Sunday, 15 September 2013

Random Reflections on Somerset Maugham's Cakes and Ale

Random Reflections on Somerset Maugham's Cakes and Ale

Having just re-read Cakes and Ale yet again, and looking back to my two rather superficial pieces about it, I thought it's time for a third ''review'' which at least tries to do justice to a novel I have no hesitation to call brilliant, a novel that has given, gives and no doubt will continue to give me lots of enjoyment and a rare insight into human nature. Since the book is one of Maugham's most notorious and created quite a scandal when it was first published, I have called to help a number of outstanding scholars and biographers in the dangerous field of Maughamology; their names together with the magnum opus each one of has produced may be consulted in the bibliography in the end of this piece. It is only fair to say that I have greatly profited by the vast erudition and painstaking research of these people, for which I will give them their due, but I have to say that when they have written nonsense, they won't be spared some severe censure.

Mundane matters first. Cakes and Ale was first published by Heinemann on 29 September 1930. Few days later – 3 October – the First American Edition by Doubleday came out. Serialisation of the novel started as early as March 1930, so it must have been written during 1929; Mr Calder has even given July as the month in which the novel was finished. Later Maugham wrote two significant prefaces which are absolutely essential for anybody seriously interested in the background of the novel: in 1934 for The Collected Edition by Heinemann and in 1950 for the Modern Library edition. I have quoted extensively from these pieces before and I shall do so again.

At the time of writing Maugham was 55 years old and at the absolute peak of his productivity. Indeed, roughly between the two World wars, or more accurately between 1919 and 1940, he published no fewer than six novels, seven short story collections, two travel books and two books with essays (Don Fernando and The Summing Up). The works for the stage are even hard to count exactly, but after 1918, until his retirement in the early 1930s, he wrote no fewer than 13 full-length plays. It is perhaps significant that Cakes and Ale was one of the first books entirely written in the Villa Mauresque, Maugham's paradise-like mansion on the coastline between Monte Carlo and Nice where he spent almost one third of his life in regal style; it must be safer to write a powerful satire of the English literary circles from the French Riviera, at all events. Few years later Maugham repeated the trick of describing very candidly a world he had just left, as he did with the stage and Theatre (1937).

The famous title of the book, which some people find perplexing, comes from Shakespeare's play Twelfth Night, more accurately from Act II, Scene 3, and the memorable words of Sir Toby Belch: ''Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?'' Since I am always most curious first and foremost what the author himself thought and said, I should like to make use of a charming footnote in Selina Hastings' biography where she quotes a letter by Maugham (from 1.1.1931) to the French critic Paul Dottin, author of one of the earliest critical studies dedicated to him: ''the title is supposed to suggest the gaiety of life which my heroine's attitude at all events exemplified. If I had thought of it I might very well have called it ''Beer and Skittles.''[1] I'm glad he didn't.

Coming as it is from Maugham's maturity, a time when the writer already had three decades of writing and a considerable bibliography behind his back, it is hardly surprising that Cakes and Ale is a technical tour de force. The two main locations in the novel, Blackstable and London, together with one leap across the Atlantic and constant excursions through several decades of time, are managed smoothly and with rare subtlety in one of Maugham's most brilliantly accomplished first person narratives. Indeed, the fact that of the four novels generally considered to be Maugham's best – Of Human Bondage (1915), The Moon and Sixpence (1919), Cakes and Ale (1930) and The Razor's Edge (1944) – three were written in the first person singular is a phenomenon worthy of separate study. Even on this superficial level Cakes and Ale stands out, as nowhere else is the first person narrator more deeply involved in the story as he is here; just compare with Willie Ashenden's singular detachment in The Moon and Sixpence, or with Maugham's (yes, for first and last time he used his real name in a novel) in The Razor's Edge, and you will know what I mean. It's a pity that the technical excellence of Cakes and Ale has been something of a curse. So much has it been praised by everybody, that many people often forget that there are much more valuable things in the novel than the outstandingly skilful execution.

Nor would it come as any surprise to note that Cakes and Ale has a great story; after all, Maugham was widely renowned, though sometimes rather disparagingly, as one of the greatest storytellers of his time. The plot of Cakes and Ale has everything: great variety, perfect pace, charming surprises, and an excellent and highly revealing twist in the end. But I suspect it is not as generally known as it should be how this story came to exist. Maugham has given lots of details about that in his 1934 preface:

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.[2]

This note has been quoted by several authors[3] but none of them, unfortunately, has been able to trace it. Apparently, it was later omitted from Maugham's collection of notes, A Writer's Notebook (1949), and so nothing certain can be said about the year in which it was made. The only clue we have is Maugham's claim, in the same preface, that he was writing at the time a series of very short stories for Cosmopolitan; thus the note was probably made some time in the middle 1920s. But the character of Rosie Maugham had in mind for a much longer time, and he well knew that he could never do her justice in a short story, even one of considerable length. So in the late 1920s, in what may only be described as a sudden flash of inspiration, Maugham conceived the idea to put Rosie on paper in Cakes and Ale. He has described it wonderfully in the above-quoted preface:

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.[4]

Extremely revealing passage indeed! It is generally agreed that Cakes and Ale is Maugham's most autobiographical novel after Of Human Bondage. But as this ''closer to the facts'' suggests, it really might be the other way round. In my opinion, not so much in terms of facts, but especially in terms of personality, Cakes and Ale is the most revealing novel about himself Maugham ever wrote. This in itself is enough to make it compelling for any Maugham admirer, but there is much more in it than that.

