martes, 14 de mayo de 2024

William Somerset Maugham



Casa de citas / García Márquez / Escritores

Casa de citas / Somerset Maugham / Secretos

Casa de citas / Somerset Maugham / Infortunios

Casa de citas / Somerset Maughman / Proverbios y máximas

Casa de citas / Somerset Maugham / Hombres

Casa de citas / Somerset Maugham / Una mujer desgraciada

Casa de citas / Somerset Maugham / El amor más duradero

Casa de citas / Somerset Maugham / En una taberna

Casa de citas / Somerset Maugham / El final de una vida

Casa de citas / Somerset Maugham / La hipocresía

Casa de citas / Somerset Maugham / Escritores

Casa de citas / Somerset Maugham / Conrad

Casa de citas / Somerset Maugham / Perdido en la selva

Casa de citas / Somerset Maugham / El nuevo auxiliar

Casa de citas / Somerset Maugham / Periódicos

Triunfo Arciniegas / Somerset Maugham, escritor olvidado


García Márquez / Las glorias del olvido

Un género y una tradición / Novelista y espía, dos oficios secretos

Escritor y espía / Cuando Somerset Maugham conspiró para asesinar a Lenin

Somerset Maugham / Ashenden o el agente secreto / Reseña

Graham Sutherland / La calca y el pellizco

Escritores olvidados / Somerset Maugham

Somerset Maugham / Chutes de vida y amargura

Somerset Maugham / El escritor más solo del mundo

La amarga ironía de Somerset Maugham


Somerset Maugham / Lluvia

Somerset Maugham / La carta

Somerset Maugham / Mackintosh

Somerset Maugham / Condenado a muerte

Somerset Maugham / El traidor

William Somerset Maugham / Samoa

Somerset Maugham / Neil MacAdam

Somerset Maugham / La caída de Eduardo Barnard

Somerset Maugham / Antes de la fiesta

Somerset Maugham / El puesto avanzado

Somerset Maugham / Miedo



William Somerset Maugham

British novelist, playwright, short-story writer, highest paid author in the world in the 1930s. In spite of his popularity and international fame, Maugham did not receive critical attention for his fiction in Britain. Expressing his frustration with the situation Maugham wrote in his autobiography The Summing Up (1938), that he stood "in the very first row of the second-raters". Maugham's skill in handling plot has been compared with the manner of Guy de Maupassant. His stories are told in clear, economical style with cynical or resigned undertone.

"I have never pretended to be anything but a story teller. It has amused me to tell stories and I have told a great many. It is a misfortune for me that the telling of a story just for the sake of the story is not an activity that is in favor with the intelligentsia. In endeavor to bear my misfortunes with fortitude." (from Creatures of Circumstance, 1947)

William Somerset Maugham was born in Paris, the sixth and youngest son of the solicitor to the British embassy. Maugham learned French as his native tongue. At the age of 10, Maugham was orphaned and sent to England to live with his uncle, the Reverend Henry MacDonald Maugham. Educated at King's School, Canterbury, where he developed a stammer that he never outgrew, and Heidelberg University, Maugham then studied six years medicine in London. He qualified in 1897 as doctor from St. Thomas' medical school, but abandoned medicine after the success of his first novels and plays.

Maugham lived in Paris for ten years as a struggling young author. His first novel, Liza of Lambeth, (1897), drew on his experiences of attending women in childbirth. Elizabeth 'Liza' Mary Maugham, the author's daughter and his only child, was named after the title character. Maugham's first play, A Man of Honour, was produced in 1903. Four of his dramas ran simultaneously in London in 1904.

Being both attracted and repelled by the extravagant personality of Aleister Crowley, Maugham used him as the model for Oliver Haddo in The Magician (1908). The novel received mixed reviews and remained Maugham's only tale of the supernatural. Maugham first met Crowley at the café Le Chat Blanc, which appeared in the work as the Chien Noir. Hebbo is a charismatic but ruthless occultist, who is obsessed with desire to create new life, even if he has to sacrifice the life of his young wife to reach his goal. After reading the book, Crowley wrote – under the name Oliver Haddo – a review for Vanity Fair, titled 'How To Write A Novel! After W.S. Maugham,' in which he demonstrated that Maugham had plagiarized passages from MacGregor Mather's Kabbalah Unveiled and Eliphas Levi's Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magic(Prophet of Evil: Aleister Crowley, 9/11 and the New World Order by William Ramsey, 2012, p. 51)

It is hardly surprising that from early on Hollywood took an interest in the work of Maugham, who saw himself primarily as an entertainer. Rex Ingram's screen adaptation of The Magician (1926) is considered one of the most influential silent horrors. Especially the film is remembered for its trance sequence, in which dancers circle around a bubbling witches' brew. The New York Times wrote in October 1926 that "Mr. Ingram again shows his genius in bolstering up the interest in scenes by his imagination and his keen attention to detail." ('The Magician' by HHL, in American Silent Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy Feature Films, 1913–1929 by John T. Soister and Henry Nicolella, 2012, p. 370) However, in spite of being made for Metro-Goldwyn, the film was shot in France, the original scene of Maugham's novel. The German actor Paul Wegener, who was cast in the role of Oliver Haddo, had earlier played the iconic character of Golem in Der Golem (1914), Der Golem und die Tanzerin (1917) and Der Golem: Wie er in die Welt Kam (1920). "The saving of human life is a comparatively simple matter," Haddo declares. "It is the creation of life that calls for the powers of a magician." (Rex Ingram: Hollywood's Rebel of the Silver Screen by Leonhard H. Gmuer, 2013, p. 47) Except the happy ending, Ingram's adaptation was relatively faithful to the novel. For decades, The Magician was believed to be a lost film, until it surfaced in the 1990s and later appeared on Turner Classic Movies.

Maugham's breakthrough novel was the semi-autobiographical Of Human Bondage (1915), which is usually considered his outstanding achievement. The story follows the childhood, youth, and early manhood of Philip Carey, who is born with a clubfoot. Philip never knew his father and his mother only for a brief space. He is raised by a religious aunt and uncle, but the real process of his education, after the end of an unsatisfactory social life, begins in Heidelberg. Philip goes to Paris to study art. Mildred Rogers, a waitress in a teashop, becomes his great love, which nearly destroys him. Philip neglects his studies, and gives Mildred gifts he cannot afford. "I never liked you, not from the beginning, but you forced yourself on me, I always hated it when you kissed me," she says after falling in love with Philip's penniless friend, who eventually leaves her. Mildred becomes a prostitute, Philip meets her again, she has contracted veneral disease and he buys her medicine. At the age of thirty he qualifies as a doctor, marries Sally Athelny, a normal, healthy, happy girl, but is unable to forget his thirst for his "strange, desperate thirst for that vile woman," Mildred.

Noteworthy, Of Human Bondageis one of the few classic novels about a working-class mistress. Bette Davis, who played Mildred in the film adaptation of the novel, said that when Maugham visited the set of The Little Foxes, "it was difficult for me to realize that this mild-mannered man who had such difficulty speaking had written all those great books." Graham Greene wrote that her performance in the film was "wickedly good".

With the outbreak of WW I, Maugham volunteered for the Red Cross, and was stationed in France. Due to his medical qualification he worked as an ambulance man. At the Western Front he met Gerald Haxton (1892-1944), an American, who became his companion for the next several decades. Disguising himself as a reporter, Maugham served as a chief agent for British Secret Intelligence Service in Saint Petersburg in 1916-17, but his stuttering and poor health hindered his career in this field. Moreover, he did not speak Russian, and contributed to the failure of intelligence to predict the course of the Russian revolution.

In 1917 Maugham married Syrie Barnardo Wellcome, an interior decorator; they were divored in 1927-8. On his return from Russia, he spent a year in a sanatorium in Scotland. Maugham then set off with Haxton on a series of travels to eastern Asia, the Pacific Islands, and Mexico. In many novels the surroundings also are international. Maugham's most famous story, which became the play Rain and has been adapted for the screen several times, was inspired by a missionary and prostitute among his fellow passengers on a trip to Pago Pago.

The Moon and the Sixpence (1919) told of Charles Strickland (or actually Paul Gauguin), an artist, whose rejection of Western civilization led to his departure for Tahiti. There he is blinded by leprosy but still continues painting. Maugham reused elements of his Pacific diaries in Trembling of a Leaf (1921), which included the story 'Rain.' It was made into a stage production by John Colton and Clemence Randolph in 1922.

In 1928 Maugham settled in Cape Ferrat in France. The villa Mauresque, in which he made his home, had been built by the infamous King Leopold II of Belgium. It was frequented by a number of artists and writers, Christopher Isherwood, Don Bachardy, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Noël Coward, Cecil Beaton, and others. When the modernist artist Graham Sutherland and his wife were staying in the south of France, they were invited to Mauresque. Sutherland had never attempted a portrait but Maugham sat several times to  him.  The now famous finished picture from 1949 shows the author seated on a bamboo stool, slightly hunched, the mouth down-turned. "The first time I saw it I was shocked," confessed Maugham, "and then I began to realize that here was far more of me than I ever saw myself." The English caricaturist and satirist Max Beerbohm said that Maugham looked "as if he had died under torture."

