Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Quotes by W. Somerset Maugham: Prefaces to his own works

[“The Pacific”, introductory piece to The Trembling of a Leaf, 1921.]

The Pacific is inconstant and uncertain like the soul of man. Sometimes it is grey like the English Channel off Beachy Head, with a heavy swell, and sometimes it is rough, capped with white crests, and boisterous. It is not so often that it is calm and blue. Then, indeed, the blue is arrogant. The sun shines fiercely from an unclouded sky. The trade wind gets into your blood and you are filled with an impatience for the unknown. The billows, magnificently rolling, stretch widely on all sides of you, and you forget your vanished youth, with its memories, cruel and sweet, in a restless, intolerable desire for life. On such a sea as this Ulysses sailed when he sought the Happy Isles. But there are days also when the Pacific is like a lake. The sea is flat and shining. The flying fish, a gleam of shadow on the brightness of a mirror, make little fountains of sparkling drops when they dip. There are fleecy clouds on the horizon, and at sunset they take strange shapes so that it is impossible not to believe that you see a range of lofty mountains. They are the mountains of the country of your dreams. You sail through an unimaginable silence upon a magic sea. Now and then a few gulls suggest that land is not far off, a forgotten island hidden in a wilderness of waters; but the gulls, the melancholy gulls, are the only sign you have of it. You see never a tramp, with its friendly smoke, no stately bark or trim schooner, not a fishing boat even: it is an empty desert; and presently the emptiness fills you with a vague foreboding.

[The Trembling of a Leaf, new Preface, The Collected Edition, 1935.]

I began my career as a writer by writing short stories. I could find no editor to accept them. The first one I ever had taken, and this only after I had made a small reputation for myself with Liza of Lambeth, appeared in an odd magazine called Cosmopolis. A third of it was in English, a third in French and a third in German. The idea was that it would thus find readers in three countries; unfortunately it found readers in none. It came to a sudden end and I was never paid for my work. I came to the conclusion that my stories were too good ever to stand a chance of taking an English editor’s fancy and so published them in a volume called Orientations. I read it again the other day. It sent so many cold shivers down my spine that I thought I must be going to have another attack of malaria. As a measure of precaution I dosed myself with quinine and arsenic. The book was reviewed with kindliness and strangely enough it brought me a commission from Punch to write three stories. I suppose those in Orientations showed promise. Reading them five and thirty years later it seemed to me that here and there they were moving, but they had passages so preposterously unreal that I could hardly believe it possible that I had written them. Their worst fault, however, was their superciliousness. In the arrogance of my youth I sneered at everything that offended my fastidious and narrow prejudices.

[Epigraph to The Trembling of a Leaf, 1921.]

L’extrême félicité à peine séparée par une feuille tremblante de l’extrême désespoir, n’est-ce pas la vie?


[The Casuarina Tree, original preface of the same name, 1926.]

Of the Casuarina tree they say that if you take in a boat with you a piece of it, be it ever so small, contrary winds will arise to impede your journey or storms to imperil your life. They say also that if you stand in its shadow by the light of the full moon you will hear, whispered mysteriously in its dark ramage, the secrets of the future. These facts have never been disputed; but they say also that when in the wide estuaries the mangrove has in due time reclaimed the swampy land from the water the Casuarina tree plants itself and its turn settles, solidifies and fertilises the soil till it is ripe for a more varied and luxuriant growth; and then, having done its work, dies down before the ruthless encroachment of the myriad denizens of the jungle. It occurred to me that The Casuarina Tree would not make so bad a title for a collection of stories about the English people who live in the Malay Peninsula and in Borneo; for I fancied that they, coming after the pioneers who had opened these lands to Western civilisation, were destined in just such a manner, now that their work was accomplished and the country was peaceable, orderly and sophisticated, to give way to a more varied, but less adventurous, generation; and I was excessively disconcerted on enquiry to learn  that there was not a word of truth in what I had been told.


I was in a quandary. But I reflected that a symbol (as Master Francis Rabelais pointed out in a diverting chapter) can symbolise anything; and I remembered that the Casuarina tree stood along the sea shore, gaunt and rough-hewn, protecting the land from the fury of the winds, and so might aptly suggest these planters and administrators who, with all their shortcomings, have after all brought to the peoples among whom they dwell tranquility, justice and welfare, and I fancied that they too, as they look at the Casuarina tree, grey, rugged and sad, a little out of place in the wanton topics, might very well be reminded of their native land; and thinking for a moment of the heather on a Yorkshire moor or the broom of a Sussex common, see in that hardy tree, doing its best in difficult circumstances, a symbol of their own exiled lives. In short I could find a dozen reasons for keeping my title, but, of course, the best of them all was that I could think of no better.

[The Casuarina Tree, original postscript, 1926.]

With the exception of Singapore, a city too busy with its own concerns to bother itself with trifles, imaginary names have been chosen for the places in which the action is supposed to be conducted. Some of the smaller communities in the countries washed by the China Sea are very sensitive, and their members agitated if, in a work of fiction, a hint is given that the circumstances of their lives are not always such as would meet the approval of the suburban circles in which contentedly dwell their cousins and their aunts.
Living, with all the East about them, as narrowly as in a market-town, they have the market-town's faults and foibles; and seem to take a malicious pleasure in looking for the originals of the characters, especially if they are mean, foolish or vicious, which the author has chosen for the persons of his stories. They have small acquaintance with arts and letters, and do not understand that the disposition and appearance of a person in a short story are dictated by the exigencies of the intrigue. Nor has it occurred to them that actual persons are much too shadowy to serve as characters in a work of the imagination. We see real people only in the flat, but for the purposes of fiction they must be seen in the round; and to make a living personage it is necessary to combine suggestions drawn from a dozen sources. Because a reader, unprofitably employing a useless leisure, recognizes in a character one trait, mental or physical, of some one he knows and is aware that the author has met, it is silly to put the name of this person to the character described and say: here is a portrait. A work of fiction, and perhaps I should not go too far if I spoke more generally and said, a work of art, is an arrangement which the author makes of the facts of his experience with the idiosyncrasies of his own personality. It is an unlikely, and unimportant, accident if it happens to be a copy of life. [...] Facts are but a canvas on which the artist draws a significant pattern.


[First Person Singular, original preface, 1931.]

...I have at one time or another been charged with portraying certain persons so exactly that it was impossible not to know them. I have been accused of bad taste. This has disturbed me, not so much for my own sake (since I am used to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune) as for the sake of criticism in general. We authors of course try to be gentlemen, but we often fail and we must console ourselves by reflecting that few writers of any consequence have been devoid of certain streak of vulgarity. Life is vulgar.
I have known authors who declared that none of their characters was ever even remotely suggested by anyone they had known and I have unhesitatingly accepted their assertion. But I have ceased to wonder why they never managed to create a character that was not wooden and lifeless. […] I think indeed that most novelists, and surely the best, have worked from life. But though they have had in mind a particular person this is not to say that they have copied him nor that the character they have devised is to be taken for a portrait. In the first place, they have seen him through their own temperament and if they are writers of originality this means that what they have seen is somewhat different from the fact. They have taken only what they wanted from him. They have used him as a convenient peg on which to hang their own fancies. To suit their purpose they have given him traits which the model did not possess. They have made him coherent and substantial. A real person, however eminent, is for the most part too insignificant for the purposes of fiction. The complete character, the result of elaboration rather than of invention, is art, and life in the raw, as we know, is only its material. It is unjust then for the critics to blame an author because he draws a character in whom they detect a likeness to someone they know and wholly unreasonable of them to expect him never to take one trait or another from living creatures. The odd thing is that when these charges are made, emphasis is laid only on the less laudable characteristics of the individual. If you say of a character in a book that he is kind to his mother, but beats his wife, everybody will cry: Ah, that's Brown, how beastly to say he beats his wife; and no one thinks for a moment of Jones and Robinson who are notoriously kind to their mothers. I draw from this the somewhat surprising conclusion that we know our friends by their defects and not by their merits.

Nothing is so unsafe as to put into a novel a person drawn line by line from life. His values are all wrong, and, strangely enough, he does not make the other characters of the book seem false, but himself. He never convinces. […] It is with diffidence then that I draw the reader’s attention to Mortimer Ellis in the story called The Round Dozen. I have, of course, given him a false name and considerable toned him down, for otherwise, as real persons always do, he would have burst the bounds of my story. I do not admit that it is a photograph, but it is certainly a portrait. I confess the crime.


It may be said that his celebrity should have protected him from my pen, but even the most celebrated of us are human and therefore the author’s fit material. When nature produces a buffoon he is fair game and he has no just cause for complaint if the novelist to the best of his ability presents him as he is for the entertainment of his generation. He thus surely fulfils his purpose. We must not be too squeamish. The average life of a novel is ninety days and we should not mind if for three short months we afford others a little amusement.

[First Person Singular, new Preface, The Collected Edition, 1936.]

Objectivity is apt to give a slight sensation of bleakness. Complete objectivity is probably impossible to achieve. It would indeed make a novel of an unwieldy length and the short story almost impossible. For a complete objectivity would see all the persons of the fiction from their own standpoint, since each one of us is of supreme importance to himself, and there is no reason for the author to pay more attention to one of his persons than to another. As soon as he selects one character out of several for more detailed description he ceases to be rigidly objective. The moment his sympathy is engaged he is personal. It is probably direction of interest that makes a work of fiction readable. In the very rare instances (Flaubert’s L’Education Sentimentale is one of them, I think) in which an author has attained complete objectivity you are bored because the author instead of directing your interest has impartially dispersed it.  


[Ah King, original preface of the same name, 1933.]

[Final lines:]
''Good-bye, Ah King'' I said. ''I hope you'll find another job soon.''
Then I saw he was crying. I stared at him with amazement. An excellent servant, he had attended to all my wants for six months, but he had always seemed to me strangely detached; he had been as indifferent to my praise as he was unconcerned at my reproofs. It had never occurred to me for an instant that he looked upon me as anything but an odd, rather silly person who paid his wages and gave him board and lodging. That he had any feeling for me had never entered my head. I was embarrassed. I felt a little uncomfortable. I knew that I had often been impatient with him, tiresome and exacting. I had never thought of him as a human being. He wept because he was leaving me. It is for these tears that I now give his name to this collection of stories that I invented while he was travelling with me. To the best of my belief the characters that play their parts in them are creatures of my own fancy.

[Ah King, new Preface (expanded from the previous one),
The Collected Edition, 1936.]

[First lines of the new part:]
To the best of my belief they are the last stories technically, though I think not quite accurately, called exotic that I shall write. It is indefensible to place a story in a foreign setting merely because it is picturesque. If the incidents you relate might as well have happened in England it is an affectation, if you are an English writer, to put them elsewhere. If you go outside your own country it must be because your story depends on the alien scene. Of course I do not claim that the stories in this book could only have taken place in the part of the world I have described. I think they could have taken place in India or in other colonies of the British Empire; they certainly could not have taken place in England, for they depend on the environment in which the characters chosen find themselves and on the effect upon them of a manner of life which is not quite natural to them.


I have confined myself to describing the effect on a number of white people of the manner of their lives in certain remote places. But the subject is limited. Life in these places is curious, but it is simple. It is a picture painted with a restricted palette. The writer who treats of subjects that demand the exotic setting finds eventually that he has arrived at the end of them. The characters he has to deal with are often peculiar, for people under these conditions often have the opportunity to develop their idiosyncrasies to a degree that in another situation would be impossible, but they somewhat lack variety. They tend to fall in recognisable types. Even when they are eccentric they are eccentric according to a pattern. The fact is of course that they are ordinary people on whom the same causes have the same effects. You don’t often find in them the complexity that makes those who dwell amid the sophisticated circumstances of cultured life an inexhaustible subject of study.


[Ashenden, new Preface, The Collected Edition, 1934.]

This book is found on my experiences in the Intelligence Department during the war, but rearranged for the purposes of fiction. Fact is a poor story-teller. It starts a story at haphazard, generally long before the beginning, rambles on inconsequentially and tails off, leaving loose ends hanging about, without a conclusion. It works up to an interesting situation, and then leaves it in the air to follow an issue that has nothing to do with the point; it has no sense of climax and whittles away its dramatic effects in irrelevance. There is a school of novelists that looks upon this as the proper model of fiction. If life, they say, is arbitrary and disconnected, why, fiction should not be so too; for fiction should imitate life. […] They give you the materials for a dish and expect you to do the cooking yourself. Now this is one way like another of writing stories and some very good stories have been written in it. Chekov used it with mastery.


For it is quite unnecessary to treat as axiomatic the assertion that fiction should imitate life. It is merely a literary theory like another. There is in fact a second theory that is just as plausible, and this is that fiction should use life merely as raw material which it arranges in ingenious patterns.
The method of which I speak is that which chooses from life what is curious, telling and dramatic; it does not seek to copy life, but keeps to it closely enough not to shock the reader into disbelief; it leaves out this and changes that; it makes a formal decoration out of such of the facts as it has found convenient to deal with and presents a picture, the result of artifice, which, because it represents the author’s temperament, is to a certain extent a portrait of himself, but which is designed to excite, interest and absorb the reader. If it is a success he accepts it as true.

I have written all this in order to impress upon the reader that this book is a work of fiction, though I should say not much more so than several of the books on the same subject that have appeared during the last few years and that purport to be truthful memoirs. The work of an agent in the Intelligence Department is on the whole extremely monotonous. A lot of it is uncommonly useless. The material it offers for stories is scrappy and pointless; the author has himself to make it coherent, dramatic and probable.

[Ashenden, new Preface (expanded from the previous one), Doubleday, 1941.]


I have heard it suggested that the service is less efficiently conducted than it was when I was a very obscure and insignificant member of it, but whether this is so I have no means of telling. The circumstances are different and I daresay more difficult to deal with. At that time the nationals of neutral countries were allowed considerable liberty of movement and it was possible by their means to get much useful information; but now, taught presumably by past experience, the authorities are watchful and it would go ill with any alien who displayed unreasonable curiosity.


Though twenty years have passed since these stories were written I cannot think they are entirely out of date, since till quite recently, I am told, they have been required reading for persons entering the Department; and early in this war Dr Goebbels, speaking over the air, taking one of them as a literal statement of recent facts, gave it as an example of British cynicism and brutality.

But it is not for any topical interest they may have, nor because they have been used as a sort of textbook, that I now offer to the public a new edition of these stories. They purpose only to offer entertainment, which I still think, impenitently, is the main object of a work of fiction. 


[East and West, original Preface, 1934.]


Maupassant’s reputation does not stand as high as it did, and it is evident now that there is much in his work to repel. He was a Frenchman of his period in violent reaction against the romantic age which was finishing in the saccharine sentimentality of Octave Feuillet (admired by Matthew Arnold) and in the impetuous slop of George Sand. He was a naturalist, aiming at truth at all costs, but the truth he achieved looks to us now a trifle superficial. He does not analyse his characters. He takes little interest in the reason why. They act, but wherefore he does not now. […] The result with Maupassant was a simplification of character which is effective enough in a short story, but on reflection leaves you unconvinced. […] His characters indulge in their sexual desire to gratify their self-esteem. They are like the people who eat caviar when they are not hungry because it is expensive. Perhaps the only emotion that affects his characters with passion is avarice. This he can understand; it fills him with horror, but notwithstanding he has a sneaking sympathy with it. He was slightly common. But for all this it would be foolish to deny his excellence. An author has the right to be judged by his best work. No author is perfect. You must accept his defects; they are often the necessary complement of his merits; and this may be said in gratitude to posterity that it is very willing to do this. It takes what is good in a writer and is not troubled by what is bad. It goes so far sometimes, to the confusion of the candid reader, as to claim a profound significance for obvious faults. So you will see the critics (the awe-inspiring voice of posterity) find subtle reasons to explain to his credit something in a play of Shakespeare’s that any dramatist could tell them needed no other explanation than haste, indifference or wilfulness. Maupassant’s stories are good stories. […] These stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. They do not wander along an uncertain line so that you cannot see whither they are leading, but follow without hesitation, from exposition to climax, a bold and vigorous curve. It may be that they have no great spiritual significance. Maupassant did not aim at that. He looked upon himself as a plain man; no good writer was ever less a man of letters. He did not pretend to be a philosopher, and here he was well-advised, for when he indulges in reflection he is commonplace. But within his limits he is admirable. He has an astonishing capacity for creating living people. He can afford little space, but in a few pages can set before you half a dozen persons so sharply seen and vividly described that you know all about them that you need. Their outline is clear; they are distinguishable from one another; and they breathe the breath of life. They have no complexity, they lack strangely the indecision, the unexpectedness, the mystery that we see in human beings; they are in fact simplified for the purposes of fiction. But they are not deliberately simplified: those keen eyes of his saw clearly, but they did not see profoundly; it is a happy chance that they saw all that was necessary for him to achieve the aim he had in view.


No one’s stock to-day stands higher with the best critics than Chekov’s. In fact he has put every other story-teller’s nose out of joint. To admire him is a proof of good taste; not to like him is to declare yourself a philistine. His stories are the models that young writers naturally take. This is understandable. On the face of it it is easier to write stories like Chekov’s than stories like Maupassant’s. To invent a story interesting in itself apart from the telling is a difficult thing, the power to do it is a gift of nature, it cannot be acquired by taking thought, and it is a gift that very few people have. Chekov’s had many gifts, but not this one. If you try to tell one of his stories you will find that there is nothing to tell. The anecdote, stripped of its trimmings, is insignificant and often inane. It was grand for people who wanted to write a story and couldn’t think of a plot to discover that you could very well manage without one. If you could take two of three persons, describe their mutual relations and leave it at that, why then it wasn’t so hard to write a story; and if you could flatter yourself that this really was art, what could be more charming?

But I am not quite sure that it is wise to found a technique on a writer’s defects. I have little doubt that Chekov would have written stories with ingenious, original and striking plot if he had been able to think of them. It was not in his temperament. Like all good writers he made a merit of his limitations. Was it not Goethe who said that an artist only achieves greatness when he recognises them?
I do not understand the people who say of Chekov’s stories that they are slices of life, I do not understand, that is, if they mean that they offer a true and typical picture of life. I do not believe they do that, nor do I think they ever did. I think they are marvellously lifelike, owing to the writer’s peculiar talent, I think they are deliberately chosen to square with the prepossessions of a sick, sad and overworked, gray-minded man. I do not blame them for that. Every writer sees the world in his own way and gives you his own picture of it. The imitation of life is not a reasonable aim of art; it is a discipline to which the artist from time to time subjects himself when the stylization of life has reached an extravagance that outrages common sense. For Chekov life is like a game of billiards in which you never pot the red, bring off a losing hazard or make a canon, and should you by a miraculous chance get a fluke you will almost certainly cut the cloth. […] I suppose that it is this attitude that makes his chief characters somewhat indistinct. He can give a striking portrait of a man in two lines, as much as can be said of anyone in two lines to set before you a living person, but with elaboration he seems to lose his grasp of the individual. His men are shadowy creatures, with vague impulses to good, but without will-power, shiftless, untruthful, fond of fine words, often with great ideals, but with no power of action. His women are lachrymose, slatternly and feeble-minded. Though they think it a sin they will commit fornication with anyone who asks them, not because they have passion, not even because they want to, but because it is too much trouble to refuse. It is only in his description of young girls that he seems touched with a tender indulgence.