The novel is a multifarious and multidimensional masterpiece. It can be read solely for savouring Maugham's character which comes to life in Willie Ashenden's first person narrative more vividly than ever before or since. Quite separately, Cakes and Ale can be regarded as a most elegant and amusing, but incisive and devastating, satire of the English literary world from the first few decades of the last century. In addition to all that, there is a romance here, and a romance more intense, personal and passionate than anything in Maugham's oeuvre, let alone written in the first person singular.

Despite the great story and the flawless narrative, what to my mind makes Cakes and Ale a masterpiece is Maugham's just about unmatched ability for creating living people on the pages. It cannot be repeated often enough what may come as a surprise to some: for Maugham, great storyteller as he certainly was, the story was never the most important thing; it always was the characters.

There are four main characters in Cakes and Ale, three writers and Rosie, all of them brought to life with Maugham's superb symbiosis of economical style and psychological insight, rendered with an exquisite choice of words and vast understanding of human nature. It is the characters that give Cakes and Ale its unique charm. Much as every novel by Maugham, just like every music drama of his favourite Wagner, has its own and very special character, Cakes and Ale stands out as one of its kind. It was not for nothing that Maugham, though recognising Of Human Bondage as his most important work, liked best of all Cakes and Ale; nor did he say for nothing that it was an amusing book to write, for it is a hugely entertaining book to read too. It is the characters that are almost solely responsible for its enduring value which, I surmise, is rooted mostly in the diversity and contrasts it contains: it is flippant and serious, poignant and profound, amusing and haunting, hilarious and harrowing. Finally, it is the characters too that caused a great scandal in London's literary world at the time and it is the characters that make Cakes and Ale – to borrow the unforgettable phrase of Anthony Curtis – ''one of wisest, wittiest and wickedest books ever written about authorship.''[5] And it is the characters I am now proposing to deal with.

Of course the most important character is the first person narrator, Willie Ashenden, once a child living with his uncle and aunt in Blackstable, then a medical student in London's ''St Luke'', and finally a successful author. In short, save that Whitstable and St Thomas were the real names, Willie Ashenden is really very closely modelled on Somerset Maugham himself. But the slight discrepancy in the names should always remind us that the first person narrator is after all a character too; any inferences from a work of fiction about the writer's real life and character must be done with great caution indeed.

Having said that, I can't think of any other narrator in any work of Maugham's whose narrative is such a cornucopia of insights about the author who created him. Take, for example, the fascinating conversation about literary tastes and the transitory nature of a writer's fame (Chapter III). Maugham's non-fiction writings corroborate pretty much every opinion of Ashenden. He did admire Meredith and Walter Pater and even Carlyle in his youth, but he later came to regard all of them as tiresome and dull; also, he did change his opinion about Newman and Goethe's Wilhelm Meister. Indeed, one of Maugham's last essays, ''The Three Novels of a Poet'' from Points of View (1958) is entirely dedicated to Goethe's novels and discusses in great detail Wilhelm Meister. Only Ashenden's opinion of Fitzgerald have I never come across in Maugham's other works; so whether the author thought more of his ''tinkling quatrains'' in his youth than he later did, remains obscure.

Other telling examples of invaluable insights into Maugham's personality include his dictum that the artist in general, and the writer in particular, is the only free man since he can transform every torment of his soul into a work of art and thus get rid of it, and especially his views of the value of beauty – or lack of such indeed. Though less than a decade later, in his non-fiction masterpieces Don Fernando (1935) and The Summing Up (1938), Maugham explored these questions much more thoroughly than it is possible to do in a novel, the passage about beauty in Cakes and Ale remains one of most powerful Maugham ever wrote:

I do not know if others are like myself, but I am conscious that I cannot contemplate beauty long. […] When the thing of beauty has given me the magic of sensation my mind quickly wanders; I listen with incredulity to the persons who tell me that they can look with rapture for hours at a view or a picture. Beauty is an ecstasy; it is as simple as hunger. There is really nothing to be said about it. It is like the perfume of a rose: you can smell it and that is all: that is why the criticism of art, except in so far as it is unconcerned with beauty and therefore with art, is tiresome. All the critic can tell with regard to Titian's 'Entombment of Christ', perhaps of all the pictures in the world that which has most pure beauty, is to go and look at it. What else he has to say is history, or biography, or what not. But people add other qualities to beauty – sublimity, human interest, tenderness, love – because beauty does not long content them. Beauty is perfect, and perfection (such is human nature) holds our attention but for a little while. […] No one has ever been able to explain why the Doric temple in Paestum is more beautiful than a glass of cold beer except by bringing in considerations that have nothing to do with beauty. Beauty is a blind alley. It is a mountain peak which once reached leads nowhere. […] Beauty is that which satisfies the aesthetic instinct. But who wants to be satisfied? It is only to the dullard that enough is as good as a feast. Let us face it: beauty is a bit of a bore.[6]

It might be interesting to note that in his youth Maugham was very much part of aesthetic circles and indeed something of an aesthete himself. Like many others at the time, he viewed beauty as the only thing that can attach any significance to this ridiculous world and the godlike artist as the chief creator of beauty from the chaos. By the time Cakes and Ale was first published, Maugham had long since ''abjure
d''[7] (his word) these notions; only the beauty of life in general had remained and even that was discarded later. So much for beauty.

