Our Betters by Somerset Maugham (1923)

This is another of Maugham’s well-made comedies. Apparently it was written during the Great War, in 1915, but not staged in England until 1923 because it was thought that it might alienate American public opinion, which we were trying to persuade to enter the war.

It is set in the cynical but stylish High Society we are used to from Maugham, but this time concerns a group of Americans, not posh Brits – Americans who have married into British or European ‘Society’.

The characters

There is a sort of chorus of three mature American matrons who have married British, French or Italian aristocrats:

  1. Pearl, Lady Grayston who married George Grayston, a baronet
  2. Minnie Hodges who married and then divorced the Duc de Surennes and now is always in love with some beautiful young man or other, currently the gorgeous pouting young Tony Paxton
  3. Flora van Hoog, who married an Italian aristocrat to become the Princess della Cercola but, when he began taking mistresses, abandoned him to come and live in London and now pursues philanthropic causes and charities which she pesters her friends about.

There is also a couple of older American men who have made their way in British society: the brash, loud and over-dressed Thornton Clay, and the corrupt 70-year-old American Arthur Fenwick who made his fortune selling poor quality food to the American working classes and is now opening stores to do the same here in London.

Together these five represent a variety of ways older Americans have integrated and exploited their position. Set against them are the Younger Generation who are trying to make their life decisions, namely whether to marry for love or money (a dilemma which would have been familiar to Jane Austen a century earlier).

Young Bessie Saunders is heiress to an American fortune staying with her older sister, Pearl. Pearl’s husband, Lord George Grayston, very conveniently doesn’t live with her, allowing her to conduct her gay social life and numerous flirtations in London’s High Society without hindrance. All three acts are set in her houses – Act One in her grand town house in Grosvenor Square Mayfair, and Acts Two and Three in Pearl’s country retreat at Abbots Kenton, Suffolk.

Bessie has only recently arrived from America and been swept off her feet by the giddy whirl of London society. Back in the States she was engaged to a nice, unspoilt, young American gentleman, Fleming Harvey when she was 16 and he 18. Soon after arriving in London and seeing the wider world she wrote him a letter breaking off the engagement. She is being wooed by an English aristocrat, Lord Harry Bleane. Now Harvey has arrived in London and, understandably, commences trying to woo her back.

Meanwhile Act One introduces the love triangle between the good looking, slender, immaculately dressed but poor young Brit, Tony Paxton, with whom the ‘Duchesse’ (original name Minnie Hodgson, daughter of a Chicago millionaire who made his money in pork) is besottedly in love. It only slowly emerges that Tony is revolted by the desperation of the Duchesse’s passion and has become smitten with Pearl, precisely because she is so playfully unavailable.

Comedy

Comedy is extracted from the interaction of all these types – the three cynical ladies, the earnest and easily shocked young American boy Harvey, the sincere English Lord Bleane, the spoilt brat Tony Paxton, with Bessie playing her part: only slowly does it emerge that the play hinges on Bessie’s choice of whether to stay in England and marry an English lord in order to join the kind of amoral if stiflingly ‘correct’ lifestyle the three ladies live – or whether to reject European corruption and return to pure and innocent America (the subject of many of Henry James’s novels).

And there is something deeply comic about the way all these amoral characters pursue their cynical schemes against the backdrop of the impeccable formality of the grand house in Grosvenor Square Mayfair and at Pearl’s country retreat at Abbots Kenton, Suffolk, with their silent servants, especially the butler, Pole.

Just the existence of a dutiful and obedient butler, overhearing all their selfish schemes with complete discretion, is itself funny. ‘Very good, m’lady.’

Speaking of Funny, Maugham isn’t Oscar Wilde. His bon mots don’t ring and dazzle. But the play does have quite a few moments of brightly comic dialogue.

Bessie: Does George know?
Pearl: Who is George?
Bessie: Don’t be absurd, Pearl. George – your husband.

Or:

Fleming: Has it occurred to you that he wants to marry you for your money?
Bessie: You could put it more prettily. You could say that he wants to marry me with my money.

Or:

Clay: Some of these American women are strangely sexless.
Fleming: I have an idea that some of them are even virtuous.
Pearl [with a smile]: It takes all sorts to make a world.

Or:

Duchesse: I know he’s lying to me, there’s not a word of truth in anything he says. But he’s so slim I can never catch him out.

Or:

Pearl: You’re the very person we want, Thornton. An entirely strange young man has suddenly appeared on my doorstep and says he is my cousin.
Clay: My dear Pearl, that is a calamity which we Americans must always be prepared for.

And:

Duchesse: He makes me so miserable but I love him… He wants to marry me, Pearl.
Pearl: You’re not going to!
Duchesse: No, I won’t be such a fool as that. If I married him I’d have no hold over him at all.

Act Two

In Act Two, at Pearl’s country house, various interactions give us a deeper sense of the characters – of the three older women’s American backgrounds, the men they married, how they’ve coped with divorce and separation and so on.

