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A Blackstable Boyhood
For much of his long life—he lived to be over ninety—Somerset Maugham (1874–1965) was the most famous writer in the world. He was known everywhere for his superb short stories and for his novels, the immensely acclaimed, Of Human Bondage, becoming one of the most widely read works of fiction of the twentieth century. His books were translated into almost every known tongue, filmed, dramatized, and sold in their millions, bringing
him celebrity and enormous wealth. Wherever he went he was pursued by journalists, eager for information: this extraordinary man seemed to know everyone, from Henry James to Winston Churchill, from Dorothy Parker to D. H. Lawrence. His magnificent villa in the south of France, much photographed and written about, was a byword for luxury and elegance. On the Riviera, as in London and New York, Maugham, always elegantly dressed, looked every inch the conventional English gentleman. And yet conventional he was not. In Maugham’s outwardly respectable life there was a great deal he was determined to keep hidden, and in old age, when he was besieged by would-be biographers, he did his utmost to make sure his privacy would remain intact. Evening after evening at the Villa Mauresque, Maugham, assisted by his secretary, went systematically through his papers, throwing every last scrap of personal correspondence onto the fire. He also wrote to his friends asking them to destroy any letters of his in their possession; and he issued strict instructions to his literary executors that no biography should be authorized, no access to his papers be allowed, and all requests for information be firmly refused.
And what were these areas of experience that it was so important to keep concealed? Mainly they were to do with his homosexuality, for Maugham lived in an era when in Britain homosexual practice was against the law. He was twenty-one at the time of the trial of Oscar Wilde in 1895, an event that traumatized a generation of men who were not by nature inclined toward marriage. And although Maugham himself did marry, and indeed fathered a child, his relations with his wife, Syrie, were wretchedly unhappy, even though he never allowed her for long to keep him apart from the great love of his life, a dissolute charmer named Gerald Haxton. Now, nearly half a century after Maugham’s death, the details of his long affair with Gerald and the harrowing story of his life with Syrie have come to light. The executors of the Maugham estate in London, the Royal Literary Fund, recently rescinded the clause in his will forbidding access to his correspondence; and a transcript has been uncovered of a long and detailed recording made by his daughter, Liza, of the inside story of her father’s private and domestic life. The material has turned out to be richly revealing: Liza, speaking to a close friend, was extremely frank; and ironically, Maugham’s request that his letters should be destroyed ensured not only that they were kept but that most were sold for very large sums to American universities.
The story that unfolds is that of a man who after a harrowing and unhappy childhood learned early to live undercover; appropriately, in both world wars he worked for British intelligence, sometimes at considerable risk to his personal safety. He was further distanced by developing at an early age a stammer that made him agonizingly self-conscious; it inhibited him, and as an adult he formed the habit of having by his side an interpreter, a sociable, outgoing type, usually also his lover, who would make the initial contact and enable Maugham himself to keep more or less in the background. And yet for all his elaborate defenses Maugham remained intensely vulnerable; he was a passionate, difficult man, capable of cruelty as well as of great kindness and charm, but despite all his worldly success he never found what he wanted. His miserable marriage wrecked years of his existence, and the great love of his life remained unrequited.
Many of his readers associate Somerset Maugham with the British Empire and the Far East, with Maugham himself a symbol of the quintessential English gentleman, the pukka sahib, descended from generations of old established county family. Yet in fact Maugham’s parents were recent arrivals among the professional middle classes, and they had lived not in England but in France: it was on French soil that Maugham’s life both began and ended. Maugham’s father, Robert Ormond Maugham (1823–1884), was a solicitor, the third generation to practice law in a family who were descended from farmers and small tradesmen in Westmoreland. It was Robert Maugham’s grandfather who had first come to London, where he had risen no higher than a lawyer’s clerk, although his son had gone on to achieve distinction not only in his legal practice but as one of the founders of the Law Society. Robert himself had done so well in the family business that in the 1840s he had moved to Paris to open a branch there, his partner, William Dixon, remaining behind to run the London office. The premises of Maugham et Dixon, juriconsultes anglais, were immediately opposite the British embassy, and here Maugham et Dixon prospered, especially after the firm’s semiofficial appointment as legal adviser to the embassy itself.
