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William Somerset Maugham was born on 25th January 1874 to Robert Ormond Maugham and Edith Mary (née Snell). Robert was a lawyer dealing with the British Embassy’s legal affairs in Paris, and he arranged for Maugham to be born at the Embassy on British soil to ensure his exemption from the law of conscription into the French army for all boys born on French soil. Given that both Maugham’s father and grandfather were practitioners of law (Maugham’s grandfather, also named Robert, co-founded the English Law Society) it was assumed that Maugham and his brothers would follow suit, and his brother’s did; his eldest, Viscount Maugham, served as Lord Chancellor in 1938-39.
Maugham’s deviation from the family career can perhaps be explained by his being raised effectively as an only child, for his three older brothers were already away at boarding school by his third birthday. Between the birth of the youngest of these three elder brothers and Maugham, Edith had contracted tuberculosis and the doctor had bizarrely prescribed childbirth as treatment, which led to Maugham’s birth so long after that of his brothers. Of course, her pregnancy and Maugham’s birth did little to alleviate her condition, so she had two more children after him, the last of whom was born on the 24th January 1882 and died the following day. Shortly thereafter on the 31st January Edith succumbed to her tuberculosis and died aged 41. Her early death had a profound effect on Maugham, and he kept her photograph at his bedside for the remainder of his life. This early childhood trauma was compounded by the death of his father from cancer two years later. Maugham was sent to Kent where his uncle, Henry MacDonald Maugham, was Vicar of Whitstable.
Maugham's time here was unhappy, for his home life with his uncle was emotionally damaging and Maugham had no better a time at The King’s School, Canterbury, where he was teased for his poor English, French having been his first language as a child, and his diminutive stature. The combination of the loss of his parents, the cruelty he encountered from his uncle and the bullying at school manifested itself in a sporadic stammer, brought on by certain moods and circumstances, and which lasted his whole life. Despite this speech impediment, or perhaps in direct opposition to it, he developed a talent for pithy, cutting repartee and character assassination, usually directed at those who upset or displeased him. By the age of sixteen Maugham had had enough, and flatly refused to return to The King's School, and his uncle was happy for him to travel to Heidelberg University in Germany where he studied literature, philosophy and German. The year he spent there provided the opportunity for both literary and sexual awakenings. The literary came in the form of Maugham’s first book, a biography of the Prussian-born Jewish composer Giacomo Meyerbeer, while the sexual came in the form of John Ellingham Brooks, an Englishman.
Maugham returned to England with increased confidence, and his uncle secured him a position in an accountant’s office. This proved unsatisfactory, however, and so he gave it up after a month in favour of a return to Whitstable. It was now that he made the conscious decision to divert from the legal path laid before him by his grandfather, father and brothers, and so his uncle set to finding Maugham a new profession. The church was discarded owing to his stammer seeming ridiculous, and Henry Maugham’s opinion that the recent law requiring civil service applicants pass an entrance exam before consideration meant it was no longer the career of gentlemen saw it rejected. At the suggestion of the local doctor, Henry Maugham resolved upon the medical profession. Though Maugham had developed such an interest in writing that anything but authorship was unsuitable, he was not yet of age and so elected to keep this from his uncle, which resulted in five years spent at St Thomas’s Hospital in Lambeth, London, where he studied medicine.
Despite medicine being so far removed from Maugham’s ideal career as an author, he understood its importance and did not consider his years of study a waste, or stifling to his creativity. On the contrary, in fact, he would later recall its value, writing “I saw how men died. I saw how they bore pain. I saw what hope looked like, fear and relief.” Furthermore, living in London was exciting, for he met people of every class, many of whom he would have had little chance of encountering otherwise. During his studies, he kept notebooks of literary ideas and ensured he sustained his interest in writing alongside his degree. The usefulness of his time in London became apparent when it formed the inspiration for his second book and first novel, Liza of Lambeth, published in 1897. In it he explores the factory working conditions he witnessed in Lambeth, the relationships between the workers and themes of hope, despair and the importance of human life, all of which he was able to observe both during his studies and while living in Lambeth. The great success of Liza of Lambeth, whose first print run sold out in weeks, enabled him to drop practicing medicine (for he had now qualified) and begin his chosen career as an author, to which he took “as a duck takes to water”.
