Top positive review
An utterly absorbing biography
11 June 2016
I have been re-reading many of Somerset Maugham’s short stories, was struck by so many of them being written in the first person and by his obvious knowledge of many countries, and felt that they were full of autobiographical material; but I knew too little of his life (1874 to 1965). So I turned to Selina Hastings’ immensely detailed biography, over 600 pages long. In the summaries she gives of his novels, short stories and some of his plays she makes clear how they related to his life.
She is excellent at describing a man who was attractive to both sexes despite his stammer and shortness of stature, who outwardly seemed cool and reserved, but who was in fact very emotional, highly sexed and engaging in many relationships, mostly with men but also with women.
As a boy he was already writing stories; and he loved the theatre. He had a few stories published in magazines, and his first successful novel was “Liza of Lambeth” (1897), based on his experiences at St Thomas’ Hospital as a doctor to the Lambeth poor. But what he really wanted to do at the time was to write plays.
He made his breakthrough with “Lady Frederick” in 1907. Unlike his novels and short stories, the plays he wrote before the First World War had nothing autobiographical in them: they were witty society dramas which the public loved. His plays were also being staged with great success in the United States. He was beginning to be wealthy, his social life flourished and he travelled abroad, often three or four times a year. At the same time he worked hard, effortlessly producing play after play. He became even wealthier later, when some of his plays, novels or stories were turned into films.
During the First World War Maugham led quite a kaleidoscopic life:
Above the age of call-up, he served for a few months with the Red Cross on the Western Front; later he was sent to Geneva on intelligence work (providing material for his “Ashenden” stories in 1928). That, too, was only for a few months.
It was also during the war that he began his most important homosexual relationship with the American Gerald Haxton, eighteen years his junior, which lasted until Haxton’s death in 1944. Having been caught in homosexual activities in England in 1915, Haxton had been deported as an undesirable alien, and Maugham could only be with him on his many lengthy journeys abroad.
The first of these, still during the First World War, was a tour of the South Seas in 1916, originally because Maugham wanted to collect material for “The Moon and Sixpence”, his novel based on the life of Gauguin, but which also yielded a lot of material about the lives of Europeans and natives in the area which he would use in the short stories published as “The Trembling of a Leaf”.
Also during the First World War he was forced into marriage with Syrie Wellcome. When she and Maugham met in 1914, she was still married to but living apart from Henry Wellcome, founder of the Wellcome pharmaceutical firm. Maugham had slept with her without loving her; but she was determined to marry him, deliberately omitted to take contraceptive precautions and gave birth to their daughter. When her husband divorced her, Maugham felt in honour bound to marry her, which he did on his return from the South Seas in 1917. They had nothing in common and were temperamentally opposite and the marriage for much of the time was a torment to Maugham, kept going only for the sake of their daughter Liza, and it would end in divorce in 1929.
Immediately after the wedding he was recruited to do more intelligence work, this time in Petrograd where he arrived in the period between the February and the October Revolution. He was recalled and left Russia two days before the October Revolution.
His love of travel to foreign parts now also enabled him to get away from Syrie for long periods, always with Haxton. Selina Hastings brilliantly analyzes Haxton’s nature and the relationship between him and Maugham. Haxton had vitality and charm and was devoted to Maugham, but he was a reckless gambler and occasional drunkard, increasingly so with the years, and Hastings, who is not usually censorious, four times calls him a cad. Neither man was possessive with regard to the other: Haxton often brought youths to have sex with Maugham, though Maugham himself was no slouch in successfully propositioning young men who took his fancy. In later years Haxton’s alcoholism was to cause Maugham much distress and anger, but he never abandoned him.
In 1919 Maugham went with Haxton to China and collected material for “On a Chinese Screen” (1922). Then there were tours of Malaya: “Just as Kipling is identified with India and the Raj, so is Maugham identified with the Malayan archipelago”, its world of planters, administrators, their wives, their native concubines, servants and labourers. 1924 saw him and Haxton in Mexico, though this journey was less fruitful of stories than his previous ones or his next one, back to the Far East in 1925, which yielded two more collections of short stories.