Maugham's plays, including The Circle (1921), a satire of social life, Our Betters (1923), about Americans in Europe, and The Constant Wife (1927), about a wife who takes revenge on her unfaithful husband, were performed in Europe and in the United States. Cakes and Ale (1930) was social satire on a famous novelist, Edward Driffield, supposedly modelled on Thomas Hardy. "It was in vain that I denied it," complained Maugham  ('For Maugham It's Cakes and Ale, New York Times Book Review, 19 March, 1950), who met the author only once, at a large dinner party at Lady St Helier's in 1908.

During World War II Maugham lived in Hollywood, where he worked on the screen adaptation of his novel Razor's Edge (1944). "This book consists of my recollections of a man with whom I was thrown into close contact only at long intervals, and I have little knowledge of what happened to him in between," Maugham said in the beginning. "I have invented nothing." Maugham tells of a young American veteran who moves through superbly described settings: Italy, London, the Riviera, Montparnasse. He seeks in the end relief in India from the horrors of war and gains a sense of being at one with the Absolute, through the Indian philosophical system known as Vedanta. Maugham himself had in 1938 visited India, where fainted in an ashram, and met a holy man named Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi.

As an agent and writer Maugham was a link in the long tradition from Christopher Marlowe, Ben Johnson and Daniel Defoe to the modern day writers Graham Greene, John Le Carré, John Dickson Carr, Alec Waugh and Ted Allbeury, who all have worked for the secret service. It is said that the modern spy story began with Maugham's Ashenden; or, the British Agent (1928), a collection of six short stories set in Switzerland, France, Russia, and Italy. It was partly based on the author's own experiences. The protagonist, Ashenden, appeared also in Cakes and Ale and The Moon and the Sixpence. Alfred Hitchcock used in Secret Agent (1936) specifically the stories 'The Traitor' and 'The Hairless Mexican.' In the film, set in Switzerland, an agents kill a wrong man and then goes after the right one. A chocolate factory is used by the crooks' as a headquarters.

Maugham believed that there is a true harmony in the contradictions of mankind and that the normal is in reality the abnormal. "The ordinary is the writer's richest field," he stated in The Summing Up (1938). In the satirical short story 'The Ant and the Grasshopper' Maigham juxtaposed two brothers, the unscrupulous and carefree Tom and the hardworking, respectable George, who expects that Tom would end in the gutter. However, Tom marries a rich old woman, she dies and leaves him a fortune. "I burst into a shout of laughter as I looked at George's wrathful face. I rolled in my chair, I very nearly fell in the floor. George never forgave me. But Tom often asks me to excellent dinners in his charming house in Mayfair, and he occasionally borrows a trifle from me, that is merely from force of habit."

Although Maugham became world famous he was never knighted. His relationship with Gerald Haxton, his secretary, prompted speculations. After Haxton's death, he found a new companion, Alan Searle, and wanted to adopt him as his son. While in Capri, Maugham enjoyed the company of the homosexual and lesbian colony there. With the homosexual esthete John Ellingham Brooks, and Edward Frederic Benson he purchased shares of the Villa Cercole.

Maugham's closest woman friend was Barbara Nash Back, the wife of Dr. Ivor Back, who was left penniless in 1951 after the death of her husband. In the 1960s, Maugham began to suffer from demantia. To keep his personal life hidden, Maugham burned much of his correspondence. His efforts to disgrace his wife in Looking Back (1962) caused a deep rift between the author and his daughter Liza, later Lady Glendevon; he denied that she was her daughter. The case went to court and she won $1.4m. Maugham died in Nice on December 16, 1965. It is said that as he lay dying he asked Sir Alfred Ayer visit him and reassure him that there was no life after death. Maugham's last words were said to be, "Dying is a very dull, dreary affair. And my advice to you is to have nothing whatever to do with it."

A number of Maugham's short stories have been filmed. Quartet (1948) consists of four stories introduced by the author - 'The Facts of Life,' 'The Alien Corn,' 'The Kite,' and 'The Colonel's Lady.' In 'The Kite' the protagonist, Herbert, starts to fly kites with his parents in childhood. After marriage Herbert continues his hobby, although his wife Betty considers it childish. When Herbert wants to buy a new kite, Betty packs his bag and Herbert returns to his parents' house; Betty smashes the kite. The magistrate orders him to pay Betty alimony, twenty-five shillings a week, but Herbert refuses to obey the order and chooses the prison. "It may be that in some queer way he identifies himself with the kite flying so free and so high above him, and it's as it were an escape from the monotony of life. It may be that in some dim, confused way it represents an ideal of freedom and adventure, And you know, when a man once gets bitten with the virus of the ideal not all the King's doctors and not all the King's surgeons can rid him of it."

After the 1930s Maugham's reputation abroad was greater than in England. Maugham once said, "Most people cannot see anything, but I can se what is in front of my nose with extreme clearness; the greatest writers can see through a brick wall. My vision is not so penetrating." His literary experiences Maugham collected in The Summing Up, which has been used as a guidebook for creative writing. His style has not impressed everyone. "Maugham's overall debt to Conrad is so evident," wrote Christopher Hitchens in his review of Somerset Maugham: A Life by Jeffrey Meyers, "that one usually finishes by putting him down and picking up the real thing (The Atlantic, May 2004).

Interest in Maugham revived again in his 80th birthday, which he celebrated by the special republication of Cakes and Ale, a novel satirizing London literary circles and "Grand Old Men." Maugham portrayed himself as Ashenden, Thomas Hardy was Driffield, and Hugh Walpole was Kear. Barbara Belford listed in Violet: The Story of the Irrepressible Violet Hunt and Her Circle of Lovers and Friends (1990) Maugham among the lovers of Violet Hunt, along with such names as H. G. Wells and Ford Madox Ford. The novelist Hugh Walpole portrayed Maugham as the arrogant pessimist in John Cornelius (1937), he appeared as John-Blair-Kennedy in Noël Coward's South Sea Bubble (1956), Leverson Hurle in Gin and Bitters by A Riposte, the homosexual novelist in Coward's Point Valaine (1935), Kenneth Marchal Toomey in Anthony Burgess Earthly Powers (1980), Willie Tower in S.N. Behrman's Jane (1946), and Gilbert Hereford Vaughn in Ada Leverson's The Limit (1911).

For further reading: Somerset Maugham: A Guide by L. Brander (1963); Maugham: a Biography by Ted Morgan (1980); The Critical Heritage, ed. by J. Whitehead (1987); Willie: The Life of W. Somerset Maugham by Robert Calder (1990); The Dramatic Comedy of Somerset Maugham by R.E. Barnes (1990); W. Somerset Maugham by S.W. Archer (1993); An Appointment With Somerset Maugham and Other Literary Encounters by Richard Hauer Costa (1993); Orienting Masculinity, Orienting Nation: W. Somerset Maugham's Exotic Fiction by Philip Holden (1996); A William Somerset Maugham Encyclopedia by Samuel J. Rogal (1997); The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings (2009); 'The Magician' by HHL, in American Silent Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy Feature Films, 1913–1929 by John T. Soister and Henry Nicolella (2012); The Lost Mother and the Replacement Mother Figures in the Life of William Somerset Maugham (1874-1965): a Study of a Failed Mother-son Dyad by Samuel J. Rogal (2015)  - Other film adaptations: Vessel of Wrath (1938), directed by Erich Pommer; Quartet (1948), directed by Smart & French & Crabtree & Annakin; Trio (1959), directed by French and Annakin; Encore (1951), directed by Jackson & Pélissier & French; The Beachcomber (1954), directed by Muriel Box; The Seventh Sin (1957), directed by Ronald Neame. 

