Tuesday, 30 September 2014

A Dalliance With Somerset Maugham

It began when I was a teenager. We had a little bookshop at my school in Wimbledon, and if you did duty there, you got a staff discount. For someone like me, this was disastrous temptation. We had not long since moved to Sussex, and my father was planning an extension of the house which included more than doubling the size of my bedroom. "How much book shelving do you need?" he asked, innocently. I did the sums, and with a little spare said "67 feet". "Bloody hell! You do know you can't eat books?" But he put the shelves up, all the same.

And the little school bookshop meant I had access to catalogues to root out books that sounded interesting. I think I had already read that Maugham was gay, but more than that, he was called Somerset, which is the county in which we had two wonderful holidays in our childhood (and where I fell in love with a bloodhound called Dominic). His real name was William, and he was known as "Willie" to his friends, but he shrewdly realised his middle name, the surname of a godfather, was a selling point. And one thing followed another, and before long I was wading through the self-pity of "Of Human Bondage" (perfect for a teenager), and then other novels, the short stories, and even the plays. Later, it was biographies - by Ted Morgan, Robin Calder, and Frederic Raphael. I warmed immensely to his cold observation of other people - he had trained as a doctor at St Thomas's Hospital, and it shows at times. I admired even more immensely that he had set out to make a living from his writing, and he did it. In 1908 he had four plays running at the same time in the West End of London. This had never been done before. No one even remembers he was a playwright these days. In the 1930s, he was the highest-earning writer in the world, and edging into Hollywood. With his loot he made another fortune investing in art he actually liked and which, when he sold it, proved his judgement.

Some years later, I was commuting to London again, from Oxford this time, and the outfit I was working for took on a new manager, who was rather fun. He had tried to make it as an actor, fancied his chances of becoming a priest, claimed to have made a marriage of convenience to a famous American commedienne, and was effortlessly gay in a way which people of my own age at the time rarely managed. He was somewhat on the bald side, and coming back from a haircut one lunchtime, proudly announced he'd spent thirty quid on it. "Blimey, I never spend more than a fiver". "Yes dear. It shows." And briefly this banter turned into a little fling, during which I discovered that Andrew had many years previously had a similar one with Robin, Second Viscount Maugham, nephew of Somerset, and son of the First Viscount who was briefly Lord Chancellor in the 1930s. I was reminded of that innocent song "I've danced with a man, who's danced with a girl, who's danced with the Prince of Wales".

Some time later, and much more innocently, when I was working in Chelsea, I was summoned to meet someone who wanted me to take his mother's funeral. Always happy to oblige, of course, this is the Anglican Way. She turned out to be the second wife of the first husband of Somerset Maugham's only daughter, Liza. Maugham was a complicated old cove, for a gay man, having married, during the First World War, Syrie, the daughter of the original Dr Barnardo. She was a distinguished interior decorator, and there was a blue plaque commemorating one of her homes just round the corner from where I was then living. They named their daughter Elizabeth Mary, but she was known as Liza, after "Liza of Lambeth", Maugham's first novel, which was quite well-received, and which reads well even now, especially if you have family reasons for being interested in the poor in that part of London at the beginning of the 20th century. Syrie was still married to someone else when Liza was born, and Liza herself went on to have a complicated life, marrying twice. The first husband went on to marry the lady I was being asked to cremate, herself previously married. So, there were brothers and sisters and steps and halves all over the place over three generations. One of the grandchildren (after I'd mentioned, during the service, the obvious human cost in a complicated family tree) came up to me afterwards and said "there are eleven of us in my generation, and we have nine different surnames".