One of the most enchanting assets of Cakes and Ale is the portrait that Maugham drew of himself as a boy. Virtually every biographer and critic has mentioned the obvious contrast with Of Human Bondage 15 years earlier, yet I continue to be amazed by it. Ashenden's childhood memories are full of sun and fun, bicycling through green pastures during the day and singing parties in the evening. There is not a single word of bitterness about his narrow-minded uncle, the Vicar of Blackstable, and neither is there anything at all about the harrowing time in school, full of mortification, misery and humiliation, all of them described with haunting vividness in Of Human Bondage. Quite on the contrary: Ashenden mentions his school once or twice, with one or two lines, and the only thing he has against it is that it keeps him away from his friends in Blackstable; he is rather amused at the stupidity of his uncle and the narrow-minded minds of the country people. I should like to think that Maugham was also amused at himself. The little Ashenden's superciliousness, class-consciousness and snobbishness are of such cosmic proportions, and so delightfully described, that they certainly amount to a peculiar kind of charm. But little Willie – hang it all, almost grown-up actually, 14 or 15 years old – is also remarkably sensitive, observant and strong-willed for his age. These very qualities later made Maugham a great writer.

The autobiographical significance of the novel extends to Ashenden's years as medical student in London too. He never set foot in St Luke's, it is true (though Frank Hurrell, a physician from Maugham's early novel The Merry-Go-Round, did), but Maugham certainly lived in a small room at Vincent Square, spending evenings in reading and writing. It is generally agreed between Maugham scholars, at least as far as it can be known, that the vividness of minor characters like Mary Ann, the proverbial Blackstable girl and a most efficient made, or Mrs Hudson, his landlady in London, with a heart of gold and saucy cockney humour, is largely due to the fact that they were drawn from life. Maugham even used real names, typical for Whitstable at the time, like Gann and Driffield.

Of course the most important thing about Willie Ashenden is not the biographical and psychological inferences about Maugham one can make, wisely or not, but the fact that he is the one to bring to life the other characters, especially the other three main ones: Edward Driffield, Alroy Kear and Rosie. I may start with the gentlemen, for there a most notorious controversy lies.

No sooner was the novel published and Maugham was fiercely attacked that he had desecrated the memory of Thomas Hardy, who had died in 1928, and lampooned in a most vulgar way Hugh Walpole who was still very much alive: Driffield and Kear, respectively, were hailed as most obvious and blatant caricatures of these no doubt great men. A truly stupendous amount of nonsense has been and continues to be written on the subject by biographers and critics. Few of the latter have taken the trouble to read the book and its prefaces carefully and to investigate the matter further with something like knowledge about character development.

By way of little digression, I may mention that both critics and biographers have generally lavished a surprisingly huge amount of praise on Cakes and Ale as an outstanding blend of masterfully written literary satire and powerfully conveyed romance adorned with Rosie, by far Maugham's most lovable female character. But the similarities end here. Some critics, like Cordell and Calder, have made very good cases against the Hardy-Driffield and Kear-Walpole accusations; others, like Whitehead and Curtis, have chosen an even better way of handling the problem: they simply ignored it and concentrated on the intrinsic value of the novel. I have to say, though, they never ignored it completely and were sometimes apt to be appallingly superficial. A case in point is Anthony Curtis, whose perceptive criticism on Maugham I generally admire, but when he state
s flatly[8] that Walpole was (his italics) the model for Roy Kear, he really didn't know what he was writing about. As for Mr Whitehead, though virtually free of nonsense about caricatures, he is a most impressive example how to make yourself as tedious as possible discussing one of the least tedious novels ever written. He narrates the whole plot in totally intolerable detail and even goes further to make a chronological table with exact years of everything that happens or is mentioned in the book, meanwhile correcting some ''unimportant authorial slips''. I can hardly imagine anything more idiotic. Mr Whitehead seems perfectly unable to comprehend that Maugham wrote fiction: he was not a historian concerned with the history of the English literature.

As far as biographers are concerned, their treatment of Cakes and Ale is pretty much the same and the most recent attempt of Selina Hastings may serve as a general example. She gives detailed background but hardly bothers to examine it critically; she narrates the plot in fairly inordinate length but her analysis, if any, of the novel's philosophical depth is positively pedestrian. I cannot but add that Selina is the current holder of the world record for most preposterous suggestion about real life model of Maugham character: she has seriously claimed that Dirk Stroeve from The Moon and Sixpence was based on – well, on Hugh Walpole. It beggars belief how Selina could ever have thought of writing something so ridiculous but she actually did write it. As it seems, a single and vastly vague trait is enough for some biographers to claim that they know more about the art of fiction than Maugham did. Not to mention that such fatuous speculations are, to put it mildly, gross oversimplification of Maugham's characters and rob them of their essential and fascinating complexity. It is quite another story that biographers are often obscenely obsessed with homosexuality (Calder) or disgustingly passionate about trivial gossip (Morgan) – but this is certainly not the place to elaborate on that!

It has been suggested by several biographers[9] that the pomp of Hardy's funeral in 1928 gave Maugham the idea for Cakes and Ale: apparently, Maugham himself mentioned that in a letter to Paul Dottin. This may have been so, and so may Maugham have jotted down his note as late as 1928 since he was still writing ''cosmopolitans'' at the time. But inspiration is one thing; the complete work of art is quite another matter. The similarities and the differences between the real Thomas Hardy and the fictional Edward Driffield have been summarised succinctly by Robert Calder:

Like Maugham's author, Hardy was born and bred in the country, rubbed brasses in country churches, went through a long period before he achieved recognition, was married twice, received the Order of Merit, and returned to the country to be the Grand Old Man of English Letters. Like Driffield, Hardy wrote about rustic figures with a sturdy straightforward style.