Selected works:

  • Liza of Lambeth, 1897
  • The Making of a Saint, 1898
  • Orientations, 1899
  • The Hero, 1901
  • Mrs Craddock, 1902
    - Rouva Craddock (suom. Sirpa Kauppinen, 1957)
  • A Man of Honour: A Tragedy in Three Acts, 1903
  • The Land of the Blessed Virgin: Sketches and Impressions in Andalusia, 1905
  • The Bishop's Apron: A Study in the Origins of a Great Family, 1906
  • The Magician, 1908
    film 1926, prod. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), dir. Rex Ingram, starring Alice Terry, Paul Wegener, Iván Petrovich
  • Penelope: A Comedy in Three Acts, 1909
  • Lady Frederick: A Comedy in Three Acts, 1912
    film 1963 (TV play), prod. Kleine Komödie München, dir. Hans Quest, starring Hilde Krahl, Trude Hesterberg, Karl Schönböck, Christian Wolff
  • Jack Straw: A Farce in Three Acts, 1912
    film 1920, dir. prod. Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, William C. de Mille, starring Robert Warwick
  • Mrs Dot, 1912
  • The Explorer: A Melodrama in Four Acts, 1912
  • The Tenth Man: A Tragic Comedy in 3 Acts, 1913
  • Smith: A Comedy in Four Acts, 1913
  • Landed Gentry. A Comedy in Four Acts, 1913
  • Of Human Bondage, 1915
    - Elämän kahle (suom. Sirpa Kauppinen, 1958)
    films: 1934, prod. RKO Radio Pictures, dir. by John Cromwell, starring Bette Davis, Leslie Howard, Frances Dee, Kay Johnson; 1946, prod. Warner Bros. Pictures, dir. by Edmund Gouldig, starring Paul Henreid, Eleanor Parker; 1964, dir. Ken Hughes, starring Kim Novak, Laurence Harvey, Robert Morley
  • The Moon and Sixpence, 1919
    - Kuu ja kupariraha (suom. Liisa Johansson, 1949)
    films: TV film 1959, prod. National Broadcasting Company (NBC), dir. Robert Mulligan, starring Laurence Olivier, Jessica Tandy, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Hume Cronyn; 1943, dir. by Albert Lewin, starring George Sanders, Herbert Marshall, Doris Dudley
  • The Unknown: A Play in Three Acts, 1920
  • The Circle, 1921
    - Ympyrä (suom.)
    films: 1925, prod. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), dir. Frank Borzage; Strictly Unconventional (1930), prod, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), dir. David Burton; Der Kreis (1964, TV prod.), dir. Karl John, Heribert Wenk
  • Sadie Thompson, 1921
    films: 1928, prod. Gloria Swanson Pictures, dir.  Raoul Walsh, starring Gloria Swanson, Lionel Barrymore; Rain (1932), prod. Feature Productions, dir. by Lewis Milestone, starring Joan Crawford, Walter Huston; Dirty Gertie from Harlem, U.S.A. (1946), prod. Sack Amusement Enterprises, dir. Spencer Williams; Miss Sadie Thompson (1953), dir. Curtis Bernhardt, starring Rita Hayworth, Mel Ferrer, Aldo Ray
  • The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands, 1921
    - Väräjävä lehti (suom. Sirppa Kauppinen, 1959)
  • East of Suez: A Play in Seven Scenes, 1922
    film: 1925, prod. Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, dir. Raoul Walsh, starring Pola Negri
  • On A Chinese Screen, 1922 (with an introduction by H.J. Lethbridge, 1984)
  • Caesar's Wife, 1922
  • Home and Beauty. A Farce in Three Acts, 1923
  • Our Betters: A Comedy in Three Acts, 1923
    film 1933, prod. RKO Radio Pictures, dir. George Cukor, starring Constance Bennett, Violet Kemble Cooper, Phoebe Foster
  • Loaves and Fishes. A Comedy in Four Acts, 1924
  • The Painted Veil, 1925
    - Kirjava huntu (suom. Helvi Vasara, 1947)
    films: 1934, dir. Richard Boleslawski, starring Greta Garbo and Herbert Marshall; The Seventh Sin (1957), dir. Ronald Neame, starring Eleanor Parker, Jean-Pierre Aumont, George Sanders; 2006, dir.  John Curran, starring Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Liev Schreiber
  • The Constant Wife, 1925
    - Viisas aviovaimo (suom. Seere Salminen, 1945)
    - films: Charming Sinners (1929), dir. Robert Milton, starring Ruth Chatterton, Clive Brook, Mary Nolan, William Powell; Finden sie, dass Constanze sich richtig verhält? (1962), dir. Tom Pevsner, starring Lilli Palmer, Peter van Eyck, Carlos Thompson; Eine Konsequente Frau (1971, TV comedy), prod. Saarländischer Rundfunk (SR), dir. Wolfgang Liebeneiner
  • The Casuarina Tree, 1926
  • The Letter, 1927
    - Kirje (suom. Kristiina Kivivuori, 1972)
    films: 1929, prod. Paramount Pictures, dir. Jean de Limur, starring Jeanne Eagels; La donna bianca (1930), prod. Paramount Pictures, dir. Jack Salvatori; La Lettre (1930), prod. Les Studios Paramount, dir. Louis Mercanton; Weib im Dschungel (1931), prod. Les Studios Paramount, dir. Dimitri Buchowetzki; La Carta (1931), prod. Paramount Pictures, dir. Adelqui Migliar, starring Carmen Larrabeiti, Carlos Díaz de Mendoza; 1940, prod. Warner Bros. Pictures, dir. William Wyler, starring Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall; TV film 1982, prod. Hajeno Productions, dir. John Erman, starring Lee Remick, Ronald Pickup, Jack Thompson, Ian McShane
  • The Sacred Flame: A Play in Three Acts, 1928
    films: 1929, prod. Warner Bros. Pictures, dir. Archie Mayo; La Llama sagrada (1931), prod. Warner Bros. Pictures, dir. William C. McGann, Guillermo Prieto Yeme; Die Heilige Flamme (1931), prod. Warner Bros. Pictures, dir. William Dieterle, Berthold Viertel; The Right to Live (1935), prod. Warner Bros. Pictures, dir. by William Keighley, starring Josephine Hutchinson, George Brent, Colin Clive
  • Ashenden: Or the British Agent, 1928
    - Salainen asiamies (suom. Kristiina Kivivuori, 1958)
    films: Secret Agent (1936), based on the 'The Traitor' and 'The Hairless Mexican', and the play by Campbell Dixon, dir. Alfred Hitchcock, starring John Gielgud, Madeleine Carroll, Peter Lorre, Robert Young, Percy Marmont; TV mini-series 1991, prod. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), dir. Christopher Morahan, starring Alex Jennings, Joss Ackland, Ian Bannen, Harriet Walter
  • The Bread-Winner: A Comedy in One Act, 1930 
  • Cakes and Aleor: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard, 1930
    - Elämältä se maistui (suom. Kristiina Kivivuori, 1955)
  • TV series 1974, prod. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), starring Michael Hordern, Judy Cornwell, Mike Pratt, Lynn Farleigh, Barbara Atkinson
  • The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey From Rangoon to Haiphong, 1930
  • First Person Singular, 1931
  • Collected Plays, 1931-34
  • The Narrow Corner, 1932
    - Ahtaan asuinsijat (suom. J.A. Hollo, 1950)
    film 1933, prod. Warner Bros. Pictures, dir. Alfred E. Green, starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Patricia Ellis, Ralph Bellamy
  • For Services Rendered, 1932
  • Collected Plays, 1933
  • Sheppey: A Play in Three Acts, 1933
    - Päävoitto (suom.)
  • Ah King: Six Stories, 1933
  • Cosmopolitans: Very Short Stories, 1936
    - Herra Kaikkitietävä (suom. Martta Eskelinen, 1967)
  • Don Fernando: or, Variations on Some Spanish Themes, 1935
  • Theatre, 1937
    - Näyttelijätär (suom. J.A. Hollo, 1951)
    films: Bezaubernde Julia (1960, TV play), prod. Südwestfunk (SWF), dir. Wilm ten Haaf; Julia, Du bist zauberhaft (1962), dir. Alfred Weidenmann, starring Lilli Palmer, Charles Boyer,Jean Sorel; Teatris (1978), dir. Janis Streics; Poniro thilyko... katergara gynaika! (1980), prod. Karagiannis-Karatzopoulos, dir. Kostas Karagiannis; Adorable Julia (1988, TV drama), dir. Yves-André Hubert; Being Julia (2004), dir. Istvan Szabo, starring Annette Bening, Jeremy Irons, Shaun Evans
  • The Summing Up, 1938
  • Christmas Holiday, 1939
    film: 1944, prod. Universal Pictures, dir. Robert Siodmark, starring Deanna Durbin, Gene Kelly
  • The Mixture As Before, 1940
  • France At War, 1940
  • Books and You, 1940
  • Up at the Villa, 1941
    - Huvila kukkulalla (suom. Mario Talaskivi, 1959)
    film: 2000, dir. Philip Haas, starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Sean Penn
  • Strictly Personal, 1941
  • Altogether, 1941
  • The Hour Before Dawn, 1942
    film 1944, prod. Paramount Pictures, dir. Frank Tuttle, starring Franchot Tone, Veronica Lake
  • The W. Somerset Maugham Sampler, 1943 (edited by Jerome Weidman)
  • The Razor's Edge, 1944
    - Veitsen terällä (suom. Helvi Vasara, 1947)
    films: 1946, dir. Edmund Goulding, starring Tyrone Power, Gene Tierney, John Payne, Anne Baxter; 1984, dir. John Byrum, starring Bill Murray, Theresa Russell and Denholm Elliott
  • The Somerset Maugham Pocket Book, 1944 (edited with an introd. by Jerome Weidman)
  • Then and Now, 1946
    - Eikä mikään muutu (suom. Martta Eskelinen, 1955)
  • Creatures of Circumstance, 1947
    - Olosuhteiden oikkuja (suom. Aarre Nenonen, 1956)
  • Catalina, 1948
    - Catalina (suom. Aarre Nenonen, 1954)
  • Great Novelists and Their Novels: Essays on the Ten Greatest Novels of the World, and the Men and Women Who Wrote Them, 1948
  • A Writer’s Notebook, 1949
  • The Maugham Reader, 1950 (with an introduction by Glenway Wescott)
  • The Complete Short Stories, 1951 (3 vols.)
  • The Collected Plays, 1952 (3 vols.)
  • The Vagrant Mood: Six Essays, 1952
  • Mr. Maugham Himself, 1954 (selected by John Beecroft)
  • Far and Wide: Nine Novels, 1955 (2 vols.)
  • Best Short Stories, 1957 (selected, and with an introd. by John Beecroft)
  • Points of View, 1958
  • Looking Back, 1962
  • Selected Prefaces and Introductions, 1963
  • Wit and Wisdom of Somerset Maugham, 1966 (collected by Cecil Hewetson)
  • A Maugham Twelve, 1966 (stories selected and with an introduction by Angus Wilson)
  • Seventeen Lost Stories, 1969 (compiled and with an introd. by Craig V. Showalter)
  • Letters of William Somerset Maugham to Lady Julit Duff, 1982 (edited, and with an introduction, by Loren R. Rothschild) 
  • Traveller in Romance: Uncollected Writings, 1901-1964, 1984 (edited by John Whitehead)
  • Collected Stories, 2004 (with an introduction by Nicholas Shakespeare)
  • The Skeptical Romancer Selected Travel Writing, 2009 (edited and introduced by Pico Iyer)

