Top positive review
Cakes and Ale
29 September 2017
This novel was one of the very first I read from the adult section of the lending library, when I was finally allowed to ascend the stairs to what I perceived as, ‘the real books,’ and leave the children’s section behind. W. Somerset Maugham has always remained one of my favourite authors and re-reading this was a delight. It features a returning character; the narrator being William ‘Willie’ Ashenden. Much of this novel is autobiographical and, indeed, Maugham himself always said it was his favourite.
Ashenden is a novelist, who knew the great ‘man of letters,’ Edward Driffield as a young man. Driffield has recently died, leaving his widow, and former nurse, looking for a biographer to help present the vision of his life that she approves of. She asks Alroy Kear to write Driffield’s life and he, in turn, asks for Ashenden’s help. Ashenden knew Driffield well, and also his first wife, Rosie. Rosie is something of an embarrassment in terms of the biography – a former barmaid, she was notoriously unfaithful and Driffield’s widow is keen to play down her role.
This is very much a satire of literary London and you sense that Maugham is having a great deal of fun in writing this. He is keen to point out literary trends; gleefully pointing out that nobody remembers many of the people he met at literary soirees at the time. It is said that Edward Driffield was based on Thomas Hardy, while Alroy Kear, who approaches Ashenden for his reminiscences, is based upon Hugh Walpole. It was later suggested that this novel ruined Walpole’s literary reputation and, indeed, the remaining years of his life, although Maugham refused to acknowledge the suggested connections between the above mentioned authors and his characters. He certainly takes a side swipe at Evelyn Waugh (another favourite author of mine) and is at his best when sniping at the literary world and also laughing at himself as a young, priggish and snobbish youth.
Rosie, it is obvious, is not the embarrassment that Driffield’s widow wants her to be. As Ashenden recalls his life and his relationship with Driffield, it is Rosie who really comes to life on the page. Her character, charm, beauty and humour which draws everyone around her; like moths to a flame. This is a wonderful book and I am not surprised that Maugham wanted to be remembered for it. It contains much of himself and he obviously uses his young life to good effect, while cleverly poking fun at literary pretentions and how reputations are created.