Shortly before his divorce in 1929, Maugham made his base not London but, for the rest of his life, the beautiful and luxurious Villa Mauresque at Cap Ferrat on the French Riviera. Haxton now lived there, too. Maugham entertained lavishly (the book is awash with famous literary and political people who visited him there), and Haxton helped him in the impeccable management of the 13 strong staff at the Villa.
The last play Maugham wrote was staged in 1933 when he was 59. In 1937 he wrote “The Summing Up”, one part of which discussed his development as a writer, while another was about his exploration of philosophy and religion “which had absorbed him since boyhood”. It was in pursuit of this that in 1938 he made his next significant journey, to India. in 1938. He was now in search not so much for material for short stories but rather to explore Hindu philosophy. He came away frustrated by what various gurus had told him. In his novel “The Razor’s Edge” (1944) one of the characters goes on a similar quest, and “his path to enlightenment is unconvincing, a mystical goal that in effect eludes him just as it had always eluded Maugham”. This is not surprising: Maugham was an acute observer of people and of the society of his particular time, and he was a superb story teller; but he was not a profound thinker. He was quite aware of this, saying of himself: “I know just where I stand: in the very front row of the second rate”.
When the Second Wold War broke out Maugham, now 65, offered his services to the British Government, and he was asked to report on French attitudes towards Britain and to write articles extolling France and the French war effort. After inspecting factories and fortifications all over France, the pessimistic reports he sent home in respect of the first of these tasks was at variance with the glowing piece he wrote in respect of the second. He was back at the Villa Mauresque when Germany launched her Blizkrieg and the Italians entered the war; and he was among the British subjects who were evacuated from France on a small collier and eventually reached Liverpool. The Ministry of Information then sent him to the United States, on a propaganda mission.
Haxton had also left France for the United States, where he found satisfying work and was for the first time not dependent on Maugham. The two men agreed that this was the best thing for both of them, but very soon after that Haxton went down with severe tuberculosis, with no hope of recovery. All Maugham’s love for him came flooding back and he was in constant attendance on him until he died. Maugham’s grief was tempestuous.
But he had for many years, whenever he was in England from which Haxton was barred, found another lover, Alan Searle, of Cockney origin, whom he had first met in 1928. Searle now became Maugham’s secretary and devoted companion for the rest of the latter’s life. Searle, too, would bring young boys to Maugham, who remained sexually active into his eighties.
Maugham returned to Villa Mauresque when the war was over. He wrote three more novels and some short stories after the war, considered by critics inferior to his previous ones, but he remained a revered man of letters; honours rained upon him; adaptations of his work appeared on film and on television, and the money kept on rolling in. He continued to entertain on a lavish scale, and built up a large collection of mainly impressionist paintings.
In 1960 Maugham decided to sell many of his paintings, nine of which had been purchased in Liza’s name, and Liza had agreed to their sale. This triggered the saddest episode at the end of his life. Searle was always fearful that he would be left with nothing when Maugham died (even though Maugham had set up a trust for him); that he would be turned out penniless by Maugham’s heirs, especially by his daughter Liza to whom Maugham was devoted and for whom Searle had conceived a secret hatred. Searle deviously first persuaded Liza that Maugham meant to keep the money for her pictures; Liza believed him and said she would fight for her rights in court; he then persuaded the old man, now nearly 90, that Liza was only after his money, and even that Syrie’s first husband, and not Maugham, had been Liza’s biological father; he got him to disown Liza and to adopt Searle as his son and heir! The case went to court, and eventually there was a settlement out of court, by which Liza got half the proceeds of the sale of her pictures and would inherit the Villa Mauresque, while Maugham would be free to leave everything else to whomever he chose - the bulk of that would be left to Searle.
Unfortunately Maugham was then persuaded to write his autobiography, “Looking Back”, which was full of vitriol against Syrie and Liza. No publisher would publish it, but it was serialized by Beaverbrook in the Sunday Express in 1962, and Maugham made the proceeds over to Searle. The result was that many of his friends turned against him. He discovered this on a visit to England, and never returned to that country again. The remainder of his life was filled with remorse, terror, sleeplessness, weeping and rages. His mind broke down and he was about to be certified as insane, when mercifully he developed pneumonia and died in 1965, aged 91.