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W(illiam) Somerset Maugham
1874-1965
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British novelist, playwright, short-story writer and highest paid author in the world in the 1930s. Despite his popularity, Maugham did not gain serious recognition. This was expressed in his autobiography THE SUMMING UP (1938) where he writes that he stood 'in the very first row of the second-raters'. Maugham's skill in handling plot has been compared by critics to the manner of Guy de Maupassant. In many novels the surroundings are international and the 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 favour with the intelligentsia. In endeavour to bear my misfortunes with fortitude."
(from Creatures of Circumstance, 1947)

Somerset Maugham was born in Paris as the sixth and youngest son of a solicitor to the British embassy. He learned French as his native tongue. At the age of 10 Maugham was orphaned and sent to England to live with his uncle, the vicar of Whitstable. Educated at King's School, Canterbury, and Heidelberg University, Maugham then studied medicine for six years in London. He qualified in 1897 as a 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. In 1897 his first novel, LIZA OF LAMBERT was published, which drew on his experiences of attending women in childbirth. His first play, A MAN OF HONOUR, was produced in 1903. Four of his plays ran simultaneously in London in 1904. 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. The real process of his education, after the end of an unsatisfactory social life, begins in Heidelberg. Philip goes to Paris to study art, and at the age of thirty he qualifies as a doctor. Finally he marries Sally Athelny, a normal, healthy, happy girl.

Disguised as a reporter, Maugham worked for the British Intelligence in Russia during the Russian Revolution of 1917, but his stuttering and poor health hindered his career in this field. He then set off with a friend on a series of travels to eastern Asia, the Pacific Islands and Mexico. His most famous story, which became the play RAIN and was made into several movies, was inspired by a missionary and prostitute among his fellow passengers on a trip to Pago Pago. In the 1928 he settled in Cape Ferrat in France. His plays, among them 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. Maugham's famous novel THE MOON AND THE SIXPENCE (1919) was the story of Paul Gauguin, a French artist, whose rejection of Western civilization led to his departure for Tahiti. TREMBLING OF A LEAF (1921) included the story 'Rain,' made into a play by John Colton and Clemence Randolph in 1922. RAZORS EDGE (1944), about a spiritual quest, was filmed twice. In the story a young American veteran moves through superbly described settings: Italy, London, the Riviera, Montparnasse. In the end he seeks 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.

As an agent and writer Maugham was a link in a 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. Maugham's spy stories, ASHENDEN; OR THE BRITISH AGENT (1928), was partly based on his own experiences in the secret service. Alfred Hitchcock based his film Secret Agent (1936) specifically on the stories 'The Traitor' and 'The Hairless Mexican'.

Maugham believed that there is a true harmony in the contradictions of mankind and that the normal is, in reality, the abnormal. In his satirical short story 'The Ant and the Grasshopper' he 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 he became world famous he was never knighted and his relationship with Gerald Haxton, his secretary, has been subject to speculation. 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.

After the 1930s Maugham's reputation abroad was greater than in England. Interest in him revived again on his 80th birthday, which he celebrated by the special republication of CAKES AND ALE (1930), a novel satirizing London literary circles and 'Grand Old Men'. Among the characters are Maugham as Ashenden, Thomas Hardy as Driffield, and Hugh Walpole as Kear. The novelist Hugh Walpole portrayed Maugham as the arrogant pessimist in John Cornelius (1937), he appeared as John-Blair-Kennedy in Noel Coward's South Sea Bubble (1956), Leverson Hurle in Gin and Bitters by A Riposte, the homosexual novelist in Noel 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). Maugham collected his literary experiences in THE SUMMING UP (1938), which has been used as a guidebook for creative writing.

"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."

