Collected short stories of Somerset Maugham / Volume two / 24 stories
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William Somerset Maugham
Collected short stories of Somerset Maugham
‘It’s rather a long story. I’m afraid it’s not a very nice one and I find it rather difficult to tell. I’m going to ask you not to interrupt me, or to say anything, till I’ve finished.’ (The Force of Circumstance)
Simon March 27, 2918
William Somerset Maugham’s collected short stories were published in four volumes by Penguin in 1963, and have gone through various editions with numerous publishers in the 55 years since then (at one stage available from Pan, the four volumes are currently published by Vintage).
This is volume two, which contains 24 stories in 400 closely-printed pages, all told with the leisurely urbanity for which Maugham is renowned, the texts unfurling like the turbid rivers which flow past the planters’ bungalows in his tales of the Far East.
She was sitting on the veranda waiting for her husband to come in for luncheon. The Malay boy had drawn the blinds when the morning lost its freshness, but she had partly raised one of them so that she could look at the river. Under the breathless sun of midday it had the white pallor of death. A native was paddling along in a dug out so small that it hardly showed above the surface of the water. The colours of the day were ashy and wan. They were but the various tones of the heat. (It was like an Eastern melody, in the minor key, which exacerbates the nerves by its ambiguous monotony; and the ear awaits impatiently a resolution, but waits in vain.) The cicadas sang their grating song with a frenzied energy; it was as continual and monotonous as the rustling of a brook over the stones. (The Force of Circumstance)
Here’s a brief summary of each of the stories, with its publication date, setting and whether the story is told by a third or first person narrator.
The Vessel of Wrath (published in 1931 – set in the Alas Islands, Papua New Guinea – told by a 3rd person narrator) In the remote Alas Islands fat, jovial, Dutch governor Evert Gruyter is astonished when the flat-chested, dried-up old missionary’s sister, Miss Jones, manages to persuade the islands’ resident drunk and ne’er-do-well, Ginger Ted, to marry her.
The Force of Circumstance (1924 – Malaysia – 3rd) In a remote station in Borneo, fat red-faced Guy is perfectly happy with the new wife he’s brought back from England, Doris, until he is forced to confess that, before her arrival, he had lived for some years with a native woman and sired three children. Disgusted, Doris asks for six months to recover her feelings for him, but fails and heads off back to England, leaving a devastated Guy to set up house again with his Dyak wife.
Flotsam and Jetsam (1940 – Borneo – 3rd) Skelton an anthropologist is taken in by gruff, poor planter Norman Grange and his slight, withered, tic-ridden wife, Vesta. Terrified of her husband, Vesta tells Skelton her story – a down at heel actress stranded in the east after the theatre company went bankrupt she jumped at the chance to marry a wealthy planter, only to discover Grange’s poverty when it was too late. When a handsome kindly planter buys an estate nearby she starts a passionate affair with him, only for Grange to find out and shoot the man, who topples onto Vesta covering her in blood. Hence her obsessive, Lady MacBeth-like nervous tics of the hand.
The Alien Corn (1931 – Home Counties – 3rd) Set in very high society, the story is about a successful family of Jews who have completely assimilated to English society and pass themselves off as upper-class English family, the Blands. The narrator knows the more openly Jewish brother of the main family and it is via this contact that he observes the family tragedy, namely that the young son, George (21), wishes more than anything else to become a pianist (the family want him to go into the family business, then inherit the family constituency as an MP). Grudgingly they let him go and study piano in Germany for a few years, where the narrator visits him. Back in England, the narrator is present for the denouement, when the family invite the greatest pianist of the age, Lea Markart, down to their country home to hear the young man perform. George plays his heart out whereupon Madame Makart politely but firmly declares that he will never in a thousand years be up to concert standard. George nods, chats politely to the other house party guests, pops out to the gun room and shoots himself through the heart.
The Creative Impulse (1926 – London – I) A satire on the literary world. The novelist Mrs Albert Forrester lives happily with her compliant, weedy husband Albert, and surrounded by adoring acolytes; she has, we are assured, done absolute marvels with the semi-colon! And then, one fine day, out of the blue, Albert leaves her for the cook, Mrs Bullfinch. When Mrs F confronts Albert and Mrs B in their cosy love nest, wailing that she won’t have enough money to live on, Mrs B looks up from her ironing and throws out the suggestion that she write a detective story. Mrs Albert Forrester mulls this idea over on the Tube back to her apartment, where she announces to her adoring fans that this is precisely what she will do. Genius idea, they all crow, and that is the origin of that noted bestseller, The Achilles Shield.
