Maugham, W. Somerset

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated

W. Somerset Maugham


Surname is pronounced "Mawm"; born January 25, 1874, in Paris, France; died December 16, 1965, in Nice, France; buried on the grounds of Canterbury Cathedral, Canterbury, Kent, England; son of Robert Ormond (a solicitor to the British Embassy) and Edith Mary (Snell) Maugham; married Syrie Barnardo Wellcome, 1917 (divorced, 1929; died, 1955); children: Liza. Education: Attended University of Heidelberg, 1891-92; briefly studied accountancy in Kent, England; St. Thomas Hospital, M.R.C.S., L.R.C.P., 1897. Religion: Rationalist. Hobbies and other interests: Bridge, music, gardening, and collecting paintings.


After completing medical studies, left for Spain to write full time; lived in Spain, London, England, and Paris, France; after a bout with tuberculosis, began in the 1920s to travel extensively; served with the British Ministry of Information in Paris during World War II; after the war, stayed for a time in Russia and the United States and remained unfavorably impressed by both countries; served as narrator in 1949 for Quartet, a dramatization of four of his stories, in 1950 for Trio, a film based on three of his stories, and for Encore, based on four of his stories; in America in 1950 and 1951, hosted television series of dramatizations of his stories. Military service: Served with ambulance unit and as medical officer during World War I; served with British Secret Service in Switzerland.


Royal Society of Literature (fellow and companion), American Academy of Arts and Letters (honorary member), Garrick Club.

Awards, Honors

Companion of Honour, 1954; C. Litt., 1961; named honorary senator of Heidelberg University, 1961; D. Litt., Oxford University and University of Toulouse; honorary fellow, Library of Congress, Washington, DC; Commander, Legion of Honour.



Liza of Lambeth, Unwin, 1897, Doran, 1921, reprinted, Penguin Books, 1978.

The Making of a Saint, L. C. Page & Co., 1898, published as The Making of a Saint: A Romance of Medieval Italy, Farrar, Straus, 1966, reprinted, Arno, 1977.

The Hero, Hutchinson, 1901, reprinted, Arno, 1977.

Mrs. Craddock, Heinemann, 1902, Doran, 1920, reprinted, Penguin Books, 1979.

The Merry-Go-Round, Heinemann, 1905, reprinted, Penguin Books, 1978.

The Bishop's Apron: A Study in the Origins of a Great Family, Chapman and Hall, 1906, reprinted, Arno, 1977.

The Explorer, Heinemann, 1907, Baker & Taylor, 1909.

The Magician, Heinemann, 1908, Duffield & Co., 1909, reprinted, Penguin Books, 1978.

Of Human Bondage, Doran, 1915, reprinted, Penguin Books, 1978.

The Moon and Sixpence, Doran, 1919, reprinted, Arno, 1977, reprinted, Dover, 1995.

The Painted Veil, Doran, 1925, reprinted, Penguin Books, 1979.

Cakes and Ale; or, The Skeleton in the Cupboard, Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1930, reprinted, Arno, 1977, published as Cakes and Ale, Modern Library, 1950.

The Book-Bag, G. Orioli, 1932.

The Narrow Corner, Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1932, reprinted, Pan, 1978.

Theatre, Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1937.

Christmas Holiday, Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1939, reprinted, Pan, 1978.

Up at the Villa, Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1941, reprinted, Penguin Books, 1978.

The Hour before the Dawn, Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1942, reprinted, Arno, 1977.

The Razor's Edge, Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1944, reprinted, Penguin Books, 1978.

Then and Now, Doubleday, 1946, published as Fools and Their Folly, Avon, 1949, reprinted, Pan, 1979.

Catalina: A Romance, Doubleday, 1948, reprinted, Pan, 1978.

Selected Novels, three volumes, Heinemann, 1953.


Orientations, Unwin, 1899.

The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands, Doran, 1921, reprinted, Arno, 1977, published as Sadie Thompson and Other Stories of the South Seas, Readers Library, 1928, published as "Rain," and Other Stories, Grosset, 1932.

The Casuarina Tree: Six Stories, Doran, 1926, reprinted, Arno, 1977, published as The Letter: Stories of Crime, Collins, 1930.

Ashenden; or, The British Agent, Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1928, reprinted, Penguin Books, 1977.

Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular, Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1931, reprinted, Arno, 1977.

Ah King, Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1933, published as Ah King: Six Stories, Heinemann, 1933, reprinted, Arno, 1977.

East and West: The Collected Short Stories, Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1934, published as Altogether; Being the Collected Stories of W. Somerset Maugham, Heinemann, 1934.

Judgment Seat, Centaur, 1934.

Cosmopolitans, Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1936, reprinted, Arno, 1977, published as Cosmopolitans: Twenty-nine Short Stories, Avon, 1943.

The Favorite Short Stories of W. Somerset Maugham, Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1937.

Princess September and the Nightingale (fairy tale), Oxford University Press, 1939, published as Princess September, Harcourt, 1969.

The Mixture as Before, Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1940, reprinted, Arno, 1977.

The Unconquered, House of Books, 1944.

"Ah King," and Other Romance Stories of the Tropics (contains selections from Ah King), Avon, 1944.

Creatures of Circumstance, Doubleday, 1947, reprinted, Arno, 1977.

Stories of Love and Intrigue from "The Mixture as Before," Avon, 1947.

East of Suez: Great Stories of the Tropics, Avon, 1948.

Here and There, Heinemann, 1948.

The Complete Short Stories, three volumes, Heinemann, 1951, Doubleday, 1952, published as Collected Short Stories, Pan, 1976.

The World Over: Stories of Manifold Places and People, Doubleday, 1952.

Best Short Stories, selected by John Beecroft, Modern Library, 1957.

Favorite Stories, Avon, 1960.

Collected Short Stories, Penguin Books, 1963.

Husbands and Wives: Nine Stories, edited by Richard A. Cordell, Pyramid, 1963.

The Sinners: Six Stories, edited by Richard A. Cordell, Pyramid, 1964.

