Somerset Maugham

Somerset Maugham

William Somerset Maugham was born in the British Embassy in Paris on 25th January, 1874. William's father, Robert Ormond Maugham, a wealthy solicitor, worked for the Embassy in France. Maugham's mother died of tuberculosis when he was seven and his father of cancer three years later.

Maugham later wrote in Summing Up (1938): "My parents died when I was so young, my mother when I was eight, my father when I was ten, that I know little of them but from hearsay...He was forty when he married my mother, who was more than twenty years younger. She was a very beautiful woman and he was a very ugly man. I have been told that they were known in the Paris of that day as Beauty and the Beast.... I have a little photograph of her, a middle-aged woman in a crinoline with fine eyes and a look of good-humoured determination. My mother was very small, with large brown eyes and hair of a rich reddish gold, exquisite features, and a lovely skin." Lady Anglesey told Maugham that she had once said to his mother: "You're so beautiful and there are so many people in love with you, why are you faithful to that ugly little man you've married?" His mother answered: "He never hurts my feelings."

After the death of his parents he was sent to live with his uncle, the Rev. Henry Maugham, in Whitstable, Kent. His biographer, Bryan Connon, has pointed out: "French was Maugham's first language and when he attended King's School, Canterbury, he was taunted for his inadequate English and as a result developed a defensive speech hesitancy which never entirely left him and intensified in times of stress. He moved to Heidelberg when he was sixteen to learn German and came under the influence of John Ellingham Brooks, who seduced him. Ten years his senior and an ostentatious homosexual, Brooks encouraged his ambitions to be a writer and introduced him to the works of Schopenhauer and Spinoza. Maugham returned to England when he was eighteen and, instead of becoming an accountant or a parson as his uncle proposed, enrolled as a student at St Thomas's Hospital, London, where he believed he would have personal freedom and the time to write."

While training to be a doctor Maugham worked as an obstetric clerk in the slums of Lambeth. He used these experiences to help him write his first novel, Liza of Lambeth (1897). The book created a great deal of controversy as it dealt with Liza, a fun-loving factory worker, and her affair with Jim, a married man. The Daily Mail complained about one scene that involved a street fight between the pregnant Liza and Jim's wife which leads to Liza's miscarriage and death. One reviewer claimed Maugham had "imitated" a story by Arthur Morrison called by Liza Hunt of Bow that appeared in Tales of Mean Streets (1894). The critic claimed "the mimicry, indeed, is deliberate and unashamed". The book sold well and he decided to abandon medicine and become a full-time writer.

Maugham achieved fame with his play Lady Frederick (1907), a comedy about money and marriage. By 1908 Maugham had four plays running simultaneously in London. A cartoon by Bernard Partridge in Punch (24th June 1908) showed a worried Shakespeare in front of the playbills. Bryan Connon, the author of Somerset Maugham and the Maugham Dynasty (1997), pointed out: "Maugham's success was repeated in New York, and he celebrated his good fortune by moving into a lavishly appointed house in Mayfair, London, with Walter Payne. As well-to-do bachelors, both men were socially popular. Contemporary photographs show Maugham, a small man, to be good looking, sexy, and fashion-conscious. His dandyism was captured by Sir Gerald Kelly in a full-length portrait of 1911".

In 1914 Maugham met the 22 year old American, Gerald Haxton, in London. The two men became lovers. On the outbreak of the First World War, Maugham, now aged forty, and Haxton, joined a Red Cross ambulance unit in France. In 1915 they parted when Haxton joined the American Army. Maugham went to live in New York City and in 1915 he published his most famous novel, Of Human Bondage.

Maugham had sexual relationships with both men and women and in 1915, Syrie Wellcome, the daughter of Dr. Thomas Barnardo, gave birth to his child. Her husband, Henry Wellcome, cited Maugham as co-respondent in divorce proceedings. After the divorce in 1916, Maugham married Syrie. The marriage was unhappy and after they divorced he denied that Liza was his natural daughter.

In 1916 Maugham was invited by Sir John Wallinger, head of Britain's Military Intelligence (MI6) to act as a secret service agent. Maugham agreed and acted as a link between MI6 in London and its agents working in Europe. The following year he became involved in events in Russia.

When the Tsar Nicholas II abdicated on 13th March, a Provisional Government, headed by Prince George Lvov, was formed. On 5th May, Pavel Milyukov and Alexander Guchkov, the two most conservative members of the Provisional Government, were forced to resign. Guchkov was now replaced as Minister of War by Alexander Kerensky. He toured the Eastern Front where he made a series of emotional speeches where he appealed to the troops to continue fighting. Kerensky argued that: "There is no Russian front. There is only one united Allied front." Kerensky now appointed General Alexei Brusilov as the Commander in Chief of the Russian Army. On 18th June, Kerensky announced a new war offensive.