William Somerset Maugham
Ilustration by Triunfo Arciniegas

Maugham wrote a number of stories about his experiences in espionage

Somerset Maugham was one of the most popular British writers of his time. He was born in the British Embassy in Paris in 1874 and grew up bilingual in English and French. He also spoke German. His father and grandfather had been prominent litigators in England and France, and though Maugham seemed destined to follow in their footsteps, he had a severe stutter and would never have been able to argue in a courtroom.

Maugham pursued a career in medicine and wrote fiction in his spare time. During World War I he worked for the Red Cross in France as an interpreter and medical assistant. In 1915, Maugham met an intelligence official, who recruited him to join the SIS, Britain's Secret Intelligence Service. His first novel, Of Human Bondage, had just been published. The official suggested to Maugham that his language skills would benefit the intelligence service and that he could use his writing as a cover for his spying activities.

As an agent in the SIS, Maugham's first assignment was in Geneva, where he installed himself as a French playwright and succeeded in acting as an intermediary between other agents in the field and top intelligence authorities in Britain. Maugham sent coded messages, often embedded in a manuscript, which passed out of the country and back in without drawing the attention of the Swiss police. He worked for the SIS without pay as a patriotic gesture.

In 1917 Maugham thought his duties with the SIS were over, but when the Russian revolution broke out, Sir William Weisman, chief of British intelligence in the U.S., convinced him to go to St. Petersburg on another mission. Maugham was asked to gather intelligence on the German spy network developing in the Russian capital and to support the Mensheviks by countering Bolshevik plans to pull Russia out of the war. Posing as a writer for U.S. publications, Maugham met with Alexandr Kerenski, the socialist leader. Kerenski sent Maugham to London with a desperate request to the Allies to raise an anti-Bolshevik army. Maugham sent back significant information to London and developed a plan for the SIS to maintain a group of agents in Russia to combat German influence on the Provisional Government through propaganda and spying.

Maugham wrote a number of stories about his experiences in espionage. Warned prior to publication that some of the stories violated Britain's Official Secrets Act, he burned most of them. The surviving stories, including an account of his mission to Russia, were published in his 1928 book Ashenden. He gave a character in the book the name Somerville, the cover name he used during his real-life espionage activities in St. Petersburg.

Somerset Maugham is believed to be the first author of spy books who actually was a spy. Though his spy life provided ample fodder for his writing, he never had much enthusiasm for the work. In his foreword to Ashenden he wrote, "The work of an agent in the Intelligence Department is on the whole monotonous. A lot of it is uncommonly useless."

Experiences of the Soul: On William Somerset Maugham’s Far Eastern Writings

Ivan Franceschini
Written On 3 September 2020

William Somerset Maugham is probably one of the most commercially successful but least critically appreciated writers of the twentieth century. If today he is remembered mostly for his 1915 masterpiece Of Human Bondage and a few other outstanding novels, back in his time readers looked upon him as the cantor of the decadence of the British Raj, particularly in the Malay archipelago. Although he was in Malaya for only six months in 1921 and four months in 1925, he managed to write two collections of short stories—The Casuarina Tree (1926) and Ah King (1933)—that played a huge role in shaping the Western imaginary of the East, just as Rudyard Kipling had done for India. His literary engagement with Asia and the Pacific was not limited to Malaya. In 1916–17, he travelled to Hawai’i, Tahiti, and other islands in the Pacific, which he then used as the backdrop for several short stories collected in The Trembling of a Leaf (1921), as well as the novels The Moon and Sixpence (1919) and The Narrow Corner (1932). In the second half of 1919 he visited a China in turmoil, an experience he drew on when writing On a Chinese Screen (1922), a semi-forgotten collection of sketches that in his words constituted ‘not a book, but the material for a book’, and The Painted Veil (1925), a novel of adultery and revenge set between Hong Kong and the mainland. In 1922, he undertook an adventurous journey in Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, which he then described in the travelogue The Gentleman in the Parlour, released in 1930. Finally, in 1944 he published the novel The Razor’s Edge, part of which was set in India, where he travelled in 1938.

As it often happens when an established author dares to write about foreign context that they have visited but are not particularly familiar with, his writings were highly controversial. While readers loved his Far Eastern tales and travelogues, opinions among British colonial administrators, settlers, and scholars were more mixed. One criticism was that he did not indulge the Orientalist gaze of the public, showing very little interest in the local populations and focussing instead on the inner worlds of the foreigners living in remote outposts of the Empire. For instance, when, in 1937, Philip Fogarty, then Commissioner in charge of the Shan States, was trying to convince Maurice Collis to visit this forgotten corner of the British Empire and write a book to showcase the achievements of the colonial administration in the area, he explained how he should pitch the idea to his publishers in these terms: ‘Look here. Put it like this to them. Say the Shan States are fresh ground. And it’s a literal fact, what’s ever been written about them? Somerset Maugham went down one road there on mules ten years ago, but he’s not interested in Asiatics. While you—well, that’s your particular line’ (Collis 1938, 20).

Another criticism was that his tales and travelogues did not have an explicit political dimension, quite unlike the writings of George Orwell (1903–50), who was working as a policeman in Burma in the early 1920s, just as Maugham was travelling through the country. While George Orwell’s stay in Burma resulted in the masterpiece Burmese Days (1934) and several essays highly critical of British rule—to understand the critical verve of his work one just has to think of passages like ‘Mr. Macgregor stiffened at the word “nigger”, which is discountenanced in India. He had no prejudice against Orientals; indeed, he was deeply fond of them. Provided they were given no freedom he thought them the most charming people alive. It always pained him to see them wantonly insulted’ (Orwell 1974, 30)—Maugham only wrote a couple of travelogues that were largely composed of his own existential and literary musings, and a handful of short stories set on rubber estates and remote outstations. In these, he largely limited himself to the description of the lowly passions of the British side of colonial society—their loneliness, boredom, drunkenness, lust, and madness. As Maugham’s biographer Selina Hastings (2009, 295–96) wrote: ‘Orwell portrayed the colonial oppressors at worst vicious, at best stupid and dull: a dull people, “cherishing and fortifying their dullness behind a quarter of a million bayonets”. He clearly foresaw the end of Empire, while Maugham appeared not so much unaware of as indifferent to the subject.’

An old edition of Anthony Burgess’s Malayan Trilogy.

