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William Somerset Maugham

Introduction, by Nicholas Shakespeare

“You’re queer fish, you writers.” Rosie Driffield

“It’s very hard to be a gentleman and a writer.” Willie Ashenden

“I have never felt entirely myself,” wrote Maugham, “till I had put at least the Channel between my native country and me.” Cakes and Ale; or The Skeleton in the Cupboard was the first book that he completed at the Villa Mauresque on Cap Ferrat where he had gone to live in June 1927. Maugham believed that “it is the impressions of a man’s first twenty years which form him”, and at the age of 53 – and extracted from his turbulent marriage to Syrie Wellcome – he had chosen to look back at his boyhood on the Kentish coast and at his early adulthood as a medical student in London. Distant in time and space from its material, the composition of the novel, which was to become his favourite book, was unexpectedly pleasurable and easy. He finished the manuscript in July 1929, four months after his divorce, and it was published on September 29, 1930, causing an immediate furore.

Two years before, in January 1928, Thomas Hardy had died at the age of 88, his last words “Em! Em!” suggesting that his mind was reeling back to his first wife, Emma Gifford. There followed a grisly tussle between what Hardy had wished for himself – to be buried alongside Emma in Stinsford churchyard – and what his grandiose and pushy trustee Sydney Cockerell wished on behalf the nation – viz. a state funeral in London. On the evening of January 13, the impasse was resolved when the local surgeon cut out Hardy’s heart, wrapped it in a towel and put it in a cake tin. The tin was kept for safekeeping overnight in the vicarage, where a cat was rumoured to have knocked it off the mantelpiece and devoured the contents. (The embarrassed vicar, so the rumours continued, in pressing need of something to bury, summoned the foreman from the neighbouring farm, who shot the cat and opened up its stomach to retrieve what had been swallowed). Meanwhile, the rest of Hardy’s body was reduced to ashes, patted into an urn and escorted with solemn pomp into Westminster Abbey. The pallbearers included Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and seven of the Edwardian age’s most esteemed writers – Rudyard Kipling, A.E. Housman, George Bernard Shaw, James Barrie, John Galsworthy and Edmund Gosse. Maugham, who cared little for Hardy’s writing, confessed that it was the grandiosity of this humble-born author’s funeral – there was in addition talk of erecting a seventy-foot column as a Hardy Memorial – which seeded in him the theme of a novel around which to wrap his youthful memories: a satire of the London literary world, and in particular of the relationship, if any, between a writer’s reputation and a writer’s worth.

Than William Somerset Maugham no one had a beadier eye for how the lion of one generation becomes the skin-rug of the next. His novel is a ruthless send-up of the perishability of fame, and of the way in which the homage conferred on the vast majority of artists withers to oblivion on the instant of their death. Just like Willie Ashenden, the narrator he based on himself, Willie Maugham believed that humankind is but “the ephemeral inhabitant of an insignificant planet”. The unimpressionable Ashenden is pleased to tell us that “of all the painters, writers and musicians I met at the Driffields, I can’t remember one whose reputation has endured.” Of the society painter that Maugham modelled on his friend Sir Gerald Kelly, to whom he had dedicated his short-story collection Ashenden but two years earlier – “I could find no one who had ever heard of him.” Of the pompous critic modelled on Hardy’s pallbearer Edmund Gosse – “Though now completely forgotten, in those days he was the best-known critic in England.” As for Maugham’s central character, the pre-eminent novelist Edward Driffield – the qualities which had made Driffield “one of the glories of English literature” had nothing to do with his prose style; rather, to the managerial exertions of his wife and one or two other lion-hunters, and to the simple fact that he had lived so long. Forget talent, Maugham winks at us, exactly as Driffield over his dining-room table had winked at Ashenden: “Longevity is genius.”