Despite the number of parallels between the careers of Driffield and Hardy, however, there are a great many differences. Hardy, for example, never run away to sea, never used Kent in his novels, and had none of the boisterous, public-house high-spiritedness of Driffield. The character of neither of his wives bears any relation to that of Rosy or Amy Driffield, and his home, Max Gate, did not resemble Ferne Court. In his late career he needed no such lion-hunter as Mrs Barton Trafford to promote his reputation in English letters. Finally, as Richard Cordell points out, while Hardy was the most notable English poet of his day, Driffield writes only prose.[10]

Seventeen years later Mr Calder was much more concise, and even more perceptive:

Moreover, the specific traits are secondary to the effective portrayal of a creative artist who becomes trapped and stifled by being made into a social figure.[11]

Needless to say, some of these claims have been disputed. There is a curious footnote in Selina's biography[12] in which she quotes a very confused and highly unconvincing note by Logan Pearsall Smith which claims that the second Mrs Driffield was ''a photo straight from life''. This hypothesis has gained a dubious credibility because of the notorious case with Gin and Bitters, an obvious, lame and trashy attempt to parody Cakes and Ale, first published in the US in May 1931 under the pseudonym ''A. Riposte''. This scurrilous book was a blatant and vulgar attack against Maugham who was savagely pilloried in the character of Leverson Hurle, aged and mediocre novelist given to wandering through the South Seas. As it turned out, ''A. Riposte'' was Elinor Mordaunt (nee Evelyn Clowes), an indifferent and obscure writer as well as a friend of the second Mrs Hardy. Apparently, the latter was so bitterly affronted by Cakes and Ale, that her great friend Elinor decided to put the record straight by doing Maugham an equal harm. But she never met him and had to rely entirely on gossip, so it is hardly surprising that her attempt failed completely to do anything but cause another scandal: the book was published in London, by Martin Secker and under the title Full Circle, but it was promptly withdrawn because Maugham sued for libel; today it is a collectors' item. According to Selina[13], Maugham was convinced about the libel case by his brother, F. H. Maugham, and even by Hugh Walpole, who had to suffer a great deal because of Cakes and Ale as we shall see presently. Indeed, many people thought that Walpole was the author of Full Circle, and he was honestly shocked that anybody might think him capable of producing such trash. I think Maugham did a foolish thing with this libel case. He should have left the book to be published as widely as possible – for it is not to his shame, but to Elinor's.

As a matter of fact, Hugh Walpole also tried something like satirising Maugham. As pointed out by many authors[14], there are certain similarities between Archie Bertrand from Walpole's John Cornelius (1937), a writer with great success in the theatre and a cynical view of many human values, and Somerset Maugham. But Walpole's book was hardly any revenge for Cakes and Ale for, as pointed out by Mr Calder again, Archie Bertrand is just a part of the literary background of the novel.

Maugham defended himself in the Driffield-Hardy case by stating in his prefaces that he met the great Victorian novelist but once, a good many years ago, had a little chat with him and indeed knew much too little to base a whole character on him. Of course it's been suggested[15] that Maugham did know a great deal about Hardy thanks to knowledgeable guests in his house like Desmond MacCarthy and Siegfried Sassoon. This may well have been so, but Somerset Maugham, a most conscientious and forever seeking verisimilitude writer whose work was always firmly rooted in his own experience, certainly was the last man to base a main character on hearsay. At any rate, as obvious from Mr Calder's words above, the similarities between the character and the real man are merely external details without any significance whatsoever. Mr Calder himself has speculated that in Driffield one may well find traits of H. G. Wells and Joseph Conrad as well[16]; Maugham has suggested[17] that it was only Hardy's recent demise that made people recognise Driffield as unflattering portrayal of the great man, otherwise they might have thought of Meredith or Tennyson. At the same place Maugham also remarks that as far as he remembers his only meeting with Thomas Hardy, there was in him nothing of the ''somewhat freakish and ribald attitude towards life which was characteristic in his old age of Edward Driffield.''[18] Maugham had quite another fish to fry, much more significant than the Order of Merit:

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.[19]

As a matter a fact, in the same piece Maugham mentioned that he really did base Edward Driffield on a real writer: a totally obscure one he knew as a kid in Whitstable. He didn't even remember his name. He just was the first author Willie ever met, and as such made a great impression on the boy.[20]

Now, leaving aside such insignificant matters like the Hardy-Driffield case, let's talk seriously about the character of Edward Driffield, and especially about Maugham's depiction of it. Just about the worst thing about Driffield that Ashenden has to say is that he doesn't like his novels because he thinks them boring. Big deal! Certainly, the character is no caricature at all. Quite on the contrary indeed! I have always sensed much more sympathy than anything else in Maugham's portrayal of Driffield: from Ashende
n's boyhood when the future great man sang boisterously ''Come where the booze is cheaper'', all the way until his reverent old age and those perplexing winks on the distinguished face of the Grand Old Man of English Letters. Driffield's late years, especially, Maugham conveys with a lot understanding, knowing all too well the writer's mind and how disastrous about it so domineering a wife like Driffield's second one may be. A most powerful evidence of that comes in the end of Chapter XXIII as a long monologue by one Mr Brentford, a native of Blackstable who had known the great writer in his young and obscure years, recalling Driffield's surreptitious visits to the local pub despite his wife's horror of such places. Among the broken phrases of the countryman there are many poignant touches: how Driffield was happier in the pub than anywhere else, how he loved life and how his wife regularly came to take him back without any ceremony. The chapter finishes with the words of Mr Brentford too. The lack of any authorial comment only makes the effect stronger.

