The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, by Selina Hastings, John Murray, 624 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-0719565540
W Somerset Maugham is known for his objective – critics would say his cold, clinical, and cruel – view of the world. His own work did not escape his sardonic eye. “I know just where I stand,” he frequently said, “in the very front row of the second rate”1. This judgment was shared by some of his contemporaries. On reading The Painted Veil (1925), Lytton Strachey echoed Maugham’s own words when he gave an evaluation of the book that could be applied to Maugham’s entire oeuvre: “class II, division I”2. Edmund Wilson was crueller, claiming bluntly that Maugham was “second-rate”, “a half-trashy novelist, who writes badly, but is patronized by half-serious readers, who do not care much about writing”3. Cyril Connolly classified his work as constituting “important bad books”. Selina Hastings is more generous. “The last couple of decades have seen a remarkable revival in the work of this extraordinary man … it is safe to say now that he will again hold generations in thrall”. That is overly optimistic. But he was and will surely remain “the great teller of tales”4.
Two major biographies were published in the 1980s. First, Ted Morgan’s Maugham (1980), which was based in part on the correspondence – Morgan persuaded Maugham’s first literary executor to lift the writer’s explicit ban on the publication of all unpublished materials – and was written with the cooperation of his daughter, Liza, Lady Glendevon. Second, Robert Calder’s Willie: The Life of W. Somerset Maugham (1989), which made use of but could not cite the unpublished materials, and was written with the cooperation of the companion of Maugham’s last two decades, Alan Searle.
There are significant differences between the two biographies. Calder, while more critical of Maugham’s wife, Syrie, paints a much more sympathetic picture of Maugham himself. Indeed he complains that Morgan portrays Maugham as a vindictive character and a misogynist (Morgan does indeed do so), and as anti-Semitic (it would be fairer to say that Morgan’s Maugham is ambiguous: he got on well with his Jewish friends, but at the same time made anti-Semitic remarks in his writings). Morgan’s description of Maugham’s sexuality, Calder claims, “always emphasizes the nasty, procuring side of his homosexual life” (the “always”, at the very least, is an overstatement). Finally, Calder writes: “Alan Searle, whose unselfish devotion to the aging author in the difficult last years has been praised by all those who knew Maugham, is grossly misrepresented as a self-seeking sycophant.”5 Morgan does indeed deal harshly with Searle, arguing that he was responsible for Maugham’s attempt to disinherit his daughter and adopt Searle as his son. He describes him as a “housebroken, tail-wagging, pet-like little man”6. The two biographers also differ in their reactions to the decision by an old and senile Maugham to publish his memoirs, “Looking Back”, in Lord Beaverbrook’s newspaper the Sunday Express. Morgan claims Maugham had given Searle the copyright to the work, and Searle, anxious for financial security, passionately promoted publication.7 But Calder says that Searle told him that Lord Beaverbrook persuaded Maugham to publish, and that he, Searle, could not persuade Maugham to reverse the decision.8
A third biography is by Jeffrey Meyers, Somerset Maugham: A Life (2004). Meyers adds little by way of new material. As was the case with Calder, he too was refused permission to quote from the unpublished material. He has uncovered new information about the American national Gerald Haxton, Maugham’s lover, secretary and long-term companion whose role was taken over by Searle, and he argues that Maugham’s first trip to the South Pacific in 1916 was as an agent – he was sent to collect information on Samoa for the British government (German Samoa – Western Samoa today – had been occupied by an expeditionary force from New Zealand in 1914). Meyers does not discuss the dispute between his predecessors, but his Maugham is similar in all major respects to Morgan’s.
Opinion is thus split on Maugham’s character, leaving the field open for a new biography. A fourth major study, Selina Hastings’s The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham (2009), has now appeared. The policy on unpublished materials has been reversed again, to the benefit of this latest attempt to portray the life. In the company of these biographies, Hastings’s work stands up very well. She provides some new material, most notably Liza’s recollections, available in the Frere family archive. This is the source for the story of how Gerald Haxton, when driving Liza and a puppy she had recently been given, grabbed the dog and threw it from the car (the puppy survived – but it was several months before it was returned).9 Hastings’s biography is well-written, fluent and insightful. The haunting story of Maugham’s last days in particular has never been told so well.
