Somerset Maugham

Place of BirthParis
Place of DeathNice

Born in Paris, of Irish ancestry, Somerset Maugham was to lead a fascinating life and would become famous for his mastery of short evocative stories that were often set in the more obscure and remote areas of the British Empire. Suffering from a bad stammer, he received a classic public school education at King's school in Canterbury, Kent. Rather more unconventionally, he studied at Heidelburg university where he read philosophy and literature. He then studied in London, eventually qualifying as a surgeon at St Thomas' hospital. He conducted his year's medical practice in the slums of the East End. It was here that he found material for his first, rather lurid, novel Liza of Lambeth in 1897 and much of the material for his critically acclaimed autobiographical novel Of Human Bondage although this wasn't to be published until 1915.

He moved to Paris where he would strike up a successful working relationship with Laurence Housman and write a number of plays that would be run in London from 1908. At the outbreak of The Great War he first served with a Red Cross unit in France before taking up a far more interesting assignment as secret agent in Geneva and then Petrograd. In Russia, he was given the rather mammoth job of attempting to prevent the Russian Revolution from starting. His novel Ashenden, published in 1928, would draw on these eclectic experiences.

Continuing with more peacable travels, Maugham took to the South Seas, where he visited the island of Tahiti and on which he based his novel The Moon and Sixpence. Sickness would then force Maugham to return home and remain in a Scottish tubercoulosis sanatorium. However, on recovery, he returned to the Far East and collected imperial information and experiences that would form the basis of many short stories, plays and novels: East of Suez in 1922, Our Betters in 1923 and The Letter in 1927, are amongst the better known of these.

Returning to settle in France in 1928, he wrote what many regard as his satirical masterpiece Cakes and Ale. A literary biography within a novel that examined the private sin that accompanies public success. The winds of war would not allow Maugham to remain in France indefinitely. A British agent once more, he was forced to flee from France with a single suitcase one night in 1940. He settled in the United States for the duration of the war, writing the semi-mystical The Razor's Edge there in 1945.

Somerset Maugham was the master of the short, concise novel and he could convey relationships, greed and ambition with a startling reality. The remote locations of the quietly magnificent yet decaying British Empire offered him beautiful canvasses on which to write his stories and plays. The real-life inhabitants of these locations were frankly shocked at being portrayed as so trivial, parochial and vacuous creatures. Maugham would enjoy the undying hatred of many a South-East Asian planter and his wife for the rest of his life. Yet, for the rest of us, his realistic depictions of the boredom and drudgery of plantation life, and the desire and trappings of what they would regard as civilisation, can re-evoke what were perhaps the more genuine feelings felt by many of the planters and civil servants in the further flung reaches of the Empire. His English is clear and lucid and this makes his books easy to come to terms with. His works are often full of the basest, and yet more interesting, of the human vices but can still evoke the day to day feelings and emotions that allow us to understand and identify with his characters. A complex and interesting character, Somerset Maugham managed to catch much of the darker essence of Empire.

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by Stephen Luscombe