“Trampling on Thomas Hardy’s Grave” and “Hitting below the shroud” were two of the newspaper headlines to greet Cakes and Ale on publication. “The career of Driffield is peppered with resemblances to the career of Hardy,” complained the Daily Express. It was a charge hard to ignore. Both these Grand Old Men of English Letters were – like Maugham himself – physically small; grew up in rural poverty in the south of England; shared a passion for architecture and pubs; suffered the banning of a book for a scene that involved the death of a child; received the Order of Merit and the agitation of their admirers for a Westminster Abbey burial; and in later years eschewed the use of a bathroom. J.B. Priestley knew both the author of Cakes and Ale and also his widely-suspected subject: “If Maugham did not intend his readers to be reminded of Hardy, then he acted with strange stupidity, (and a less stupid man than Somerset Maugham never set pen to paper).”

In public, at least, Maugham always denied that he had Hardy in mind – indeed, had met him only once, at a dinner party before the First World War, and chatted to him for 45 minutes, after which Hardy had asked him what he did. “In point of fact, I founded Edward Driffield on an obscure writer who settled with his wife and children in the small town of Whitstable of which my uncle and guardian was vicar. I do not remember his name. I don’t think he ever came to anything… He was the first author I ever met.” This was pure invention. In the circles that Maugham was writing about, it rang as tinnily as Charles Dickens’s protest that he had not in Bleak House cruelly caricatured the journalist John Leigh Hunt in the grasping character of Horace Skimpole. What no one could overlook was the chief point of similarity between Hardy and Driffield: each had married a much younger second wife who acted as over-vigilant priestess to his shrine.

Maugham never visited Thomas and Florence Hardy at Max Gate in Dorchester. His likeliest source of information was the poet Siegfried Sassoon, who on December 6, 1927 had taken his lover Stephen Tennant there for lunch. Tennant, who had a good memory and eye for detail, was surprised at how short Hardy was – he had to stand on a stool to carve the roast goose. Whatever the pair might have reported back to Maugham about Florence was sufficient to cause her huge distress. After reading Cakes and Ale, she wrote to Sassoon on November 5, 1930: “There are moments when I want to shake my fists at the sky and shriek aloud with rage.”

Cakes and Ale pivots on the attempt by Driffield’s second wife, Amy, to sanitise her famous husband’s “obscure and tumultuous youth”. This Amy does by commissioning a best-selling and sycophantic novelist to write a hagiography in which Driffield’s first marriage – the skeleton in the great man’s cupboard – is to be skirted around with discretion. What Maugham is unlikely to have known – it was not made public till 1940 – is that Florence Hardy had recently connived in such an airbrushing exercise. The Early Life of Thomas Hardy that appeared in November 1928 (with a second volume published in 1930) and purportedly written by Florence was in fact the work of Hardy himself. Not only that, but, according to Robert Gittings, Florence, in her “obsessive denigration” of Emma Gifford, had with her red pencil excised firmly from the typescript “nearly every complimentary reference to Emma”.

To avenge Florence Hardy, her friend Evelyn May Wiehe, an American travel writer, published in 1931, under the name of A. Riposte, a crude parody of Maugham that strives to do unto him what he was perceived to have done to Hardy. In Gin and Bitters, Maugham appears as Leverson Hurle, a small, sallow writer with eyes black as currants, who secreted bile “as snakes secrete poison in their fangs”, and who towards the end, in his decadence, “pointed his concentrated essence of spite upon his fellow writers.” But Hurle’s lambasting was counter-productive: “He had a feeling… that in revealing them, with all their silly little weaknesses, meannesses, he must be revealing himself.” Maugham, who was more than happy to probe into the lives of other authors in order to seek clues to their art, was a litigious and thin-skinned curmudgeon when it came to anyone investigating or ridiculing his own character. He issued a writ, and the English edition was withdrawn shortly after publication in October 1931. No such fate attended Cakes and Ale. After its appearance, wrote the author and editor Frank Swinnerton, “Maugham’s reputation as a novelist had no immediate parallels. Within a few months of its publication, all active novel writers were considerably his juniors.”