For the next twelve years Maugham traveled in search of creative inspiration to places such as Capri and Spain. He produced ten works in this time, though none achieved the same success as Liza. The Making of a Saint, in 1898, and The Hero, in 1901, passed fairly under the radar, though Mrs. Craddock received moderate attention in 1902. Maugham had difficulty finding a publisher for it, since the subject of its protagonist, the titular Mrs. Craddock, and her decision to marry beneath her status was considered potentially offensive to the readership. Eventually Maugham agreed to terms laid down by the publishing house Heinemann, that he remove some of these offensive passages, and it was published. The Merry-go-round (1904) and The Bishop’s Apron (1906) weren’t discouraging, though they still failed to match Liza for critical and popular acclaim. Maugham’s fortunes changed in 1907 with the production of his first play, Lady Frederick, which was met with a very positive response. It was so positive, in fact, that over the following three years Maugham had eight plays which he had written between 1903 and 1910 in the theatre. This popularity was carried over to the publication of The Explorer (1908) which marked his return to novelistic form. A clear indication of the extent of his popularity can be found in a popular Punch cartoon which depicted Shakespeare looking at the West End billboards and biting his nails in anxiety at the repetition of Maugham’s name.
Drawing on the experience of meeting the infamous occultist Aleister Crowley in Paris for his next novel, The Magician (1908), Maugham discovered the true weight of his popularity, for Crowley’s critique of the novel and its treatment of the protagonist Oliver Haddo, indisputably based on Crowley himself, which was published in Vanity Fair magazine and accused Maugham of plagiarism, was largely ignored and Maugham’s reputation escaped unscathed, perhaps even bolstered for his audacious attack on the behaviour and belief of such a mysterious and influential man. With this, and his success as a playwright, Maugham’s popularity evolved into thoroughbred fame. By 1914 he had published ten novels and ten plays, and being too old for military service at the outbreak of the First World War, he returned to France where he served with the British Red Cross’s Literary Ambulance Drivers, a group of twenty-four well-known writers including John Dos Passos and E.E. Cummings. Also numbering among the group was Frederick Gerald Haxton, a young man from San Francisco, who became Maugham’s secretary, companion and lover until his death in 1944. Both men had been affected by the trial and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde, and so they kept their relationship secret. Haxton, however, was found by military policemen in a Covent Garden hotel room in 1915 in a homosexual act that was not buggery with another man, John Lindsall, and they were tried on the 7th December at the Criminal Justice Court at the Old Bailey under the same law which saw Wilde convicted. Unlike Wilde, however, both men were acquitted and Haxton and Maugham were able to continue their relationship.
Despite Maugham’s time being largely occupied by the Literary Ambulance Drivers, he again ensured he continued his writing, completing and proofreading Of Human Bondage while off-duty at Dunkirk. It was published in 1915 and initially met with harsh criticism by both English and American critics. However, thanks to the influence of American novelist and critic Theodore Dreiser, who considered the novel a work of art of Beethovenian genius, the novel was resuscitated and it has never since been out of print. The novel’s title came from a passage in Spinoza’s Ethics:
“The impotence of man to govern or restrain the emotions I call bondage, for a man who is under their control is not his own master… so that he is often forced to follow the worse, although he see the better before him.”
Many of the aspects of Of Human Bondage are considered autobiographical, such as the protagonist Philip Carey’s club foot (comparable to Maugham’s stammer, made evident in the way Carey is treated for it), the vicar and town of Blackstable are reminiscent of Whitstable, and Carey himself is in the medical profession. Though Maugham denied this autobiographical nature, he later wrote that “fact and fiction are so intermingled in my work that now, looking back on it, I can hardly distinguish one from the other.”
In 1915, Maugham began a relationship with Syrie Wellcome, who at the time was the wife of Henry Wellcome, the pharmaceutical magnate. Together Maugham and Syrie had a daughter, who they named Mary Elizabeth Maugham, who was born in 1915. Meanwhile, Henry Wellcome sued Syrie for divorce and Maugham was named as the co-respondent. Following the decree absolute which was passed in May 1917, Maugham and Syrie married, and Syrie took Maugham’s name to become Syrie Maugham. They began to refer to their daughter Mary as Liza, after the protagonist from Maugham’s first novel. They had an unhappy marriage, however, and Syrie found she could not live with Maugham’s frequent travels and continuing relationship with Haxton, and so they divorced in 1929.