A Maugham Twelve, selected by Angus Wilson, Heinemann, 1966.

The Complete Short Stories of W. Somerset Maugham, four volumes, Washington Square Press, 1967.

"The Kite," and Other Stories, introduction by Ian Serriallier, Heinemann Educational, 1968.

Maugham's Malaysian Stories, edited by Anthony Burgess, Heinemann, 1969.

Seventeen Lost Stories, edited by Craig V. Showalter, Doubleday, 1969.

A Baker's Dozen: Thirteen Short Stories, Heinemann, 1969.

Four Short Stories, illustrations by Henri Matisse, Hallmark Editions, 1970.

A Second Baker's Dozen: Thirteen Short Stories, Heinemann, 1970.

The Hairless Mexican [and] The Traitor, Heinemann Educational, 1974.

"Footprints in the Jungle" and Two Other Stories, edited by Rod Sinclair, Heinemann Educational, 1975.

Sixty-five Short Stories, Octopus Books, 1976.

A short story, "The Vessel of Wrath," was published by Dell as The Beachcomber.


Marriages Are Made in Heaven (produced in Berlin as Schiffbruechig, 1902), published in The Venture Annual of Art and Literature, edited by Maugham and Laurence Housman, Baillie, 1903.

A Man of Honour: A Tragedy in Four Acts (produced in Westminster, England, at Imperial Theatre, February 23, 1903), Dramatic Publishing, 1903.

Mademoiselle Zampa, produced in London, 1904.

Lady Frederick: A Comedy in Three Acts (first produced in London, 1907; produced in New York, 1908), Heinemann, 1911, Dramatic Publishing, 1912.

Jack Straw: A Farce in Three Acts (produced in London and New York, 1908), Heinemann, 1911, Dramatic Publishing, 1912.

The Explorer: A Melodrama in Four Acts (produced in London, 1908), Heinemann, 1912, Doran, 1920, reprinted, Arno, 1977.

Mrs. Dot: A Farce in Three Acts (produced in London, 1908), Dramatic Publishing, 1912.

Smith: A Comedy in Four Acts (first produced in London, 1909; produced in New York, 1910), Dramatic Publishing, 1913.

Penelope: A Comedy in Three Acts (produced in London, 1909), Dramatic Publishing, 1909.

The Noble Spaniard: A Comedy in Three Acts (adapted from Ernest Grenet-Dancourt's Les gaites du veuvage; produced in London, 1909), Evans, 1953.

Landed Gentry: A Comedy in Four Acts (produced as Grace in London, 1910), Dramatic Publishing, 1913.

The Tenth Man: A Tragic Comedy in Three Acts, (produced in London, 1910), Dramatic Publishing, 1913.

Loaves and Fishes: A Comedy in Four Acts (produced in London, 1911), Heinemann, 1923.

A Trip to Brighton (adaptation of a play by Abel Tarride), produced in London, 1911.

The Land of Promise: A Comedy in Four Acts (first produced in New York, 1913), Bickers & Son, 1913.

The Perfect Gentleman (adaptation of a play by Moliere; produced in London, 1913), published in Theatre Arts, November, 1955, and in Selected Plays, Penguin Books, 1963.

The Unattainable: A Farce in Three Acts (produced in New York and London, 1916), Heinemann, 1923.

Our Betters: A Comedy in Three Acts (first produced in New York, 1917), Heinemann, 1923, Doran, 1924.

Love in a Cottage, produced in London, 1918.

Home and Beauty: A Farce in Three Acts, (produced in New York and London, 1919; produced as Too Many Husbands in New York, 1919), Heinemann, 1923.

Caesar's Wife: A Comedy in Three Acts (produced in London, 1919), Heinemann, 1922, Doran, 1923.

The Unknown: A Play in Three Acts (produced in London, 1920), Doran, 1920.

The Circle: A Comedy in Three Acts (produced in New York and London, 1921), Doran, 1921.

East of Suez: A Play in Seven Scenes (produced in London, 1922), Doran, 1922, reprinted, Arno, 1977.

The Camel's Back, produced in Worcester, MA, 1923; produced in London, 1924.

The Constant Wife: A Comedy in Three Acts (first produced in New York, 1926), Doran, 1926.

The Letter: A Play in Three Acts (based on The Casuarina Tree; produced in London, 1927), Doran, 1925, reprinted, Arno, 1977.

The Sacred Flame: A Play in Three Acts (produced in New York, 1928), Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1928, reprinted, Arno, 1977.

The Bread-Winner: A Comedy in One Act (first produced in London, 1930; produced in New York, 1931), Heinemann, 1930, published as The Breadwinner: A Comedy, Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1931.

Plays, Heinemann, 1931, reprinted, 1966.

Dramatic Works, six volumes, Heinemann, 1931-34, published as Collected Plays, three volumes, 1952, published as The Collected Plays of W. Somerset Maugham, 1961.

For Services Rendered: A Play in Three Acts (produced in London, 1932), Heinemann, 1932, Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1933, reprinted, Arno, 1977.

Sheppey: A Play in Three Acts (produced in London, 1933), Heinemann, 1933, Baker, 1949, reprinted, Arno, 1977.

The Mask and the Face (adaptation of a play by Luigi Chiarelli), produced in Boston, 1933.

Six Comedies, Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1937, reprinted, Arno, 1977.

(With Guy Reginald Bolton) Theatre: A Comedy in Three Acts, French, 1942, reprinted, Arno, 1977.

Three Dramas: "The Letter," "The Sacred Flame," "For Services Rendered," Washington Square Press, 1968.

Three Comedies: "The Circle," "Our Betters," "The Constant Wife," Washington Square Press, 1969.

Also author of Mrs. Beamish, 1917; The Keys to Heaven, 1917; Not To-Night, Josephine! (farce), 1919; The Road Uphill, 1924; and The Force of Nature, 1928.


(With Laurence Housman) The Venture Annual of Art and Literature, Baillie, 1903.