Virtue (1931 – London – I) The narrator bumps into Gerry Morton who he had met in Borneo and invited to come stay when he was back in London. Now he is so obviously lonely that the narrator introduces him to a very happily married couple, the Bishops and to everyone’s amazement the wife, Margery, has a fling with the unprepossessing young man, eventually leaving her husband, who goes through the phases of a) not believing it b) drinking heavily and, when he learns that his wife is going to travel out to Borneo to be with young Morton, he c) kills himself.
The Man with the Scar (1925 – Guatemala – I) A very short story in which the narrator is told the story behind a beggar with a scar who comes into the local hotel every day. Apparently the beggar was a high-ranking opponent of the current regime, arrested, tried and about to be shot by a firing squad. Granted a last wish he asked to see his beloved for one last kiss, they fetched her and he stabbed her in the neck, killing her, for being unfaithful to him. The officer and men of the firing squad were all so awed that they set him free, and here he is begging in a tourist hotel.
The Closed Shop (1926 – South America – I) The President of an unnamed Latin American country passes a liberal law allowing people to divorce in 30 days. This has the unintended result that lots of Americans descend on the city to file for divorce, almost all of them women, staying for the requisite 30 days and, since they’re dumping their husbands anyway, many of them have flings with the local men. This threatens the livelihood of the local prostitutes who form a deputation of three leading (female) brothel-keepers to visit the president. He treats them courteously, listens, agrees, and adjusts the law to stop American women consorting with local men. The prostitutes’ business booms again, and the narrator assures us that the three madams in question now have enough money to fund their children through expensive colleges in America. Very droll.
The Bum (1929 – Vera Cruz, Mexico – I) Very short story in which the narrator is stalled in the Mexican port of Vera Cruz, waiting for a ship, dines in the same town square every lunchtime and is struck by one beggar who stands out from all the others by dint of his bright red hair. After a few days he realises with a start that it is a man he knew twenty years earlier in Rome, when he was in his early twenties, dashing and handsome who told everyone he was going to become a Great Writer.
The Dream (1924 – Vladivostok – I) Very short story in which the narrator recalls visiting Russia in 1917 (part of Maugham’s real-life MI6 mission to Russia after the March 1917 revolution), being stuck for a day in Vladivostok and dining with a fat ugly Russian who tells him about a recurring dream his wife had of being pushed over the banisters of their 6th floor apartment and plummeting down the stairwell – and which eventually comes true, as the fat Russian describes with an indescribable look of ‘malicious cunning’.
The Treasure (1934 – London – 3rd) Richard Harenger is a successful civil servant. He separates from his wife and goes to live in a flat where he has a cook, a butler, but requires a housemaid. He’s recommended a handsome discreet lady named Pritchard who turns out to be the absolutely perfect servant in every respect, the ‘treasure’ of the title. The story lists the ways she is impeccably turned out, serves at meals immaculately, is always on time and discreet. Eventually, one night at a loose end, Richard comes home to find Pritchard in the flat (she was meant to be going out but had been stood up). On the spur of the moment Richard invites her to the pictures; on a whim invites her for supper; then, as they arrive back at the flat, on an impulse, he kisses her, then… they go to bed. He wakes in the morning thinking what a fool he’s been, how he’s compromised his position for half an hour of fun, how he will have to get rid of her etc. Until Pritchard comes into the bedroom, dressed in formal housemaid uniform, serves his breakfast and lays out his clothes as if nothing had happened. Yes, she really is the perfect housemaid!
The Colonel’s Lady (1946 – 3rd – Country mansion and London) Social satire. George Peregrine is a type of the stiff-upper-lip, Conservative MP, local magistrate, grand landowner and so on, living in his ancestral pile in rural Yorkshire. He discovers that his grey, characterless wife has published a slim volume of verse which has taken London by storm, and he slowly discovers that the book describes a passionate affair between the bored wife of a country landowner and a passionate young man i.e. broadcasts to the world that his wife has been unfaithful to him.
