The Merry-Go-Round by W. Somerset Maugham

maugham's the merry go round, 1st edition, novel by somerset maugham,
The Merry-Go-Round
First Edition

The Merry-Go-Round (London: Heinemann, 1904)

This post will discuss The Merry-Go-Round, which is one of Maugham's early novels, and describe the first edition.

The Merry-Go-Round by W. Somerset Maugham

This is the last novel by Maugham that I read; by finishing it I have read all his novels. Before reading it, I put it in the category of The Making of a Saint (1898), Up At the Villa (1941), The Hour Before the Dawn (1942), Then and Now (1946), and Catalina (1948), from the impression that I got from the comments on it. However, I had a very pleasant surprise.

Maugham was very dissatisfied with the sale of this book and complained to his agent, William Maurice Colles (whom he dismissed afterwards), that Heinemann did not advertise enough to promote it [1]. According to the two contemporary reviews selected by Curtis and Whitehead, the reception was not all that bad [2].

The book in itself is an enjoyable read, and more so for those who are interested in Maugham as a writer. Knowing his later novels and other writings, this novel strikes one as tremendously schizophrenic. His philosophy and world views are distributed among different characters, each with his/her own personality and emotions. Maugham is at the same time Miss Ley [3], Frank Hurrell, and Basil Kent, monitoring different sides of his own personality; idealistic, honourable, cold, indifferent, world-wearied, emotional, intolerant, generous, accepting, hopeful, down-to-earth, sanguine; one is checked by the other.

It is an ambitious enterprise to weave three relationships together, held by the peripheral figures of Miss Ley and Frank, who observe and analyse what is going on among all the people involved. As Doran says of Maugham's short stories: "[i]nto thirty short pages he compacts a wealth of incident and philosophy which would furnish the ordinary writer with material for a full length novel" [4]; this is true for these four hundred pages. There are several equal length novels in one book, which Maugham does take from the past and develop in the future.

The first triangular relationship, Basil Kent, Jenny Bush, and Hilda Murray, is taken from a previous play A Man of Honour (1903). Basil marries beneath him, Jenny the barmaid, because she gets pregnant and he believes that it is his duty to do so instead of simply supporting the child and getting her out of the way, but he is really in love with Hilda. What goes on between Basil and Jenny finds its echo in the relationship between Philip and Mildred in Of Human Bondage (1915), only that Jenny is beautiful and in love with Basil. Another similar relationship is the one between Bertha Ley and Edward Craddock in Mrs Craddock (1902), when Bertha thinks of ways to change Edward; Jenny, on the other hand, suffers many emotional turmoils akin to Bertha's.

On the fatal night when Basil leads Jenny to his rooms, which triggers the events that ends in an unhappy marriage and, eventually, Jenny's suicide, Maugham writes: "And his heart trembled like a leaf trembling before the wind" (72); which finds itself into the title of a later collection of short stories, The Trembling of a Leaf (1921). In the epigraph of this collection, Maugham quotes Sainte-Beuve, "L'extrême félicité à peine séparée par une feuille tremblante de l'extrême désespoir, n'est-ce pas la vie?" This may be in his mind when he describes Basil in this important crossroad when his life is going to be changed forever.

The story of the Castillyons and Reggie Bassett reminds one of Theatre (1937), of what goes on between Julia Lambert and Tom Fennell. Reggie has a fling with Grace Castillyon, an established woman of position who at the end falls hopelessly in love with him. When Reggie gets tired of her (after getting a lot of money and presents) she becomes desperate. Nevertheless, the conflict is resolved by her realization of her husband's worth, which she was blind to at the beginning. Later, this love affair between an older woman and a young man finds itself in the play Landed Gentry (1910).

The third couple, Bella Langton and Herbert Field, tells the story of Bella having fallen in love with a youth twenty years her junior and, when Herbert becomes consumptive, she determines to marry him so that he can afford to spend the winters abroad.

Looking at Frank's excitement at abandoning his career in order to find himself, Miss Ley contemplates the fable of the ant and the grasshopper, which Maugham later expands into a short story for Cosmopolitan in 1924, which is later collected in Cosmopolitans (1936).

These are a few examples. Of course, a lot of thoughts and ideas are incorporated into Of Human Bondage. Philip unites the viewpoints of Basil, Frank, and Miss Ley, having to struggle painfully through his growing up to arrive at Miss Ley's detachment and acceptance.

