Historical and Cultural References in W. Somerset Maugham's Work

Photo of W. Somerset Maugham
This post will look at the cultural and historical references Maugham mentions in some of his novels. The focus will be on the ones that Maugham is overlooked and/or not cited as examples when their usages are explained.

As readers of Maugham would have noticed, one of Maugham's techniques in achieving conciseness, directness, and simplicity is the rich cultural and historical references that he uses in his books, according to the periods and places that he is situating the course of events in. Inside this reality that he has created, he discusses and describes the timeless aspects of human experiences.

He has mastered this combination so well in some of his works that the readers feel drawn in, so that they can see the colour, the people; smell the scent emanating from the countryside or a good plate of eggs and bacon; hear the bustle from a London street or somewhere in a port in the Far East; and at the same time identify themselves with the characters and their emotions.

However, when we are getting farther away from the periods described by Maugham, at times this poses one of the most difficult tasks in understanding some of the things that the author is describing, which is, as a matter of fact, a challenging job for all serious readers who try to capture the details that are mentioned in literary work that belongs to the past centuries.

Maugham understands this fully, and he points out that readers are more readily susceptible to contemporary fictions of their own time because they speak same language, they dress in the same clothes, and use the same technology; and that is the reason why when he compiles the anthology Introduction to Modern English and Amercian Literature he arranges the chronology backwards, so as to help the readers acquire the reading habit by tackling something that they can better associate with with less efforts (xvi).

Maugham Dimenticato

In our time, with the help of the Internet, the task of deciphering historically and culturally determined references has become relatively easier and more accessible. We are able to see images and read about the historical references sitting at home. One thing I have found is that when explaining these references often literary usages are cited as examples; however, Maugham more often than not is left out.

This is a tremendous pity and terribly unfortunate.

As Maugham points out on another occasion how literary canon is established:
The elect sneer at popularity; they are inclined ever to assert that it is a proof of mediocrity; but they forget that posterity makes its choice not from among the unknown writers of a period, but from among the known. It may be that some great masterpiece which deserves immortality has fallen ill-born from the press, but posterity will never hear of it; it may be that posterity will scrap all the best sellers of our day, but it is among them that it must choose. (Cakes and Ale 120)
In this post, I will list such instances and quote the relevant passages in which Maugham makes some culturally and historically specific references and will update accordingly when I come across more.

I would think that such compilation is an important task to keep Maugham's work alive. It is not unlike a little marketing for my favourite author to keep up his memory, an author that has written books that are worth reading, entertaining, with which one can safely spend a pleasurable afternoon.

When one gets out of the spotlight in our present day society with such an overload of information and floating knowledge, one is simply forgotten.

Aërated Bread Company (A.B.C. Shop)

Founded by John Dauglish, aërated bread was bread baked without yeast, thought by the Victorians as a more hygenic alternative to traditional bread.
They [Philip and Dunsford] went down into the basement, where there was a dark room fitted up as a restaurant, and here the students were able to get the same sort of fare as they might have at an aërated bread shop. (Of Human Bondage 240)
But sometimes in the street he would see a girl who looked so like Mildred that his heart seemed to stop beating. Then he could not help himself, he hurried on to catch her up, eager and anxious, only to find that it was a total stranger. Men came back from the country, and he went with Dunsford to have tea at an A. B. C. shop. The well-known uniform made him so miserable that he could not speak. (Of Human Bondage 263)
Sometimes she [Mrs. Barton Trafford] took him [Edward Driffield] for a walk on the Chelsea Embankment and they talked of poets dead and gone and love and friendship, and had tea in an A.B.C. shop. (Cakes and Ale 170)

La Closerie des Lilas

This famously artistic Parisian restaurant is still active today and advertises proudly, as should be, all the celebrities it has fed when they were still struggling to make their names. I have written about this in more details in another post, together with two more restaurants in Paris, now extinct, that are mentioned in Of Human Bondage (1915).

Mudie's Lending Library

Mudie's Lending Library played an important role in Victorian Literature. Maugham, with his acute sense of humour, makes a flippant remark in his novel The Merry-Go-Round, written at the beginning of the twentieth century:
When you contrast the heedlessness with which people choose their books from Mudie's, and the care with which they order their dinner, you can be sure, whatever their protestations, that they lay vastly more store on their bellies than on their intellects. (The Merry-Go-Round 317)

In Loaves and Fishes, Lionel, Canon Spratte's phlegmatic son, is found resting comfortably in the drawing room:
Lionel: Oh, it's a detective story. It came from Mudie's the other day. (146)

For those who are interested in Mudie's, there is more information here: "Mudie's Select Library and the Form of Victorian Fiction."

Pink 'Un

The Pink'Un refers to a weekly British newspaper, The Sporting Times. It was called so because it was printed in pink paper.
He [Lord George] gave me the Pink 'Un every week and I took it home, carefully tucked away in my great-coat pocket, and read it in my bedroom. (Cakes and Ale 107)
He[Strickland] read Punch and the Sporting Times (The Moon and Sixpence 182).

