Authors: W. Somerset Maugham

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English novelist, short-story writer, and playwright


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.{$I[AN]9810000979}{$I[A]Maugham, W. Somerset}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Maugham, W. Somerset}{$I[tim]1874;Maugham, W. Somerset}

W. Somerset Maugham

(Library of Congress)

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.

BibliographyArcher, Stanley. W. Somerset Maugham: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1993. An introductory survey of Maugham’s short fiction, focusing on style and technique of the stories and the frequent themes of how virtue ironically can cause unhappiness, how colonial officials come in conflict with their social and physical environment, and how people are often unable to escape their own cultural background.Burt, Forrest D. W. Somerset Maugham. Boston: Twayne, 1985. This volume asserts that Maugham has long been an underestimated and neglected writer in terms of an assessment of his value and position in the literary canon and that there has been a more serious appraisal of his works since his death. Includes a chronology, a basic biography (in the early chapters), and a focus on the literary works from a critical standpoint.Calder, Robert L. W. Somerset Maugham and the Quest for Freedom. London: Heinemann, 1972. This impressive study primarily emphasizes critical and thematic assessment of the novels, breaking them down into categories of genre (“Novels of Apprenticeship”) or categories of thematic focus (“Artist-Hero Novels”; “Aspects of the Maugham Persona”). This work also exhaustively delineates several of the important issues with which Maugham was concerned–that is, the absolute importance of money, the nature of marriage and bondage, the interest in Native American mysticism (The Razor’s Edge), and the nature of individual freedom. Also provided are four informative appendices, including material on Maugham’s role in Allied espionage (1917) and a discussion of recurring images of bondage and freedom in his works.Calder, Robert. Willie. London: Heinemann, 1989. Through interviews with friends of Maugham and through letters made available for the first time (and published here), Calder offers an informed account of the playwright and novelist. Includes photographs, bibliography, and index.Connon, Bryan. Somerset Maugham and the Maugham Dynasty. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1997. Connon examines the influence that the Maugham family had on the life and works of W. Somerset Maugham. Includes bibliography and index.Cordell, Richard A. Somerset Maugham: A Writer for All Seasons. 2d ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969. Cordell, who was Maugham’s friend and confidant, provides an in-depth examination of the writer’s life and works. Cordell disputes the labeling of Maugham as “enigmatic” and “inscrutable,” charging instead that Maugham was just the opposite. This volume includes a substantial section devoted to a discussion of Maugham’s short stories along with chapters on three of the “autobiographical novels,” plays, other fiction, and critical reception.Curtis, Anthony. Somerset Maugham. Windsor, England: Profile Books, 1982. An excellent forty-seven page pamphlet-sized volume that provides both an intensive and lucid overview of the writer, his genres, his life, and his themes. It also clearly distinguishes Maugham as preeminently a writer of short fiction. An insightful and brief introduction to the author that also includes an index of his available short stories.Furst, Alan. Introduction to The Book of Spies: An Anthology of Literary Espionage, edited by Alan Furst. New York: Modern Library, 2003. Furst’s introduction discusses Maugham’s place in the exclusive company of literary (as opposed to merely popular) portrayers of espionage in fiction.Hitz, Frederick P. The Great Game: The Myth and Reality of Espionage. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. Hitz, the former inspector general of the Central Intelligence Agency, compares famous fictional spies and spy stories–including those of Maugham–to real espionage agents and case studies to demonstrate that truth is stranger than fiction.Holden, Philip. Orienting Masculinity, Orienting Nation: W. Somerset Maugham’s Exotic Fiction. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996. Examines the themes of homosexuality, gender identity, and race relations in Maugham’s works.Holden, Philip. “W. Somerset Maugham’s Yellow Streak.” Studies in Short Fiction 29 (Fall, 1992): 575-582. Discusses Maugham’s story “The Yellow Streak” as a dialectical tale made up of the opposites of civilized/savage, male/female, and racial purity/miscegenation. Considers the treatment of the relationship between the two men in the story.Jonas, Klaus W., ed. The Maugham Enigma. New York: Citadel Press, 1954. An informative background collection of articles, essays, biographical notes, and book reviews by numerous authors on Maugham. It covers the author as dramatist, novelist, “teller of tales,” and essayist, and it also includes some interesting reminiscences and notes on writing from Maugham himself.Loss, Archie K. “Of Human Bondage”: Coming of Age in the Novel. Boston: Twayne, 1990. One of Twayne’s masterwork studies, this is an excellent analysis.Loss, Archie K. W. Somerset Maugham. New York: Ungar, 1987. The chapter on short fiction in this general introduction to Maugham’s life and art focuses largely on his most familiar story, “Rain,” as the best example of his short-story technique and subject matter. Discusses Maugham as a tale-teller and argues that the voice of the narrator is the most important single element in a Maugham short story.Meyers, Jeffrey. Somerset Maugham. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. This well-reviewed examination of Maugham’s life and work provides comprehensive detail and new insights into his creative process.Morgan, Ted. Maugham. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980. The first full-scale biography of Maugham and therefore an essential text in all studies of the man and his work. Unlike previous biographers, Morgan enjoyed the cooperation of Maugham’s literary executor and, therefore, is able to correct many distortions in previous studies. Offers a comprehensive account of the private man, including photographs, a complete primary bibliography, and an index.Naik, M. K. W. Somerset Maugham. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1953. The underlying concept of Naik’s approach to a discussion of Maugham’s life and work is that it reveals a basic “conflict between the two strains of cynicism and humanitarianism” in the author himself. Naik begins with a definition of this conflict, discusses biographical data, and then examines the various genres of the author in terms of his overall premise.O’Connor, Sean. Straight Acting: Popular Gay Drama from Wilde to Rattigan. Washington, D.C.: Cassell, 1998. O’Connor explains the influence that Oscar Wilde had on three gay or bisexual playwrights who wrote from the 1920’s to the 1950’s: Maugham, Noël Coward, and Terence Rattigan. Bibliography and index.Rogal, Samuel J. A Companion to the Characters in the Fiction and Drama of W. Somerset Maugham. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996. An alphabetical listing of the characters–animal, human, unnamed, named–in Maugham’s drama and fiction. Each entry identifies the work in which a character appears and the character’s role in the overall work.Rogal, Samuel J. A William Somerset Maugham Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997. Contains information on Maugham’s life as well as his works. Includes bibliographical references and an index.
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