Saturday, November 7, 2009

Now I know why Somerset Maugham had such a bad reputation - rather unfairly, in my view

I heard the final part of the adaptation of Selina Hastings’ biography of Somerset Maugham on Radio 4, and the rancour against him, which I picked up on as a child and which has, apparently, been history’s verdict of the man, is explained.

Once Gerald Haxton died (of alcoholism), Maugham turned to Alan Searle for companionship, and it seems it was Searle who caused all the trouble which led to Maugham’s rift with his daughter Liza and, indirectly, to being ostracised by the English establishment and a very, very unhappy old age. He met Searle, who was more or less simply an upmarket rent boy, in the late Twenties and moved him into the Villa Mauresque after Haxton died, where Searle took over Haxton’s role and acted as companion, secretary and housekeeper. He was said to have none of Haxton’s charm,
sophistication, elegance, wit or presence. He is described at one point as wandering around the villa in garish shirts, ‘his fat thighs bulging out of too small white shorts’, and being so specific, I would hope Hastings will have referenced the quote. According to Hastings (I should point out that what I write here is merely what I heard on Radio 4), by the Sixties, when Maugham had become a very old man, Searle began to worry that he might be left destitute and started whispering in Maugham’s ear that he might not necessarily have been Liza’s father as his wife Syrie had had plenty of lovers at the time (and was, in newspaper parlance ‘a bit of a goer’. Lord how we guys dream of meeting one of those. Is it ineffably crass to say so?) Maugham was then persuaded to write a further volume of autobiography, which was serialised in the Sunday Express (a paper which is more or less the quintessence of middlebrow) and in which he wrote about his marriage in very unflattering terms. This did not go down well, and even old friends turned against him. Hastings points out, by the way, that Maugham was very old, and more or less senile when he did this.

An especially sad incident came when on his annual visit to London, he went to the Garrick Club as usual, but when he entered the first-floor bar, it fell silent and then one or two members ostentatiously walked out. (I would very much like to bet that the behaviour and moral worth of those who walked out would not have survived much close scrutiny, such is the hypocrisy of all too many of those who pass judgment.) Maugham was distraught. Back at the Villa Mauresque he would have bouts of uncontrollable weeping and outbursts of fury. And that little shit Alan Searle began writing to friends and Maugham’s nephew how impossible Maugham had become, although I should add that in later life he was full of remorse at his shit-stirring. So Maugham died an unhappy man.

The readings from Hastings book included recordings of Maugham himself, and he comes across as rather modest and self-effacing and with a generosity of spirit which is wholly lacking in many other self-regarding 'artists'. I’m sure that, like all of us, he had his faults, but his memory does seem to have been very harshly treated. It is so typical of life that, whenever possible, we prefer to take a narrow and vindictive view, and our judgments ignore almost everything which went before if we are given even half the chance to portray someone in a murky light. It is ironic that Maugham himself once observed: 'We know our friends by their defects rather than by their merits.' We should try to see the whole man. Let’s hope the future will value his work and the man a little more.

As I am something of a sentimental old softie, the pictures of Maugham I have chosen to illustrate this entry are neither of those with which we are probably all familiar, Maugham the sour-faced old queen who seems to be sneering at the world, but one from when he was much younger, when he was a charming, good-looking guest at parties in fashionable London and when all the ladies (and, of course, men) fancied the pants off him. It is very odd that those pictures of him in his last years portray a man who is totally at odds with earlier impressions.

Barry, who reads this blog, pointed out that Maugham did himself no favours by writing and somewhat sending up London society. It seems that London society bided its time and took its revenge when it finally got the chance to do so. What I find so admirable about Maugham - I have already said this, but I shall repeat it because it is worth repeating - was his sheer professionalism, that come what may and even on his very bad days, he sat down every morning to write. And he did so even knowing that what he was writing on that particular day was, perhaps, not even very good and would not be used. I do so like that attitude. Shame I don't have it, or better, don't yet have it, because I do know from experience that I can have it.

Incidentally, Liza inherited the Villa Mauresque, but Searle was not left destitute. He died a very wealthy man, thanks to Maugham's generosity. The excerpt I heard did not say so, but Maugham legally adopted him as his son.

NB. Pedant's Corner: there are two accepted spellings of 'judgment'. I choose 'judgment' rather than 'judgement' only because it is Daily Mail house style and the one I am accustomed to using at work, and thus also when not at work.


  1. I finally caught up with Radio 4’s ‘Book of the Week’, on the BBC iPlayer and listened to all 5 episodes – only to find that it had been adapted prosaically with little sense of drama. One of the reasons I read your blogs, is the way you flesh out your experiences of frequently mundane events and with Maugham, you added a whole new sympathetic spin to this Euro-centric catalogue of his life. It’s rather harder to assess Maugham’s charm despite his facility with urchins and their mothers – when the charm may have been utterly genuine. Certainly he was exquisitely well-tailored, a considerate host and well-spoken. Sitting down to dinner would have improved his lack of height (5 foot 7) and his stammered narratives may have selected words for their easier articulation, but none of these attributes makes him witty, a gifted conversationalist or charming. Charm is an elusive ‘thing’ (if you can imagine it being said by Fiona MacCarthy) and needs its own essay before I feel fit to comment further.

  2. Stumble upon here by sheer accident and mighty glad of it. So glad to see that handsome pictures of Maugham replacing the usual deprecative ones. Thanks!

    1. Since writing the above entry I have read Hasting’s biography and can recommend it.

      My overall impression is that Maugham was a likeable, honest and charming man who had rather a sad start in life, which helped develop in him an active sympathy for the underdog. (He volunteered to serve as an ambulanceman on the front in World War I, and put his life in danger, which is more than can be said for many ‘artists’ - I’m thinking of Auden and Isherwood, who hightailed it to the U.S. as soon as World War II broke out.)

      Ironically, given his status in early 20th century society as one of Britain’s leading playwrights, he seems to me to have been something of an outsider and, furthermore, was conscious of this. Until both his parents died before he was ten, he lived and grew up in France and was bilingual in French and English from an early age. When they died he was farmed out to his father’s brother, a very unimaginative and no very bright clergyman, and it was then he developed the stammer which so embarrassed him and which was always a boundary between him and the rest of the world. But I’m sure you are familiar with these details.

      His perceived status of something of an outsider was reinforced by his bi-sexuality, and his position of being on the outside looking in coupled with his clear and sardonic eye as well as his honesty will not have charmed the Establishment. But, as with Wilde, it always bides its time when hoping to hit back, and Maugham’s account of his marriage - heavily influenced by Alan Searle and his latent dementia which became very pronouned in the few years before he died - will have given all those hoping to succour. They did hit back, by snubbing him viciously.

      Hastings has the happy knack of writing well, informatively, clearly and entertainingly, and several years ago I also read and enjoyed her biography of Evelyn Waugh. I can highly recommend it.

    2. Just looking at the above again (because I wanted to read the comment below) and I should have said 'barrier' instead of 'boundary'. Leaving that point unmentioned wouldn't bring about the end of the world, but all other things being equal, I might as well correct it sooner than later.

  3. On two points, beg to differ: Maugham's will made such a mess of things that Searle had money but somehow he could not get to it. Also, Maugham attempted to adopt Searle but Maugham's daughter blocked it in court.