Lord Mountdrago (1939 – London – 3rd) A sort of ghost story. It opens with a portrait of a tall thin cadaverous doctor, Dr Audlin, Maugham’s version of a psychoanalyst, who has discovered an ability to cure and heal troubled people via the talking cure. To his office comes bluff, bullying snob Lord Mountdrago, who happens to be the Foreign Secretary. What slowly emerges is that he’s been having tortured dreams – of attending a grand aristocratic party wearing no trousers, of being ridiculed in the house – and all featuring the vindictive figure of a common, working class Welsh MP. What makes it genuinely eerie is that this same MP appears to know about the dreams and makes smart references to them when Mountdrago bumps into him in Westminster. The tale moves like a dream towards a surprisingly spooky climax. Along the way it allows Maugham, through the character of Audlin, to mull over the way people at large are more surprising, shocking, unexpected, violent and unhappy than any of us realise.
The Social Sense (1929 – London society – I) Tom and Mary Warton are a happily married couple in London’s high society. He is a portrait painter and she a former concert singer. This short story is a profile of their increasingly unhappy marriage, as Tom fails to reach his potential and Mary taunts and humiliates him. For the last 25 years she has in fact being having an affair with ugly but brilliant literary critic, Gerrard Manson. The story, such as it is, finds the narrator sitting next to Mary at a formal dinner while she struggles to conceal her distress at just discovering that Manson has died – while the narrator watches, and helps with small talk, consumed with admiration for her resilience.
The Verger (1929 – a London church – 3rd) A slyly comic, and very short, story about a long-standing verger, Foreman, at a fashionable London church who’s worked himself up from being fourth footman, through various positions with the gentry. The vicar learns that, despite all this, Foreman cannot read and write and, being modern, dismisses him. Foreman goes wandering, dazed through the streets, fancies a fag and finds himself in a long Victorian terrace with no newsagents, and it crosses his mind to open one. Long story short, he gets a loan from the bank, the shop is a success, he finds another London neighbourhood with no convenience shop and opens one, and so on, until ten years later he owns a chain of shops and is worth a mint. Bank manager calls him in to discuss what to do with his fortune and is flabbergasted to learn his best customer can neither read nor write. ‘Why, man, just imagine where you’d be if you could read and write’. ‘I know where I’d be,’ says Foreman with a smile. ‘I would still be verger of St Peter’s church, Neville Square.
In a Strange Land (1924 – Turkey – 1st) opens with a page long meditation on how the narrator/Maugham has found intrepid Englishwomen living in solitude in the most out-of-the-way places. As an example he tells the story of the time he checked into a shabby hotel in Turkey and was surprised to find it kept by a former lady’s maid from England. She had been married to a dashing Italian who had an affair with a Greek girl and had two sons. The Italian died some time ago and the handsome young chaps still adore her. As with much of Maugham it is a short exercise in unexpected psychology.
The Taipan (1922 – Shanghai – 3rd) A very short ghost story, reminiscent of Kipling’s imperial horror stories. A successful Brit, brought up in suburban Barnes and now running a big business in China, living in a mansion with three servants, strolls through the English cemetery and sees two coolies digging a grave. When he asks people in his office and officials they all deny any Brits have died. That evening he drinks to much at the club, wakes in the night in a panic, and is found next morning stone dead. The grave was for him boom boom!
The Consul (1922 – China – 3rd – Interesting to learn that this, The Taipan, and three other stories were published in a volume titled Foreign Devils in Asia.) Another very short and relatively early story, just a few pages long. A working class woman in England marries a Chinese lodger who gives the impression he is rich and lives in a palace. When they arrive at this out of the way town she discovers to her horror that he is fairly poor, lives in a grimy little hut with his domineering mother and – this is the final straw – his first, Chinese wife! She goes to see the vain, pukka British consul with an endless litany of complaints but what drives him to distraction is that, despite the whole situation and endless provocations, she refuses to leave him. The consul offers to arrange accommodation with some missionary ladies and then travel back to England but she refuses. Extremely frustrated the consul asks why, to which she replies:
‘There’s something in the way his hair grows on his forehead that I can’t help liking.’
A Friend in Need (1925 – Japan – I) Edward Hyde Burton is a tiny man in his 60s who has carved out a successful career as a businessman in Japan. After two pages setting the scene where the story is told (gin fizzes at the Grand Hotel in Yokohama) the narrator finds himself listening as Burton tells the story of a white man who arrived in Yokohama, socialised, played cards, and turned up on our Burton’s doorstep one day stony broke after losing all his money at poker. Burton asks if the chap has any talents and the other reveals that he can swim, that in fact he swam for his university. Well, says our man, swim round the cape, about three miles, I’ll meet you with a car and towels at the beach and we’ll see about a job. Surprised and puzzled, the other agrees and leaves the office. Eye witnesses say he arrived at the start beach, stripped to his costume and set off into the water – but never arrived at the finish beach. Drink and dissipation had undermined his constitution. The narrator asks, ‘Didn’t you realise he’d be drowned?’ Little, innocent, white-haired Burton replies: ‘Let’s put it this way: I didn’t have a vacancy in the office.’ The narrator – like the reader – is quietly appalled at the dark depths of even the most inoffensive-seeming people.