Blackstone Chicago Hotel

Blackstone Chicago Hotel
Blackstone Chicago Hotel

I had been put up for the length of my stay at a club which possessed a good library and next morning I went there to look at one of two of the university magazines that for the person who does not subscribe to them have always been rather hard to come by. (The Razor's Edge 26-27)
Later Maugham mentions this club's name:
I had various things to do during the afternoon and did not go back to the Blackstone till it was time to change for the dinner party I was going to. (The Razor's Edge 29)
Blackstone Chicago Hotel is now the Renaissance Blackstone Chicago Hotel. It has been the famous haunts of many celebrities since its opening, as claimed in its website:
For many decades, The Blackstone was considered to be Chicago’s premier luxury hotel, playing host to twelve U.S. Presidents (more below), royalty, numerous celebrities including Rudolph Valentino, Joan Crawford, Lena Horne, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Betty Davis, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and Carl Sandburg who celebrated his 75th birthday there. It was a favored playground for America’s industrial scions as well—the Rockefellers, Astors, Morgans, Vanderbilts and Whitneys.
Certainly one can legitimately add Maugham's name to the list with his high appreciation of it.

Hotel Diligencias, Vera Cruz

Hotel Diligencias, Veracruz
Hotel Diligencias, Veracruz

I took a room in the Hotel Diligencias overlooking the plaza, and spent the morning looking at the sights of the town. I wandered down side streets and peeped into quaint courts. I sauntered through the parish church; it is picturesque with its gargoyles and flying buttresses, and the salt wind and the blazing sun have patined its harsh and massive walls with the mellowness of age; its cupola is covered with white and blue tiles. Then I found that I had seen all that was to be seen and I sat down in the coolness of the arcade that surrounded the square and ordered a drink. The sun beat down on the plaza with a merciless splendour. The coco-palms drooped dusty and bedraggled. (222)

Maugham mentions this hotel in the short story "The Bum", which is collected in Cosmopolitans (1936).

The main attraction of the hotel, as recorded on their website, however, is this:
The hotel also offers one very special room, a “hideaway where you can nestle with the waves” as in Agustín Lara’s song, “Veracruz”. Among the loveliest of the beloved composer’s ballads, it was “born with the silver moon” in this very room.

It seems likely that the hotel and the square looked pretty much the same as in Maugham's time.

Works Cited

Maugham, W. Somerset. Cakes and Ale. London: Heinemann, 1930.
---. Cosmopolitans. London: Heinemann, 1936.
---. Loaves and Fishes. London: Heinemann, 1924.
---. The Merry-Go-Round. London: Heinemann, 1904.
---. The Moon and Sixpence. London: Heinemann, 1919.
---. Of Human Bondage. New York: Doran, 1936.
---. The Razor's Edge. London: Heinemann, 1944.

How to quote this:


  1. Mighty task you've started here. Among my many dreams there is one about a heavily annotated edition of Maugham's complete works which explains in an erudite and illuminating way all these (countless) references to people, places, buildings, institutions, clothes, meals, works of art, etc., etc. Maybe you'll make my dream true some day.

    I quite agree the task is important and it will become more so as time goes by. Hard to believe, but "Of Human Bondage" is already almost a century old. The substance may well be timeless, but its appreciation will probably be improved by better acquaintance with the historical and cultural background.

    1. Yes, that'll be great. I haven't looked at the modern editions of Maugham's works, the ones that are edited by others. Do they have notes?

      I started noting all the references, but I haven't been doing so lately. Will keep it up!

      I wonder if you know that in Cakes & Ale he mentions "blue bag" (in relation to his landlady when he visited her years later) and I have been trying to locate the reference. I asked some Victorian scholars but they were unable to answer it. I'll give you more details when I get back.

  2. I have some experience only with the Vintage Classics series (love the old covers with contemporary photos, detest the new ones with ugly drawings) but none of them is even faintly annotated. They go only as far as reprinting the prefaces to The Collected Edition - and in two cases, "The Moon and Sixpence" and "On a Chinese Screen" - they don't do even that. Some novels in the Penguin Classics series, so far as I know, has new introductions by notable Maugham scholars (Calder, Curtis), but none has notes. So yours is quite a pioneering effort. I try to do something similar, though on a much lower level, by including links to Wikipedia, Gutenberg and other nooks on the Web that might improve our appreciation of Willie's (sometimes very subtle) references.

    No, I didn't know about the "blue bag" in "Cakes and Ale", nor can I think it might mean...

    1. The passage is this one in chapter XII:

      "She was a pattern of propriety and she would never have women in her house, you never knew what they were up to ('It's men, men, men all the time with them, and afternoon tea and thin bread and butter, and openin' the door and ringin' for 'ot water and I don't know what all'); but in conversation she did not hesitate to use what was called in those days the blue bag."

      I deduce from the passage "the blue bag" may mean slang. I did find The blue bag or Toryana (1832), a jocose sarcastic piece of the Tory in the House of Common, which pointed me to the Lord Sidmouth's green bag earlier. However, this seems too wild a shot.

      I also looked at several slang dictionaries, but found nothing specific. In the OED, it says: "blue bag, a barrister's (orig. a solicitor's) brief-bag of blue stuff; hence, one carrying such a bag; so (nonce) to forget the blue bag, to ignore (the indications of) one's rank," but it doesn't seem to fit what is in Maugham's passage.

      Maugham writes that she "did not hesitate to use" instead of forgetting the blue bag. It would seem that the blue bag itself is impropriety.

      I suspect it is something quite simple. Anyway, it intrigues me.

  3. I ran across this page while I was trying to find an answer to the "blue bag" question and thought you might find what I came with ;lausible and perhaps convincing: http://english.stackexchange.com/q/373201/24489

    1. Thanks a lot, StoneyB! I think the blue that Naomi Jacob is talking about is referring to the blue pencil (which she also mentions in the same paragraph), which is what is used for editing, and in fact, Maugham was famous for holding his sharpened blue pencil in hand during rehearsals, to cross out anything the actors found faults with.

      Do you know where Cascabel's quote is from?


Post a Comment