In the 1950s, when I was 14, I spent a winter fortnight with my parents at the Villa Mauresque, which Somerset Maugham had lent to them to entertain the recently widowed Rab Butler and his daughter, Sarah. It was an uneasy holiday setting for two teenage girls. As I wrote a little apprehensively in my diary, ‘this house is lovely, but rather fragile,’ a concern which was borne out the next day when, during a pillow fight, I knocked over a full jug of orange juice with disastrous results for the immaculate upholstery. Never was a house more thoroughly permeated by the spirit of its absent owner, who looked down on us in melancholy reproach from the famous Graham Sutherland portrait on the wall. The regime ran with clockwork regularity. Every meal was served at a precisely pre-ordained moment and no dish on the menu could be repeated.
Maugham’s last years at the Villa Mauresque are vividly described by Selina Hastings in The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, where she tells how he became haunted by the Sutherland portrait with ‘its merciless vision … of an inexorably approaching and miserable old age.’ This sad final chapter is what many people remember about Somerset Maugham — his descent into senility, during which he did his best to disinherit his daughter and grandchildren, and wrote a deeply wounding personal memoir which caused pain and offence to many of those closest to him. Selina Hastings reminds us that he was a man of far greater stature than this would suggest. I am not sure that she is right in claiming that he was, ‘for much of his life … the most famous writer in the world,’ but he was certainly extremely widely admired and translated, and was familiar to millions who never read his work through the medium of film and television. It is also very unusual for an author to be equally proficient as a playwright, novelist and short- story writer. He was a consummate craftsman who honed his skills with Trollopian industry to satisfy the needs of his audience — needs which changed during his long career and to which he constantly adapted. A cultured man, he was well read in four languages, with interests and an experience of life far wider than that of most of his readers, yet he won and retained their allegiance through a masterly grasp of the basic skills of a writer of fiction — the ability to tell a good story and to describe real and convincing characters. Where he fell short of greatness, as is well illustrated in this book, is that his skills, as he admitted himself, were those of an observer rather than a creator. ‘I have small power of imagination … but an acute power of observation.’ Conrad wrote of Maugham’s dispassionate stance in his first play, Liza of Lambeth, ‘he just looks on,’ and that remained true throughout his life. He just looked on — and listened — as a young doctor, as a spy, as an adventurous and insatiable traveller, as a man about town. He would listen for hours to some fellow passenger on a tramp steamer or lonely tea planter, glad of an interested audience, until he detected that little bit of grit which his imagination could transform into a pearl in stories like ‘The Book Bag’, ‘Before the Party’ and ‘Rain’. He was none too scrupulous about abusing these confidences, sometimes not even bothering to change the victim’s name in the resulting story. This led to a storm of indignation after a particularly productive visit to Malaya, where he was accused, with some justification, of having ‘abused hospitality by ferreting out the family skeletons of his hosts and putting them into his books’. Most notorious of all was his merciless pillorying of his supposed friend Hugh Walpole as the ludicrous Alroy Kear in Cakes and Ale, a wanton act of cruelty, which even its undoubted brilliance could hardly justify.
The passion for travel became an addiction which lasted all his days, and he used it to escape from everything he regarded as unpleasant in his home life, from his miserable marriage to the indignities of extreme old age, when Alan Searle, the companion of his later years, reported in despair ‘the maps are out’. They were out all of his adult life; first maps of Europe, then the Far East, the South Seas, China, Burma, India, South America. This was not a progress from one expensive hotel to another by means of luxurious steamers, it was often uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous, with bouts of malaria and a near fatal incident with a capsized canoe in Sarawak. Maugham’s companion for most of his travelling life was his lover Gerald Haxton — beautiful, charming and decadent. He acted as Maugham’s secretary and pimp, not only for sex but also for material for his work. It was Haxton who often charmed a fellow traveller into revelations which would provide rich pickings for Maugham’s imagination to work upon.
Hastings points out that this was certainly the most important relationship of Somerset Maugham’s life. Charm is the word which constantly recurs in almost every description of Haxton: ‘That odious charmer,’ in the words of Alan Pryce-Jones; ‘Charming, but very naughty,’ according to Norman Douglas, and it was this combination of sex appeal and danger which held Maugham in thrall for 40 years, even through the vicissitudes caused by Haxton’s growing addiction to drink and gambling.
If Haxton was the love of Maugham’s life, his relationship with women was more complicated. The death of his adored mother when Willie was only eight was a blow from which he never really recovered and which may have coloured his relationships with women throughout his life. As a young man, as he later wrote, ‘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.’ His only happy heterosexual relationship with the ‘Rosy’ of Cakes and Ale, came to nothing and his marriage was an unmitigated and entirely predictable disaster, only entered into with extreme reluctance to fulfil his obligations as a father. At the wedding ceremony ‘Maugham felt so overcome with loathing for his bride that he could hardly bring himself to look at her’.
The object of his hatred was Syrie, the improbably worldly and ambitious daughter of Dr Barnardo. She had recently been divorced after another disastrous marriage, having already given birth to Maugham’s daughter, Liza. In both marriages she had set her cap at her quarry and pursued him with steely determination, but she was a bad picker, selecting on each occasion a man with whom she had little in common and who had no prospect of bringing her happiness. It was 12 years before she and Maugham finally divorced, years of constant conflict, blazing rows, long separations and a blithe continuance on the husband’s part of his relationship with Gerald Haxton. Poor Liza was caught up in the middle, alternately indulged and neglected by them both, her upbringing often left in the more capable hands of the housemaid. It is a tribute to her own strength of character that she grew up into a delightful and popular woman, who did nothing to deserve the treatment she received at the end of her father’s life.
Hastings is very interesting on this depressing saga, particularly on the role played by Maugham’s devoted but devious companion, that ‘podgy Iago’, Alan Searle, in attempting to deprive Liza and her children of their inheritance at the sale of her father’s fine collection of pictures. Maugham’s last years were deeply gloomy, but somehow it seems appropriate that the shell of this gifted and cultivated man should end up wanderi
ng unhappily round the shell of his once magical house, stripped of the pictures and objects which he had chosen with such care and which had made it so beautiful.
Somerset Maugham’s reputation and popularity, sky high in his lifetime, went into decline after his death, as he himself foretold. It is now enjoying something of a renaissance, and Selina Hastings’ excellent biography, perceptive, well written and with a happy turn of phrase, should introduce many new readers to the work of this complicated, difficult, loveable, hateable, contradictory character, who, with all his faults, was a prince of story-tellers.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated September 12, 2009Tags: Italy, Non-fiction, Reminiscence, Travel