Ashenden - W. Somerset Maugham

cover of the first uk edition of Somerset Maugham's Ashenden, 1928
Ashenden, first UK edition, 1928

Ashenden or The British Agent (London: Heinemann, 1928)

This post will look at W. Somerset Maugham's collection of short stories Ashenden. It will cover some comments of contemporary reviews and the description of two editions. At the end of this post, you will find a link to some of the chapters.

Ashenden: Contemporary Review

On the whole, it is a specimen of Somerset Maugham writing in second gear. In the course of the Spring and Summer you are apt to see it prevalent in steamer chairs and at holiday resorts. But a year from now it is not apt to stand on the library shelves that hold Of Human Bondage. (New York Times, unsigned review, 15 April 1928).

Such is the hazard of prediction when one's crystal ball is out of battery, at least the fortune-teller had the sense to keep it anonymous, unlike D.H. Lawrence. Apology to his fans, but this really does not look good: "An agent in the Secret Service is a sort of spy. Spying is a dirty business, and Secret Service altogether is a world of under-dogs" (Vogue, 20 July 1928) [1]. He went on his vehement attack throughout the rest of the three paragraphs and one cannot help but think that Lawrence, besides having strong prejudices, had trouble accepting a different worldview (and a world that he knew little about) with good grace.

Going back to the first quote. A Mickey Mouse survey of the first two pages of search results for Ashenden renders eight editions (1941, 1947, 1951, 1968, 1977, 1987, 2005, 2006) and seven translations, ranging from Russian (2008) to Hungarian (1986) to Italian (2013) to Spanish (1946, 2010) to German (2003) and to Slovenian (1953). Unbelievable or not, Ashenden has been and is read, in many languages too.

Ashenden: Maugham as Secret Agent (i.e. spy, as Lawrence informs us)

Quite a lot has been written about Maugham as a secret agent, details are easily available in his biographies. Calder [2] suggests that Maugham's secret service activities did not end when he left for the sanatorium in Nordrach-on-Dee after Kerensky's fall in 1917, and Maugham was consulted by Scotland Yard late into his life. However, as always, Maugham himself is the one who takes the best advantage of his raw materials. Besides Ashenden, Maugham talks about his war work (during both wars) in essays and autobiographical writings.

Three years ago, Keith Jeffrey published The Secret History of MI6: 1909-1949, which contains, besides details about Maugham's role, a broader background for those who are interested in espionage during the two World Wars.

As for the name Willie Ashenden, Maugham's alter ego, which he uses in some other stories and novels, such as "The Sanatorium" and Cakes and Ale, it turns out to be a classmate he had at King's School, for whom, Morgan [3] hypothesizes, Maugham had a romantic attachment.

Reading Ashenden

In a strict sense, Ashenden is a series of short stories, which can be read separately, but reading it as a novel gives it a better continuity, covering the story of how Ashenden is recruited to his final assignment in Russia. The fact that a table of content is not given, as in other short story collections, may be because it is intended to be read whole.

The chapters are as follows:

I. R.
II. A Domiciliary Visit
III. Miss King
IV. The Hairless Mexican
V. The Dark Woman
VI. The Greek
VII. A Trip to Paris
VIII. Giulia Lazzari
IX. Gustav
X. The Traitor
XI. Behind the Scenes
XII. His Excellency
XIII. The Flip of a Coin
XIV. A Chance Acquaintance
XV. Love and Russian Literature
XVI. Mr. Harrington's Washing

The beginning is a little slack, as if Maugham is trying to convince the reader of the monotony of the secret service, but then it picks up pace and the rest is joyful to read. I especially like "The Hairless Mexican," "Giulia Lazzari," and "A Chance Acquaintance." The hairless Mexican may seem an outrageous caricature, too exaggerated to be believed, but I do know a megalomaniac not unlike him, though not having such an extravagant appearance (well, he has his own style no less idiosyncratic). The portrait of Mr. Harrington is fantastic.

"Love and Russian Literature" has its hilarity (cannot eat scrambled eggs without thinking about Anastasia Alexandrova) and "His Excellency" retells a similar obsessive relationship as that between Philip and Mildred in Of Human Bondage, only that it is more intense in this condensed form and the narration from the stiff ambassador is captivating and poignant.

What is so special about these stories is that Maugham is able to transmit the fun and enjoyment he had when he wrote them. Somehow you feel that he had a hell of a good time writing them. I have the same feeling when I read Cakes and Ale.

Ashenden: First Edition and 1934 Edition

the cover of 1934 edition of ashenden by w. somerset maugham
Ashenden, 1934 edition
Somehow I have two copies of Ashenden. The first one I got was from Coniston when I passed by there. It was a book fair in the gym of one of the local schools. It is a little one published for WM. Collins Sons & Co. Ltd by The London Book Co. Ltd. There was no date in it; it was later that I found that it was published in 1934. At that time I was not into Maugham; I picked it up because it costed almost nothing and it looked cute.
the copyright page of ashenden by somerset maugham, first uk edition
Ashenden, first UK edition, copyright 
the times book club label
The Times Book Club Label

Then I got the first edition by Heinemann. One of its previous owners is the Times Book Club at 42 Wigmore Street, which was a lending library rather than a book club. It catered more to the upper-middle class, together with Mudie's. Virginia Woolf was one of its members [4].

The first US edition by Doubleday, Doran & Co. came out a day later. The first editions are still selling at reasonable price. However, watch out for the second impression in the same year by Heinemann.

Several of the short stories are available for download on the free ebook - short stories page. Check under the years 1927 and 1928.

Ashenden at AbeBooks
Ashenden, UK first at
Ashenden, US first at

[1] Both reviews can be found in W. Somerset Maugham. The Critical Heritage, pp. 176-179.

[2] Calder, Robert. Willie. The Life of W. Somerset Maugham. London: Heinemann, 1990, pp. 194-5.

[3] Morgan, Ted. Somerset Maugham. London: Jonathan Cape, 1980, p. 21, photo no. 8.

[4] Humble, Nicola. The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, 1920s to 1950s: Class, Domesticity, and Bohemianism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 37.