It is certainly true, however, that Maugham used the character of Edward Driffield for a scathing attack on the Grand-Old-Man-of-Letters syndrome, on sycophantic and feeble literary critics, on the ridiculous importance attached to longevity among writers, on the charming and kindly yet disgusting snobbishness, shallowness and cruelty of the English literary world where extra-literary factors, like lion hunters in the form of great hostess who ''made'' great writers, reigned supreme. Rarely if ever has Maugham been more amusing, more devastating, more perceptive and more persuasive than in these passages:

But why writers should be more esteemed the older they grow has long perplexed me. At one time I thought that the praise accorded to them when they had ceased for twenty years to write anything of interest was largely due to the fact that the younger men, having no longer to fear their competition, felt it safe to extol their merit; and it is well known that to praise someone whose rivalry you do not dread is often a very good way of putting a spoke in the wheel of someone whose rivalry you do. But this is to take a low view of human nature and I would not for the world lay myself open to a charge of cheap cynicism. After mature consideration I have come to the conclusion that real reason for the universal applause that comforts the declining years of the author who exceeds the common span of men is that intelligent people after the age of thirty read nothing at all. As they grow older the books they read in their youth are lit with its glamour and with every year that passes they ascribe greater merit to the author that wrote them. Of course he must go on; he must keep in the public eye. It is no good his thinking that it is enough to write one or two masterpieces; he must provide a pedestal for them of forty or fifty works of no particular consequence. This needs time. His production must be such that if he cannot captivate a reader by his charm he can stun him by his weight.[21]

But all this has nothing to do with Edward Driffield, let alone Thomas Hardy indeed, or if it does, it is the harmful influence of the literary society on the writer's artistic freedom that Maugham wants to, and does, emphasise. It is not for nothin
g that Driffield writes his best books while he is still largely unknown to the world, married to his ''fearfully common'' first wife and completely unknown to the literati. After his promotion in the world of letters by Mrs Barton Trafford, a lion hunter if there ever was one, and after his marrying the efficient and dictatorial Amy, he writes his late books and it is obvious to anybody with real admiration for literature – Alroy Kear included – that they may well be fine works but they do not have the character and the power of his early ones.

As a matter of fact, if there is a place where Maugham's satire is most uncompromising, withering, sarcastic and devastating, these are the characters of those two remarkable ladies who actually did make a monument of English literature out of poor Edward: Amy Driffield and Mrs Barton Trafford. Whether they were drawn from life or not, I do not know, but what I do know is that they are incredibly alive for minor characters – I can literally see and hear them while reading – and that their cold, manipulative, ruthless and vulgar minds are mercilessly exposed by Maugham's pen. Yet, even in this extreme case, I really don't know how he achieves that, Maugham always remains perfectly charming. His satire is incisive and lethal but never marred by bigotry or bitterness.

Finally, to come back to Edward Driffield in order to finish with him, Maugham thought well enough of his character as to put some of his own opinions into his mouth. At one place Ashenden remembers few far from flattering remarks of Driffield about Henry James:

...when I was lunching with the Driffields a few years ago I overheard him saying that Henry James had turned his back on one of the great events of the world's history, the rise of the United States, in order to report tittle-tattle at tea parties in English country houses. [...] He said: 'Poor Henry, he's spending eternity wandering round and round a stately park and the fence is just too high for him to peep over and they're having tea just too far away for him to hear what the countess is saying.[22]

Somerset Maugham has written a great deal about Henry James – in his essays ''Some Novelists I Have Known'' and ''The Short Story'', from the collections The Vagrant Mood (1952) and Points of View (1958) respectively – and it is a fairly sure guess that with the above quote he spoke his mind to the last word.

To finish with the character of Edward Driffield – this time for real – it might be interesting to note that in the 1934 preface Maugham, quite inexplicably, calls him ''Herbert
Driffield''. (This is silently corrected in modern paperback editions.) The only explanation I can offer about this stupendous mistake is that, firstly, Maugham never was keen on details like names or years and, secondly, his carelessness seems actually to confirm his statement, made in the same preface, that it is curious how swiftly a writer forgets a character that has obsessed him for months once he has put it down on paper. Well, that at least is some kind of explanation, if a feeble one; about the Dickens-Carlyle confusion (see below) I have none whatsoever. Last but not least, in his 1950 preface Maugham could appreciate the irony that he was going to be victim of the Grand-Old-Man-of-Letters syndrome himself. It never really happened so. Maugham was much too jealous of his own artistic independence – and could afford it. Moreover, though he did like attention and respect from the literary circles, I am quite sure that his inherent modesty would have found such pompous reverence offensive.

Great as the outrage of the Hardy-Driffield case was at the time when Cakes and Ale was first published, it was nothing in comparison with the Kear-Walpole conundrum, or the Roy-Hugh mess to put it more informally. I have read a huge amount of wise paragraphs by critics and especially by biographers about Maugham's cruel portrait, malicious satire, crucifixion, caricature and lampooning of his friend. This is a farrago of nonsense. Only ''lampooning'' can I accept, to some extent at least, but even that is a very superficial, not to say inane, way to look at the character of Alroy Kear. To begin with, I can never call ''cruel'' or ''malicious'' something as amusing as that:

I had watched with admiration his rise in the world of letters. His career might well have served as a model for any young man entering upon the pursuit of literature. I could think of no one among my contemporaries who had achieved so considerable a position on so little talent. This, like the wise man’s daily dose of Bemax, might have gone into a heaped-up tablespoon. He was perfectly aware of it, and it must have seemed to him sometimes little short of a miracle that he had been able with it to compose already some thirty books. I cannot but think that he saw the white light of revelation when first he read that Charles Dickens* in an after-dinner speech had stated that genius was an infinite capacity for taking pains. He pondered the saying. If that was all, he must have told himself, he could be a genius like the rest; when the excited reviewer of a lady’s paper, writing a notice of one of his works, used the word (and of late the critics have been doing it with agreeable frequency) he must have sighed with the satisfaction of one who after long hours of toil has completed a cross-word puzzle. No one who for years had observed his indefatigable industry could deny that at all events he deserved to be a genius.[23]