By his mid-thirties Robert Maugham was making a good living, doing well from the boom years of Louis Napoleon and the Second Empire, when in Paris everyone seemed to be making money—“Enrichissez-vous!” was the cry. The population of the capital was enormously expanding, and so was the English community upon which much of the business of Maugham et Dixon naturally depended. Eventually Robert Maugham felt sufficiently well off to take a wife, and on the first of October 1863, at the age of thirty-nine, he married Edith Mary Snell, a ravishing young woman sixteen years his junior. Young Mrs. Maugham, daughter of an Indian army captain who had died when she was a baby, had lived in France most of her life. Her widowed mother had been socially superior to her husband, and it was one of her uncles who had been christened Somerset in honor of a distinguished godfather, the name to be passed on to his famous great-nephew, who never cared for it.
After the wedding the Maughams settled into an apartment at 25 Avenue d’Antin (now Avenue Franklin D. Roosevelt), a broad street lined with chestnut trees just below the rond-point of the Champs-Élysées. Here for nearly seven years the couple enjoyed an agreeable existence, with Robert, “lively and gregarious,” working hard at his business while Edith ran the household and supervised the upbringing of the three boys who arrived in quick succession. Both Maughams were small in stature, but while Robert’s appearance verged on the brutish—he was plump, with a large sallow face, yellow whites to his eyes, and a bulbous chin framed by a mustache and bushy side whiskers—Edith was doll-like and beautiful. Her hair was a rich auburn, her pale complexion flawless, her dark brown eyes large and set wide apart. When Robert and Edith were seen together, the contrast was almost risible, and they became affectionately known as “Beauty and the Beast.” The Maughams enjoyed a lavish style of living, keeping a carriage, frequently attending the theater and opera, and entertaining generously. Edith dressed with style, the apartment was always filled with flowers, and the finest hothouse fruit, grapes and peaches out of season, appeared on the table. Much of the Maughams’ social life inevitably revolved around the embassy, but Edith also numbered among her friends writers and painters, among them Prosper Mérimée and Gustave Doré. Regarded as the reigning beauty of the English community, Mme Maugham was one of the few foreigners whose name was listed in the annual directory La Société et le High Life, and after her death she was described as an habituée of the most elegant salons, “une femme charmante, qui ne comptait que des amis dans la haute société parisienne, où elle occupait une des premières places.”* Such a eulogy almost certainly owes more to flattery than fact, but it is nonetheless clear that Edith Maugham was a woman of exceptional empathy and charm.
In October 1865 the couple’s first child was born, a boy, Charles Ormond, followed a year later by Frederic Herbert, and in June 1868 by Henry Neville. The youngest had barely reached his second birthday when the Franco-Prussian War broke out, shortly followed by Napoleon III’s humiliating surrender in September 1870 at Sedan. With the Prussian army advancing on Paris, the Maughams, together with a large section of the English community, departed for England, leaving behind them at the Avenue d’Antin a couple of servants to look after the apartment and a Union Jack fastened to the balcony. During the terrible siege of Paris the starving populace was reduced to eating rats and animals from the zoo; as nothing could penetrate the German blockade, messages arrived from the Avenue d’Antin by carrier pigeon, one of them requesting to know whether Madame desired the summer covers to be put on the furniture in the drawing room. The five-month siege was succeeded by the bloody civil war known as the Commune, during which great swaths of the city were destroyed and more than twenty thousand people killed. But by the end of May 1871, government forces had regained control, and in August the Maughams returned to Paris, met at the Gare du Nord by their loyal manservant, François, who was able to tell them that the apartment had been left untouched by the Germans, thanks largely to their prominently displayed Union Jack.
