Should you read W Somerset Maugham in the 21st century?

Robert Pimm
Robert Pimm

Should you read W Somerset Maugham?  The one-time master of the short story has fallen out of fashion.  But his tales can still electrify.

To say W Somerset Maugham is unfashionable is like saying that J K Rowling has sold a few books.

Yet he remains popular.  My post about his memoirs, W Somerset Maugham on sex, turnips and the meaning of life, is one of my most visited (links in bold italics are to other posts on this blog).

An extraordinary life

He was an extraordinary character.  Born in the British Embassy in Paris in 1874, he grew up speaking French and lost both his parents by the age of ten, when he moved to England.  He served in the ambulance corps in the First World War before joining the Secret Intelligence Service and working in Switzerland and Russia.  Later he travelled widely in South East Asia, China and the Pacific.

W Somerset Maugham Books

W Somerset Maugham is famous for his short stories

These experiences provide the setting for Maugham’s most famous tales.  In the preface to his collected stories he says of the most famous, Rain: “Rain was written in 1920 in Hong Kong, but I had hit upon the idea for it during a journey I took in the South Seas during the winter of 1916.”

The sins of others

The settings, in the dying days of doomed empire, and the rich cast of washed-up and desperate characters who inhabit the stories, evoke a lost era.  Many are about relationships, which he describes with wisdom and forgiveness.  A man of complex sexuality, he said: “It must be a fault in me that I am not gravely shocked at the sins of others unless they personally affect me.”

Why should you read W Somerset Maugham? Wisdom

That wisdom shines through in stories such as The Promise, about Lady Elizabeth Vermont, who “married at the age of eighteen a very rich man and started at once upon a career of astounding extravagance, lewdness and dissipation… her startling beauty and her scandalous conduct held her in the public eye and it was never very long but that she gave the gossips something to talk about.  Her name stank in the nostrils of decent people.”

Yet when the narrator meets her in her latter years, she is about to sacrifice her happiness for a much younger man, whom she loves.  As she leaves, he says “she was a very honest woman”. 

Maugham’s focus on values is reflected in The Summing Up, where, as set out in my earlier post, Maugham explores whether writing, alcohol, sex, art, or living in the moment is the key to a happy life.  His stories teem with hypocrites, drunks, addicts, murderesses and spine-chilling passion.

Tragedies

Who could not gasp at the climax of “The Mother”, as the possessive mother of a handsome adult son, who has spent seven years in prison for killing the lover who beat him as a child, is driven mad by jealousy when he falls in love with a woman his own age.  Other stories such as “The Point of Honour”, set in Spain, or “The Unconquered”, set in occupied France, show high moral principles taken to extremes – and beyond.

Comedies

Other stories are humorous.  I smiled as the stuffy narrator in “The Fall of Edward Barnard” recounted the tragic fate of the eponymous hero, who fell into lazy ways in the South Pacific and wasted his talents – when the reader could see that Edward, in fact, had found a life of perfect pleasure and companionship.  “Louise” and “The Luncheon” both explore maddening yet powerful women; “The Facts of Life” shows how it is better to be born lucky than be born clever or rich.

Should you read W Somerset Maugham? Quotations

A couple of quotations from Volume 1 of the short stories:

  • I held my breath, for to me there is nothing more awe-inspiring than when a man discovers to you the nakedness of his soul.  Then you see that no one is so trivial or debased but that in him is a spark of something to excite compassion.  The Pool.
  • The Senator was well aware that his appearance and his age made it unlikely that young women would find him attractive at first sight, but he had found that his wealth and his position counterbalanced these disadvantages.  Appearance and Reality.
  • What can they know of England who only England know?  Before the Party
  • Mrs Skinner came of a generation which accepted without question the good opinion that men had of themselves.  Before the Party (comment: this reminds me of George Eliot’s observation in Middlemarch: A man’s mind – what there is of it – has always the advantage of being masculine.)

For all you writers out there, here are a few more of Maugham’s famous quotes:

  • The love that lasts longest is the love that is never returned.  (Comment: this again reminds me of Eliot’s epigramThe remote worship of a woman throned out of their reach plays a great part in men’s lives.)
  • There are three rules for writing a novel.  Unfortunately, no-one knows what they are.
  • It is one of the defects of my character that I cannot altogether dislike anyone who has made me laugh.

Dip into Maugham

I conclude that every reader should take a dip into Maugham.  The subject matter is inspiring; the wisdom, often, profound.  But the dense, mannered prose will not suit everyone; and the sheer volume of the stories can be intimidating.

I look forward to reading the next volume of Maugham’s short stories.  But perhaps I shall read a thriller or two first.

P.S If you enjoy fresh, original writing, you can follow me on Facebook or join my mailing list – I’ll be delighted to give you a free “Hotel Story” to say thanks.  Check out the range of writing on this site via my five pleasure paths.

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