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); 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) - See also: Eric Ambler


Selected works:
  • LIZA OF LAMBETH, 1897
  • ORIENTATIONS, 1899
  • MRS. CRADDOCK, 1902
  • A MAN OF HONOUR, 1903
  • THE BISHOP'S APRON, 1906
  • THE MAGICIAN, 1908 - (the central character, lightly disguised, is occultist Aleister Crowley)
  • PENELOPE, 1909
  • LADY FREDERICK. 1912
  • JACK STRAW, 1912
  • MRS DOT, 1912
  • OF HUMAN BONDAGE, 1915 - film 1934, dir. by John Cromwell; film 1946, dir. by Edmund Gouldig; film 1964, dir. by Henry Hathaway, Ken Hughes
  • THE MOON AND SIXPENCE, 1919 - film 1943, dir. by Albert Lewin
  • THE CIRCLE, 1921 - film 1925, dir. by Frank Borzage
  • SADIE THOMPSON, 1921 - film 1928, dir. by Raoul Walsh, starring Gloria Swanson, Lionel Barrymore; Rain 1932, dir. by Lewis Milestone, starring Joan Crawford, Walter Huston; film 1953 Sade/Miss Sadie Thompson, dir. by Curtis Bernhardt, starring Rita Hayworth and Mel Ferrer - also a film adaptation under the title Dirty Gertie from Harlem, U.S.A.
  • THE TREMBLING OF A LEAF, 1921
  • EAST OF SUEZ, 1922 - film 1925, dir. by Raoul Walsh
  • ON CHINESE SCREEN, 1922
  • OUR BETTERS, 1923 - film 1933. dir. by George Cukor
  • THE PAINTED VEIL, 1925 - film 1934, dir. by Richard Boleslawski
  • THE CONSTANT WIFE, 1925
  • THE CASUARINA TREE, 1926
  • THE LETTER, 1927 - film 1940, dir. by William Wyler
  • THE SACRED FLAME, 1928 - film The Right to Live in 1935, dir. by William Keighley
  • ASHENDEN, 1928 - film Secret Agent in 1936, dir. by Alfred Hitchcock
  • THE BREADWINNER, 1930
  • CACES AND ALE, 1930
  • FIRST PERSON SINGULAR, 1931
  • COLLECTED PLAYS, 1931-34
  • THE NARROW CORNER, 1932
  • FOR SERVICES RENTED, 1932
  • COLLECTED PLAYS, 1933
  • SHEPPEY, 1933
  • AH KING, 1933
  • COSMOPOLITANS, 1936
  • THE THEATRE, 1937
  • THE SUMMING UP, 1938
  • CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY, 1939 - film 1944, dir. by Robert Siodmark
  • THE MIXTURE AS BEFORE, 1940
  • UP AT THE VILLA, 1941
  • STRICTLY PERSONAL, 1941
  • THE HOUR BEFORE THE DAWN, 1942
  • THE RAZOR'S EDGE, 1944 - film 1946, dir. by Edmund Goulding; film 1984, dir. by John Byrum, starring Bill Murray, Theresa Russell and Denholm Elliott
  • THEN AND NOW, 1946
  • CREATURES OF CIRCUMSTANCES, 1947
  • CATALINA, 1948
  • A WRITER'S NOTEBOOK, 1949
  • THE COMPLETE SHORT STORIES, 1951
  • THE VAGRANT MOOD, 1952
  • SELECTED NOVELS, 1953
  • TEN NOVELS AND THEIR AUTHORS, 1954
  • FAR AND WIDE, 1955
  • BEST SHORT STORIES, 1957
  • POINTS OF VIEW, 1958
  • LOOKING BACK, 1962
  • SELECTED PREFACES AND INTRODUCTIONS, 1963
  • SEVENTEEN LOST STORIES, 1969
  • A TRAVELLER IN ROMANCE, 1984

    Other film adaptations: Vessel of Wrath (1938), dir. by Erich Pommer; Quartet (1948), dir. by Smart & French & Crabtree & Annakin; Trio (1959), dir. by French and Annakin; Encore (1951), dir. by Jackson & PĂ©lissier & French; The Beachcomber (1954), dir. by Muriel Box; The Seventh Sin (1957), dir. by Ronald Neame

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This biography was written by Petri Liukkonen.

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