Analysis: Historical and Cultural References in Cakes and Ale - W. Somerset Maugham

Cakes and Ale 1930 First Edition
Cakes and Ale

Cakes and Ale (London: Heinemann, 1930)

Part of this post was written on 24 October 2013; that must be the last time I finished reading Cakes and Ale. Yes, I do feel pathetic. Somehow I left whatever that I thought about it in mid-air. Recently I reread the book and I am again driven by this uncontrollable urge to talk about it; I hope this time I will make it.

On second thought, after rereading what I wrote in 2013, I will just write the whole thing all over again.

Then, here I face a most serious problem. How is one to talk about one of one's favourite books (apology for the awkward redundancy)? I understand that although every writer (meaning simply the one who writes) comes across the same problem, they never confess it and they would come up at the end with a most lucid and engaging and most clever review of their much loved book.

But then again, this is only a blog, and it is late in the evening for me...

This post will discuss Cakes and Ale or The Skeleton in the Cupboard. Definitely one of Maugham's best in every way. The narrative is well-controlled and the story told smoothly; one could see Maugham has all the materials at his finger tips. His sarcasm is administered to perfection that his objects have no way to complain about being laughed at.

This is indeed getting to be very interesting; I wrote the last paragraph roughly two years ago. But isn't this precisely what Cakes and Ale is about? Looking back on oneself, examining one's history? Seeing oneself as one was/is (after all, aren't we determined by our past)?

Maugham's expert use of slang and colloquialism of the day, together with abundant references to arts and contemporary fashion, maximizes the economy of his prose and gives such a distinguished setting for the whole duration of the story that ranges from the end of nineteenth century to the late '20s, marking with master brushstrokes each individual period. The easy flow of the story makes one feel the effortlessness, but one suspects the immense efforts behind to be able to construct such a tale. It is indeed unjust to simply label such skills and craftsmanship as nothing but "competent."

For example, he compares Rosie to an Italian sonatina:
She reminded me of a sonatina by an old Italian composer with its wistfulness in which there is yet an urbane flippancy and its light rippling gaiety in which echoes still the trembling of a sigh. (183)
I went to listen to one, and could see vividly what he describes.

I do apologize to my readers that this is turning into a piece of self-analysis, but I simply cannot resist the fun. Yes, I did write the last two paragraphs too, and this time I agree with myself, which brings me to another idea, that instead of assuming the task of reviewing Cakes and Ale, I will simply pay tribute to it by providing useful references. The serious stuff.

Contemporary and Historical References in Cakes and Ale

When talking about Willie Ashenden's childhood in Blackstable or even his adulthood in London (still remote for modern readers), Maugham mentions many historical/"mysterious" facts, which I am able to decipher some but not all.

I am not a Victorian scholar and so if some of the references I mention are obvious, I can only beg forgiveness. My criterion is based on what I myself have to search for instead of knowing them offhand.


This, like the wise man's daily dose of Bemax, might have gone into a heaped-up tablespoon. (3)

Bemax is a wheat germ preparation, which I believe, used to be taken daily for nutritional purpose, for example, to be added to porridge, but it is no longer available:
Bemax Trade name for a wheat germ preparation. A 30‐g portion is a rich source of vitamins B1 and E, folate, copper, and zinc; a good source of iron; a source of protein, vitamins B2, B6, and niacin; provides 5 g of dietary fibre; contains 2.4 g of fat; supplies 120 kcal (500 kJ). [1]

Rowing Blue

He was president of the Union and but for an unfortunate attack of measles might very well have got his rowing blue. (4)

Christopher Thorne has written about the history and origin of Blues and Blues committee; a Blue is an award given to sportsmen in Cambridge and Oxford. [2]

Hôtel de la Poste

Hôtel de la Poste in Beaune
Hôtel de la Poste in Beaune

Have they never been to Beaune and stayed at the Hôtel de la Poste? (11)

Give One's Eye-Teeth To

Smith rejoiced in the glow of his wonderful vitality and it was damned decent of Roy to say he'd give his eye-teeth to have written a book half as good as Smith's last. (13)

For this phrase, Maugham enters the prestigious and authoritative Oxford English Dictionary (OED) under "eye-tooth":
b. Phrases. [...] (one) would give one's eye-teeth: (one) is very eager, or ready to make the greatest sacrifices (to do something). Cf. eye n.1 2 j.