Fleming is still really sweet on Bessie but she is agonising over whether to accept Lord Bleane. Fleming would like to hate Bleane but is disappointed to discover that he’s actually a good guy who tells Bessie he was originally attracted to her money (the fact that she was rich being broadcast all over London by her elder sister, Pearl) but that now he really is in love with her.

Their story is, for this middle part of the play, eclipsed by the passion with which pretty young Tony Paxton a) is revolted by the cloying over-attention the lurid Duchesse lavishes on him b) is powerfully attracted to Pearl. Against the latter’s better judgement Paxton persuades her to accompany him to the tea-house in the garden. Duchesse, in her violent jealousy, suspecting something is up, despatches innocent little Bessie to fetch her handbag from the same tea-house where Bessie sees… something so horrible that she rushes back into the drawing room where all the other characters are playing cards (are the couple having just a snog or actually having sex??). When Minnie provocatively asks what on earth is wrong with her, it prompts the tear-filled admission that she has seen Pearl and Tony… together!

When Pearl and Paxton make a nonchalant entrance to the drawing room it is to discover that everybody knows (know what? were they having a snog? a grope? full-on sex? it is never explained).

Tony has blown his relationship with Duchesse. More fatally, the doting old millionaire Fenwick has all his fond illusions about Pearl being pure and romantic utterly burst. ‘The slut, the slut’ he repeats, in angry despair. Given that he substantially funds her lifestyle this is a major blow.

Act Three

Act Three takes place in the same drawing room on the afternoon of the following day. The atmosphere is very strained, Pearl didn’t come down from her bedroom for either breakfast or lunch, the innocent menfolk (Clay and Fleming) and women (the Princess) tiptoed around the furious fuming Duchess while Fenwick was purple with rage. Their conversation informs us that the previous evening turned into a blazing row with words exiting the dementedly angry Duchess’s mouth that none of them had ever heard before, as she screamed her rage at Tony and Pearl.

The Duchess is pouring her heart out to the Princess when Tony sidles in looking for cigarettes. There is a comic scene where she turns on him, all outraged pride and anger, insisting he leave the house immediately and will be booted out of the flat in London which she pays for him to live in, while Tony is all sullen pouting. But the comedy is in the slow insinuating way in which their positions shift until the Duchesse is begging Tony to be nice to her and, eventually, she makes the Grand Concession of relenting and saying she will marry him – to which Tony’s only response is ‘Does that mean I’ll be able to drive the Rolls-Royce?’ By this stage we have grasped the depths of the Duchess’s helpless infatuation and the true extent of Paxton’s shallow selfishness.

The remaining scenes showcase Pearl’s brilliantly scheming to redeem a tricky situation: it will take all her wiles and cunning.

First she makes an entrance looking fabulous. Then she holds tete-a-tetes with Bessie, Clay, the Duchess and Fenwick. She reveals all her cunning ploys to Clay (and thus, to us, the audience).

1. To the Duchess she reveals that she has been phoning all her contacts that morning and has managed to get Tony a job in the government, nothing too demanding. Over the course of feline dialogue she is slowly able to win the Duchess back round to being her friend.

2. Then she explains to Clay how she is going to play the little-girl-lost for Fenwick whose self-image is of a Strong Masterly Man; she will play weak to encourage his narcissistic sense of his own masculine resilience, and so it pans out. After five minutes she has him back eating out the palm of her hand under the delusion that he is magnanimously forgiving her.

Only Bessie, her sister, sees straight through her and indeed through the lifestyle of all these Americans-in-Europe.

She has a big scene where she begs Lord Blaine to release her from their engagement. At the centre of the scene is the Author’s Message: Bessie has seen that English girls are bred up to responsibility and dignity and so know how to handle and manage their wealth; whereas the American women who marry into the British aristocracy have no sense of noblesse oblige or duty, but simply see it as an opportunity for frivolous pleasure, hence their silly flirting and superficial romances. It is not them, it is the niche they move into, which turns them into monsters. As Bessie has seen at close quarters how her beloved elder sister Pearl has become a monster of manipulation. Bessie is determined not to become like that.

The play ends with her witnessing her sister’s pièce de resistance – first thing that morning Pearl had sent her Rolls to London to collect the most fashionable dancing teacher in London and beg him to come down and stay the night. When he enters all the guests who swore they would leave in disgust at her behaviour (Fenwick, the Princess, but especially the Duchesse and Paxton) all confirm that they will stay for dinner and dancing. Despite committing just about the worst social crime imaginable (being caught red-handed being unfaithful to her elderly lover and stealing her best friend’s lover) Pearl has manipulated everyone into forgiving and forgetting.

Bessie watches all this with disgust and, in the last line of the play, vows she will be returning to America at the first opportunity.

So it’s a brittle social comedy of comically amoral, upper-class behaviour among rich American title-hunters in England – with just enough of a sting in the tail to elude the censorship but have the more high-minded critics admitting that it does have a sound moral message. It is, in other words, a clever and entertaining theatrical confection perfectly suited for its times.

