Certain W. Somerset Maugham Criticism

Recovered from storage (finally all boxes folded!) are two long forgotten books. As a matter of fact, I confess that I do not remember if I read them at all.

I suspect that most likely as in the case of yesteryear's newspaper advertisements old criticism offers but a glimpse into past fashion (except perhaps for those interested in reception theory, but then, again, probably book reviews would have been more telling), however, it is amusing to have a look.

Ward, A.C. Twentieth-Century English Literature. 1901–1960. Frome: The English Language Book Society, 1965.

Twentieth Century English Literature by A. C. Ward
Twentieth Century English Literature by A. C. Ward

This must have been a very popular book, probably a textbook, first published in 1928 and later revised when it reached the fourteenth edition in 1964.

By the nineteenth-thirties, after having for many years been either despised or ignored by intellectuals, Somerset Maugham had moved unobtrusively to a high place both as a dramatist and as a writer of fiction. In his case, popular favour preceded critical acclaim, and his satirical mind must have found a wry satisfaction in the spectacle of the experts belatedly hastening to catch up with independent public approval. Somerset Maugham told of his transition from medicine to literature in The Summing-Up [where does the hyphen come from?] (1938), which is less an autobiography than a statement of his purposes as a writer, and a recital of his mental and moral attitude. His early novel Liza of Lambeth (1897) belongs to the period when tales of Cockney life were in fashion, and Maugham's obstetrical experiences among the poor of south London brought him into close touch with the human material he treated understandingly in that book. For some years after, narrative fiction was of only minor interest to him, while he was becoming a celebrity in the theatre. In 1916 [sic], however, he published an excellent long novel, Of Human Bondage, some part of which is recollective of phases of his own life. This is a fine achievement, but work of a more distinctively personal kind was to come. Cakes and Ale (1930) has incisiveness, brilliance, genuine pathos, and beauty. It is his best novel, for, here, sardonic wit and satire do not drive out human sympathy and understanding. Novels about novelists are usually meat chiefly for the literary, but this story of Driffield – whose attraction to common things and common people in bar parlours and the like makes him faintly derisive of his own fame as an author – has a much wider appeal. The character of Rosie, the barmaid who becomes Driffield's first wife, is Somerset Maugham's masterpiece and one of the great creations in English fiction. In Cakes and Ale the main characteristic of the mature Maugham – absence of romantic illusion – is less productive of what often seems in his short stories to be a cynically sterile view of life. Rosie is warm and abundant, the generous-breasted ministrant [great phrase]. The author laughs and feels with her; he is not aloof or contemptuously amused, and she is safe from the cracking and cutting lash of his wit. In the illuminating preface to a single-volume collection short stories, Altogether (1934), Somerset Maugham acknowledged a debt to Maupassant, though he himself contributed far more than he borrowed from the Frenchman. The short stories are often dazzling, though occasionally only glittering. The impish audacity of his wit and his disrespect for self-righteousness are breathtaking in The Vessel of Wrath, the perfect story of its kind. The tragic note is not outside his range (see Red), but his celebrated story, Rain – of a prostitute, Sadie Thompson, converted by a missionary who then succumbs to lust, solicits her, and commits suicide – misses tragedy and achieves only a painful sordidness. Tragedy is, indeed, a will-o'-the-wisp to Somerset Maugham. It led, in the novel, A Christmas Holiday (1939), to his one major failure.

Maugham's output of novels and short stories during the nineteen-forties showed little diminution of his sharp-focused curiosity concerning the behaviour and motives of men and women. If he then wrote nothing that increased his reputation, he nevertheless indulged certain wider personal interests by taking up semi-historical themes in Then and Now (1946) and Catalina (1948), and a quasi-mystical one in The Razor's Edge (1944), without sacrificing his ironical scepticism and incisive humour. The cynicism with which it became a lazy cliché to charge him was in truth and in the main a humorous appreciation of human oddity and incalculability, though he was never unaware of nor unresponsive to the pathos and pain which human relationships may generate. (59–60)

