"W. Somerset Maugham" in Seven Friends by Louis Marlow

Seven Friends by Louis Marlow
Seven Friends by Louis Marlow

Marlow, Louis. Seven Friends. London: The Richards Press, 1953.

This post is about a most fascinating book by Louis Marlow, whom I know next to nothing, except that he has written a chapter on W. Somerset Maugham.

Louis Marlow's real name is Louis Wilkinson (1881–1966), as observed, died just a year after Maugham; an Englishman who lectured widely in the United States.

A writer himself, he also wrote about other writer friends that he knew.

What is most attractive about Marlow is that he writes with humour and, yes, he writes extremely well. This little book, 170 pages, is worth reading from beginning to end, though I started from the end.

W. Somerset Maugham and Louis Marlow

Marlow knew Maugham at the beginning of the twentieth century, before Maugham became well-known. Marlow's first impression of Maugham is very flattering, which runs throughout the chapter, a very healthy antidote to the often uglified portrait of Maugham's later years that has become his trademark.
He struck me as an unobtrusive, rather wary, unusually good-looking man. (142)

One of the young girls by Marie Laurencin
One of the young girls by Marie Laurencin
At Cambridge I had admired his looks, but now I was aware of them as I had not been before. It was the special quality of the young dramatist's personal appearance that arrested me and that I valued. I remember little of what he said, except when he talked, as he did with reserved enthusiasm, about Spain, and about what he had done there: talk that made me decide to go to Spain in the following spring. What has stayed clear in my memory is the look of that unbelieving and guarded face that seemed so beautifully and smoothly, so strongly worked, as in rare ivory: that look of an ancient civilization. Orientally luxurious and wise. The dark brown eyes, congruous with his lustrous dark hair, suggested the eyes of some painted portrait. They gave that same effect of rich pigmentation in sudden contrast with skin pallor. When I last saw him they gave it still: it is something of the same effect as is seen in one or two of those portraits of young girls by Marie Laurencin that hang in the dining-room of his villa at Cap Ferrat. If I had ever read a book or seen a play of his, I should be none the less convinced, remembering his looks and especially his eyes, that when he seems to be harsh and "cynical" he is really a romantic à rebours. It seems to me that his imperturbability, the whole quality of it, depends on there being so much behind it that can be perturbed. It is the impassivity that can come only out of a really tragic capacity to be moved and to suffer. His self-control suggests the secret battles waged against it; suggests but can never disclose them. (144–5)

Marlow gets to know Maugham better later. However, his memory must have played him a trick that it was in 1910, instead of 1908, that Maugham had several plays running in London at the same time.

Marlow's admiration only increases when they continue seeing each other. He is thankful to Maugham's willingness to help young writers, from which he himself benefits.
Contact with that clear dry intelligence and wit always refreshed me and gave zest to my appetite: a mental dry sherry with anchovies or olives or caviare or any of those sharply flavoured delicate accompaniments of the Bacardi cocktails or white Jura wine served at the Villa Mauresque. ("I think I am rather younger than she is, even now.") (146)

Marlow even rates Maugham over Shaw, Galsworthy, and Barrie, certainly rare in any Maugham appreciation:
His individualism, his antinomianism, his anti-sentimentalism, appearing with such force in him both as a person and as a writer, gave me a full satisfaction of a kind that I could not get from anyone else whom I knew or read, or whose plays I went to see. I may have somewhat overvalued him twenty or thirty years ago, in reaction to the undervaluing which was then fashionable. I remember how in those days, by comparison with Maugham, Shaw seemed to me a writer of pseudo-plays, a freak, Galsworthy a mediocrity, and Barrie a mess. (146–7)

From Marlow we also see the humorous side of Maugham in person:
One evening at the Mauresque Maugham wanted a book to read in bed. "What a pity," he said, "that I wrote Cakes and Ale. It would be the very thing." (147–8)

Maugham's charms have definitely conquered Marlow:
Only those who know Maugham very little or know his books very little will think of him as habitually grim or dour or forbidding. He can be like that, but he can have great charm, with lightness and a lively gaiety. (148)

Besides talking about Maugham as a person, Marlow also comments on his works, and he is most impressed by Maugham's early play, A Man of Honour, which first brought about their acquaintance.
I sometimes wonder why that early play of Maugham's, A Man of Honour, is now so little regarded. Of course it is not nearly so expert a play as those that he wrote later, but it is a significant one. I still feel as I did when I first saw it, that it gives an important clue to its writer, stamping him as a kinsman of Ibsen more clearly than Shaw is stamped as such by any of his plays. The same kind of theme and the same kind of treatment are evident in Smith, in The Circle, in The Moon and Sixpence, The Bread-winner, The Sacred Flame, in The Facts of Life, to take only the first plays and stories that come to mind. "The Golden Rule is that there is no Golden Rule." "It is just as important to know when to break the Commandments as to know when to keep them." "Circumstances alter cases." These are the maxims that may be read in much of the work of Maugham as they may be in almost all the plays of Ibsen. (150)

From his reading, Marlow derives interesting moral, such as "Beware of rules of thumb. Examine them in relation to the particular circumstances and reject them if the circumstances seem to you to demand it" (151). One can think of many Maugham characters who suffer because of their inability to realize this.