Hugh Walpole, though, thought otherwise. The story is already famous.
He picked up Cakes and Ale idly one night before going to bed and later wrote in his journal what are probably the three most often quoted sentences by Hugh Walpole: ''Read on with increasing horror. Unmistakable portrait of myself. Never slept.'' In fact, the incident only proves spectacularly well Maugham's dictum which he was to express in print for the first time, significantly, only one year after Cakes and Ale, namely in the original preface to his short story collection First Person Singular (1931); it's an oft-quoted gem:

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.[24]

The passage is terribly amusing, no doubt, but it is very serious too. Maugham wrote numerous times about the art of fiction and the art of character development, a synthesis of several living models and a great deal of invention and imagination. Nobody ever took him seriously. In his 1934 preface he was deliberately evasive, for he knew all too well that if he had just said that he had based Alroy Kear to Hugh Walpole, everybody would have cried that he had lampooned a great writer – which indeed everybody did. In the 1950 preface came Maugham's notorious ''confession'' that he really had had Hugh in mind while working on the character of Roy. But Maugham went on to point out that he didn't want to hurt Walpole's feelings and did everything to ''cover his tracks'', namely making Roy something of a womaniser and a sportsman, traits that Hugh admittedly never had; not to mention the different physical description. The outcry, indeed, was only because Maugham had given his character a single feature that Walpole, the proverbial social climber always ingratiating himself on the critics, most notoriously had. Moreover, in his 1934 preface Maugham wrote with rare compassion and entirely without irony about this phenomenon:

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 with 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.[25]

Maugham himself, as every sensible man, was not above getting the best price and the best advertising for his work or being on friendly terms with eminent critics, though he never was as strenuous and persistent as Walpole in chasing reviewers. But he understood and never condemned. In his 1950 preface Maugham even went as far as to call Walpole a model for Roy – but that doesn't in the least change the fact that both have in common but one unfortunately notorious trait:

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.[26]

He had given a number of positive qualities to Roy too: sincerity, real passion for literature, fluency of expression, success as a lecturer, charm, to name but a few. But who cares about these things!

In short, Alroy Kear is no portrait of Hugh Walpole, much less a malicious one. All the same: the hell broke loose and poor Hugh suffered greatly – not so much from Maugham's book, but from the widespread belief that he really ''had it coming''[27]. All of London's (and not only) literary elite – Eddie Marsh, E. M. Forster, Logan Pearsall Smith, Beverly Nichols – gleefully relished Maugham's satirical pen. Lytton Strachey's description as ''envenomed portrait'' was the usual opinion, and highly inaccurate and childish that is. Arnold Bennett was the only one who came close to the truth claiming that the portrait is ''thoroughly just, accurate and benevolent' – quite true, if one removes the word ''portrait'' of course. Finally, Walpole mustered the courage to write personally to Maugham and got a very kind reply which Selina Hastings has rightly described as ''deeply disingenuous''[28]. Indeed, in this letter Maugham all but blatantly lied, though he certainly did that because he had no wish to hurt Hugh:

Now I have your letter. I can't say I was surprised to receive it because I had heard from Charlie Evans [...] it had never occurred to him that there was any resemblance between the Alroy Kear of my novel & you; and when he spoke to me about it I was able very honestly to assure him that nothing had been further from my thoughts than to describe you...[29]

It must be a fault in me but I, personally, rather believe Maugham. I am sure he had no intention to describe Walpole in his novel, much less to lampoon him. He just had him in mind, together with God knows how many other writers, while creating a character. Unfortunately for Hugh, the single trait – for I have never heard anything about a second one – Mau
gham took from him was exactly the one he was most infamous about. Biographers have gone out of their way to find Maugham's motive behind his putative acrimony towards Walpole: his great height and imposing stature, his successful lecturing, his unkind treatment of so-and-so young writer, his stealing a lover (male, of course) from Maugham, etc., etc., etc. – tons of unimaginable crap. But the fact remains that, interestingly, despite the widespread notion that Alroy Kear ruined the last ten years of Hugh's life, Walpole continued to send his books to Maugham who continued to reply warmly and their relationship remained more friendly than one would have expected from the intensity of the Kear-Walpole scandal. So Hugh, after all, was probably not as stupid as most of his colleagues thought him.

But all this is by the way. Let's have a closer look at Alroy Kear and Willie Ashenden's attitude towards him. At one place early in the novel (Chapter I, actually) the first person narrator flatly says that he has a ''considerable affection'' for Roy: and it shows until the last page. When Ashenden speaks of his ''abler pen'' and admires the fluency of his speech, there is not even a hint of irony, let alone sarcasm. Besides, Ashenden is keenly aware of the most precious quality of Roy, one that you find but seldom in this world:

The most shining characteristic of Alroy Kear was his sincerity. No one can be a humbug for five-and-twenty years. Hypocrisy is the most difficult and nerve-racking vice that any man can pursue; it needs an unceasing vigilance and rare detachment of spirit. It cannot, like adultery or gluttony, be practised at spare moments; it is a whole-time job. It needs also a cynical humour; although Roy laughed so much, I never thought he had a very quick sense of humour, and I am quite sure that he was incapable of cynicism.[30]