The Round Dozen (1924 – a resort on the South Coast of England – I) A broadly comic story in which the narrator is resting at a south coast resort when he meets two sets of people: at the hotel is a very old-fashioned elderly couple, the St Clairs, who he enjoys spending time with because they remind him of his Victorian youth, accompanied by their fifty-something daughter, Miss Porchester, who has a trim figure and silver hair. And out on his rambles, the narrator several times encounters a shabby-looking man who cadges cigarettes off him before revealing, with a flourish, that he is none other than Mortimer Ellis, the famous bigamist. (It is a comic and typical moment when he reveals this and Maugham looks on without changing expression, having never heard of him.)
‘I’ve had eleven wives, sir’, he went on.
‘Most people find one about as much as they can manage.’ I replied.
Ellis gives Maugham the inside dope on What Women Want and how to get them to marry you. He was eventually caught by one of his wives and sentenced to five years in gaol, has only recently got out, hence the shabbiness and the cadging. And, he explains to the narrator, it’s always irked him that he only married eleven wives – such an uneven, lopsided number: twelve would have been much better, like the disciples or signs of the zodiac. To cut a long story short, Ellis ends up persuading the quiet spinster daughter of the Victorian couple to run away with him, much to the narrator’s amusement.
The Human Element (1930 – London and Rhodes – I) In Rome in the off season the narrator bumps into Humphrey Carruthers, a pompous humourless man from the Foreign Office who he is then forced to see socially a few times. To his surprise, on one of these occasions Carruthers breaks down and tells him the long story of his unrequited love for Lady Betty. The story then stops for a long recap of the career of Lady Betty, Maugham’s portrait of an archetypical Bright Young Thing, the young hedonists who filled the gossip columns and celebrity pages after the Great War. (It is bracing to see Maugham pooh-pooh the brainless worship of celebrities, of gossip columns, of the way they endorsed beauty products – all a hundred years ago: nothing changes.)
Our hostess had a weakness for the persons technically known as celebrities.
Carruthers falls heavily for Lady Betty but she is thronged by admirers. She disappoints them all by marrying the very rich son of a northern businessman and, as a result, slowly becomes less of a fixture of wild parties at fashionable nightclubs. However gossip soon spreads that the marriage is failing. The husband goes off to sanatoria on the continent, leaving Lady Betty at home. Eventually they separate and Lady Betty goes to live on the Greek island of Rhodes. But Carruthers has never forgotten her. He wangles an invitation to go and stay with her for a fortnight and this is the core of the story he tells the narrator: he spends the first week of his stay nerving himself to propose to the love of his life, but then, one night, he discovers her swimming naked and giggling with the chauffeur, a rough, brawny, handsome specimen. In a flash Carruthers realises they have been lovers for a decade, that the marriage to the northern businessman was only for his money. As a snob, Carruthers is appalled; as a lover he is prostrate with grief. And this is the story he pours out over cocktails in a Rome restaurant to Maugham who, being the urbane man of the world that he is, keeps it to himself but rather approves of her conduct.
Jane (1923 – London – I) A broadly comic story about two ladies in their fifties – Mrs Tower, the type of London society hostess Maugham is always being invited to parties by, and her plain sister-in-law, Jane Fowler, very straitlaced, traditionally dressed and dull. To everyone’s amazement, Jane becomes engaged to a stylish young man 27 years her junior, Gilbert Napier, who finds her funny and attractive. Gilbert proceeds to completely revamp her appearance, designing dresses to bring out her surprisingly beautiful neck and shoulders, inviting her to parties and so on. The narrator goes on a long trip abroad and when he returns is astonished to discover that Jane has become the talking point of the season, dressed in her astonishing outfits and reducing all and sundry to tears of hilarity with her blunt plain-speaking conversation. Barely have we processed this transformation than there is another one, that Jane separates from hapless Gilbert and elopes with an admiral.