Marlow further elaborates: "Private judgment–the judgment which a man or woman of character can rightly exercise–is the wisest and best rule of conduct" (151).

These are the free spirits who are capable of going against the current, knowing their own minds, and finally realizing themselves.

However, for Marlow, Maugham is a tragic writer, and even for those of his "heroes" that have successfully broken the law, there is no triumph (151–2). This is certainly true in some of his works, such as Of Human Bondage, but then it is arguable in others, such as in The Moon and Sixpence or The Razor's Edge.

It then depends on one's definition of triumph. Perhaps it is the sense of having to give up so many other things to get what is most important for one. In a lesser scale, for example, Abraham in The Moon and Sixpence, he does seem happy with his humble life in Alexandria, without regretting the loss of a brilliant medical career.

Who is lamenting the loss? The individual concerned? The narrator? The reader?

Other analysis of specific works is equally illuminating and provides food for thoughts. Marlow also points out the power of Maugham to portray interior views of his female characters, unfortunately, instead of elaborating on the psychological working Marlow focusses solely on the sexual aspect.

Marlow also mentions the often quoted label of Maugham being at the front row of the second-rate:
Another reported saying of his is that he was under no illusions about his position as a writer: "I know just where I stand: in the very front row of the second-rate ones." (160–1)

Here, he does not specify the source, it would seem more like something that is often said and repeated by his acquaintances. Certainly it is not in The Summing Up as Ted Morgan's biography would have us believed, which Jeffrey Meyers has already pointed out (Somerset Maugham. A Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. 383).

Marlow, however, disagrees with this reported saying. The book was written when Maugham was seventy-eight and Marlow briefly examines Maugham's chance of survival for posterity. Besides repeating Maugham's habitual humility and self-deprecation about his posthumous existence for future generations, Marlow does point out that
The individual quality of his best work is unmistakable; no one else could have written it. It is recognizable as his by a paragraph, even sometimes by a sentence. His ironic effects are especially unmistakable; they are different from those of any other writer because they are led up to in a different way, and, when they come, they come communicated with the very tone of their contriver. Nor is his sense of tragedy less his own inalienable property. It is tragedy that is not redeemed or purged by poetry, it has no heightening and brings no liberation: it is sheer unhappiness, sheer loss; it is, in fact, tragedy as most men and women know it, but is there any other living English writer who has shown the same sense of this usual kind of misery? (161)

Seven Friends

The other six friends are: Oscar Wilde, Frank Harris, Aleister Crowley, John Cowper Powys, Theodore Francis Powys, and Llewelyn Powys.

Marlow portrays them with love and humour, even a figure like Crowley, one cannot help but grow to like him too. The author is able to see beyond the exterior of a person and brings out engaging and positive aspects of his subjects. Friends indeed they are, a friend indeed he is.

How to cite this:

Seven Friends at AbeBooks


  1. Wonderful tribute to both Marlow and Maugham. The quotes are spot on. Love the Cakes-and-Ale joke. Marlow's chapter should be better known than it is.

    1. Thanks, Alexander. Very refreshing to see Maugham joking in person.

  2. Thanks for this. I intended the comment on Maugham's joke when I got down here and saw someone else has already done it. It did make me smile.
    I am going to read the Seven Friends. It sounds like it's worth a read. Crowely was such a dark character I hope Maugham wasn't close to him.
    Did Maugham know Oscar Wilde? I guess he did. Did he reference him in any of his characters? It would be interesting if he did.

    1. Hi Kay,
      Thanks for the comment.

      Yes, that was fun. If I remember correctly, the other dinner guests didn't exactly see the humour of it.

      I don't think Crowley and Maugham liked each other. Marlow gave Crowley a very sympathetic portrait and it's funny too see his absolute belief in his own power, which Marlow didn't ridicule.

      I don't remember if they met, I mean Wilde, but he certainly met his son. Maugham has talked about Wilde as a writer in his essays, but I can't think of any character based on him at the moment. Wilde was sort of a hot potato and perhaps Maugham didn't want to draw attention to that. He maintained a friendship with Reggie Turner though, one of Wilde's friends who stood by him regardless.

      I don't know what type of access you have, but I'll put the link here anyway:
      The Seven Friends can be read there, but only for those who have access.


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