Given the differences, especially between Morgan and Calder, the questions readers of Hastings’s biography will want answered will inevitably include the following. Does it avoid the extremes of the unsympathetic hatchet job and the overly sympathetic hagiography? Does it support the picture of Maugham as a vindictive and anti-Semitic misogynist? How does it deal with his homosexuality? And does it reject the claim that Searle was a self-interested and destructive influence? In dealing with such questions, Hastings is scrupulously fair to her subject and accepting of his weaknesses and faults. She does not condemn even the worst behavior; nor does she flinch from describing it.
Maugham had many lives. Morgan divided the life into four chapters: “The sentimental realist had drawn on his mother’s death to write a great autobiographical novel [On Human Bondage]. The man of the world and the theater, Gerald Kelly’s Jester, had made West End audiences laugh for a quarter of century. The traveller to the Orient had gone to little known corners of the globe for his material … Now [in 1934], in the final stage, Maugham was developing into that legendary ancient, the Grand Old Man of Letters.”10 Hastings’s biography follows these various stages of Maugham’s life. But it does more than plot the change from the young Willie to the old Maugham. Coldly clinical, detached, and honest in his work, Maugham was forced to be closed, secretive, and dishonest in his private life. Hastings sheds new light on that life.
Maugham the writer made his mark in three genres. First, he was a hugely successful playwright. Second, he became the pre-eminent short story writer of his day. And third he had some claims as a novelist, with works such as The Moon and Sixpence (1919) and The Razor’s Edge (1944), in addition to Of Human Bondage (1915) and especially Cakes and Ale (1930). His career as a writer was very long. His first novel, Liza of Lambeth, was published in 1897. The Summing Up was published in 1938 – four decades later. And Maugham went on publishing into the 1960s. His writing spanned as many genres as it did decades. But this was just one of several careers he enjoyed.
He was a globetrotter, and many of his short stories are set in what then were exotic locations. Graham Greene once rather unfairly quipped, “Maugham still primarily means adultery in China, murder in Malaya, [and] suicide in the South Seas”11. The short stories have had so powerful an impact indeed that as Hastings, among others, notes, “To the vast majority of his readers Somerset Maugham has come to be associated with the latter days of the British Empire, and in particular with the British Empire in the Far East [Southeast Asia]. Just as Kipling is identified with India … so is Maugham identified with the Malayan archipelago.”12
Travel provided Maugham with inspiration for his work, the success of which in turn financed further travel. In all aspects of his writing, commercial success was never matched by critical acclaim, but nevertheless Maugham became a seriously wealthy man, and he used his wealth to finance yet another interest, putting together an art collection, and creating a sumptuous lifestyle for himself at his house, the Villa Mauresque in the south of France. Indeed Maugham’s lifestyle could be said to be one of his more accomplished achievements – as was the case with his hero Oscar Wilde he could be said to have made his “life itself a work of art”.
Underneath the public face of the successful and sophisticated man of letters, however, unknown to many of his contemporaries, there lay a secret: Maugham was a practising homosexual at a time when homosexuality could destroy a literary career. After a lifetime of hiding his homosexuality from the public eye, he was outed in print soon after his death in 1966 by his nephew, Robin Maugham. According to Robin, Maugham had admitted to him the “greatest” mistake of a long life – “I tried to persuade myself that I was three-quarters normal and that only a quarter of me was queer – whereas really it was the other way round.”13 It was necessary to keep this part of his life hidden, and it has been claimed that his ability to do so, combined with a facility for foreign languages, helped him to succeed in yet another career – working as an agent for British Intelligence.
