The Spoken Word: British Writers

maugham audio books, audio book recording, historic recording, a writer's notebook, maugham books

The Spoken Word: British Writers, 3-CD Set (British Library - British Library Sound Archive): Historic Recordings by Original Authors

This is a review of another of the British Library and the BBC historic recordings of authors reading their own short stories. You will find detailed information of Maugham's reading his work and the content of this three CD sets.

Maugham's Reading A Writer's Notebook

Another recordings of writers reading their own works by the British Library and the BBC. There are three more volumes featuring Maugham reading his own short stories, which I have reviewed before. 

In this collection, Maugham reads from A Writer's Notebook (1949). The reading was recorded in 1949 and the original lasts for thirty minutes, only 7.08 minutes are on this CD, unfortunately. I wonder if the British Library and the BBC would consider issuing a full CD for Maugham as has been done for other writers such as Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, H.G.Wells, Edith Sitwell, George Barker, among others.

Extracts from A Writer's Notebook

The passages that he reads are at the end of the book, under the year 1944:
. . . it occurred to me that the greatest compensation of old age is its freedom of spirit. I suppose that is accompanied by a certain indifference to many of the things that men in their prime think important. Another compensation is that it liberates you from envy, hatred and malice. I do not believe that I envy anyone. I have made the most I could of such gifts as nature provided me with; I do not envy the success of others. I am quiet willing to vacate the little niche I have occupied so long and let another step into it. I no longer mind what people think of me. They can take me or leave me. I am mildly pleased when they appear to like me and undisturbed if I know they don't. I have long known that there is something in me that antagonizes certain persons; I think it very natural, no one can like everyone; and their ill will interests rather than discomposes me. I am only curious to know what it is in me that is antipathetic to them. Nor do I mind what they think of me as a writer. On the whole I have done what I set out to do, and the rest does not concern me. I have never much cared for the notoriety which surrounds the successful writer and which many of us are simple enough to mistake for fame, and I have often wished that I had written under a pseudonym so that I might have passed through the world unnoticed. I did indeed write my first novel under one [1], and only put my own name to it because my publisher warned me that the book might be violently attacked and I did not wish to hide myself under a made-up name. I suppose few authors can help cherishing a secret hope that they will not be entirely forgotten the moment they die, and I have occasionally amused myself by weighing the chances I have of survival for a brief period.

My best book is generally supposed to be Of Human Bondage. Its sales prove that it is still widely read, and it was published thirty years ago. That is a long life for a novel. But posterity is little inclined to occupy itself with works of great length, and I take it that with the passing of the present generation, which very much to my own surprise has found it significant, it will be forgotten along with many other better books. I think that one or two of my comedies may retain for some time a kind of pale life, for they are written in the tradition of English comedy and on that account may find a place in the long line that began with the Restoration dramatists and in the plays of Noel Coward continues to please. It may be that they will secure me a line or two in the histories of the English theatre. I think a few of my best stories will find their way into anthologies for a good many years to come if only because some of them deal with circumstances and places to which the passage of time and the growth of civilisation will give a romantic glamour. This is slender baggage, two or three plays and a dozen short stories, with which to set out on a journey to the future, but it is better than nothing [2]. And if I am mistaken and I am forgotten a month after my death I shall know nothing about it.
Ten years ago I made my final bow on the stage; the Press and my friends thought I did not mean it and in a year or so would emerge from my retirement; but I never have, nor have I had any inclination to do so. Some years ago I decided to write four more novels and then have done with fiction also. One I have written, but I think it unlikely now that I shall write the other three. One was to be a miracle story set in sixteenth-century Spain [3]; the second, a story of Machiavelli's stay with Cesare Borgia in the Romagna, which gave him the best of his material for The Prince [4], and I proposed to interweave with their conversations the material on which Machiavelli founded his play Mandragola. Knowing how often the author makes up his fiction from incidents of his own experience, trifling perhaps and made interesting or dramatic only by his power of creation, I thought it would be amusing to reverse the process and from the play guess at the events that may have occasioned it. I meant to end up with a novel about a working-class family in the slums of Bermondsey [5]. I thought it would form a pleasant termination to my career to finish with the same sort of story of the shiftless poor of London as I had begun with fifty years before. But I am content now to keep these three novels as an amusement for my idle reveries. That is how the author gets most delight out of his books; when once he has written them they are his no longer and he can no more entertain himself with the conversations and actions of the persons of his fancy. Nor do I think I am likely at the age of seventy or over to write anything of any great value. Incentive fails, energy fails, invention fails. The histories of literature with pitying sympathy sometimes, but more often with a curt indifference, dismiss the works of even the greatest writers' old age, and I have myself sadly witnessed the lamentable falling off of talented authors among my friends who went on writing when their powers were but a shadow of what they had been. The best of the communications an author has to make is to his own generation, and he is wise to let the generation that succeeds his choose its own exponents. They will do it whether he lets them or not. His language will be Greek to them. I do not think I can write anything more that will add to the pattern I have sought to make of my life and its activities. I have fulfilled myself and I am very willing to call it a day. [6]

