More Criticism of W. Somerset Maugham

The Oxford Companion to English Literature Margaret Drabble
The Oxford Companion to English Literature
Margaret Drabble

Drabble, Margaret, ed. The Oxford Companion to English Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Long forgotten old books keep appearing. This can hardly be called a book of criticism, but a handbook of sort about writers who are considered worth mentioning in the history of literature, a Who's Who reference book.

I think it would be interesting to have a look at how Maugham's professional career is outlined and having known more about him, how such brief outline fares, especially for readers who do not have the opportunity to familiar themselves with his works as a whole and depend on reference books only.

W. Somerset Maugham Entry

MAUGHAM, W(illiam) Somerset (1874–1965), was born in Paris, the fourth surviving son of a lawyer attached to the British embassy. His mother died when he was eight, shortly after the birth of a baby who lived only a day; stillbirths and fatal pregnancies were to feature prominently in Maugham's fiction. His father died of cancer in 1884, and William was sent to Whitstable to live with a childless middle-aged aunt and clergyman uncle. Educated at the King's School, Canterbury, and at Heidelberg University, he then trained as a doctor at St Thomas's Hospital in London. His first novel Liza of Lambeth (1897), which belonged to the "new realist" school of G. A. Moore, drew on his experiences of slums and Cockney life as an obstetric clerk. It was the beginning of a long and prolific career. Success was not instant, but he achieved fame in 1907 with the production of Lady Frederick, a comedy of marriage and money which had been previously rejected by many managements. In 1908 he had four plays running simultaneously in London.

In 1911 he met Syrie Wellcome, daugher of Dr Barnardo (of Barnardo Homes) and wife of an American businessman. Their only child Liza was born in 1915 and he married Syrie in 1917. The marriage was unorthodox, and they spent most of their time apart; Syrie made a name for herself as an interior decorator, and was famed for her "white-on-white" colour schemes. In 1914 Maugham met Gerald Haxton in Flanders, where both were working for an ambulance unit. Haxton, 18 years younger than Maugham, became his secretary and companion, and in 1916 they set out on the first of many journeys together, this time to the South Seas. Further travels to China, southeast Asia, and Mexico followed; the extrovert Haxton made many useful contacts for the more reserved Maugham, and the stories they heard appeared almost verbatim in Maugham's fiction and plays. In 1926 Maugham bought a house, the Mauresque, at Cap Ferrat on the French Riviera, which became a meeting place for a wide variety of writers, personalities, and politicians, including in later years, W.S. Churchill and Beaverbrook. It was Maugham's home until his death, although he continued to travel widely. In 1954 he was created a Companion of Honour.

Among Maugham's plays should be mentioned The Circle (1921), the story of a young wife who falls in love with a rubber planter from Malaya and elopes with him, despite many warnings about the inevitable death of romance; Our Betters (1917), a satire on title-hunting Americans; East of Suez, which impressed audience on its opening in 1922 by its spectacular evocation of street scenes in Peking; The Constant Wife (1926), in which a woman takes revenge on her unfaithful husband by gaining financial and emotional independence and departing for Italy with an old admirer; and For Services Rendered (1932), an anti-war play bitterly attacking "this muddle of a post-war world". His best-known novel is a thinly disguised autobiography, Of Human Bondage (1915), which describes Philip Carey's lonely boyhood in Whitstable (which becomes Blackstable, as Canterbury becomes Tercanbury) and his subsequent adventures. Carey is handicapped by a club foot, as Maugham was handicapped by a severe stammer. The Moon and Sixpence (1919), in which Maugham used the first-hand knowledge of Tahiti acquired in 1917, recounts the life of Charles Strickland, a Gauguinesque artist who neglects duty for art. Cakes and Ale (1930), his most genial book, is a comedy about the good-natured Rosie Driffield, the wife of a Grand Old Man of Letters, whom most took to be based on Hardy; Alroy Kear, a self-promoting writer, was recognized as Hugh Walpole. Maugham's last important novel, The Razor's Edge (1944), the title of which comes from the Katha-Upanishad, takes a mystical turn; its American hero Larry Darrell goes to India, stays in an ashram, and learns the value of non-attachment. In 1949 A Writer's Notebook appeared; it consisted of extracts from the 15 large volumes of notes that Maugham had kept from the age of 18 and shows him at his best, as detached, observant, and affecting a pose of worldliness even in his apparently private thoughts.

Of his short stories, particular mention should be made of "Rain" (in The Trembling of a Leaf, 1921). Based on a real encounter, it tells of the conflict between a life-affirming American prostitute, Sadie Thompson, and a repressed Scottish missionary, Davidson. It ends with Davidson's suicide. It is characteristic of Maugham's work in its remarkable and economical evocation of the atmosphere of hot, wet, tropical Samoa, and its neat twist of plot. Like many of his works it was staged successfully and it has been filmed three times. "The Alien Corn", a story which appeared in Six Stories in the First Person Singular (1931), about an aspiring pianist who commits suicide when told he will never be better than second rate, has also remained popular. Other works include Home and Beauty (play, 1919), The Painted Veil (novel, 1925), The Sacred Flame (play, 1928), Ashenden (short stories, 1928), and The Narrow Corner (novel, 1932).