But if I have ventured to make these observations I beg the reader not to think that I have anything but a very great admiration of Chekov. No writer, I repeat, is faultless. It is well to admire him for his merits. Not to recognize his imperfections, but rather to insist that they are excellencies, can in the long run only hurt his reputation. Chekov is extremely readable. That is a writer’s supreme virtue and one upon which sufficient stress is often not laid. He shared it with Maupassant. Both of them were professional writers who turned out stories at more or less regular intervals to earn their living. They wrote as a doctor visits his patients or a solicitor sees his clients. It was part of the day’s work. They had to please their readers. They were not always inspired, it was only now and then that they produced a masterpiece, but it is very seldom that they wrote anything that did not hold the reader’s attention to the last line. They both wrote for papers and magazines. Sometimes a critic will describe a book of short stories as magazine stories and thus in his own mind damn them. That is foolish. No form of art is produced unless there is a demand for it and if newspapers and magazines did not publish stories they would not be written. All stories are magazines stories or newspaper stories. The writers must accept certain (but constantly changing) conditions; it has never been known yet that a good writer was unable to write his best owing to the conditions under which alone he could gain a public for his work. That has never been anything but an excuse of the second-rate. I suspect that Chekov’s great merit of concision is due to the fact that the newspapers for which he habitually wrote could only give him a certain amount of space.
Chekov preached compactness. In his longer stories he did not always achieve it. He was distressed by the charge brought against him that he was indifferent to moral and sociological questions and when he had ample space at his command he seized the opportunity to show that they meant as much to him as to any right-thinking person. Then in long and somewhat tedious conversations he would make his characters express his own conviction that, whatever the conditions of things might be then, at some not far distant date (say 1934) the Russians would be free, tyranny would exist no longer, the poor would hunger no more and happiness, peace and brotherly love rule the vast empire. But these were aberrations forced upon him by the pressure of opinion (common in all countries) that the writer of fiction should be a prophet, a social reformer and a philosopher. In his shorter stories Chekov attained the concision he aimed at in a manner that is almost miraculous.

And no one had a greater gift than he for giving you the intimate feeling of a place, a landscape, a conversation or (within his limited range) a character. I suppose this is what people mean by the vague word atmosphere. Chekov seems to have achieved it very simply, without elaborate explanation or long description, by a precise narration of facts; and I think it was due with him to a power of seeing things with amazing naivety. The Russians are a semi-barbarous people and they have retained the power of seeing things naturally, as though they existed in a vacuum; while we in the West, with our complicated culture behind us, see things with the associations they have gathered during long centuries of civilization. They almost seem to see the thing in itself. […] It is a national gift. In no one was it more acutely developed than in Chekov.


Chekov had an amazing power of surrounding people with air so that, though he does not put them before you in the round and they lack the coarse, often brutal vitality of Maupassant’s figures, they live with a strange and unearthly life. They are not lit by the hard light of common day but suffused in mysterious grayness. They move in this as though they were disembodied spirits. It is their souls that you seem to see. The subconscious seems to come to the surface and they communicate with one another directly without the impediment of speech. […] You have the feeling of a vast, gray, lost throng wandering aimless in some dim underworld. It fills you with awe and uneasiness. I have hinted that Chekov had no great talent for inventing a multiplicity of persons. Under different names, with different environment, the same characters recur. It is as though, when you looked at the soul, the superficial difference vanishes and everyone is more or less the same. […] The importance of a writer in the long run rests on his uniqueness. I do not know that anyone but Chekov has so poignantly been able to represent spirit commuting with spirit. It is this that makes one feel that Maupassant in comparison is obvious and vulgar. The strange, the terrible thing is that, looking at man in their different ways, these two great writers, Maupassant and Chekov, saw eye to eye. One was content to look upon the flesh, the other, more nobly and subtly, surveyed the spirit; but they agreed that life was tedious and insignificant and that men were base, unintelligent and pitiful.


Though all but two have been published in a magazine these stories were not written with that end in view. When I began to write them I was fortunately in a position of decent independence and I wrote them as a relief from work which I thought I had been too long concerned with. It is often said that stories are no better than they are because editors of magazines insist on their being written to a certain pattern. This has not been my experience. All but Rain and The Book-Bag were published in the Cosmopolitan Magazine and Ray Long, the Editor, never put pressure on me to write other as I wished. Sometimes the stories were cut and this is reasonable since no editor can afford one contributor more than a certain amount of space; but I was never asked to make the smallest alteration to suit what might be supposed to be the taste of the readers. Ray Long paid me for them not only with good money, but with generous appreciation. I did not value this less. We authors are simple, childish creatures and we treasure a word of praise from those who buy our wares.


Three of stories in this volume were told me and I had nothing to do but to make them probable, coherent and dramatic. They are The LetterFootprints in the Jungle and The Book-Bag. The rest were invented […] by the accident of my happening upon persons here and there, who in themselves or from something I heard about them suggested a theme that seemed suitable for a short story. This brings me to a topic that has always concerned writers and that has at times given the public, the writer’s raw material, some uneasiness. There are authors who state that they never have a living model in mind when they create a character. I think they are mistaken. They are of this opinion because they have not scrutinized with sufficient care the recollections and impressions upon which they have constructed the person who, they fondly imagine, is of their invention. If they did they would soon discover that, unless he was taken from some book they had read, a practice by no means uncommon, he was suggested by one or more persons they had at one time known or seen.


There is evidently something that a number of people do not like in my stories and it is this they try to express when they damn them with the faint praise of competence. I have a notion that it is the definiteness of their form. I hazard the suggestion (perhaps unduly flattering to myself) because this particular criticism has never been made in France where my stories have had with the critics and the public much greater success than they have had in England. The French, with their classical sense and their orderly minds, demand a precise form and are exasperated by a work in which the ends are left lying about, themes are propounded and not resolved and a climax is foreseen and then eluded. This precision on the other hand has always been slightly antipathetic to the English. Our great novels have been shapeless and this, far from disconcerting their readers, has given them a sense of security. This is the life we know, they have thought, with the arbitrariness and inconsequence; we can put out of our minds the irritating thought that two and two make four.


''Critics are like horse-flies which prevent the horse from ploughing,'' said Chekov. ''For over twenty years I have read criticisms of my stories, and I do not remember a single remark of any value or one word of valuable advice. Only once Skabichevsky wrote something which made an impression on me. He said I would die in a ditch, drunk.''


My prepossessions in the arts are on the side of law and order. I like a story that fits. I did not take to writing stories seriously till I had had much experience as a dramatist, and this experience taught to me leave out everything that did not serve the dramatic value of my story. It taught me to make incident follow incident in such a manner as to lead up to the climax I had in mind. I am not unaware of the disadvantages of this method. It gives a tightness of effect that is sometimes disconcerting. You feel that life does not dovetail into its various parts with such neatness. […] The story-teller of this kind aims not only at giving his feelings about life, but at a formal decoration. He arranges life to suit his purposes. He follows a design in his mind, leaving out this and changing that; he distorts facts to his advantage, according to his plan; and when he attains his object he produces a work of art. It may be that life slips through his fingers; then he has failed; it may be that he seems sometimes so artificial that you cannot believe him, and you do not believe a story-teller he is done. When he succeeds he has forced you for a time to accept his view of the universe and has given you the pleasure of following out the pattern he has drawn on the surface of chaos. But he seeks to prove nothing. He paints a picture and sets it before you. You can take it or leave it.


[Liza of Lambeth, new Preface, The Collected Edition, 1934.]

This is my first book. At the age of seventeen I wrote a biography of Meyerbeer; I cannot imagine why, since I knew nothing of music and have never heard any of his operas. I have long forgotten whatever I knew about him, but I do not believe he was a romantic figure; and can only surmise that a centenary or something of that kind made me think that the subject was of topical interest. One rejection was sufficient to discourage me. I threw the manuscript into the fire.[1] Then I began to write plays, chiefly in one act, of a harrowing nature and unflinching realism. I had learned to know Ibsen in Germany and the plays that I wrote between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one delved into the secrets of the human soul; few of my characters but suffered from a fatal or a venereal disease, and since I was studying medicine I was able to go into some very elegant detail; most of them bore a hereditary taint that poisoned their lives, and such as were lucky enough to have had healthy and respectable parents concealed a shameful, guilty secret which in the course of the play was bound to be disclosed. It would have narked me to have my plays invariably rejected, but that everybody agreed that the English stage was in a parlous state, and I put down my ill fortune to the ignorance of the managers and the folly of the public. The drama was going to the dogs, and it both shocked and grieved me that I, so ready to save it, was denied the opportunity.


At that time Mr Fisher Unwin, the publisher, was making some stir with a series of short books called the Pseudonym Library. They were slim volumes bound in yellow paper and they had a dashing look. They were cheap and everybody read them. I wrote two longish stories and sent them to Mr Unwin with a suggestion that he might think them suitable for this series. After some time he returned them to me, but with a letter that filled me with exultation. He said they had interested him, but that they were not long enough for the Pseudonym Library; if, however, I had a novel he would be glad to read it.

I wrote back to thank him and said that in a very short while I would take advantage of his offer. I posted the letter and ten minutes later began a novel. I was working all day at St. Thomas's Hospital and could only write in the evenings. I think I must have been then in my fourth year. I had spent the usual time in the out-patient departments, as clerk on the medical side and dresser on the surgical, and had passed the periods in the wards that the curriculum demanded. Then I did the obstetric work. In order to obtain the necessary certificate the student had to attend twenty confinements. I daresay all this is now changed, but in my day at St. Thomas's you were appointed obstetric clerk for a period of three weeks during which you had to be on hand day and night. You took a lodging immediately opposite the hospital to which the porter had a key, and if you were wanted in the night he came across the street and woke you. You dressed and went to the hospital where you found waiting for you the husband or perhaps the small son of the patient, with the card which the woman in labour had earlier obtained from the hospital. For your first case you were accompanied by the senior obstetric clerk, a young man recently qualified, but after that you were expected to manage by yourself and send for him only if a difficulty arose that you could not cope with. He was hard worked and often very tired so that if you dragged him out of bed without good reason you were very liable to hear some unpleasant truths about yourself. The messenger led you through the dark and silent streets of Lambeth, up stinking alleys and into sinister courts where the police hesitated to penetrate, but where your black bag protected you from harm. You were taken to grim houses, on each floor of which a couple of families lived, and down into a stuffy room, ill-lit with a paraffin lamp, in which two or three women, the midwife, the mother, the 'lady as lives on the floor below' were standing round the bed on which the patient lay. Sometimes you waited in that room for two or three hours, drinking a friendly cup of tea with the midwife and going down in the street below now and then to get a breath of air. The husband was sitting on the step and you sat down beside him and chatted.

I attended sixty-three confinements in three weeks.

This was the material I used for this book. I exercised little invention. I put down what I had seen and heard as plainly as possible. It seemed very bald and I should have liked to make my story more thrilling and picturesque by the exercise of my fancy, but I did not know how to. I was forced to stick to the facts by the miserable poverty of my imagination.


Since this preface is to serve also as an introduction to the edition of which Liza of Lambeth is the first volume I should like now to make a few remarks upon this. It is not a complete edition. I have chosen to put into it only those books with which I am least dissatisfied. I do not think any writer is worth reading in his entirety. He is asking a great deal if he invites his readers to concern themselves with so many as a dozen books, probably he has put the best of himself into two or three, and he is fortunate if even so many retain their interest beyond his lifetime. An author has the right to be judged by his best work: he is prudent to make the task of selection as light as possible. If his only means of livelihood is his pen he is forced sometimes to write to make money, and it is unlikely, though not inevitable, that under these circumstances he will write anything that has merit. We know, of course, that Dr Johnson wrote Rasselas at great speed in order to earn money to bury his mother, and though it may be read now only by the student it remains one of the monuments of English literature. But I suppose he had long had the theme in mind and financial necessity was not the motive of his writing it, but the goad that led him to surmount his native lethargy.


I am aware that this preface and those that follow it are egotistic. I hope my egotism is not unseemly. It is not easy to talk of oneself without offence and it may seem to some readers that in these prefaces I have arrogated to myself an importance which is not my due. I beg them to believe that I have no illusions about my position in current literature, and I do not think that I attach an exaggerated value to my works. I know their defects better than any critic. But no one will concern himself with such an edition as this unless, for reasons best known to himself, he is interested in the author. It is not unreasonable then to suppose that he will care to know under what conditions such and such a book was written and be interested to hear what the author cares to say about himself and his art. If these prefaces are not egotistic they are absurd. They have amused me to write: if they do not amuse the reader to read he is after all under no compulsion to do so.


I have been much praised and much blamed. Though I have been elated by the praise and cast down by the blame I have never let either disturb me in my chosen course. I should have been very willing to learn from the many criticisms of my work that I have read, but I have not found them very helpful. I suppose it is asking too much from a critic, who is often hurried and always ill-paid, that he should take the trouble to indicate an author's faults in such a way that he may be enabled to correct them. Perhaps my critics never thought it worth while to make the attempt; perhaps they had not the capacity.


I have left out of this edition two novels I wrote because I wanted a certain amount of money by a certain time. They were made out of plays which I had been unable to place, and I wrote them because with the story and the dialogue to hand I could turn them out in a few weeks. One was called The Bishop's Apron. […] The other was called The Explorer. It was the novelisation of a play that was afterwards produced. The chief character was suggested by H. M. Stanley, whose exploits had long fascinated my young fancy, and the strong, silent man, owing to Mr Kipling's vogue, was then very much the fashion. But the story depended on the hero's refusal to clear himself of abominable accusations at the cost of betraying to his betrothed that her brother was not the gallant creature she fondly believed but a worthless scamp. No audience would accept this quixotic behaviour as probable and the play failed. I turned it into a novel because another, The Magician, was returned to me by the publishers, when already set up, owing to one of the partners reading it in proof and being shocked by it. I have always thought that publishers should never learn to read; it is enough if they can sign their names. But this mishap left me without money to support myself during the rest of the year. I wrote The Explorer in a month and very tedious work I found it. On this account I have a great dislike for it and if it were possible would willingly suppress it. At one time it irked my conscience like the recollection of a discreditable action, but I know now that this is foolishness; the public can be trusted to forget far more completely than the author the books he would prefer not to have written.


Youth is a lovely thing, it has a promptness of fancy, a liveliness, a freshness of outlook, a directness, which in some fortunate instances counterbalance the lack of skill and knowledge, which the author of twenty books brings to the composition of his later works. Sometimes of course youth is the author's only talent and when that leaves him he has nothing to fall back on. That is why so many young persons write one or two charming books that seem to have not only promise, but a delightful fulfilment, and then sink into a lamentable mediocrity. But if a writer is conscious that in his maturity he has produced works that are not without merit, he is wise to leave out from an edition like this such of his writings as were published before he was in full possession of his powers.


I had for two or three years been absorbed in the Italian Renaissance and had read a great deal of Italian. In Machiavelli's History of Florence I found a passage that excited my fancy, it was the story of Caterina Sforza and the siege of Forli, and it seemed to me that here was a very good idea for a novel. […] When the summer vacation came I left London and went to Capri and began to write. I was strenuous and enthusiastic and started work at six in the morning. I worked till I was tired and then went down to bathe. I spent a lovely summer and finished the book. I called it The Making of a Saint. The critics received it with coolness and the public with indifference.

As soon as I had taken my medical degrees, with the success of Liza of Lambeth to encourage me and the future before me, for I was only twenty-three, I set out for Spain. I spent eight months there and wrote some short stories. To these I added the two I had previously sent to Mr Fisher Unwin and so made up a volume which I called Orientations. […] The title (which indeed might serve as the general title of all my work) very well described what I had in mind, and though I have not looked at this volume since it was published I have a notion that the stories it contains did in fact in a crude and fumbling way suggest the directions in which I was afterwards to make further experiments. I am conscious now that my imaginary quotation [in French which he invented as an epigraph] seemed a trifle arrogant, for it was unlikely that anyone then should have the least curiosity about my turn of mind; but I meant by it merely that I knew how immature and tentative my work was. The stories were highly praised by the critics and brought me some welcome commissions, but I do not think that in their present form they are worth including in this edition.

The next novel I published was called The Hero. It was suggested by the Boer War and influenced by my study of the French novelists. It was grim and uncompromising and I should think very dull. I have never read it since I corrected the proofs, for I have an almost unconquerable distaste for opening one of my books when it has been written; I only remember that my admiration of Flaubert led me to write long descriptions of scenery. I have learnt since that there is nothing so tedious. I think it is a very good rule to limit such descriptions to three lines. If a writer in that space cannot give an adequate picture of a scene he had better leave it to the reader's imagination. The book was very well reviewed, but neglected by the public and I made out of it no more than the seventy-five founds my publishers had paid me as an advance on royalties. I think it was an honest piece of work, I know that I took a great deal of trouble to make it as good as I could, but of course I still knew very little of my art. I have a notion that now I could get the whole subject into a short story. I had written Mrs Craddock some time before, but had been unable for a long while to get anyone to accept it.


Then I wrote a novel called The Merry-go-round. I am not reprinting it, but I look upon it, nevertheless, with indulgence. It was a failure, but the experiment was interesting and I have sometimes thought that it would be worth repeating. It had struck me for some time that the novelist's usual practice of taking two or three persons and treating them as though the world moved round them, bringing in others only in so far as the protagonists were concerned with them, gave a very false impression of the multifariousness of life. I am not alone in the world with the girl I love and the rival who is disturbing the course of my passion. All sorts of thrilling adventures are occurring to the people all round me, and to them they are just as important as mine are to me. But the novelist writes as though his hero and heroine dwelt in a vacuum. I thought I could give a much fuller effect of life by taking a number of people, loosely connected as people are who live in the same world, and giving all their stories with equal fullness, and telling all I knew about all of them. I chose the necessary number of persons and devised four series of events that occurred simultaneously. I saw my novel like one of those huge frescoes in an Italian cloister in which all manner of people are engaged in all manner of activities, but which the eye embraces in a single look. The scheme was too ambitious for my powers. I had not realised that one set of characters would prove more interesting than the rest and that the reader, wanting to know about them, would be impatient of the others. The book suffered also from the pernicious influence on me at the time of the writings of the aesthetes. The men were inanely handsome and the women peerlessly lovely. I wrote with affectation. My attitude was precious. I was afraid to let myself go. But still I think there was something in the idea. Perhaps it could be carried out successfully if the intertwined stories and the persons who acted them were seen rigidly through the eyes of one of the characters in the book. The interest of this character in the various events he was concerned in might give them unity, and the dramatic value of his reactions towards the other persons of the novel hold the reader's attention by giving him the illusion of a single theme.

The last of the novels I have written which also finds no place in this edition is The Magician. It is the only one about which I have hesitated. I took great pains over it and spent much time in getting together the materials. The principal character was suggested partly by the portrait of Alessandro del Borro in the Museum at Berlin and partly by an acquaintance I made when I was spending a year in Paris. […] I read the works of Eliphas Levi and devised a story melodramatic enough to serve as a frame for the outrageous and bombastic creature of my fancy. But the book would never have been written except for the regard I had for Joris Karl Huysmans who was then at the height of his vogue. I do not suppose that anyone could read Là-Bas now with more than a languid interest, but at that time it seemed suggestive and mysterious. It had a palpitating horror that many found strangely fascinating. It was a new sort of shocker written in a curious, vivid and unusual French. I suppose Huysmans' three most important works will be remembered for some time as a picture of a certain side of French feeling at a certain period. Their influence on current literature, though ephemeral, was wide-spread. But Hyusmans had a cardinal advantage over his imitators: he sincerely believed what he wrote. He was a man insanely superstitious who was convinced of the real existence of the maleficent powers of which he treated. He lived in craven terror of spells, charms and incantations. To me it was all moonshine. I did not believe a word of it. It was a game I was playing. A book written under these conditions can have no life in it. This is the chief reason that has induced me to omit The Magician from this selected edition of my writings.[2]


[Cakes and Ale, new Preface, The Collected Edition, 1934.]

It was as a short story, and not a very long either, that I first thought of this novel. Here is the note I made when it occurred to me: ''I am asked to write my reminiscences of a famous novelist, a friend of my boyhood, living at W. with a common wife, very unfaithful to him. There he writes his greatest books. Later he marries his secretary, who guards him and makes him into a figure. My wonder whether even in old age he is not slightly restive at being made into monument.''


Old recollections returned to me. I found I had not said all I wanted to say about the W. of the note, which in Of Human Bondage I had called Blackstable. After so many years I did not see why I should not get closer to the facts. The Uncle William, Rector of Blackstable, and his wife Isabella, became Uncle Henry, Vicar, and his wife, Sophie. The Philip Carey of the earlier book became the I of Cakes and Ale.