Burgess’s Hit Job

The strongest indictment of Maugham’s writings on the Far East comes from Anthony Burgess (1917–93), another heavyweight of contemporary British literature. Burgess spent five years in the 1950s as a teacher and education officer in the British Colonial Service in Malaya, gaining fluency in written and spoken Malay language and authoring no less than three novels set in the country, the so-called The Malayan Trilogy (2000). Given his deep emotional attachment to Malaya, it is not surprising to discover that Burgess considered Maugham little more than an interloper. While in an obituary he praised Maugham’s collections of Malayan stories as containing some of the finest examples of writing in English, with a ‘width of observation [that] was something new in English fiction, as was the willingness to explore moral regions then regarded as taboo’ (Burgess 1965, cited in Hastings 2009, 329), in an introduction that he wrote in 1969 for a new edition of these same stories that he himself had prepared, he was much more dismissive:

He stayed in no one place very long, but he usually managed to absorb something of the atmosphere of each town, village or rubber estate he visited, and he always made quick contact with the local residents. These residents were invariably Europeans—planters, colonial officials, businessmen, or just men living in exile to escape from trouble or sadness at home—and there is little evidence that Maugham gained, or wished to gain, any direct knowledge of the lives and customs of the native peoples of the East. This must be disappointing to present-day Malay and Indian and Chinese and Eurasian readers of his stories, but we have to remember that (apart from the fact that Maugham had no time to learn Malay or Chinese or Tamil) the Western attitude to the Far East was very different in Maugham’s time from what it is today. (1969, xv)

Burgess’s animosity towards Maugham fully emerged one decade later, when he published Earthly Powers (1980), a novel in which the main character—81-year-old writer Kenneth Toomey looking back at his life—is nothing but a barely hidden parody of the deceased writer. In fact, it has recently come to light that in earlier drafts of the book the main character was named Kenneth Markham Toomey, a name much closer to Maugham’s, and that the author changed it at a very late stage of writing, probably not to offend the nephew of the deceased writer, whom Burgess had recently met and befriended (Biswell 2012). While undoubtedly a minor masterpiece, Earthly Powers was a castigation of Maugham for both his bubbling private life—the memorable opening line read: ‘It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me’—and his inability to overcome his reputation as a second-rate, commercial writer. The novel even includes a few chapters set in the East. It is here that Burgess brings to light what he really thinks about Maugham’s fame as a cantor of colonial Malaya and, more broadly, the East. A dialogue between Toomey and his agent sets the general tone:

[Agent:] ‘Now the next thing is a travel book. Becoming very popular with the world opening up again. Scribner’s man Jeffrey’s was here, we had lunch, he paid of course, he was keen on that. That would be jest fahn ah gayess. He insisted on taking me to the Lucullus, Wembley. The British Empire, he was very struck with the British Empire. India, Ceylon, the Federated Malay States. Now then, here’s my idea. You do that, and you also do some so to speak travel stories. Memsahibs committing adultery, planters’ wives murdering their Chinese lovers, district officers going down with DTs.’

[Toomey:] ‘A rather limited image of the British Empire.’

[Agent:] ‘Well, out east, you know. Eard the heast a-cawwing. You know Collier’s? I don’t mean those dirty poetic men in D. H. Lawrence, I mean the magazine. Thought you did. One thousand dollars per story. They’ll arrange a contract for twenty stories, half and half for foreign rights, then perhaps another twenty if all goes well. Really short ones, two and a half of their pages with a big illustration—you know the sort of thing, the memsahib in her camisole threatening a leering muscular coolie with a broken gin bottle. Anyway, it’s two birds. You end up with two books, one throwing harsh tropical light on the other. Toomey’s East. Damn and blast.’ That was the cigarette. (Burgess 1980, 211)

Toomey/Maugham, we are told, is in it just for the money, his writing nothing more than a heist aimed at taking advantage of the gullibility of the public. The sarcasm becomes even more explicit a few pages later, when the character is in Singapore and engages in a striking act of dissociation from his real-life alter ego, which, incidentally, is also the only occasion in which Maugham is explicitly cited in the book: ‘Singapore duly smelt of boiling dishrags and catpiss. I stayed at the Raffles Hotel which Willie Maugham, under their later notepaper heading, was to laud as breathing all the mystery of the fabled East. The mystery lay perhaps in the provenance of the meat for the curries’ (Burgess 1980, 230).

The criticism becomes slightly more articulate with the introduction of Philip, a young British doctor with whom Toomey falls in love, reciprocated. Philip happens to be in Malaya because he felt the urge to heed the ‘call of the East’ after reading a book by Joseph Conrad, but is now disillusioned. When he tells Toomey about this, Philip is sarcastic: ‘I take it you’ll be writing about the East now. And then some medical student will read you and say ah adventure and go for an interview in Great Smith Street. A big responsibility.’ ‘So it’s not like Conrad.’ ‘Conrad left out the hookworm and the malaria and the yaws’ (Burgess 1980, 235). To make his point clear, when the following day dawns, Philip takes Toomey to his hospital, where they visit the ward of patients with deformities due to tropical diseases. When Toomey cannot stand the sight and is about to vomit, the doctor quips:

‘Can’t blame you. Let’s go and have some coffee. With a nip of Beehive if you like.’ Out on the lawn I retched emptily. ‘I suppose I shouldn’t,’ Philip said. ‘It wasn’t fair. But I couldn’t have you going back burbling about paradise. Tell England, as they say’ (Burgess 1980, 244).

Allowing himself plausible deniability by not naming him explicitly, through the character of Toomey, Anthony Burgess manages to assassinate Maugham’s character. Not only is the writer denied agency—after all, he produces his tales only for money upon the suggestion of his agent—but he is also described as completely unaware of the reality he purports to portray. So much for Burgess’s praise of Maugham as the author of some of the finest examples of writing in English.

The Vintage edition of some of William Somerset Maugham’s books.

Flights of Fancy

It is undeniable that Maugham’s fascination with the East was prone to flights of fancy and had a strong Orientalist flavour. If we skim through his oeuvre, we discover that traces of this attraction can be found from his early works, which long predate his trips to Asia and the Pacific. Some of the earliest examples are in The Magician, a short novel published in 1908 in which Maugham experiments with the topic of the supernatural through the eyes of Oliver Haddo, a character based on notorious occultist Alesteir Crowley. Just like many of his contemporaries, Maugham saw the occult as indissolubly linked to the East. These are the words with which the young writer describes the moment when Margaret, a young woman with an artistic temperament, is seduced by Haddo thanks to his magical powers:

[Oliver Haddo] began to talk with that low voice of his that thrilled her [Margaret] with a curious magic. He spoke not of pictures now, nor of books, but of life. He told her of strange Eastern places where no infidel had been, and her sensitive fancy was aflame with the honeyed fervour of his phrase. He spoke of the dawn upon sleeping desolate cities, and the moonlit nights of the desert, of the sunsets with their splendour, and of the crowded streets at noon. The beauty of the East rose before her. He told her of many-coloured webs and of silken carpets, the glittering steel of armour damascened, and of barbaric, priceless gems. The splendour of the East blinded her eyes. He spoke of frankincense and myrrh and aloes, of heavy perfumes of the scent-merchants, and drowsy odours of the Syrian gardens. The fragrance of the East filled her nostrils. And all these things were transformed by the power of his words till life itself seemed offered to her, a life of infinite vivacity, a life of freedom, a life of supernatural knowledge. (Maugham 2000c, 113)

This passage is a perfect example of Orientalist writing. The opulent, exuberant, and mysterious Oliver Haddo comes to embody the fabled East, which seduces Margaret, an innocent maiden who would otherwise be destined to an ordinary, boring bourgeois life as the wife of a famous surgeon. In the book, Maugham let it be understood that Haddo does really have magical powers, but one cannot avoid thinking how much stronger and more relatable the writer’s message might have been if the ‘magician’ had managed to seduce the girl simply using the leverage of her fascination with the East.

A few years later, in Of Human Bondage (1915), the protagonist Philip Carey, a young student of medicine clearly modelled on Maugham himself, dreams of travelling to the East as soon as his training is over: ‘As soon as I’ve got through my hospital appointments, I shall get a ship; I want to go to the East— the Malay Archipelago, Siam, China, and all that sort of thing—and then I shall take odd jobs. Something always comes along—cholera duty in India and things like that. I want to go from place to place. I want to see the world. The only way a poor man can do that is by going in for the medical’ (Maugham 2000d, 356). This is how Carey/Maugham imagined the East: ‘He wanted to go to the East; and his fancy was rich with pictures of Bangkok and Shanghai, and the ports of Japan: he pictured to himself palm-trees and skies blue and hot, dark-skinned people, pagodas; the scents of the Orient intoxicated his nostrils. His heart beat with passionate desire for the beauty and the strangeness of the world’ (Maugham 2000d, 537). Although the dream of Asia appears only in these two passages in the whole novel, Philip’s story in Of Human Bondage can also be read as a tale of fascination with the exotic, which leads him to live in an imaginary future and let the present flow by. In this disgruntlement with the ordinariness of bourgeois life, Philip’s character presents significant assonances with those of Margaret in The Magician. However, while Margaret succumbs to her tragic destiny, Philip never visits the East and, in the final pages of the book, we find him giving up for good on this dream to start a family. This decision to set aside his wanderlust and settle down in England assumes the character of an epiphany:

What did he care for Spain and its cities, Cordova, Toledo, Leòn; what to him were the pagodas of Burma and the lagoons of South Sea Islands? America was here and now. It seemed to him that all his life he had followed the ideals that other people, by their words or their writings, had instilled into him, and never the desires of his own heart. Always his course had been swayed by what he thought he should do and never by what he wanted with his whole soul to do. (Maugham 2000d, 699)

If we consider how Maugham’s later writings played a fundamental role in shaping the imaginary of the East among the Western public and pushing innumerable people to ‘live by the [his] ideals’—something that clearly bothered Anthony Burgess—this passage assumes a tone of clairvoyant self-deprecation.