Finally, although this is not discussed much by Hastings, Maugham had one more minor career – that of model. He was “the subject of more than fifty portraits”, Meyers notes, and “was probably painted, drawn and sculpted more than any other writer in history”14. The famous portraits are Kelly’s 1911 painting of a young, dandyish Edwardian, The Jester, and Graham Sutherland’s 1949 painting of an aged, disillusioned, sardonic, and saurian cynic – the latter work made Sutherland’s reputation as a portraitist.15
These then are the lives Hastings tackles – those of playwright, short story virtuoso and novelist, traveller, millionaire art collector, exile, homosexual, secret agent and unhinged old man. As with previous biographies, Hastings’s The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham is conventional in construction – instead of a different chapter on each life, we start with Maugham’s birth and work through to his death. He had a long life – he published his first books while Queen Victoria was on the throne, and at least one of his lovers, David Posner, lived long enough to die of AIDS in 1985.16
Maugham was born in France, albeit on British territory, on January 25th, 1874. This was very roughly in the middle of the Victorian era – he had friends who died in the Boer War.17 Proposed legislation had threatened that all boys born in France might be made liable to military conscription, and so his mother gave birth to her last surviving child within the British embassy in Paris. He died, again in France, in December 1965, just short of turning ninety-two. The various ambiguities – a British subject born in France, a British child who spoke better French than English – were to be seen throughout his life. As Maugham himself said: “The accident of my birth … installed into me two modes of life, two liberties, two points of view, [and] has prevented me from ever identifying myself completely with the instincts and prejudices of one people or the other.”18
His early life was apparently happy. Robert Maugham, his father, was the semi-official solicitor to the British embassy and managed the Paris office of the firm he had established with Albert Dixon. At the age of thirty-nine, he married a twenty-three- year-old, Edith Snell. Between 1865 and 1868, they had three sons, Charles, Frederic, and Henry; and then after five and a half years, a fourth, William or Willie. Since the older brothers had left for boarding school by the time he was four, Willie in effect was brought up as a spoiled only child.
Edith had tuberculosis. It was believed that having a child was good for women suffering from consumption, and she became pregnant again when Maugham was about five, gave birth to a stillborn son, and had her last child in January 1882 (this boy lived for only a day). A week later she died aged forty-one.
Having lost the mother he adored when he was eight – he kept a photograph of her by his bedside for the rest of his life – Maugham went on to lose his father at ten. The young orphan was sent, in 1884, to Kent, to his uncle, a “magnificently self-centred” clergyman.19 One of Maugham’s older brothers, Frederic, called his uncle a “very narrow-minded and a far from intelligent cleric”, while Frederic’s son, Robin, almost certainly repeating what he had heard from either Frederic or Maugham himself, said he was “severe, pedantic, and bigoted”20. It was an austere environment, but he did have access to his uncle’s library; a shy, reserved child, he took refuge in reading. He also started to stammer (Calder uses the term stutter), a characteristic that would remain with him for the rest of his life.21 (The professions of both his father and his uncle were ruled out by his handicap.) He remembered his childhood after France as “a period of utter desolation”22.
In May 1885 he entered King’s School in Canterbury, where he would remain for five years, although concerns about his health enabled him to escape to Hyères in France during the winters of 1888 and 1889. Although he was unhappy at school, and eventually used his health as an excuse to leave in 1889, he did well, winning a scholarship and various prizes. The answer to his unhappiness was flight – setting a pattern that would last throughout his life. After the second trip to France he decided he could not bear to go back to school and instead, in 1890, the sixteen year-old boy went to Heidelberg to learn German. He shared lodgings with a cosmopolitan group of men, who treated him as an adult and talked of theology, art and literature and those fantasy lands, Greece and Italy.
Soon after his arrival in Heidelberg a new boarder came to his lodgings, the English littérateur John Ellingham Brooks. Brooks appreciated the arts and taught the young Maugham a good deal, perhaps most importantly a passion for culture. Maugham’s first physical love affair was with Brooks, who was ten years his senior. He was blissfully happy in Germany. By the time he left Heidelberg, returned to England and became a medical student at St. Thomas’s Hospital in London, he had determined to become a writer; medicine was to be something to fall back on.