I am told that two or three writers thought themselves aimed at in the character of Alroy Kear. They were under a misapprehension. This character was a composite portrait: I took the appearance from one writer, the obsession with good society from another, the heartiness from a third, the pride in athletic prowess from a fourth, and a great deal of myself. For I have a grim capacity for seeing my own absurdity and I find in myself much to excite my ridicule. I am inclined to think that this is why I see people (if I am to believe what I am frequently told and frequently read of myself) in a less flattering light than many authors who have not this unfortunate idiosyncrasy. For all the characters that we create are but copies of ourselves. It may be of course that they really are nobler, more disinterested, virtuous, and spiritual than I. It is very natural that being godlike they should create men in their own image. When I wanted to draw the portrait of a writer who used every means of advertisement possible to assist the diffusion of his works I had no need to fix my attention on any particular person. The practice is too common for that. Nor can one help feeling sympathy for it. Every year hundreds of books, many of considerable merit, pass unnoticed. Each one has taken the author months to write, he may have had it in his head for years; he has put into it something of himself which is lost for ever, it is heart-rending to think how great are the chances that it will be disregarded in the press of matter that weighs down the critics' tables and burdens the booksellers' shelves. It is not unnatural that he should use what means he can to attract the attention of the public.

[Cakes and Ale, new Introduction, Modern Library, 1950.]

When Cakes and Ale was first published a lot of fuss was made in the papers because in the character I had called Edward Driffield I was supposed to have had Thomas Hardy in mind. It was in vain that I denied it. It was in vain that I pointed out to the journalists who came to question me how different the life of my hero was from that of Thomas Hardy. It is true that both were of peasant stock, that both had written novels of life in the English countryside, that both had been twice married and that both in their old age had achieved fame. But that was the beginning and the end of the resemblance. I met Thomas Hardy but once and that was at a dinner party in London when the ladies, as is the custom in England, had retired from the dining-room to leave the men to drink their port and over coffee and brandy discuss the affairs of state. […] I have no recollection of what we talked about on that occasion and remember only that I took away with me the impression of a small, grey, tired, retiring man who was, though not in the least embarrassed to be at such a grand party as that was, no more intimately concerned with it than if he had been a member of the audience at a play. […] There was certainly nothing in him of the somewhat freakish and ribald attitude towards life which was characteristic in his old age of Edward Driffield.

I think the newspaper men only identified my character with Thomas Hardy because when my book was written he had recently died. Otherwise they might just as easily have thought of Tennyson or Meredith. I had had occasion to see old and eminent writers receive the homage of their admirers, and as I watched them I had sometimes asked myself whether at such moments their minds ever carried them back to their obscure and tumultuous youth and whether when they looked at the ladies who gazed at them, their eyes misty with adoration, or listened gravely to the earnest young men who told how great an influence their works had had on them, they did not chuckle within themselves and with amusement wonder what those admirers would say if they knew the whole truth about them. I asked myself whether sometimes they did not grow impatient with the reverence with which they were treated. I asked myself whether they greatly relished being perched up on a pedestal.


In point of fact I founded Edward Driffield on an obscure writer who settled with his wife and children in the small town of Whitstable, of which my uncle and guardian was vicar. I do not remember his name. I don’t think he ever amounted to anything and he must be long since dead. He was the first author I had ever met, and though my uncle strongly disapproved of my association with him, I used to slip away to see him whenever I had the chance. His conversation thrilled me. It was a shock to me and a satisfaction to my uncle when one day he vanished from the town with all his debts unpaid.


It had but just been published when a letter delivered by hand was brought into me at my lodgings in Half Moon Street. It was from Hugh Walpole. He was on the committee of the English Book Society and had taken my novel to bed with him to read it with a view of recommending it as the book of the month. As he read, it was born in upon him that in the character of Alroy Kear I had drawn what seemed to him a cruel portrait of himself. Hugh Walpole then was the most prominent member of that body of writers who attempt by seizing every opportunity to keep in the public eye, by getting on familiar terms with critics so that their books may be favourably reviewed, by currying favor wherever it can serve them, to attain success which their merit scarcely deserves. They attempt by push and pull to make up for their lack of talent. It was true that I had had Hugh Walpole in mind when I devised the character to whom I gave the name of Alroy Kear. No author can create a character out of nothing. He must have a model to give him a starting point; but then his imagination goes to work, he builds him up, adding a trait here, a trait there, which his model did not possess, and when he has finished with him the complete character he presents to the reader has little in him of the person who had offered the first suggestion. It is only thus that a novelist can give his characters the intensity, the reality which makes them not only plausible, but convincing. I had no wish to hurt Hugh Walpole's feelings. He was a genial creature and he had friends who, though they were apt to laugh at him, were genuinely attached to him. He was easy to like, but difficult to respect. When I devised the character of Alroy Kear I did all I could to cover my tracks; I made him a sportsman who rode to hounds, played tennis and golf much better than most, and an amorist who skillfully avoided the entanglement of marriage. None of this could be said of Hugh Walpole. When I replied to his letter I told him this, and I added that I had taken one characteristic from an author we both knew and another from another, and moreover that above all I had put in Alroy Kear a great deal of myself. I have never been unaware of my own defects and I have never regarded them with complacency.
But the fact remained that I had given Alroy Kear certain traits, certain discreditable foibles which Hugh Walpole too notoriously had, so that few people in the literary world of London failed to see that he had been my model.

[The Selected Novels, vol. 1, original Preface, Heinemann, 1953.]

Unfortunately, I had given Alroy Kear certain traits, certain discreditable foibles, which Walpole too notoriously had, so that few people in the literary world of London failed to see that he had been in part my model. For in this connection we are more apt to recognise persons by their defects than by their merits. Poor Hugh was bitterly affronted.


[The Narrow Corner, new Preface, The Collected Edition, 1934.]

The characters of fiction are strange fish. They come into your mind. They grow. They acquire suitable characteristics. An environment surrounds them. You think of them now and again. Sometimes they become an obsession so that you can think of nothing else. Then you write of them and for you they cease to be. It is odd that someone who has occupied a place, often only in the background of your thoughts, but also often in the very centre of them, who then perhaps for months has lived with you all the waking hours of the day and often in your dreams, should slip your consciousness so completely that you can remember neither his name nor what he looks like. You may even forget that he ever existed. But on occasion it does not happen like that. A character whom you had thought you were done with, a character to whom you had given small heed, does not vanish into oblivion. You find yourself thinking of him again. It is often exasperating, for you have had your will of him and he is no longer of any use to you. What is the good of his forcing his presence on you? He is a gate-crasher whom you do not want at your party. He is eating the food and drinking the wine prepared for others. You have no room for him. You must concern yourself with the people who are more important to you.  But does he care? Unmindful of the decent sepulchre you have prepared for him, he goes on living obstinately; indeed, he betrays an uncanny activity, and one day to your surprise he has forced his way to the forefront of your thoughts and you cannot help but give him your attention.

The reader of this novel will find Dr Saunders in a brief sketch in On a Chinese Screen. He was devised in order to act his part in the little story called The Stranger. I had space there to draw him but in a few lines and I never expected to think of him again. There was no reason why he, rather than any other of the many persons who made an appearance in that book, should go on living. He took the matter into his own hands.

And Captain Nichols was introduced to the reader in The Moon and Sixpence. He was suggested by a beachcomber I met in the South Seas. But in this case I was conscious soon after I had finished that book that I was not finished with him. I went on thinking about him and when the manuscript came back from the typist and I was correcting errors, a little piece of his conversation struck me. I could not but think that here was the idea for a novel and the more I thought of it the more I liked it. When the proofs at last reached me I had made up my mind to write it and so cut out the passage in question. It ran as follows:

‘About other parts of his career he was fortunately more communicative. He had smuggled guns into South America and opium into China. He had been engaged in the blackbird business in the Solomon Islands and showed a scar on his forehead as the result of a wound some scoundrelly nigger had given him who did not understand his philanthropic intentions. His chief enterprise was a long cruise he had taken in the Eastern seas, and his recollection of this formed an unfailing topic of his conversation. It appeared that some man in Sydney had been unlucky enough to commit a murder and his friends were anxious to keep him out of harm’s way for a time, so Captain Nichols was approached. He was given twelve hours to buy a schooner and find a crew, and the following night, a little way down the coast, the interesting passenger was brought on board.
‘’’I got a thousand pounds for that job, money down, paid in gold,” said Captain Nichols. “We had a wonderful trip. We went all through the Celebes and round about the islands of the Borneo Archipelago. They’re wonderful those islands. Talk of beauty, vegetation, you know, and all that sort of thing. Shooting whenever you fancy it. Of course we kept out of the beaten track.”
‘”What sort of man was your passenger?” I asked.
‘”Good fellow. One of the best. Fine card player too. We played écarté every day for a year and by the end of the year he’d got all the thousands pounds again. I’m a pretty good card player myself and I kept my eyes skinned too.”
‘”Did he go back to Australia eventually?”
‘”That was the idea. He’d got some friends there and they reckoned as how they’d square his little trouble in a couple of years.”
‘”I see.”
‘”It looked as if I was going to be made the goat.”
‘Captain Nichols paused for a moment and his lively eyes seemed strangely veiled. A sort of opaqueness covered them.
‘”Poor fellow, he fell overboard one night off the coast of Java. I guess the sharks did the rest. He was a fine card player, one of the best I ever saw.” The Captain nodded reflectively. “I sold the schooner at Singapore. What with the money I got for that and the thousands pounds in gold I didn’t do so badly after all.”’

This then was the incident that gave me idea for this novel, but it was not till twelve years later that I began to write it.

[Epigraph to The Narrow Corner, 1932.]

Short, therefore, is man’s life,
and narrow is the corner of the earth wherein he dwells.

[Marcus Aurelius (120–181), Meditations, iii, 10, 
translated by ????]


[The Collected Plays, 6 vols., new Prefaces, 1931-4;
reprinted and slightly revised in 1952, 3 vols.]

The first three plays in this volume were written to be produced. At the beginning of the century, though the managers as now were complaining of the dearth of plays, it was even more difficult than at present for an unknown dramatist to get one accepted. […] The only organisation that offered the untried author a chance was the Stage Society; and even this was more inclined to give performance to a foreign play that was supposed to be too advanced for the general public than encouragement to an English author. It was the Stage Society, however, that produced my first play. I knew no one connected with it. I was obscure. The committee took it on its merits. I shall always be grateful to it.

The play was called A Man of Honour. […] The critics judged it according to their preconceptions. The more conventional abused it heartily; the earnest students of drama praised it. Et ego in Arcadia vixi: I too have been a highbrow. I have not looked at it for more than forty years and I think it must have been somewhat ridiculous. […] I could not help noticing that a play produced by the Stage Society did not lead to very much. After the two performances they gave it and the notices in the press it was as dead as mutton. I felt a trifle flat after the production of A Man of Honour. I looked reflectively at the Thames and was conscious that I had not set it on fire. I badly wanted to write plays that would be seen not only by a handful of people. I wanted money and I wanted fame. I did not know then that success on the stage can only bring notoriety. But it was not without misgiving that I turned to comedy.


Stifling then my honourable scruples I sat down and wrote a comedy which I called Loaves and Fishes. The chief character was the fashionable vicar of a London parish. It was refused by every manager to whom it was sent on the ground that the public would not care to see the cloth held up to ridicule. I found somewhat to my dismay that the small success I had had at the Stage Society had done me harm rather than good with the managers. They read my plays with prejudice; after A Man of Honour they were pretty well convinced that I should never write anything that had a penny in it. They were not alone. Max Beerbohm, walking with me on the pleasant lawns of Merton Abbey, earnestly besought me to give up a hopeless endeavour. In his gracious, flattering way he told me that I had a mind too delicate, a sensitiveness too refined, ever to succeed in the vulgar scramble of the stage. He little knew. I was young, poor and determined. I reflected upon the qualities which the managers demanded in a play: evidently a comedy, for the public wished to laugh; with as much drama as it would carry, for the public liked a thrill; with a little sentiment, for the public liked to feel good; and a happy ending. I realised that I should have more chance to get a play accepted if I wrote a star part for an actress, for women are persuasive; and it seemed to me that if I could devise a part than an actress very much wanted to play it was probable that she would get a manager to let her. I asked myself what sort of part would be most likely to tempt a leading lady. Leading ladies are human. I asked myself what sort of woman the average woman would like to be. The answer was obvious: the adventuress with a heart of gold; titled, for the sex is peculiarly susceptible to the glamour of romance; the charming spendthrift and the wanton of impeccable virtue; the clever manager who twists all and sundry round her little finger and the kindly and applauded wit. Having made up my mind upon this the rest was easy. I wrote Lady Frederick. But it had in the third act a scene in which the heroine had to appear dishevelled, with no make-up on, and have her hair done while she arranged her face before the audience. No actress would look at it. One, when urged to play the part, stamped her pretty foot and said the suggestion was the greatest insult that she had ever had to put up with. Another said it was hardly the thing a lady would do.


While Lady Frederick was being refused by manager after manager I wrote another play, and this time, profiting by experience, I decided that I would write nothing that anyone could possibly take objection to. I made use of the same principles that had served me in Lady Frederick, but I made my heroine even more virtuous; her reputation was unblemished and she did nothing that was not perfectly nice. I did everything I could to make my play innocuous. Sometimes as I wrote I had an uneasy feeling that I was overdoing it. I asked myself whether I was not riding the banal too hard. I finished the play and started it on its journey. This was Mrs. Dot. It was refused as uniformly as Lady Frederick had been. The managers praised the dialogue, but complained that there was not enough action, and one suggested that I should put in a burglary. I did not see my way to this.


Since these plays introduced me to the stage I think it would be ungrateful to leave them out of this edition, but I am well aware of their defects and it would be absurd to write about them at length. Their success made the managers eager to take other plays, and the three that follow in this volume were written on commission to suit certain actors, Penelope for Marie Tempest, Smith for Miss Marie Lohr and Robert Loraine and The Land of Promise for Irene Vanbrugh. I think they show some slight advance in skill and perhaps The Land of Promise might still hold an audience. They established me as the most popular dramatist of the day. But not long after I had achieved this somewhat spectacular success an unfortunate incident befell me. I knew from long experience that the way of the literary man was hard; and when I was asked for interviews saw no harm in giving others opportunity to earn a few guineas at so little inconvenience to myself. But straightaway, often in the very paper that had published the interview I found myself abused for self-advertising, (though everyone knows that no amount of writing about it can save a play that does not please, whereas one that does needs no more advertising than the entertainment it gives to succeeding audiences), or censured for venturing on the strength of three or four trivial pieces to express my view on the subject, only to be treated with reverence, of the British drama. I thought it hardly fair that these gentlemen of the press should have it both ways: you are not obliged to ask a man to dinner, but if you do it seems ungracious to call him a parasite because he accepts. I made up my mind consequently to follow the course that was least trouble to myself – it is a very good rule for getting through life comfortably – and declined thenceforward the flattering importunities of the interviewer. But since I was adopting an attitude, a process that is forced upon everyone who has relations with the public, I preferred to give it a certain completeness: I determined not again to appear before the curtain on first nights, (a vulgar practice only to be excused by its antiquity,) and never to write letters to newspapers.

But I took this resolution at an unlucky moment, for I had recently said that the object of a play was to entertain; and a dozen journalists, stating that by entertainment I meant amusement (though not explaining why I was such a fool as to use one word when I had another in mind,) attacked the platitude with fury. […] It was useful training for the vituperation that I was to suffer later. I cannot pretend that I was indifferent to it at the time, but I did not allow it to hinder me from following the course I had chosen, and now after forty years I can look back on it with good humour. I was rated like a schoolboy and abused like a pickpocket. I read that I had neither decorum nor decency and wondered whether the writer would have been so rashly libellous had he known that all my relations are lawyers. The editor of a weekly paper, not content with the two columns of invective contributed by his critic, allowed an anonymous correspondent to point out how lamentable was my ‘case’; and I learnt that a debating society in Kensington discussed my fall from grace on a Sunday night. I wish I had been there to hear. The intelligentsia turned a cold shoulder on me and I wandered no more in the pleasant groves of Arcady. I was accused of flippancy in such terms as showed that my censors looked upon it as an unpardonable weakness. Many hard things were said of me because comedy was more lucrative than tragedy and I grew callous to hearing that I had sold my soul for money. I am not such a fool as to pretend that I am indifferent to the money I have made. Unlike some of my fellow-writers I had no other means of earning a living than my pen; I was not so fortunate as to marry a wife rich enough to support me, nor had I the luck to have a father whose industry supplied me both with an income and with material for my satire. Nothing is so degrading as a constant anxiety about means of livelihood, and I do not suppose that anyone can be other than heartily thankful when he sees himself relieved for the rest of his life from sordid cares. Money is like a sixth sense without which one cannot make a complete use of the other five. Without an adequate income half the possibilities of the world are cut off. The only thing to be careful of is that one does not pay more than twenty shillings for the pound one earns.[3]


I was blamed also for my fertility, which is a merit, it appears, only in the dead, but when I look back I am astounded at my moderation. I had always half a dozen plays in my head, and when a theme presented itself to me it did so divided into scenes and acts, with each ‘curtain’ staring me in the face, so that I should have had no difficulty in beginning a new play the day after I had finished the one I was engaged on. If I did not write six a year it is only because it would have bored me. I have always written with pains and care, but I am an improviser. Some writers beat out their matter little by little, they write and write again, they add something here and something there; they put their work together like the pieces of a mosaic; and I am prepared to believe that so they achieve sometimes an excellence that the improviser cannot hope for. With him it is hit or miss. I daresay the elaborator gets nearer perfection, but the improviser perhaps has a greater spontaneity and he preserves the freshness of any inspiration he may have. Anyhow he has not made himself, and he must make the best of what gifts he has. Fertility is one of his compensations. I have often tried writing scenes again, but have found that I wrote not better but merely different ones.


The aim of drama is not to instruct but to please. Its object is delight. I cannot persuade myself that it need be taken with the seriousness that is cultivated in certain quarters. It would be a benefit if less attention were paid to it. […] It is unreasonable to expect masterpieces, a masterpiece is an accident, but it might be that thus there would be produced plays of sufficient merit to provide a tolerant audience with an evening’s diversion. So were plays written in the golden age of Spanish drama and in England under Elizabeth and James I. Art is a mistress who takes more kindly to the lover who chucks her under the chin than to the lover who kisses the hem of her garment. She is indifferent to morals; no excellence of motive will enable you to write a good play or paint a good picture. The desire to do the best that is in you, as the phrase goes, may result only in the exposure of a sad vacuum. A lofty purpose will not serve you so well as a competent technique. Art is merely a luxury. Men very naturally attach importance chiefly to self-preservation and the propagation of their species.[4] They bestow honours upon those, soldiers and politicians, who enable them, they think (and often erroneously) to follow these instincts with safety; and it is only when these are satisfied that they consent to occupy themselves with the entertainment provided for them by writers, painters, and musicians. But it is difficult for those who are occupied with the arts to realise this: there is in them I know not what power that drives them to such complete absorption in their work as to make them subordinate life to it entirely. It is a constant struggle in which for the most part they remain dupes of the instinct that possesses them. […] And as for posterity, well, the dramatists at all events, can afford to snap his fingers at it. For he practices the most ephemeral of all arts.


Of course I know that a great many plays have come down the ages and some of them are still acted from time to time. The greater number of these are poetic and have been preserved for the loveliness of their verse rather than for their dramatic value. I have seen Romeo and Juliet acted in French and could not persuade myself that it was anything more than a bustling and very improbable melodrama. As to plays in prose I cannot think of a single serious one that has held the stage; a few comedies have remained, but they are amusing only in the fashionable sense of the word as wax flowers in a glass case or tinsel pictures are ‘amusing’. They are national monuments and are acted from a sense of duty or with an education object; and sometimes the famous parts they contain tempt the ambition of a player. But their interest is archeological, one laughs at their humours with difficulty, from the outside and not as a participant in the play; and it is only in a scene here and there that life remains. They are part of literature, but only by courtesy part of the theatre. For wit too, which is the most delicate flower of civilisation, is ephemeral.