The fascination of the East plays a fundamental role even in Maugham’s following masterpiece, The Moon and Sixpence, which he published in 1919, on the eve of his journey to China. This novel tells the story of an artist named Charles Strickland—a fictional character clearly inspired by Paul Gauguin—who finds his fulfilment as both painter and human being in Tahiti. The imaginary to which Maugham resorts in this book is still informed by Orientalism. For instance, we are told that ‘[t]he Pacific is more desolate that other seas; its spaces seem more vast, and the most ordinary journey upon it has somehow the feeling of an adventure. The air you breathe is an elixir which prepares you for the unexpected. Nor is it vouchsafed to man in the flesh to know aught that more nearly suggests the golden realms of fancy than the approach to Tahiti’ (Maugham 1999, 156–57). In some ways, Strickland’s existential trajectory is exactly the opposite of that of Philip Carey. Unlike Philip’s carefully planned but never executed trip, Strickland travels to the East without any plan and, when he arrives in Tahiti, settles down in a hut in the jungle. It is there that, before meeting a tragic death, he realises his artistic aspirations on the walls of his hut. Unfortunately, nobody will know about his accomplishments as after his demise the place is set on fire upon his request.

What all these early writings have in common is that they describe the fascination that a legendary East exerts on Western characters. In these novels, Maugham presents the East as an exciting alternative for bourgeois characters disgruntled with their life prospects, an idealised Other where they believe they have a chance to find fulfilment. While, as we will see, the travelogues and short stories that he wrote in the 1920s and 1930s in the wake of his first journeys to the East are more complex, there is curiously a recrudescence of the Orientalist imaginary in The Razor’s Edge, his 1944 novel. In it, we meet Larry Darrell, a middle-class American on a spiritual quest to find meaning in his life, travelling to India and encountering a series of individuals who awaken his curiosity towards Hinduism. In particular, he is astonished to meet a local politician, the Oxford-educated minister of finance in one of the smaller northern states of the country, who tells him that in one year, when he reaches the age of 50, he is ‘going to resign his profitable position, dispose of his property to his wife and children, and go out into the world as a wandering mendicant’ (Maugham 2000f, 287)—all of this with the support of his friends and colleagues, who in all this see something totally natural. Through these meetings, Larry eventually lands in an ashram in southern India, where he has the first mystical experience of his life. While this sounds very clichéd, one cannot but be amazed by Maugham’s clairvoyance in anticipating cultural trends that would take hold in the West only two decades later.

Challenging Orientalist Tropes

While not devoid of merit, the criticisms of Somerset Maugham as an inveterate Orientalist painting an idealised picture of the East while completely disregarding the local population and the politics involved in the British Raj are ungenerous. After his first trips to Asia in the early 1920s, Maugham clearly realised the fancifulness of his conception of the East as a ‘mysterious’ and untouched Other, and became much less prone to those flights of fancy that appeared in his early writings. In particular, in his Asian travelogues it is possible to discern a dawning awareness of how he had succumbed to the Orientalist imaginary of the East. As he wrote in The Gentlemen in the Parlour (2001b, 8):

Though I have travelled much I am a bad traveller. The good traveller has the gift of surprise. He is perpetually interested by the differences he finds between what he knows at home and what he sees abroad. If he has a keen sense of the absurd he finds constant matter for laughter in the fact that the people among whom he is do not wear the same clothes as he does, and he can never get over his astonishment that men may eat with chop-sticks instead of forks or write with a brush instead of with a pen. Since everything is strange to him he notices everything, and according to his humour can be amusing or instructive. But I take things for granted so quickly that I cease to see anything unusual in my new surroundings.

In On a Chinese Screen, he recounts a meeting with a certain Dr Macalister, a medical missionary who had come to China 30 years earlier. His account provides a sobering indictment of any Orientalist fantasy:

‘I often laugh when I think of my first impressions of China,’ he said. ‘I came out expecting to undergo hardships and privations. My first shock was the steamer with ten-course dinners and first-class accommodation. There wasn’t much hardship in that, but I said to myself: Wait till you get to China. Well, at Shanghai I was met by some friends and I stayed in a fine house and was waited on by fine servants and I ate fine food. Shanghai, I said, the plague spot of the East. It’ll be different in the interior. At last I reached here. I was to stay with the head of the mission till my own quarters were ready. He lived in a large compound. He had a very nice house with American furniture in it and I slept in a better bed than I’d ever slept in. He was very fond of his garden and he grew all kinds of vegetables in it. We had salads just like the salads we had in America and fruit, all kinds of fruit; he kept a cow and we had fresh milk and butter. I thought I’d never eaten so much and so well in my life. You did nothing for yourself. If you wanted a glass of water you called a boy and he brought it for you.’ (Maugham 2000e, 48–49)

William Somerset Maugham relaxes on a sofa. Original Publication: People Disc – HH0153 (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images).

If it is true that in his writings Maugham chose not to focus on ‘Asiatic’ characters, this was arguably not because he lacked interest, but rather an act of humility based on his explicit admission to be unable to portray realistically a personality rooted in a context totally alien to him. He was fully aware of his limitations in imagining the Other, and never hid it. As he explained in a letter that he wrote in 1951: ‘I felt that all the depictions that had been made of either Chinese, Indians, or Malays were merely superficial impressions combined with a lot of conventional prejudices. It is very nearly impossible for an English author to create a French character so that French readers would accept him as real. How much more difficult then would it be for an English writer to create a Chinese the Chinese would accept as plausible’ (cited in Hastings 2009, 324–25). This is consistent with Maugham’s general attitude towards creative writing. His stories always have a semi-autobiographical component—in most novels, he even inserts a fictionalised version of himself as a narrator—and over and over again in his writings he emphasises how he feels uncomfortable using characters that stray from his familiar milieu. In The Razor’s Edge, he even felt the need to justify his choice to use American characters:

It is very difficult to know people and I don’t think one can ever really know any but one’s own countrymen. For men and women are not only themselves, they are also the region in which they were born, the city apartment or the farm in which they learnt to walk, the games they played as children, the old wives’ tales they overheard, the food they ate, the schools they attended, the sports they followed, the poets they read, and the God they believed in. It is all these things that have made them what they are, and these are the things that you can’t come to know by hearsay, you can only know them if you have lived them. You can only know them if you are them. And because you cannot know persons of a nation foreign to you except from observation, it is difficult to give them credibility in the pages of a book. (Maugham 2000f, 2–3)

If he had such qualms in describing a character hailing from a culture with which he had such affinities, one can easily understand why in his writings on the Far East he chose to focus on British characters. In one of those rare instances in which he attempted to give voice to a Chinese intellectual, the result indeed left much to be desired.[1] In a sketch entitled ‘A Student of the Drama’ included in On a Chinese Screen (Maugham 1955, 118–20)Maugham describes how during his trip to China he encountered a young Chinese lecturer on the art of the drama, a young man who had studied in Europe, could express himself fluently in English, French, and German, and had written a book in French on the Chinese theatre. Unfortunately, the portrait of this scholar that emerges from these pages is far from flattering. When asked what books he recommended his students read in order to learn about the literature of the day, the man could not respond as his narrow interests did not extend beyond the art of drama; his literary tastes appeared very questionable; and his approach to the art of the drama was over-intellectual and mechanistic. When he insisted that Maugham—who was a master of the genre—reveal to him the secrets of his craft, the writer simply shrugged his questions off: ‘If you can’t write a play no one can teach you, and if you can it’s as easy as falling off a log.’