1930 W. S. Maugham Cakes & Ale i. 13 He'd give his eye-teeth to have written a book half as good.

Adam Window

It was a room of some size, very clean and white, with an Adam window. (20)

"Adam window" presumably refers to Adam style or Adamesque, headed by Robert Adam (1728–92), a Neo-classical architect and designer. He seems to be most famous for his ceiling design and interior decoration. However, I have not found any specific reference to his windows.

Shy-Making and Dunch

The wise always use a number of ready-made phrases (at the moment I write "nobody's business" is the most common), popular adjectives (like "divine" or "shy-making"), verbs that you only know the meaning of if you live in the right set (like "dunch"), which give a homely sparkle to small talk and avoid the necessity of thought. (23)

Both of these terms appear to be elusive.

"Shy-making" has not made into dictionary entries, but it does get mentioned in Shorter Slang Dictionary (Rosalind Fergusson, comp., London: Routledge, 1994), which, unfortunately, is not very helpful. We are being thrown back from "shy-making" to the entry for "-making," which only tells us that "making an adjectival suffix, as in sick-making; blush-making; shy-making. Since the 1930s."

So, Maugham does pick up a contemporary fashionable phrase, and in this case, the simplest appears to be answer, making one shy.

Now, "dunch" is more problematic. Without more context, it is hard to say what it is supposed to mean in Cakes and Ale. From what I have seen, it can mean our present day "brunch" or a jog with the elbow, which I doubt is what Maugham is talking about. I would tend to think that he is using it as Trollope means in his more or less contemporary work:
1927 M. Sadleir Trollope 169 The Autobiography contains a number of judgments on novels, and‥they are ‘dunch’ and unconvincing.

It is entered under the sense "Stupid, slow of comprehension; dull" in the OED.

Maugham here is referring to the verb form of "dunch," thus it has to mean "To strike or push with a short rapid blow, now esp. to jog with the elbow," and its usage in Cakes and Ale is quoted by OED: "1930 W. S. Maugham Cakes & Ale ii. 23 Verbs that you only know the meaning of if you live in the right set (like ‘dunch’)."

So, there you go. It is still puzzling since this meaning exists in 13c already. It can be that it only becomes fashionable in the '30s, or it can have a meaning that is not registered. It would be interesting to do a concordance search.

Othello's Occupation

After all, she devoted herself to looking after him for twenty-five years. Othello's occupation, you know. I really feel sorry for her. (26)

In III.iii. Othello says with vehemence: "Farewell! Othello's occupation's gone." I have chosen again, in between a variety of complicated interpretations, to use for our passage the simplest, just that since Amy Driffield no longer has her occupation, which is to look after Edward, that it is gone.


“Rum,” he said, “very rum.” (32)
This one is going to denounce my pitiable slang knowledge, but here it is. "Rum" means "Odd, strange, queer. Also, bad, spurious" (OED).

A Hair of the Dog that Bit Them

You had the feeling that the people who lodged here were not gay and a trifle disreputable as in Jermyn Street, racing men who rose in the morning with headaches and asked for a hair of the dog that bit them, but respectable women from the country who came up for six weeks for the London season and elderly gentlemen who belonged to exclusive clubs. (34)
This is certainly an interesting phrase and is in dictionaries: "informal an alcoholic drink taken to cure a hangover.[from hair of the dog that bit you, formerly recommended as an efficacious remedy for the bite of a mad dog.]"

This time the entry in Wikipedia looks very convincing, as "Hair of the dog." I understand some people's abhorrence of quoting Wiki, but I see it as depending more on the reader's ability to discriminate valid information from others more than anything.

Maude Valérie White and Tosti

You may say that they did not miss amusements they had ever thought of, and that they created excitement for themselves from the small entertainment (tea when you were asked to bring your music and you sang the songs of Maude Valérie White and Tosti) which at infrequent intervals they offered one another; the days were very long; they were bored. (37)

White (1855 – 1937) was an English composer, one of the most popular in the Victorian period. This video will at least give an idea of her songs.

Sir Paolo Tosti (1846–1916) was an Italian born British composer and music teacher, and his songs are still being performed. The following is a video of two of his songs sung by Josep Carreras in Liceu, Barcelona, a most beautiful theatre (though not visible in the video); pity the ending is a little scratched.

I wonder how Maugham's amateurs fared with these pieces after dinner.