Footprints in the Jungle (1927 – Malaya – I) A fairly long story in which the narrator plays bridge (as so often) with a charming couple, the Cartwrights, and the local head of police Gaze. Later that evening, over drinks, Gaze tells the long story of how the strong sturdy Mrs Cartwright’s first husband, Bronson, was found shot dead in the jungle and how it took him a long time to compile the evidence leading him to think he was murdered by Cartwright who, he thinks, was having an affair with the wife and had impregnated her. The couple murdered Bronson, and then married. And you know what – you couldn’t meet a happier or nicer couple.
The Door of Opportunity (1931 – Malaya – 3rd) A very powerful story, given force by its artful construction. In part one an English couple arrive back in London from service in Malaya, the tall handsome man, Alban, brimming with excitement to be back in London. But we realise that his wife, Anne, is not happy and, once they’ve checked into a hotel and he’s gone off to visit his club, she makes plans to pack her things and leave him. Why?
Now comes the central flashback of the story which details their life in the small remote station in Malaya. Alban is universally disliked because he is tall, handsome, well educated, intellectual and sensitive. Anne doesn’t care; she is, in contrast, short and monkey faced, but they understand each other perfectly. Until the day of the coolie rebellion when the workers on a rubber plantation some distance away in the jungle rise up and murder the owner, Prynne, injuring his manager, who makes it to Anne and Alban’s station more dead than alive.
This is when it happens: Alban tends the injured man, ascertains the facts and then, instead of setting off with the handful of men at his disposal to confront the murdering natives, he announces that he will send a launch to the nearest town for reinforcements and wait. The wounded manager is surprised. Anne is horrified. She looks into his soul and realises he is a coward.
After two tense days, a police man arrives from the town with 20 Sikh soldiers and they set off on a night-time journey upriver. But instead of finding rampaging coolies, they find a jolly fat Dutch planter who has quelled the whole ‘rebellion’ within hours of it occurring with just two assistants. Alban is shown up as being an over-cautious coward.
He is called down to town to answer to the governor: the governor is impressed by the rational lucidity of Alban’s defence, but sacks him nonetheless. The image of the brave, decisive white man must be kept up, and Alban has let the side down. What is fascinating is the accuracy with which Maugham depicts the reactions of all concerned, the other chaps in the club, the wives, the padre, the governor and his wife – sympathetic but all agreed: the chap must go.
So Alban is fired and sails back to England with Anne. In the final pages Anne tells him just what she thinks of him, how he has let not just himself down but everything they believed in, art and intelligence; how she loathes and detests him and is leaving him. Tall, handsome Alban collapses in tears but Anne walks out.
I shall draw attention to:
Maugham’s prose style, its smooth leisureliness but frequent oddities
his eye for a good figure, male or female
the settings, in the Far East or the Home Counties
the way he changed the titles of the stories
Maugham’s oddly mundane quotability
1. Prose style
‘Excuse me sir, but am I right in thinking that you are the well-known author?’ (The round dozen)
Maugham’s tone and approach is spectacularly leisurely and relaxed. True, it varies a little from story to story, the really short ones being, of necessity, relatively pithy. But, given enough space, Maugham likes to start a story with the kind of long-winded introductions which remind you of Victorian essayists.
Take, for example, the two-page introduction to Virtue, which starts by describing exactly the type of Havana cigar the author enjoys before going on to consider the oddity of the life force which has evolved countless millions of creatures over billions of years so that a lamb cutlet ends up on your plate or a brace of oysters are served on ice. By such oddities and quirks are human lives decided.
The contrast between Maughan’s leisurely style and his often biting narratives
It is only after these leisurely lucubrations that the author finally gets round to describing the random chance by which he bumps into an acquaintance from Borneo in Bond Street and unintentionally sets off the chain of events which the story describes (summarised above). Having got to the end of the tale, and been as surprised and shocked as the narrator by the tragic, drunken suicide of fat jovial Charlie Bishop – it is disconcerting to look back at the opening pages about cigars and sheep from this now bitter perspective; the author’s calm urbane tone seeming incongruous and almost surreal.
The same device is used for The human element where there is a long page and a half of leisurely thoughts about Rome in the off season before we get anywhere near meeting the main character, Carruthers.
I looked around me with satisfaction. It is very agreeable to find yourself alone in a great city which is not yet quite strange to you and in a large empty hotel. It gives you a delectable sense of freedom. I felt the wings of my spirit give a little flutter of delight.
Or in The round dozen which opens with the author’s impression of English seaside resorts. The technique in all these stories is to lull you into the author’s worldview, sedate, civilised, slow and leisurely – to slow you right down to his speed, before introducing any of the characters.