The three plays following are placed in the order in which they were written. Our Betters, though it was not acted in London till 1923, and then only with a scene at the end of the second act altered to suit the exigencies of Lord Chamberlain, was written in Rome at the beginning of 1915. When at last it was produced I extracted a certain amount of discreet amusement from such of the critics as found in it a development of the characteristics that they had discovered in plays produced before but written much later. I may add in passing that in this edition I have reverted to my original version. It was more probable and I do not see that it was more shocking. In the few years that have passed audiences have become used to greater frankness, and if the play were revived I have little doubt that the word slut used by one of the characters, which made the spectators on the first night gasp with horror, would now fail entirely to express the speaker’s indignation. The Unattainable was produced under the name Caroline, and it gave Irene Vanbrugh the opportunity for one of the best performances of her distinguished career. […] I wrote it in Geneva during the autumn of 1915. I was engaged in work for the Intelligence Department which the Swiss authorities did not approve of, and my predecessor had had a nervous breakdown owing to the strain it put upon his temperament, more sensitive than mine, to break the law; my colleague at Lausanne had lately been sent to prison for two years. I did not know how political prisoners were treated and I had no notion whether, should such an unpleasant fate befall me, I should be allowed pens and paper. I hated the idea of leaving the play unfinished, and I knew it would be very difficult to take it up again after a long interval. It was a great relief to me when I wrote the last line. […] I do not know that it is an author’s business to point to his readers the defects of his work, but if I were a critic I should perhaps feel it my duty to make the observation that the play is really finished by the end of the first act. What follows might have very well been left to the imagination of the reader.

The same stern critic might make the same objection to Home and Beauty, the third play in this volume, and in each case the answer might be given, in extenuation, that a certain number of diverting scenes do what is possible to atone for the failure to adhere to the strict canons of the drama. Home and Beauty was written in a sanatorium during the last winter of the war. I had escaped a Swiss prison, but the work I was engaged in had much exposed me to the rigours of a singularly bad winter and I had contracted tuberculosis of the lungs. This had been aggravated by a sojourn in Russia, and when on the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks I was obliged to come back to England, I was feeling very sorry for myself. It was impossible then to go to Davos or St. Moritz, so I went to Scotland. It was a very pleasant life at Nordrach-on-Dee. I was sent to bed every day at six o’clock, and an early dinner gave me a long evening to myself. The cold, windless night entered the room through the wide-open windows, and with mittens on my hands so that I could comfortably hold a pen, it was an admirable opportunity to write a farce. For Home and Beauty pretends to be nothing more.


A few pages back I acknowledged, I hope with becoming modesty, that my plays must be classed as commercial drama, but I did not stay to consider exactly what that signifies. It is of course of term of depreciation. It describes a play which is a source of profit to the manager and the author and thus one which the public is willing to go and see for at least a hundred nights. It infers a lack of artistic merit. It is not immediately obvious why a play that people do not want to see is more artistic than one they do. If commercial success is the test a certain difficulty arises. It appears that Bernard Shaw was a commercial dramatist when he wrote St. Joan and an artist when he wrote Back to Methuselah. What are you going to think of Man and Superman? When it was first written it was very distinctly uncommercial: did it cease to be a work of art when it was produced by Robert Lorraine and everyone concerned made a great deal of money out it?


It is an error to suppose that the writer of this sort of play writes only to make money. A very small experience of the profession of letters teaches you that to write with this end is folly. It is like happiness which is best achieved by not aiming at it. You earn most money when you write merely to please yourself. Of course you need not go out of your way to make things difficult. You are not likely to attain domestic felicity if you give your wife a black eye and knock your children about, nor will you earn substantial royalties if you write a play about the incestuous relations of a family of mental deficients. But now the intelligent reader sits up and takes notice. This is what we want, he cries, that is the theatre of ideas. All right. Let us leave the commercial theatre and talk of the theatre of ideas.


But even if a dramatist were by a lucky chance to conceive an idea that was both original and momentous what could he do with it? He could only illustrate it. His play would be like those bad movies in the days of the silent film when the story was told you in captions and the pictures served only to put before your eyes what you already knew. That is to waste the possibilities of the medium. Nor, I suggest, is dialogue the best way of presenting ideas. I do not suppose anyone has used it to better purpose than Plato, but take any of his dialogues and notice how exasperating it is, once you are interested in the argument, to be held up by the give and take of conversation[5].


For my part I prefer ideas to be presented to me with lucidity and succinctness. I do not want to be persuaded to accept the thinker’s thoughts by his art; I want to be convinced by his logic.


Nor is the drama even a good vehicle for propaganda. I may think that the administration of the dole is very stupid and by choosing characters and instances to prove my case I can make out a scandalous state of things. But I have proved nothing. By choosing other characters and other instances I can show exactly the opposite. And such odd things happen in the theatre that a writer can never be sure that the moral he inculcates will emerge from the circumstances he displays. John Galsworthy wrote Justice to show the evils of the prison system and because he was a very able dramatist wrote an interesting and moving play, but what he actually showed was the efficiency with which society eliminates the unfit. The didactic writer may load his dice, but he can never be certain that he will throw sixes every time.


The Anglo-Saxon race has always looked upon the artist with misgiving. They have never accepted him as a serious person and now that the spread of education has enabled writers to move out of Grub Street, this want of consideration is irksome to them unless they have a sense of humour or a happy indifference to the opinion of their fellows. Writers consequently are apt to claim moral intentions and pedagogic ends. They seek respectability by adopting a portentous attitude. I think it is a pity. So far as the dramatists are concerned too many, who might write very good, workmanlike plays, thus waste their talents. And the English have a cruel sense of humour. I think they never laugh so much as when they destroy an artist by turning him into a prophet.

I have little to say of the three last plays in this volume. The Circle is generally thought the best play I have written. I have always thought that the device suggested by Clive Champion-Cheney to his son to prevent Elizabeth from running away not very happy. I should have liked at that point a more substantial dramatic invention. The Constant Wife was a failure in London. It was a great success in America, in the foreign countries where it has been produced and even in the provincial towns in England in which it has been from time to time acted. Where it has been successful it has been much praised by the critics. Not of course because they were influenced by its success, but because a play consists of the words, the production and the audience; and the failure of one of the parties concerned may make the difference between a good play and a bad one.

Caesar’s Wife was suggested by Madame Lafayette’s La Princesse de Clèves. It is one of the most exquisite novels that has ever been written. Short though it is and written in the restrained manner of the time, for it is contemporary with the tragedies of Racine, it is in the grand style. The theme is tragic, the triumph of will over passion, and it is unfolded with a delicate subtlety that was new to fiction. Indeed, it is according to the critics with this little book that the psychological novel was born. The story is not very well known, I think, to English readers of the present day, so that I may be forgiven, perhaps, if I briefly narrate it. Monsieur de Clèves had fallen in love with his wife at first sight, but was well aware that she had for him no more than affection; but his respect and admiration for her were so great that when, inviting his aid in her distress, she told him that she loved another, he accepted her confession with sympathy. The drama lies in the effort of Monsieur de Clèves to overcome his jealousy and in his wife’s to master her passion. It is beautiful to see the skill with which Madame de Lafayette depicts the gradual disintegration of this great gentleman’s character. He has the decorum of the grand siècle, that lively sense of what he owes his own dignity, and something of that stoical heroism which his contemporaries learnt from Corneille or which he discovered in the world around him; he is exasperated at his inability to crush a vice that he despises, but human nature is too strong for him, and by degrees he becomes mean, petty, suspicious and irritable. The situation is unfolded with sobriety, the tone is never raised above that seemly to persons of good breeding; there is no vehemence, and the expression of the most violent emotion is kept within the bounds of propriety. But the emotion is deep and true.

I thought that it would be interesting to treat this theme in a modern way. I had been often reproached for writing only about unpleasant people, and though I did not think the reproach justified, I was not averse from trying to write a play in which all the characters were estimable. I thought it possible to devise a piece in which the persons were virtuous without being insipid and in which duty and honour triumphed over temperament. But it was not in my plan to make my hero succumb feebly to a passion he disdained. Monsieur de Clèves, making too great a demand on human nature, fails in a dozen small ways; it is true to life, but, such is our own weakness, it makes him in the end somewhat antipathetic. […] He had not indeed the strength of character to play the heroic part for which he had cast himself. I did not see why a man should not play it to the end if he had courage, tolerance and self-control; but tolerance and self-control are virtues that the old learn, they seldom come naturally to the young; so I made my hero an elderly man. This further explained and excused the wife’s infatuation for the pleasant young secretary. […] And since honour, which was a reasonable motive for action in the seventeenth century and which, I suppose, is nothing more than self-respect, would in these days fail to convince, I brought in patriotism to help me to make Violet’s abnegation reasonable. By doing this, of course, I limited the success of the play to this country, since patriotism is a motive that does not travel; it is faintly ridiculous to a German or an American than an Englishman should make sacrifices to England. Caesar’s Wife will to me remain a pleasing memory for the beautiful performance that Miss Fay Compton gave in the part of Violet. The gesture with which she held out her arms to her lover after she had sent him away for good and all and he had miserably gone, had a grace tenderness and beauty the like of which I have before or since seen on the stage.

East of Suez purports to be a play of spectacle. I had long wanted to try my hand at something of the sort and a visit to China presented me with an appropriate setting. The bare bones of a story that I had for twenty years from time to time turned over in my mind, recurred to me. It seemed very well suited to my purpose. I kept my ears open and from this person and that heard little incidents that fitted in with my scheme and gave it the fullness, colour and variety that it needed. […] In a play of this sort, in which exotic and beautiful scenery is used to divert the eye and crowds to give movement and colour, it is evident that the spectacle should be an integral part of the theme. Looking back, I realise that in my inexperience I did not always adhere to the canon and in this edition I have omitted a marriage procession which I inserted because I thought this common sight in a Chinese city picturesque and amusing, but which had nothing to do with my story. On the other hand, I cannot think that anyone who saw the play will have forgotten the thrill and strangeness of the mob of Chinese, monks and neighbours, who crowded in when the wounded man was brought in after the attempted assassination in the fourth scene. With their frightened gestures and their low, excited chatter they produced an effect of great dramatic tension.

In The Sacred Flame I attempted a greater elaboration of dialogue than I had been in the habit of using. In certain passages I tried, quite deliberately, to make my characters use not the words and expressions that they would have used in real life on the spur of the moment and in the give and take of conversation, but words and expressions that they might have used if they had had time to set their thoughts in order. Several very good critics blamed my dialogue for being ‘literary’, more suitable to a novel than to the stage, and I realised myself, on hearing it with an audience, that it was sometimes none too easy to speak. I did not insist. I was in the position of the tenant of a house whose lease is running; even though he finds certain things about it inconvenient, it is not worth his while to attempt structural alterations.


For some years I had had in mind the four plays with which I proposed to finish my career as a practising dramatist. I was prepared to write them only on this account, for I did not think any of them was likely to succeed and I knew how difficult it was for a dramatist to recover a popularity that he had lost. I was much surprised that The Sacred Flame and The Breadwinner had a considerable success. I expected nothing of For Services Rendered. During the rehearsals of this piece I amused myself by devising the way in which it might have been written to achieve popularity. Any dramatist will see how easily the changes could have been made. The characters had only to be sentimentalised a little to affect their behaviour at the crucial moments of the play and everything might have ended happily. The audience could have walked out of the theatre feeling that war was a very unfortunate business, but that notwithstanding God was in his heaven and all was right with the world; there was nothing to flash oneself about and haddock a la crème and a dance would finish the evening very nicely. But it would not have been the play I wished to write.

The Unknown was produced immediately after the First World War, and the circumstances of the time helped it to a certain success. I could not anticipate it, for in performance it turned out to have an error of construction that I had not seen. I took up again in it an idea I had used many years before in a forgotten novel called The Hero and the drama I saw in my mind’s eye lay in the conflict between two persons who loved one another and were divided by the simple piety of the one and the lost faith of the other. But to my surprise it appeared in representation that the drama lay in the arguments on one side and the other, and not at all in the personal relations of the characters. The result was that the play came to an end with the second act; the third consequently was meaningless and there was no trick or device I could think of that could make it significant.

Sheppey puzzled a good many of the critics. Some of them, strangely ignorant of the principles of the drama, reproached me because I had set a problem and had not solved it. The dramatist takes a situation and wrings out of it all the dramatic value he can. Sheppey does not set out to be a problem play; I should describe it as a sardonic comedy. When I wrote it I was aware that the last scene might displease. It seemed to me to be in the same vein as the rest of the play, and I did not think I was asking an audience to accept too much when I set before them a hallucination of Sheppey’s disordered brain. But it would be foolish not to recognise that they were as puzzled as the critics. I grew conscious that I was no longer in touch with the public that patronises the theatre. This happens in the end to most dramatists and they are wise to accept the warning. It is high time for them then to retire.

I did so with relief.


It is often said that a good actor can bring out of a character far more than the author ever put in it, and this is doubtless true, though it is more often the case that a bad actor brings out far less; but I do not know that this is a matter on which the author must necessarily congratulate himself. I once saw Mrs. Patrick Campbell give a magnificent performance of Hedda Gabler, but I think it would have driven Ibsen to distraction. She put so much into the part that he had never thought of that the character he had drawn was entirely obliterated. I should not like these remarks to be taken as a mark of ingratitude to the actors and actresses who have acted in my plays. To take only the plays in this volume, I can say that I have never seen such a moving performance as that of Haidee Wright in The Unknown, and that of Miss Flora Robson in For Services Rendered. My earlier plays owed much of their success to the deft comedy of Marie Tempest and to the great and versatile gifts of Irene Vanbrugh. I have spoken in a previous preface of Miss Fay Compton. I know how much I am indebted to Miss Gladys Cooper. She is as beautiful now as when she first went on the stage, and she has become an actress of extraordinary variety, emotional force and sensitiveness. She can play nothing without distinction.


[On a Chinese Screen, new Preface, The Collected Edition, 1935.]

This is not a book at all, but the material for a book. I travel because I like to travel. I like the sensation it gives you of freedom from all responsibility. Time never spreads out so spaciously before you as on a journey and, though perhaps you do little of what you had in mind to do, you have the feeling that you have leisure for everything. You have long empty hours that you can fritter away without the uneasy consciousness that time is flying and there is not a moment to waste. Though I think the traveller is a fool who does not secure for himself such comfort as is possible I can very well do without it. I like a good dinner, but I can enjoy the roughest and (what is worse) the most monotonous fare. In the South Seas I have eaten Hamburger steak day after day with unimpaired appetite (though I admit that when I returned to San Francisco and was offered one my stomach rose at the sight) and on an island in the Malay Archipelago I have eaten bananas for three meals a day because there was little else to eat. Nor have I ever looked upon bananas with longing since. I like to sleep night after night in a different place and I am not particular about my accommodation. I have slept very comfortably on a mat in a native house in Savaii and luxuriously in an open boat on a Chinese river. I have even enjoyed sleeping on sacks of copra in a launch and it would be hard to find anything more lumpy. But how exquisite were those starry nights! I like meeting people whom I shall never meet again. No one is boring whom you will see but once in your life. It is interesting to guess what sort of a person he is and to compare him with others of the same sort you have met before. For the most part people sort themselves into a small variety of types and you have the amusement of recognising the traits and idiosyncrasies that you expect. And just as you will sometimes see an effect of nature that you know from the pictures of a certain painter so you will run across persons you have read of in books. The Kipling character, for instance, is by no means uncommon in the East. I do not know if he is a descendant of the men and women that Mr. Rudyard Kipling described in the India of forty years ago, or if he has formed himself on diligent perusal of those good stories. It is comic to hear him use those well-worn phrase and to see him, as though it were natural to him, entertain that attitude towards the world which is now so out of date. Then there is the excitement now and then, very rarely of course, of coming upon someone who is different from any one you have ever known. You find him in unexpected places, on board of some coasting steamer, away in a walled town on the borders of Tibet or on a coconut plantation in the Aroe Islands. Solitude, an unusual life, have given him the opportunity to develop on his own lines without the hindrance of our Western civilisation which forces upon people, at least outwardly, (and alas! how greatly is the inner life influenced by the outer!) a common shape. This man may not be very intelligent. He may seem even a little crazy. He may be immoral, dishonest, coarse, vulgar and rude; but by heavens, he’s odd! He seems almost to belong to a different species. If you are interested in human nature your heart leaps.

I went to China in 1920. I did not keep a diary, for this is a thing I have never been able to do since I was ten, but I made notes of the people and places that excited my interest. I vaguely thought they would be useful for stories or a novel. They mounted up and it occurred to me that I might make them into a connected narrative of my journey. […] But when I got them into some sort of order it seemed to me that they had a freshness, for they were made when the impression was vivid, that they might lose if I elaborated them into such a narrative as I had intended. I thought it enough if I made them a little more succinct and if I tried as far as I could to remove the carelessness and slip-shod character of hasty writing. I hoped they would give the reader who cared to make some use of his imagination a truthful and perhaps lively picture of the China I had seen.


[The Gentleman in the Parlour, new Preface, The Collected Edition, 1935.]

I think it is very well for a novelist to give himself a rest now and then from writing fiction. It is a dreary business, to write a novel once a year, as many authors must do, to earn their year’s keep or for fear that if they remain silent they will be forgotten. It is unlikely, however fertile their imagination, that they will always have in mind a theme that so urgently demands expression that they cannot help but write; it is unlikely too that they can create characters, fresh and vivid, that they have not themselves used before. If they have the story-teller’s gift and know their craft, they will probably turn out an acceptable piece of fiction, but it is only by good luck that it will anything more. […] No doubt the greater the novelist the larger the number of persons he is capable of creating, but even with the greatest, the number is determined by his own limitations. There is only one way in which he can cope to some extent with the difficult situation: he can change himself. Here time is a prime agent. The writer is fortunate who can wait till he has effected such a change in him that he can see what is before him with fresh and different eyes. […] But change of scene also, on one condition, can do much. I have known writers who made adventurous journeys, but took along with them their house in London, their circle of friends, their English interests and their reputation; and were surprised on getting home to find that they were exactly as they went. Not thus can a writer profit from by a journey. When he sets out on his travels the one person he must leave behind is himself.

This book is not like On a Chinese Screen, the result of an accident. I took the journey it describes because I wanted to; but I had from the beginning the intention of writing a book about it. I had enjoyed writing On a Chinese Screen. I wanted to try my hand again on the same sort of subject, but on a more elaborate scale and in a form on which I could impose a definite pattern. It was an exercise in style. In a novel the style is necessarily influenced by the matter and a homogenous manner of writing is hardly practical. […] There are writers who attach so much importance to beauty of language, but which, alas, they generally mean the florid vocabulary and the purple patch, that they force their material, regardless of its nature, into a uniform mould. Sometimes they go so far as to make even their dialogue conform to it and ask you to read conversations in which the speakers address one another in balanced and carefully composed sentences. So life eludes them. There is no air and you gasp for breath. It is of course out of the question to be funny this way, but this disturbs them little, for they seldom possess a sense of humour. It is a trait, indeed, that they regard with impatience. The better plain a novel is to let the matter dictate the manner. The style of a novel is best when like the clothes of a well-dressed man it is unnoticed. But if you like language for its own sake, if it amuses you to string words together in the order that most pleases you, so as to produce an effect of beauty, the essay or the book travel gives you an opportunity. Here prose may be cultivated for its own sake. You can manipulate your material so that the harmony you seek is plausible. Your style can flow like a broad, placid river and the reader is borne along on its bosom with security; he needs fear no shoals, no adverse currents, rapids, or rock-strewn gorges. The danger, of course, is that he will be lulled to sleep and so not observe the pleasant sights along the bank with which you have sought to divert him. The reader must judge for himself whether in this book I have avoided it. I beg him only to remember that there is no language more difficult to write than English. No one ever learns all that there is to be known about it. In the long history of our literature it would be difficult to find more than six persons who have written it faultlessly. 


[The Moon and Sixpence, new Preface, The Collected Edition, 1935.]

