The Bishop's Apron by W. Somerset Maugham - First Colonial Edition

The Bishop's Apron by W. Somerset Maugham First Colonial Edition 1906
The Bishop's Apron by W. Somerset Maugham
First Colonial Edition 1906

The Bishop’s Apron. A Study in the Origins of a Great Family (London and Bombay: George Bell & Sons, 1906)

The Bishop’s Apron is one of W. Somerset Maugham’s early novels. It has a curious history of being transferred from one genre to another. The skeleton of the story is already present in the story “Cupid and the Vicar of Swale” (1900), then it was written in 1902 as a novel called Loaves and Fishes; when it failed to find a publisher, Maugham rewrote it into a play of the same name in 1903 [1]. However, its fortune didn’t improve and it had to wait for another three years when Maugham, as himself declared, needed money to entertain the extravagance of a certain young person that he rewrote the play into a novel, which became The Bishop’s Apron. As for the play, Loaves and Fishes, it wasn’t produced until 1911, after Maugham had swept the London Theatre off its feet.

According to Selina Hastings, this young person that Maugham was infatuated with is no less than Harry Philips, to whom The Bishop’s Apron was dedicated. [2]

Robert Calder, on the other hand, reserves to use Philips as a witness to Maugham’s diligence to rework the play into novel when they were staying together in Paris. [3]

The Bishop’s Apron - Storyline

The opening line of the novel states the theme clearly: "The world takes people very willingly at the estimate in which they hold themselves” (1). The protagonist, Canon Theodore Spratte, takes himself very seriously. The whole story is basically about how he gets everything that he wants. Somehow he reminds me of George Winter in The Tenth Man, only that instead of a tragedy, Theodore’s story is farcical. Despite all the follies and all the manipulations that he does, he turns out to be a fascinating personage and one can’t help liking him, in a way, at the end. When he is almost beaten by the unexpected turn of events introduced by Mrs Fitzherbert, incredibly it may sound, one does feel sorry for him.

Canon Spratte, the Vicar of St. Gregory’s, aspires to become the Bishop of Barchester, a post that is recently vacated by the death of the said predecessor. However, there is resistance in the Prime Minister who leans heavily (spiritually and physically) towards another candidate, the schoolmaster Dr. Gray.

Meanwhile, Canon Spratte is busy arranging his two children’s matrimony, being a widower himself he has to look after his children’s future solo.

Then there are three bystanders overlooking all the actions: Lord Spratte, the Canon’s brother and successor to the family relatively new-gained title (their father rose from obscurity to become Lord Chancellor; Maugham gave the father the scene of his own grandfather throwing potatoes at the pictures in the dining room), who is flippant and unashamed of his family's humble origin; Lady Sophia, the Canon’s sister, who is cynical but sympathetic; and Mrs. Fitzherbert, who was once madly in love with the Canon (without him knowing it) but has got over him.

Yes, indeed, the plot thickens.

The Canon’s daughter, Winnie, falls in love with a radical, Bertram Railing, whom the Canon likes well enough, but not so much as his son-in-law. Lord Wroxham, on the other hand, a young peer full of promise with a full purse, is deeply in love with Winnie. The Canon devises a series of manipulations to divert Winnie’s love towards young Wroxham and succeeds in the end. This part contains a masterfully hilarious scene of Railing’s mother and sister going to tea at the Canon’s house in South Kensington.

The Canon’s son, Lionel, can’t make up his mind to propose to the prosperous and powerful brewer Sir John Durant’s buxom daughter, Gwendolen. At the end, the Canon, in his fifties, takes her himself.

Finally, with Durant’s political influence, his own unfailing charm winning Gwendolen’s heart, and his unscrupulous cutting his son Lionel's undecided amorous interest in Gwendolen off, the Canon gets more than what he sets out for. There are more twists in the plot and I would not like to spoil too much.

Maugham’s corrosive humour is in full force. No one escapes it in the novel. The continual bantering and ridicule of the protagonist (and Maugham’s contemporary social mores) from his family leaves him unperturbed, for Theodore Spratte has absolute trust in his own values.

