W. Somerset Maugham

From New World Encyclopedia

William Somerset Maugham
Born: January 25, 1874
Paris, France
Died: December 16, 1965
Nice, France
Occupation(s): Playwright, novelist, short story writer
Magnum opus: Of Human Bondage

William Somerset Maugham, CH (January 25, 1874 – December 16, 1965) was an English playwright, novelist, and short story writer. He was one of the most popular authors of his era, and although he did not receive the same critical acclaim as did his modernist contemporaries with their more experimental prose styles, he was reputedly the highest paid of his profession during the 1930s.[1] Maugham's modernism expressed itself not in his literary style, but in the themes of his stories, which demonstrated the disaffection of his characters with the modern world.

Childhood and education

Maugham's father was an English lawyer handling the legal affairs of the British embassy in Paris[2]. Since French law declared that all children born on French soil could be conscripted for military service, Robert Ormond Maugham arranged for William to be born at the embassy, technically on British soil, saving him from conscription into any future French wars[3]. His grandfather, also Robert, was himself a prominent lawyer and cofounder of the English Law Society,[4] and it was taken for granted that William would follow in their footsteps. Events were to ensure this was not to be, but his older brother Frederic Herbert Maugham did enjoy a distinguished legal career, becoming Lord Chancellor between 1938-1939.

Maugham's mother Edith Mary (née Snell) was consumptive, a condition for which the doctors of the time prescribed childbirth. As a result Maugham had three older brothers, already enrolled in boarding school by the time he was three and Maugham was effectively raised as an only child. Sadly, since childbirth proved no cure for tuberculosis, Edith Mary Maugham died at the age of 41, six days after the stillbirth of her final son. The death of his mother left Maugham traumatized for life, and he kept his mother's photograph by his bedside until his own death[5] at the age of 91 in Nice, France.

Two years after his mother's death, Maugham's father died of cancer. Willie was sent back to England to be cared for by his uncle, Henry MacDonald Maugham, the Vicar of Whitstable, in Kent. The move was catastrophic. Henry Maugham proved cold and emotionally cruel. The King's School, Canterbury, where Willie was a boarder during school terms, proved an inhospitable place, where he was teased for his bad English (French had been his first language) and his short stature, which he inherited from his father.

It is at this time that Maugham developed the stammer that would stay with him all his life, although it was sporadic and subject to mood and circumstance[6].

Life at the vicarage was tame, and emotions were tightly circumscribed. Maugham was forbidden to lose his temper, or to make emotional displays of any kind–and he was denied the chance to see others express their own emotions. He was a quiet, private but very curious child. Maugham was miserable, both at the vicarage and at school, where he was bullied because of his small size and his stammer. As a result, he developed a talent for applying a wounding remark to those who displeased him. This ability is sometimes reflected in the characters that populate his writings.

At 16, Maugham refused to continue at The King's School and his uncle allowed him to travel to Germany, where he studied literature, philosophy and German at Heidelberg University. It was during his year in Heidelberg that he met John Ellingham Brooks, an Englishman ten years his senior, and with whom he had his first sexual experience[7].

On his return to England his uncle found Maugham a position in an accountant's office, but after a month Maugham gave it up and returned to Whitstable. His uncle was not pleased, and set about finding Maugham a new profession. Maugham's father and three older brothers were all distinguished lawyers and Maugham asked to be excused from the duty of following in their footsteps.

A career in the church was rejected because a stammering minister might make the family seem ridiculous. Likewise, the civil service was rejected–not out of consideration for Maugham's own feelings or interests, but because the recent law requiring civil servants to qualify by passing an examination made Maugham's uncle conclude that the civil service was no longer a career for gentlemen.

The local doctor suggested the profession of medicine and Maugham's uncle reluctantly approved this. Maugham had been writing steadily since the age of 15 and fervently intended to become an author, but because Maugham was not of age, he could not confess this to his guardian. So he spent the next five years as a medical student in London[2].


