William Somerset Maugham


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William Somerset Maugham (1874-1965), English playwright and author wrote Of Human Bondage (1915);

He did not know how wide a country, arid and precipitous, must be crossed before the traveller through life comes to an acceptance of reality. It is an illusion that youth is happy, an illusion of those who have lost it; but the young know they are wretched, for they are full of the truthless ideals which have been instilled into them, and each time they come in contact with the real they are bruised and wounded.--Ch. 29

Initially titled "The Artistic Temperament of Stephen Carey", Maugham revised an earlier autobiographical novel and it was published to subdued response until Sister Carrie (1900) author Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945) wrote a glowing review of it, calling Maugham a "great artist". Philip Carey sets out on an unconventional life, struggling in his search for spiritual and artistic freedom. When he becomes immersed in his obsession for Mildred, sacrificing any shred of self-respect he had, it takes much destruction and the ultimate insult to end their sordid affair. The novel ends with a bitter hint of irony notable in many of Maugham's short stories and novels.

Like his protagonist, Maugham himself would live for many years in search of his calling and a place where he belonged. He courted much controversy through his works including accusations of a thinly-veiled satirical attack on Thomas Hardy in Cakes and Ale (1930). Although he was homosexual, he married once and had numerous affairs with women, many of his female characters mirroring real life lovers. Maugham travelled far and wide during his life to Europe, North America, the Far East, the South Seas and beyond; he also explored many professions including doctor, spy, and playwright, but it is for his short stories and novels that he is best remembered today. There are many biographical details in his stories and characters; he avoids verbose sentimentality, favouring spare yet vivid, often cynical prose. Maugham saw numerous television and screen adaptations of his works and enjoyed great financial success. While his life was less-than idyllic at times and he raised the ire of many, he made notable and generous contributions to the people and institutions who supported him in his life, including building a new library for King's College, Canterbury, England.

William Somerset Maugham was born on 25 December 1874 at the British Embassy in Paris, France, the fourth son (of seven children total, but only four that survived infancy) born to socialite and writer Edith Mary née Snell (1840-1882) and Robert Ormond Maugham (1823-1884), a lawyer for the British Embassy. Living in the suburbs of Paris, Williams' older brothers Charles, Frederick, and Henry already at boarding school in England, he enjoyed the attentions of his affectionate mother and nurse. He spoke French and their home was often a vibrant salon with many literary and artistic people of the day including Guy de Maupassant and Gustave Doré. But by the age of ten he was orphaned with an income of £150 a year after the death of his mother from tuberculosis and his father of cancer. He was sent to live with his Aunt Sophia née von Scheidlin and Uncle Henry MacDonald Maugham (1828-1897), the Vicar of All Saints, Whitstable, in Kent, England. William suffered from a stutter and his lack of proficiency in English and loss of his parents could not have helped matters when he was taunted and bullied by classmates. But his aunt and uncle did the best they could in raising such a young boy, themselves never having had children.

Maugham attended King's School in Canterbury before travelling to Germany at the age of sixteen to study literature and philosophy at Heidelberg University. It was here that he had his first homosexual relationship with John Ellingham Brooks (1863-1929). Back in England, and after a short stint as accountant, he studied medicine at St Thomas's Hospital in London. Never having difficulty with his studies, he qualified as Member of the Royal College of Surgeons and licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians, London in 1897 although he never practiced. He was on to his next profession; that same year his first novel Liza of Lambeth was published. As a medical student Maugham had seen first-hand the poor and suffering of the shabby working classes in London's Lambeth slum area while apprenticing as midwife. The experience would serve him well in writing vivid physical descriptions of his fictional characters, and in realistic portrayals of the seedier aspects of life and its consequences on the human psyche. Liza Kemp, like Emile Zola's Nana, Stephen Crane's Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and George Gissings' New Grub Street, belongs to that genre of fiction examining the less-than pristine Victorian slum-life of adultery, sickness, and desperate searches for meaningful love. Although Liza achieved mild success at the time, especially because of the controversy its subject matter stirred, Maugham decided to turn full-time to writing. He was off for a year to Spain, spending most of his time in Seville, but by his own words "I amused myself hugely and wrote a bad novel."--from "A Fragment of Autobiography", The Magician (1908). The Land of The Blessed Virgin; Sketches and Impressions in Andalusia was published in 1905. Other works published around this time include The Hero (1901), Mrs. Craddock (1902), The Merry-Go-Round (1904), The Explorer (1907), Moon and Sixpence (1919), The Trembling of a Leaf (1921), and The Painted Veil (1925).

Back in London, Maugham continued to write, immersing himself in the theatre and literary world, working on novels and plays, some inspired by the style of Oscar Wilde whose sensational trial and ensuing criminal charges surrounding his homosexuality surely left an impact on Maugham, who never publicly wrote of his own orientation. His first drama, A Man of Honour (1903) earned him notice with London's intelligentsia; he was soon attending parties and salons, but still the bohemian, not being able to afford even cab fare with his earnings, his restlessness and awareness of his current limitations grew and he was again looking beyond the present to future prospects for himself. To escape the rut he moved to Paris for a time and from his Left Bank rooms became acquainted with the art world. But still it was not enough, and returning to London Maugham found renewed interest in his plays. Suddenly he was earning hundreds of pounds a week. Among his almost two-dozens plays are Lady Frederick (1907), Jack Straw (1912), The Unknown (1920), The Circle (1921), Our Betters (1923), The Constant Wife (1927) and Sheppey (1933).

When World War I broke out Maugham volunteered with the American Volunteer Motor Ambulance Corps. He met American Gerald Haxton (1892-1944) while in France, and the two fell in love; Haxton was devoted companion and secretary to Maugham until his death. While in America Maugham met the wife of Sir Henry Wellcome, Gwendolyn Maude Syrie Barnardo (1879-1955) with whom he had a daughter Elizabeth Mary Maugham "Liza" (1915-1981). They married in 1917 despite his relationship with Haxton, and often spent time apart in various pursuits, Syrie being a noted interior decorator and Maugham travelling and writing. They were divorced in 1929. During World War II Maugham worked for a time in Switzerland and Russia as an agent of the British Intelligence Service which inspired Ashenden: Or, the British Agent (1928).

After having spent so much time there, Maugham decided to move permanently to the French Riviera in 1928. He bought the Villa Mauresque at Cap Ferrat and continued to entertain guests and write. In his later years he wrote numerous essays and short stories, further publications including Cakes and Ale (1930), The Narrow Corner (1932), Don Fernando (1935), The Summing Up (1938), Up At The Villa (1941), The Razor's Edge (1944), Then And Now (1946), Creatures of Circumstance (1947), Catalina (1948), and The Art of Fiction: An Introduction to Ten Novels and Their Authors (1955). After the death of Haxton, Alan Searle (1905-1985) became Maugham's lover and secretary; he assisted him in writing Looking Back (1962) the authorship of which came into dispute by many. In 1947 Maugham instituted the Somerset Maugham Award for the encouragement and support of British writers under the age of thirty-five. He himself received many honours during his lifetime including the Queen's Companion of Honour (1954); Fellow of the Library of Congress, Washington, DC, U.S.A.; an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Toulouse, France; and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

William Somerset Maugham died in Nice, France on 16 December 1965. His ashes were interred in Galpin's garden of King's College, Canterbury, England.

"Life isn't long enough for love and art."--The Moon and Sixpence, Ch. 21

Biography written by C. D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc. 2008. All Rights Reserved.


The above biography is copyrighted. Do not republish it without permission.

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