Much of the material for these early years was to be extensively used in his autobiographical novel Of Human Bondage, and in other works such as The Summing Up. To anyone who has read Maugham’s fiction, the story of his early life holds few surprises. However, Hastings’s handling of the material is certainly deft.
A small legacy of £150 a year made it possible for him to travel. In the summer holidays of 1894 it was Florence, in 1895 Capri, where he shared a house with Brooks and EF Benson. Oscar Wilde’s trial took place while he was in Capri with Brooks. Maugham was a twenty-year-old medical student when Wilde was convicted in 1895. The spectacle of an author destroyed because of his homosexuality must have left a deep impression on his psyche, and helps explain why he kept his private life so private.
In 1897, he published his first novel, Liza of Lambeth, and a month later graduated. He immediately left for Spain to write his next novel. He never practised medicine, but instead opted for the life of the professional writer.
Maugham continued to publish after Liza of Lambeth, but in the first decade after 1897 nothing sold very well. In 1907, however, after being rejected by seventeen managers, his comedy of manners Lady Frederick was finally accepted as a stopgap play. It ran for 422 performances, and Maugham was launched on a twenty-six-year career as a dramatist, a career that only ended in 1933, when his last play, Sheppey, came out in London (the director was John Gielgud). In 1908, he had four plays running in West End theatres. Lady Frederick was thus indeed “the first step on the path to enormous celebrity and wealth”23. A symbol of his success is the 1908 Punch cartoon by Bernard Partridge of an envious Shakespeare standing in front of a wall covered with billboards for four of Maugham’s plays.24
To celebrate his new wealth and fame, Maugham purchased a Georgian house in Mayfair, became a member of the Garrick Club and started to collect paintings (his first purchase was a theatrical picture by Samuel De Wilde). In 1911, he sat for a portrait, The Jester, by Gerald Kelly. Maugham remained an Edwardian at heart for the rest of his life.
In the 1910s he met and formed relationships with two individuals who would have profoundly significant impacts on his life. The first was Syrie – then a married woman, Syrie Wellcome – whom he first met in 1913. The second was Frederick Gerald Haxton, whom he met in 1914. The relationship with Syrie was to become poisonous – it ruined both their lives. The relationship with Haxton became “the most important of his life”25.
It could be argued, however, that Sue (Ethelwyn Sylvia) Jones was the heterosexual love of Maugham’s life. He met her first in 1906, and was captivated (Rosie in Cakes and Ale is based on Sue). He proposed marriage in December 1913; although he thought they suited one another, she refused him. He then started to see and eventually married on the rebound a woman who did not suit him, Syrie. The marriage constituted “his last effort at a heterosexual relationship”26. Indeed, one of the explanations for Maugham’s later fury with Syrie is that he desperately wanted the normality that a marriage provided, and he came to blame her for his homosexuality.
During the First World War, he joined the Red Cross as an interpreter and later as an ambulance driver (he shared a billet with Desmond MacCarthy, who later dubbed him “the English Maupassant”). And sometime in or after October 1914, he met Haxton, on the Flanders front. Born in 1892, Haxton was then in his early twenties, eighteen years younger than Maugham. By all accounts he was full of charm, promiscuous and gregarious. Haxton “was clearly a cad … who gambled and drank for too heavily and who was familiar with the tougher parts of the homosexual underworld”27. He was to become Maugham’s live-in lover and secretary-companion, a combination of lover and employee that seemed to suit Maugham but was perhaps inappropriate for the maintenance of a loving relationship.
