John Murray, 614 pp, £25.00

Review by William Boyd

I still possess my 1967 Penguin paperback of Somerset Maugham’s A Writer’s Notebook.  Ostensibly a distillation of his diary, kept over some 50 years, it was more interesting to the aspiring novelist for the gnomic advice Maugham offered on the craft of writing. ‘There’s no need for the writer to eat a whole sheep to be able to tell you what mutton tastes like,’ is one sentence I underlined (amongst many).  I cite this for two reasons: one to give a sense of Maugham’s stature and reputation, even in the late 1960s, just a few years after his death; and, two, as a tribute to his astonishing longevity.  Maugham died aged 91 in 1965 – a few months before Evelyn Waugh — but he was born in 1874, the year Disraeli took over as prime minister from Gladstone.  He was writing his fourth novel in 1900, the last year of Victoria’s reign (some three years before Waugh was born, as it happens) and so in a very real sense his sensibilities are Victorian rather than Edwardian. His peers were writers like Compton Mackenzie, Hugh Walpole, John Galsworthy – forgotten figures, almost — but something about Maugham and his work endured long into his dotage.  There was no real sense of anything ‘retro’ about him.

Perhaps this was due in some way to the so-called ‘cynicism’ in his novels and stories — something that was found shocking at the beginning of his career but that chimed more harmoniously with modern readers, increasingly cynical themselves, towards its conclusion. But it was also a consequence of Maugham’s reputation, of his standing as a ‘great writer’, of the manner in which he chose to live.  The abiding image is of Maugham in his vast villa on Cap Ferrat  — the Villa Mauresque – filled with famous guests and thirteen staff.  The writer spending his mornings at work in his bespoke writing rooms on the flat roof with a wide view of the Mediterranean (where he could spot fellow novelist Arnold Bennett cruising by in his huge yacht – those were the days).  Maugham, along with the restlessly roving Graham Greene, probably created the stereotype of the famous novelist in Europe, mid-century.  This was the writer’s life, Maugham’s public image seemed to say: these were the tangible rewards the pen could bring you.

Of course the reality was more complex and in some cases entirely different and it is one of the fascinating pleasures of this superb biography to see the veils being stripped away and the messy truth about Maugham’s life and relationships exposed.  As with all lives, not all was as it purported to be. The public face and the private man were at some remove from each other.

But at first glance Maugham’s progression to world- wide fame and great wealth seems relatively straightforward.  Born into a professional, bourgeois family, the youngest of four brothers, he experienced tragedy early in his life when his mother died when he was eight.  He kept a photo of her by his bed for the rest of his life and declared that his love for her was the only love he had ever experienced requited.  This trauma initiated the famous stammer and an unhappy childhood – he was brought up by a humourless uncle and ineffectual aunt – and miserable schooldays ensured that he was both shy and withdrawn.  He left school at 16 and trained to become a doctor at St Thomas’s in Lambeth.  But Maugham had no real vocation for medicine – he wanted to write and his duties as a trainee doctor instead provided him with the low-life material for his first novel, Liza of Lambeth (published 1897).  From the outset of his career, Maugham was aware of his limitations as a writer – he lacked imagination, he said, writing was something of a mechanical exercise – it was the stories he heard, read about or observed that fuelled his fiction and at the same time one feels that the profession of writer was selected almost, as we would now say, as a ‘lifestyle’ choice, offering the prospect of earning a decent living, keeping congenial hours and providing agreeable opportunities for foreign travel.  

Maugham had a ‘knack’ for writing – a favourite word – and, it turned out, also a knack for writing popular, sophisticated drawing-room comedies for the theatre.  Like Chekhov, he turned to the theatre purely as a way of making money and very soon he hit paydirt.  His first success was Lady Frederick in 1907. A year later he had four plays running simultaneously in the West End.  Maugham’s days of relative penury were over forever. He was 33 and was to remain extremely rich for the rest of his life.

But emotionally it was a different story.  Maugham described himself as being ‘three-quarters normal, one quarter queer’. In reality it was probably the other way round.  He was sexually promiscuous and one of his heterosexual affairs was with a wealthy divorcee, Syrie Wellcome.  She effectively trapped him into marriage by becoming pregnant and their daughter Liza was born in secret out of wedlock in 1915.  Soon married and respectable, Maugham quickly developed the ability to lead a double life: Syrie remained in London where he played the husband and father, but his heart was in Europe where his secretary-lover Gerald Haxton lived and with whom he travelled the world, coming home alone to an increasingly bitter and destructive family life.  Professionally Maugham was going from strength to strength. The plays poured forth, huge financial successes, so did the novels and short stories — Of Human BondageThe Moon and SixpenceCakes and Ale. In 1924 he was paid $2,500 for a short story – multiply by twenty for today’s approximate value. He remains the writer with the most film and TV adaptations of his work – some 98 in all. But, domestically, Maugham was coming to hate his wife with a corrosive intensity and eventually persuaded Syrie to divorce him (at great expense).

Maugham was now finally free to create the regime of hard work and self-indulgent hedonism – the Villa Mauresque became a kind of discreet sexual nirvana for the literary gay man – that he really desired. Life at the villa duly assumed its legendary reputation (interrupted only by World War 2).  Haxton died in 1944 and was replaced by another amanuensis/lover Alan Searle. Honours and more riches accrued — but the serenity of old age was denied him. A merciless feud with his daughter over her inheritance, engineered by the grasping and jealous Searle, marred Maugham’s final years. He died, by Hastings’ account, a bitter, lonely and near-insane old man railing against the world and its corruption like a latter-day Lear.

Such a summary does no justice to a full life lived into its ninth decade but Selina Hastings recounts the mass of detail and the massive literary output with great sagacity and the sharpest of eyes.  I read this biography with total fascination: it is an extraordinary story that takes in two world wars, friendships with people as diverse as Charlie Chaplin and Winston Churchill, encounters with writers such as Thomas Hardy, D.H.Lawrence, Henry James and Virginia Woolf.  Selina Hastings’ great merit as a biographer is that not only does one sense that the scholarly groundwork has been thoroughly achieved but also the places and people she describes are portrayed with such graphic clarity and assurance.  She sets a scene or establishes a personality with great economy and intensity. Whether it’s life at the Villa or accounts of Maugham’s travels, we very quickly sense the spirit of a place – Kuala Lumpur, Capri, Samoa or Los Angeles, South Carolina in the war or Mayfair in the ‘20s – and their allure or tedium come off the page with tremendous colour and vividness.

One can derive all manner of conclusions from ‘Willie’ Somerset Maugham’s life – good and bad. He worked hard but his money did not bring him great happiness, he relished sex but recoiled when inadvertently touched, he could be amusing or scarily haughty, he could hate with real venom, he was both extremely generous and vindictively cruel.  In Cakes and Ale he has his narrator (the Maugham character) remark that, ‘It’s very hard to be a gentleman and a writer’.  Maugham tried hard to be a gentleman but finally it wasn’t in his nature.