This element of slowing down – more than any of the actual plotlines – may partly account for the stories’ success and enduring appeal. In a world of rush and stress, they are immensely relaxing.
The Far East stories, of course, contain extended descriptions of the scenery, the jungles and especially the rivers of Borneo and Malaysia, like the excerpt at the top of this review. For practical reasons of transport most of the colonial stations in remote places seem to have been on rivers, but it also occurs to me that this is very convenient from the writer’s point of view, because ‘the river’ is a ready-made symbol. And wide, powerful, slow-moving rivers naturally lend themselves to being similes, metaphors and symbols of the slowly unfolding patterns of human destiny.
And they’re picturesque. After reading only a handful of tales from the East you have the impression of having yourself watched countless poignant sunsets or meaningful dawns breaking over wide muddy rivers. Again – very relaxing.
Maugham’s prose aspires to a leisurely graciousness, and yet it is prone to a variety of quirks and oddities which prevent it ever achieving real elegance. There are one or two moments on every page which disrupt the flow or give you pause. No page goes by without you being brought up short by odd phrasing. You are continually reminded that this is not modern prose, that its roots are in Victorian stylistics and yet these moments occur in prose which is happy to use a range of modern idioms and whose characters use (fairly) slangy expressions – resulting in an odd mix of twentieth and nineteenth centuries.
The main feature is his odd ordering of clauses within long sentences, his idiosyncratic word order
‘If you’re going to do that I think to take up any more of your time can only be a waste of mine.’ (Lord Mountdrago)
These men, living for many years with one another lives that were methodically regulated, had acquired a number of little idiosyncracies. (The Taipan)
He paid no attention to his house which was always in great disorder, nor to his food; his boys gave him to eat what they liked and for everything he had made him pay through the nose…
And now, turning out of the street in which was the consulate, he made his way to the city wall… (The Consul)
I was like an archaeologist who finds some long-buried statue and I was thrilled in so unexpected a manner to hit upon this survival of a past era. (The Round Dozen)
He soon ceased to choose every morning from his wardrobe the tie he wanted, for he found that she put out for him without fail the one he would have himself selected. (The Treasure)
I had to read some of these sentences two or three times to be quite certain of the meaning. They’re not grammatically incorrect but his ordering of clauses, his word order, is often pretty idiosyncratic. In fact, reading a bunch of these examples one after the other forces the thought that maybe it’s plain clumsy.
I had not looked forward with any enthusiasm to the probability which I so clearly foresaw that he would favour me with an account of his matrimonial experiences, but now I waited if not with eagerness at least with curiosity for a further observation. (The Round Dozen)
I am an amateur of humour and I sought to discover in what lay her peculiar gift. (Jane)
He was a man who took his work hardly, worrying himself to death over every trifle. (The Consul)
The imagination lingers here gratefully, for in the Federated Malay States the only past is within the memory for the most part of the fathers of living men. (Footprints in the Jungle)
Trivial though it may be, he has a particular way of positioning ‘had’ in the place which makes it stick out unnaturally in a sentence.
It was impossible not to perceive the fineness of her character. It had even nobility.
The hall was large and low, with the same whitewashed walls, and he had immediately an impression of comfort and luxury.
If you were marking an essay by a student learning English, you would say they had got the word order wrong. But after a while, reading Maugham, you come to expect these clunky broken-backed sentences, the odd word order, and the peculiar phraseology – it becomes part of his charm.
He has an elegant tone and attitude and describe elegant characters in elegant settings. But his prose is not elegant or stylish.
2. Fine figures
Slim Maugham likes slender figures, male or female. He admires a fine deportment, a commanding presence. He likes tall and slim.
Jack Carr his name was. He was quite a different sort of chap from Norman; for one thing he was a gentleman, he’d been to a public school and a university; he was about thirty-five, tall, not beefy like Norman, but slight, he had the sort of figure that looked lovely in evening dress; and he had crisp curling hair and a laughing look in his eyes. (Flotsam and Jetsam)
He had been putting on weight lately, but was still a fine figure of a man; tall, with grey curly hair, only just beginning to grow thin on the crown, frank blue eyes, good features and a high colour. (The Colonel’s Lady)
I observed that he was in his way good-looking; his features were regular, his grey eyes were handsome, he had a slim figure. (The Human Element)
The younger woman had her back turned to me and at first I could see only that she had a slim and youthful figure. (The Round Dozen)
She was dressed in white. Her arms, her face, her neck, were deeply burned by the sun; her eyes were bluer than he had ever seen them and the whiteness of her teeth was startling. She looked extremely well. She was very trim and neat. (The Human Element)
I remembered him as a curly-headed youngster, very fresh and clean-looking. He was always neat and dapper, he had a good figure, and he held himself well, like a man who’s used to taking a lot of exercise. (Footprints in the Jungle)
He was just under six feet tall, and slim, and he wore his clothes well, and his clothes were well cut. He had fair hair, still thick, and blue eyes and the faintly yellow skin common to men of that complexion after they have lost the pink-and-white freshness of early youth. (The Door of Opportunity)
And eyes. Maugham is always alert to the state of his characters’ eyes. They are often large and soulful eyes.