For the experiences of Charles Strickland in Marseilles I used some passages from an interesting book of travels by Harry Franck, called A Vagabond Journey round the World. In a novel it would be absurd to put the source from which you obtain information, it would destroy the illusion you seek to create, but I gave the reader a hint of the truth by suggesting that Captain Nichols, the narrator of the facts in question, had found them in the pages of a magazine. This was apparently not enough, for an angry gentleman wrote a long article condemning my reprehensible behaviour. It left me calm. I gladly acknowledge my debt to Mr. Harry Franck. A Vagabond Journey round the World is very readable. It contains a dozen incidents that only require imagination, a sense of character, the power to write and the creative impulse to make into stories. The novelist cannot know everything. A great deal of the information necessary to him must be got from other people or from books. It is quite a modern notion that the writer should pretend to invent everything he writes out of his own head. It is an absurd one. The writers of the past took from one another what they wanted. Many went further and without sense of shame copied whole passages. This would be reprehensible now that to write books is a commercial proposition, but to make a fuss because one writer uses an incident that he has found in another’s book is nonsense. By turning it to good account he makes it sufficiently his own. Books of facts are a legitimate quarry for the imaginative writer. There is no more reason why he should not make use of them than of the incidents that are told to him in a club smoking-room or at the bar of a hotel. I would go farther; I would say that any writer is justified in taking from another whatever can profit him. I have seen scenes on the stage lifted from my own plays and have not turned a hair. It has flattered me that my fellow-dramatists should have studied my work with such care. A little while ago a young man wrote an article called Down and Out in Marseilles. It was quite a good article. The publishers of the paper in which it appeared were much concerned when they discovered that it was copied almost word for word from a chapter in The Moon and Sixpence. It contained not only the passages I had myself used from Mr. Harry Franck’s book, but others that I had written from my own observation in the less reputable quarters (now, alas, owing to the economic situation deprived of their garish vivacity) of the ancient city of Marseilles. I calmed the editor’s fears (he saw me bringing an action for infringement of copyright) and begged him to congratulate the writer of the article on his ingenuity. 


[Cosmopolitans, original Preface, 1936.]

The little stories in this volume were written on commission. The first was written in 1924; the last, I think, in 1929. When I was in China I took notes of whatever I saw that excited my interest; but when I came home and read them it seemed to me that they had a vividness that I might easily lose if I tried to elaborate them into a connected narrative. So I changed my mind and decided to publish them as they stood under the title: On a Chinese Screen. Ray Long, who was then editor of the Cosmopolitan Magazine chanced to read this and it occurred to him that some of my notes might very well be taken for short stories. If you are a story-teller any curious person you meet has a way of suggesting a story, and incidents that to others will seem quite haphazard have a way of presenting themselves to you with the pattern your natural instinct has imposed on them.

Magazine readers do not like starting a story and, after reading for a while, being told to turn to page a hundred and something. Writers do not like it either, for they think the interruption disturbs the reader and they have an uneasy fear that sometimes he will not take the trouble and so leaves their story unfinished. There is no help for it. Everyone should know that a magazine costs more to produce than it is sold for, and it could not exist but for the advertisements. The advertisers think that their announcements are more likely to be read if they are on the same page as matter which they modestly, but often mistakenly, think of greater interest. So in the illustrated periodicals it has been found advisable to put the beginning of a story or an article, with the picture that purports to illustrate it, at the beginning and the continuation with the advertisements later on.

Neither readers nor writers should complain. Readers get something for far less than cost price and writers are paid sums for their productions which only the advertisements render possible. They should remember that they are there only as baits. Their office is to fill blank spaces and indirectly induce their readers to buy motor accessories, bust bodices and join correspondence courses. Fortunately this need not affect them. The best story from the advertisers' standpoint (and they make their views felt on this question) is the story that gives readers most delight. Ray Long conceived the notion that the readers of Cosmopolitan would like it if they were given at least one story that they could read without having to hunt for the continuation among the advertisements, and he commissioned me to write half a dozen sketches of the same sort as those in On a Chinese Screen. They were to be short enough to print on opposite pages of the magazine and leave plenty of room for the illustration.

The sketches I wrote pleased and the commission was renewed. I went on writing them till my natural verbosity got the better of me and I found myself no longer able to keep my stories within the limits imposed upon me. Then I had to stop.

But I think I learned a good deal from the writing of them and I am glad I wrote them. My difficulty was to compress what I had to tell into a number of words which must not be exceeded and yet leave the reader with the impression that I had told all there was to tell. It was this that made the enterprise amusing. It was also salutary. I could not afford to waste a word. I had to be succinct. I was surprised to find how many adverbs and adjectives I could leave out without any harm to the matter or the manner. One often writes needless words because they give the phrase a little ring. It was very good practice to try to get balance into a sentence without using a word that was not necessary to the sense.

The matter of course had to be chosen with discretion; it would have been futile to take a theme that demanded elaborate development; and I have a natural predilection for completeness, so that even in the little space at my disposal I wanted my story to have a beginning, a middle and an end. I do not for my own part much care for the shapeless story. To my mind it is not enough when the writer gives you the plain facts seen through his own eyes (which means of course that they are not plain facts, but facts distorted by his own idiosyncrasy); I think he should impose upon them a design. Naturally these stories are anecdotes. […] The anecdote is the basis of fiction. The restlessness of writers forces upon fiction from time to time forms that are foreign to it, but when it has been oppressed for a period by obscurity, propaganda or affectation, it reverts and returns inevitably to the anecdote.

The University of Columbia a little while ago very kindly sent me a little book entitled Modern Fiction written by two of its professors. I read it with interest and edification. It offers the best guide I have ever met across the fog-bound swamps, shining mountains, pleasant oases and dreary deserts of Mr. Joyce’s Ulysses. It treats of no book that it does not make one wish to read again. It is tolerant, perspicacious and stimulating. But there is one thing about it that very much surprised me. The books of which it treats are discussed in the most improving way. Their technique is acutely analysed. Their value as psychological, sociological or ethical documents is estimated. But I can find nowhere a reference to their entertainment. So far as I can make out these two professors in all the years during which they have thought the ardent young who have attended their lectures never even hinted to them that a novel should be read for fun. The novel may stimulate you to think. It may satisfy your aesthetic sense. It may arouse your moral emotions. But if it does not entertain you it is a bad novel. It is merely laziness that induces people to go to novels for instruction on subjects that are the province of experts. There is no short road to knowledge and you will only waste your time if you seek it in a work of fiction.
The novelist deals with individual cases which he has chosen to suit his own purpose. They may exemplify a rule; they cannot serve to formulate one. The novelist gives you his private view of the universe. He offers you intelligent entertainment; and the first thing you should ask of an entertainment is that it should entertain.

I hope the reader will not think it presumptuous on my part to have touched on these matters of theory in a preface written to introduce a little collection of very short stories. I wish merely to warn him that I ask nothing from him but that he should find amusing. I think it would be very tiresome to read them at a sitting, but I have a hope that if he reads one or two now and then when he has nothing better to do he will take the same pleasure in them that was taken by the readers of the Cosmopolitan Magazine when they appeared once every month or so in its pages.


[Of Human Bondage, “Instead of a Preface” to the New Edition (reset),
Heinemann, 1934. Reprinted in The Collected Edition, 1937.]


It seemed a trifle absurd to write a preface to a novel that was already so long, but it appears that when one republishes a book written many years ago, readers want something of the sort to whet their appetites, and for a week or so I had been wondering what on earth I could find to say. I wrote this novel first in a much shorter form, during the end of 1897 and the first six months of 1898. It was called then, somewhat grandly, The Artistic Temperament of Stephen Carey. It finished with the hero at the age of twenty-four, which was my own age when I finished it, and it sent him to Rouen, which I knew only from two or three short visits to see the sights, instead of Heidelberg, as in Of Human Bondage, which I knew well; and it made him study music, of which I knew nothing (and know little now), instead of making him study painting, of which in later years I was to learn at least a little.


But it is a strange thing, it is not enough to write a book to rid yourself of it, you must publish it as well; and I could not forget the people, the incidents and the emotions of which it was composed. In the next ten years I had other experiences and met other people. To book continued to write itself in my mind, and many things that happened to me found place in it. Certain of my recollections were so insistent that, waking or sleeping, I could not escape from them. I was by then a popular playwright. I was making for those days a great deal of money, and the managers could hardly wait to engage a cast till I had written the last act of my new piece. But my memories would not let me be. They became such a torment that I determined at last to have done with the theatre till I had released myself from them. My book took me two years to write. I was disconcerted at the unwieldy length to which it seemed to be extending, but I was not writing to please; I was writing to free myself from an intolerable obsession.


The first title I chose was Beauty from Ashes, a quotation from Isaiah, but this, I found, had been recently used and I had to look for another. It so happened that at that time I was reading Spinoza. When I came to the part of his great book that is called Of Human Bondage, it seemed to me that I could never find anything that so exactly suited me. I was told that it was a very forbidding title for a novel, but I insisted on my way. It was published in 1915.
The end alone was criticized with any severity. Many thought it conventional that I should finish with a happy marriage, and they could not understand that I should have imagined that my hero, with his restless, tortured temper, could find happiness with a woman who was to their mind so commonplace. They would have preferred him to go out into the world alone and pursue his contention with a hostile environment. Here I had no facts to go on. It was a wish-fulfilment. Women are apt to think that a man wants to pass his life with a wife who is able to enter into all his intellectual interests. They see him inspired by her to nobler aims and more exalted ambitions. They see her as a spiritual influence. They find it reasonable that he should wish to discuss grave matters with her on equal terms, and that there should be between them the give and take of two independent powers of like magnitude. They do not take it amiss that he should pay a willing tribute of submission to the superior intuition of their sex. Now, I have no doubt that this is many men’s ideal of a wife, but I do not think it is that of many writers. The writer wants peace, he wants love, he wants peace, he wants comfort, he wants peace, he wants recreation, he wants peace, he wants kindness. And because he wants these his favourite heroines give them. It is true that they seem a little dull and stupid to the outsider, and I suppose they are few women who are impatient with the quiet, sensible heroines of Dickens, Thackeray and Trollope. But writers praise them.


[Of Human Bondage, Foreword to the First Illustrated Edition,
Doubleday, Doran, 1936.]

This is a very long novel and I am ashamed to make it longer by writing a preface to it. An author is probably the last person who can write fitly about his own work.


I will say nothing then about my book itself, but will content myself with telling the reader of these lines how a novel that has now had a fairly long life, as novels go, came to be written; and if it does not interest him I ask him to forgive him. I wrote it first when, at the age of twenty-three, having taken my medical degrees after five years at St. Thomas’s Hospital, I went to Seville determined to earn my living as a writer. The manuscript of the book I wrote then still exists, but I have not looked at it since I corrected the typescript and I have no doubt that it is very immature. I sent it to Fisher Unwin, who had published my first book (while still a medical student I had published a novel called Liza of Lambeth, which had had something of a success), but he refused to give me the hundred pounds I wanted for it and none of the other publishers to whom I afterwards submitted it would have it at any price. This distressed me at the time, but now I know that I was very fortunate; for if one of them had taken my book (it was called The Artistic Temperament of Stephen Carey) I should have lost a subject which I was too young to make proper use of. I was not far enough away from the events I described to use them properly and I had not had a number of experiences which later went to enrich the book I finally wrote. Nor had I learnt that it is easier to write of what you know than of what you don’t. For instance, I sent my hero to Rouen (which I knew only as an occasional visitor) to learn French, instead of to Heidelberg (where I had been myself) to learn German.

Thus rebuffed I put the manuscript away. I wrote other novels, which were published, and I wrote plays. I became a very successful playwright and determined to devote the rest of my life to the drama. But I reckoned without a force within me that made my resolutions vain. I was happy, I was prosperous, I was busy. My head was full of the plays I wanted to write. I do not know whether it was that success did not bring me all I had expected or whether it was a natural reaction from it, but I was but just firmly established as the most popular dramatist of the day when I began once more to be obsessed by the teeming memories of my past life. They came back to me so pressingly, in my sleep, on my walks, at rehearsals, at parties, they became such a burden to me, that I made up my mind there was only one way to be free of them and that was to write them all down in a book. After submitting myself for some years to the exigencies of the drama I hankered after the wide liberty of the novel. I knew the book I had in mind would be a long one and I wanted to be undisturbed, so I refused the contracts that managers were eagerly offering me and temporarily retired from the stage. I was then thirty-seven.

For long after I became a writer by profession I spent much time on learning how to write and subjected myself to very tiresome training in the endeavour to improve my style. But these efforts I abandoned when my plays began to be produced and when I started to write again it was with different aims. I no longer sought a jewelled prose and a rich texture, on unavailing attempts to achieve which I had formerly wasted much labour. I sought on the contrary plainness and simplicity. With so much that I wanted to say within reasonable limits I felt that I could not afford to waste words and I set out now with the notion of using only such as were necessary to make my meaning clear. I had no space for ornament. My experience in the theatre had thought me the value of succinctness and the danger of beating about the bush. I worked unremittingly for two years.


Of Human Bondage is not an autobiography, but an autobiographical novel; fact and fiction are inextricably mingled; the emotions are my own, but not all the incidents are related as they happened and some of them happened to my hero not from my own life but from that of persons with whom I was intimate. The book did for me what I wanted and when it was issued to the world (a world in the throes of a dreadful war and too much concerned with its own sufferings and fears to bother with the adventures of a creature of fiction) I found myself free from the pains and unhappy recollections that had tormented me.


[Theatre, new Preface, The Collected Edition, 1939.]

It is not very difficult to write a preface to a book that you wrote a long time ago, for the hurrying years have made a different man of you and you can look upon it with a stranger’s eyes. You see its faults, and for the reader’s delectation you can recall, according to your temperament with toleration or with dismay, the defects in your character as it was then which account for the defects of your book; or you can look back, maybe with the pleasure that distance lends to the past, upon the conditions under which you wrote; you can draw a pretty picture of your garret or dwell with modest complacency on the stiff upper lip with which you faced neglect. But when, in order to tempt a reader to buy a book that has no longer the merit of novelty, you set about writing a preface to a work of fiction that you composed no more than two or three years back, it is none too easy to find anything that you want to say, for you have said in your book all you have to say upon the theme with which it deals and having done so have never given it another thought. As nothing is more dead that a love that has burnt itself out, so no subject is less interesting to an author than one upon which he has said his say. Of course you can quarrel with your reviewers, but there is little point in that; what such and such a critic thought of a novel that he read the year before last can only matter to an author if his susceptibility is really too tender for the rough and tumble of this queer world; the critic has long forgotten both the book and his criticism, and the generality of readers never trouble their heads with criticism anyhow.


My recollection is that on the whole the criticisms of Theatre were pretty good. Some critics, however, complained that Julia Lambert, my heroine, was not a creature of high moral character, great intelligence and nobility of soul, and concluded from this that she was a mediocre actress. I have been given to understand that a number of leading ladies were of the same opinion. Indeed one old actress, celebrated for her acting when I was a boy, and still remembered by the middle-aged for the amusingly disagreeable things she so often said, chiefly at the expense of her fellow-players, was quite biting in her references to me; but I think her acrimony was due to a misapprehension. I took pains in my novel to make it clear that my heroine, whatever her other faults, was not a snob, and this naturally enough prevented the old person in question from recognising the fact that my Julia was a fine actress. We all are inclined to think that others can only have our virtues if they also have our vices.


Even in my early youth I was never stage-struck; but whether because I am by nature of a somewhat sceptical disposition or whether because my mind was filled with private dreams which satisfied my romantic yearnings, I cannot say; and when I began to have plays acted I lost even the few illusions I had. When I discovered how much effort was put to achieving the gesture that had such a spontaneous look, when I realized how often the perfect intonation which moved an audience to tears was due not to the actress’s sensibility but to the producer’s experience, when in short I learnt from the inside how complicated was the process by which a play is made ready to set before an audience, I found it impossible to regard even the most brilliant members of the profession with the same awed and admiring wonder as the general public. On the other hand I learnt that they had qualities with which the public is little inclined to credit them. I learnt, for example, that with few exceptions they were hard-working, courageous, patient and conscientious. Though dropping with fatigue after a long day’s work, I saw them consent with cheerfulness to go through still once more a difficult scene that they had that very day rehearsed half a dozen times already; I saw them, in illness, give a performance when they could hardly stand on their feet rather than let the company down; and I learnt that for all the frills and airs they might put on, when it came down to the business of getting the best out of the play and themselves, they were as reasonable as anyone could desire. Behind their famous ‘temperament’, which is a combination of selfishness and nerves more or less consciously emphasized under the erroneous impression that it is a proof of artistic sensibility, there is far oftener than the public imagines an abundance of shrewd, practical sense. I have never known a child that didn’t like to show off, and in every actor there remains something of the child; it is to this that he owes many of his most charming gifts. He has more than the normal exhibitionism which is common to all but very few of us, and if he hadn’t he would not be an actor; it is wiser to regard this particular trait with humour than with disdain. If I had to put in a phrase the impressions I formed of actors during the long time of my connection with the stage, I should say that their virtues are more solid than they pretend and their failings incidental to the hazardous and exacting profession they follow.

Thirty years elapsed between the production of my first play and the production of my last and in that period I was thrown into intimate contact with a great number of distinguished actresses. Julia Lambert is a portrait of none of them. I have taken a trait here and a trait there and sought to create a living person. Because I was not much affected by the glamour of the brilliant creatures I had known in the flesh I drew the creature of my fancy, I daresay, with a certain coolness. It is this, perhaps, which has disconcerted those readers who cannot separate the actress from the limelight that surrounds her and vexed those actresses who have been so dazzled by the limelight that they honestly think there is no more in them than that. They do themselves an injustice. The quality of the artist depends on the quality of the man and no one can excel in the arts who has not, besides his special gifts, moral rectitude; I would not deny, however, that this may exhibit itself in a form that is surprising and fantastic. I think Julia Lambert is true to life. I should like the reader to notice that though her admirers ascribe greatness to her, and though she accepts the flattery greedily, I, speaking in my own person, have not claimed that she was more than highly successful, very talented, serious and industrious. I should add that for my part I feel a great affection for her; I am not shocked by her naughtiness, nor scandalized by her absurdities; I can only consider her, whatever she does, with fond indulgence.

Before I bring this preface to a close I must tell the reader that in the book which I am now inviting him to peruse I have made two errors in fact. The novelist tries to be accurate in every detail, but sometimes he makes a mistake, and there is generally no lack of persons who are prepared to point it out to him. Once I wrote a novel [The Narrow Corner] in which I had occasion to mention a beach called Manly, which is a favourite resort during the bathing season of the inhabitants of Sydney, and unfortunately I spelt it Manley. The superfluous ‘e’ brought me hundreds of angry and derisive letters from New South Wales. You would have thought that the slip, which might after all have been a printer’s error, though of course it was due only to my own carelessness, was a deliberate insult that I had offered to the Commonwealth. Indeed one lady told me that it was one more proof of the ignorant superciliousness of the English towards the inhabitants of the English colonies, and that it was people like me who would be responsible if next time Great Britain was embroiled in a Continental war the youth of Australia, instead of flying to her rescue, preferred to stay quietly at home. She ended her letter on a rhetorical note. What, she asked me, would the English say if an Australian novelist, writing about England, should spell Bournmouth with an ‘e’? My first impulse was to answer that to the best of my belief the English wouldn’t turn a hair, even if it were incorrect, which in point of fact it wasn’t, but I thought it would better become me to suffer the lady’s stern rebuke in silence. Now in this book I have made two mistakes; I have made my heroine put down her failure in Beatrice to the fact that she was not at ease with blank verse, and I have made her, when she speaks of Racine’s Phèdre, complain that the heroine did not appear till the third act. Instead of verifying my facts as I should have done, I trusted my memory, and my memory played me false. Beatrice speaks very little verse; all her important scenes are in prose; and if Julia failed in the part it was not for the reason she gave. Phèdre enters upon the stage in the third scene of the first act. I do not know why only two persons, one apiece, pointed out to me these inexcusable blunders; I like to think that most readers did me the credit of supposing that they were due, not to my ignorance, but to my subtlety, and that in making Julia Lambert speak in this casual and haphazard fashion I was adding a new touch to my delineation of her character. But I may be unduly flattering myself, and it is just possible that my readers’ recollection of the famous plays in which these characters appear was as hazy as my own, and they knew no better.


[The Mixture as Before, original Foreword, 1940.]