Early works

Many readers and some critics have assumed that the years Maugham spent studying medicine were a creative dead end, but Maugham himself felt quite the contrary. He was able to live in the lively city of London, to meet people of a "low" sort that he would never have met in one of the other professions, and to see them in a time of heightened anxiety and meaning in their lives. In maturity, he recalled the literary value of what he saw as a medical student: "I saw how men died. I saw how they bore pain. I saw what hope looked like, fear and relief…" Maugham saw how corrosive to human values suffering was, how bitter and hostile sickness made people, and never forgot it.

Maugham kept his own lodgings, took pleasure in furnishing them, filled many notebooks with literary ideas, and continued writing nightly while at the same time studying for his degree in medicine. In 1897, he presented his second book for consideration. (The first was a biography of Meyerbeer written by the 16-year-old Maugham in Heidelberg.)

Liza of Lambeth, a tale of working-class adultery and its consequences, drew its details from Maugham's experiences as a medical student doing midwifery work in the London slum of Lambeth. The novel is of the school of social-realist "slum writers" such as George Gissing and Arthur Morrison. Frank as it is, Maugham still felt obliged to write near the opening of the novel: "…it is impossible always to give the exact unexpurgated words of Liza and the other personages of the story; the reader is therefore entreated with his thoughts to piece out the necessary imperfections of the dialogue."

Liza of Lambeth proved popular with both reviewers and the public, and the first print run sold out in a matter of weeks. This was enough to convince Maugham, who had qualified as a doctor, to drop medicine and embark on his sixty-five year career as a man of letters. Of his entry into the profession of writing he later said, "I took to it as a duck takes to water."

The writer's life allowed Maugham to travel and live in places such as Spain and Capri for the next decade, but his next ten works never came close to rivalling the success of Liza. This changed dramatically in 1907 with the phenomenal success of his play Lady Frederick; by the next year he had four plays running simultaneously in London, and Punch magazine published a cartoon of William Shakespeare biting his fingernails nervously as he looked at the billboards.

Popular success, 1914-1939

By 1914 Maugham was famous, with ten plays produced and ten published novels. Too old to enlist when World War I broke out, Maugham served in France as a member of the British Red Cross's so-called "Literary Ambulance Drivers," a group of some 23 well-known writers including Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, and E. E. Cummings. During this time he met Frederick Gerald Haxton, a young San Franciscan who became his companion and lover until Haxton's death in 1944 (Haxton appears as Tony Paxton in Maugham's 1917 play, Our Betters). Throughout this period Maugham continued to write; indeed, he proof-read Of Human Bondage at a location near Dunkirk during a lull in his ambulance duties[8].

Of Human Bondage (1915) initially received adverse criticism both in England and America, with the New York World describing the subject of the main protagonist Philip Carey as the sentimental servitude of a poor fool. However the influential critic, and novelist, Theodore Dreiser rescued the novel referring to it as a work of genius, and comparing it to a Beethoven symphony. This criticism gave the book the lift it needed and it has since never been out of print. [9].

The book appeared to be closely autobiographical (Maugham's stammer is transformed into Philip Carey's club foot, the vicar of Whitstable becomes the vicar of Blackstable, and Philip Carey is a doctor) although Maugham himself insisted it was more invention than fact. Nevertheless, the close relationship between fictional and non-fictional became Maugham's trademark, despite the legal requirement to state that "the characters in [this or that publication] are entirely imaginary." In 1938 he wrote: "Fact and fiction are so intermingled in my work that now, looking back on it, I can hardly distinguish one from the other."

Maugham returned to England from his ambulance unit duties to promote Of Human Bondage but once that was finalized, he became eager to assist the war effort once more. As he was unable to return to his ambulance unit, Syrie arranged for him to be introduced to a high ranking intelligence officer known only as "R," and in September 1915 he began work in Switzerland, secretly gathering and passing on intelligence while posing as himself–that is, as a writer.

Although Maugham's first and many other sexual relationships were with men, he also had sexual relationships with a number of women. Specifically his affair with Syrie Wellcome, daughter of orphanage founder Thomas John Barnardo and wife of American-born English pharmaceutical magnate Henry Wellcome, produced a daughter named Liza (born Mary Elizabeth Wellcome, 1915-1998).[10] Henry Wellcome then sued his wife for divorce, naming Maugham as co-respondent. In May 1917, following the decree nisi, Syrie and Maugham were married. Syrie became a noted interior decorator who popularized the all-white room in the 1920s.

