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[299] The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham – Selina Hastings

” The truth was rather different: in fact Maugham was remarkably unchanged by his success, although inevitably his level-headed manner struck some observers as a form of vanity. He was pleased by the acclaim, of course, but he had worked hard through ten long years to achieve it and he saw very clearly the nature of that achievement: he has discovered a knack, a facility for writing light comedy that audiences found amusing; it was an ability he rated very highly, nor did he see himself continuing with it for very long . . . ” [5:118]

For many years after the passing of at one time the most famous writer in the world, W. Somerset Maugham’s life story has not been fully told. In his late years not only did he destroy all letters of correspondence with friends, he also issued mandatory notices to literary executors that no biography should be authorized. Throughout his life an appearance of conventionality was of profound importance to Maugham. For the first time a definitive account of the celebrated literary figure’s extraordinary life is made possible, in literary excellence that the subject probably would approve, by Selina Hastings. Granted unprecedented access to Maugham’s most personal correspondence, Hastings portrays the secret lives, passion, and betrayal—the great deal out of his outwardly respectable life that he was determined to conceal.

The irony was that he himself never experienced what he described as ‘the bliss of requited love.’ Expert at covering his tracks, Maugham left little documentary evidence of specific attachments; nevertheless there are numerous signs—references casually made in letters, fictional versions lightly disguised—of his love affairs and of an emotional neediness only partly hidden behind the reserve. [5:115]

For a man who from childhood had been wholly deprived of love and emotional security, financial stability became a vital substitute. But in other personal facets, he succumbed to an acute emotional vulnerability to which adolescent trauma predisposed him. Behind the social and career triumphs, which placed him among political and literary illuminaries, his marriage to Syrie Wellcome, a manipulative society woman who ensnared him with pregnancy, was a disaster.

The frequent scenes Syrie staged, the endless reproaches, the daily testing, and questioning of Maugham’s feelings for her, maddening to him . . . The fact that she was in love made her desperate for any show of affection. It also made her physically demanding . . . [8:238]

Behind this painted veil of a marriage (which existed merely on paper since Maugham was always on the leave to travel), despite the lack of felicity and harmony, Maugham was able to cultivate many affairs with men, including his great love and soul mate Gerald Haxton, who albeit being an alcoholic cad, had the sheer power to unlock a door inside the novelist’s shut-away secret wall. Not only did he give full rein to a sensuality and subversiveness that Maugham held in check, he also dominated him mentally. The struggle between maintaining his marriage in public and nourishing the intimate affair forays into his major novels—Of Human Bondage, The Razor’s Edge, and Cakes and Ale, in the form of recurring themes like masochistic sexual obsession, ill-matched marriage, sexual passion, meaning of love, the mores of society and the nature of goodness.

And with admirable detachment he analyzes his own strengths and weakness as a practitioner of the art to which he had dedicated his life. ‘I am a made writer,’ he states unequivocally. ‘I do not write as I want to; I write as I can . . . I have had small power of imagination . . . no lyrical quality . . . little gift of metaphor . . . [but] I had an acute power of observation and it seemed to me that I could see a great many things that other people missed. [13:422]

Indeed, as Hastings has repeatedly pointed out, in citing letters of correspondence between Maugham and his contemporaries, that Maugham understood the range of his engagement. It wasn’t the big picture that appealed to his mind’s eye, but the small lives of unremarkable individuals struggling to create assurance in life out of an exotic environment. His extensive travel had fueled and furnished his stories with such characters, for he was a realist who needed actual people and events to work on. Although his stories are not remarkably profound and laden with symbolisms, metaphors, and subtexts, they are of absolute verisimilitude owing to his adherence to psychological truth. Not for once did he comment on the tottering British empire in The Gentleman in the Parlour, an account of his travel throughout colonial Burma, Malaysia and Singapore. Nor did he judge Kitty Fane in The Painted Veil, who was not aware of her selfish and shallow existence until her husband, on whom she cheated, succumbed to cholera and died unreconciled. His keen observation and perspective, which often penetrates to the nerve and fiber of his subjects, are what hold generations of readers in thrall.

The strength of The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham lies in Hastings’ ability to establish the link between Maugham’s private lives and his works. Hastings adopts a structure of the book that emphasizes on how Maugham, a playwright, an intellectual agent, a novelist, a traveler, a lover, and an observer, transposes real people he encountered into characters to whom he meted out his often satirical and caricatured treatment. The biography demonstrates how closely his works mirror the temperament of his social circle as leading members of cultural establishment as well as his romantic flames alike were all tempting targets for the irreverent streak in Maugham’s nature. This volume is the perfect literary companion to Maugham’s works.

626 pp. 1st US Hardback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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4 Responses

  1. This sounds like a fascinating biography. I’d like to read a few more of his books (so far have only read Of Human Bondage) before I delve into the story of his life.

  2. […] Favorite biography? I rarely read biography, but The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings tops my reading list this […]

  3. […] Sayers Russian Author: Doctor Zhivago Boris Pasternek An Old Classic: The Aeneid Virgil Nonfiction: The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham Selina Hastings Poetry: 100 Essential American Poems edited by Leslie M. Pockell Pulitzer Prize […]

  4. […] is free of blame, as long as the writing does the life’s justice. That said, I do enjoy The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings profusely. The strength of The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham lies in […]

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