W. Somerset Maugham, an eminent British playwright, novelist and short story writer is better known as a master of short and concise novels. Through these novels, he captured the imagination of the readers by portraying genuine characters and conveying their relationships, greed and ambition in a realistic manner. The magnificent but decaying British Empire offered him amazing canvasses in which he penned his stories and plays. Though as a writer, ‘competent’ was the word critics used to dismiss his work, he was someone who was extremely proud of his creativity and regarded his work ‘in the very top rank of the second rate’, not to forget the fact that the ‘first rate’ included Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Cervantes. Possessing clear and lucid English, his works were very easy for people to come to terms. Most of his characters were interesting and humane that even now, they evoke the day to day feelings and emotions which enable the readers to understand and identify his characters. One of the highly paid writers of his time, his career spanned many ages from the Edwardian era to that of the nuclear and he was successful in both these eras. The fact that many of his novels were adapted to films justifies his place in the present literature.
Early Life & Childhood
He was born at the British Embassy in Paris in France as the fourth of the seven children to Edith Mary née Snell, a socialite and writer and Robert Ormond Maugham, a lawyer at the British embassy.
Though lived in Paris, he and his brother studied at a boarding school in England and their home in Paris was often visited by literary and artistic people including Guy de Maupassant and Gustave Doré.
However, by the age of ten, he became an orphan following the death of his mother due to tuberculosis and his father because of cancer.
He was then, raised by his uncle Henry MacDonald Maugham and his wife, Sophia née von Scheidlin who themselves had no children.
After attending King’s School in Canterbury, he moved to Germany at the age of sixteen to study literature and philosophy at the Heidelberg University. Here, he had a homosexual relationship with John Ellingham Brooks.
Soon, he returned to England and after a brief stint as an accountant, he studied medicine at the St Thomas's Hospital in London and qualified as the Member of the Royal College of Surgeons and licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians, London in 1897. However, he never practiced.
In the same year, he published his first novel, ‘Liza of Lambeth’ which was mostly inspired by his experiences in the London's Lambeth slum area when he was serving as an apprentice mid-wife.
Following the novel’s huge success, Maugham decided to opt for full-time writing. He was off for a year, he went to Spain, spending most of his time in a place called Seville. In the meantime, he wrote ‘The Magician’, ‘The Land of The Blessed Virgin’, ‘Sketches and Impressions in Andalusia’, ‘The Hero’, ‘Mrs. Craddock’, ‘The Merry-Go-Round’, ‘The Explorer’, ‘Moon and Sixpence’, ‘The Trembling of a Leaf’ and ‘The Painted Veil’.
Back in London, he continued to write novels and plays of which some inspired by the style of Oscar Wilde whose trial and criminal charges and homosexuality made an impact on Maugham.
His first drama, ‘A Man of Honour’ arrested the attention of London’s intellectuals though his earnings hardly made financially stable as he was not able to afford even a cab fare.
Though took to Paris for a short time, he soon returned and renewed his interest in plays and found himself earning hundreds of pounds a week. Some of the plays which he wrote during this time are ‘Lady Frederick’, ‘Jack Straw’, ‘The Unknown’ ‘‘The Circle’, ‘Our Betters’, ‘The Constant Wife’ and ‘Sheppey’.
Once the World War I broke out, he volunteered with the American Volunteer Motor Ambulance Corps.
During World War II, he worked as an agent of British Intelligence Service in Switzerland and Russia which inspired him to write ‘Ashenden: Or, the British Agent’ in 1928.
After moving to French Riviera in 1928, he purchased a villa at Cap Ferrat and continued writing including numerous essays and short stories including, ‘Cakes and Ale’, ‘Don Fernando’, ‘The Art of Fiction: An Introduction to Ten Novels and Their Authors and so on.
In 1947, he introduced Somerset Maugham Award to encourage and support British writers under the age of thirty five.
‘Liza of Lambeth’ published in 1897 is his first novel which was inspired by his experiences as a doctor at a hospital in Lambeth. A musical based on the novel was written by Willie Rushton and Berny Stringle and music by Cliff Adams.
‘The Painted Veil’ published in 1925 is his work which had its film adaptations three times – ‘The Painted Veil’ in 1934, ‘The Seventh Sin in 1957 and ‘The Painted Veil’ in 2006.
‘The Magician’, his novel published in 1908 was a black magic novel. The novel inspired a film of the same name directed by Rex Ingram in 1926.
Awards & Achievements
He received numerous awards including the ‘Queen's Companion of Honour’ in 1954 and the Fellow of the Library of Congress and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
Numerous honors were bestowed on him including an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Toulouse, France.
Personal Life & Legacy
While serving in the Second World War in France, he met American, Gerald Haxton with whom he fell in love. He remained the secretary and companion to Maugham till his death.
Even while in a relationship with Gerald Haxton, he met Gwendoline Maud Syrie Barnardo, wife to Sir Henry Wellcome and had a daughter, Elizabeth Mary Maugham who also was known, ‘Liza’. In 1917 in New Jersey, they married and divorced in 1929.
After Haxton’s death, Alan Searle became Maugham's lover, secretary and companion.
Maugham passed away in Nice in Paris. There is no grave for Maugham as his ashes are scattered near the Maugham Library in Canterbury.