Timeline

Lifetime: 1874 - 1965 Passed: ≈ 57 years ago

Title

Playwright, Novelist, Short-Story Writer

Country/Nationality

France
Wikipedia

W. Somerset Maugham

William Somerset Maughamwas an English playwright, novelist, and short-story writer. He was among the most popular writers of his era and reputedly the highest-paid author during the 1930s.

 During the First World War, he served with the Red Cross and in the ambulance corps before being recruited in 1916 into the British Secret Intelligence Service. He worked for the service in Switzerland and Russia before the October Revolution of 1917 in the Russian Empire. During and after the war, he travelled in India, Southeast Asia and the Pacific. He drew from those experiences in his later short stories and novels.

Maugham's masterpiece is generally agreed to be Of Human Bondage, a semi-autobiographical novel that deals with the life of the main character Philip Carey, who, like Maugham, was orphaned and brought up by his pious uncle. Philip's clubfoot causes him endless self-consciousness and embarrassment, echoing Maugham's struggles with his stutter and, as his biographer Ted Morgan notes, his homosexuality.

 Two of his later novels were based on historical people: The Moon and Sixpence is about the life of Paul Gauguin, and Cakes and Ale contains what were taken as thinly veiled and unflattering characterisations of the authors Thomas Hardy (who had died two years previously) and Hugh Walpole. Maugham himself denied any intention of doing this in a long letter to Walpole:  "I certainly never intended Alroy Kear to be a portrait of you. He is made up of a dozen people and the greater part of him is myself"—yet in an introduction written for the 1950 Modern Library edition of the work, he plainly states that Walpole was the inspiration for Kear (while denying that Thomas Hardy was the inspiration for the novelist Driffield). Maugham's last major novel, The Razor's Edge (1944), was a departure for him in many ways. While much of the novel takes place in Europe, its main characters are American, not British. The protagonist is a disillusioned veteran of the First World War, who abandons his wealthy friends and lifestyle, travelling to India seeking enlightenment. The story's themes of Eastern mysticism and war-weariness struck a chord with readers during the Second World War. It was adapted into a major motion picture, released in 1946, starring Tyrone Power as Larry Darrell, with Herbert Marshall as W. Somerset Maugham. Another film adaptation was issued in 1984, starring Bill Murray.

Maugham has been described both as bisexual and as homosexual. In addition to his 13-year marriage to Syrie Wellcome, he had affairs with other women in his youth.

In later life Maugham was exclusively homosexual and lived successively with two men. Frequently quoted in this connection is Maugham's statement to his nephew Robin:

I tried to persuade myself that I was three-quarters normal and that only a quarter of me was queer—whereas really it was the other way around.

— W. Somerset Maugham, (Maugham, Robin 1970), quoted in Hastings 2010, p. 39

In June 1917, Maugham was asked by Sir William Wiseman, an officer of the British Secret Intelligence Service (later named MI6), to undertake a special mission in Russia. It was part of an attempt to keep the Provisional Government in power and Russia in the war, by countering German pacifist propaganda. Two and a half months later, the Bolsheviks took control. Maugham subsequently said that if he had been able to get there six months earlier, he might have succeeded. Quiet and observant, Maugham had a good temperament for intelligence work; he believed that he had inherited from his lawyer father a gift for cool judgment and the ability to avoid being deceived by facile appearances.

Maugham used his spying experiences as the basis for Ashenden: Or the British Agent, a collection of short stories about a gentlemanly, sophisticated, aloof spy. This character is considered to have influenced Ian Fleming's later series of James Bond novels. In 1922, Maugham dedicated his book On A Chinese Screen to Syrie. This was a collection of 58 ultra-short story sketches, which he had written during his 1920 travels through China and Hong Kong, intending to expand the sketches later as a book.

Books by W. Somerset Maugham

Rain Cover image

Rain

Fiction
Short Stories

"Rain" is a short story by the British writer W. Somerset Maugham. It was originally published as "Miss Thompson" in the April 1921 issue of the American literary magazine The Smart Set. The story is set on a Pacific island: a missionary's determina...

The Moon and the Sixpence Cover image

The Moon and the Sixpence

Novel Biography
Mystery Fate

The Moon and Sixpence is a novel by W. Somerset Maugham, first published on April 15, 1919. It is told in episodic form by a first-person narrator in a series of glimpses into the mind and soul of the central character, Charles Strickland, a middle-a...

The Magician Cover image

The Magician

Fantasy Novel
Evil Fatal Attraction Magic

The Magician is a novel by British author W. Somerset Maugham, originally published in 1908. In this tale, the magician Oliver Haddo, a caricature of Aleister Crowley, attempts to create life. Crowley wrote a critique of this book under the pen name...

Of Human Bondage Cover image

Of Human Bondage

Fiction Novel
Bildungsroman

Of Human Bondage is a 1915 novel by W. Somerset Maugham. It is generally agreed to be his masterpiece and to be strongly autobiographical in nature, although Maugham stated, "This is a novel, not an autobiography; though much in it is autobiographica...

On a Chinese Screen  Cover image

On a Chinese Screen

Non-Fiction Travel
Twentieth Century Adventure Struggle Life Geography Sketches

It is a series of short sketches Maugham made during a trip along the Yangtze River in 1919–1920, and although ostensibly about China the book is equally focused on the various westerners he met during the trip and their struggles to accept or adapt...

The Merry-Go-Round Cover image

The Merry-Go-Round

Novel
Marriage Love Determination Relationships Literary Fiction

Basil Kent marries Jenny Bush, because he believes that is the honourable thing to do after getting her pregnant, but he realizes that he is really in love with Hilda Murray. Grace Castillyon, an established married woman of position, has fallen hope...

The Painted Veil Cover image

The Painted Veil

Fiction Novel
Marriage Love Truth Village Life Betrayal England

The Painted Veil is a novel by British author W. Somerset Maugham. The title is a reference to Percy Bysshe Shelley's 1824 sonnet, which begins "Lift not the painted veil which those who live / Call Life". The biographer Richard Cordell notes that t...

Lady Frederick, a Comedy in Three Acts Cover image

Lady Frederick, a Comedy in Three Acts

Comedy
Independence Tradition Struggle Act Determination Desire Women

It is a witty and entertaining comedy in three acts that tells the story of a woman's struggle to maintain her independence and identity in the face of societal expectations and conventions. Written in 1907, "Lady Frederick" is set in Victorian Engl...