Places: Cakes and Ale

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1930

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social satire

Time of work: Late 1920’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*London

*London. Cakes and AleBritain’s great city, like New York and Paris, hosts the literary marketplace where Edward Driffield, perhaps the last of the great Victorian novelists, has risen from the modest ambience of Blackstable in rural Kent County to eminence largely because he outlived temporary fashions. An opportunist named Alroy Kear–a minor novelist but one seasoned in Bloomsburyan deceptions–finds, in orchestrating the dead Driffield’s life, that he must deal with Blackstable and what he deems the unmarketability of the “provincial.” Through the sensitive lens of novelist Willie Ashenden, now middle-aged and humanely cynical, W. Somerset Maugham ushers the reader into literary London, a breeding ground for self-importance and false appearances, a wasteland in which one writer’s longevity and another’s sycophancy can flourish under art’s protective canopy.

Blackstable

Blackstable. Class-conscious Victorian village in Kent, where a few ruling families rule the roost. When Alroy Kear, Driffield’s fatuous biographer, asks Willie Ashenden as a favor to recall his teenage encounters with the great author and his first wife, a former barmaid named Rosie Gann Driffield, Willie’s memories take over chapters 5 to 10. They go far beyond the superficial responses to Kear to become a social guide to Blackstable and its stratified townscape in late Victorian England. Snobbery is rampant and nowhere more prevalent than in the parentless Willie’s life in the household of his aunt and uncle, the vicar of Blackstable.

Blackstable is based on Whitstable, which lies six miles north of Canterbury and was the place where at age ten Maugham began the classically deprived life that he dramatized in his finest novel, Of Human Bondage (1915). Willie, at fifteen, has long since taken on the snobbish colorations of Blackstable. He shares his uncle’s attitude of superiority and his disdain for one of Blackstable’s economic props, the tourist trade, which the vicar refers to as the “rag-tag and bobtail” of summer visitors from London. “I accepted the conventions of my class and Blackstable as if they were the laws of Nature,” Ashenden admits. In this novel of passage, Blackstable, for all its provinciality, provides the setting for mostly good deeds, London for mostly bad.

It is in Blackstable that the tyro Willie learns that life offers more than conformity to the Calvinistic dictates of the Blackstable vicar. There he learns to ride a bicycle–a joyous new conveyance for late-Victorians–and to do brass rubbings. It is in Blackstable that he first experiences unconditional goodness–an essence in Rosie that he will powerfully defend to Kear and Amy Driffield. Not accidentally, it is in Blackstable, not London, that Willie squelches Kear and Amy with praise for Rosie, whom they hold in contempt, as one “who loved to make people happy [and who] loved love.”

Ferne Court

Ferne Court. Home of the Driffields in Blackstable where the widowed Amy lives alone but where, to her dismay, fans of Edward visit. This house is the scene of Willie’s vigorous defense of Rosie.

*Yonkers

*Yonkers. City, a few miles west of New York which in the early years of the twentieth century was populated by immigrants like Rosie. It is the setting for Rosie’s climactic revelations in her book-ending reunion with Willie, who comes to Broadway for the opening of his play. In Yonkers, Rosie finds a place, conveniently remote from England, where she can reveal to the only person who will fully understand the one great sorrow of her life.

BibliographyCordell, Richard. Somerset Maugham: A Biographical and Critical Study. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1961. Thorough analysis of Maugham as a writer proficient in all genres of literature.Curtis, Anthony. The Pattern of Maugham: A Critical Portrait. New York: Taplinger, 1974. Analysis of Maugham’s more prominent works, with insights into the role of his insecurities and his frequent digressions in Cakes and Ale and other novels, when he offers personal commentary on the state of society and the world of arts and letters.Curtis, Anthony, and John Whitehead, eds. W. Somerset Maugham: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1987. Particularly valuable for tracing the critical reception of Cakes and Ale since its initial publication. Contemporary reviews by noted literary figures such as Ivor Brown, Evelyn Waugh, and Leslie Marchand.Loss, Archie K. W. Somerset Maugham. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1987. An in-depth analysis of the roman à clef aspects of the novel, emphasizing Maugham’s disparaging treatment of Hugh Walpole and Thomas Hardy.Morgan, Ted. Maugham. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980. A comprehensive overview of Maugham’s life and career, with an extended discussion of the character of Rosie in Cakes and Ale. Morgan emphasizes her pragmatic morality and adaptability in a socially repressive atmosphere.
Categories: Places