Rag-Tag and Bobtail

We said it was horrid to have all that rag-tag and bobtail down from town every year, but of course it was all right for the tradespeople. (41)

This is a whole phrase meaning "the whole lot" and its first appearance was in 1820.

Haversham School, Wadham

"He was at Haversham School, I understand, and he got any number of scholarships and prizes. He got a scholarship at Wadham, but he ran away to sea instead." (43)

I am afraid I am not too familiar with English public schools, but I suppose Haversham School is considered inferior to the well-known ones, like Eton, for example. Wadham is Wadham College at Oxford. So, Driffield must be doing quite well at school.

Amendment: I think I just have my leg pulled by Maugham beyond his grave... eighty-five years after the publication of Cakes and Ale. I should have known better. Haversham probably is Faversham, and thus Haversham School simply does not exist. And most probably Driffield would not have gone to a public school.

Shank's Pony

It was still a matter for jocularity on the part of middle-aged gentlemen who said Shank's pony was good enough for them, and for trepidation on the part of elderly ladies who made a dash for the side of the road when they saw one coming. (61)

"Shanks' (or Shanks's) mare, Shanks's pony, etc.: one's own legs as a means of conveyance" (OED).

Powders in Plum Jam

She had bathed me when I was a small boy, given me powders in plum jam when I needed them, packed my box when I went to school, nursed me when I was ill, read to me when I was bored and scolded me when I was naughty. (70)

This one escapes me; I have not been able to find any information about remedy made with powders in plum jam. Again, it can be something as simple as taking powder medicine in plum jam, some sugar to make the medicine go down, plum jam just because it is one of the commonest in household, but this is only my conjecture.


I asked Mary-Ann my question and she slopped a wet clout noisily into the sink. (71)

"Clout" is just a piece of rag, although it is not used anymore.


I was under the impression that it was condescension on my part to consort with the son of Miss Wolfe's bailiff, and he what my uncle called a penny-a-liner; and when, perhaps with a trace of superciliousness, I asked him to lend me one of his books and he said it wouldn't interest me I took him at his word and did not insist. (80)

"A writer for a newspaper or journal who is paid at a penny a line, or at a low rate (usually implying one who manufactures ‘paragraphs’, or writes in an inflated style so as to cover as much space as possible); a poor or inferior writer for hire; a hack-writer for the press. (contemptuous.)" (OED).

Maugham makes to the OED again for the use of "penny-a-liner," however, instead of using Cakes and Ale as example, OED quotes the later publication Creatures of Circumstance: "1947 W. S. Maugham Creatures of Circumstance 9 He wouldn't have liked it if some damned penny-a-liner had made fun of Evie's effort in one of the papers." An oversight, perhaps.

Rubbings of Brasses, Farthingales

We went far afield, to one church after another, taking rubbings of brasses, knights in armour and ladies in stiff farthingales. (80)
Yes, I know, it is a little odd to talk about the two together, but since they appear in the same sentence...

Brass rubbing is an art in itself, and there is a big collection in the Ashmolean Museum. It is as Ashenden describes, and it appears to be an activity still practised. More instructions available at the Monumental Brass Society.

As for "farthingale," I forgive myself for this one, since it is not a fashionable piece of garment anymore. It is whalebone bodice, or hooped petticoat.

Back a Bill

Perhaps Mrs. Driffield had backed a bill; I never could quite understand what this meant, but I knew that the consequences were disastrous. (91)

It means to sign a bill promising to pay it if the person it is addressed to is not able to do so.


"I expect I shall be playing a lot of rugger this term," I said. "I ought to get into the second fifteen." (93)

Rugger is rugby. Yes, I should be ashamed of this one.

Mammon of Unrighteousness, Publicans and Sinners

He said something about the mammon of unrighteousness, which I recognized as a quotation, but did not gather the sense of. Mr. Galloway laughed.

"I don't know about that," he said. "What about the publicans and sinners?" (97)

My bible knowledge is very limited, so instead of disgracing myself I will just say that this is referring to Christ in the company of the most despised tax-collectors. Driffield is teasing Mr. Galloway the lame excuse he gives to Ashenden to explain away his presence in his house.

Newmarket Trainer

He was blatant and vulgar and the way he dressed was always a shock to me (I had never been to Newmarket nor seen a trainer, but that was my idea of how a Newmarket trainer dressed), and his table manners were offensive, but I found myself less and less affronted by him. (107)

It refers to racehorse trainer.

