William Somerset Maugham has fallen thoroughly out of literary fashion. But at the height of his fame he outsold most of his contemporaries including Joseph Conrad, Robert Louis Stevenson and James Joyce. Maugham himself admitted that he lacked imagination. His best known book, Of Human Bondage, published in 1917, was semi-autobiographical. His other well-known novels, the Moon and Sixpence and Cakes and Ale, were both based on historical figures.
In Cakes and Ale, Maugham’s central character, the famous novelist Edward Driffield, was a thinly disguised portrait of Thomas Hardy. However, the damage inflicted on Hardy’s legacy was as nothing to the hatchet job Maugham did on the reputation of his friend and fellow novelist Hugh Walpole, barely disguised as the obnoxious Alroy Kear. Walpole was one of the first to read the novel. After returning home from the theatre, he wrote in his diary: “Half-dressed sitting on my bed, picked up idly Maugham’s Cakes and Ale. Read on with increasing horror. Unmistakable portrait of myself. Never slept.”
Maugham’s private life was, to say the least, unorthodox. As a young man he had “many” homosexual liaisons but nevertheless married Syrie Wellcome, the daughter of Thomas Barnado, founder of the Barnado’s Children’s’ Homes. Despite his marriage, the sexually predatory Maugham continued to swing like a sailor’s hammock in a gale. He had so many affairs, with both sexes, that one of his companions described him as the most sexually voracious man he had ever known.
Between the wars, Maugham joined the expatriates who lived on the stretch of coast between Nice and Monaco and held court at his mansion in Cap Ferrat. There were stories of nude bathing parties, drugs, lashings of champagne and nightly seductions of the local boys. Almost everyone who visited was shocked by his decadence. However, it seems that few establishment figures refused an invitation. T.S. Eliot, H.G Wells, Rudyard Kipling, The Duchess of Windsor and Winston Churchill all visited Maugham in the South of France and expressed their horror at what they encountered there. Old age and the Mediterranean sun were not kind to Maugham. Noel Coward waspishly referred to him as The Lizard of Oz.
In the 1920’s Maugham’s reputation came to the attention of Scotland Yard. They warned his older brother, a High Court judge, that aspects of his behaviour were – at the time – illegal. Maugham ignored the warning and was eventually rewarded with the offer of a knighthood for services to literature. He turned it down, hoping for an Order of Merit.
In 2009 a biography by Selina Hastings stripped away the establishment veneer that had protected Maugham and revealed him as a rapacious and unbridled sex tourist of the most unpleasant kind. The Daily Mail asked, “was this the most debauched man of the 20th century?” Based on the revelations in Hastings’ book it seems like a reasonable question.
If you Google “Cakes and Ale” today the top entry is a holiday park in Suffolk.