Somerset Maugham

Spencer, Theodore. "Somerset Maugham." College English 2 (1940): 1-10. 

This post is one of a series in which I review the critical analysis on W. Somerset Maugham's work. This is an old article published during Maugham's lifetime, assessing his achievement up to then. In this article Theodore Spencer examines Maugham's books as a whole up to 1940, and comments on Cakes and Ale (1930) and Of Human Bondage (1915).

"Somerset Maugham"

photo of somerset maugham in 1940s
Maugham in early '40s
Spencer ventures to explain the probable reason of Maugham's lack of luck with the critics (contrary to his success with the public), which is due to his frankness, his assessment of himself (which often gets a malicious agreement instead of a polite contradiction), and the fact that he writes in regular hours every day like Anthony Trollop (who has been also out of favour), instead of writing when touched by the wings of inspiration.

This was in the 40s, of course now we are more tolerant and accept that professional writers earn their bread with their pens (or keyboard). From my experience of the academic life, I do find that being humble is often taken as a weakness instead of what it is.

Mediocrity / Simplicity

Spencer goes so far as to the unfairness of Maugham being slighted by the academic world, but he readily admits his mediocrity and insufficiency. He admires his colloquial language and simplicity, but then at times it is overdone (it's like saying to Mozart that there are too many notes in his opera; I don't know if that anecdote is true; I confess that my knowledge of Mozart limits to watching Amadeus. I belong to the public after all).

Cakes and Ale Losing Flavour

However, I certainly have to disagree about Cakes and Ale (1930) losing it's flavour upon second reading. I still admire his dexterity and cleverness in Cakes and Ale and, come on, have a good laugh at all the people he describes. I do reckon that some of Maugham's books are brilliant and some are so-so, but you can't reject him simply by his less accomplished works.

Unpoetic Maugham

Spencer criticizes that Maugham always writes in prose, "poetry does not touch them as poetry touches the novels of Tolstoy, of Thomas Mann, or even Hardy" (5). I think I do understand what he is talking about. For example, when I read Henry Miller, from time to time I do feel poetry running through his prose. There is a formal beauty, but not too much underneath.

As for the examples that are given, since I don't read Russian or German, I can't say; translation is no good for appreciating the poetry. I am not quite sure what "even Hardy" (emphasis mine) means. I happen to be a great fan of Hardy for a period, but at the end I found that it was too much to take. The bitterness was overwhelming and I failed to find any relief.

Of Human Bondage: An Exception

The critic keeps saying that Of Human Bondage is an exception to what he is criticizing, which happens to be the most popular, and to many the most accomplished in every way, of Maugham's works. It seems that he is simply trying to sidetrack it in order to find the peas. Maugham has shown, none knows if all, very sincerely his struggles to arrive at a relative peace, if we believe that at least parts of Philip's experience are his, finding solace in the poignant acceptance of the meaninglessness of life.

It is painful to read all the emotions that Philip has gone through; and it is asking too much from another person to come up with new theories of life after that. I understand we are talking about literary creation, but somehow Of Human Bondage strikes me as very sincere and honest that touches your heart to the deepest. When he says that Maugham's picture of human nature is limited, I wonder what type of picture he is able to give.

Criteria for Analysing Serious Fiction

The four things that Spencer lists as what he looks at in a serious work of fiction are interesting:
(1) an organization of incident which produces the illusion that the sequence of events is necessary and inevitable;
(2) a set of characters whose relation to the events are equally inevitable and in whom we can believe;
(3) a physical, social, or geographical setting which forms a fitting background for the events and characters; and
(4) a moral, intellectual, or metaphysical climate which creates a standard by which, more or less unconsciously, both the author and the reader judge the behavior of the characters. (8)
Spencer, using his schema, finds that Maugham's treatment of the relationship between Philip and Mildred wanting when comparing with a similar relationship between Troilus and Cressida portrayed by Shakespeare, although he does concede that the values in Shakespeare's society are different from Maugham's.

Maugham Is No Shakespeare...

It is interesting that Shakespeare is used as an example, because Shakespeare, though popular in his days, was not taken seriously until in the 18th century. Maybe after all, Stephen King is right, that a hundred years from now, the critics will finally realize the mistake they have made in ignoring Maugham.

Ending of Of Human Bondage: Disappointing...

From what I have read, many people are disappointed by the ending in Of Human Bondage. I myself feel the warmth in Ferne as described by Maugham, the peace and tranquillity, the health and simplicity of Sally.

It is a poignant acceptance of what life can offer him, but it is an acceptance. Maybe they would prefer if Philip commits suicide, or abandons Sally (which is contrary to his personality), or simply sails to Spain without more ado.

As in his many short stories, Maugham is intrigued by some very unusual directions that people lead themselves to arrive at to find that peace and satisfaction of their calling. Sally may not be Philip's vocation, but she certainly offers him a possibility of peace.

On the whole, as can be seen, Spencer is very critical with Maugham. It represents a historical reception of Maugham by his contemporary academic circle and is part and parcel of Maugham studies.


  1. This is evidently the same piece which Klaus Jonas included in his anthology "The Maugham Enigma" (1954). There it was titled "Somerset Maugham: An Appreciation". I must say I was appalled by Mr Spencer's condescension. Some appreciation indeed!

    I admire your patience with Mr Spencer and your taking him seriously. I couldn't do that.

    Two further points to conclude my two cents.

    The first time I read "Of Human Bondage" I too found the ending disappointing. Not so the second. Then I found it a tragic resolution. The relationship between Philip and Sally striked me as curiously one-sided. Living with her will be a great improvement over that ghastly existence with Mildred, that's for sure. But I don't think it will make Philip happy. From now on, either he will recognise this and grow bitter, or he will fall into a state of lifeless drifting through the world.