What is enjoyable in the book is the sincerity of the characters' feelings. Maugham is able to portray convincingly the emotional struggles that they go through, making the reader care for them. The story telling is expertly done and events unfold logically, leading to their climaxes that one is anxious to find out what decisions the characters are going to make. There are some very moving pages, such as the reconciliation between Bella and her father; the futility of Jenny's love for Basil. However, there are flaws, such as in the portrayals of Lady Vizard and Lauria Galbraith, which lack convictions, resembling more caricatures than real people.

When I was reading the book, I could not help but think whether Maugham ever thought back on what he had written in relation to his life. This was written in 1904 and he had expounded several views on marriage. Lauria somehow gets Reggie to marry her, boasting that "Don't you know that if a girl of my age makes up her mind to marry a man, he must be awfully cute to save himself?" (333). Maugham was caught into marriage with Syrie Wellcome by not unsimiliar circumstance as Basil and Jenny, for example (of course it was not marrying beneath him), that he married her because of the baby and how unhappy that turned out to be, especially when he was in love with someone else (Gerald Haxton). It could be that the thought of fathering a child was exhilarating (as he had written here and there), and he did suggest that the failure of Basil and Jenny was due largely to the stillborn infant. After having ruminated so long on these relationships, an outsider would say that he plunged directly into the disasters that he himself had described, but then this would just fullfil his reflection on the illusion of human free will, likened to a game of chess in The Merry-Go-Round (103) and later as Philip tells Macalister and Hayward in Of Human Bondage:
"The illusion of free will is so strong in my mind that I can't get away from it, but I believe it is only an illusion. But it is an illusion which is one of the strongest motives of my actions. Before I do anything I feel I have choice, and that influences what I do; but afterwards, when the thing is done, I believe that it was inevitable from all eternity." (298)

The Merry-Go-Round - First Edition

What adds spice to this book for me is how I got it. I had not read it earlier because, besides the unenthusiastic comments on it, I could not find an affordable copy of the first edition. A free ebook is available, but it is almost unreadable in an eBook reader. Then, one day I saw on the catalogue one with the year 1904, but the publisher was listed as "Library of Congress." I dutifully checked in Stott, and there was an edition described as: "American Copyright Issue, lodged with the Library of Congress (not for sale)." It costed almost nothing that there was no reason not to get it, even if it only contained extracts, "sufficient enough to comply with the requirements of American copyright," as Stott details, it would be something to keep. Imagine my surprise when I opened the envelope and held in my hand the first issue of the first edition!

At the time when I write this post there are two first edition copies with very good price that have appeared recently. It is not a chance to miss for those who are interested.

The Merry-Go-Round is out of copyright and please find a free copy on the free ebook - novel page.


[1] Stott, Raymond Toole. A Bibliography of the Works of W. Somerset Maugham. London: Kaye & Ward, 1973. 42.

[2] Curtis, Anthony, and John Whitehead, ed. W. Somerset Maugham. The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge, 1987. 37-8.

[3] Calder believes that Miss Ley is also based on Mrs. George W. Steevens, besides an aunt of Maugham, Julia Maugham. Calder, Robert. Willie. The Life of W. Somerset Maugham. London: Heinemann, 1989. 81-2.

[4] Doran, George H. Chronicles of Barabbas 1884-1934. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1935. 128.


  1. It seems odd that after the commercial failure of "The Merry-Go-Round" Maugham complained in a correspondence to a friend something to the effect of "If a publisher doesn't really believe a book will do well, you might as well through in the Thames than let them publish it," yet Heinemann printed 3000 copies as a first run. Didn't Hutchinson only print 1500 copies of "The Hero"?

    1. I think Maugham was on one hand dissatisfied with Colles, on the other hand, he was upset that there wasn't more promotion from Heinemann. There was a novel and a play in between The Hero and The Merry-Go-Round, with Maugham so anxious to make a name for himself and earn a living by writing, he must have been frustrated and upset. He was thirty by that time, and if he was going to get anywhere he must feel that he better made it there quick.

  2. Yes, so I decided I do not like this novel-too gloomy. So I'm selling my 1st edition on eBay for $200. It's less than what I paid for it, but I want it to move somewhat quickly.


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