(With Laurence Housman) The Venture Annual of Art and Literature 1905, Simpkin Marshall, 1904.

Charles Henry Hawtrey, The Truth at Last, Little, 1924.

Traveller's Library, Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1933, published as Fifty Modern English Writers, Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1933.

(With Joseph Frederick Green) Wisdom of Life: An Anthology of Noble Thoughts, Watts, 1938.

(And author of introduction) George Douglas, The House with the Green Shutters, Oxford University Press, 1938.

Tellers of Tales: One Hundred Short Stories From the United States, England, France, Russia and Germany, Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1939, published as The Greatest Stories of All Times, Tellers of Tales, Garden City Publishing, 1943.

Great Modern Reading: W. Somerset Maugham's Introduction to Modern English and American Literature, Doubleday, 1943.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, Winston, 1948.

Henry Fielding, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, Winston, 1948.

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, Winston, 1949.

Honore de Balzac, Old Man Goriot, Winston, 1949.

Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights, Winston, 1949.

Fyodor Dostoyevski, The Brothers Karamazov, Winston, 1949.

Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary, Winston, 1949.

Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Winston, 1949.

Stendhal, The Red and the Black, Winston, 1949.

Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, Winston, 1949.

A Choice of Kipling's Prose, Macmillan, 1952, published as Maugham's Choice of Kipling's Best, Doubleday, 1953.


The Artistic Temperament of Stephen Carey (earliest manuscript for novel Of Human Bondage), c. 1900.

The Land of the Blessed Virgin: Sketches and Impressions in Andalusia (travel), Heinemann, 1905, Knopf, 1920.

On a Chinese Screen (travel), Doran, 1922, reprinted, Arno, 1977.

The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey from Rangoon to Haiphong, Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1930, reprinted, Arno, 1977.

The Non-Dramatic Works, twenty-eight volumes, Heinemann, 1934-69.

Don Fernando; or, Variations on Some Spanish Themes (travel), Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1935, reprinted, Arno, 1977, revised edition, Heinemann, 1961.

Works, collected edition, Heinemann, 1935.

My South Sea Island, privately printed, 1936.

The Summing Up (autobiography), Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1938, reprinted, Penguin Books, 1978.

Books and You, Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1940, reprinted, Arno, 1977.

France at War, Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1940, reprinted, Arno, 1977.

Strictly Personal, Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1941, reprinted, Arno, 1977.

The W. Somerset Maugham Sampler, edited by Jerome Weidman, Garden City Publishing Co., 1943, published as The Somerset Maugham Pocket Book, Pocket Books, 1944.

W. Somerset Maugham's Introduction to Modern English and American Literature, New Home Library, 1943.

Great Novelists and Their Novels: Essays on the Ten Greatest Novels of the World and the Men and Women Who Wrote Them, Winston, 1948, revised edition published as Ten Novels and Their Authors, Heinemann, 1954, published as The Art of Fiction: An Introduction to Ten Novels and Their Authors, Doubleday, 1955, published as The World's Ten Greatest Novels, Fawcett, 1956, published as W. Somerset Maugham Selects the World's Ten Greatest Novels, Fawcett, 1962.

Quartet: Stories by W. Somerset Maugham, Screen-Plays by R. C. Sheriff, Heinemann, 1948, Doubleday, 1949.

A Writer's Notebook, Doubleday, 1949, reprinted, Arno, 1977.

The Maugham Reader, introduction by Glenway Wescott, Doubleday, 1950.

Trio: Original Stories by W. Somerset Maugham; Screenplays by W. Somerset Maugham, R. C. Sherriff and Noel Langley, Doubleday, 1950.

Cakes and Ale, and Other Favorites, Pocket Books, 1951.

Encore: Original Stories by W. Somerset Maugham, Screenplays by T. E. B. Clarke, Arthur Macrae and Eric Ambler, Doubleday, 1952.

The Vagrant Mood: Six Essays, Heinemann, 1952, Doubleday, 1953.

The Partial View (contains The Summing Up and A Writer's Notebook), Heinemann, 1954.

Mr. Maugham Himself, selected by John Beecroft, Doubleday, 1954.

The Travel Books, Heinemann, 1955.

The Magician: A Novel, Together with a Fragment of Autobiography, Heinemann, 1956, published as The Magician: Together with a Fragment of Autobiography, Doubleday, 1957.

Points of View (essays), Heinemann, 1958, Doubleday, 1959.

Purely for My Pleasure, Doubleday, 1962.

Selected Prefaces and Introductions of W. Somerset Maugham, Doubleday, 1963.

Wit and Wisdom of Somerset Maugham, edited by Cecil Hewetson, Duckworth, 1966.

Essays on Literature, New American Library, 1967.

Cakes and Ale, and Twelve Short Stories, edited by Angus Wilson, Doubleday, 1967.

Man from Glasgow and Mackintosh, Heinemann Educational, 1973.

Selected Works, Heinemann, 1976.

The Works of Somerset Maugham, forty-seven volumes, Arno, 1977.

A Traveller in Romance: Uncollected Writings, 1901-1964, edited by John Whitehead, C. N. Potter, 1985.

A Maugham archive is maintained by the Yale University Library.