In 1915 Syrie gave birth to a child, Liza, in Rome, with Maugham in attendance. He was now a father, but since Syrie was still married, although living separately from her husband, he had to be discreet. He returned with Syrie to London, where he left the Red Cross and joined British Intelligence. Although he had managed to keep his homosexual relationships out of the press, he was unable to conceal his affair with Syrie. Syrie’s husband initiated divorce proceedings and Maugham was named co-respondent. Leaving these troubles behind him, he moved to Geneva to launch his career as a spy. He met agents, paid them, and relayed information to and from London. He also wrote long reports, and was convinced that these were never read, until he included a joke in one and was reprimanded for his levity.28 His espionage experience – he worked as an intermediary in Geneva – prompted his Ashenden stories. The spy story is a relatively minor genre but Maugham certainly had an impact. He was the first to emphasise the monotonous and bureaucratic side of the work. And rather than a world of black evil versus white good, his spy exists in a morally relativistic world of grey. Julian Symons once wrote that “The modern spy story began with Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden (1928)”29 and the work could be said to be the inspiration for Eric Ambler and John le Carré.
In 1915 Gerald Haxton was arrested in London on a charge of gross indecency. He was acquitted and left the country. However, on his next visit, in 1919, he was deported as an undesirable alien and never again permitted to enter Britain.30
In 1916, Maugham sailed for the USA, and from there to Tahiti. The usual explanation for this trip is that he was determined to write a novel inspired by the life of Paul Gauguin – The Moon and Sixpence exploits the material he gathered there. Meyers, however, writes that Maugham “was sent there [to the South Seas] as a secret agent”31. This interpretation is not even acknowledged by Hastings.
Delayed in Pago Pago, he jotted down details of the people among whom he found himself and turned his notes into the short story “Rain”. He arrived in Tahiti in 1917, where he acquired a Gauguin painting on glass. He returned via the USA, where in May 1917 he married Syrie. The decision was a disaster. According to Rebecca West, Noel Coward once told her “that one could test the intelligence of one’s friends by seeing if they had noted that Syrie was much more intelligent than Willie”32. Despite her intelligence, all Maugham’s biographers are agreed in seeing Syrie as an imperfect and even dishonest woman.
In America, he was contacted by Sir William Wiseman, the head of British Intelligence operations in the USA. Wiseman wanted to ensure that Russia remained committed to the war effort, and decided to send Maugham to Petrograd to support the Mensheviks and keep the Bolsheviks out of power. In Russia, he was helped by Alexandra (Sasha) Kropotkin. He dined once a week with Alexander Kerensky or a member of his cabinet at Mjedved, the finest restaurant in Petrograd. In October, Wiseman decided to recall Maugham, and Kerensky asked him to pass on an urgent personal message to the British prime minister, David Lloyd George. Maugham’s biographers cannot agree on what Kerensky wanted. Morgan and Calder are in agreement in saying it was guns and ammunition, and a new ambassador, to which request Lloyd George replied that he could do nothing.33 Meyers claims that the message consisted of a request to get rid of a Labour Party politician who had opposed the provisional government.34 Hastings says he wanted Britain to offer peace on terms that would be unacceptable to Germany, as well as guns, ammunition and a new ambassador.35 Clearly, not all of these accounts can be correct. Where is the endnote which might explain such discrepancies in the literature as this and also the different explanations for his trip to Samoa? Whatever the message, Kerensky was overthrown in November before Maugham could return to Russia. He was later to tell people that if he had been sent to Russia six months earlier he could have prevented the Bolshevik coup. There seem to have been some limits to the objectivity of his objective view of the world.
Moscow’s notorious weather had triggered a recurrence of his tuberculosis. The war made it impossible for him to travel to a fashionable sanatorium on the continent; instead, in November 1917, he moved to one in the north of Scotland for treatment. (He was given a clean bill of health in 1919.)
In many of Maugham’s plays, love and marriage are depicted as stifling: passion exists only outside the marriage contract and represents liberation. For Maugham, the metaphor used to explain the shift from secure, conventional and inevitably boring marriage to unconventional, liberating passion is frequently that of travel, elopement, flight. In Of Human Bondage Philip Carey chooses the former – a respectable, middle class existence. In The Moon and Sixpence Charles Strickland chooses the latter – that is travel and a bohemian existence. Of course, Maugham himself had married between writing the one and the other. Small wonder then that, cured and married, his next act was to leave the country.