In 1916, Maugham travelled to the Pacific to research his novel The Moon And Sixpence, based on the life of Paul Gauguin. This was the first of those journeys through the late-Imperial world of the 1920s and 1930s which were to establish Maugham forever in the popular imagination as the chronicler of the last days of colonialism in India, Southeast Asia, China and the Pacific, although the books on which this reputation rests represent only a fraction of his output. On this and all subsequent journeys he was accompanied by Haxton, whom he regarded as indispensable to his success as a writer. Maugham himself was painfully shy, and Haxton the extrovert gathered human material that Maugham steadily turned into fiction.

In June, 1917 he was asked by Sir William Wiseman, chief of the British Secret Intelligence Service (later named MI6), to undertake a special mission in Russia[11] to keep the Provisional Government in power and Russia in the war by countering German pacifist propaganda [12]. Two and a half months later the Bolsheviks took control. The job was probably always impossible, but Maugham subsequently claimed that if he had been able to get there six months earlier, he might have succeeded.

Quiet and observant, Maugham had a good temperament for intelligence work; he believed he had inherited from his lawyer father a gift for cool judgement and the ability to be undeceived by facile appearances.

Never losing the chance to turn real life into a story, Maugham made his spying experiences into a collection of short stories about a gentlemanly, sophisticated, aloof spy, Ashenden, a volume that influenced the Ian Fleming James Bond series.[13]

In 1922 Maugham dedicated On A Chinese Screen, a book of 58 ultra-short story sketches collected during his 1920 travels through China and Hong Kong, to Syrie, with the intention of later turning the sketches into a book.[14]

Syrie and Maugham divorced in 1927-1928 after a tempestuous marriage complicated by Maugham's frequent travels abroad and strained by his relationship with Haxton.

In 1928, Maugham bought Villa Mauresque on 12 acres at Cap Ferrat on the French Riviera, which would be his home for most of the rest of his life, and one of the great literary and social salons of the 1920s and 1930s. His output continued to be prodigious, including plays, short stories, novels, essays and travel books. By 1940, when the collapse of France forced Maugham to leave the French Riviera and become a well-heeled refugee, he was already one of the most famous writers in the English-speaking world, and one of the wealthiest.

Grand Old Man of letters

Maugham, by now in his sixties, spent most of World War II in the United States, first in Hollywood (he worked on many scripts, and was one of the first authors to make significant money from film adaptations) and later in the South. While in the US he was asked by the British government to make patriotic speeches to induce the US to aid Britain, if not necessarily become an allied combatant. Gerald Haxton died in 1944; Maugham moved back to England first, then in 1946 to his villa in France, where he lived, interrupted by frequent and long travels, until his death.

The gap left by Haxton's death in 1944 was filled by Alan Searle. Maugham had first met Searle in 1928. Searle was a young man from the London slum area of Bermondsey and he had already been kept by older men. He proved a devoted if not a stimulating companion. Indeed one of Maugham's friends, describing the difference between Searle and Haxton, said simply: "Gerald was vintage, Alan was vin ordinaire."[15]

Maugham's love life was almost never smooth. He once confessed: "I have most loved people who cared little or nothing for me and when people have loved me I have been embarrassed…. In order not to hurt their feelings, I have often acted a passion I did not feel."

A bitter attack on the deceased Syrie in his 1962 volume of memoirs, Looking Back lost him several friends. In his last years Maugham adopted Searle as his son in order to ensure that he would inherit his estate, a move hotly contested by his daughter Liza and her husband, Lord Glendevon, and which exposed Maugham to much public ridicule.


Commercial success with high book sales, successful play productions and a string of film adaptations, backed by astute stock market investments, allowed Maugham to live a very comfortable life. Small and weak as a boy, Maugham had been proud even then of his stamina, and as an adult he kept churning out the books, proud that he could.