The following films were based on Maugham's works: Smith, 1917; The Land of Promise, Famous Players, 1917, as The Canadian, Paramount, 1926; The Divorcee, based on Lady Frederick, Metro Pictures, 1919; Jack Straw, Famous Players/Lasky, 1920; The Circle, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1925, remade as Strictly Unconventional, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1930; Sadie Thompson, 1928, remade as Rain, United Artists, 1932, remade as Miss Sadie Thompson, Columbia, 1954; Charming Sinners, based on The Constant Wife, Paramount, 1929; Our Betters, RKO, 1933; Of Human Bondage, RKO, 1934, remade by Warner Bros., 1946, and by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1964; The Painted Veil, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1934; The Tenth Man, Wardour Films, 1937; The Beachcomber, based on The Vessel of Wrath, Paramount, 1938; Too Many Husbands, based on Not To-Night, Josephine!, Columbia, 1940, remade as Three for the Show, Columbia, 1955; The Letter, Warner Bros., 1940; The Moon and Sixpence, United Artists, 1943; The Razor's Edge, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1947, remade by Columbia, 1984; Quartet (film version of The Facts of Life, The Alien Corn, The Kite, and The Colonel's Lady), J. Arthur Rank, 1949; Trio, Paramount, 1951; Encore, based on The Ant and the Grasshopper, Winter Cruise, and Gigolo and Gigolette, J. Arthur Rank, 1952; Up at the Villa, USA Films, 2000. Plays based on Maugham's works: Rain (dramatization of Miss Thompson), by John B. Colton and Clemence Randolph, produced in New York, 1922, published by Boni & Liveright, 1923, S. French, 1948; Sadie Thompson, musical adaptation, produced in New York, 1944; Before the Party (dramatization of a short story), by Rodney Ackland, S. French, 1950; Larger Than Life (based on the novel Theatre), by Guy Bolton, S. French, 1951; Jane (dramatization of a short story), by S. N. Behrman, produced in New York, 1952, published by Random House, 1952.


W. Somerset Maugham was one of the most prolific and popular authors in world literature. During a career that spanned sixty-five years, he attained great renown, first as a dramatist, then as the author of entertaining and carefully crafted short stories and novels. Maugham's productivity has sometimes hindered his critical reception, leading commentators to assess him as a merely competent professional writer. A number of his works, however, most notably the novels Of Human Bondage, The Moon and Sixpence, Cakes and Ale; or, The Skeleton in the Cupboard, and The Razor's Edge, and the short stories "The Letter" and "Rain," are acclaimed as masterpieces of twentieth-century literature.

According to Archie K. Loss in an article for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "The most important events in the life of William Somerset Maugham were those over which he had no control. Like one of the characters in his fiction or drama, Maugham was dealt an imperfect hand. Certain facts shaped the course of his life as a child and as an adult—the death of his mother when he was barely eight years old; the death of his father two years later; his adoption by a childless uncle and aunt; his stammer, which made ordinary communication difficult; and his homosexuality. The first he could never overcome; the last he could never forget. All decisively influenced the direction of his life."

Born in Paris

Maugham was born to English parents at the British Embassy in Paris, where his father was employed as a lawyer. His mother died in 1882, and when his father died two years later Maugham was sent to live with a childless aunt and uncle in England. While attending King's School in Canterbury from 1885 to 1889, his inherent shyness, exacerbated by a pronounced stutter, led him to avoid social activities and devote himself to his studies. Although his guardians wanted him to attend Oxford, Maugham persuaded them to allow him to study at the University of Heidelberg in Germany. By the time he returned to England in 1892 Maugham had privately decided to become a writer. Nevertheless, knowing that his guardians would disapprove of a literary career, he began medical training at St. Thomas's Hospital in London. Maugham earned a medical degree in 1897 but never practiced; that same year he published his first novel, Liza of Lambeth, set in the milieu he had observed during his training in obstetrics, when he was often called into London's poorest neighborhoods to attend births. This novel manifests some of the elements that characterize Maugham's fiction, including reliance on personal experience and adherence with existing literary traditions. George Gissing and Arthur Morrison, contemporary novelists of the time, had popularized realistic accounts of life in the slums, assuring Maugham of a reader-ship; his depiction of an illicit extramarital relationship aroused sufficient controversy to stimulate further interest in the novel.

Maugham's success, wrote Charles Sanders in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "lay first in writing his novel, as he later confessed, in a manner he thought [French writer] Maupassant might have managed it; and second, in importing into his scenes of reportage a love affair so that Maugham could say he gave his readers the elements of two different novels for the price of one. Thus, slum life in Liza of Lambeth is the backdrop; the real focus rests on Liza Kemp, who falls in love with a married man, Jim Blakeston, irresistibly yields to him, becomes pregnant, is beaten by Blakeston's wife, and dies from the complications of a miscarriage. With Maupassant as his model, Maugham wrote with comparatively less propagandistic a tone than his predecessors in the slum-life novel; with passionate, robust, high-stepping Liza as his concern, he could indulge his flair for the dramatic scene and dialogue. If the novel cannot be said to develop, and if its descriptions seem lumpish, the choruslike dialogue of the women in the street brawl or over Liza's deathbed reveal Maugham's penchant for theater. Indeed, three-quarters of the novel is actually dialogue; it is, therefore, not unfair to say that Liza of Lambeth is—in its economy, its eye for staging scenes, and its allowance for actors' speech to carry the burden—the work of a young man who would move more comfortably outside the confines of fiction."

Becomes a Successful Playwright

It was in writing for the stage that Maugham first found success as a writer. In 1907 his play Lady Frederick met with considerable success, and Maugham quickly attained celebrity as a dramatist. Sanders explained that "Lady Frederick is Maugham at his young man's best.…The obvious faults of Lady Frederick, which was written in 1903, are those of an exuberant, not impoverished, mind. So prodigal is it in epigrams that the world of the play indeed seems a jest and everyone in it wears the cap and the bells. In act I there is a duet, reminiscent of the works of Gilbert and Sullivan, on how to succeed in the House of Lords by sheer incapacity; it is funny but hardly credible of the characters to whom it is assigned.… Lady Frederick's heart is gold beyond all 'airy thinness beat,' dazzling to the point of blindness. She suffers a bad marriage but would not elope with young Paradine, her real lover, when she had the opportunity; she lies to save her sister-in-law Kate's reputation and thereby jeopardizes her own; she burns the secret letters that might alleviate her present narrow circumstances. And, as if not sure he will win the audience's laughter, Maugham suggests a cheap overkill that his heroine occasionally adopt a broad Irish brogue. But once within an exquisite lady's boudoir in Monte Carlo, and once working within the convention of a June-September liaison, Maugham makes his original turn. Borrowing from Neoclassical writers' fascination with putting on or taking off one's face as psychological revelation, Maugham stages what poets had only heretofore described. Lady Frederick foregoes the fortune she desperately requires to stave off loan sharks and generously disillusions her captive young lord by greeting him in the morning in her kimono, her hair disheveled, and her face looking 'haggard and yellow and lined.' If her part was always assumed by a comely Ethel Irving or Ethel Barrymore, if the climactic action of magnanimity did not resolve the basic dramatic conflict, if Lady Frederick finally, too easily wins her Paradine after all, these contradictions and blemishes were but further evidence of the power of Maugham's general artistic illusion. A play that a theater manager had accepted against his better judgment as a stopgap of several weeks, Lady Frederick had to be transferred to four successive theaters to satisfy public demand." In 1908, four of Maugham's plays—Lady Frederick, Jack Straw, Mrs. Dot, and The Explorer—ran simultaneously in London theaters. Over the next twenty-six years, twenty-nine of Maugham's plays were produced, many of them among the most well-received of their time.