While Maugham did not mention the name of the scholar, four decades later the son of the man came forward and published an essay in which he provided some additional context to the meeting (Soong 1974). It turned out that the ‘student of the drama’ was Sung Ch’un Fang (1892–1938), an influential scholar who had played a fundamental role in introducing Western drama in China while also advocating for the preservation of a ‘national’ theatre on the grounds that European and American cultural imports could undermine traditional values and lead to social corruption (Chen 2001, 852). His son, an accomplished scholar himself, remembered how thirty years earlier his father had strongly encouraged him to read the works of Somerset Maugham along with those of Oscar Wilde and how, one day, he had found a copy of On a Chinese Screen on a shelf in his father’s office, with a pencil mark against the chapter ‘A Student of the Drama’. Only years later, after his father’s death, he learned that his father had indeed met Somerset Maugham and he was the one portrayed in the essay. He was also told that his father had felt that ‘at many points Maugham had made deliberate exaggerations with a rather unfair attitude’ (Soong 1974, 84). From that, he proceeded to dissect Maugham’s account of the meeting, providing necessary context to explain the nuances of his father’s point of view that had been lost in the fictional portrayal. Without animosity, he then concluded with a reflection on how Maugham’s work might have served a political agenda:

In talking about my father and [another Chinese intellectual], Maugham might just as well be reflecting what some western intellectuals thought about China: that the country, mysterious and lovely as she was, should aim to preserve its existent cultural tradition and virtues, instead of blindly following the steps of European and American countries in pursuit of scientific achievements and mechanization. They thought that China was still closing its gates on foreigners. They completely ignored the direction of world trends and China’s own urgent need for modernization. (Soong 1974, 90)

Indeed, while on the surface apparently apolitical, Maugham’s writing on Asia was in fact very political. Although Sung Ch’un Fang’s son limited himself to musing on the relevance of Maugham’s writings for debates on Chinese politics, there is a broader point to be made here about the writer’s depiction of the most remote corners of the Raj, providing a most powerful indictment of the provinciality, narrowness, wastefulness, and pointlessness of colonial society. As I mentioned above, Maugham’s colonial characters are often drunk and depressed, pathetic and morally bankrupt, which hardly portrays an edifying picture of the British colonial enterprise. For instance, in ‘God’s Truth’, one of the sketches in On a Chinese Screen, we find one Mr Birch, an envoy of the British American Tobacco Company stationed in a little town in inner China. It was a place with ‘only two or three streets of shops’, which he knew by heart, and ‘interminable winding alleys which presented a monotonous expanse of wall broken only by solid closed doors. These were the Chinese houses and these were as impenetrable to one of his colour as the life which surrounded him’ (Maugham 2000e, 53). Birch was very homesick—we are told that he had not spoken to another white person in three months—so when a missionary who was passing by refuses his hospitality he completely loses it and attacks the man. ‘Birch seized the missionary’s let and jerked it out of the stirrup; the missionary nearly fell off and he clung in a somewhat undignified fashion to the pony’s mane. Then he half-slipped, half-tumbled to the ground’ (Maugham 2000e, 54). Two Chinese men on a cart presumably carrying the missionary’s belongings witness the whole scene ‘with indolent curiosity’, but are not given a voice. The missionary threatens to report Birch to his chief, leaving Birch alone and at that point ‘anger left him and a sob broke unwillingly from his lips’ (Maugham 2000e, 55).

This is only one variation in the broad gallery of colonial characters that appear in Maugham’s pages. Portraits such as this did not earn Maugham any friends in colonial society. Just like George Orwell incurred the extreme displeasure of members of the British administration in Burma after the publication of Burmese Days, Maugham similarly became persona non grata in Malaya. His biographer Selina Hastings (2009, 279) reports that a member of the Malayan Civil Service wrote that Maugham’s passage ‘was clearly marked by a trail of angry people. The indignation aroused by his play, The Letter [a story of adultery and murder set in colonial society] … was still being voiced in emotional terms when I came by. It was also charged against him that he abused hospitality by ferreting out the family skeletons of his hosts and putting them into his books.’ To this Maugham responded with a postscript that he added to the American edition of The Casuarina Tree, one of the collections of short stories that drew from his trips in Malaya:

Some of the smaller communities in the countries washed by the China Sea are very sensitive, and their members are much agitated if, in a work of fiction, a hint is given that the circumstances of their lives are not always such as would meet the approval of the suburban circles in which contentedly dwell their cousins and their aunts … Living, with all the East about them, as narrowly as in a market-town, they have the market-town’s faults and foibles; and seem to take a malicious pleasure in looking for the originals of the characters, especially if they are mean, foolish or vicious, which the author has chosen for the persons of his stories. (Cited in Hastings 2009, 279)

While the immediate display of anger might indeed have been related to Maugham bringing to light some ‘skeletons in the closet’, it is impossible to deny how the portrayal of colonial society that emerges from Maugham’s writing is generally unflattering and might lead readers to question the British colonial endeavour.

However, the greatest merit of Maugham’s writing is in how he challenged Orientalist tropes that had asserted themselves in European literature over the years, in particular through the influence of giants like Rudyard Kipling and Joseph Conrad. In particular, Maugham more than anybody else dispelled the myth of the East as a dark and silent jungle, filled with unspeakable threats. This imaginary is far from unique to Anglophone literature. We find it, for instance, also in Italy in the books of Emilio Salgari, who, although he had never set foot in Asia himself, wrote an extremely popular series of books about the adventures of a group of rebel pirates fighting against the British and Dutch colonial powers from their base in Malaysia. Significantly, the first book in the series was entitled The Mystery of the Black Jungle (1895). It is exactly these kinds of tropes that Maugham explicitly challenges in his short stories and travelogues from the Far East, and there is no doubt that it is a conscious effort. In a short story titled ‘Before the Party’—the tale of an alcoholic husband murdered by his wife—that was included in his 1926 collection The Casuarina Tree, he wrote:

Next day they went up stream in a prahu. From the novels she had read she expected the rivers of Borneo to be dark and strangely sinister, but the sky was blue, dappled with little white clouds, and the green of the mangroves and the nipahs, washed by the flowing water, glistened in the sun. On each side stretched the pathless jungle, and in the distance, silhouetted against the sky, was the rugged outline of a mountain. The air in the early morning was fresh and buoyant. She seemed to enter upon a friendly, fertile land, and she had a sense of spacious freedom. They watched the banks for monkeys sitting on the branches of the tangled trees, and once Harold pointed out something that looked like a log and said it was a crocodile. (Maugham 2000a, 160)

Similar words recur in another story in the same collection, ‘The Force of Circumstance’, in which newlywed Doris, who only recently arrived in Malaysia to join her husband, discovers with horror that he has already fathered several children with a local woman:

Of course she had read novels about the Malay Archipelago and she had formed an impression of a sombre land with great ominous rivers and a silent, impenetrable jungle. When the little coasting steamer set them down at the mouth of the river, where a large boat, manned by a dozen Dyaks, was waiting to take them to the station, her breath was taken away by the beauty, friendly rather than awe-inspiring, of the scene. It had a gaiety, like the joyful singing of birds in the trees, which she had never expected. (Maugham 2000a, 253)

And yet again, in ‘Neil Macadam’, a short story included in the 1933 collection Ah King that tells the tragic tale of the seduction of a young British assistant curator by the Russian wife of his boss, we find this discrepancy between the imagined East narrated by Conrad and the reality.

Now they were steaming up the river. At the mouth was a straggling fishermen’s village standing on piles in the water; on the bank grew thickly nipah palm and the tortured mangrove; beyond stretched the dense green of the virgin forest. In the distance, darkly silhouetted against the blue sky, was the rugged outline of a mountain. Neil, his heart beating with the excitement that possessed him, devoured the scene with eager eyes. He was surprised. He knew his Conrad almost by heart and he was expecting a land of brooding mystery. He was not prepared for the blue milky sky. Little white clouds on the horizon, like sailing boats becalmed, shone in the sun. The green trees of the forest glittered in the brilliant light. Here and there, on the banks, were Malay houses with thatched roofs, and they nestled cosily among fruit trees. Natives in dug-outs rowed, standing, up the river. Neil had no feeling of being shut in, nor in that radiant morning, of gloom, but of space and freedom. The country offered him a gracious welcome. (Maugham 2000a, 190)

In writing these lines, it is almost as if Maugham was attempting to assuage the concerns that Philip, the young doctor in Burgess’s Earthly Power, would express to his literary alter ego Toomey decades later. Generally speaking, it is undeniable that Maugham’s vision of the East is very different from that of Kipling and Conrad. In his writings, the East appears bright and warm, which contrasts even more with the inner darkness of the foreign characters who populate his pages, almost all of whom cannot adapt to the life in the East. It might be possible to argue that in these depictions Maugham simply swapped one form of Orientalism with another, but his focus on the psychology of the foreigner in the colonial setting represents a fundamental departure from his predecessors. It is in this gaze into the inner dimension of ordinary people engaged in the colonial enterprise that his everlasting legacy lies.

A Collection of 11 works of William Somerset Maugham from the 1920s to the 1940s. From the Library of Christian Heuer (

Experiences of the Soul

In conclusion, what should we make of William Somerset Maugham’s writings on the Far East? Should we discard them as a mere Orientalist fantasy by a representative of the British colonial class, or does his work contain deeper insights into the colonial experience? In his depictions of Asia, especially in the early writings that precede his travels, Maugham indeed tended to portray an idealised image of the East that often deployed tropes typical of Orientalist writing. However, while he never really abandoned the idea of the East as an idealised Other, in the oeuvres that he produced after his earliest journeys to Asia and the Pacific, his approach became increasingly complex. Not only did he begin criticising the imaginary of the East as a dark and threatening place that had been promoted by the likes of Kipling and Conrad, but he also shifted his gaze to the inner life of members of British colonial society stranded in the farthest corners of the Empire.

