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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]

Maugham: A Writer’s Life

No one can be more eloquent, exhaustive, and incisive than Somerset Maugham on the subject of a writer’s life. This passage is taken out of Cakes and Ale, in which the narrator, a literary gentleman named Willie Asheden, who might very well be Maugham himself, reflects upon being a writer.

“I did not pay attention, and since it seemed to prolong itself I began to meditate upon the writer’s life. It is full of tribulation. First he must endure poverty and the world’s indifference; then having achieved a measure of success, he must submit with a good grace to its hazards. He depends upon a fickle public. He is at the mercy of journalists who want to interview him and photographers who want to take his picture, of editors who harry him for copy and tax gatherers who harry him for income tax, of persons of quality who ask him to lunch and secretaries of institutes who ask him to lecture, of women who want to marry him and women who want to divorce him, of youths who want his autograph, actors who want parts and strangers who want a loan, of gushing ladies who want advice on their matrimonial affairs and earnest young men who want advice on their compositions, of agents, publishers, managers, bores,admirers, critics, and his own conscience. But he has one compensation. Whenever he has anything on his mind, whether it be a harassing reflection, grief at the death of a friend, unrequited love, wounded pride, anger at the treachery of someone to whom he has shown kindness, in short any emotion or any perplexing thought, he has only to put it down in black and white, using it as the theme of a story or the decoration of an essay, to forget all about it. He is the only free man.” [26:307]