The other person to suffer from the novel was the model for the self-promoting hagiographer. Not until 1950, in his Preface to the Modern Library edition, did Maugham admit what he had taken pains to repudiate: that Alroy Kear was based on his friend, the novelist Hugh Walpole, one who had praised Florence Hardy’s Life of her husband as “discreet and reticent”. Walpole, wrote Maugham, personified that body of writers “who attempt by seizing every opportunity to keep in the public eye, by getting on familiar terms with critics so that their books may be favourably reviewed, by currying favour wherever it can serve them, to attain a success which their merit scarcely deserves. They attempt by their push and pull to make up for their lack of talent.” Almost as celebrated in his time as Trollope was in his, Walpole is not much read today – any more than is Mrs Humphry Ward, once arguably the most famous living author in the world, ranked by Tolstoy as England’s greatest, and her name familiar to tribesmen in reclusive corners of India for novels like Helbeck of Bannisdale. Maugham was not alone in regarding Walpole as a bum-sucking fraud. “No other age can have produced such a manikin of letters,” was the opinion of E.M. Forster. “He is the impact of commerce, or rather advertisement, upon belles lettres.”

Walpole was among the first to read the novel, receiving a proof copy as a member of the Book Club selection committee. After returning home from the theatre, he wrote in his diary: “Half-dressed sitting on my bed, picked up idly Maugham’s Cakes and Ale. Read on with increasing horror. Unmistakeable portrait of myself. Never slept.” Virginia Woolf, who bumped into a tearful Walpole soon after, takes up the story. “There he sat with only one sock on till 11 the next morning reading it. Also, we gathered, in tears.” He lamented to Woolf: “There are things in it that nobody knows but Willie and myself… There are little things that make me shudder. And that man has been my dearest friend for 20 years. And now I’m the laughing stock of London.” Even so, Woolf admitted to her diary that Maugham’s envenomed portrait of a determined literary careerist was “a very clever piece of torture; Hugh palpably exposed as the hypocritical booming thick-skinned popular novelist.”

Maugham’s complex antipathy to his friend of two decades is revealing not only of Walpole, who would later “with my hand on my heart, wish that W. M. had never been born,” but also of Maugham. He always found it “curious how defenceless people are when confronted with their own frailties in others.” In selecting Walpole as a target for his satire, Maugham may have been seeking to exorcise uncomfortable elements in his own make-up. Certainly, the two writers shared a number of intriguing parallels, as Robert Calder points out in his biography of Maugham. Both were born abroad (Maugham in Paris, Walpole in New Zealand); both had religious upbringings (Maugham in his uncle’s vicarage; Walpole’s in the grander establishment of his father, a bishop called Somerset); both attended King’s School, Canterbury (as did Leonard Ashenden, with whom Maugham shared a form prize – and whose surname he took for his aloof narrator); both were predominantly homosexual; both successful authors. When Walpole tried to halt publication of Cakes and Ale, Maugham wrote to mollify him: “I suggest that if there is anything in him that you recognise, it is because to a greater or lesser extent we are all the same.” He claimed of his fictional Alroy Kear that “the greater part of him is myself” – which drew an interim reply from Walpole signed “Alroy Maugham Walpole,” and four years later, a lampoon of Maugham in the now forgotten novel Captain Nicholas, as Somerset Ball: a writer whose work was like “those awful Moorish rooms you see in Turkish baths… all sham from ceiling to floor.”

Maugham confessed to a friend that his “cruel portrait” of Walpole had origins in Walpole’s behaviour towards Maugham’s friend, the society painter Sir Gerald Kelly – the Lionel Hillier of Cakes and Ale – when, after sitting for several portraits, Walpole not only dropped Kelly but asked him to approach Augustus John to paint his portrait instead. More fuel to the flame of his malice may have been added by Walpole’s omission of Maugham from his list of English novelists of quality in his 1925 Rede Lecture at Cambridge. Ted Morgan has perceptively observed of the fiercely competitive Maugham: “All his life he would suffer from the gnawing sense that he was cut off from genius.” Walpole by not including him, coupled shortly after with Compton Mackenzie’s nomination of Walpole as the likeliest contemporary to fit Hardy’s shoes as the Grand Old Man of English Letters, would have acted as an incendiary. “I thought Walpole was an awful creature,” he told an American reporter in 1949, with perhaps a sly reference to the alleged fate of Hardy’s heart. “He was as mean as cat’s meat, and I hated the way he advertised and pushed himself.” By then, Walpole was dead and Maugham himself was being lionised as the Grand Old Man of English Letters. He could picture Walpole’s ghost: “He must chuckle with malicious glee when he sees that I, even I who laughed at him, seem to be on the verge of reaching that sad, absurd and transitory eminence.”