If we follow Edward Said’s (2003, 123) lead and consider Orientalism as a ‘systematic discipline of accumulation’ that ‘far from … being exclusively an intellectual or theoretical feature … tends fatally towards the systematic accumulation of human beings and territories’, then Maugham’s writings definitely do not fit the bill. While lacking the openly critical verve of George Orwell, his stories on the Far East do not present an idealised view of colonial rule—quite the opposite. By depicting misfit, adulterous, drunk, and murderous British subjects hardly at ease in their foreign context, Maugham actually undermined the myth of racial superiority that underpinned the British colonial endeavour. It is exactly in this depiction of the moral bankruptcy of British colonial society at a time when the Empire was already in full decline that the value of Maugham’s writings on the Far East resides. It is true that he did not even attempt to give a voice to local people—and managed to upset at least one of the ‘Asiatics’ he portrayed in his books—but this, I believe, should be interpreted as a display of humility on his part rather than a form of contempt. As a passerby in the Far East, he simply felt out of his depth in dealing with the complexities of local societies and preferred to focus on the maladies of the categories he knew best, i.e. British officials, businessmen, and adventurers.

In one of the sketches included in On a Chinese Screen, Maugham recounts a meeting with a man who had travelled far and wide, working his way from London to South America and from there to Tahiti and eventually China. He had led an incredibly adventurous life, and had written a couple of dozen articles on his experiences. Still, Maugham found him extremely dull and insipid: ‘I sought to discern how the variety of his experience had affected him; but though he was full of anecdote, a jovial, friendly creature, willing to talk at length of all he had seen, I could not discover that any of his adventures had intimately touched him … The oddities of life amused him. He had an insatiable curiosity. But I think his experiences were merely of the body and were never translated into experiences of the soul. Perhaps that is why at bottom you felt he was commonplace’ (Maugham 2020e, 7). The opposite could be said of Maugham: he might not have had that much experience of the body, but his Far Eastern writings show that he definitely was not lacking experience of the soul.

[1] I wish to thank Annie Ren for bringing this episode to my attention.
Cover Photo: W. Somerset Maugham, from an original portrait by Graham Sutherland, 1978.


Biswell, Andrews. 2012. ‘The Earthly Powers Manuscript.’ The International Anthony Burgess Foundation website, 1 July.
Burgess, Anthony. 1965. ‘W. Somerset Maugham: 1874–1965.’ The Listener, no. 1917, 23 December.
Burgess, Anthony. 1969. ‘Introduction’. In Maugham, William Somerset, Malaysian Stories, vi–xvii. Singapore and Hong Kong: Heinemann Educational Books (Asia) Ltd.
Burgess, Anthony. 1980. Earthly Powers. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
Burgess, Anthony. 2000. The Malayan Trilogy. New York, NY: Vintage.
Chen, Xiaomei. 2001. ‘Twentieth-century Spoken Drama.’ In The Columbia History of Chinese Literature, edited by Victor Mair, 848–77. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
Collis, Maurice. 1938. Lords of the Sunset. London: Faber and Faber Limited.
Hastings, Selina. 2009. The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham. London: John Murray.
Maugham, William Somerset. 1955. The Travel Books. Melbourne, London, and Toronto: William Heinemann Ltd.
Maugham, William Somerset. 1999 (1919). The Moon and Sixpence. New York, NY: Vintage.
Maugham, William Somerset. 2000a. Far Eastern Tales. New York, NY: Vintage.
Maugham, William Somerset. 2000b. More Far Eastern Tales. New York, NY: Vintage.
Maugham, William Somerset. 2000c (1908). The Magician. New York, NY: Vintage.
Maugham, William Somerset. 2000d (1915). Of Human Bondage. New York, NY: Vintage.
Maugham, William Somerset. 2000e (1922). On a Chinese Screen. New York, NY: Vintage.
Maugham, William Somerset. 2000f (1944). The Razor’s Edge. New York, NY: Vintage.
Maugham, William Somerset. 2001a (1925). The Painted Veil. New York, NY: Vintage.
Maugham, William Somerset. 2001b (1930). The Gentleman in the Parlour. New York, NY: Vintage.
Maugham, William Somerset. 2001c (1932). The Narrow Corner. New York, NY: Vintage.
Orwell, George. 1974 (1934). Burmese Days. New York, NY: Harcourt Inc.
Said, Edward W. 2003 (1978). Orientalism. London and New York, NY: Penguin.
Soong, Stephen C (translated by Diana Yu). 1974. ‘My Father and Maugham.’ Renditions, Autumn: 81–90.

Somerset Maugham’s books

This is nowhere near a complete bibliography. Maugham also wrote countless articles and reviews, quite a few travel books, two books of reminiscence, as well as some 25 successful stage plays and editing numerous anthologies. This is a list of the novels, short story collections, and the five plays in the Pan Selected Plays volume.

1897 Liza of Lambeth
1898 The Making of a Saint (historical novel)
1899 Orientations (short story collection)
1901 The Hero
1902 Mrs Craddock
1904 The Merry-go-round
1906 The Bishop’s Apron
1908 The Explorer
1908 The Magician (horror novel)
1915 Of Human Bondage
1919 The Moon and Sixpence

1921 The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (short story collection)
1921 The Circle (play)
1922 On a Chinese Screen (travel book)
1923 Our Betters (play)
1925 The Painted Veil (novel)
1926 The Casuarina Tree: Six Stories
1927 The Constant Wife (play)
1928 Ashenden: Or the British Agent (short story collection)
1929 The Sacred Flame (play)

1930 Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard
1930 The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey From Rangoon to Haiphong
1931 Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (short story collection)
1932 The Narrow Corner
1933 Ah King (short story collection)
1933 Sheppey (play)
1935 Don Fernando (travel book)
1936 Cosmopolitans (29 x two-page-long short stories)
1937 Theatre (romantic novel)
1938 The Summing Up (autobiography)
1939 Christmas Holiday (novel)

1940 The Mixture as Before (short story collection)
1941 Up at the Villa (crime novella)
1942 The Hour Before the Dawn (novel)
1944 The Razor’s Edge (novel)
1946 Then and Now (historical novel)
1947 Creatures of Circumstance (short story collection)
1948 Catalina (historical novel)
1948 Quartet (portmanteau film using four short stories –The Facts of LifeThe Alien CornThe Kite and The Colonel’s Lady)
1949 A Writer’s Notebook

1950 Trio (film follow-up to Quartet, featuring The Verger, Mr. Know-All and Sanatorium)
1951 The Complete Short Stories in three volumes
1952 Encore (film follow-up to Quartet and Trio featuring The Ant and the GrasshopperWinter Cruise and Gigolo and Gigolette)

1963 Collected short stories volume one (30 stories: Rain, The Fall of Edward Barnard, Honolulu, The Luncheon, The Ant and the Grasshopper, Home, The Pool, Mackintosh, Appearance and Reality, The Three Fat Women of Antibes, The Facts of Life, Gigolo and Gigolette, The Happy Couple, The Voice of the Turtle, The Lion’s Skin, The Unconquered, The Escape, The Judgement Seat, Mr. Know-All, The Happy Man, The Romantic Young Lady, The Point of Honour, The Poet, The Mother, A Man from Glasgow, Before the Party, Louise, The Promise, A String of Beads, The Yellow Streak)
1963 Collected short stories volume two (24 stories: The Vessel of Wrath, The Force of Circumstance, Flotsam and Jetsam, The Alien Corn, The Creative Impulse, The Man with the Scar, Virtue, The Closed Shop, The Bum, The Dream, The Treasure, The Colonel’s Lady, Lord Mountdrago, The Social Sense, The Verger, In A Strange Land, The Taipan, The Consul, A Friend in Need, The Round Dozen, The Human Element, Jane, Footprints in the Jungle, The Door of Opportunity)
1963 Collected short stories volume three (17 stories: A Domiciliary Visit, Miss King, The Hairless Mexican, The Dark Woman, The Greek, A Trip to Paris, Giulia Lazzari, The Traitor, Gustav, His Excellency, Behind the Scenes, Mr Harrington’s Washing, A Chance Acquaintance, Love and Russian Literature, Sanatorium)
1963 Collected short stories volume four (30 stories: The Book-Bag, French Joe, German Harry, The Four Dutchmen, The Back Of Beyond, P. & O., Episode, The Kite, A Woman Of Fifty, Mayhew, The Lotus Eater, Salvatore, The Wash-Tub, A Man With A Conscience, An Official Position, Winter Cruise, Mabel, Masterson, Princess September, A Marriage Of Convenience, Mirage, The Letter, The Outstation, The Portrait Of A Gentleman, Raw Material, Straight Flush, The End Of The Flight, A Casual Affair, Red, Neil Macadam)

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings