Somerset Maugham was an English writer who was born in Paris in 1874 and died in Nice in 1965. Tragedy struck at the early age of ten when both his parents died and he was taken in by an uncle who was cold towards the boy. He rejected the encouragement to follow the family tradition of going into the Law and studied to become a doctor instead. But after the success of his first novel, he gave medicine up and took to full-time writing and became one of the most popular and highest-paid authors in the 1930s.
Although listed as my choice in our plan, I can’t really claim the credit for revisiting this fine author. His name and short stories came up during a recent Zoom meeting and a number of people remembered reading his short stories – for which he is famous – including me, and thus I made a note for our next plan.
I bought one collection (the 4th) on Kindle but unfortunately haven’t had time to read more than one. However, one was enough to remind me of what an extraordinary and wonderful writer Maugham was.
It was my mother who introduced him to me in my teens. She admired his writing and there were lots of his books in our house. I remember only that I read many and became quite addicted but it was all a long time ago and I don’t remember any in name or detail.
Knowing I had little time to read them right now, I googled to find which were considered Maugham’s best short stories and one, The Letter, was in the collection I’d bought. It may be short but is in fact 32pp so took a little time to read.
First published in 1926 and set in Singapore, it’s actually based on the true-life story of a headmaster’s wife – in Kuala Lumpur – who was convicted of murder for killing a male friend in 1911, but was eventually pardoned. The Letter opens in a Singapore on a busy road: ‘every chauffeur blew his horn; rickshaws threaded their nimble path amid the throng, and panting coolies found breath to yell at one another’. Immediately, this fabulous writing takes us right into the heart of early 20th century Singapore.
A lawyer, Mr Joyce, is pondering the case of Leslie Crosbie, the wife of rubber planter Robert, who has been accused of murdering one of their friends, Geoff Hammond, in self-defence. One a night when Robert was away in Singapore, apparently Hammond turned up unexpectedly, came in for a drink and then declared his love for her and tried to rape her. Throughout Joyce and the police’s questioning, being held in gaol, Leslie remains her usual cool, calm self. She has a story she sticks to; the ‘facts’ never changing. Mr Joyce assures her husband that she is bound to be acquitted. But then his Chinese clerk, an ‘industrious, obliging and of exemplary character’ brings him a copy of a letter, in which Leslie begs Hammond to come to her while Robert is away. It is clear they are lovers.
Joyce confronts Leslie who at first denies she wrote it, but then ‘Was it his fancy that, as she made this remark, her black pupils were filled on a sudden, for the fraction of a second, with a dull red light?’ The plot twists and turns: the clerk implies his friend, who has the letter, will accept a payment – a large payment– for it (and no doubt take a cut). Robert has to be told why he must find this large sum of money quickly, to save his wife from being hanged; Joyce changes the details, saying Leslie had only asked Hammond to come to help organise a gift for her husband (her initial ‘story’ to him). Robert seems at first taken in but then picks up on a small detail and ‘Then something seemed to dawn in that slow intelligence of his’ and he understands the truth. Robert pays the money and saves his wife but confronts her with what he knows, leaving her at the end to stay with the Joyces while he goes away.
Maugham’s writing is detailed in the most beautiful way, conveying with a mastery of words all the little moments that come together to make sense of the world, his characters, something that has happened. He shows how the smallest thing can change everything. I was reminded what a wonderful writer he is and it’s interesting that even with the passing of a few decades since I last read him, and the stories being almost a century old, his writing shows no sign of age (despite its settings) and I look forward to reading more of these stories.
Thank you Kay for introducing me to this great author who is a brilliant storyteller. It is amazing that his sad lonely childhood eventually translated into a life of such energy and creativity. I read stories from both his Best Short Stories and Collected Short Stories Volume 1. His work has a great sense of place and I loved some of the exotic tropical locations set in Samoa, Polynesia and Malaysia. His descriptions of different characters reveals such an acute power of observation and often his stories contain a deeper message. Rain, set in Samoa, demonstrates the missionaries’ lack of respect for the culture and beliefs of the natives. The devastating ending also shows their hypocrisy towards prostitution. The Letter, set on a plantation in Malasia was about the uncovering of a brutal crime of passion. Totally gripping! The Book-Bag, the author is wandering about Malaya with his bag of books and equates his need for books on his travels to the addict’s need for drugs! He receives an invitation to attend a water festival and stays at the home of an Englishman he previously only knew by name. From the outset there is something odd and unsettled about his host who borrows a biography of Lord Byron [clue] from his book-bag. The next day they have a discussion about Byron’s relationship with his sister Aurora Leigh from which point unfolds the disturbing story of a local planter Tim Hardy and his sister Olive….so many wonderful stories.