Maugham had always enjoyed travelling. As a student he had travelled regularly to France, Germany and Italy. As a young writer, during the decade before the success of 1907, he had spent time in Spain, Paris, Capri, Greece, and Egypt. He went to the USA in 1910, was in France initially during the Great War, was in Rome with Syrie, was a secret agent in Geneva in 1916-1917, went to the USA, and from there to Samoa and Tahiti via Hawaii. He must have realised that the strengths of “Rain” were a product of his trip to Samoa, and been aware of travel’s potential to provide material for more such stories, because he left England for China in 1919, returned in 1920, and then, after a trip to the USA in 1920, left for Hawaii, Australia, Malaya (as it then was) and Borneo in 1921. In 1922 and 1923 he visited Burma, Siam and Indochina. He revisited Malaya in 1925-26. These trips did indeed stimulate him to produce some of his best work. And in all of them, from 1916 on, he was accompanied by Haxton.
Samoa, and perhaps particularly Malaya, became Maugham territory. In the short stories of the 1920s and 1930s, whether it is islands in the Pacific or lush jungle in Southeast Asia, Maugham managed to capture perfectly a sense of place and to invent an atmosphere. He conveyed the unrelenting heat of the former and the moist humidity of the latter equally well. A world was created in the short stories that can perhaps in some ways be compared with Trollope’s invention of Barchester.
In addition to his travels, Maugham was setting up house. In 1926, weary of married life in London, he purchased the Villa Mauresque on Cap Ferrat. Apart from a short break during the Second World War, from 1926 until his death the villa was his permanent home, the Riviera – a “sunny place for shady people”36 – his stamping ground. The decision to move to France was also a decision to commit to Haxton. There was no room at the villa for Syrie, who filed for divorce in 1928 (it was finalised in 1929).
Maugham now had thirteen well-trained staff to attend him, his guests and the gardens. For decades this was seen by many as an example of “good living”: “for nearly forty years the two were inextricably linked, the house the richest thread in the fabric of the legend – visited, photographed, filmed, described in countless articles … [a] glamorous and exotic backdrop for one of the most famous writers in the world”37. His lifestyle became one of his more accomplished works of art. At the Villa Mauresque the liberated sexual atmosphere of Capri was recreated. One of Haxton’s jobs seems to have been to help supply Maugham with sexual partners. In the years before the Second World War he purchased a small yacht and was quickly bowled over by the sixteen-year-old cabin boy, Louis Legrand (or Loulou), who was shared with Maugham and put “at the disposal … of any male guest who desired his services”38. Another lover was even younger, at fourteen.
In Mexico City Haxton procured young boys for Maugham: “One of them was a thin, large-eyed child who said he was fourteen. He undressed in Maugham’s hotel bedroom, knelt to say his prayers, and crossed himself before getting into bed.”39 Haxton had “a natural preference for adolescent boys” but was bisexual: he boasted of using a can of condensed milk to purchase a twelve-year-old girl in Siam.40
In 1938, while travelling in India, Maugham learned that his brother Frederic had been appointed Lord Chancellor. On receiving a misdirected letter from a fan of the writer, the lawyer forwarded it to Cap Ferrat. Maugham wrote to his brother to say that his elevation might trigger a re-run of the Bacon-Shakespeare controversy. The respectable Frederic would be said by posterity to have written all the books and published them in his brother’s name. “You may well be right in thinking that you write like Shakespeare,” Frederic replied, “But one word of brotherly advice. Do not attempt the sonnets.”41 If Frederic is referring to the theory that the sonnets articulate a homosexual relationship, then his advice was to hide the homosexuality ‑ of which he so thoroughly disapproved.42 It was good advice.
