He was an enigmatic figure, inscrutable as a Chinese sage, elegant as any titled gentleman entering his exclusive club in Mayfair, witty as only an assured, cosmopolitan man of the world could be, financially successful in terms nearly impossible to calculate today. William Somerset Maugham may have been the most famous English writer of the twentieth century, he was certainly the wealthiest.
On the outside, he was all that; on the inside, he was something more, for sure – a man whose famous description of the Riviera where he lived for many years as “a sunny place for shady people” was particularly apt: out of the glare of fame, he lived a life in the shade himself: a bisexual man of predominately homosexual tastes whose rabid sex life began as a schoolboy and raged unabated into his ninth decade. “He liked sex, and he liked a lot of it,” according to his latest biographer, Selina Hastings.
This is not news. Maugham’s earlier biographers, particularly Jeffery Meyers, in his excellent Somerset Maugham: A Life (2004), have provided portraits rather than simple sketches of the great writer. Why, then, another biography now?
Because, fairly recently, the Royal Literary Fund, executors of Maugham’s vast estate, rescinded the clause in his will that blocked access to Maugham’s extant correspondence. Adamantly opposed to a biography of him by anyone, Maugham had burned every personal paper in his possession in several grand bonfires at his French villa; further, he had instructed every recipient of his letters to do likewise (some did, some did not and enriched themselves considerably and the manuscript collections of several American universities). In addition, a previously unknown account of Maugham’s private and domestic life in France, written by his daughter, came to light. These new materials fairly well demanded a new biography.
The result of several years’ labor involving extensive research and interviews, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham is nothing short of a brilliant achievement. Indeed, Selina Hastings seems only to have been limited by her subject, never esteemed a great writer. Two projects seem to have been important to Hastings: 1. giving Maugham his due as a writer; and 2. illuminating the other sides of Maugham. In the first matter, she is too wise to advance a claim for his being elevated to the first rank of writers; but it may just be that his own estimate (“I know where I stand, in the very front row of the second-rate”) is too severe a judgment. Finishing The Secret Lives and returning to consider some of his best short fiction (“Rain,” “The Alien Corn,” “The Book-bag”), a careful reader will likely accept the place she accords him as “the great teller of tales.”
When she explores the shadows of his life, Hastings is concerned with more than the sexual dimension; to her credit, she renders that without sensationalism or prurience, describing and detailing it as an essential element of the writer’s personality, no more, no less, and showing that, important as it was, reckless as it could be, it was recreational (sometimes intensely so), but always secondary to his rigorously disciplined life as a writer. Though he spent time in the light of glittering dinners and parties in Mayfair and enjoyed weekends at fashionable country houses, Maugham also spent time in the shadows of London’s sexual underworld and in the shadowy world of espionage, serving British military intelligence off and on for several decades. Perhaps it was that Maugham, like his acquaintance, Anthony Blunt, as an active gay man in an England still in the panic following Oscar Wilde’s conviction (1895) and where sexual activity between consenting adult men was a criminal offense until 1967, was eminently well-suited for the double life of a secret agent. Whatever the case, his cloak-and-dagger experience gave him the material for his Ashenden stories, considered the prototype for tales later spun by Ian Fleming and John le Carre.
Maugham emerges from these pages a self-constructed personality carefully concerned with the image he projected and the impact he had on others. Had he lived today, the paparzzi would have pursued him relentlessly. He traveled the world over, with a particular fondness for the Far East and the United States. He lived a grand and high life, hobnobbing with the likes of Virginia Woolf, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Charlie Chaplin, Jean Cocteau, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Prince Rainier and Princess Grace. Hastings writes with assured narrative fluency, selecting from what one can only assume was a rich repository of witty remarks and anecdotes to bring this writer to life. Despite the stammer that afflicted him from age of ten, he could be counted on for an apt observation or bright riposte; take, for example, his reaction to hearing that his wife Syrie, whom he had supported since their divorce in 1929, had died (1955): “Tra la la, no more alimony, tra la la.” Or this exchange between Frank Sinatra and himself: “Frank says, ‘Hiya, baby!’ and Maugham replies, “Very well, indeed, but hardly a b-baby.”
The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham does not contradict received opinion; it does add an undeniable richness of detail and nuance to Maugham’s portrait. Hastings’ considerable scholarly research is effectively put at the service of a convincing argument that gives us a complex and fascinating man who exercise great discipline and dogged persistence in pursuing his calling: in the course of his professional career, he produced seventy eight books, including one hundred twenty-two short stories, as well as some thirty-one plays. And one more thing: Hastings is at pains to reveal another side to Maugham, one which illustrates the validity of an observation made by the Duchess of Windsor: “What many people did not understand,” she said, “was that Willie was at heart a very kind man.” Arguably the wealthiest writer of the twentieth century – one story, “Rain,” earned him the equivalent of ten-twelve million dollars in today’s terms – Maugham did indeed spend a good deal of that wealth on himself, on his elegant home, and on entertaining like a maharajah transplanted to the Riviera; but he was always most generous to those in need, whether friends temporarily down on their luck or struggling writers who wrote and asked for assistance. He rarely refused a request for help.
Though I have minor reservations about The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham – the discussion of his works is too often less than literary; some telling remarks and observation are not sourced; and the “Select Bibliography” is thin, listing a mere thirty-five books, most either reminiscences or bibliographies, with not one scholarly article – this is the biography of W. Somerset Maugham, an endeavor likely to stand the test of time. We now need no other.
Christopher Isherwood once described Maugham as “an old Gladstone bay covered with labels. God knows what is inside.” It is to her lasting credit – and Maugham’s – that Selina Hastings has unpacked that valise for us.