The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

16/11/09, TIME Magazine Asia

Very few people read Somerset Maugham in the United Kingdom any more. He has slipped below the radar but he was immensely popular, certainly in my generation and my parents’, in the countries which once used to form part of the colonies of the British Empire. In England, he was an extremely popular dramatist whose record of having four plays running concurrently in the West End remained unbroken for a generation. He climbed dizzying heights of fame and prosperity, lived a long life (1874-1965) of which nearly six decades were of great renown, and was a doctor, novelist, short story writer, traveller, playwright, spy, all with generous measures of success. But his private life was often a tortured one: the death of his adored mother at the age of eight (something he never got over); a cold upbringing in Whitstable in Kent by an unaffectionate uncle; a crippling stammer; a toxic marriage that was made, against better judgement, at the age of forty-three; and the lengths he went to to preserve a façade of conformist conventionality to hide his predominant homosexuality – all these contributed to create an extraordinarily complex man.

In The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, Selina Hastings, the acclaimed biographer of Evelyn Waugh and Rosamond Lehmann, has written a magnificent, gripping account of the contrarieties that were held together, in balance, in Maugham’s personality. An aloof, private socialite; an extremely hardworking celebrity; a socialist patriot who loved titles and the aristocracy; a man who ‘tried to persuade [himself] that [he] was three-quarters normal and that only a quarter of [him] was queer – whereas really it was the other way round’; one of the most famous writers on both sides of the Atlantic for half a century but never recognised by the critical intelligentsia – Hastings gets under the skin of this fascinating man, to expose the polarities that informed his rich life, one fuller than most.

Maugham produced nine books of fiction and non-fiction, all the while wanting to make it really as a dramatist, before he hit paydirt with his play Lady Frederick in 1907. From this point on, there was no looking back. But by the time of his last play, Sheppey, in 1933, he was done with the world of the theatre, which he found almost hateful, and only wanted to concentrate on his fiction, considering that his real writing. He was an acknowledged master of the short-story form and a great deal of his fiction was based on material provided by his extensive travels, especially to South-East Asia and the Far East. His first trip to the tropics was in 1916 and he kept exploring the region with absolute fascination until the early 1920s. His finest short-story collections, The Trembling of a Leaf (1921), The Casuarina Tree (1926) and Ah King (1933), were inspired by these travels. They were all undertaken in the company of the colourful Gerald Haxton, the man who was his lover, secretary, and companion for thirty years. The relationship became increasingly unhappy and ended in tragedy when Maugham was seventy. His other big relationship, with Alan Searle, a working-class boy thirty years his junior, began in 1928 and was to continue until Maugham’s death. Maugham’s old age was of ‘unrelieved anguish’, a lot of it caused by the bitter relationship with his daughter, Liza.

Hastings has approached the life with warmth and sympathy but never cravenness or hero-worship. She has a dry, elegant wit and a fine line in irony, allowing the facts to speak for themselves, rather than hectoring the reader to respond in a particular way. Her Maugham, fallible, complicated, an unhappy man capable of enjoying life enormously, lives and breathes in these pages.