The Blue Bag

She was a pattern of propriety and she would never have women in her house, you never knew what they were up to ("It's men, men, men all the time with them, and afternoon tea and thin bread and butter, and openin' the door and ringin' for 'ot water and I don't know what all"); but in conversation she did not hesitate to use what was called in those days the blue bag. (146–7)

Now, this is a really difficult one and I did consult a Victorian scholar, which at the end, I can only resort to my own conjecture.

I looked at different slang dictionaries, just to mention a few: The Routledge Dictionary of Historical Slang (1973), A Dictionary of Catch Phrases British and American, From the Sixteenth Century to the Present Day (1985), and A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (8ed.), but they are not of much help. The OED entry reads: "blue bag, a barrister's (orig. a solicitor's) brief-bag of blue stuff; hence, one carrying such a bag; so (nonce) to forget the blue bag, to ignore (the indications of) one's rank," but it does not seem to fit what is in Maugham's passage. Instead, it would seem that the blue bag itself is impropriety.

Then on top of that there is the The Blue Bag Or Toryana (1832) written anonymously, making fun of the "green bag." Now I think I should have, after all, written my post two years ago, when all this was fresh in my mind, which now seems very convoluted; I will stay with my own conjecture at the moment, that blue bag stands for impropriety.

Marie Lloyd

One could have said of her what she said of Marie Lloyd: "What I like about 'er is that she give you a good laugh. She goes pretty near the knuckles sometimes, but she never jumps over the fence." (147)

Marie Lloyd (1870-1922) was a music-hall singer, presumably one that Mildred would have loved, considering.

Small Imperial

He wore a shabby alpaca coat and grey trousers; he had shaved his beard and wore now a moustache and a small imperial. (157)

Those who are more familiar with beard fashion will forgive me here. Now, the definition goes: "a small tufted beard worn by Emperor Napoleon III." I love the fact that beard is also called "face fungus."

Leaves from a Journal in the Highlands

When it became known that Queen Victoria had accepted a specially bound copy of the book from the hands of the loyal publisher, and had given him (not the poet, the publisher) a copy of Leaves from a Journal in the Highlands in exchange, the national enthusiasm knew no bounds. (166)

Maugham is referring to the Queen's journal, but the title is incorrect, it should be: Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands. No, I do not derive any pleasure from pointing out his mistake as I do in footnotes from articles.

Harrison Ainsworth

It is said that Harrison Ainsworth was the first English man of letters to move in English society on terms of equality (and I have sometimes wondered that an enterprising publisher on this account has not thought of bringing out a complete eidtion of his works); but I believe that Jasper Gibbons was the first poet to have his name engraved at the bottom of an At Home card as a draw as enticing as an opera singer or a ventriloquist. (167)

William Harrison Ainsworth (1805–1882) is real enough, a historical novelist.

Kettner’s, the Savoy, Romano's

He would fetch her in a cab and take her to dine at Kettner's or the Savoy, and she would put on her grandest clothes for him; and Harry Retford, though he never had a bob, behaved as if he had, and took her about in hansoms too and gave her dinner at Romano's or in one or other of the little restaurants that were becoming modish in Soho. (179)

Kettner's is still standing and looks affordable. The Savoy, well, I do not need to talk about it. Romano's is an interesting case though. It no longer exists, and more than once Maugham mentions it in his books. It is previously Cafe Vaudeville, a restaurant in the Strand. Please follow the link to find out more about its history.

The Pavilion, the Tivoli, the Metropolitan, the Canterbury

We went here and there, to the Pavilion or the Tivoli, sometimes to the Metropolitan if there was a particular turn we wanted to see; but our favourite was the Canterbury. (180)

These are all music-halls, as stated in the book; however, they no longer exist. The historical references are particularly illuminating and allow us to sort of picture them as they were in Maugham's time: the Pavilion, the Tivoli, the Metropolitan, the Canterbury.

Haymarket Theatre

Then she asked me if I would go to the Haymarket Theatre with her. (185)

The Haymarket Theatre still exists, though not quite the same as in Maugham's time, as one would expect.

Café Monico

We had a steak and a glass of beer at the Café Monica and then stood with the crowd. (185)

Café Monico is no longer there.


Did she inveigh against the faithlessness of men and the wantonness of women or did she relieve her wounded feelings by shouting at the top of her voice a string of those obscenities with which the alienists tell us the chastest females are surprisingly acquainted? (227)

"Alienist" is psychiatrist. I assume this no longer applies since I think the full population can swear quite effectively nowadays without inhibition, gender equality.