When my last volume of short stories was published The Times headed their review of it with the title The Mixture as Before. This of course was meant in a depreciatory sense, but I did not take it as such and so I have made so bold as to use it for the collection which I am now inviting the public to read. After pursuing the art of fiction for over forty years I have a notion that I know a good deal more about it than most people. In that long period I have seen a number of bright stars creep shyly over the horizon, travel across the sky to burn for a while in mid heaven with dazzling effulgence, and then dwindle into an obscurity from which there is little likelihood that they will ever again emerge. The writer has his special communication to make, which when you come to analyse it is the personality with which he is endowed by nature, and during the early years of his activity he is groping in the dark to express it; then, if he is fortunate, he succeeds in doing this and if there is in his personality a certain abundance he may continue for a long time to produce work which is varied and characteristic; but the time comes at last (if he is so imprudent as to live to a ripe age) when, having given what he has to give, his powers seem to fail. He has fashioned all the stories he himself is capable of digging out of the inexhaustible mine which is human nature and he has created all the characters which can possibly be constituted out of the various sides of his own personality. (For no one I believe can create a character from pure observation; if it is to have life it must be at least to some degree a representation of himself: I do not believe Shakespeare could have begotten Hamlet, Brutus and Iago if he had not been himself Iago, Brutus and Hamlet.) A generation has arisen which is strange to him and it is only by an effort of will that he can understands the interests of a world of which he can now be only an observer. But to understand is not enough; the novelist must feel, and he must not only feel with, he must feel in. It is when he has reached this stage that he finds his readers turning from him in weariness. It is well then if he can bring himself to cease writing books which might just as well have remained unwritten. He is wise to watch warily for the signs which will indicate to him that, having said his say, it behoves him to resign himself to silence. He must be content, he must rejoice even, if a new work which he tenders to the approbation of the public shows no falling off; if, in fact, it can truthfully be called The Mixture as Before.

The writing of stories is very much a matter of luck. They are lying about at every street corner, but the writer may not be there at the moment they are waiting to be picked up or he may be looking at a shop-window and pass them unnoticed. He may write them before he has seen all there is in them or he may turn them over in his mind so long that they have lost their freshness. He may not have seen them from the exact standpoint at which they can be written to their best advantage. It is a rare and happy event when he conceives the idea of a story, writes it at the precise moment when it is ripe, and treats it in such a way as to get out of it all it implicitly contains. Then it will be within its limitations perfect. But perfection is seldom achieved. I think a volume of modest dimensions would contain all the short stories which even closely approach it. The reader should be satisfied if in any collection of these short pieces of fiction he finds a general level of competence and on closing the book feels that he has been amused, interested and moved. I have now written between eighty and ninety stories, I shall not write any more; I am quite satisfied if the readers of this collection, should they remember any of those I have written in the past, agree that I have not been overbold in giving it the title I have.


[Books and You, original Preface, 1940.]


This little book is necessarily slight, but I trust you, the reader, will not find it superficial. I have written its chapters not as a critic (which indeed I am not) nor even as a writer by profession (for in that capacity my interest in literature would tend to be special) but as the plain man with a proper interest in humanity. The first thing I have asked of a book before I put it on my list was that it should be readable; for I want you to read these books, and readability is something I have a notion the professors of literature and the critics whom they have trained take for granted. But it is not a thing to be taken for granted at all. There are many books important in the history of literature which it is now unnecessary for anybody but the student to read. Few people have the time today to read anything but what immediately concerns them. My claim is that the books I have mentioned in the following pages concern everybody. By readability I do not mean that it should be possible to read the book without attention. The reader must bring something of his own; he must have at least the capacity of interesting himself in human affairs and he must have at least some imagination. I know a number of people who say they cannot read novels, and I have noticed they are apt to suppose that it is because, their minds being busy with important matters, they cannot trouble to occupy themselves with imaginary events; but I think they are deceived; it is either because they are so absorbed in themselves that they cannot take an interest in what happen to others, or because they are so devoid of imagination that they have not the power to enter into the ideas and sympathize with the joys and sorrows of the characters of fiction.


I repeat here what you will find in my first chapter, that the only thing that signifies to you in a book is what it means to you, and if your opinion is at variance with that of everyone else in the world it is of no consequence. Your opinion is valid for you. In matters of art people, especially, I think, in America, are apt to accept willingly from professors and critics a tyranny which in matters of government they would rebel against. But in these questions there is no right and wrong. The relation between the reader and his book is as free and intimate as that between the mystic and his God. Of all forms of snobbishness the literary is perhaps the most detestable, and there is no excuse for the fool who despises his fellow-man because he does not share his opinion of the value of a certain book. Pretence in literary appreciation is odious, and no one should be ashamed if a book that the best critics think highly of means nothing to him. On the other hand it is better not to speak ill of such books if you have not read them.


Egoism is the main spring of human nature. It is one quality from which we can never escape (I do not like to call it a vice, though it is the ugliest of our vices, because it is also the marrow of our virtues), for it determines our existence. Without it we should not be what we are. Without it we should be nought. And yet our constant effort must be to check its claims and we can only live well if we do our best to suppress it.


[“The Author Excuses Himself”, preface to Creatures of Circumstance, 1947.]

I owe my readers an apology for the publication of this volume. At the beginning of the war I brought out a collection of short stories which I called The Mixture as Before and for which I wrote a short preface. I was occupied then with work that took all my time and so asked my friend Edward Marsh if he would correct the proofs. He wrote and told me that he was sorry to see by my preface that I had decided to write no more stories. I did not know what he meant, but was too busy to inquire. I saw no reviews and a copy of the book only when I returned to England some months later. Then I found out. I had written: “I shall not write many more stories,” and either the typist or the type-setter, thinking perhaps that I had written quite enough stories, had left out an m, so that the line ran: “I shall not write any more stories”. I have looked at my manuscript and I had in fact, as I intended, written many.

I had several stories written for which I could not find a place in The Mixture as Before and several in mind, and it was my plan even then in due course to publish a further volume. So my readers must not think that I wilfully misled them. I dare not even now promise them that I shall write no more; no writer can be sure than an idea will not one day occur to him that takes his fancy so that he is in the end driven to write it.

Some of these stories were written long ago, but I have left them as they were, for I did not think I could make them more readable by bringing them up to date; nor have I thought it necessary in one story, Winter Cruise, to change the nationality of various characters that take part in it to avoid affronting those who are persuaded that all the nationals of a country with which we have been at war are equally hateful; one story was written during the war and others since its close. They have all been published in magazines.[6]

I know that in admitting this I lay myself open to critical depreciation, for to describe a story as a magazine story is to dismiss it with contumely. But when the critics do this they show less acumen than may reasonably be expected of them. Nor do they show much knowledge of literary history. For ever since magazines became a popular form of publication authors have found them a useful medium to put their work before readers. All the greatest short story writers have published their stories in magazines, Balzac, Flaubert and Maupassant; Chekov, Henry James, Rudyard Kipling. I do not think it is rash to say that the only short stories that have not been published in a magazine are the stories that no editor would accept. So to damn a story because it is a magazine story is absurd. The magazines doubtless publish a great many bad stories, but then more bad stories are written than good ones, and an editor, even of a magazine with literary pretensions, is often obliged to print a story of which he doesn’t think highly because he can get nothing better. Some editors of popular magazines think their readers demand a certain type of story and will take nothing else; and they manage to find writers who can turn out the sort of thing they want and often make a very good job of it. This is the machine-made article that has given the magazine story a bad name. But after all no one is obliged to read it. It gives satisfaction to many people since it allows them for a brief period to experience in fancy the romance and adventure which in the monotony of their lives they crave for.

But if I may judge from the reviews I have read of the volumes of short stories that are frequently published, where the critics to my mind err is when they dismiss stories as magazine stories because they are well constructed, dramatic and have a surprise ending. There is nothing to be condemned in a surprise ending if it is the natural end of a story. On the contrary it is an excellence. It is only bad when, as in some of O. Henry’s stories, it is dragged in without reason to give the reader a kick. Nor is a story any the worse for being neatly built with a beginning, a middle and an end. All good story writers have done their best to achieve this. It is the fashion of today for writers, under the influence of an inadequate acquaintance with Chekov, to write stories that begin anywhere and end inconclusively. They think it enough if they have described a mood, or given an impression, or drawn a character. This is all very well, but it is not a story, and I do not think it satisfies the reader. He does not like to be left wondering. He wants to have his questions answered. There is also today a fear of incident. The result is a spate of drab stories in which nothing happens. I think Chekov is perhaps responsible for this too; on one occasion he wrote: “People do not go to the North Pole and fall off icebergs; they go to offices, quarrel with their wives and eat cabbage soup.” But people do go to the North Pole, and if they don’t fall off icebergs they undergo experiences as perilous; and there is no reason in the world why the writer shouldn’t write as good stories about them as about people who eat cabbage soup. But obviously it is not enough that they should go to offices, quarrel with their wives and eat cabbage soup. Chekov certainly never thought it was. In order to make a story at all they must steal the petty cash at the office, murder or leave their wives, and when they eat their cabbage soup it must be with emotion or significance. Cabbage soup then becomes a symbol of the satisfaction of a domestic life or of the anguish of a frustrated one. To eat it may thus be as catastrophic as falling off an iceberg. But it is just as unusual. The simple fact is that Chekov believed what writers, being human, are very apt to believe, namely that what he was best able to do was the best thing to do.

I read some time ago an article on how to write a short story. Certain points the author made were useful, but to my mind the central thesis was wrong. She stated that the “focal point” of a short story should be the building of character and that the incidents should be invented solely to “liven” personality. Oddly enough she remarked earlier in her article that the parables are the best short stories that have ever been written. I think it would be difficult to describe the characters of the Prodigal Son and his brother or of the Good Samaritan and the Man who fell among thieves. They are in fact purely conventional types and we have to guess what sort of people they were, for we are only told about them the essential facts necessary for the pointing of the moral. And that is about all the short story writer can do. He has not the room to describe and develop a character; he can only give the salient traits that bring the character to life and so make the story he has to tell plausible. Since the beginning of history men have gathered round the camp fire or in a group in the market place to listen to the telling of stories. The desire to listen to them appears to be as deeply rooted in the human animal as the sense of property. I have never pretended to be anything but a story teller. It has amused me to tell stories and I have told a great many. It is a misfortune to me that the telling of a story just for the sake of the story is not an activity that is in favour with the intelligentsia. I endeavour to bear my misfortune with fortitude.

[A Writer’s Notebook, original Preface, 1949.]

The Journal of Jules Renard is one of the minor masterpieces of French literature.


They say dog does not bite dog. This is not true of men of letters in France. In England, I think, men of letters bother but little with one another. They do not live in one another’s pockets as French authors do; they meet, indeed, infrequently, and then as likely as not by chance. I remember one author saying to me years ago: “I prefer to live with my raw material.” They do not even read one another very much. On one occasion, an American critic came to England to interview a number of distinguished writers on the state of English literature, and gave up his project when he discovered that a very eminent novelist, the first one he saw, had never read a single book of Kipling’s. English writers judge their fellow craftsmen; one they will tell you is pretty good, another they will say is no great shakes, but their enthusiasm for the former seldom reaches fever-heat, and their disesteem for the latter is manifested rather by indifference than by detraction. They do not particularly envy someone else’s success, and when it is obviously unmerited, it moves them to laughter rather than to wrath. I think English authors are self-centred. They are perhaps, as vain as any others, but their vanity is satisfied by the appreciation of a private circle. They are not inordinately affected by adverse criticism, and with one or two exceptions do not go out of their way to ingratiate themselves with the reviewers. They live and let live.

Things are very different in France. There the literary life is a merciless conflict in which one gives violent battle to another, in which one clique attacks another clique, in which you must be always on your guard against the gins and snares of your enemies, and in which, indeed, you can never be quite sure that a friend will not knife you in the back. It is all against all, and, as in some forms of wrestling, anything is allowed. It is a life of bitterness, envy and treachery, of malice and hatred. I think there are reasons for this. One, of course, is that the French take literature much more seriously than we do, a book matters to them as it never matters to us, and they are prepared to wrangle over general principles with a vehemence that leaves us amazed – and tickled, for we cannot get it out of our heads that there is something comic in taking art so seriously. Then, political and religious matters have a way of getting themselves entangled with literature in France, and an author will see his book furiously assailed, not because it is a bad book, but because he is a Protestant, a nationalist, a communist or what not. Much of this is praiseworthy. It is well that a writer should think not only that the book he himself is writing is important, but that the books other people are writing are important too. It is well that authors, at least, should think that books really mean something, and that their influence is salutary, in which case they must be defended, or harmful, in which case they must be attacked. Books can’t matter much if their authors themselves don’t think they matter. It is because in France they think they matter so much that they take sides so fiercely.

There is one practice common to French authors that has always caused me astonishment, and that is their practice of reading their works to one another, either when they are in process of writing them, or when they have finished them. In England writers sometimes send their unpublished works to fellow craftsmen for criticism, by which they mean praise, for rash is the author who makes any serious objections to another’s manuscript: he will only offend, and his criticism will not be listened to; but I cannot believe that any English author would submit himself to the excruciating boredom of sitting for hours while a fellow novelist read him his latest work. In France it seems to be an understood thing that he should, and what is stranger, even eminent writers will often rewrite much of their work on the strength of the criticism they may have thus received. No less a person than Flaubert acknowledges that he did so as a result of Turgenev’s remarks, and you can gather from André Gide’s Journal that he has often profited in the same way. It has puzzled me; and the explanation that I have offered to myself is that the French, because writing is an honourable profession (which it has never been in England), often adopt it without having any marked creative power; their keen intelligence, their sound education and their background of an age-long culture enable them to produce work of a high standard, but it is the result of resolution, industry and a well-stored, clever brain rather than of an urge to create, and so criticism, the opinions of well-intentioned persons, can be of considerable use. But I should be surprised to learn that the great producers, of whom Balzac is the most eminent example, put themselves to this trouble. They wrote because they had to, and having written, thought only of what they were going to write next. The practice proves, of course, that French authors are prepared to take an immense deal of trouble to make their works as perfect as may be, and that, sensitive as they are, they have less self-complacency than many of their English fellow craftsmen.


Jules Renard was very honest, and he does not draw a pretty picture of himself in his Journal. He was malignant, cold, selfish, narrow, envious and ungrateful. His only redeeming feature was his love for his wife; she is the only person in all these volumes of whom he consistently speaks with kindness. He was immensely susceptible to any fancied affront, and his vanity was outrageous. He had neither charity nor good will. He splashes with his angry contempt everything he doesn’t understand, and the possibility never occurs to him that if he doesn’t the fault may lie in himself. He was odious, incapable of a generous gesture, and almost incapable of a generous emotion. But for all that the Journal is wonderfully good reading. It is extremely amusing. It is witty and subtle and often wise. It is a notebook kept for the purposes of his calling by a professional writer who passionately sought truth, purity of style and perfection of language. As a writer no one could have been more conscientious. Jules Renard jotted down neat retorts and clever phrases, epigrams, things seen, the sayings of people and the look of them, descriptions of scenery, effects of sunshine and shadow, everything, in short, that could be of use to him when he sat down to write for publication; and in several cases, as we know, when he had collected sufficient data he strung them together into a more or less connected narrative and made a book of them. To a writer this is the most interesting part of these volumes; you are taken into an author’s workshop and shown what materials he thought worth gathering, and how he gathered them. It is not to the point that he lacked the capacity to make better use of them.

I forget who it was who said that every author should keep a notebook, but should take care never to refer to it. If you understand this properly, I think there is truth in it. By making a note of something that strikes you, you separate it from the incessant stream of impressions that crowd across the mental eye, and perhaps fix it in your memory. All of us have had good ideas or vivid sensations that we thought would one day come in useful, but which, because we were too lazy to write them down, have entirely escaped us. When you know you are going to make a note of something, you look at it more attentively than you otherwise would, and in the process of doing so the words are borne in upon you that will give it its private place in reality. The danger of using notes is that you find yourself inclined to rely on them, and so lose the even and natural flow of your writing which comes from allowing the unconscious that full activity which is somewhat pompously known as inspiration. You are also inclined to drag in your jottings whether they fit in or not. I have heard that Walter Pater used to make abundant notes on his reading and reflection and put them into appropriate pigeon-holes, and when he had enough on a certain subject, fit them together and write an essay. If this is true, it may account for the rather cramped feeling one has when one reads him. This may be why his style has neither swing nor vigour. For my part, I think to keep copious notes is an excellent practice, and I can only regret that a natural indolence has prevented me from exercising it more diligently. They cannot fail to be of service if they are used with intelligence and discretion.

It is because Jules Renard’s Journal in this respect so pleasantly engaged my attention that I have ventured to collect my own notes and offer them to the perusal of my fellow writers. I hasten to state that mine are not nearly so interesting as his. They are much more interrupted. There were many years in which I never kept notes at all. They do not pretend to be a journal; I never wrote anything about my meetings with interesting or famous people. I am sorry that I didn’t. It would doubtless have made the following pages more amusing if I had recorded my conversations with the many and distinguished writers, painters, actors and politicians I have known more or less intimately. It never occurred to me to do so. I never made a note of anything that I did not think would be useful to me at one time or another in my work, and though, especially in the early notebooks, I jotted down all kinds of thoughts and emotions of a personal nature, it was only with the intention of ascribing them sooner or later to the creatures of my invention. I meant my notebooks to be a storehouse of materials for future use and nothing else.

As I grew older and more aware of my intentions, I use my notebooks less to record my private opinions, and more to put down while still fresh my impressions of such persons and places as seemed likely to be of service to me for the particular purpose I had in view at the moment. Indeed, on one occasion, when I went to China, vaguely thinking that I might write a book upon my travels, my notes were so copious that I abandoned the project and published them as they were[7]. These, of course, I have omitted from this volume. I have likewise omitted everything I have elsewhere made use of, and if I have left in a phrase or two here and there that a diligent reader of my works recalls, it is not because I am so pleased with it that I want to repeat it, but from inadvertence. On one or two occasions, however, I have deliberately left in the facts that I noted down at the time and that gave me the idea for a story or novel, thinking it might entertain the reader who chanced to remember one or the other, to see on what materials I devised a more elaborate piece. I have never claimed to create anything out of nothing; I have always needed an incident or a character as a starting point, but I have exercised imagination, invention and a sense of the dramatic to make it something of my own.

My early notebooks were largely filled with pages of dialogue for plays that I never wrote, and these, because I thought they could interest no one, I have also left out, but I have not left out a considerable number of remarks and reflections that seem to me now exaggerated and foolish. They are the expression of a very young man’s reaction to real life, or what he thought was such, and to liberty, after the sheltered and confined existence, perverted by fond fancies and the reading of novels, which was natural to a boy in the class in which I was born; and they are the expression of his revolt from the ideas and conventions of the environment in which he had been brought up. I think I should have been dishonest with the reader if I had suppressed them. My first notebook is dated 1892; I was then eighteen. I have no wish to make myself out more sensible than I was. I was ignorant, ingenuous, enthusiastic and callow.

My notebooks amounted to fifteen stoutish volumes, but by omitting so much, as I have above described, I have reduced them to one no longer than many a novel. I hope the reader will accept this as a sufficient excuse for its publication. I do not publish it because I am so arrogant as to suppose that my every word deserves to be perpetuated. I publish it because I am interested in the technique of literary production and in the process of creation, and if such a volume as this by some other author came into my hands I should turn to it with avidity. By some happy chance what interests me seems to interest a great many other people; I could never have expected it, and I have never ceased to be surprised at it; but it may be that what has happened so often before will happen again, and some persons may be found who will discover here and there in the following pages something to interest them. I should have looked upon it as an impertinence to publish such a book when I was in the full flow of my literary activity; it would have seemed to claim an importance for myself which would have been offensive to my fellow writers; but now I am an old man, I can be no one’s rival, for I have retired from the hurly-burly and ensconced myself not uncomfortably on the shelf. Any ambition I may have had has long since been satisfied. I contend with none not because none is worth my strife, but because I have said my say and I am well pleased to let others occupy my small place in the world of letters. I have done what I wanted to do and now silence becomes me. I am told that in these days you are quickly forgotten if you do not by some new work keep your name before the public, and I have little doubt that it is true. Well, I am prepared for that. When my obituary at last appears in The Times, and they say: ‘What, I though he died years ago,’ my ghost will gently chuckle.


[The Complete Short Stories, 3 vols., original Prefaces, Heinemann, 1951.]

This is the first volume of my collected short stories. In my early youth I wrote a number, but they are so immature that I have preferred not to reprint them. A few are in a book that has long remained out of print, a few others are scattered in various magazines. They are best forgotten. The first of the stories in this collection, 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 last of my stories [“The Colonel’s Lady”] was written in New York in 1945 from a brief note that I found by chance among my papers and which I made as far back as 1901 [see endnote 6]. I do not expect ever to write another.