Yet, despite his triumphs, he never attracted the highest respect from the critics or his peers. Maugham himself attributed this to his lack of "lyrical quality," his small vocabulary and failure to make expert use of metaphor in his work.

Maugham wrote in a time when experimental modernist literature such as that of William Faulkner, Thomas Mann, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf was gaining increasing popularity and winning critical acclaim. In this context, his plain prose style was criticized as "such a tissue of clichés that one's wonder is finally aroused at the writer's ability to assemble so many and at his unfailing inability to put anything in an individual way"[16].

Maugham's homosexual leanings also shaped his fiction, in two ways. Since, in life, he tended to see attractive women as sexual rivals, he often gave the women of his fiction sexual needs and appetites, in a way quite unusual for authors of his time. Liza of Lambeth, Cakes and Ale and "The Razor's Edge" all featured women determined to service their strong sexual appetites, heedless of the result.

Also, the fact that Maugham's own sexual appetites were highly disapproved of, or even criminal, in nearly all of the countries in which he traveled, made Maugham unusually tolerant of the vices of others. Readers and critics often complained that Maugham did not clearly enough condemn what was bad in the villains of his fiction and plays. Maugham replied in 1938: "It must be a fault in me that I am not gravely shocked at the sins of others unless they personally affect me."

Maugham's public view of his abilities remained modest; towards the end of his career he described himself as "in the very first row of the second-raters." In 1954, he was made a Companion of Honour.

Maugham had begun collecting theatrical paintings before the First World War, continuing until his collection was second only to that of the Garrick Club[17]. In 1948 he announced that he would bequeath this collection to the Trustees of the National Theatre, and from 1951, some 14 years before his death, his paintings began their exhibition life. In 1994 they were placed on loan to the Theatre Museum in Covent Garden [18]

Significant Works

Maugham's masterpiece is generally agreed to be Of Human Bondage, an autobiographical novel which deals with the life of the main character Philip Carey, who like Maugham, was orphaned and brought up by his pious uncle. Philip's clubfoot causes him endless self-consciousness and embarrassment, echoing Maugham's struggles with his stutter. Later successful novels were also based on real-life characters: The Moon and Sixpence fictionalizes the life of Paul Gauguin; and Cakes and Ale contains thinly veiled characterizations of authors Thomas Hardy and Hugh Walpole.

Maugham's last major novel, The Razor's Edge, published in 1944, was a departure for him in many ways. While much of the novel takes place in Europe, its main characters are American, not British. The protagonist is a disillusioned veteran of World War I who abandons his wealthy friends and lifestyle, travelling to India seeking enlightenment. The story's themes of Eastern mysticism and war-weariness struck a chord with readers as World War II waned, and a movie adaptation quickly followed.

Among his short stories, some of the most memorable are those dealing with the lives of Western, mostly British, colonists in the Far East, and are typically concerned with the emotional toll exacted on the colonists by their isolation. Some of his more outstanding works in this genre include Rain, Footprints In The Jungle, and The Outstation. Rain, in particular, which charts the moral disintegration of a missionary attempting to convert the Pacific island prostitute Sadie Thompson, has kept its fame and been made into a movie several times. Maugham said that many of his short stories presented themselves to him in the stories he heard during his travels in the outposts of the Empire. He left behind a long string of angry former hosts, and a contemporary anti-Maugham writer retraced his footsteps and wrote a record of his journeys called "Gin And Bitters." Maugham's restrained prose allows him to explore the resulting tensions and passions without appearing melodramatic. His The Magician (1908) is based on British occultist Aleister Crowley.

Maugham was one of the most significant travel writers of the inter-war years, and can be compared with contemporaries such as Evelyn Waugh and Freya Stark. His best efforts in this line include The Gentleman In The Parlour, dealing with a journey through Burma, Siam, Cambodia and Vietnam, and On A Chinese Screen, a series of very brief vignettes which might almost be notes for short stories that were never written.

Influenced by the published journals of the French writer Jules Renard, which Maugham had often enjoyed for their conscientiousness, wisdom and wit, Maugham published in 1949 selections from his own journals under the title "A Writer's Notebook." Although these journal selections are, by nature, episodic and of varying quality, they range over more than 50 years of the writer's life and contain much that Maugham scholars and admirers find of interest.