An essayist for the International Dictionary of Theatre recounted: "Maugham attempted many dramatic forms, from farce to melodrama; his early forté, however, and the dramatic form with which he triumphed on the London stage, was comedy of social manners. His best work in this vein stands firmly in that long English tradition running from Restoration comedy, through Goldsmith and Sheridan, to Wilde; it is a comedy that treats human follies, especially amatory confusions and entanglements, with cynical detachment, and with an indulgent, amused, slightly superior tone. Maugham's work in this line is certainly not of the first rank, most of his plays being superficial society dramas trading in elegant conversation, but containing a satiric tone of mild edge and easy wit. These are fashionable drawing-room dramas, calculated to appeal to largely undemanding bourgeois audiences who delighted in the polite entertainment they offered in the pert, witty dialogue, the 'daring' subject matter of amorous intrigues and shady pasts, and the elegant stage settings and rich costumings.…It was probably not, however, until the production of his serious domestic comedy, Our Betters, in 1917, that Maugham came to be recognised as more than a mere boulevardier. Dealing with the fortunes of socially aspirant Americans in London society, this bitter, cynical comedy is more astringently scathing and analytical than the customary Maugham comedy-of-manners fare. No less impressive in adding a further dimension to Maugham's familiar range were The Circle, a witty domestic comedy, and The Constant Wife, one of the poised comedies on which, today, his reputation largely rests. Pieces of this kind remain eminently performable, as does perhaps his finest serious drama, For Services Rendered, a persuasive, if somewhat sentimental, treatment of the effects wrought by war on a typical English middle-class family."

Wartime Espionage Work

At the onset of World War I, Maugham joined the Red Cross and went to France as an interpreter. There he met Gerald Haxton, and the two became lovers and remained close companions for the next thirty years. During the war the British government recruited Maugham as an intelligence agent and subsequently involved him in covert operations in Switzerland and Russia. Despite the ongoing relationship with Haxton, in 1917 Maugham married Syrie Barnardo Wellcome, with whom he had had a child two years earlier. They divorced in 1929. During the years between the World Wars, Maugham lived lavishly and wrote prolifically. He bought an expansive villa in southeast France, which remained his home thereafter, although he traveled widely; his visits to Italy, the United States, the South Seas, and the Caribbean provided the settings for the works that appeared between the World Wars, including the novels The Moon and Sixpence and Cakes and Ale; the plays Our Betters and The Circle; and the short story collections The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands, The Casuarina Tree, and Ashenden; or, The British Agent. Maugham fled France during the Nazi occupation and went to the United States, where he lectured and oversaw the Hollywood production of several motion pictures based on his stories and novels. Haxton, who had accompanied Maugham, died in 1944. In 1948 Maugham returned to France.

Publishes Of Human Bondage

Despite the many works he wrote during his career, Maugham's renown rests chiefly on only a few works. The most often studied of these is Of Human Bondage. Based on an early manuscript called "The Artistic Temperament of Stephen Carey," Maugham's semiau to biographical coming-of-age novel is commended for its penetrating psychological portrait of its protagonist. The novel chronicles the youth and early adulthood of Philip Carey as he struggles to retain his freedom and individuality within a rigid society. Clubfooted and orphaned, Philip struggles with his differences and sensitivities, which he comes to believe have made him more perceptive than others to art and beauty.

The novel opens when Philip is sent from London to live with his aunt and uncle in Blackstable after the death of his mother following a stillbirth. His uncle, a vicar, shows little interest in the boy beyond providing basic provisions, and young Philip quickly becomes adept at spotting the vicar's hypocrisy, which includes treating his family with a frugality to which the vicar himself is not held. This hypocrisy leads to Philip's early rejection of Christianity. When he is sent away to school, Philip's painful adolescence continues as he withdraws socially from the other boys; his clubfoot prevents him from joining in sports and games. The novel also depicts Philip's coming-of-age as a man, whose early experiences with women—most notably the aging governess Miss Wilkerson and the penny-novel writer Norah Nesbitt—are physical acts marked with pathos and disdain on Philip's part. After a year of studying business in Heidelberg, Germany, Philip returns to London, only to reject a respectable living as an accountant for the romance of being an artist in Paris. But in France he encounters only poverty and hunger. Following the suicide of Fanny Price, an untalented fellow artist whose passion could not save her from her squalid circumstances, he returns to London to begin medical school. When he meets Mildred Pierce, a decidedly plain-looking, emaciated tea-shop girl, he is inexplicably drawn to her and exhibits an irrational passion of the type that has brought many of his friends to ruin. Mildred rejects his overtures of affection and uses him repeatedly until their relationship reaches masochistic proportions. As Mildred's position in society continues to decline, she resorts to prostitution despite Philip's attempts to help her. When she destroys his art in a fit of rage and condemns him as a cripple, his passion for her is finally extinguished; she dies of syphilis in an institution shortly thereafter. Finally determining that life is random and meaningless, Philip trades his dreams of freedom and travel for responsibility and respectability when he asks the simple and pleasing Sally Athelny, towards whom he feels some affection but no love, for her hand in marriage.