Adaptations

The play was turned into a Hollywood movie in 1933, directed by George Cukor. Here’s a clip.

It was adapted for BBC radio in 1998.

It had previously been revived at the Chichester Theatre in 1997, with the throaty American actress Kathleen Turner playing Pearl and Rula Lenska as the Duchesse. The fact that Turner plays the same role in the radio broadcast suggests that one led on to the other. The Daily Telegraph reviewed the stage play. I am puzzled why Patrick O’Connor casually calls Maugham misogynist since a) all the strongest characters are women, the men being just foils and pretexts b) the women themselves cover a wide range from the strong, clever, scheming Pearl to the genuinely innocent but, ultimately decisive, Bessie.


Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

This is nowhere near a complete bibliography. Maugham also wrote countless articles and reviews, quite a few travel books, two books of reminiscence, as well as some 25 successful stage plays and editing numerous anthologies. This is a list of the novels, short story collections, and the five plays in the Pan Selected Plays volume.

1897 Liza of Lambeth
1898 The Making of a Saint (historical novel)
1899 Orientations (short story collection)
1901 The Hero
1902 Mrs Craddock
1904 The Merry-go-round
1906 The Bishop’s Apron
1908 The Explorer
1908 The Magician (horror novel)
1915 Of Human Bondage
1919 The Moon and Sixpence

1921 The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (short story collection)
1921 The Circle (play)
1922 On a Chinese Screen (travel book)
1923 Our Betters (play)
1925 The Painted Veil (novel)
1926 The Casuarina Tree: Six Stories
1927 The Constant Wife (play)
1928 Ashenden: Or the British Agent (short story collection)
1929 The Sacred Flame (play)

1930 Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard
1930 The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey From Rangoon to Haiphong
1931 Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (short story collection)
1932 The Narrow Corner
1933 Ah King (short story collection)
1933 Sheppey (play)
1935 Don Fernando (travel book)
1936 Cosmopolitans (29 x two-page-long short stories)
1937 Theatre (romantic novel)
1938 The Summing Up (autobiography)
1939 Christmas Holiday (novel)

1940 The Mixture as Before (short story collection)
1941 Up at the Villa (crime novella)
1942 The Hour Before the Dawn (novel)
1944 The Razor’s Edge (novel)
1946 Then and Now (historical novel)
1947 Creatures of Circumstance (short story collection)
1948 Catalina (historical novel)
1948 Quartet (portmanteau film using four short stories –The Facts of Life, The Alien Corn, The Kite and The Colonel’s Lady)
1949 A Writer’s Notebook

1950 Trio (film follow-up to Quartet, featuring The Verger, Mr. Know-All and Sanatorium)
1951 The Complete Short Stories in three volumes
1952 Encore (film follow-up to Quartet and Trio featuring The Ant and the GrasshopperWinter Cruise and Gigolo and Gigolette)

1963 Collected short stories volume one (30 stories: Rain, The Fall of Edward Barnard, Honolulu, The Luncheon, The Ant and the Grasshopper, Home, The Pool, Mackintosh, Appearance and Reality, The Three Fat Women of Antibes, The Facts of Life, Gigolo and Gigolette, The Happy Couple, The Voice of the Turtle, The Lion’s Skin, The Unconquered, The Escape, The Judgement Seat, Mr. Know-All, The Happy Man, The Romantic Young Lady, The Point of Honour, The Poet, The Mother, A Man from Glasgow, Before the Party, Louise, The Promise, A String of Beads, The Yellow Streak)
1963 Collected short stories volume two (24 stories: The Vessel of Wrath, The Force of Circumstance, Flotsam and Jetsam, The Alien Corn, The Creative Impulse, The Man with the Scar, Virtue, The Closed Shop, The Bum, The Dream, The Treasure, The Colonel’s Lady, Lord Mountdrago, The Social Sense, The Verger, In A Strange Land, The Taipan, The Consul, A Friend in Need, The Round Dozen, The Human Element, Jane, Footprints in the Jungle, The Door of Opportunity)
1963 Collected short stories volume three (17 stories: A Domiciliary Visit, Miss King, The Hairless Mexican, The Dark Woman, The Greek, A Trip to Paris, Giulia Lazzari, The Traitor, Gustav, His Excellency, Behind the Scenes, Mr Harrington’s Washing, A Chance Acquaintance, Love and Russian Literature, Sanatorium)
1963 Collected short stories volume four (30 stories: The Book-Bag, French Joe, German Harry, The Four Dutchmen, The Back Of Beyond, P. & O., Episode, The Kite, A Woman Of Fifty, Mayhew, The Lotus Eater, Salvatore, The Wash-Tub, A Man With A Conscience, An Official Position, Winter Cruise, Mabel, Masterson, Princess September, A Marriage Of Convenience, Mirage, The Letter, The Outstation, The Portrait Of A Gentleman, Raw Material, Straight Flush, The End Of The Flight, A Casual Affair, Red, Neil Macadam)

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

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