The Provisional Government made no real attempt to seek an armistice with the Central Powers. Lvov's unwillingness to withdraw Russia from the First World War made him unpopular with the people and on 8th July, 1917, he resigned and was replaced by Kerensky. Ariadna Tyrkova, a member of the Constitutional Democrat Party, commented: "Kerensky was perhaps the only member of the Government who knew how to deal with the masses, since he instinctively understood the psychology of the mob. Therein lay his power and the main source of his popularity in the streets, in the Soviet, and in the Government."

The British ambassador, George Buchanan welcomed the appointment and reported back to London: "From the very first Kerensky had been the central figure of the revolutionary drama and had, alone among his colleagues, acquired a sensible hold on the masses. An ardent patriot, he desired to see Russia carry on the war till a democratic peace had been won; while he wanted to combat the forces of disorder so that his country should not fall a prey to anarchy. In the early stages of the revolution he displayed an energy and courage which marked him out as the one man capable of securing the attainment of these ends."

Mansfield Smith-Cumming, the head of MI6, decided that the British government should do everything possible to keep Kerensky in power. He contacted William Wiseman, their man in New York City and supplied Wiseman with $75,000 (approximately $1.2 million in modern prices) for Kerensky's Provisional Government. A similar sum was received from the Americans. Wiseman now approached Somerset Maugham (to whom he was related by marriage) in June 1917, to go to Russia. Maugham was "staggered" by the proposition: "The long and short of it was that I should go to Russia and keep the Russians in the war."

Maugham, who could speak Russian, was asked by Wiseman to "guide the storm". Maugham told Wiseman: "I was staggered by the proposition. I told Wiseman that I did not think I was competent to do that sort of thing that was expected of me." He asked for forty-eight hours to think it over. He was in the early stages of tuberculosis, had a high fever and was coughing up blood. Maugham later wrote: "An X-ray photograph showed clearly that I had tuberculosis of the lungs. But I could not miss the opportunity of spending certainly a considerable time in the country of Tolstoi, Dostoyevski, and Chekov; I had a notion that in the intervals of the work I was being sent to do I could get something for myself that would be of value; so I set my foot hard on the loud pedal of patriotism and persuaded the physician I consulted that under the tragic circumstances of the moment I was taking no undue risk."

Maugham was supplied with $21,000 (worth approximately $350,000 today) for expenses and travelling from the west coast of the United States, through Japan and Vladivostok, Maugham reached Petrograd in early September 1917. With him went a group of four Czechoslovak refugees headed by Emanuel Voska, Director of the Slav Press Bureau in New York City. Maugham described Voska as the perfect spy: "Ruthless, wise, prudent and absolutely indifferent to the means by which he reached his ends... There was something terrifying about him... he was capable of killing a fellow creature without a trace of ill-feeling." Voska made contact with Tomáš Masaryk in the hope of mobilizing Czech and Slovak elements in Russia to work for the Allied cause. Maugham was impressed by his "good sense and determination" and helped set up a press bureau to disseminate anti-German propaganda.

While in Petrograd Maugham met a former mistress, Sasha Kropotkin, the daughter of Peter Kropotkin, who had a good relationship with Alexander Kerensky and the Provisional Government. Maugham entertained Kerensky or his ministers once a week at the Medvied, the best restaurant in Petrograd, paying for the finest vodka and caviar from the funds supplied by Wiseman. Maugham later recalled "I think Kerensky must have supposed that I was more important than I really was for he came to Sasha's apartment on several occasions and, walking up and down the room, harangued me as though I were at a public meeting for two hours at a time".

Maugham also met Boris Savinkov, a member of the government and a former terrorist. Maugham described Savinkov as "the most remarkable man I met." He found it difficult to believe that Savinkov had been personally responsible for the assassination of a number of senior imperial officials in the years before the war. Maugham wrote, he had the prosperous look of a lawyer." Savinkov believed that if the Bolsheviks gained power they would "annihilate" opposition leaders. Savinkov therefore wanted the government to arrest Lenin and other leading Bolsheviks: "Either Lenin will stand me up in front of a wall and shoot me or I shall stand him in front of a wall and shoot him."