The trial and conviction of Wilde highlighted the vulnerability of the bisexual and homosexual men of Maugham’s generation to public exposure, humiliation and arrest, and thus to blackmail. Maugham was in fact blackmailed over his homosexuality – at least once by Loulou, and then by his favourite nephew, Frederic’s son, Robin. Robin claimed that a publisher had offered him $50,000 for a biography of his uncle. Maugham paid him $50,000 in return for a promise not to write it or any other. “I give you my word that I shall not write any other biography – ever,” a grateful Robin swore (he went on to create a small industry of biographical works).43 Both Calder and Meyers claim that it is possible that Syrie used blackmail to force Maugham to agree to marry her, and Hastings seems to believe that he was frightened by what she might reveal and so accepts that implicit blackmail at least might have been involved.44
The Second World War saw Maugham once again mobilised – this time as a propagandist. After a harrowing escape from France, in October 1940, he moved to New York. It was during his stay in the USA that he wrote one of his better known novels, The Razor’s Edge. In the USA also many years of hard living finally caught up with Haxton, who died aged fifty-two in 1944. Maugham was devastated, but another younger man, Alan Searle, was waiting to fill the vacancy.
Maugham had also started collecting Impressionist paintings. In 1949, he was back in America buying pictures with his American royalties. Hoping to avoid death duties, he purchased works such as Renoir’s Bateaux à Argenteuil in the name of his daughter. These paintings were to trigger the collapse of the relationship with his family.
Following a spate of art burglaries, Maugham decided in 1961 to sell his paintings. They were auctioned in 1962. To heighten interest in the sale, he put Liza’s paintings up for sale too. Maugham must have decided that they were his paintings and was furious about suggestions that any of the proceeds should go to the owner, his daughter. Eventually, lawyers became involved. Liza won the case, but her father was now so alienated that, two days after the sale, Searle was adopted as his son. In December 1962 he attempted to deny that Liza was his daughter. The courts again decided for Liza, determining that she was indeed Maugham’s daughter, and annulled the adoption. Maugham lost the case, but Liza lost much of her inheritance – he was now determined to give her only what he had to. Searle was to become a very rich man.
Maugham had planned to make a graceful exit, announcing his last play, his last short story, and winding up his literary work, leaving posterity little to counter the detached and sardonic autobiographical notes in The Summing Up. He had ended his work as a playwright. In 1947, he published Creatures of Circumstance, his last collection of stories. In 1948, he published Catalina, his last novel. His last book, Points of View (1959), was a collection of essays. He burned the letters in his possession. He was in control until, his body having outlasted his mind, the furies bubbling under the cool demeanour were revealed to the world in “Looking Back” in 1962.
When he began to write an autobiography, his neighbour, Max Beaverbrook, was delighted and hoped to serialise it in his newspaper the Sunday Express. Searle was given the rights (Beaverbrook paid him £35,000, while serialisation rights in the USA brought in a further $250,000). In both the UK and the USA, Maugham’s publishers, horrified at the self-destructive nature of the contents, refused to publish it as a book. Serialisation was enough to ruin his reputation. Graham Greene published a letter in the Daily Telegraph in which he labelled “Looking Back” “a senile and scandalous work”45. When, after publication, Maugham next visited the Garrick Club in October 1962 there was a silence as all conversation ceased and several members walked out. He never visited England again.
His last years were miserable. Ostracised in England and estranged from his family, he became deaf and began to lose his eyesight. He was “sometimes tearful and whimpering for sex”, sometimes angry and violent.46 His last years were so bad that Alan Searle eventually called on Liza for help. She came, but he died before he could be taken to England.
Hastings’s general attitude to Maugham is clear. Although he had a vindictive streak and there was a sleazy and exploitative side to his homosexuality, she shows that he was also capable of sweetness and generosity. Morgan’s representation of Searle as a “self-seeking sycophant” is, in her opinion, if anything too generous. The only major question she does not directly deal with is the charge of anti-Semitism, but Maugham emerges from this biography as someone who was sympathetic to Jews in general and certainly to his Jewish friends. Overall, however, it must be said that Hastings has in effect come out largely in support of Morgan’s portrayal.
