Biography and Fiction: Somerset Maugham and Of Human Bondage

Of Human Bondage seems all the richer in the light of Somerset Maugham's own life experience

The man behind the words ... Somerset Maugham in 1954">

Familiarity with the life of an author enriches the experience of reading his or her work. It not only influences the way fiction is understood, it also boosts enjoyment. The text remains the same, its intrinsic aesthetic qualities remain the same; what changes is the reception. Additional layers of interpretation open themselves up, the reader is more sympathetic. Biography obviously doesn't replace close reading, but it provides alternate possibilities, new, otherwise inconceivable modes of appreciation. One particularly enjoyable game is to compare and contrast the real life with the fictional. Somerset Maugham provides a good example. He had an affair with Gwendolyn Maud Syrie Barnardo Wellcome, got her pregnant, did the 'right' thing, married her, went through a messy divorce 10 years later, and hated her for the rest of his life.

I have fond memories of reading A Writer's Notebook some 25 years ago. Great work, I thought at the time, pity about all the misogyny. It was laced with this kind of arsenic: "The usual result of a man's cohabitation with a woman, however sanctioned by society, is to make him a little more petty, a little meaner than he would otherwise have been." And the cryptic: "People continually ruin their lives by persisting in actions against which their sensations rebel." The prescient: "When a woman of 40 tells a man that she's old enough to be his mother, his only safety lies in immediate flight. She'll either marry him or drag him through the divorce court." And the downright chauvinistic: "The three duties of woman. The first is to be pretty, the second is to be well-dressed, and the third is never to contradict."

These niceties were written between 1896 and 1900, when Maugham was in his early 20s, and already the ripe old cynic. Perhaps it all began because of this: "Few misfortunes can befall a boy which bring worse consequences than to have a really affectionate mother."

Maugham didn't meet Syrie until 1913, and stepped into a real mess when he did. He was still in love with another woman, actress Ethelwyn Sylvia (Sue) Jones. Syrie was a divorcee married to Henry Wellcome, a Wisconsin-born pharmaceutical tycoon, and involved with another Wisconsin tycoon, Gordon Selfridge, of department store fame. Despite all this traffic she declared her love for Maugham, and suggested at the time that they have a child together. Maugham passively concurred; she got pregnant. As biographer Jeffrey Meyers has it, Maugham was shocked and uneasy about the whole situation: "...[he] hoped to be kind, firm and just. If that led to a break with Syrie, he would have no regrets."

When Wellcome's hired detective found proof of her adultery, Syrie tried to kill herself by swallowing pills. Wellcome named Maugham in the divorce suit. Maugham's friend, noted lawyer Sir George Lewis, told him he'd be a mug to save her. Meyers quotes him as saying (in Living With a Writer): "You're cruelly trapped and you'd be a fool to marry her."

In a letter to Syrie written in the 1920s and published in 1962, Maugham says: "I married you because I was prepared to pay for my folly and selfishness, and I married you because I thought it the best thing for your happiness and for Elizabeth's welfare, but I did not marry you because I loved you, and you were only too well aware of that." Meyers suggests that Maugham married Syrie out of a strange mixture of compassion, guilt and self-sacrifice. He really loved men but tried to love women, fighting his deepest sexual feelings. Syrie knew of his homosexuality. In fact there is suggestion that she used it to blackmail him into marriage.

They tied the knot in New Jersey in 1917 and divorced in 1928. It was the worst decade and the greatest mistake of Maugham's life. As novelist Compton Mackenzie remarked: "It was the only time in his life that Willie behaved like a gentleman; the result was fatal."

While the flame of misogyny may seem warm in A Writer's Notebook and his early creative output, it is nothing in comparison to the heated hatred that burns throughout much of Maugham's post-1915 creative production.

Knowledge of Maugham's life experience only makes the message in his autobiographical masterpiece Of Human Bondage more poignant, when we realise that it may well have been written out of suffering. For example, after protagonist Philip Carey proposes to the miserable Mildred Rogers, she rejects him, citing his lack of money and the fact that she plans to marry another. She later returns, penniless and pregnant. He takes her back, pays her bills and sends her to the coast for rest. She repays him by running off with his best friend. Next time Philip sees her she's a common streetwalker. Again, he takes her in, this time with her child, and she acts as his housekeeper. He loves her child but not her. She tries to resume their relationship. He resists. She leaves, but not before completely trashing his apartment.

Reading the life and the fiction side by side makes for fine entertainment, as we discover what is included and excluded, what is made up, what not. The line joining authorial text and reader experience morphs into a triangle; a new perspective is introduced, another set of life experiences. The work of art remains independent, but for those who wish to play the game, another dimension is available.

If the object of the novel is enjoyment, as Maugham says in Great Novelists and Their Novels, then reading biography only adds to the fun.


Nigel Beale

The GuardianTramp

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