Additionally, there are moments of sincerity and retrospection, such as Winnie’s circumspection of her feelings towards Bertram:
“When I’m with him I’m filled with high and noble thoughts. My heart seems to grow larger so that I could throw myself at his feet. I’m not fit to be his handmaid. But I can’t live up to his ideal. I have to pose all the time, and I say things I don’t mean so that he may think well of me. Sometimes I’m afraid of him; I wonder what he’d say if he knew what I honestly was. He doesn’t really love me, he thinks I’m full of faults. He loves his ideal and the woman I may become. He makes me feel so insignificant and so unworthy.” (217)

And her reflections of Lord Harry Wroxham:
“Oh, Harry’s different; he loves me for myself. I can be quite natural with him, and I needn’t pretend to be any better than I am. He doesn’t think I have any faults and he doesn’t want me any different from what I am. With Bertram I have to walk on stilts, but with Harry I can just dawdle along at my own pace, and he’ll be only too glad to wait for me.” (218)

I have enjoyed myself when reading and rereading this book. Unfortunately, after all the work that Maugham devoted to it, it isn’t included in the collected edition.

A side note, I am not familiar with the life or the person of Frederic Maugham, our author's brother, who became Lord Chancellor much later and was made a life peer. Considering his career, it is uncanny to reflect on him and Canon Spratte.

The Bishop’s Apron - First Edition

The Bishop's Apron by W. Somerset Maugham First Colonial Edition 1906, Copyright and Title Pages
The Bishop's Apron by W. Somerset Maugham
First Colonial Edition 1906, Copyright and Title Pages
The copy I possess is the first colonial edition; Stott suspects that there wouldn’t be more than a few hundred copies of it.

Hastings mentions that in the first edition of The Bishop’s Apron published by Chapman & Hall Maugham’s Moorish symbol is not present [4]. However, in Stott and in Norman Moore’s catalogue, the symbol is present in the description. The edition in which the symbol is absent are the colonial issue and some remainder bindings.

I got my copy of The Bishop’s Apron some years ago for US$150. Now you won’t be able to get anything below US$500, very unfortunately.

The “Cupid and the Vicar of Swale” is included in Seventeen Lost stories, which can be borrowed from the Open Library.

The Bishop's Apron at AbeBooks

[1] Calder, Robert. Willie. The Life of W. Somerset Maugham. London: Heinemann, 1990. 77, 88.

[2] Hastings, Selina. the Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham. London: John Murray, 2010. 93-106.

[3] Calder 88.

[4] Hastings 106.


  1. Hi. Among the two copies I have now of this book is a 1977 Arno Press reprint in brown hard-cover. I see no mention of it in the bibliographies, and it seems to be as rare as the original. Arno also put out a reprint of "The Hero" in the same year, but it was such a horrible copy of the original - it almost looks like it was faxed!

    1. I remember seeing in catalogues reprint of The Bishop's Apron which is no longer available. It must be this one. Certainly very interesting collection you have gathered. Have you got hold of your first yet?
      And from what you said, the reprint of The Hero has misprints too!

  2. Hi. Yes I got my first. Of course shipping was a hassle. It was stuck in a Fedex facility for 4 days! Oh how I called and complained to them. I demanded it the next day, and they pushed it through. I just done't want to deal with England anymore - too many problems, and shipping prices are a rip-off.
    There is actually a very good hardcover reprint of "The Hero" now, with a beige dust-jacket, and good cover art, by Norilana Books.

  3. Congratulations! You must be very pleased, at the end.

  4. Hi, A print-on-demand company has FINALLY decided to make "The Bishop's Apron" available. It took them long enough.

    1. I wonder if that has to do with the its upload to the Internet Archive, which must have affected the copyright issue.

  5. I got The Bishop’s Apron from Project Gutenberg and read it with great delight. Canon Spratte is a marvellous creation, a character in the same vein as the self-absorbed Sir Willoughby Patterne in George Meredith’s The Egoist. He also reminds us of ‘Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who,for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage;’ Jane Austen: Persuasion.

    Maugham brings his own wit and beady-eyed precision to the canon and the other characters. His rendering of the Railing family (surely a sly dig at the reforming zeal that animates them) are presented with the insight and accuracy he showed about the lower classes in Liza of Lambeth.

    I admire Maugham’s work and rate him highly as a writer. I find the condescension with which he is treated by literary snobs both amusing and annoying. These show little understand of what constitutes truly good writing and indeed Maugham himself nailed their attitude with deadly accuracy when he wrote: ‘It is the sophisticated, the cultured dilettantes, the fashionable who are more likely to lose their heads over the second-rate; since something other than deep-felt emotion is concerned, they are apt to mistake oddness for originality and speciousness for truth.’


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