As the title implies, Of Human Bondage is dominated by the issue of entrapment of the human soul forever fighting to free itself of preset personal and social limitations. Philip and the people whom he meets in the novel are forever grappling with various forms of constraints. For example, Philip's Uncle Carey and Headmaster Mr. Perkins want to force Philip into a career in the church. Hedwig, a young girl in Heidelberg, cannot marry the man she loves because he is above her social class. Fanny Price is so committed to the ideal of the self-sacrificing artist that she would rather hang herself than confront her own mediocrity. Perhaps the most tragic case of all is that of Mildred Rogers, whose desperate desire to play the role of a respectable woman leads her to a bitter and tragic end. Taken together, these examples offer a striking portrait of the narrowness and rigidity of society in nineteenth-century Europe. They suggest that an individual's identity had far more to do with arbitrary external circumstances than the true nature of the self. Philip's progress, however, offers a ray of hope. Although he will always be shy, introverted, and physically handicapped, he nevertheless manages to defy the limitations surrounding him. He proceeds to experiment with many social roles without succumbing to them and relinquishing his identity, until at last he discovers his true desire and lives his life accordingly.

Explores the Relationship between Life and Art

According to Scott Simpkins in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "Maugham based his next novel, The Moon and Sixpence (1919), on the life of [the French artist Paul] Gauguin, a framework which allowed him to further discuss the interplay between life and art which he had focused upon in Of Human Bondage. In The Moon and Sixpence Charles Strickland, like Gauguin, abandons his family for the life of an artist in Tahiti. While the narrator, Ashenden, is disapproving, the author's sympathy for the artist is apparent; great art justifies ruthless behavior in breaking free of the bonds of society, especially those imposed by women." Speaking of The Moon and Sixpence, Anthony Curtis in British Writers wrote: "More than any other work of art it has spread the myth of the artist as someone who ruthlessly severs all human claims and emotional ties to be able to follow the dictates of his genius with single-minded commitment.… When it appeared, most of the reviewers rejected Charles Strickland as being too much of a monster to be credible; yet at the same time they praised Maugham's narrative technique.…As Maugham was the first to admit, there are as many differences between Strickland and Gauguin as there are similarities. The main difference is that Strickland is an Englishman, and what he escapes from is the genteel world of the near-rich in fashionable London, a world manipulated by women and centered on the tea party, the dinner party, and the drawing room. Maugham had acquired a great distaste for this world, which he had frequented when he first went to London. His rudeness at social functions became legendary and increased with his age and celebrity, although on home ground among his friends he could be a most charming host. The Moon and Sixpence should be read as a social satire as well as an apologia for artistic selfishness and intolerance."

Publishes Cakes and Ale

Maugham's most critically esteemed novel is Cakes and Ale. In this lively and entertaining story, the second wife of a venerable literary figure attempts to ensure that an official biography will portray her husband and herself auspiciously, while disparaging the man's first wife. Cakes and Ale was controversial because it was believed to be based on the life of Thomas Hardy, but commentators subsequently discerned a devastating parody of the novelist and critic Hugh Walpole, on whom Maugham based his characterization of the second-rate litterateur Alroy Kear. Cakes and Ale also includes, in Rosie Driffield, Maugham's most sympathetic and fully dimensional female character.

Maugham's Cakes and Ale is, according to Curtis, "one of the most life-enhancing of Maugham's novels. The satirical description of the lionizing literary hostesses and all the wheeling and dealing in literary reputations that goes on within their drawing rooms alternates with a much more genial mood of romancing about the world of the author's boyhood. He re-creates for us the prosperous, gossipy oyster port, with the full-throated and full-bosomed Rosie presiding over the bar of the local tavern, and the raffish rascal 'Lord George' paying court to her. This is the childhood Maugham never had but would have liked to have had—carefree, athletic, exhilarating. It is all a retrospective daydream, but these happy-go-lucky scenes set in Blackstable provide a pleasant corrective to the harsher portrait of Whitstable in Of Human Bondage. The novelist's basic plan is linear: he tells the story of a moderately successful writer (based on Maugham himself in the days before he succeeded in getting his plays produced) who becomes involved in the biography of a grand old man of literature. Maugham makes us aware of the pressures brought to bear on the writer-character to conceal or doctor the truth; and in addition he reveals to us the charmed circle of a literary salon, with its ephemeral admirations and its ruthless mode of operation."

In 1944, Maugham published the novel The Razor's Edge. "Maugham's immensely popular novel proved his ability, once again, to produce a work that suited the tastes of the time," Simpkins reported. "Dealing with popular religious issues and one man's search for genuine existence amid conformity and commercialized values, Maugham's first novel to include American characters also shows his willingness to experiment with narrative technique. The story is revealed through bits and pieces of reminiscences of a narrator named W. Somerset Maugham. Although Maugham appears in his works throughout his career in various autobiographical guises, in this novel, for the first time, he appears under his own name. This innovation allows the narrator-author to ask his characters questions and thus direct the outcome—a technique that exhibits decidedly modernist self-consciousness." The story tells of a quest by a young Englishman, as Simpkins explained: "Maugham tells the story of Larry Darrell, who, having been an aviator in World War I, finds it impossible to partake in the capitalistic recovery that seems to be the most convenient and comfortable way for a young man in his position to return to the real world. Like Philip Carey in Of Human Bondage, Darrell is uncomfortable with shallow post-war society and goes to India and then Paris in an attempt to come to peace with himself and live a life he can respect. Surprisingly, after Larry's quest leads him to intense self-introspection, meditation, and a time as a wandering scholar, he decides that the freest life is that of a taxi driver or a worker in a garage—employment which will pay him enough to live yet allow him to continue his studies of the great questions." Curtis noted that "Larry is an early example of the drop-out in twentieth-century fiction."