The apartment may have remained intact, but most of the center of the city presented a scene of desolation, the Tuileries a blackened ruin, the Hôtel de Ville a heap of rubble, the Colonne Vendôme toppled to the ground. Although rebuilding began at once and progressed with speed, it was some time before the business life of the city fully recovered, and with so many English having gone for good, Robert Maugham found himself perilously out of pocket, obliged to start almost from scratch in rebuilding his practice.
In 1873 Edith again found herself pregnant. At that time the government, understandably anxious to strengthen its military might, was threatening the introduction of legislation imposing French nationality on all boys born in France to foreign parents, a measure that would automatically make them eligible for conscription. To circumvent this, the British ambassador, Lord Lyons, had authorized the rigging up of a maternity ward on the second floor of the embassy so that the wives of those immediately connected to the Chancery could safely give birth on British soil. And here on January 25, 1874, Edith’s fourth child was born, another boy, to be christened William Somerset.
The years of Somerset Maugham’s early childhood were almost certainly the happiest of his life. By the time he was old enough to take notice, his three brothers, Charlie, Freddie, and Harry, had gone, sent off to school in England and coming home only for the holidays. The result was that little William led the life of a much-indulged only child, and with his father away at his office all day, returning only after the boy had been put to bed, he was in the happy position of having his adored mother entirely to himself. After the departure of his wet nurse, Willie was looked after by a French nursemaid, his “nounou,” with whom he shared a bedroom, and it was she who would take him in to see his mother in the morning while she was resting after her bath, a private interlude of perfect intimacy and love, the memory of which stayed with him always, to be poignantly recalled nearly forty years later:
[The servant] took the child over to a bed in which a woman was lying. It was his mother. She stretched out her arms, and the child nestled by her sid . . . .?The woman kissed his eyes, and with thin, small hands felt the warm body through his white flannel nightgow . . . .
“Are you sleepy, darling?” she said.
. . . The child did not answer, but smiled comfortably. He was very happy in the large, warm bed, with those soft arms about him. He tried to make himself smaller still as he cuddled up against his mother, and he kissed her sleepily. In a moment he closed his eyes and was fast aslee . . . .?[T]he woman kissed him again; and she passed her hand down his body till she came to his feet; she held the right foot in her hand and felt the five small toes; and then slowly passed her hand over the left one.
For Willie, his mother was the center of his entire existence. He loved her unreservedly and felt completely secure in her love for him. While his father remained a shadowy presence and barely impinged upon his consciousness, his mother’s attention, he knew, was always his, and nothing mattered to him much that did not concern the sweet intimacy that existed between himself and her.
After visiting his mother, Willie was taken out, usually to play in the Champs-Élysées, in those days lined with private houses and luxurious apartment buildings. He and his nurse would make their way to the gardens at the end nearest the Place de la Concorde. Here there were always other children, and as he grew older Willie was allowed to play with them, dashing in and out of the shrubbery in vigorous games of La tour prend garde or Balle à l’ennemi. With his pale skin, fair curls, and large brown eyes, Willie in his black-belted suit was indistinguishable from the little French boys in their short trousers and lace-up boots who were his playmates; indeed he spoke French far more fluently than English, sometimes mixing the two. Edith was amused when one day her small son, catching sight of a horse from the window of a railway carriage, cried out, “Regardez, Maman, voilà un ’orse.” His first extant letter, written at the age of six and addressed to his parents, is in French: “cher papa, chere maman, votre petit willie est heureux au jour de noel de vous exprimer ses meilleurs souhaits, et sa reconaissante affection. croyez-moi, cher papa, chere maman, votre fils respectueux, willie maugham.”* In the afternoons, either his mother had nursery tea with him, or Willie went to the drawing room to be shown off to her guests. Occasionally he was asked to recite a fable of La Fontaine, after which, if he were lucky, some kind gentleman might tip him. On his seventh birthday one of his mother’s friends gave him a twenty-franc piece, which he chose to spend on his first visit to the theater; accompanied by his eldest brother Charlie, he saw Sarah Bernhardt in an “atrocious” melodrama by Sardou, which thrilled him to the core.