It was quite an occasion - there was an earl (son-in-law, he a second husband, she a third wife), and Andrew Parker-Bowles (godson, first husband of the more famous Camilla, now Princess of Wales), and, the icing on the cake, two of Maugham's grandchildren, who bore a strong resemblance to him. In particular, they both reminded me of the Graham Sutherland portrait that hangs in the Tate Gallery which some naughty critic said made Maugham "look like a madam in a Shanghai brothel" (you may judge from the picture below whether you consider this a good look for a man, or a woman; I thought them both handsome). They were absolutely charming, and delighted that I had an enthusiasm for their grandfather's work, and had read the biographies. I even told the grandson (Nicholas Paravicini, father of the now famous musician Derek) a story he said he didn't know, or maybe had forgotten, about Lord Maugham when he was Lord Chancellor, slapping a 100-year secrecy rule on the paperwork pertaining to an embarrassing incident involving Somerset's boyfriend, Gerald Haxton. This incident was the reason they moved permanently to France, where such incidents were not against the law. The two brothers were not fond of each other, but this was, if not a kindness, at least a gesture of family loyalty.

A few nights ago I finished "Here and There", a collection of Maugham's stories re-published in 1948, and containing one of my favourites "The Verger". It must be thirty years since I last read them, and I have since parted with almost all of my paperback library, but they were just as absorbing all these years later. I noticed now, which I didn't then, a more pointed harshness in his observations about women, and wondered if he might have been a misogynist. His mother died when he was eight, and he kept a photograph of her in his bedroom all his life - something of a gay male stereotype of the time. But he seems also to have had many women friends. One, on a visit to the Villa Mauresque, in company with Noel Coward and Beverley Nichols, famously turned from gazing at the gardens, to her host and fellow guests, and said "oh, Mr Maugham, this is fairyland". Looking more closely, I think he is just as rough with his male as his female characters. The difference is that, a generation later, I am different, and read differently.

Maugham died in 1965, before I was born, a Companion of Honour, but not a member of the Order of Merit, which he had yearned for, and far short of the Nobel Prize (although it would be hard to make the case that John Galsworthy's work, which did win, was worth more). By his own account he was in the first division of the second rank of English writers. By then, he had alienated his daughter by adopting his secretary as his son (possible even with an adult in France, apparently) and trying to winkle her out of his will. He also wrote some spiteful things about his ex-wife in a memoir. In his latest years - he was 91 when he died - he had started to show signs of senility, and had long since given up writing stories.

I like my heroes with feet of clay. Maugham was uninterested in saints, and would find a person foolish if they tried to make him out to be one. But as an observer of sinners, he has few equals. And whilst I never got to sit at those feet of clay, life dealt me a little hand which almost adds up to a dalliance with the not-quite-great W. Somerset Maugham.

William Somerset Maugham,CH, painted by Graham Sutherland, OM

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
September 2014


  1. In the late fifties and sixties, I was at a state school in which the shop, staffed by prefects at break times, sold malted milk biscuits at three for a penny. Chocolate-covered marshmallows were tuppence and Wagon Wheels and Nibbets were threepence. Full fat milk was compulsory,there was no fruit on the counter, nor were any of us overweight. There was no bookshop. Text books were free. I did duty in the school library for absolutely no reward or concession whatsoever. I tried Somerset Maugham and couldn't get on with him at that age. Perhaps I'd spent too long with Enid Blyton in my childhood to appreciate in my adolescence any writer so slow and deep. When I was thirteen or fourteen my English teacher used to lend me books of his own. I was too flattered by the singling out to wonder why at the time. We weren't exactly short of reading material. It was only after it was too late to ask her that it dawned on me that my mother, in her attempts to get my teenage nose out of Mirabelle, Bunty,Marty and NME, might have had a quiet word. She'd have known I'd have been likely to regard something plonked on my desk by a teacher as worth looking at. She herself, whenever I pleaded impending O-levels rendered me too busy to go to town on a Saturday, was in the habit of coming back from the public library with the middle book of a trilogy for me when I hadn't even heard of the first. I was still at the age where what happened before and what happened next was to me what a book was about and how I judged a writer so it was a smart move. It was around this time I had another crack at Maugham and realised he was quite easy to follow and his characters were no longer too grown-up to understand. Now I can get them free on Kindle-for-PC and Android phone from Project Gutenberg,I'm gradually working my way through his many works.

  2. Kenneth Clark called the above portrait "the greatest portrait of the 20th century".