In 1947 Maugham instituted the Somerset Maugham Award, awarded to the best British writer or writers under the age of 35 of a work of fiction published in the past year. Notable winners include V.S. Naipaul, Kingsley Amis, Martin Amis and Thom Gunn. On his death, Maugham donated his copyrights to the Royal Literary Fund.

One of very few later writers to praise his influence was Anthony Burgess, who included a complex fictional portrait of Maugham in the novel Earthly Powers. George Orwell also stated that his writing style was influenced by Maugham. The American writer Paul Theroux, in his short story collection The Consul's File, updated Maugham's colonial world in an outstation of expatriates in modern Malaysia.

Portraits of Somerset Maugham

There are many portraits of Somerset Maugham, including that by Graham Sutherland[19]in the Tate Gallery and several by Sir Gerald Kelly. Sutherland's portrait was included in Painting the Century 101 Portrait Masterpieces 1900-2000 at the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Author's Works

  • Liza of Lambeth (1897)
  • The Making of a Saint (1898)
  • Orientations (1899)
  • The Hero (1901)
  • Mrs Craddock (1902)
  • The Merry-go-round (1904)
  • The Land of the Blessed Virgin: Sketches and Impressions in Andalusia (1905)
  • The Bishop's Apron (1906)
  • The Explorer (1908)
  • The Magician (1908)
  • Of Human Bondage (1915)
  • The Moon and Sixpence (1919)
  • The Trembling of a Leaf (1921)
  • On A Chinese Screen (1922)
  • The Painted Veil (1925)
  • The Casuarina Tree (1926)- (one of Cyril Connolly's '100 Key Books of The Modern Movement 1880-1950')
  • The Letter (Stories of Crime) (1930)
  • Ashenden: Or the British Agent (1928)
  • The Gentleman In The Parlour: A Record of a Journey From Rangoon to Haiphong (1930)
  • Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard (1930)
  • The Book Bag (1932)
  • The Narrow Corner (1932)
  • Ah King (1933)
  • The Judgement Seat (1934)
  • Don Fernando (1935)
  • Cosmopolitans - Very Short Stories (1936)
  • My South Sea Island (1936)
  • Theatre (1937)
  • The Summing Up (1938)
  • Christmas Holiday (1939)
  • Princess September and The Nightingale (1939)
  • France At War (1940)
  • Books and You (1940)
  • The Mixture As Before (1940)
  • Up at the Villa (1941)
  • Strictly Personal (1941)
  • The Hour Before Dawn (1942)
  • The Unconquered (1944)
  • The Razor's Edge (1944)
  • Then and Now (1946)
  • Of Human Bondage - An Address (1946)
  • Creatures of Circumstance (1947)
  • Catalina (1948)
  • Quartet (1948)
  • Great Novelists and Their Novels (1948)
  • A Writer’s Notebook (1949)
  • Trio (1950)
  • The Writer’s Point of View' (1951)
  • Encore (1952)
  • The Vagrant Mood (1952)
  • The Noble Spaniard (1953)
  • Ten Novels and Their Authors (1954)
  • Points of View (1958)
  • Purely For My Pleasure (1962)