But my stories are of very different lengths. Some are as short as sixteen hundred words, some are ten times as long, and one is just over twenty thousand. I have sojourned in most parts of the world, and while I was writing stories I could seldom stay anywhere for any length of time without getting the material for one or more tales. I have written tragic stories and I have written humorous ones. It has been an arduous task to get some kind of symmetry and at least the semblance of a pattern into a collection of a large number of stories of such different lengths, placed in so many different countries and of such different character; and at the same time to make it as easy as possible for the reader to read them. For though to be read is not the motive which impels the author to write, his motive is other, once he has written his desire is to be read, and in order to achieve that he must do his best to make what he writes readable.


There is one more point I want to make. The reader will notice that many of my stories are written in the first person singular. That is a literary convention which as old as the hills. It was used by Petronius Arbiter in the Satyricon and by many of the story-tellers in The Thousand and One Nights. Its object is of course to achieve credibility, for when someone tells you what he states happened to himself you are more likely to believe that he is telling the truth than when he tells you what happened to somebody else. It has besides the merit from a story-teller’s point of view that he need only tell you what he knows for a fact and can leave to your imagination what he doesn’t or couldn’t know. Some of the older novelists who wrote in the first person were in this respect very careless. They would narrate long conversations that they couldn’t possibly have heard and incidents which in the nature of things they couldn’t possibly have witnessed. Thus they lost the great advantage of verisimilitude which writing in the first person singular offers. But the I who writes is just as much a character in the story as the other persons with whom it is concerned. He may be the hero or he may be an onlooker or a confidant. But he is a character. The writer who uses this device is writing fiction and if he makes the I of his story a little quicker on the uptake, a little more level-headed, a little shrewder, a little braver, a little more ingenious, a little wittier, a little wiser than he, the writer, really is, the reader must show indulgence. He must remember that the author is not drawing a faithful portrait of himself, but creating a character for the particular purposes of his story.

In this final volume I have placed the rest of my stories the scene of which is set in Malaya. They were written long before the Second World War and I should tell the reader that the sort of life with which they deal no longer exists. When I first visited those countries the lives the white men and their wives led there differed but little from what they had been twenty-five years before. They got home leave once in five years. They had besides a few weeks leave every year. If they lived where the climate was exhausting they sought the fresh air of some hill-station not too far away; if, like some of the government servants, they lived where they might not see another white man for weeks on end, they went to Singapore so that they might consort for a time with their kind. The Times when it arrived at a station up-country, in Borneo for instance, was six weeks old and they were lucky if they received the Singapore paper in a fortnight.

Aviation has changed all that. Even before the war people who could afford it were able to spend even their short leave at home. Papers, illustrated weeklies, magazines reached them fresh from the press. In the old days Sarawak, say, or Selangor were where they expected to spend their lives till it was time for them to retire on a pension; England was very far away and when at long intervals they went back was increasingly strange to them; their real home, their intimate friends, were in the land in which the better part of their lives was spent. But with the rapidity of communication it remained an alien land, a temporary rather than a permanent habitation, which circumstances obliged them for a spell to occupy; it was a longish halt in a life that had its roots in the Sussex downs or on the moors of Yorkshire. Their ties with the homeland, which before had insensibly loosened and sometimes broke asunder, remained fast. England, so to speak, was round the corner. They no longer felt cut off. It changed their whole outlook.

The countries of which I wrote were then at peace. It may be that some of those peoples, Malays, Dyaks, Chinese, were restive under the British rule, but there was no outward sign of it. The British gave them justice, provided them with hospitals and schools, and encouraged their industries. There was no more crime than anywhere else. An unarmed man could wander through the length of the Federated Malay States in perfect safety. The only real trouble was the low price of rubber.

There is one more point I want to make. Most of these stories are on the tragic side. But the reader must not suppose that the incidents I have narrated were of common occurrence. The vast majority of these people, government servants, planters, and traders, who spent their working lives in Malaya were ordinary people ordinarily satisfied with their station of life. They did the jobs they were paid to do more or less competently. They were as happy with their wives as are most married couples. They led humdrum lives and did very much the same things every day. Sometimes by way of a change they got a little shooting; but as a rule, after they had done their day's work, they played tennis if there were people to play with, went to the club at sundown if there was a club in the vicinity, drank in moderation, and played bridge. They had their little tiffs, their little jealousies, their little flirtations, their little celebrations. They were good, decent, normal people.

I respect, and even admire, such people, but they are not the sort of people I can write stories about. I write stories about people who have some singularity of character which suggests to me that they may be capable of behaving in such a way to give me an idea that I can make use of, or about people who by some accident or another, accident of temperament, accident of environment, have been involved in unusual contingencies. But, I repeat, they are the exception.


[The World Over, original Preface[8], 1952.]

This book contains all the stories I have written that are not included in East and West. The tales in that collection were of about the same length and written on the same scale and so it seemed convenient to publish them together in a single volume. Most of the stories which I have now gathered together are very much shorter. Some were written many years ago, others more recently. They appeared in magazines and were afterwards issued in book form. To the first lot I gave the title Cosmopolitans, because they were offered to the public in the Cosmopolitan Magazine, and except for Ray Long, who was then its editor, would never have been written.


With one exception all the stories I have written have been published in magazines. The exception is a story called “The Book Bag.” When I sent it to Ray Long he wrote to me, in sorrow rather than in anger, that he had gone further with me than with any other author, but when it came to incest he had to draw the line. I could not blame him. He published the tale later in a collection of what he thought in his long career as editor of the Cosmopolitan were the best short stories that had ever been offered him.


[Last paragraph:]
I have written my last story.


[The Selected Novels, 3 vols., “new” Prefaces[9], Heinemann, 1953.]

The Moon and Sixpence is not, of course, a life of Paul Gauguin in the form of fiction. It is founded on what I heard about him, but I used only the main facts of his story and for the rest trusted to such gifts of invention as I was fortunate enough to possess.


Some critics who have been sufficiently interested in me to write about my books have stated that in Dr. Saunders I drew a portrait of myself. I don’t know how they got such a queer idea in their heads. It is true that I lent him one or two of my own experiences. But that is quite another matter. When a novelist has had an experience that will fit in with the characteristics of a creature of his invention he looks upon it a as bit of luck and makes haste to use it. I founded Dr. Saunders on a medical student I had known when I was myself one and whom I continued to know till he died forty years later. He was never a good doctor, but he had gaiety, a great sense of humour, a pleasant cynicism and not a little unscrupulousness. He was a most pleasant companion.[10]


Christmas Holiday came about by accident. I was spending some weeks in Paris during the thirties and one day I happened to read in the papers that a young man called Guy Davin was coming up for a trial on a charge of murder. The murder, a peculiarly callous and brutal one, had excited the morbid interest of the public. I had never been to a criminal trial in France and was curious to attend one. I had a friend then who was the owner and editor of a weekly paper with a large circulation and with his help by means of some trickery I managed to get myself smuggled into court among the reporters.


I found the experience, so new to me, immensely thrilling. There was no doubt about the prisoner’s guilt. The evidence was damning. The only question was whether he would be sentenced to death, or whether the jury would admit extenuating circumstances, in which case by law the judges could only sentence him to a term of penal servitude. There was a long string of witnesses and they were allowed to deliver themselves at length. The prisoner, little more than a boy, was well-dressed and nice-looking, dapper and vain. Before the judges entered on the first morning of the trial the photographers had asked him to stand up so that they could take better pictures of him and he had preened himself before them with insolent satisfaction. He came of good bourgeois stock. His father, who was dead, had been a general in the Army, and his mother, a typical French woman of her class, was obviously of the utmost respectability. Even before she took her place on the witness stand you had only to look at her to know what her life had been. She had passed the greater part of it in one garrison town after another, and as her husband rose in rank she took the deference the wives of her husband’s subordinates showed her as her due. She ran her successive establishments with competence and strict economy. She performed her religious duties punctiliously. On stated occasions she paid and received the visits which her position required of her. She knew her son was guilty and at best would be parted from her for many years, but she delivered her testimony with precision. Her dignity impressed the court. One wondered whether she had ever asked herself why God had given her, who had always done her duty, a son who had brought upon her ageing head such a terrible disgrace. People are very strange and have fantastic notions. One wondered whether she thought bitterly that after this the widows of her husband’s brother officers would no longer pay their visits of ceremony and that, and if she ventured to call on them, their doors would be closed to her.

From her testimony and from that of others it became evident that the prisoner had from an early age been a scamp. He was dissolute, extravagant and dishonest. For one of his escapades he had been sentenced to a short term of imprisonment. The prisoner’s wife took the stand. She was a pretty little thing, very plainly dressed, a Russian, and she spoke French with a slight accent. She was very nervous and spoke in so low a tone that it was hard to hear what she said. Now and then her voice was choked with sobs and once she broke down altogether. One got the impression that she loved her husband, but had found life with the worthless creature she had married and his prim, conventional mother, for the three of them lived together, far from easy. She was a deeply pathetic figure. The prisoner was found guilty, but, for what reason I do not know, extenuating circumstances were allowed, perhaps because the bookmaker he had murdered for a few thousand francs was a disreputable character, perhaps because of his father’s distinguished war record, and he was given a life sentence.


Up at the Villa is a novelette. I had long had in mind its central episode, that in which a woman of uncommon beauty gives herself to a man she hardly knows, not out of love or lust, but out of pity. But it was just one out of perhaps a dozen ideas that now and then suggested themselves to me, that I thought about from time to time, but which for one reason or another I never used. One day when I was in New York the editor of a woman’s magazine asked me to lunch and told me that she would very much like me to write a short novel for her that could serialised in three or four numbers. I was in a good mood that day and, improvising as I went along, I proceeded to tell her in some detail a story centring on that particular episode. It pleased her and she commissioned me to write it. But when I had finished it and she read it, she was shocked. She said it wasn’t at all the sort of thing to suit her readers. I have never wanted to hold any editor to a contract when he was not satisfied with a piece of work I had presented to him, so I cheerfully begged the charming but naïve lady (I am putty in the hands of a woman in distress) not to give the matter another thought and withdrew the manuscript.

The story was Up at the Villa. It was easy and amusing to write. I never attached any great importance to it and it has surprised me to learn that in the Latin countries and in the Near East it has been one of the most popular of my books. I ask no more of the reader than that he should find in it an hour’s diversion.

If I had not been in Paris when Guy Davin was being tried for murder and had not managed to worm my way into court Christmas Holiday would never have been written; and if the editor of a popular magazine had not invited me to lunch and asked me to write a story for her I should doubtless never have written Up at the Villa. The Razor’s Edge on the other hand had been in my mind for many years. But in this case also the idea for it would perhaps never have come to me but for an accident. In the very early ‘twenties I happened to be in Chicago and one evening I met at dinner a young man whose name, if I ever knew, I have long forgotten, who somehow or other attracted my attention. He was fairly tall, slender, not particularly good-looking, but with a pleasant face. He had an ingenuous charm and engaging manners, but what chiefly struck me in him was his air of candour. There was something touching about it. I could not but think that he must have a singular sweetness of disposition. He was obviously a general favourite and I ascribed this, perhaps fancifully, to the goodness that he seemed to exhale as a rose its perfume. I have met plenty of young Americans with good manners, a frank expression and good-nature, and I don’t know why the recollection of this one should have lingered with me. I don’t suppose I exchanged a dozen sentences with him and I never saw him again. It was from what I saw of him and what I divined that in the course of years the character of Larry formed itself in my mind, and, as happens in such cases, incidents, fugitive notions, predicaments clustered round this wraith of my imagination to render him more real to me. From time to time something of a thread of narrative suggested itself to me. In 1936 I spent three or four months in India. I had read a good deal of Indian philosophy and had been peculiarly attracted to Hinduism. When I got to India and the Indians to whom I had letters of introduction found that I neither wanted to shoot a tiger, nor to sell anything, but was desirous to meet philosophers, writers and holy men, they were interested and did everything in the world to meet my wishes. I thus came to know persons who were entirely new to my experience and who by their lives and their conversation made a deep impression upon me. What I learnt then fitted in very well with the ideas for a novel that in the course of years I had been slowly evolving. A number of seemingly haphazard circumstances, a cluster of characters, half-forgotten experiences, reminiscences of my own past emerged from I hardly knew where to give shape, coherence and substance to the novel that by now absorbed my thoughts, and in 1942 I began to write it. That was exactly twenty years after I had had that fleeting encounter with the young man in Chicago who became my hero.

I wrote the novel, as I have written more than one of my books and many of my short stories, in the first person, but in this one I boldly used my own name and made myself one of the characters that take part in the action. I did this mainly for two reasons. One was that I thought it lent verisimilitude to my novel. Because my readers knew that I existed, it was not unnatural to suppose that they would think the other persons in the book existed too. That this was the result in many cases I think is shown by the fact that after The Razor’s Edge was published I received a great number of letters from people asking me where Larry was and how they could get in touch with him. They were convinced that he was a real person whom they might get to know. But the more important reason was that the principle persons in my novel, those whom the novel was about, were American. I have told the reader of this preface why in Christmas Holiday I found it necessary to bring into my story a young Englishman and incidentally his father and mother and his most intimate friend. Though I have lived pretty well half my life in France and have had some close French friends, I knew it was impossible for me write about French people with a Frenchman’s instinctive knowledge. I facilitated my undertaking by telling my story through the impression it made on my English hero. Now of course we English know the Americans far better than we can know the nationals of Latin, Slav or Teutonic countries. We speak very much the same language, we play more or less the same games, we read the same books and many of our standards are the same. But there remain differences great and small. They have proved a stumbling-block to the writers of fiction. I have never read an American novel in which English characters appear that struck me as at all convincing. Even Henry James who lived in England so long and knew the English so well to my mind never created an Englishman who seemed quite English. I have read numbers of English novels in which Americans are portrayed. I cannot remember one of whose truth I was persuaded. Even I, with my limited knowledge, knew that Americans were not like that. There was no reason why I should be any luckier than my fellow novelists in England. So I wrote my novel in the first person, as myself, as definitely as if I were writing an autobiography and I presented my American characters to my readers not from the standpoint of omniscience, but merely as I saw them from my English point of view. And in extenuation I may add that if I put myself in The Razor’s Edge the part I gave myself to play is a very small one.


[The Partial View, original Preface, 1954.]


I no longer mind what people think of me. They can take me or leave me. I am mildly pleased when they appear to like me and undisturbed when they appear not to. I have long known that there is something in me that antagonises certain persons; I think it very natural; no one can like everyone; and their ill-will interests rather than discomposes me. I am only curious to know what is it in me that is disagreeable to them. I must have been a very unpleasant young man. I was shy, nervous, unhappy, lonely and poor; I was dogmatic, intolerant and conceited. When I look back I am amazed that the people I came in contact with did not find me intolerable; but on the contrary treated me with kindness and forbearance. I like to believe that I have improved since then and no longer so greatly need the indulgence of my fellow creatures.

Nor do I mind what anyone thinks of me as a writer. On the whole I have done what I set out to do and the rest does not concern me. I have never much cared for the notoriety which surround the successful author and which many of us are so simple as to mistake for fame...


I have been asked on occasion whether I should be willing to live my life over again. On the whole it has been a pretty good one, perhaps better than that of most people, but I can see no point in repeating it. It would be as idle as to read a detective story that you have read before.


Tolstoy dreaded old age. It seems not to have occurred to him that in old age one no longer has the desires of youth. One no longer wants to do the things that make youth, with its passions, its ambitions, its curiosity, seem exciting and delightful. It is true that old age is accompanied by a certain indifference to much of what men in their prime attach importance. Certain enjoyments remain, music, art and literature, but one enjoys them differently. If one's pleasures are not so vivid, one's pains have lost their sting. [...] Tolstoy found comfort at last in the recovery of faith he had had as a child and lost. The meaning of life, he came to believe, was to God's will in the assurance of immortality. That surely is to admit that life in itself has no meaning. But is there any sense in asking what is the meaning of life? I should have said no more than in asking what is the meaning of Beethoven's 'Eroica' or Titian's 'Venus and Adonis'.


I do not know whether God exists or not. None of the arguments that has been adduced to prove his existence carries conviction, and belief must rest, as Epicurus put it long ago, on immediate apprehension. That immediate apprehension I have never had. Nor has anyone satisfactorily explained the compatibility of evil with an all powerful and good God. For a while I was attracted to the Hindu conception of that mysterious neuter which is existence, knowledge and bliss, without beginning, without end, and I should be more inclined to believe in that than in any other God that human wishes have devised. But I think it no more than an impressive fantasy. When I consider the vastness of the universe, with its innumerable stars and its spaces measured by thousands upon thousands of light years, I am overwhelmed with awe, but my imagination cannot conceive a creator of it. I am willing enough to accept the existence of the universe as an enigma the wit of man cannot hope to solve. [...] Spinoza, that God intoxicated man, said that God has infinite attributes. Surely among them must be humour and common sense. If God exists and he concerns himself with the affairs of humanity, then surely he will take a lenient view, as lenient a view as a sensible man takes, of the weakness of human beings.


[Mrs Craddock, new Preface, The Collected Edition, 1955.]

This novel was written in 1900. It was thought extremely daring, and was refused by publisher after publisher, among others by William Heinemann; but it was at last read by Robertson Nicoll, a partner in the firm of Hodder and Stoughton, and he, though of opinion that it was not the sort of book his own firm should publish, thought well enough of it to urge William Heinemann to reconsider his decision. Heinemann read it himself and, on the condition that I took out passages that he found shocking, agreed to publish it. This was in 1902. It must have had something of a success, since it was reissued the following year, and again in 1908. Thirty years later it was republished. This new edition was printed from the original manuscript with the offensive parts left in, for I could not for the life of me imagine what they were, and I had not the patience to compare the manuscript with the printed copy. On the contrary, the propriety of the book seemed to me almost painful. I made, however, certain corrections.

The author had been dead for many years, and I used the manuscript as I would that of a departed friend whose book, unrevised by him, had been entrusted to me for publication. I left it as it was, with all its faults, and contented myself with minor emendations. The author's punctuation was haphazard, and I did my best to put some method into it. I replaced the dashes which he used, I fear from ignorance of a complicated art, with colons, semi-colons and commas; I omitted the rows of dots with which he sought to draw the reader's attention to the elegance of a sentiment or the subtlety of an observation, and I replaced with a full stop the marks of exclamation that stood all over the page, like telegraph poles, apparently to emphasise the author's astonishment at his own acumen.


Some of the author’s favourite words have now a strangely old-fashioned air, but I saw no reason to change them, since there is nothing to show that the modern ones which I might have put in their stead will not in a few years be just as dated. An epithet has its vogue and is forgotten, and the amusing of the moment will doubtless in a little ring as false as the horrid of the eighteen nineties. But I crossed out a great many somescertains and rathers, for the author of this book had an unhappy disinclination to make an unqualified statement. I was ruthless with the adverbs. When he used five words to say what he could have said in one, I replaced them with the one; and when it seemed to me that he had not said what he wanted to, I ventured to change what he said for what I could not but think he meant. English is a very difficult language to write, and the author, with whose work I was taking the liberties I have described, had never been taught it. The little he knew he had picked up here and there. No one had ever explained to him the difficulties of composition or the mysteries of style. He began to write as a child begins to walk. He took pains to study good models, but, with none to guide him, he did not always choose his models wisely, and he devoted much care to writers who now seem to most of us affected and jejune.


And now that for this new edition of Mrs. Craddock I have re-read it, it is as a genre picture that I regard it. I smile and blush at its absurdities, but leave them because they belong to the period; and if the novel has any merit (and that the reader must decide for himself), it is because it is a picture, faithful, I believe, of life in a corner of England during the last years of the nineteenth century.

It was the end of an era, but the landed gentry, who were soon to lose the power they had so long enjoyed, were the last to have a suspicion of it. Owing to the agricultural depression, land was no longer a source of profit, but, except for that, they were quite satisfied that things should go on as they had in the past. They had only disdain for the moneyed class that was already beginning to take their place. They were gentlefolk. It is true that for the most part they were narrow, stupid and intolerant; prudish, formal and punctilious. But they had their points, and I do not think the author was quite fair to them. They did their duty according to their rights. That some should be born to possess a fine estate, and others to work upon it at a miserable wage, was in the nature of things; and it was not for them to cavil at the decrees of inscrutable Providence. The landed gentry were on the whole decent, honourable and upright. They were devoid of envy. They had good manners and were kindly and hospitable. But they had outgrown their use, and perhaps it was inevitable that the course of events should sweep them away.