Content of The Spoken Word: British Writers

The rest of the recordings in this CD set:

Disc 1
1. Arthur Conan Doyle - Conan Doyle Speaking
2. Arthur Machen - Points of View
3. Baroness Emmuska ('Emma') Orczy - Talk on the original conception of the Scarlet Pimpernel
4. Rudyard Kipling - Speech at the luncheon of the Canadian Authors' Association
5. Algernon Blackwood - 'Pistol Against a Ghost'
6. W. Somerset Maugham - An extract from his book A Writer's Notebook
7. G.K. Chesterton - No. 6 series of talks The Spice of Life
8. E.M. Forster - The Challenge of our Time
9. P.G. Wodehouse - The World of Books
10. Virginia Woolf - Craftsmanship

Disc 2
1. J.R.R. Tolkien - The Fellowship of the Ring
2. Rebecca West - Discussion about modern literature and criticism
3. Aldous Huxley - Monitor
4. J.B. Priestley - The Look of the Week
5. Noel Coward - Today
6. Evelyn Waugh - Face to Face
7. Graham Greene - A Writer at Work
8. Nancy Mitford - The World of Nancy Mitford
9. C.P. Snow - People Today

Disc 3
1. Daphne du Maurier - Interview with Daphne du Maurier
2. Ian Fleming - Desert Island Discs
3. William Golding - William Golding: The author talks about his novels
4. Angus Wilson - Asian Club: The Writer and his Times
5. Anthony Burgess - PM Reports
6. Muriel Spark - Third Ear
7. Doris Lessing - Life and Letters
8. Harold Pinter - People Today
9. J.G. Ballard - The Living Novelist
10. John le Carré - An Interview with John le Carré
11. Joe Orton - Regional Extra

This set is also available at Amazon UK and The BookDepository, which has free delivery worldwide.


[1] The pseudonym that Maugham had in mind was William Somerset. He started formalizing his name into W. Somerset Maugham in 1909. Calder writes that Maugham considered "Somerset Maugham" as a double surname. If that is the case, it is in adherence to Maugham's lifelong admiration of Spain, in which the double surname is still in use. Calder, Robert. Willie. The Life of W. Somerset Maugham. London: Heinemann, 1989. 51.

[2] Well, Maugham underestimates his art, especially the potential of his work that has been exploited by Hollywood, such as the more recent The Painted Veil (2006) and Being Julia (2004). An ebook edition of The Painted Veil is available on the free ebook page.

[3] That would be Catalina (1948), his very last novel. Please find the ebook link of Catalina on the ebook page in this blog.

[4] He did write it, Then and Now (1946).

[5] As he said himself later in A Writer's Notebook, Maugham did not write the last novel he had in mind about the slums of Bermondsey, because Bermondsey was no longer the Bermondsey he once knew and the project was not doable.

[6] Maugham, W. Somerset. A Writer's Notebook. London: Heinemann, 1949. 337-39. You can find the link to extracts of A Writer's Notebook on the free ebook page.

Read more extracts from A Writer's Notebook


  1. Congratulations on a splendid collection.

    I have been looking for any audio rendering of the longish essay towards the end of _A Writer's Notebook_ (from "By way of postscript. I was 70 yesterday).

    You mention that in "Maugham's Reading A Writer's Notebook" that

    "In this collection, Maugham reads from A "Writer's Notebook (1949). The reading was recorded in 1949 and the original lasts for thirty minutes, only 7.08 minutes are in this CD, unfortunately."

    Wonder whether you could tell me where the extract read by Maugam begins and ends: surely what you have reproduced will not run to 7 minutes or so.

    Is the text of the essay available in audio read by anybody else?

    With best wishes,
    Yateendra (in Pune, India)

    1. Thanks for leaving a comment, Yateendra.

      The extract I quoted is the full text read by Maugham in the CD; it does last for 7 minutes.

      Unfortunately, I haven't come across any other recording of A Writer's Notebook.


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