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[302] Cakes and Ale – W. Somerset Maugham

” Well, then let me say that she can hardly have been a very good woman to treat poor Edward as she did. Of course, it was a blessing in disguise. If she hadn’t run away from him he might have had to bear that burden for the rest of his life, and with such a handicap he could never have reached the position he did. But the fact remains that she was notoriously unfaithful to him. From what I hear she was absolutely promiscuous. ” [25:284]

In Cakes and Ale, Maugham truly shows himself at his most lethal and incisive as a social satirist, meting out his treatment literati, intelligentia, and writers alike. A realist who constantly needs actual people and events to fuel his imagination, he makes use of real personalities from the literary society with little alteration, putting them onto the page very much as they were in life, with small attempt at disguise and discretion. Cakes and Ale is autobiographical in both incidents and emotions, with a narrator being a literary gentleman to all intents and purposes Maugham himself.

I had watched with admiration his rise in the world of letters . . . I could think of no one among my contemporaries who had achieved so considerable a position on so little talent. . . . He was perfectly aware of it, and it must have seemed to him sometimes little short of a miracle that he had been able with it to compose already some thirty books. [1:4]

An old friend and fellow writer Alroy Kear invites William Ashenden to lunch. A social climber who has made a successful career out of his second-rate novels, Kear has just been commissioned to write the biography of a famous novelist, the late Edward Driffield, whom Ashenden knew when he was a boy. Kear’s questioning takes Ashenden back to the memories of his boyhood at the vicarage with with his uncle and aunt, and of his friendships with Driffeld and his much young wife, Rosie.

Amy has very decided views on the subject . . . her attitude is that Rose Driffield exerted a most pernicious influence on her husband, and that she did everything possible to ruin him morally, physically, and financially; she was beneath him in every way, at least intellectually and spiritually, and it was only because he was a man of immense force and vitality that he survived. [11:158]

Amy, the second Mrs Driffield, is determined to expunge the last vestige of the unfaithful Rosie Driffield, whose memory has cast an embarrassing and ignominious shadow over her late husband’s career. Under her strict direction, Alroy Kear is to have the facts rewritten in a posthumous biography that will all but obliterate Rosie’s vital presence. Unbeknownst to Amy Driffield, Rosie is alive and in full possession of the facts about her ex-husband.

Cakes and Ale has more than a vestige of the leading members of the cultural establishment. Other than those who assiduously suck up to critics and cultivate the prominent, there are also those “who neither read the books nor looked at the pictures of the people to whom [they] offered hospitality.” Driffield has parallels to Thomas Hardy. Alroy Kear is caricature of Hugh Walpole. Rosie, the sensual and striking heroine who steals the story, is reminiscent of the lovely, loving, and promiscuous Sue Jones, whose memories had lingered in Maugham’s minds over the years even after he married Syrie Wellcome. His love affair with Sue Jones is unmistakably transposed here, as the narrator reflected upon a brief love affair with Rosie. The novel also provokes my thoughts on the (possible) relation between sex and love. Which matters more in a relationship, sex within the context of love or just sex? It brings back the question on physical fidelity and emotional fidelity. Rosie possesses a zest for life and a maternal warmth, which appealed to Maugham at the first place because his mother died very young. Rosie would give herself as naturally as the sun gives heat, out of kindness and duty. She loves to give pleasure to others and considers it an act of love. Sex can exist out of the context of love, but I rather have sex exclusively within he context of love.

307 pp. Vintage. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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3 Responses

  1. […] [302] Cakes and Ale – W. Somerset Maugham […]

  2. The Painted Veil was a favorite a couple years ago, but I’ve yet to read more Maugham. Enjoyed your take on this one and will add it to my list!

    • The Painted Veil is my most favorite Maugham. After reading his biography by Selina Hastings, I’ve gained more insights in the background of his novels. I wouldn’t have enjoyed Cakes and Ale as much had I not read the biography.

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