I do not know why, unless he had learnt it from Matthew Arnold, he was of opinion that the English were philistines; and for wit, brilliance and culture you must go to the French. He never missed a chance to have a fling at his own countrymen. With a certain naiveté he took the French at their own estimate of themselves, and never doubted that Paris was the centre of civilisation. He was better acquainted with the contemporary literature of France than with that of his own country. […] The only excuse I can make for his attitude, besides his youth, is that for him England signified constraint and convention, whereas France signified freedom and adventure. I highly disapprove of a way he had now and then of stepping out of his novel and in sarcastic terms directly addressing the reader. Where he learnt this bad practice I cannot tell.

Because for his age the author of Mrs. Craddock had travelled extensively in Europe and could speak quite adequately four foreign languages, because he had read much, not only in English and French, but also in German, Spanish and Italian, he had a very good opinion of himself. During his various sojourns on the Continent he came in contact with a number of men, some young, some not so young, who shared his prejudices. With private means adequate to those inexpensive days, they had come down from Oxford or Cambridge with a pass degree and led desultory lives in ParisFlorenceRome and Capri. He was too ingenuous to see how ineffectual they were. They did not hesitate to call themselves aesthetes and liked to think that they burnt with a hard, gemlike flame. They looked upon Oscar Wilde as the greatest master of English prose in the nineteenth century. Though not insensible to the fact that they thought him immature, in fact a bit of a philistine, he did his best to meet their high standards. He dutifully admired the works of art they admired and despised those they despised. He was not only a foolish young man; he was supercilious, cocksure and often wrong-headed. If I met him now I should take an immediate dislike to him.


[The Magician, new ''A Fragment of Autobiography'', The Collected Edition, 1956.]

Soon after my arrival, Gerald Kelly took me to a restaurant called La Chant Blanc in the Rue d'Odessa, near the Gare Montparnasse, where a number of artists were in the habit of dining; and from then on I dined there every night. I have described elsewhere, and in some detail in the novel to which these pages are meant to serve as a preface, so that I need not here say more about it. As a rule, the same people came in every night, but now and then others came, perhaps only once, perhaps two or three times. We were apt to look upon them as interlopers, and I don't think we made them particularly welcome. It was thus that I first met Arnold Bennett and Clive Bell. One of these casual visitors was Aleister Crowley. He was spending the winter in Paris. I took an immediate dislike to him, but he interested and amused me. He was a great talker and he talked uncommonly well. In early youth, I was told, he was extremely handsome, but when I knew him he had put on weight, and his hair was thinning. He had fine eyes and a way, whether natural or acquired I do not know, of so focusing them that, when he looked at you, he seemed to look behind you. He was a fake, but not entirely a fake. At Cambridge he had won his chess blue and was esteemed the best whist player of his time. He was a liar and unbecomingly boastful, but the odd thing was that he had actually done some of the things he boasted of. As a mountaineer, he had made an ascent of K.2. in the Hindu Kush, the second highest mountain in India, and he made it without the elaborate equipment, the cylinders of oxygen and so forth, which render the endeavours of the mountaineers of the present day more likely to succeed. He did not reach the top, but got nearer to it that anyone had done before.

Crowley was a voluminous writer of verse, which he published sumptuously at his own expense. He had a gift for rhyming, and his verse is not entirely without merit. He had been greatly influenced by Swinburne and Robert Browning. He was grossly, but not unintelligently, imitative.


At the time I knew him he was dabbling in Satanism, magic and the occult. There was just then something of a vogue in Paris for that sort of thing, occasioned, I surmise, by the interest that was still taken in a book of Huysmans's, Là BasCrowley told fantastic stories of his experiences, but it was hard to say whether he was telling the truth or merely pulling your leg. During that winter I saw him several times, but never after I left Paris to return to London. Once, long afterwards, I received a telegram from him which run as follows: ''Please send twenty-five pounds at once. Mother of God and I starving. Aleister Crowley.'' I did not do so, and he lived on for many disgraceful years.


I do not remember how I came to think that Aleister Crowley might serve as the model for the character whom I called Oliver Haddo; nor, indeed, how I came to think of writing that particular novel at all. When, a little while ago, my publisher expressed a wish to re-issue it, I felt that, before consenting to this, I really should read it again. Nearly fifty years had passed since I had done so, and I had completely forgotten it. Some authors enjoy reading their old works; some cannot bear to. Of these I am. When I have corrected the proofs of a book, I have finished with it for good and all. I am impatient when people insist on talking to me about it; I am glad if they like it, but do not much care if they don't. I am no more interested in it than in a worn-out suit of clothes that I have given away. It was thus with disinclination that I began to read The Magician. It held my interest, as two of my early novels, which for the same reason I have been obliged to read, did not. One, indeed, I simply could not get through. Another had to my mind some good dramatic scenes, but the humour filled me with mortification, and I should have been ashamed to see it republished.[11] As I read The Magician, I wondered how on earth I could have come by all the material concerning the black arts which I wrote of. I must have spent days and days reading in the library of the British Museum. The style is lush and turgid, not at all the sort of style I approve of now, but perhaps not unsuited to the subject; and there are a great many more adverbs and adjectives that I should use to-day.


Though Aleister Crowley served, as I have said, as the model for Oliver Haddo, it is by no means a portrait of him. I made my character more striking in appearance, more sinister and more ruthless than Crowley ever was. I gave him magical powers that Crowley, though he claimed them, certainly never possessed. Crowley, however, recognised himself in the creature of my invention, for such it was, and wrote a full-page review of the novel in Vanity Fair, which he signed 'Oliver Haddo'. I did not read it, and wish now that I had. I daresay it was a pretty piece of vituperation, but probably, like his poems, intolerably verbose.


[The Travel Books, original Preface[12], 1955.]

The reader will find in this volume, scattered among incidents of travel, some of the stories, perhaps a dozen in all, that he may already have read in the three volumes in which are included pretty well all the stories I have ever written. The books here contained were written many years ago. On a Chinese Screen was published in 1922, The Gentleman in the Parlour in 1930, and Don Fernando in 1935. They have lost the flavour of actuality, and I never supposed that they would be reprinted. When I came to sort out the material for a complete collection of my short stories, it occurred to me that in On a Chinese Screen and in The Gentleman in the Parlour there were narratives which with a little arrangement might suitably find a place in it. This is not to say that they were fictional. They were straightforward recitals (almost what the French call reportages) of the impressions made upon me by the people I came in contact with and the circumstances of their lives as they disclosed them to me. If, with the addition of a few lines of introduction, the pieces I had written could well pass for short stories, that is because at one period of my life almost everybody I met, almost everything that happened to me and every incident I witnessed or was told of, shaped itself into a short story. In On a Chinese Screen and The Gentleman in the Parlour I was not writing fiction, I was relating facts; indeed, far from embroidering on the facts to make them more effective, as the writer of fiction is justified in doing, I took pains to modify them when I thought they were too fantastic to be credible. Let me give an example: In one of the chapters in The Gentleman in the Parlour I tell of a trip I took in a coasting steamer in order to get from Bangkok in Siam to Kep in Cambogia. My fellow-passengers were the oddest, the most absurd lot of people I had ever come across. They might have been characters in an uproarious farce. They were very friendly – with the exception of an Italian tenor who sat by himself in the bows, and at night, accompanying himself on a guitar, sang at the top of his voice fragments from operas. I briefly described him, but omitted to mention that he was a murderer fleeing from justice and seeking a refuge from extradition, since I thought it so improbable that I could not expect the reader to believe it. The present volume would have lost much of what interest it may have if, because they have recently appeared in my collected short stories, I had left out these true narratives; for indeed they belong to it and complete its shape.[13]


Don Fernando can only by courtesy be called a travel book, since, though it would never have been written but for my long sojourns in Spain, it deals for the most part not with the cities the traveller may visit nor with the famous sights that demand his attention and extort his wonder, but with excursions into Spain’s Golden Age. So great is the fascination of that country that it is not a gross exaggeration to say that nearly anyone who has been there any length of time, and can wield a pen or pound a typewriter, has found himself impelled to write a book about it. Some of these productions have become minor classics. Borrow’s The Bible in Spain, Theophile Gautier’s Voyage en Espagne, Ford’s Gatherings from Spain, written during the first half of the nineteenth century, though they describe conditions that have long since ceased to exist, can still be read with pleasure. They have a romantic glamour that the writer of today cannot hope to recapture. Since then innumerable books have been published. Of those that I have read, the most useful is H. V. Morton’s A Traveller in Spain. It gives the reader all the information he needs to make a journey in Spain instructive as well as delightful. This little book of mine can make no such pretensions; yet it may have an interest to anyone who has paid Spain more than a hurried visit and has succumbed to its lure; for the Golden Age, though long since a thing of the past, is still a living memory. It confronts you at every turn. It pervades the Escorial; it is with you in Avila and Salamanca; it animated the plays of Lope de Vega and Calderon, which are on occasion still acted in Madrid; it is there for you to see in the pictures of El Greco and Velasquez. To many a Spaniard, to far more than you would suppose, that moment of glory is a support and an inspiration. Now and then a trivial incident, a casual remark, will bring it so close to you that you are dazzled.

On one occasion, I was lunching with a friend of mine in Madrid, and he happened to ask me what I had been doing that morning. I told him that as usual I had spent it at the Prado.
''Did you look at the portrait of my ancestor, the Count-Duke of Olivares?'' he said.
''Of course,'' I answered.
He pointed to a suit of armour, elaborately damascened, that stood against the wall.
''That is the armour that Velasquez painted him in.''
A thrilling moment!

When you read the plays and novels that were written during the Golden Age, the lives of the saints and sinners, the history of the period, you gain presently a vivid impression of what those men were who, by means of clever diplomacy and profitable marriages, had become masters of half Europe, and by force of arms had added vast territories to the crown of Spain. They were proud, punctilious and elaborately courteous, passionate, brutal and ruthless, fiercely religious, but fond of a joke, especially a bawdy or a cruel one; and when their passions were not roused, gracious, charitable and kindly. I do not believe the Spaniards have greatly changed. Essentially they are the same people as they were then. Though they may not like the foreigner, they will take care not to let him see it. Gentle and common alike, they are polite. They are the politest people in Europe. […] One of the most charming traits you find in the Spaniards is the tenderness with which they treat children; however troublesome they are, they seem never to lose patience with them. You would think their indulgence and good humour were inexhaustible. But they can be ruthless still. A friend of mine, the owner of large estates in the North of Spain, told me a story which is here apposite. It was about a man, José-Maria by name; he was middle-aged, for his station fairly well-off, a quiet, respectable fellow and a good workman. He was so rash as to marry an uncommonly pretty girl twenty years younger than himself and, as might perhaps have been expected, it was not long before she took a lover. This was a young man called Antonio. In a small village everyone knows what everyone else is doing and soon the affair was the subject of common gossip. It may be that Antonio, being a Spaniard, was boastful, and not displeased that his conquest should be known. Presently the only person in the community who remained ignorant of it was the husband. The whole thing was so flagrant that it seemed impossible that he should not suspect it. It began to be thought that he knew quite well what was going on, but, in view of the disparity of age between himself and his wife, had decided to ignore it. He was a good man and well liked, but the cuckold has through the ages been an object of ridicule, and many a ribald joke was made at his expense. Months passed.

Both husband and wife went out to work early in the morning, he on one job, she on another, and came back to their little house at noon for their midday meal. Since José-Maria got in before his wife, he prepared it. One day they sat down in the kitchen, and he set on the table a savoury dish of rice. His wife began to eat it with good appetite. When she had finished, she pushed the plate back with a sigh of satisfaction.
“That was good, José-Maria,” she said. “I’ve never eaten anything better. What was the meat in it?”
“Antonio’s kidneys,” he answered.
For a moment she didn’t know what he meant; then the ghastly truth flashed across her mind, she sprang to her feet and fell to the floor in a dead faint. José-Maria went up the short flight of stairs to their bedroom to fetch the bag he had already packed. He shut and locked the door of the house behind him and walked along the street to catch the bus that went to Bilbao. He had timed everything to the minute. At Bilbao he went on board the ship that was about to sail for Argentina.

It was a grim story, and I could not but think that I could make something of it. I turned it over in my mind and had half a mind to write it. Fortunately I didn’t, since it would have got me into trouble. Some time afterwards, I went to Italy. I hadn’t read the Decameron since my first visit there when I was twenty, and I thought it high time for me to read it again. So I took it with me. I read the charming introductions once more, and then story after story. Everyone knows the plan on which they are written. A group of friends, fleeing from the plague in Florence, entertain themselves by telling a set of ten stories on succeeding days. The ninth story on the third day tells how Messer Guiglielmo Rossiglione, having killed his wife’s lover, Messer Guiglielmo Guardastagno, gives her his heart to eat. When this is made known to her, she throws herself out of the window and dies. It was in essentials the same story as my friend had told me. I was pretty sure that he had never read the Decameron, and, knowing him well, I was convinced that he had told me what he knew to have happened. I could only suppose that nature was up to its old trick of copying art. But it is odd that in this case it should have waited five hundred years before doing so.


[1] Meyerbeer and Willie being born in 1791 and 1874, respectively, the Centenary Theory looks plausible.

[2] Some twenty years later, in 1956, Maugham changed his mind and did include the novel in The Collected Edition. As a preface he wrote a fascinating ''A Fragment of Autobiography'' (see above) in which he revealed that it was Aleister Crowley who served as a foundation of the ''outrageous and bombastic creature'' of his fancy. Crowley clearly recognised himself immediately as he wrote a sarcastic review in Vanity Fair for December 1908, unsigned but titled ''Oliver Haddo'' (the name of ''The Magician''), in which he intrepidly exposed Maugham's plagiarising several erudite volumes on black magic. The review is reprinted in W. Somerset Maugham: The Critical Heritage, 1987, eds. Anthony Curtis and John Whitehead.

[3] Cf. the words of Monsieur Foinet in Of Human Bondage (1915), ch. LI:

  "There is nothing so degrading as the constant anxiety about one's means of livelihood. I have nothing but contempt for the people who despise money. They are hypocrites or fools. Money is like a sixth sense without which you cannot make a complete use of the other five. Without an adequate income half the possibilities of life are shut off. The only thing to be careful about is that you do not pay more than a shilling for the shilling you earn. You will hear people say that poverty is the best spur to the artist. They have never felt the iron of it in their flesh. They do not know how mean it makes you. It exposes you to endless humiliation, it cuts your wings, it eats into your soul like a cancer. It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one's dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank, and independent. I pity with all my heart the artist, whether he writes or paints, who is entirely dependent for subsistence upon his art."

    It may be useful to bear in mind, especially in regard to the reference in the preface, that in those days one pound was equal to 20 shillings. 

[4] Cf. this charming exchange between Cronshaw and Philip from Of Human Bondage (1915), ch. XLII:
   "He [Mallarme] talked very well, but he talked nonsense. He talked about art as   though it were the most important thing in the world."
"If it isn't, what are we here for?" asked Philip.
"What you're here for I don't know. It is no business of mine. But art is a luxury. Men attach importance only to self-preservation and the propagation of their species. It is only when these instincts are satisfied that they consent to occupy themselves with the entertainment which is provided for them by writers, painters, and poets."
[5] I am not familiar with Plato, but judging from several excerpts, including one given by Maugham in this preface, Oscar Wilde certainly used dialogue for presentation of ideas far more successfully. See his masterpieces “The Decay of Lying” and “The Critic as an Artist”. Both are reprinted in his collection Intentions as well as in many other, posthumously published, selections of his non-fiction writings.

[6] This vague and confusing paragraph deserves at least an attempt for decoding. The publication history of the stories in Creatures of Circumstance, as befit a last collection, is quite complicated and yet to be fully clarified. What is known so far is the following. The stories that “were written long ago” probably are “A Man from Glasgow”, “The Mother” and “The Happy Couple” as all of them appeared in magazines between 1905 and 1909. The first two underwent only minor revisions before their inclusion in this book, but the third was thoroughly rewritten and turned into a virtually different story. John Whitehead, apparently under the influence of the common Spanish setting, has speculated about the existence of early versions of “The Point of Honour” and “The Romantic Young Lady”, but these haven’t turned up so far. Several other stories were published in magazines before the war, namely “A Casual Affair” (1934), “Appearance and Reality” (1934) and “Sanatorium” (1938), but it is unlikely that Maugham would refer to these as “written long ago”. The story “written during the war” probably is “The Unconquered”, an odd piece of (anti?)propaganda first published in 1943, although “Flotsam and Jetsam” (1940) and “Winter Cruise” (1940) may also have been written after the outbreak of the war. One story, “The Kite”, is not known – at least so far – to have been published in magazine at all. Last and least, though no early version of “The Colonel’s Lady” seems to exist, its origins date back to a note made in 1901; see A Writer’s Notebook (1949).

   [7] On a Chinese Screen, 1922

[8] Large parts from this preface were taken word for word from the prefaces to Cosmopolitans (1936), The Mixture as Before (1940) and Creatures of Circumstance (1947), as it might have been expected since all stories from these books are reprinted in The World Over which is by way of being volume two from Maugham’s Complete Short Stories as published by Doubleday in 1952 (volume one is, of course, East and West, first published in 1934, reprinted in 1952 for the complete edition).

[9] These “new” prefaces were mostly copied from those written for The Collected Edition 15 to 20 years earlier. However, the passages about The Razor’s EdgeChristmas Holiday and Up at the Villa are unique in Maugham’s oeuvre. The part about The Narrow Corner also contains some fascinating details not available elsewhere.

[10] Cf. the description of the doctor in “The Happy Man” from Cosmopolitans (1936):

   I looked at him. He was very fat now and bald, but his eyes twinkled gaily and his fleshy, red face bore an expression of perfect good-humour. The clothes he wore, terribly shabby they were, had been made obviously by a Spanish tailor and his hat was the wide brimmed sombrero of the Spaniard. He looked to me as though he knew a good bottle of wine when he saw it. He had a dissipated, though entirely sympathetic, appearance. You might have hesitated to let him remove your appendix, but you could not have imagined a more delightful creature to drink a glass of wine with.
[11] I would give much to know which are these two early novels that couldn't hold Maugham's attention in his late years. The one he ''simply could not get through'' was probably The Explorer (1908), a pot-boiler par excellence and a ''very tedious work'' work to do, as made clear in his 1934 preface for the inclusion of Liza of Lambeth in The Collected Edition. The other chore, the one with ''some good dramatic scenes'' but full of mortifying humour, might have been The Hero (1901) or, perhaps more probably, The Merry-Go-Round (1904). All this is sheer guesswork, but it is worth noting that in the late 1960s, just a few years after Maugham’s death, The Explorer and The Merry-Go-Round did appear in The Collected Edition.

[12] The parts about On a Chinese Screen and The Gentleman in the Parlour were copied from the prefaces written for The Collected Edition in the mid-1930s. But the one about Don Fernando, as well as the general introduction, contains important material that is not to be found anywhere else in Maugham’s oeuvre.

[13] Willie is typically careless with the publication history of his own works. Those stories that first made it as parts of his travel books are not “perhaps a dozen in all”, but exactly seven; five from The Gentleman in the Parlour, “Mabel” (Chapter VI), “Masterson” (X), “Princess September” (XXXIII), A Marriage of Convenience” (XXXIV) and “Mirage” (XLIII), and two from On a Chinese Screen, “The Consul” (XXX) and “The Taipan” (XLIX). For sure the idea that these pieces may well stand as short stories occurred to him great many years before he “sort out the material” for the three volumes of his Complete Short Stories (1951): all seven of the “travel stories” were published in magazines during the 1920s. With the highly provocative claim that these stories may be “true narratives” I have dealt in some detail elsewhereIt is interesting to note, in conclusion, that at least four other sketches from On a Chinese Screen appeared in magazines in 1922, namely “Dinner Parties” (as “Foreign Devils”), “Fear”, “A City Built on a Rock” and “The Philosopher”, but none of them ever made it to The Complete Stories. So it stands to reason that Maugham might have decided to include “The Consul and “The Taipan” in the definitive edition of his stories shortly before it was first published in 1951, although the notion of their self-sufficiency must have predated this by nearly three decades.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the post! Very helpful. I was looking for Liza's preface in the collected edition.