Somerset Maugham worked closely with Major Stephen Alley, the MI1(c) station chief in Petrograd. On 16th October Maugham telegraphed Wiseman recommending a programme of propaganda and covert action. He said that Voska and Masaryk could both conduct "legitimate propaganda" and act as a cover for "other activities" in support of the Mensheviks and against the Bolsheviks. He also proposed setting up a "special secret organisations" recruited from Poles, Czechs and Cossacks with the main aim of "unmasking... German plots and propaganda in Russia".

On 31st October 1917 Maugham was summoned by Kerensky and asked to take an urgent secret message to David Lloyd George appealing for guns and amununition. Without that help, said Kerensky, "I don't see how we can go on. Of course, I don't say that to the people. I always say that to the people. I always say that we shall continue whatever happens, but unless I have something to tell my army it's impossible". Maugham was unimpressed by Kerensky: "His personality had no magnetism. He gave no feeling of intellectual or of physical vigour."

W. Somerset Maugham
W. Somerset Maugham

Maugham left the same evening for Oslo to board a British destroyer which, after a stormy passage across the North Sea, landed him in the north of Scotland. Next morning he saw Lloyd George at 10 Downing Street. After the agent told the Prime Minister what Kerensky wanted, he replied: "I can't do that. I'm afraid I must bring this conversation to an end. I have a cabinet meeting I must go to." On 7th November, 1917, Kerensky was overthrown by the Bolshevik Revolution. Maugham later recalled: "Perhaps if I had been sent to Russia six months sooner... I might have been able to do something."

After the First World War Maugham returned to writing. Another successful book, The Moon and Sixpence, was published in 1919. Maugham also developed a reputation as a fine short-story writer, one story, Rain, which appeared in The Trembling of a Leaf (1921), was also turned into a successful feature film. Popular plays written by Maugham include The Circle (1921), East of Suez (1922), The Constant Wife (1926) and the anti-war play, For Services Rendered (1932).

In his later years Maugham wrote his autobiography, Summing Up (1938) and works of fiction such as The Razor's Edge (1945), Catalina (1948) and Quartet (1949).

William Somerset Maugham died in Nice on 15th December 1965.

Primary Sources

(1) Somerset Maugham, Summing Up (1938)

My parents died when I was so young, my mother when I was eight, my father when I was ten, that I know little of them but from hearsay. My father, I do not know why unless he was drawn by some such restlessness for the unknown as has consumed his son, went to Paris and became solicitor to the British Embassy. He had offices just opposite, in the Faubourg St Honore, but he lived in what was then called the Avenue d'Antin, a broad street with chestnut trees on each side of it that leads from the Rond Point. He was a great traveller for those days. He had been to Turkey, Greece, and Asia Minor and in Morocco as far as Fez, which was a place few people then visited. He had a considerable library of travel books, and the apartment in the Avenue d'Antin was filled with the things he had brought back, Tanagra statuettes, Rhodes ware, and Turkish daggers in hilts of richly decorated silver. He was forty when he married my mother, who was more than twenty years younger. She was a very beautiful woman and he was a very ugly man. I have been told that they were known in the Paris of that day as Beauty and the Beast. Her father was in the army; he died in India, and his widow, my grandmother, after squandering a considerable fortune, settled down in France to live on her pension. She was a woman of character, I suspect, and perhaps of some talent, for she wrote novels in French pour jeunes filles and composed the music for drawing-room ballads. I like to think that the novels were read and the ballads sung by Octave Feuillet's high-born heroines. I have a little photograph of her, a middle-aged woman in a crinoline with fine eyes and a look of good-humoured determination. My mother was very small, with large brown eyes and hair of a rich reddish gold, exquisite features, and a lovely skin. She was very much admired.

(2) Somerset Maugham, Summing Up (1938)

I have never had much patience with the writers who claim from the reader an effort to understand their meaning. You have only to go to the great philosophers to see that it is possible to express with lucidity the most subtle reflections. You may find it difficult to understand the thought of Hume, and if you have no philosophical training its implications will doubtless escape you; but no one with any education at all can fail to understand exactly what the meaning of each sentence is. Few people have written English with more grace than Berkeley. There are two sorts of obscurity that you find in writers. One is due to negligence and the other to wilfulness. People often write obscurely because they have never taken the trouble to learn to write clearly. This sort of obscurity you find too often in modern philosophers, in men of science, and even in literary critics. Here it is indeed strange. You would have thought that men who passed their lives in the study of the great masters of literature would be sufficiently sensitive to the beauty of language to write, if not beautifully, at least with perspicuity. Yet you will find in their works sentence after sentence that you must read twice in order to discover the sense. Often you can only guess at it, for the writers have evidently not said what they intended.