It was not hard to believe that in youth he had been as beautiful as people said. He had still his fine Semitic profile and the lustrous black eyes that had caused havoc in so many a Gentile breast. He was very tall, lean, with an oval face and a clear skin… He had kept his figure and held himself as magnificently as ever. (The Alien Corn)
She had never been handsome and the passing years had changed her little. She had still those fine dark eyes and her face was astonishingly unlined. She was very simply dressed and if she wore make–up it was so cunningly put on that I did not perceive it. She had still the charm she had always had of perfect naturalness and of a kindly humour. (Virtue)
She had a neat figure. That was her best point. That and her eyes. They were very large, of a deep brown, liquid and shining; they were full of fun, but they could be tender on occasion with a charming sympathy. (The Door of Opportunity)
In The human element Lady Betty, a kind of force of nature, an embodiment of youth and enthusiasm, has her deep blue eyes described again and again, shining with joy, radiating a part bantering part tender look, shining with sudden gaiety, and so on. In Footprints in the jungle the pale blue eyes of the protagonist, Mrs Cartwright, are referred to again and again.
Maugham was bisexual, and I think there’s something of that in the way his head is turned equally by a handsome man or a shapely lady. Both have their appeal – so long as they are slim and elegant.
Fat Fat people, on the other hand, are generally also short, red-faced and jovial – Chaucerian publicans until, that is, they collapse in tears, like Charlie Bishop in Virtue or Guy in The Force of Circumstance.
He was twenty-nine, but he was still a school-boy; he would never grow up. That was why she had fallen in love with him, perhaps, for no amount of affection could persuade her that he was good-looking. He was a little round man, with a red face like the fall moon, and blue eyes. He was rather pimply. She had examined him carefully and had been forced to confess to him that he had not a single feature which she could praise. She had told him often that he wasn’t her type at all. ‘I never said I was a beauty,’ he laughed. ‘I can’t think what it is you see in me.’ But of course she knew perfectly well. He was a gay, jolly little man, who took nothing very solemnly, and he was constantly laughing. He made her laugh too. He found life an amusing rather than a serious business, and he had a charming smile. When she was with him she felt happy and good tempered. And the deep affection which she saw in those merry blue eyes of his touched her. It was very satisfactory to be loved like that. Once, sitting on his knees, during their honeymoon she had taken his face in her hands and said to him: ‘You’re an ugly, little fat man, Guy, but you’ve got charm. I can’t help loving you.’
The Vessel of Wrath features the fat, jovial, Dutch governor Evert Gruyter through whose eyes we see the surprising love story of Ginger Ted and Miss Jones. And the final story features another fat Dutchman, Van Hasseldt, who puts down the coolie rebellion almost single handedly`.
It’s not that fat symbolises one particular virtue or that slim and trim is always good – it’s just noticeable that a number of Maugham’s characters do tend to fall into these fairly obvious categories.
3. Painting a scene
When the little coasting steamer set them down at the mouth of the river, where a large boat, manned by a dozen Dyaks, was waiting to take them to the station, her breath was taken away by the beauty, friendly rather than awe-inspiring, of the scene. It had a gaiety, like the joyful singing of birds in the trees, which she had never expected. On each bank of the river were mangroves and nipah palms, and behind them the dense green of the forest. In the distance stretched blue mountains, range upon range, as far as the eye could see. She had no sense of confinement nor of gloom, but rather of openness and wide spaces where the exultant fancy could wander with delight. The green glittered in the sunshine and the sky was blithe and cheerful. The gracious land seemed to offer her a smiling welcome. (The Force of Circumstance)
The Far East stories contain yards of this sort of thing. It is extremely restful and relaxing.