Electing to suspend his military duties in France, Maugham returned to England in order to promote Of Human Bondage, though he was eager to return to assistance with the war effort. Being unable to return to the ambulance unit, Syrie made arrangements for him to be introduced to a highly ranking officer in the intelligence officers, known as “R”, and he was subsequently recruited by John Wallinger. In late September 1915 Maugham was sent to work in Switzerland in operation with a network of several other British agents against the Berlin Committee. He used his career as a writer as a cover for his residence in Switzerland, and did continue to write. In 1916 Maugham began research for his next novel, The Moon and Sixpence, which he researched in the Pacific with Haxton, who proved indispensible as an extrovert character who was able to interact with the people who Maugham wished to use as inspiration. His experience in the Pacific would encourage further writing about the area, and in his later works he would document more thoroughly the last days of British colonialism in India, and that of Southeast Asia, China and the Pacific. Haxton remained key to these journeys and books.
By June 1917, Maugham had been asked by Sir William Wiseman, another officer in the British Secret Intelligence Service, to take on a mission to keep the Provisional Government in Russia in power and thereby keep Russia in the war. The main task was to counter German propaganda which was threatening to bring down this government. The mission was a failure and the Bolsheviks took control only two months after Maugham’s arrival in the country, though he later wrote that, had he been able to get there some six months earlier than he had, he thought he could have succeeded. His experience with the SIS led to a collection of short stories following a sophistocated, gentlemanly spy, named Ashenden: Or the British Agent. Several of its characters are based on those he met during his service with the SIS, and it is plausible that these stories formed the basis for Ian Fleming’s famous character James Bond.
Maugham collected his experiences from traveling in China and Hong Kong in 1920 in On A Chinese Screen, which he dedicated to his wife Syrie and featured some fifty-eight very short sketches, designed to be broadened into short stories and novels but which never were. He wrote The Painted Veil in 1925, and then in 1926 bought Villa Mauresque, which had 9 acres of land on the French Riviera at Cap Ferrat. He made this his home for the majority of the rest of his life, and here he hosted a vibrant and highly-regarded literary salon during the 1920s and 30s, while keeping up his prolific literary output. One of the best-known works from this period is An Appointment in Samarra (1933), which is based on an ancient Babylonian myth and which John O’Hara credits as a key creative inspiration for his own Appointment in Samarra. By the 1940s, the collapse of France and its German occupation, Maugham found himself unable to remain at Villa Mauresque. He became a refugee, albeit one of the wealthiest and most famous of the many displaced English-speaking writers of the time.
By this time, Maugham was in his sixties, and he spent the majority of the Second World War, firstly in Hollywood where he wrote several successful scripts and made some of the first significant money from film adaptations, and then in the south of the United States. While here he made speeches to the United States encouraging their involvement in the war. Haxton died in 1944, and Maugham quickly returned to England. He met and began a relationship with Alan Searle, whom he had originally met in 1928. Searle was young, from the Bermondsey slums, and had prior experience of being kept by older men. His experience of this meant he was able to prove a devoted companion to Maugham, although Searle did not equal Haxton’s liveliness or passion. One of Maugham’s friends observed “Gerald was vintage, Alan was vin ordinaie”. They returned to Maugham's villa in 1946. Maugham wrote about his troubled love life, confessing “I have most loved people who cared little or nothing for me and when people have loved me I have been embarrassed… In order not to hurt their feelings, I have often acted a passion I did not feel.”
His family life took a further turn for the worse and to the notorious when, in 1962, Maugham sold a collection of paintings of which some he had already assigned to his daughter Liza by deed. She sued him successfully, winning a judgement of £230,000, and Maugham responded by publicly disowning her and claiming not to be her biological father, instead adopting Searle as his son and heir. Soon after he attacked Syrie in his memoirs, claiming that Liza had been born before their marriage and that her father remained unknown. His literary reputation was not enough to weather this public storm, though, and he lost several of his friends and endured masses of public ridicule over the memoir. His reputation in tatters, Maugham was death another blow when Liza and her husband, Lord Glendevon, had the change to his will overturned by the French courts. Searle instead inherited £50,000 and the contents of Villa Mauresque, Maugham’s manuscripts and the future revenue generated by thirty years of copyrights. Following this these thirty years, the ownership of the copyrights were passed on to the Royal Literary Fund. Maugham died in Nice in 1961, and his ashes were scattered near the Maugham library at The King's School, Canterbury. He has no grave.