Maugham has said repeatedly that he had put in Alroy Kear traits from many writers, but most of all he had put a lot of himself. This is not so wide of the mark as it might look at first glance. For Maugham did put some thoughts in Roy's mouth all right. Among the many references to writers, which Cakes and Ale is delightfully peppered with, the one about Lytton Strachey is rather disparaging. It is Strachey who is reported to be the author of the famous description of Maugham "Class Two, Division One". Though I do not know when this charming phrase dates from, I should like to believe that in Cakes and Ale Maugham did have his small revenge through Roy; as for the reference to cynicism, it is as typically Maugham as anything:

''Don't you think it would be more interesting if you went the whole hog and drew him warts and all?
''Oh, I couldn't. Amy Driffield would never speak to me again. She only asked me to do the life because she felt she could trust my discretion. I must behave like a gentleman.
''It's very hard to be a gentleman and a writer.''
''I don't see why. And besides, you know what the critics are. If you tell the truth they only say you're cynical and it does an author no good to get a reputation for cynicism. Of course I don't deny that if I were thoroughly unscrupulous I could make a sensation. It would be rather amusing to show the man with his passion for beauty and his careless treatment of his obligations, his fine style and his personal hatred for soap and water, his idealism and his tippling in disreputable pubs; but honestly, would it pay? They'd only say I was imitating Lytton Strachey.[31]

''It's very hard to be a gentleman and a writer.'' This must be the greatest single-sentence quote from Cakes and Ale.

Finally, there is of course Rosie, the skeleton in the cupboard, the woman with the sweetest smile the first person narrator has ever seen, Rosie in whom tremendous promiscuity and certain stupidity go firmly hand in hand with immeasurable kindness and pure goodness. There is no controversy or scandal here. Indeed, it was thought that if there is anybody in this novel who has no precursor in the real life, it must be Rosie. Modern research has proven exactly the opposite: if there is a portrait in Cakes and Ale at all, that is somebody drawn from life as closely as possible, this is indeed Rosie. It is now generally accepted that pretty much everything happened in the real life as it was described in the novel: from her inimitable smile to Ashenden's/Maugham's affair with her and the famous love scene, unusually clumsy and detailed but also strangely poignant and passionate for Maugham.

The real identity of Rosie remained a mystery until the early 1970s when Robert Calder, in his excellent critical study which contains an Appendix titled simply ''Rosie'', was the first to identify her as Ethelwyn Sylvia Jones (1883-1948), usually known as Sue Jones, the second daughter of the eminent playwright Henry Arthur Jones and an indifferent actress herself. As natural for him, Maugham was very secretive about the foundations of Rosie in the real life. He mentions her vaguely in the 1950 preface and reveals a great deal about his youthful affair with her in his notoriously unpublished in book form late memoirs Looking Back (1962). There Maugham touchingly narrates how he thought their affair would be over in six weeks but continued in fact eight years and finished with his one and only proposal for marriage which was promptly turned down. He makes no secret that she was his model for Rosie but never reveals her real name. Only in 1969, four years after Maugham's death, was her identity made known when Mr Calder had a conversation with Gerald Kelly, the only person still alive who had known Maugham for more than half a century, as early as the 1900s indeed; since Kelly had known Sue Jones too, his information is most likely to be true. For those who are still in doubt, there is the ultimate proof: it was of course Gerald Kelly, an eminent painter, who painted the famous portrait of Sue Jones called ''Mrs L. [Leveaux] in white 1907'' (for she was married to one Leveaux at the time) and this is the same portrait which Maugham has immortalised in Chapter XIV of Cakes and Ale. It is reproduced in Calder's biography and the rather apathetic and sullen woman which looks from it makes me wonder what Maugham's tumultuous passion rested upon.[32]

I am again indebted to Mr Calder for his shrewd parallel between Maugham's description of Rosie in Looking Back (1962) and his collection of notes A Writer's Notebook (1949). There are in the latter two notes from 1904 which most probably refer to Sue/Rosie, and it was assumed that this is the most probable year when Maugham's romance with her started. The notes are certainly worth quoting, if unusually florid for Maugham:

She had something of the florid colouring of Helena Fourment, the second wife of Rubens, that blond radiancy, with eyes blue as sea at midsummer and hair like corn under the August sun, but a greater delicacy withal. And she hadn't Helena unhappy leaning to obesity.

She was a woman of ripe and abundant charms, rosy of cheek and fair of hair, with eyes blue as summer sea, with rounded lines and full breasts. She leaned somewhat to the overblown. She belonged to that type of woman that Rubens has set down for ever in the ravishing person of Helena Fourment.[33]

Since Rosie was probably the only woman, apart from his mother, who Maugham really loved deeply, it is hardly surprising that she has no analogue among his heroines in terms of vividness, warmth and charm. Not that there is no competition, for Maugham has c
reated numerous unforgettable female characters, but nowhere else, to the best of my belief, did he get so carried away with ravishing descriptions of a woman's smile, hair or body. Nor did he ever succeed to portray such charming placidity and especially such total lack of self-consciousness anywhere else. Rosie does not suffer from superfluous intelligence, it is entirely in character that she should not understand how Edward Driffield could describe in a novel so accurately the death of their only child and the highly unorthodox thing she did afterwards, and then dismiss the case with the memorable ''You're queer fish, the writers.'' But neither her lack of cleverness nor her going to bed with everybody seems to matter a bit – and I don't think Maugham ever again succeeded to convince so thoroughly that these things really don't matter, either. Rosie is one those rare creatures whom, if you are amazingly lucky, you meet but a few times in your life. She is easy to get along with. You can be entirely yourself. No masks. No restraints.