Maugham was phenomenally posh. His father and grandfather were eminent lawyers and his elder brother, Frederick, served as Lord Chancellor and was made 1st Viscount Maugham. Thus his gentlemanly characters have no trouble at all dining in the finest restaurants, conversing with lords and ladies, being introduced to cabinet ministers and kings.
Before I began these books I had the impression from summaries that Maugham’s books were about posh planter society in Malaysia. This is misleading on two accounts: 1. The Far East stories seem to concern men in rather desperate straits, men in extremely isolated outposts, rather than ‘society’ in places like Singapore. 2. They are in a minority. The majority of the stories are set in England, most of those in a London of extremely posh dinner parties, parties, cocktail parties and receptions. Or ‘at home’ in the swank country houses of, for example, the Blands in The alien corn or the colonel’s country house in The colonel’s lady.
You’d have thought the unvarying tone of this high society might get a bit stifling, or be plain off-putting, except that the Maugham narrator is so dryly ironic, so observant of human foibles and weakness, and tells his stories so compellingly, that you feel quite at home in these remote and lofty milieu.
There is an element of manners. Maugham is a gentleman and his stories have perfect manners, in the sense that they admit you as an equal to these upper class circles. He never talks down to the reader. Because his ironic attitude to human nature extends to everyone, it is democratic. You feel privileged to eavesdrop on such juicy gossip.
Many of the stories were renamed after their initial appearance. In all cases the titles get shorter, sometimes reduced to just one word. Thus:
The Verger was originally The man who made his mark
Lord Mountdrago was originally Doctor and patient
Neil Macadam was originally The Temptation of Neil Macadam
The social sense was originally The extraordinary sex
Louise was originally The most selfish woman I knew
The Man Who Wouldn’t Hurt a Fly becomes the more teasing A friend in need
And so on. It’s interesting, this trend towards brevity, making things more pregnant with meaning, or symbolism – or just more abbreviated and tight. It’s oddly contrary to the actual approach of the stories which is almost always leisurely, slow and wordy.
Maugham isn’t Oscar Wilde. He isn’t to do with wit and clever paradox. The opposite, really, his thoughts are rather run of the mill and his style is neither compressed nor stylishly paradoxical; it is wordy and prolix. But nonetheless, precisely because he (and his characters) are given to such lengthy lucubrations on life and its peculiarities, he often ends up expressing general thoughts about human nature which have a sort of ruminative appeal.
It is a funny thing about life, if you refuse to accept anything but the best you very often get it. (The treasure)
Life is really very fantastic, and one has to have a peculiar sense of humour to see the fun of it. (Virtue)
If the folly of men made one angry one would pass one’s life in a state of chronic ire. (Virtue)
People are always a little disconcerted when you don’t recognize them, they are so important to themselves, it is a shock to discover of what small importance they are to others. (The Human Element)
No day is so dead as the day before yesterday. (The round dozen)
Courage is the obvious virtue of the stupid. (The Door of Opportunity)
She managed (as so few people do) to look exactly what she was. (Jane)
See what I mean by not really witty or very insightful. More the calm, steady, civilised reflections of a well-travelled, urbane man of the world.
Women are always sensitive to the self-sacrifice of others. (Virtue)
The worst of having so much tact was that you never quite knew whether other people were acting naturally or being tactful too. (The Human Element)
6. Maugham’s philosophy
Nothing profound, the opposite really. Maugham’s view is that people are really a lot more complex than they let on. There’s more to us than meets the eye.
For thirty years now I have been studying my fellow–men. I do not know very much about them. I should certainly hesitate to engage a servant on his face, and yet I suppose it is on the face that for the most part we judge the persons we meet. We draw our conclusions from the shape of the jaw, the look in the eyes, the contour of the mouth. I wonder if we are more often right than wrong.
Why novels and plays are so often untrue to life is because their authors, perhaps of necessity, make their characters all of a piece. They cannot afford to make them self–contradictory, for then they become incomprehensible, and yet self–contradictory is what most of us are. We are a haphazard bundle of inconsistent qualities. (A friend in need)
What gives this remarkably shallow idea its weight is the narrative that follows, in which an apparently harmless little man turns out to have unsuspected depths of malice in him.
Maugham is right that it is the people who make his stories. There are hardly any intellectual insights, and his occasional tangle with intellectual milieus – his satires on the literary world, his description of a painter or a musician – carry little conviction. But the way he manages to convey the peculiarity of being human, how we are prey to all kinds of odd and contradictory impulses; and how profoundly other people remain unpredictable mysteries to us – that is fascinating, riveting, and what makes every single one of his stories worth reading.