Another cause of obscurity is that the writer is himself not quite sure of his meaning. He has a vague impression of what he wants to say, but has not, either from lack of mental power or from laziness, exactly formulated it in his mind, and it is natural enough that he should not find a precise expression for a confused idea. This is due largely to the fact that many writers think, not before, but as they write. The pen originates the thought. The disadvantage of this, and indeed it is a danger against which the author must be always on his guard, is that there is a sort of magic in the written word. The idea acquires substance by taking on a visible nature, and then stands in the way of its own clarification. But this sort of obscurity merges very easily into the wilful. Some writers who do not think clearly are inclined to suppose that their thoughts have a significance greater than at first sight appears. It is flattering to believe that they are too profound to be expressed so clearly that all who run may read, and very naturally it does not occur to such writers that the fault is with their own minds, which have not the faculty of precise reflection. Here again the magic of the written word obtains. It is very easy to persuade oneself that a phrase that one does not quite understand may mean a great deal more than one realizes. From this there is only a little way to go to fall into the habit of setting down one's impressions in all their original vagueness. Fools can always be found to discover a hidden sense in them. There is another form of wilful obscurity that masquerades as aristocratic exclusiveness. The author wraps his meaning in mystery so that the vulgar shall not participate in it. His soul is a secret garden into which the elect may penetrate only after overcoming a number of perilous obstacles. But this kind of obscurity is not only pretentious; it is short-sighted. For time plays it an odd trick. If the sense is meagre time reduces it to a meaningless verbiage that no one thinks of reading. This is the fate that has befallen the lucubrations of those French writers who were seduced by the example of Guillaume Apollinaire. But occasionally it throws a sharp cold light on what had seemed profound and thus discloses the fact that these contortions of language disguised very commonplace notions. There are few of Mallarme's poems now that are not clear; one cannot fail to notice that his thought singularly lacked originality. Many of his phrases were beautiful; the materials of his verse were the poetic platitudes of his day.

(3) Somerset Maugham, Summing Up (1938)

I returned to America and shortly afterwards was sent on a mission to Petrograd. I was diffident of accepting the post, which seemed to demand capacities that I did not think I possessed; but there seemed to be no one more competent available at the moment and my being a writer was very good "cover" for what I was asked to do. I was not very well. I still knew enough medicine to guess the meaning of the haemorrhages I was having. An X-ray photograph showed clearly that I had tuberculosis of the lungs. But I could not miss the opportunity of spending certainly a considerable time in the country of Tolstoi, Dostoyevski, and Chekov; I had a notion that in the intervals of the work I was being sent to do I could get something for myself that would be of value; so I set my foot hard on the loud pedal of patriotism and persuaded the physician I consulted that under the tragic circumstances of the moment I was taking no undue risk. I set off in high spirits with unlimited money at my disposal and four devoted Czechs to act as liaison officers between me and Professor Masaryk who had under his control in various parts of Russia something like sixty thousand of his compatriots. I was exhilarated by the responsibility of my position. I went as a private agent, who could be disavowed if necessary, with instructions to get in touch with parties hostile to the government and devise a scheme that would keep Russia in the war and prevent the Bolsheviks, supported by the Central Powers, from seizing power. It is not necessary for me to inform the reader that in this I failed lamentably, and I do not ask him to believe me when I state that it seems to me at least possible that if I had been sent six months before I might quite well have succeeded. Three months after my arrival in Petrograd the crash came and put an end to all my plans.

I returned to England. I had had some interesting experiences and had got to know fairly well one of the most extraordinary men I have ever met. This was Boris Savinkov, the terrorist who had assassinated Trepov and the Grand Duke Sergius. But I came away disillusioned. The endless talk when action was needed, the vacillations, the apathy when apathy could only result in destruction, the high-flown protestations, the insincerity and half-heartedness that I found everywhere sickened me with Russia and the Russians. I also came back very ill indeed, for in the position I was in I could not profit by the abundant supplies that made it possible for the embassies to serve their countries on a full stomach, and I was (like the Russians themselves) reduced to a meagre diet. (When I arrived in Stockholm, where I had a day to wait for the destroyer that was to take me across the North Sea, I went into a confectioner's, bought a pound of chocolates and ate them in the street.) A scheme to send me to Rumania in connection with some Polish intrigue, the details of which I now forget, fell through. I was not sorry, for I was coughing my head off and constant fever made my nights very uncomfortable. I went to see the most eminent specialist I could find in London. He packed me off to a sanatorium in the North of Scotland, Davos and St Moritz at that time being inconvenient to go to, and for the next two years I led an invalid life.