It is surely Rosie who adds most to the peculiar charm of Cakes and Ale. It would have been a great novel even without her, but it would not have been a unique experience. She is also responsible for what is probably the most satisfying conclusion in any novel of Maugham's; though it is not certain that their meeting decades after their affair really did happen, the scene has the same authenticity as any other in the book. Rosie even had the last word about her late husband, Lord George Kemp, one of those minor characters that constantly threaten to burst from the pages, the ''Lord of the coal'' and just about the most jovial, hearty, boisterous, boasting and vain personage in the whole novel, but one whom, despite his obvious vulgarity, the young Ashenden cannot help liking. Yet, I imagine even he was staggered by Rosie's last words:

''He was always a perfect gentleman.''

It is hard to think of a suitable repartee.


Short bibliography

Primary sources
W. Somerset Maugham, Cakes and Ale, Heinemann, The Collected Edition, 1952 (reprint). New preface by the author, 1934.
W. Somerset Maugham, Cakes and Ale, Modern Library, 1950. New preface by the author.
W. Somerset Maugham, First Person Singular, Heinemann, 1931. Original preface by the author.
W. Somerset Maugham, Don Fernando, Vintage, 2000. [First published, 1935. Revised, 1950. New preface by the author.]
W. Somerset Maugham, The Partial View, Heinemann, 1954. Contains The Summing Up (1938) and A Writer's Notebook (1949). New preface by the author.
W. Somerset Maugham, The Vagrant Mood, Vintage, 2000. [First published, 1952]
W. Somerset Maugham, Points of View, Vintage, 2000. [First published, 1958.]

Biographical studies
Ted Morgan, Maugham: A Biography, Triad/Granada, Paperback, 1980. [First published in hardcover, 1980.]
Robert Calder, Willie: The Life of W. Somerset Maugham, Heinemann, 1989.
Selina Hastings, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, John Murray, Paperback, 2010. [First published in hardcover, 2009.]

Critical studies
Richard Cordell, Somerset Maugham: a biographical and critical study, Heinemann, 1962. [First published, 1961.]
Robert Calder, W. Somerset Maugham and the Quest for Freedom, Heinemann, 1972.
Anthony Curtis, The Pattern of Maugham: A Critical Portrait, Hamish Hamilton, 1974.
John Whitehead, Maugham: A Reappraisal, Barnes and Noble, 1987.

[1] Hastings, p. 355.
[2] Maugham, Cakes and Ale, 1934 preface, p. v.
[3] Calder, 1972, p. 174; Curtis, p. 140; Whitehead, p. 146
[4] Maugham, Cakes and Ale, 1934 preface, p. vi.
[5] Curtis, p. 149.
[6] Maugham, Cakes and Ale, chapter XI.
[7] Maugham, Don Fernando, chapter 9, p. 121
[8] Curtis, p. 143.
[9] Morgan, p. 365; Calder, p. 216.
[10] Calder, 1972, p. 173.
[11] Calder, 1989, p. 216.
[12] Hastings, p. 356
[13] Hastings, p. 366.
[14] Most notably by Calder, 1972, p. 293.
[15] Hastings, p. 365, footnote.
[16] Calder, 1972, p. 174
[17] Maugham, Cakes and Ale, 1950 preface, p. vi.
[18] Ibid, p. vi.
[19] Ibid, pp. vi-vii.
[20] Ibid, p. viii.
[21] Maugham, Cakes and Ale, chapter XI.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Maugham, Cakes and Ale, Modern Library, 1950, chapter I. In The Collected Edition, as well as in modern paperback ones, the name is Thomas Carlyle!
[24] Maugham, First Person Singular, p. ix.
[25] Maugham, Cakes and Ale, 1934 preface, p. ix.
[26] Maugham, Cakes and Ale, 1950 preface, p. x.
[27] Hastings, p. 363.
[28] Ibid., p. 365.
[29] Calder, 1972, p. 176; Hastings, p. 364.
[30] Maugham, Cakes and Ale, chapter I.
[31] Ibid., chapter XI
[32] The portrait reproduced in Selina's biography is not the one described in the novel; Kelly painted Sue several times.
[33] Maugham, A Writer’s Notebook, 1949, chapter “1904”.


  1. Remarkable Alexander! I feel sorry that I didn't read this before.

    I am not sure if any critic has put it like this, but I believe that instead of solely basing his characters on people he knew, Maugham also put himself in them. Probably he described the physical appearances of people that he knew, but the traits, some of them resembled him a lot. Take snobbishness. He has been criticized as being snobbish (don't ask me to source this...), and many of his characters are snobbish, but in a very humorous way; it's almost as if he was making fun of himself. I am sure he understood himself very well and he was able to penetrate his own character to an incredible extent. And then very like him, he was also able to laugh at himself. That could be one of the reasons why his "portraits" are not bitter.

    1. I feel sorry I called Bob's study "excellent". I'll leave it like that to remind me not to express opinions on books I haven't read carefully and complete. The appendices are excellent, some points in the chapters on the novels are excellent, but the book on the whole, now that I have finally finished it, leaves a great deal to be desired.

      By all means I agree with your perceptive analysis of Maugham's snobbery (so much better than Calder's lame "his uncle was a snob, so Willie became one too"). Maugham was explicit on his methods of characterisation. He made no secret that a writer must put something of himself in his best creations if they are to have vitality (didn't he once say that Shakespeare must have been a bit of Iago hismself?) and he also said he had a "grim capacity for seeing my own absurdity and I find in myself much to excite my ridicule."

      There is no reason to suppose that he didn't use all that in his work. On the contrary, a good case can be made that he did. But the critics, I think, never paid much attention to his writings on the art of fiction and, if they noticed these remarks at all, they probably took them for yet another exercise in ingenuousness.