"[...] Of course he's a Wop, but he's real nice. He used to run a big grocery store down town, in New York, but he's retired now." (268)

I gather that a "wop" is an Italian. In our self-conscious politically correct society, at least, in one part of the world, the reader can feel indignant about that, but do not forget that Maugham is reproducing Rosie's (an inhabitant of Yonkers) speech in the '20s.

Publican, Derby

Rosie's eyes travelled to a picture on the wall that for some reason had escaped my notice. It was an enlarged photograph of Lord George in a carved gilt frame. It looked as if it might have been taken soon after his arrival in America; perhaps at the time of their marriage. It was a three-quarter length. It showed him in a long frock coat, tightly buttoned, and a tall silk hat cocked rakishly on one side of his head; there was a large rose in his buttonhole; under one arm he carried a silver-headed cane and smoke curled from a big cigar that he held in his right hand. He had a heavy moustache, waxed at the ends, a saucy look in his eye, and in his bearing an arrogant swagger. In his tie a horseshoe in diamonds. He looked like a publican dressed up in his best to go to the Derby.

"I'll tell you," said Rosie. "He was always such a perfect gentleman." (269–70)

This last reference is a long quote because it is important to see Lord George's portrait to determine the meaning. Derby is easy, horserace. "Publican" can refer to several things, like earlier in the text as "publicans and sinners," thus tax-collector; or another biblical reference as someone excommunicated, which is again closely related to the previous; a more modern meaning would be the person who keeps a pub.

I will leave this one open.

Considering the length of the post, I will leave other references, such as to arts and writers, to another occasion.

Cakes and Ale - First and Collected Editions

The Times Book Club
The Times Book Club 

By now, I have two copies of Cakes and Ale. One is the first UK edition, which contains some interesting points. It appears to have belonged to the Times Book Club, which in turns belonged to the Times Newspaper, and was closed in the 1960s. Instead of a book club as we understand it, it was more of a lending library, like the Mudie's, for the higher middle classes [3]. It has scribblings on the last page, which look like dates for returning the book.

After that, it fell into the hands of one Peter Streuli, with a stamp at the front saying "Please return to PETER STREULI. A1903." There is a well-known Peter Streuli: "Theatre director, stage manager and lighting designer who was also a notable tutor at the Old Vic Theatre School," who died in 2007.

So, quite an interesting copy, I would say.

Cakes and Ale - Collected Edition 1936
Cakes and Ale - Collected Edition 1936

The other one belongs to the collected edition, coming with a preface. The pagination is the same as the first edition.

The first editions, both UK and US, are "reasonably" priced, even with dust jacket.

How to cite this:

Cakes and Ale at AbeBooks


[1] Bender, David A. "Bemax." A Dictionary of Food and Nutrition. 2005. 6 Apr. 2015.
[2] Thorne, Christopher. "Blues and the Blues Committee. Some Historical Notes." Cambridge University Sports Department. 10 July 1996. Web. 6 Apr. 2015.
[3] Humble, Nicola. The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, 1920s to 1950s: Class, Domesticity, and Bohemianism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. 37.


  1. Mightily helpful post! Pretty much all of these expressions had me scratching my head, too. "A hair of the dog that bit them"? What the...? It makes perfect sense now.

    Interestingly enough, Maugham entered OED with "dunch", too. It's clear enough that he meant the verb, but I'm still at sea as to which the "right set" was. Is it just the lower classes? Is it some sort of professional slang?

    Othello's occupation is still a poser. I'm not satisfied with the simplest explanation. There must be more to it than that. I'm not sure what that "more" might be. Since Othello speaks of his happy life as a soldier which he can no longer enjoy (for reasons known only to himself), I would suggest as a relatively plausible hypothesis that the "gone occupation" refers to Amy's life before she married Ted and devoted all her mighty powers to his well-being. Thus the phrase also acquires an ironic tang, for Amy clearly has the time of her life turning Edward into the Grand Old Man of English Letters. Roy is blissfully unaware of this, but Willie and we are not.

    1. Thanks, Alexander, for the comment.

      Oops, I missed the Maugham entry of "dunch" and also the "verb," but then this is puzzling, since the sense has existed centuries ago. Perhaps it became fashionable to say so just then. It would be curious to see it appear in other books of the same period.

      Okay, that's possible about Othello, or that Roy is just trying to be witty.


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