(4) Giles Milton, Russian Roulette: How British Spies Thwarted Lenin's Global Plot (2013)

The weeks that followed were taken up with meticulous planning. Maugham was introduced to key contacts who would be able to facilitate his journey across a country that was rapidly descending into chaos. Among those charged with helping him was Emanuel Voska, an American secret agent who was to travel with him to Petrograd.

Agent Voska had also been briefed about what needed to be done: his instructions were similar to those given to Maugham. "Keep Russia in the war," he was told. "We will stand you any expense. So far as we are concerned, you may have the greatest freedom of action."

By the end of July, Maugham was fully prepared. He had one last question for Wiseman before he left New York: he asked if he would be paid for his mission. He said that his operations in Switzerland had been undertaken as a gentleman amateur, "and found afterwards that I was the only man working in the organisation for nothing and that I was regarded not as patriotic or generous but merely damned foolish." Wiseman took the hint and offered both a salary and expenses.

Maugham left for San Francisco carrying $21,000 of the money for Kerensky in cash. It was concealed in a belt hidden under his shirt. He was accompanied by Emanuel Voska, three American diplomats and three Czech emissaries. Once inside Russia, Maugham was to travel alone and incognito.

"The Czechs and I should appear to be entire strangers to one another," he wrote, "and communicate, if necessary, only with precaution." If anyone asked his occupation, he was to say that he was a journalist being sent to Petrograd to cover the unfolding revolution.

(5) Somerset Maugham, Summing Up (1938)

Spinoza says that a free man thinks of nothing less than of death. It is unnecessary to dwell upon it, but it is foolish, as so many do, to shrink from all consideration of it. It is well to make up one's mind about it. It is impossible to know till death is there facing one whether one will fear it. I have often tried to imagine what my feelings would be if a doctor told me I had a fatal disease and had no more than a little time to live. I have put them into the mouths of various characters of my invention, but I am aware that thus I dramatized them, and I cannot tell whether they would be those I should actually feel. I do not think I have a very strong instinctive hold on life. I have had a good many serious illnesses, but have only once known myself to be within measurable distance of death; then I was so tired that I could not fear, I only wanted to be done with the struggle. Death is inevitable, and it does not much matter how one meets it. I do not think one can be blamed if one hopes that one will not be aware of its imminence and be fortunate enough to undergo it without pain.

I have always lived so much in the future that now, though the future is so short, I cannot get out of the habit, and my mind looks forward with a certain complacency to the completion within an indefinite number of years of the pattern that I have tried to make. There are moments when I have so palpitating an eagerness for death that I could fly to it as to the arms of a lover. It gives me the same passionate thrill as years ago was given me by life. I am drunk with the thought of it. It seems to me then to offer me the final and absolute freedom. Notwithstanding, I am willing enough to go on living so long as the doctors can keep me in tolerable health; I enjoy the spectacle of the world, and it interests me to see what is going to happen. The consummation of many lives that have run their course parallel with my own gives me continual food for reflection and sometimes for the confirmation of theories that I formed long ago. I shall be sorry to part from my friends. I cannot be indifferent to the welfare of some whom I have guided and protected, but it is well that after depending on me so long they should enjoy their liberty whithersoever it leads them. Having held a certain place in the world for a long time I am content that others soon should occupy it. After all the point of a pattern is that it should be completed. When nothing can be added without spoiling the design the artist leaves it.

But now if anyone should ask me what is the use or sense of this pattern I should have to answer, none. It is merely something I have imposed on the senselessness of life because I am a novelist. For my own satisfaction, for my amusement and to gratify what feels to me like an organic need, I have shaped my life in accordance with a certain design, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, as from people I have met here and there I have constructed a play, a novel, or a short story. We are the product of our natures and our environment. I have not made the pattern I thought best, or even the pattern I should have liked to make, but merely that which seemed feasible. There are better patterns than mine. I do not believe that I am influenced only by an illusion natural to the man of letters to think that the best pattern of all is the husbandman's, who ploughs his land and reaps his crop, who enjoys his toil and enjoys his leisure, loves, marries, begets children, and dies. When I have observed the peasantry in those favoured lands in which the earth produces her plenty without excessive labour, where the pleasures and pains of the individual are those incidental to the human race, it has seemed to me that there the perfect life was perfectly realized. There life, like a good story, pursues its way from beginning to end in a firm and unbroken line.