Film adaptations

  • Sadie Thompson (1928), a silent movie starring Gloria Swanson and Lionel Barrymore. Based on the short story Miss Thompson which was later retitled as Rain.
  • The Letter (1929) starring Jeanne Eagels, O.P. Heggie, Reginald Owen and Herbert Marshall. Based on the play of the same name.
  • Rain (1932), the first sound version of the story, starring Joan Crawford and Walter Huston.
  • Of Human Bondage (1934) starring Leslie Howard and Bette Davis. Based on the book of the same name.
  • The Painted Veil (1934) starring Greta Garbo and Herbert Marshall. Based on the novel of the same name.
  • The Vessel of Wrath (1938) starring Charles Laughton; released in the USA as The Beachcomber. Based on the novella of the same name.
  • The Letter (1940) starring Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, James Stephenson, Frieda Inescort and Gale Sondergaard. Based on the play of the same name.
  • The Moon and Sixpence (1942) starring George Sanders. Based on the novella of the same name.
  • The Razor's Edge (1946) starring Tyrone Power and Gene Tierney. Based on the book of the same name.
  • Of Human Bondage (1946) version starring Eleanor Parker.
  • Quartet (1948) Maugham appears as himself in introductions. Based on some of his short stories.
  • Trio (1950) Maugham appears as himself in introductions. Another collection based on short stories.
  • Encore (1952) Maugham appears as himself in introductions. A third collection of Maugham short stories.
  • Miss Sadie Thompson (1953), a semi-musical version, starring Rita Hayworth and José Ferrer.
  • The Seventh Sin (1957) starring Eleanor Parker. Based on the novel The Painted Veil.
  • The Beachcomber (1958). Based on the novella The Vessel of Wrath; not to be confused with the 1938 film.
  • Julia, du bist zauberhaft (1962) starring Lilli Palmer and Charles Boyer. Based on the novel Theatre.
  • Of Human Bondage (1964) version starring Laurence Harvey and Kim Novak.
  • The Letter (1969) starring Eileen Atkins. Based on play of the same name. (Made for Television)
  • The Letter (1982) starring Lee Remick, Jack Thompson (actor), and Ronald Pickup. Based on play of the same name. (Made for Television)
  • The Razor's Edge (1984) starring Bill Murray. Based on the novel by the same name.
  • Up at the Villa (2000) starring Kristin Scott Thomas and Sean Penn, directed by Philip Haas. Based on the novella of the same name.
  • Being Julia (2004) starring Annette Bening. Based on the novel Theatre.
  • The Painted Veil (2006) starring Naomi Watts and Edward Norton. Based on the novel of the same name.


  1. William Somerset Maugham The Literature Network Retrieved October 20, 2008.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Maugham, Somerset 1962
  3. Ted Morgan. Somerset Maugham. (Jonathan Cape, 1980), 4
  4. Robin Maugham. Somerset and all the Maughams. (Greenwood Press, 1977)
  5. Morgan, 1980, 8-9
  6. Morgan, 1980, 17
  7. Morgan, 1980, 24
  8. Morgan, 1980, 188
  9. Morgan, 1980, 197-198
  10. Her birth name is given as Mary Elizabeth Wellcome in the immigration and naturalization files of ellisisland.org, wherein she is listed, along with her mother, then Syrie Wellcome, on the July 21, 1916 manifest of the HMS Baltic.
  11. Morgan, 1980, 227
  12. Morgan, 1980, 226
  13. Morgan, 1980, 206
  14. Morgan, 1980, 245 & 264
  15. Morgan, 1980, 495
  16. Gore Vidal, February 1, 1990, The New York Review of Books, 10
  17. Raymond Mander & Joe Mitchenson. Guide to the Maugham Collection of Theatrical Paintings. (Heinemann & the National Theatre, 1980)
  18. Somerset Maugham and his collection. online [1]National Theatre.Retrieved October 20, 2008. ; Shakespeare Paintings, from the W. Somerset Maugham collection, [2] National Theatre. Retrieved October 20, 2008.
  19. [3]

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Mander, Raymond & Joe Mitchenson. The Artist and the Theatre. William Heinemann Ltd., 1955.
  • Mander, Raymond & Joe Mitchenson. Guide to the Maugham Collection of Theatrical Paintings. Heinemann & the National Theatre. 1980. ISBN 9780435185916
  • Maugham, Robin. Somerset and all the Maughams. Greenwood Press, 1977. ISBN 0837182360
  • Maugham, W. Somerset. The Summing Up. Garden City Publishing Company. 1938. ISBN 9780140186000
  • Maugham, W. Somerset. 1962, Looking Back. As serialised in Show, June, July & August.
  • Morgan, Ted. Somerset Maugham. Jonathan Cape, 1980. ISBN 0224018132
  • Morgan, Ted. Maugham. Touchstone Books, 1984. ISBN 0671505815.
  • Vidal, Gore, February 1, 1990, The New York Review of Books.

External links

All links retrieved May 3, 2023.


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