William Somerset Maugham Biography
Life and Literature of W. S. Maugham
William Somerset Maugham was born on January 25, 1874, in the British Embassy in Paris, France. His mother was the socialite Edith Mary Snell, and his father was Robert Orman Maugham, a lawyer. However, Maugham endured a traumatic childhood he was orphaned at the age of ten when his mother died from tuberculosis and his father died from cancer. He was raised by his childless aunt and uncle, and bullied intensely by the other children at his school. Maugham studied medicine at St.
Thomas’ Hospital, and apprenticed as a midwife in London’s Lambeth slum area, which may have given him inspiration for the vivid characters in his novels and stories. He published his first novel, Liza of Lambeth, in 1897; the book depicted the life and death of Liza Kent, a working-class woman. The popular and controversial novel launched Maugham’s impressive writing career.
One of the highest-paid writers of the early- to mid-twentieth century, Maugham wrote a variety of materials (fiction, memoir, travelogue, plays) but is best known for his novels and short stories. His best-known works are Of Human Bondage (1915) and Moon and Sixpence (1919). During World War I, Maugham assisted in the ambulance corps and in intelligence work. He was stationed in Russia shortly before the Bolshevik revolution; later, he said that if he had only been sent there six months before, he might have succeeded in his aim of keeping the provisional government in power.
Though he was unhappily married to Syrie Wellcome (a liaison which began when she was still married to her first husband, Henry Wellcome), Maugham’s sexual orientation appears to have been primarily homosexual, and he had a number of male lovers throughout his life. Frederick Gerald Haxton was Maugham’s constant companion for nearly 30 years, and proofread many of Maugham’s manuscripts, including Of Human Bondage. Maugham died on December 16, 1965 in Nice, France.
Some Notable Works of Maugham
Maugham was orphaned at the age of 10; he was brought up by an uncle and educated at King’s School, Canterbury. After a year at Heidelberg, he entered St. Thomas’ medical school, London, and qualified as a doctor in 1897. He drew upon his experiences as an obstetrician in his first novel, Liza of Lambeth (1897), and its success, though small, encouraged him to abandon medicine. He traveled in Spain and Italy and in 1908 achieved a theatrical triumph-four plays running in London at once that brought him financial security.
During World War I he worked as a secret agent. After the war he resumed his interrupted travels and, in 1928, bought a villa on Cape Ferrat in the south of France, which became his permanent home. His reputation as a novelist rests primarily on four books: Of Human Bondage (1915), a semi-autobiographical account of a young medical student’s painful progress toward maturity.
The Moon and Sixpence (1919), an account of an unconventional artist, suggested by the life of Paul Gauguin; Cakes and Ale (1930), the story of a famous novelist, which is thought to contain caricatures of Thomas Hardy and Hugh Walpole; and The Razor’s Edge (1944), the story of a young American war veteran’s quest for a satisfying way of life. Maugham’s plays, mainly Edwardian social comedies, soon became dated, but his short stories have increased in popularity.
Many portray the conflict of Europeans in alien surroundings that provoke strong emotions, and Maugham’s skill in handling plot, in the manner of Guy de Maupassant, is distinguished by economy and suspense. In The Summing Up (1938) and A Writer’s Notebook (1949) Maugham explains his philosophy of life as a resigned atheism and a certain skepticism about the extent of man’s innate goodness and intelligence; it is this that gives his work its astringent cynicism.
Maugham wrote at 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.
He is also remembered for his short stories, most of them dealing with the lives of the Western colonists, mostly British, in the Far East. The emotional toll which the colonists had to bear by their isolation was expressed in the stories. Maugham can also be regarded as one of the important travel writers of the interwar years.
His work ‘The Gentleman in the Parlour’ deals with a journey through places like Burma, Siam, Cambodia, and Vietnam. This work is regarded as Maugham’s best work in this genre. Many of his works have also been adapted for both television and radio. Though the majority of his success and fame stems from his memorable prose, we like his observation: “The crown of literature is poetry.”