William Somerset Maugham (mawm) was among England’s most versatile, prolific, and successful authors of the twentieth century. He was born in the British embassy in Paris on January 25, 1874, the fourth son of a British solicitor and his socialite wife. By age ten he had suffered the loss of both parents and was placed under the guardianship of his uncle, the Reverend Henry Macdonald Maugham, vicar of Whitstable, a childless man in his fifties with a German-born wife. At the lonely vicarage Maugham experienced an unhappy childhood; his only solace was found in reading his uncle’s books. Enrolled in the nearby King’s School, Canterbury, Maugham experienced further unhappiness despite his academic success. A permanent stammer which developed at this time made him unfit for the legal profession of his father and two older brothers.
W. Somerset Maugham
After completing the sixth form at Canterbury, Maugham chose travel over attendance at a university. At Heidelberg, he came under the ways of modernism in the form of Henrik Ibsen’s dramas and Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophy. Returning to London, he enrolled in the medical school at St. Thomas’ Hospital, receiving his M.D. in 1897.
The unexpected success of his short, naturalistic novel Liza of Lambeth encouraged Maugham to change his career choice to writing, and, as a consequence, he never practiced medicine. Liza of Lambeth set a lasting precedent in Maugham’s fiction: an inclination to base his works on his experiences and his characters on actual people. Following his first novel, he achieved little success with other novels modeled on well-established genres, like the historical novel and the novel of manners.
His strong sense of irony and his ability to write witty natural dialogue stood him in better stead with the drama. With a series of plays, chiefly modern comedies of manners, Maugham attained phenomenal success on the London stage, beginning with the production of Lady Frederick in 1907. A series of acclaimed dramas followed, including Jack Straw, Mrs. Dot, Smith, Our Betters, The Circle, and The Constant Wife. Often dealing satirically with marriage among the English leisure class, the dramas, like most of Maugham’s other works, feature characters who cling precariously to social status or who exist on the fringes of upper-class life.
His writing of twenty-nine plays did not preclude work with the novel and short fiction. In 1915 he published Of Human Bondage, an autobiographical Bildungsroman narrating the life of its hero, Philip Carey, from childhood to early manhood. It represents Maugham’s most ambitious and successful effort with the genre. Among the novels he produced over the next thirty years, the most noteworthy are The Moon and Sixpence, inspired by the life of Paul Gauguin; Cakes and Ale, largely a story of the older Thomas Hardy and his second wife; and The Razor’s Edge, the narrative of a young man’s quest for spiritual meaning in life.
During World War I, Maugham worked as a British intelligence agent in Switzerland and Russia. His service was interrupted by the need to enter a sanatorium for treatment of tuberculosis. His experiences served as the basis for his spy fiction Ashenden: Or, The British Agent, a collection of short stories. An inveterate traveler, he journeyed to the South Pacific in 1916, accompanied by his secretary, Gerald Haxton. This trip proved especially rich in materials for fiction, producing ideas for such important stories as “Rain,” “The Outstation,” and “The Letter.” In 1917 Maugham married Syrie Bernardo Wellcome; their marriage would end in divorce in 1927.
In 1926 Maugham purchased the Villa Mauresque in the French Riviera, and except for his residence in the United States during World War II, he spent the remainder of his life there. His later years proved exceedingly productive, although he turned his attention primarily to articles, essays, and autobiography. Old age found Maugham with a worldwide audience, his works being translated into many languages. His health began a serious decline during his late eighties, and his death occurred a few weeks before his ninety-second birthday.
Maugham is inclined to be clinical and skeptical in his treatment of character. He often introduces his own persona into his work as a spokesman–a detached, tolerant, cynical middle-aged man, named variously. The characters Willie Ashenden in the Ashenden stories and Mr. Maugham in The Razor’s Edge represent two notable examples. While Maugham acknowledges and admires human goodness, he often voices a guarded opinion about human nature.
No innovator in established genres, Maugham chose to narrate his plots straightforwardly, in lucid, fluent, and idiomatic English prose. Although he ruefully observed that critics do not rank him among the greatest literary artists, he expressed the view that Of Human Bondage and some of the more than 125 short stories would endure. He continues to hold a large reading public, and millions have viewed the numerous films and dramas based on his short stories and novels.