Maugham's Short Stories

Of Maugham's many published short stories, several have remained especially popular with readers over the years, appearing in numerous anthologies and being adapted as movies and stage plays. Among Maugham's most popular stories are "Rain" and "The Letter," both of which exploit the oppressive atmosphere of British colonies, featuring petty intrigue, marital infidelity, and sometimes violent death against a background of the rigidly stratified colonial communities in India and the Far East. Maugham's stories about the British spy Ashenden, based on his own experiences working for an intelligence agency, have been influential in the genre of espionage fiction.

In "Rain" a medical quarantine isolates a number of travelers, including Sadie Thompson, a prostitute, Dr. and Mrs. Macphail, and the Davidsons, a missionary couple, on the remote Pacific Island of Pago Pago. Mr. Davidson becomes obsessed with reforming the flamboyant prostitute, and he bullies her into a cowed, terrified state by wielding the threat of a prison term. One night he is found dead, having cut his own throat. Sadie Thompson is angrily defiant, and the words she hurls at Dr. Macphail—"You men! You filthy, dirty pigs! You're all the same, all of you. Pigs! Pigs!"—suggest that what passed between her and the missionary was not entirely spiritual in nature. The story has become one of Maugham's most popular. As Loss explained, "'Rain' has become his most famous work of short fiction, anthologized many times and adapted to the stage in a production starring Jeanne Eagels and to motion pictures several times. In many ways it typifies what Maugham was to do in the form." The story is narrated by Dr. Macphail, a British doctor traveling with his wife to a small island where he is to practice medicine. Loss explained: "Maugham does not so much tell the story of the evolving relationship between the Reverend Davidson and the prostitute, Sadie Thompson, as tell about it. Doctor Macphail becomes the filter through which the events of the story are sifted; his comments determine the reader's sense of what is happening. When he finally tries to act on Sadie's behalf, he is showing the kind of charity that Davidson should show, and, when Sadie utters her famous final line, only Doctor Macphail fully understands what she means."

Maugham's "The Letter" is set in the British colony of Malaya, where the wife of an English plantation owner in Singapore shoots and kills a man she claims forced his way into her room and tried to rape her while her husband was absent. "Based on an actual murder in Malaya in 1911 and later dramatized by Maugham and made into a popular motion picture," Loss noted, "'The Letter' tells of a crime of passion in which the wife of an English colonial shoots the man with whom she has been having an affair because she finds he has deserted her for his former lover, a Chinese woman. On the surface, the woman's racism and the colonial setting seem central to the story, but in fact it has a melodramatic plot that could take any setting and turn out essentially the same."

Maugham drew upon his experiences working for British Intelligence in World War I to write a number of stories featuring the spy character Ashenden. Collected in Ashenden; or, The British Agent, these stories are credited with originating a style of sophisticated international espionage fiction that has remained popular for decades. In his preface to the book, Maugham explained: "The work of an agent in the Intelligence Department is on the whole extremely monotonous. A lot of it is uncommonly useless. The material it offers for stories is scrappy and pointless; the author has himself to make it coherent, dramatic and probable." Speaking of the Ashenden collection, an essayist for the St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers described it as "a cross between a collection of stories and a novel, narrated in a cool, often epigrammatic style, the work describes the rather minor role played in a series of encounters and catastrophes by the writer Ashenden (no other name is ever given), who has been recruited to the spying trade in the quiet and unexpected circumstances typical of the developed tradition of such fiction."

"No doubt the book's influence is due to the fact that it is based on firsthand experience (unlike much of the melodramatic fiction that preceded it)," Frank Occhiogrosso wrote in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. "Maugham characterizes his espionage experience, in his preface to the book, as largely humdrum, thereby justifying imparting to the stories a low-key and resolutely antisensational, anti-heroic quality.…Thedramathat Maugham introduces, and which makes the work rank with his best fiction, is the drama of human beings realistically and compassionately observed as, for the most part, creatures of circumstance rather than as extraordinarily efficacious heroes or fantastically depraved villains. Ashenden; or, The British Agent consistently rejects the conventions and clichés of the spy genre of the time. There are no shoot-outs, no chase scenes, no cloak-and-dagger intrigue in which the clever spy plays cat and mouse with the fiendishly clever counterspy. There are no double agents in these stories. Instead there are situations like that in which the killer hired by British intelligence, a fantastic character called the Hairless Mexican … boasts of his extraordinary prowess but is ultimately discovered, to Ashenden's horror, to have killed the wrong man." Loss found that, unlike the daring heroes of popular spy fiction of the time, "the Ashenden of Maugham's stories … is reserved, stoic, unromantic; his work as a spy is dull, repetitive, even meaningless. He seems to have been chosen for his task because, whatever talent he has as a writer, he does not know much about espionage and is not likely to wish to distinguish himself by unusual tactics or foolish behavior. In short, he is more acted upon than active; he lets events (or superiors) dictate his moves rather than attempting to dictate events for himself; and he deliberately avoids romantic contacts that might vitiate his sense of responsibility. He is the unheroic hero—not a hero at all, but an observer chosen for his task because of his powers of observation and his distance from others. In this he anticipates characters in the spy novels of Graham Greene and John le Carré, characters who seem to exist outside the realm of conventional morality."

Maugham sometimes cynically agreed with his detractors who saw him as merely an entertainer who became one of the world's richest authors. Though Maugham's work was popular with the reading public, he had a great many enemies because his stories often contained apparently malicious portraits of living people and because his view of humanity seemed to be one of contempt or of patronizing tolerance. But Maugham himself once noted: "I have been highly praised and highly abused. On the whole I think I can truly say that I have not been unduly elated by one or unduly depressed by the other. You see, I have always written for my own pleasure."

If you enjoy the works of W. Somerset Maugham, you might want to check out the following books:

Graham Greene, The Quiet American, 1955.

Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, 1604.

Guy de Maupassant, A Life, 1883.

