maugham donated his royalties to the Royal Literary Fund.
Other writers acknowledged his work. Anthony Burgess praised his influence. Ian Fleming noted that he wrote the short story "Quantum of Solace" as an homage to Maugham's writing style. George Orwell said that Maugham was "the modern writer who has influenced me the most, whom I admire immensely for his power of telling a story straightforwardly and without frills". In his novel Misery, Stephen King places a rich collection of Maugham's books in the house where most of the plot is set, and incidentally praises Maugham's mastery of storytelling.
PortraitsMany portraits were painted of Somerset Maugham, including that by Graham Sutherland in the Tate Gallery, and several by Sir Gerald Kelly. Sutherland's portrait was included in the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.
- The Land of Promise, directed by Joseph Kaufman and starring Thomas Meighan and David van Eyck. Based on the 1913 play of the same name.
- Smith, directed by Maurice Elvey. Based on the 1913 play of the same name.
- The Divorcee, directed by Herbert Blaché. Based on the 1907 play Lady Frederick.
- East of Suez, directed by Raoul Walsh. Based on the seven-act play of the same name.
- The Circle, directed by Frank Borzage. Based on the 1921 play of the same name.
- The Canadian, directed by William Beaudine. Based on the 1913 play The Land of Promise, this was a remake of the 1917 film of that name, with Thomas Meighan reprising his role as Frank Taylor.
- The Magician. Based on the 1908 novel of the same name.
- Sadie Thompson, a silent movie starring Gloria Swanson and Lionel Barrymore. Based on the short story "Miss Thompson", which was later retitled "Rain".
- The Letter, featuring Jeanne Eagels, O.P. Heggie, Reginald Owen and Herbert Marshall. Based on the play of the same name.
- Charming Sinners, featuring Ruth Chatterton, Clive Brook, Mary Nolan and William Powell. Based on the play The Constant Wife.
- Rain, with Joan Crawford and Walter Huston. The first sound version of the short story "Miss Thompson".
- The Narrow Corner, starring Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and directed by Alfred E. Green. Based on the novel of the same name.
- Our Betters, directed by George Cukor. Based on the play of the same name.
- Of Human Bondage, starring Leslie Howard and Bette Davis. Based on the novel of the same name.
- The Painted Veil, featuring Greta Garbo and Herbert Marshall. Based on the novel of the same name.
- The Right to Live, starring George Brent and Josephine Hutchinson. Based on the play The Sacred Flame.
- Secret Agent, starring John Gielgud, Peter Lorre, Madeleine Carroll and Robert Young, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Based on .
- The Tenth Man, directed by Brian Desmond Hurst. Based on the play of the same name.
- Isle of Fury, starring Humphrey Bogart. Based on the novel The Narrow Corner.
- Another Dawn, starring Errol Flynn. Based on the play Caesar's Wife.
- The Vessel of Wrath, starring Charles Laughton; released in the United States as The Beachcomber. Based on the novella of the same name.
- The Letter, featuring Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, James Stephenson, Frieda Inescort and Gale Sondergaard. Based on the play of the same name.
- Too Many Husbands, featuring Jean Arthur, Fred MacMurray and Melvyn Douglas. Based on the play Home and Beauty.
- The Moon and Sixpence with George Sanders. Based on the novel of the same name.
- Christmas Holiday, starring Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly, based on the novel of the same name.
- The Hour Before the Dawn, starring Veronica Lake, based on the novel of the same name.
- Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A.. Unauthorized film version of "Miss Thompson" with an all-black cast, directed by Spencer Williams.
- The Razor's Edge. featuring Tyrone Power and Gene Tierney. Based on the novel of the same name.
- Of Human Bondage, a version starring Eleanor Parker.
- The Unfaithful, starring Ann Sheridan, based on The Letter.
- Quartet. Maugham appears as himself in introductions. Based on four of his short stories.
- Trio. Maugham appears as himself in introductions. Another collection based on short stories.
- Encore. Maugham appears as himself in introductions. A third collection of Maugham short stories.
- Miss Sadie Thompson, a semi-musical version in 3-D, featuring Rita Hayworth and José Ferrer.
- The Letter, TV adaptation starring Siobhan McKenna. Based on the play of the same name.
- The Seventh Sin, with Eleanor Parker. Based on the novel The Painted Veil.
- The Beachcomber. Based on the novella The Vessel of Wrath; not to be confused with the 1938 film.
- Julia, du bist zauberhaft, starring Lilli Palmer and Charles Boyer. Based on the novel Theatre.
- Of Human Bondage, with Laurence Harvey and Kim Novak.
- The Letter, starring Eileen Atkins. Based on the play of the same name.
- Theatre, starring Vija Artmane. Based on the novel of the same name.
- The Letter, featuring Lee Remick, Jack Thompson and Ronald Pickup. Based on the play of the same name.
- The Razor's Edge, with Bill Murray. Based on the novel of the same name.
- Up at the Villa, starring Kristin Scott Thomas and Sean Penn, directed by Philip Haas. Based on the novella of the same name.
- Being Julia, featuring Annette Bening. Based on the novel Theatre.
- The Painted Veil, with Naomi Watts and Edward Norton. Based on the novel of the same name.
- Burgess, Anthony Maugham's Malaysian Stories . Selected and introduced by Anthony Burgess. Includes The Vessel of Wrath, The Force of Circumstance, The Door of Opportunity, The Four Dutchmen, P. & O., and A Casual Affair. Out of print.
- Maugham, W. Somerset Collected Stories .