Somerset Maugham resembled, at first, the Society dramatists of the eighteen-nineties, combining the technical methods of Pinero with the verbal mannerisms of Oscar Wilde. His plays (from A Man of Honour, 1903, to Our Betters, 1923) reflect the changes in taste among playgoers who liked to see on the stage an imitation of the 'high life' of their own day. Whether or not the dregs of Society actually spoke as they are made to speak in some of Somerset Maugham's plays matters little, but a student of modern drama will find it interesting to compare the stage idioms of 1907 with those of 1923. Lady Frederick (1907), a typically tiresome woman-with-a-past, remarks: 'I've done a lot of foolish things in my time, but my God, I have suffered.' That voice is the voice of all the women-with-a-past who walked sinuously through late-Victorian and Edwardian stage-plays. And when Dick Lomas says (The Explorer, 1908): 'Half the women I know merely married their husbands to spite somebody else. It appears to be one of the commonest forms of matrimony', Somerset Maugham bridges the twenty-five years between Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward. Free on the one hand from Victorian ready-made morality, and on the other hand from neo-Georgian licentiousness and cynicism, Caesar's Wife (1919) is among Maugham's best plays; while The Circle (1921)and Our Betters (1923) have been praised for their careful craftsmanship and acute social criticism; the latter has, in fact, been ranked as the best comedy of its kind since Restoration times. The Breadwinner (1930) brings the wheel full circle from Ibsen, for, reversing A Doll's House, it shows a husband revolting from the bondage of a happy home and family and going out 'to lead his own life'. The Breadwinner presents not only the long-overdue revolt of the male, but also the revolt of Middle Age against Youth, and in this particular Somerset Maugham is more convincing as well as wittier than St John Ervine. To the collected edition of his plays Somerset Maugham contributed informative prefaces regarding his own progress as a dramatist, and described how the restrictiveness of the theatre led him at length to abandon the writing of stage plays. But before doing so he delivered himself of two pieces – For Services Rendered (1932) and Sheppey (1933) – deeply felt and deeply serious in intention. Neither was on the level of his best work, however, for his effectiveness as a critic of life is in inverse proportion to his solemnity. Through wit, humour, gaiety, and an incisive illusion-proof mind, he was capable of more in the way of the correction of absurdities and abuses than when he permitted a deliberate seriousness to dull his natural gifts. (129–30)

Evans, Ifor, Sir. English Literature: Values and Traditions. London: Unwin Books, 1966.

English Literature. Values and Traditions by Ifor Evans
English Literature. Values and Traditions
by Ifor Evans

I actually broke the book completely from its binding when I tried to flatten the pages to copy..., but I doubt if much is lost. I even have a signature on the title page by the author, but I cannot say whether it was printed or was really signed with a black marker, and to tell the truth, I do not really care.
Somerset Maugham, who in his novels had gained much by the economy of his writing, has confessed that Swift was one of his models. (45)

Peacock, Dickens, Thackeray, Meredith, H. G. Wells, John Galsworthy, Somerset Maugham are only a few of the writers who grew rich by telling their fellow-country-men how inadequate they were. (76)

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  1. Mr Ward is remarkably generous, I must say. At least for a critic and (presumably) an academic. Nice to see, for once, that "Of Human Bondage", great as it is, is not the greatest book Maugham ever wrote, much less the only great one. Not bad evaluation of the plays and even of the short stories. I don't know how he decided that "Caesar's Wife" is one of Maugham's best plays, but it's very nice to see "The Breadwinner" appreciated. I have no idea why this perfect masterpiece is so often, not just neglected, but not even mentioned. And this is very good:

    "The cynicism with which it became a lazy cliché to charge him was in truth and in the main a humorous appreciation of human oddity and incalculability, though he was never unaware of nor unresponsive to the pathos and pain which human relationships may generate. "

    On the other hand, I of course disagree about the "tiresome" Lady Frederick and I don't think Maugham's seriousness was such a mighty handicap. I certainly don't consider "Christmas Holiday" a failure. (Where did the "a" come from?) It is a tragedy all right, but a different one; one that starts after the last page. I am also surprised by Mr Ward's lumping together "For Services Rendered" and "Sheppey". There is little seriousness and certainly no solemnity in the latter.

