The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham: A Biography

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Release Date: 
May 24, 2010
Random House
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One of the stranger pairings in literary history is surely Somerset Maugham and Dorothy Parker, thrown together in rural South Carolina during the summer of 1942 for what Parker later grumbled had been “three long, long, long weeks.” The two had briefly met in New York the previous year, and Parker had joined the parade of writers, critics, and artists who paid their respects to the great man during his wartime American exile at the southern estate of his publisher, Nelson Doubleday. Instead of the well-lubricated party atmosphere she had expected, Parker found herself consigned to endless games of bridge with Maugham and later complained, “That old lady is a crashing bore.” Parker also didn’t fail to notice that what few visitors there were during her stay were “various handsome young men who were not interested in ladies but who were interested in Mr. Maugham.”

Parker neatly encapsulated the great contradiction that was William Somerset Maugham (1874–1965), and it is to the British author Selina Hasting’s great credit that she knits Maugham’s contradictory public and private lives into a comprehensive and sympathetic portrait of this complicated man. The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham is the first comprehensive biography to appear in twenty years, and her addition to Maugham studies draws for the first time on Maugham’s private papers, previously withheld by his estate, and on a transcript of an unpublished interview with Maugham’s daughter, whom Maugham attempted to disinherit before his death just short of his 92nd birthday.

Despite the very long life and the layers of concealment undertaken by her subject, Ms. Hastings manages to pay equal attention to Maugham’s literary heritage and to his troubled personal life that tried to straddle both a conventional marriage and Maugham’s 30-year relationship with his true love, the American Gerald Haxton.

Maugham, known equally well for his mastery of the short story as for his longer fiction, acknowledged his debt to Maupassant and Henry James while taking both forms in new directions, fueled by his twin themes of sexual betrayal and moral redemption. Ms. Hastings is adept at making connections between the published work and the private torments of its creator, who frequently invited the wrath of friends and acquaintances with thinly disguised portrayals on the page.

The novelist and critic Hugh Walpole, for example, never quite recovered from Maugham’s depiction of him as the sycophantic Alroy Kear in Cakes and Ale. “He has used so many little friendly things and twisted them round,” Walpole complained to friends, who suspected that Maugham’s act of treachery was born when Walpole stole a young male lover from him.

Walpole, though, got off lightly compared to Maugham’s treatment of his wife Syrie, whom Maugham felt obliged to marry when Syrie announced a few years into their early relationship that she was pregnant. “You cannot forget the circumstances under which we were married,” Maugham coldly wrote to her at one of the marriage’s many low points. “I think under these circumstances you should be very well satisfied if you get from your husband courtesy and consideration, kindness and affection; but really you cannot expect passionate love.”

When Maugham learned of Syrie’s death in 1955, by which time the couple had been divorced for almost 30 years and Maugham had long ago moved to the south of France, his response was “Tra la la, no more alimony.” Yet Maugham could be generous and kind with those who earned his respect, especially with young writers whose work he deemed promising, many of whom were financially supported by Maugham during their early careers.

Ms. Hastings deftly steers a balanced course between these two poles in prose that, like Maugham’s, is brisk, clear, and compelling; and she has had plenty of experience writing about complex personalities in two previous and well-received biographies of Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford. “I am often tired of myself,” Maugham once wrote, but Ms. Hastings clearly isn’t during this book’s nearly 600 pages that do much to resuscitate Maugham’s importance to western literature.