Curtis summed up Maugham as "a literary conservative who believed in the power of linear narrative and descriptive realism at a time when other, greater, writers were breaking with this tradition. Although claiming to be no more than a mere entertainer, Maugham showed how much was worth conserving in the tradition." Speaking of Maugham's reputation as a writer, Loss concluded that "with virtually all of his work still in print and some of it standard fare in college literature courses, he is likely to be with us for some time—a popular writer with a serious intent that frequently lifts his work from the commercial genres of his day into the house of literature."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Archer, Stanley, W. Somerset Maugham: A Study of the Short Fiction, Twayne (Boston, MA), 1993.

Barnes, Ronald E., The Dramatic Comedy of William Somerset Maugham, Mouton (Paris, France), 1968.

Brander, Laurence, Somerset Maugham: A Guide, Oliver & Boyd (Edinburgh, Scotland), 1963.

Breit, Harvey, editor, The Writer Observed, World Publishing, 1956.

British Writers, Scribner (New York, NY), 1983.

Brophy, John, Somerset Maugham, Longmans, Green, 1952, revised edition, 1958.

Brown, Ivor, W. Somerset Maugham, International Textbook (London, England), 1970.

Calder, Robert Lauren, Somerset Maugham and the Quest for Freedom, Heinemann (London, England), 1972.

Connon, Bryan, Somerset Maugham and the Maugham Dynasty, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1997.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 1, 1973, Volume 11, 1979, Volume 15, 1980.

Cordell, Richard Albert, Somerset Maugham, A Writer for All Seasons: A Biography and Critical Study, Indiana University Press, 1961.

Curtis, Anthony, The Pattern of Maugham, Taplinger (New York, NY), 1974.

Curtis, Anthony, and John Whitehead, editors, W. Somerset Maugham: The Critical Heritage, Macmillan, 1987.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 10: Modern British Dramatists, 1940-1945, 1982, Volume 36: British Novelists, 1890-1929: Modernists, 1985, Volume 77: British Mystery Writers, 1920-1939, 1989; Volume 100: Modern British Essayists, Second Series, 1990; Volume 162: British Short-Fiction Writers, 1915-1945, 1996; Volume 195: British Travel Writers, 1910-1939, 1998.

Holden, Philip, Orienting Masculinity, Orienting Nation: W. Somerset Maugham's Exotic Fiction, Greenwood Press, 1996.

Jonas, Klaus W., The Maugham Enigma, Citadel Press (New York, NY), 1954.

Kanin, Garson, Remembering Mr. Maugham, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1966.

Loss, Archie K., W. Somerset Maugham, Ungar, 1987.

Loss, Archie K., Of Human Bondage: Coming of Age in the Novel, Twayne (Boston, MA), 1990.

MacCarthy, D., William Somerset Maugham, Norwood Editions, 1977.

Manders, Raymond, and Joe Mitchenson, Theatrical Companion to Maugham: A Pictorial Record of the First Performances of the Plays of W. Somerset Maugham, Rockliff (London, England), 1955.

Maugham, Robin, Somerset and All the Maughams, New American Library, 1966.

Maugham, Robin, Conversations with Willie: Recollections of W. Somerset Maugham, Simon & Schuster, 1978.

McIver, C. S., William Somerset Maugham, Richard West, 1978.

Menard, W., The Two Worlds of Somerset Maugham, Sherbourne, 1965.

Meyers, Jeffrey, Somerset Maugham, Knopf, 2004.

Morgan, Ted, Maugham, Simon & Schuster, 1980.

Naik, M. K., W. Somerset Maugham, University of Oklahoma Press (Norman, OK), 1966.

Nichols, Beverly, A Base of Human Bondage, Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1966.

Pfeiffer, Karl Graham, W. Somerset Maugham: A Candid Portrait, Norton, 1959.

Raphael, Frederick, W. Somerset Maugham and His World, Thames & Hudson (London, England), 1976.

Rogal, Samuel J., A Companion to the Characters in the Fiction and Drama of W. Somerset Maugham, Greenwood Press, 1996.

Rogal, Samuel J., A William Somerset Maugham Encyclopedia, Greenwood Press, 1997.

St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers, 4th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.

Sanders, Charles, and others, W. Somerset Maugham: An Annotated Bibliography of Writings about Him, Northern Illinois University Press (De Kalb, IL), 1970.

Stott, Raymond Toole, A Bibliography of the Works of W. Somerset Maugham, Kaye & Ward (London, England), 1973.

Swinnerton, Frank, The 'Saturday Review' Gallery, Simon & Schuster, 1959.

Whitehead, John, Maugham: A Reappraisal, Barnes & Noble (New York, NY), 1987.


American Scholar, winter, 1993, pp. 98-103.

Armchair Detective, Number 14, 1981, F. W. Shrop-shire, "W. Somerset Maugham as a Mystery Writer," pp. 190-191.

Books Abroad, spring, 1966.

Chicago Tribune, April 30, 1980; October 19, 1984; May 6, 1987.

Christian Science Monitor, July 6, 1970.

Connoisseur, April, 1990, pp. 46-48.

Detroit News, February 17, 1985.

Listener, October 17, 1968.

Los Angeles Times, October 19, 1984.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 2, 1985.

Nation, January 29, 1990, p. 144.

New Criterion, February, 2004, Anthony Daniels, "How Good Was Maugham?"

Newsweek, January 27, 1958.

New York Herald Tribune, December 17, 1965.

New York Times, December 16, 1965; February 18, 1986; February 21, 1986.

New York Times Magazine, January 25, 1959; June 2, 1968.

Playboy, January, 1966.

Publishers Weekly, December 27, 1965; May 3, 1993, p. 304.

Punch, October 16, 1968.

Reporter, December 30, 1965.

Saturday Review, October 14, 1961; November 5, 1966.

Stage, June 4, 1970; June 18, 1970; July 2, 1970; July 23, 1970.

Time, April 20, 1962.

Times (London, England), March 28, 1988.

Times Literary Supplement, April 5, 1985.

Variety, July 8, 1970.

Washington Post, October 8, 1969; October 19, 1984.

Yale Review, spring, 1987, pp. 428-440.*

More From