Despite his worldly success and great popularity as a writer, Maugham throughout his career seemed conscious of a lack of serious recognition, and the view expressed in his autobiography The Summing Up (1938), that he stood "in the very first row of the second-raters", has been largely endorsed by literary critics. A full but anecdotal biography, Maugham by Ted Morgan, was published in 1980. (640–1)

A Few Comments

The "stillbirths and fatal pregnancies" that come to mind offhand are the ones in Liza of Lambeth, Mrs. Craddock, and Of Human Bondage. Considering the amount of books Maugham has written, I would not have called it "prominent."

Maugham never formally studied at Heidelberg University. He sat in some lectures, notably Kuno Fischer's and that's all.

It is an interesting claim that "the stories they [Maugham and Haxton] heard appeared almost verbatim in Maugham's fiction and plays." It would need a lot of evidence to prove this point with textual comparison, though often made in a casual manner. If Maugham were to do that, he could hardly have created his own style in story-telling.

A good friend recently brought up the question of where the quote of Maugham referring to himself as "in the very first row of the second-raters" comes from. Although it is generally believed that it appears in The Summing Up, it is not there, as Jeffrey Meyers, another biographer of Maugham, has duly noted (Somerset Maugham. A Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. 383).

We are busily searching for the reference, but at the moment, it would look like a hoax created by Morgan, forever perpetuated even in academic source.

Unfortunately, Maugham is much remembered by this self-denunciation. It would appear then that it is a terrible pitfall to trust a secondary source with absolute faith.

How to cite this:


  1. I was about to make pretty much the same remarks. :-)

    The famous "very first row of the second-raters" does start looking like a hoax. I suppose Morgan is also the source, indirectly, of the reference in the omniscient Wikipedia. It is possible to be in the MS of "The Summing Up", which is known to contain plenty of unpublished material, but that's a very restricted source and it seems unlikely that in this case the remark would have attained such popularity. Apparently it was a gossip report by one of Maugham's guests at the Mauresque which Ted Morgan, convinced in his own psychological insight and infallibility, attributed to "The Summing Up".

  2. "...and the stories they heard appeared almost verbatim in Maugham's fiction and plays."

    I think I will use this in my next masterpiece dedicated to "The Letter" and "Footprints in the Jungle". I will attempt to prove the opposite point.

    I suppose we can accept an Oxford Companion as an academic reference, can't we? Funny, but it sounds awfully similar to Ted Morgan, who spends several pages in his masterpiece to prove that Maugham was just a journalist.

    If you come across other similar references, please let me know.

    1. From the reference at the end of the entry, I would suspect that the summary is based on Morgan's book.

      Certainly, I have a pile of them lining up to be dealt with, but recently I have been distracted.

  3. Maybe my comment is not useful, but I wanted to inform you that I found "the very first row...." quoted also in "The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham" (London, John Murray, 2009, pp.369-70) by Selina Hastings. She quotes Maugham as having said on more than one occasion “I know just where I stand, in the very front row of the second-rate”, but she does not refer to The Summing Up as Morgan did!

    1. Hi Silvia,
      Thanks for the comment. Yes, I saw that too! I think her source is Louis Marlow's Seven Friends, which is a very interesting book.

      Have you finished your final project? Hope everything goes well!

    2. Not yet! I've been searching for material about Maugham and The Painted Veil, but I confess it's very difficult, because it happens to me to need a new source, sometimes I need just a thought to complete a concept, and I end up finding instead a world of things about Maugham that I didn't know!!... So I want to investigate about everything, and I realise this is a never-ending research!!
      I'm very happy to have read of lots of people (scholars, literary critics, editors) telling good things about Maugham, his person and his skills as a craftsman! It's a relief to know there were/are people who appreciated his writings and didn't have fear to defend him!
      Anyway, over a few days ago I found some useful articles for my research: one is by Jane O'halloran, "'At the far edge of their firelight: Primitivism and progress in the colonial fiction of W. Somerset Maugham", published in SPAN N.26 of April 1988; then some reviews of The Painted Veil recollected in "W. Somerset Maugham: the critical heritage" (1988) by Anthony Curtis and John Whitehead; and obviously the article by Paul Dottin "The Realism of Somerset Maugham: The Painted Veil", published in "The Maugham Enigma"... I have some difficulty in finding Stott's article "Recollections of Somerset Maugham" :/
      However, I'm very excited about your MMCCL project, I'm looking forward to it!!! And I enjoyed a lot your post about the 50th anniversary of Maugham's death, and the pictures are wonderful!!! It seems incredible to me that he grew up in a very humble and poor place like that port at Whistable, and he ended up living in a very rich villa with servants!
      And your website is very useful as usual, I check it daily to see if there are new posts =)

    3. Hi Silvia,
      I'm glad that you're progressing well and having a good time. Isn't that always the problem? Discovering more and more things! But it's fun. I'll enquire about the Stott article and let you know if I come up with something. By the way, have you come across already Yue's "W. Somerset Maugham and the Politicisation of the Chinese Landscape," Roye's "Lady Missionary in the Memsahib's Depiction," and Pâcleanu's "'Pursuing' Meanings. Investigating Semantic and Pragmatic Features of Some Controversial Novels"? I haven't read them but I think they all deal with The Painted Veil in some ways.

      Thanks very much! And I am very very glad to hear that my website is of help!

  4. I've never heard of these articles before! I searched on the Internet for free download PDFs, I've found only Yue's and Pacleanu's...! No free download for the document by Roye instead!
    I'm reading a lot, I'm afraid of confusing things and concepts and thoughts! And now I have to write, write, write, write a lot....
    Thank you a lot for the precious information!!
    If you know anything that could be helpful, I'd really appreciate your help again :)

    1. I'll try contacting you through G+. I found Stott's.


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