Maugham’s way of life was a cross between that of the rich Edwardian English gentleman and some aspects of the modern celebrity. At the Villa Mauresque, money and fame were married to licence and debauchery. He continued to maintain a high literary output. Hastings’s biography illustrates the clear link between his life and work. His own experiences and the stories told to him were reworked into his published stories. Selina Hastings writes well and easily. If any biography can trigger a revival of interest in the works of Somerset Maugham, it will be this.
1. Cited in Selina Hastings, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, London: John Murray, 2009, pp. 369-370.
2. Michael Holroyd, Lytton Strachey: A Biography, revised edition, Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1967-1968/1971, p. 1050.
3. Edmund Wilson, “The Apotheosis of Somerset Maugham”, in Edmund Wilson: Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1930s & 40s: The Triple Thinkers, The Wound and the Bow, Classics and Commercials, Uncollected Reviews, New York: Library of America, 2007, pp. 725, 731 (originally published 1946).
4. Hastings, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, p. 536.
5. Robert Calder, Willie: The Life of W. Somerset Maugham, London, Heinemann, 1989, p. xvii.
6. Ted Morgan, Maugham, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1980, p. 496.
7. Morgan, Maugham, p. 599.
8. Calder, Willie, p. 363.
9. Hastings, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, p. 339. This is perhaps the same source for an incident in which Haxton “accidentally-on-purpose” pushed Liza as she was climbing out of a car. Hastings, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, p. 322.
10. Morgan, Maugham, p. 369.
11. Graham Greene, “Some Notes on Somerset Maugham”, in Graham Greene, Collected Essays, London: Vintage, 1969/1999, p. 149.
12. Hastings, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, p. 270.
13. Robin Maugham, Somerset and All the Maughams, London: Longmans・Heinemann, 1966, p. 201.
14. Jeffrey Meyers, Somerset Maugham: A Life, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004, p. 283.
15. Kenneth Clark is said to have called it “undoubtedly the greatest portrait of the twentieth century”. Meyers, Somerset Maugham, pp. 286, 287.
16. Hastings, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, p. 488 note.
17. Morgan, Maugham, p. 4.
18. Maugham’s introduction to A Travellers Library, cited in Calder, Willie, p. 14.
19. Hastings, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, p. 14.
20. Maugham, Somerset and All the Maughams, pp. 87, 117.
21. Calder, Willie, p. 10. Hastings, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, p. 17.
22. Hastings, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, p. 12.
23. Hastings, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, p. 113.
24. The cartoon is reproduced in Maugham, Somerset and All the Maughams, opposite p. 163.
25. Hastings, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, p. 192.
26. Calder, Willie, p. 125.
27. Calder, Willie, p. 130. Also see Hastings, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, pp. 192-193.
28. Morgan, Maugham, p. 206.
29. Julian Symons, “Subtleties of Power”, New York Times, 13 September 1981.
30. Morgan, Maugham, p. 202. Hastings, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, p. 194.
31. Meyers, Somerset Maugham, p. 117.
32. Rebecca West to Ted Morgan, cited in Morgan, Maugham, p. 225.
33. Morgan, Maugham, p. 231. Calder, Willie, p. 149.
34. Meyers, Somerset Maugham, p. 130.
35. Hastings, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, p. 232.
36. Hastings, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, p. 402.
37. Hastings, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, p. 332.
38. Hastings, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, p. 421.
39. Morgan, Maugham, p. 278.
40. Hastings, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, p. 304.
41. Maugham, Somerset and All the Maughams, p. 189.
42. Calder, Willie, p. 252.
43. Hastings, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, p. 515.
44. Calder, Willie, pp. 142-143. Meyers, Somerset Maugham, p. 183. Hastings, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, p. 200.
45. Hastings, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, p. 531.
46. Hastings, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, p. 532.
David Askew is an Associate Professor of Law at the Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan. Recent works include David Askew (with P Close and X Xin), The Beijing Olympiad: The Political Economy of a Sporting Mega-Event (Routledge, 2006), and chapters in BT Wakabayashi ed, The Nanking Atrocity, 1937-8: Complicating the Picture (Berghahn, 2007).