I consumed the writings of Somerset Maugham in my early teens, availing myself of my mother’s library card to gain access to “grown up books”, having already devoured the contents of the children’s library. I still remember my keen pleasure in those well-crafted stories. I particularly loved the fact that he wrote so much – what a relief to know that there were so many novels and short stories still to come!
I can recommend “The Lotus Eater” as a wonderful picture of the way in which the pleasures of a lotus-eating life will eventually sap the character of a person originally possessed of resolution and vigour. The long enervating decline of the main character here was exactly what the ancients warned about with regard to the first Lotus Eaters. The original decision on the part of our hero, to retire early and enjoy South Sea island life, and, further, to commit suicide when his money ran out, was presented as perfectly rational originally. But as as the money ran out and his will proved to be unequal to his decision, his life spiralled miserably into the pathos of decline, poverty, ruin and a wretched death. Tragic inevitability is the very stuff of drama.
Possibly the most famous of Maugham’s stories is the tale of Sadie Thomson, in “Rain”. Filmed more than once, here again we have the element of inevitability. But this story looks at hypocrisy, misogyny, Freudian repression, English middle-class self-deception. The action takes place during an almost biblical rainstorm – what a gift the filmmakers! When I read this as a callow teenager, I revelled in the horrible missionary couple who were ready to bring the louche Sadie Thomson to an understanding of the error of her immoral ways. I loved the repressed sexuality that infused the action, and the muddle-headed Christianity, combined with the unacknowledged lust that consumed the pastor. And again, as so often with Maugham, the English middle class was under a searching microscope.
Although there may be an old-fashioned air to these stories nowadays, and perhaps accusations of melodrama, his many fans will attest to the story-telling skills of Maugham, which covered areas of secret agents and spying, novels and plays, all focussing on the human condition. The titles alone are a come-on.
Thanks, Kay, for suggesting these stories, because, over the years, I have often returned to this master storyteller.
I have taken my comments from W. Somerset Maugham’s Volume One, first published in 1951.
I think the stories have weathered well through seventy years, they have a wide range and variety from very short stories of three pages to Rain, the longest of forty pages.
Rain may be dated if read by young readers but I hope that it would be a good reminder about our Colonial past – my grandson in Australia is including History through the Twentieth Century for ‘A Level’. The story, written in 1920, opens with Dr. Macphail and his wife taking a journey by boat to Apia where he will work for a year, after two years at the Front in the First World War. Their fellow passengers are missionaries, the Davidsons. Neatly and seamlessly Maugham explains their background,, drawing one into the story. The quality and originality is superb, ‘When he came on deck next morning they were close to land. He looked at it with greedy eyes.’ The Davidson’s are Evangelists and and Mrs. Davidson, particularly, has ‘extreme alertness’ in condemning the lifestyle of the ‘natives’ – ‘The first thing to do was to put down the dancing’. ‘I was not averse to it myself when I was a young man’. Dr. Macphail replied. The scene changes when a very different kind of fellow lodger, Miss Thompson, joins them on the boat. Mr. Davidson is ‘a man of unflinching courage’ and, as the story develops the conflict between very different people is powerful and makes riveting and heart breaking reading.
Other stories are The Luncheon, one of the the funniest stories ever written, I always read it whenever I need cheering up. Home was a story set in a Somerset farm, with two brothers, both of whom had loved the same girl many years ago. The final line is ‘the fact is I was never quite sure that I’d married the right one’. The Three Fat Women of Antibes is also very funny, a lesson in friendship. The Happy Couple, yet again, has great originality, with a Judge who can’t stop judging.
How wonderful that there are many more to look forward.