    One of Maugham's most famous quotes, incidentally coming from one of his more obscure stories, is that there is a funny thing about life and if you refuse to to accept anything but the best you very often get it. Philip didn't. He gave up his dream of being a ship doctor around the world for the dubious marital happiness with a woman who is, at best, mildly fond him. Mildred had so crushed his will that he was no longer able to pursue his dreams and had to take the best third-rate offer on the market.

    Maugham probably didn't intend it that way, but that's how I feel it. Maybe his creative subconscious got the better of him and he wrote it that way despite himself. This is the most fascinating, but least likely, hypothesis.

    Anyway, off to my second point, funny that you should mention Mozart. I find so many parallels between him and Willie. The deceptive simplicity, for instance, is one of the most striking. Too bad it's often mistaken for superficiality. Just like it's much easier to go for Beethoven's rather obvious heroics or Rossini's gratuitous virtuosity than to appreciate Mozart's subtlety, so, I guess, it is harder to realise Maugham's mastery behind the veil of simplicity than to praise handsomely the insanely convoluted prose of, say, Henry James or Joseph Conrad - because the hard to understand it is, the more profound it must be.

    Sorry for this long and rambling message.

    1. Thanks for the comment.

      In fact, the first time when I read the article I was put off, but I made myself read it again, because simply dismissing it doesn't help. Some of the things Spencer says is valid, in terms of analysing a piece of work, but the most awkward thing to me is that he is so patronizing.

      Of Human Bondage simply gets to my heart. I do think Philip could be happy with Sally though. Perhaps I am too naive. But perhaps sometimes simple things and routines do satisfy, together with the certainty that somebody will never desert you.

      Yeah, I just thought of Mozart when I was reading the criticism of Maugham, but I have to admit that my knowledge of music is the minimum. It's a funny thing, because I started two years ago teaching myself the piano (I play terribly but I entertain myself) and the simple act of poring over every single note makes me look at familiar pieces in a completely different way.

  2. I was wondering if you could do me a favour and check something for me. I didn't find a post specifically about "Cakes and Ale", so I ask here. I assume you have the First edition. I am curious how two debatable points from later editions appear in the First.

    The first point is in the famous opening paragraph:

    “I have noticed that when someone asks for you on the telephone and, finding you out, leaves a message begging you to call him up the moment you came in, and it’s important*, the matter is more often important to him than to you. When it comes to making you a present or doing you a favour most people are able to hold their impatience within reasonable bounds.”

    This is from The Collected Edition, though a 1952 reprint of what first appeared in 1934. In the Vintage Classics edition the asterisk reads "as it's important", which sounds more awkward to me. How is it in the First?

    The second difference is staggering and it occurs, so far as I know, only in the 1950 Modern Library edition. It is in this delicious passage from Chapter I:

    “I had watched with admiration his rise in the world of letters. His career might well have served as a model for any young man entering upon the pursuit of literature. I could think of no one among my contemporaries who had achieved so considerable a position on so little talent. This, like the wise man’s daily dose of Bemax, might have gone into a heaped-up tablespoon. He was perfectly aware of it, and it must have seemed to him sometimes little short of a miracle that he had been able with it to compose already some thirty books. I cannot but think that he saw the white light of revelation when first he read that Charles Dickens* in an after-dinner speech had stated that genius was an infinite capacity for taking pains. He pondered the saying. If that was all, he must have told himself, he could be a genius like the rest; when the excited reviewer of a lady’s paper, writing a notice of one of his works, used the word (and of late the critics have been doing it with agreeable frequency) he must have sighed with the satisfaction of one who after long hours of toil has completed a cross-word puzzle. No one who for years had observed his indefatigable industry could deny that at all events he deserved to be a genius.”

    In The Collected Edition as well as in the Vintage Classics, and I suppose in most modern paperbacks too, the name is Thomas Carlyle. How is it in the First?

    1. Hi Alexander,

      In mine, Heinemann 1930 (stated first), it reads: "and it's important".

      As for the second one, it's "Thomas Carlyle". What strange thing it is! Charles Dickens?!

      I'll send you a scan of the two pages via email.

    2. Thank you very much. No need to bother about scans. But if you do, I promise one of Dickens' unexpected publicity in 1950.

      So far as I know, the dictum about the genius and the infinite capacity for taking pains was Carlyle's, although this of course is no reason why it can't be attributed to someone else in fiction. In any case, this is one of the bibliographical mysteries around Maugham that still remains quite unsolved. Certainly, it was no misprint. Somebody put the name there deliberately. But who? And why? None of the army of biographers, critics, bibliographers and the like attempts an explanation, or even mentions the anomaly.

      My favourite Maugham mystery is "The Buried Talent". Why did this fine short story, published in magazines as late as 1934, have to wait 50 years for its first publication in book form? No idea.

      If you happen to come across any explanation of, or even casual reference to, these matters, please let me know.

    3. You are very meticulous and with a quick eye!

      Haven't read "The Buried Talent", will read it now.

      I'll keep an eye on it.

      p.s. I sent you the scans earlier. Keep the evidence!

    4. Oh yes, I meant to tell you because I thought you might be amused. Here you will find that Maugham wrote The Lady Chatterley's Lover:

  3. This is indeed amusing. I've seen Maugham as author of "Pride and Prejudice" and "Moby Dick", but these he at least edited. In view of Maugham's not exactly enthusiastic response to the writings of D.H. and Lawrence's blistering dismissal of the Ashenden tales as "fake", there is a fine poetic irony in this misattribution.

    As for my meticulous nature and quick eye, just wait to see my Revised, Augmented and Annotated edition of Mr Stott's bibliography. A true masterpiece of bibliographical scholarship.


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