But who was “the Skeleton in the Cupboard”?

When another of Hardy’s pallbearers, the novelist John Galsworthy, asked Maugham why on earth he had written Cakes and Ale, he replied: “I wrote it because I had the character of my heroine with me for 20 years and at last hit upon a plan which gave me the opportunity of using it.”

Maugham concurred with those critics who judged Of Human Bondage his best work. But “the book I like best is Cakes and Ale… because in its pages lives for me the woman with the lovely smile who was the model for Rosie Driffield.”

Second only to Willie Ashenden, Rosie Driffield is Maugham’s most engaging creation. She is also responsible for Ashenden’s single known seduction. Up until this moment, Ashenden’s unique romantic lapse in the short-story canon is his flirtation with Baroness von Higgins – a flirtation he considers, then rejects. But with Rosie in Cakes and Ale, he has an affair that lasts for “more than a year”.

Like other characters in the novel, Rosie is so thinly disguised that her original features poke through. Ethelwyn Jones, known as Sue, was an actress to whom Maugham was introduced at an afternoon party in Wimbledon in 1906, when she was 23 and he 32. Unembarrassable, openly and innocently sexual, unstifled by respectability or class, Sue Jones was the nearest Maugham came to finding in England that type of informal and vivacious female whom he was to encounter eleven years later in Tahiti. He paints her in his novel in the primitive colours of a Gauguin. “When she liked anyone, it was quite natural for her to go to bed with them. She gave herself as naturally as the sun gives heat or the flower her perfume… She was like a clear, deep pool in a forest glade.” One night after dinner he took her back to his lodgings at 56 Pall Mall. The seduction as dramatized in Cakes and Ale is among the most moving passages written by Maugham, normally a scrupulous avoider of heartfelt emotions – and someone who described his sexual make-up as three-quarters “queer”, one quarter “normal”. His unexpected bursting into tears and her instinctive need to comfort him, rocking him back and forth in her arms like a mother, points up the lacerating absence in Maugham’s life of his own mother – who had died in childbirth when he was eight. Soon after meeting Sue, he commissioned Gerald Kelly, who would likewise sleep with her – as did many of Maugham’s friends – to paint her portrait (Mrs Leveaux in White, 1907), saying that although “she wasn’t much to look at” he was “desperately in love” with her. As in the novel, the painting served to convert Sue’s image in his eyes. “She had grave and maddening faults,” he wrote in his 1950 Preface, “but she was beautiful and honest.” Their affair lasted another seven years and only ended when he asked her to marry him. In November 1913, Maugham arrived in New York ostensibly for the opening of his play Land of Promise. Days later, he took a train to Chicago where Sue was appearing on stage, invited her out to dinner and proposed. “Then we’ll get on a ship and go to Tahiti.” He afterwards speculated that her emphatic reply – “I don’t want to marry you” – may have been because she was pregnant by someone else. He returned the engagement ring to the jeweller, receiving a full refund minus ten per cent, but her rejection cut deep. “The memory of her lingered on in my mind year after year,” and she was evidently still in his thoughts when he sat down in the Villa Mauresque, with the light streaming onto his writing table through the Gauguin glass window of a Tahitian Eve, to begin Cakes and Ale. The writer has one consolation, he reveals at the end of his novel: he only has to convert what troubles him into a story, in order “to forget all about it”.