    Sometimes it's really amusing when critics show themselves stupendously short-sighted. It is their business to judge, but they should judge by the right standards. I think tragedy was the last thing on Maugham's mind when he wrote "Rain". It is ridiculous to criticise the story on such grounds. Of course it's not a tragedy. It was never meant to be. Likewise, Bob Calder tells me, grandly, that Maugham never really understood Chinese culture. He sure didn't. He never tried to. Likewise, Sam Rogal tells me, even more grandly, that Maugham failed to make any use of Italian art and culture in his works. But how can you fail to do something you have never tried in the first place?

    As for Mr Evans, perhaps he would agree that, if Maugham, Galsworthy, etc., "grew rich by telling their fellow-country-men how inadequate they were", the general reading public was acutely, if unconsciously, aware of its own inadequacy and eager to improve itself. The same cannot be said of the critics.

    1. Ahem, excuse me, Alexander, it's Sir Evans. :-) Now you understand his last comment.

      I wonder if Ward only reads the bit of the Appointment in Samarra in "Sheppey."

      Missed "A" Christmas Holiday! I was wondering about the "tiresome" Lady Frederick too.

      I didn't remember Calder's Chinese cultural knowledge. That is quite something, on top of considering that this was a revision of his thesis.

      Haven't got to "The Breadwinner" yet; it has just jumped my reading queue.

    2. Oh dear! What a blunder I've made! Thank God (should He exist) it wasn't "Lord Evans".

      Calder mentions (paraphrasing Harold Acton) briefly in the "Biographical Introduction" (p. 18, 1st par) how Maugham "never really got inside Chinese culture". This is part of his argument that "lack of deep penetration into experience is a serious weakness of his writing." I am going to argue in my review, and in my best LSD fashion (Long , Sleep-inducing, Dreadful), exactly the opposite. In a lesser writer, more sentimental and less observant, this may have been a fault. But not in Maugham. On the contrary, it is one of his greatest strengths, one of the things that makes him unique. It allows him to see many things, especially human relationships, with great clarity and with great perspicacity. (I almost wrote "objectivity" but checked myself; there is no such thing as objectivity.)

      You know what the funniest thing is? Calder's silly argument logically leads directly into the invalidation of his own position. If a critic is not also a prolific and successful writer, he certainly lacks "deep penetration into" the life of the professional writer. How does he justify his critical activity then? Of course this is nonsense. The oldest and the falsest theory in the world. You don't have to be a great writer in order to be a great critic; you just have to be, as Maugham said, a great man (or woman). Likewise, a writer doesn't need "deep penetration" (no pun intended!) in order to describe an experience vividly, realistically and perceptively. Stephen King didn't become homicidal maniac or prison inmate for quarter of a century in order to write "Apt Pupil" and "Shawshank", respectively.

      All the same, if Calder's premise is accepted, the logical conclusion is that the critical profession should be abolished. It is useless. This is elementary logic. One doesn't have to be Bertrand Russell to notice it.

    3. This is indeed interesting (haven't passed out by your LSD). If one can only write creatively about one's own experience, our books would have bored us dead.

      Now I wonder what writers they have in mind, who have this "deep penetration into experience."

    4. I also wonder who are the writers who have been equally successful in portraying happy and unhappy couples? Calder doesn't tell. Isn't it true to say that wretched relationships are very much more often portrayed in fiction that blissful marriages? Why should this be so? I have wondered a great deal about these, to my mind, important questions. Calder just ignores them.

      No sleep on the horizon. Bob and I are having one acrimoious debate after another. If only I could pass out by my own LSD, but it seems to have the opposite effect...

    5. Would you consider, in fact, Anthelny and his wife as happy couple?

    6. Yes, I would. I would also consider the marriages of Isabel and Julia rather successful. Significantly, both are more like business deals.

    7. But don't you think Isabel's and Julia's lack certain warmth? Julia has such a hard time with Michael at the beginning and Isabel longs for Larry.

    8. Perhaps they do. But Maugham's attitude to them doesn't. Maybe I need to re-read the books; it's been some time since the last reading.


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