And yet Cakes and Ale is as much about forgetting, about savaging the lionisers, as it is an exercise in remembrance. Nowhere else in his work does Maugham’s boyhood receive such fresh, unclenched treatment. The carefree young Ashenden free-wheeling through the Kent countryside on his bicycle is a dead-ringer for the orphaned young Maugham: the shy and constantly blushing solicitor’s son with the priggish conventions of his class who, aged ten, is sent to the care of his snobbish uncle and German-born aunt in the windswept fishing town of Whitstable. Maugham’s detractor in Gin and Bitters says of him with some justice that he “was quite unable to work without someone actual to work upon,” and he fails to disguise at all the identities of those local characters whom he sweeps into his story. Rosie Gann, as Rose Driffield was born, owes her surname to Henry Gann, a Whitstable ship-owner known as “Lord Stallion” for his willingness to write off a tenant’s rent if he could sleep with the tenant’s wife. “Lord” George Kemp, with whom Rosie runs away to New York, owes his full name to George Kemp, respected treasurer of the Whitstable Oyster Company, who in 1886, when Maugham was twelve, after pocketing £2,664, dramatically absconded to London and then to America. In his uncle’s choir at All Saint’s church, Maugham’s biographers have even tracked a C.M. Driffield – who was “disqualified by reason of non-attendance”. Of the supposed local author to whom he gave the name Driffield, there is alone no sign. In the event, Maugham fulfilled that role.

A natural short-story writer, Maugham the novelist could be awkward and uncertain. In his worst books, he is every bit as “half-trashy” as his harshest critics would have him. His voice to find its best expression requires the medium of a first-person narrator, a Marlow figure. He rarely settles on a more convincing persona than when he dresses himself up as the neat-minded and fastidious playwright Willie Ashenden. Ashenden’s lone sortie into the novel form is memorable for the reasons that make Maugham’s finest stories memorable. His gaze on life is clear, direct and unshockable. He understands our impermanence. He has faith, but only in our foibles. Maugham never again wrote a novel that so satisfyingly marries author, style and subject. Cakes and Ale is funny, intelligent, moving, and carries on its sharp bones not an ounce of fat. Fashions change; we may no longer wash in tin baths that we store under our beds, or live in lodgings with landladies who cook for us, or consider it normal to eat in one meal a pork chop and a dover sole, all washed down with a glass of port; but in our ambitions, insecurities, petty jealousies and hypocrisies we remain unshifting. Reputation, Maugham seems to say, has always relied slightly less on intrinsic merit than on the external smoke and mirrors that assist to conjure celebrity. Rosie is made “beautiful” as Driffield is made “great” by the intercession of others: a society painter in the first instance; in the second, a society hostess called Mrs Barton Trafford (“She can work the trick if anyone can”). Maugham’s readers, present and future, will never not be able to supply their own contemporary versions of his literary cast. In that sense, his characters are eternal. Alroy Kear’s fictional bestseller The Eye of the Needle anticipated by 40 years an actual bestseller with that title. Likewise, the predicament which Maugham analysed with silky wickedness in Cakes and Ale, and which caused so much fuss, soon afterwards found its counterpart in “real life”. As Jeffrey Meyers puts it in his biography of Maugham: “It is wonderfully ironic that T.S. Eliot, who succeeded Hardy as the most prominent poet in England, also married his much younger secretary, who devoted the rest of her life to covering up the discreditable aspects of his first marriage.” Closer to our time, there is no juicier example of a universally praised writer and his second marriage than that of Nobel laureate Sir Vidia Naipaul, living in Hardy’s adjacent county of Wiltshire.

A wincingly accurate mirror of the literary world, then. But also a novel that puffs breath into those for whom books are secondary to life and who don’t have much time for reading, like Rosie. “Enjoy yourself while you have the chance, I say; we shall all be dead in a hundred years and what will anything matter then?” Maugham was aware that he never wrote anything more alive – and, for that reason, more likely to endure. Casting about one evening in the Villa Mauresque for a good book to take to bed, he sighed: “What a pity that I wrote Cakes and Ale. It would be the very thing.”