Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence by John Ferling (2007)

‘We are now launching into a wide and boundless field, puzzled with mazes and o’erspread with difficulties.’
George Washington, autumn 1779

At 680 larger-than-usual pages, this is a very long, very thorough and very heavy book.

I bought it under the misapprehension that it would explain the economic and political background to the American War of Independence, which was a mistake. Almost a Miracle is a highly detailed account of the arguments about military strategy held by both sides, and on the actual battles fought during the war. In this respect its focus on the nitty-gritty of military engagements large and small – it follows straight on from the couple of books I recently read about its immediate predecessor, the Seven Years War:

The Seven Years War (1756-63)

Put simply, the result of the Seven Years War was that the British Army and its colonial and Indian allies won Canada, seized its key city, Quebec, and expelled the French from their would-be North American empire – thus ensuring that America would be an English-speaking nation.

Britain won because:

  1. the British government threw many more men and resources at the war than the French
  2. the British colonists far outnumbered the French, 1.2 Brits million compared to 55,000 French

But the British government, led by William Pitt, had to borrow a lot to pay for these military campaigns and, as soon as the Seven Years War ended with the Treaty of Paris, in 1763, lost no time in trying to recoup their money from the colonists. A range of new taxes were introduced – by the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act, the Townshend Revenue Act – and existing taxes were collected more stringently.

The colonists don’t like new taxes

The colonists didn’t like it. There was a long, steady rumble of complaint from the moment the new taxes were introduced in 1763 to the outbreak of war in 1775. A spectrum of dissenting opinion emerged among the colonists, from:

  • radicals like John Adams (b.1735) who early grasped the need for complete independence from Britain
  • moderates, who accepted British rule but wanted the taxes lightened or lifted
  • to Loyalists or so-called ‘Tories’, who accepted everything the British government demanded on the basis that they were loyal subjects of His Majesty and His Majesty’s government

Key way stations along the road to war were:

  • 1768 – the arrival of British troops in Boston, the most important port (and largest city) in the colonies, to support the collection of taxes
  • 5 March 1770 – ‘the Boston Massacre’, when an angry mob surrounded the British customs building, someone let off a shot, the soldiers panicked and killed five colonials
  • the 1773 Tea Act which aimed to promote tea from India in America and led to ‘the Boston Tea Party’ of 16 December, when American patriots disguised as Mohawk Indians dumped £9,000 of East India Company tea into the Boston harbour
  • the four ‘Intolerable Acts’ passed by the British Parliament in May and June 1774, which stripped Massachusetts of self-government and judicial independence following the Boston Tea Party
  • the first Continental Congress in September 1774 when delegates were sent from all 13 colonies to the town hall in Philadelphia to discuss their response to the Intolerable Acts

Although critics of Lord North’s administration in the British Houses of Parliament fiercely criticised many of the British measures, although many British politicians spoke and wrote pamphlets in favour of greater moderation and understanding of the Americans, and although most of the American politicians were themselves conservative and favoured reconciliation with Britain – nonetheless, reading any timeline of the build-up to war gives an overwhelming sense of inevitability – of the Titanic steaming unstoppably towards the iceberg.

The two points of view were just irreconcilable:

  • The British king and his ministry thought they had spent a fortune, and lost a lot of men, defending colonists who paid only a fraction of the taxes which their cousins in Britain paid: it was time they coughed up.
  • The Americans thought victory in what they called ‘the French and Indian War’ had owed a lot to their own men and blood; they didn’t owe anyone. Plus, they had all grown up paying minimal taxes, and so were outraged when the London government started imposing all kinds of new taxes and tolls on them and their imports.

American resentment crystallised into the expression ‘no taxes without representation’, meaning they refused to pay taxes imposed on them by a legislature 3,000 miles away, in which they had no say.

Because the outcome is so well-known, and because the extremists on both sides (especially the American patriots, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington) went to to become such household names, it is most interesting to read about the moderates on both sides, those advocating for peace and compromise. I learned that the Loyalist members of Congress got together an Olive Branch Petition to send to George III. Their belief that America could quite easily remain within the British Empire, with just a few tweaks and adjustments, have – like the rational, carefully argued opinions of so many moderates throughout history – disappeared from view.

Studying them carefully – putting yourself in their place and trying out their arguments – gives you insights into the fate of moderates in so many revolutions – the French or Russian ones, to name the big two; and by extension, helps you understand the fate of moderates in modern political situations (America, Turkey, Britain, Iran).

The American War of Independence

This book, by its sheer length and the staggering accumulation of detail, really brings home that the American War of Independence was much longer than you tend to imagine – from first skirmishes to final peace treaty it lasted a surprising eight and a half years, from 19 April 1775 to 3 September 1783.

What should the Americans do?

I think the single most striking learning is that both sides didn’t know what to do or how to fight the war, an uncertainty which persisted right to the end.

Hostilities broke out because the British garrison in Boston was ordered out in April 1775 to confiscate munitions which Patriot militias had been building up in the towns and villages of Massachusetts. Patriot spies got wind of this and set off on horseback to warn the militias, who were therefore armed and prepared by the time the 700 or so British soldiers reached the small towns of Lexington and Concord. Small engagements broke out at both places, before the British regulars were joined by support and marched together back to the safety of Boston, shot and sniped at all the way. Their blood up, the local militias rallied across Massachusetts and set up a siege of Boston. The war had, in effect, begun.

On June 14 the Continental Congress voted to create the Continental Army and voted George Washington its commander-in-chief. When news of all this arrived back to London, the government sent a major force out under the command of General Howe. It was war.

But what should both sides do next? The biggest learning from the book is that both sides effectively made it up as they went along. I’m used to the Great War where the Allied aim was to defeat Germany on the Western Front, and the Second World War where the Allies demanded the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan. In both wars there were clear ‘fronts’ where the enemies fought, with the Allies pushing the Germans back from the Western Front, and then crushing Germany from east and west in the Second War, and pushing Japan back across Pacific islands towards her homeland.

But in this war, where was the American homeland? Where could a knock-out blow be delivered?

And what did the Americans aim to achieve? Was it best to meet the British Army in a head-on, traditional-style battle and defeat it? When you put it like that, you see how unlikely it was that an army made of volunteers who’d spent most of their lives working on farms, with officers and NCOs having been appointed just a few weeks earlier, would be able to defeat the well-armed, well-drilled professional Brits.

So the Americans tended to seek smaller engagements where they had the advantage of surprise and knowledge of the territory, and otherwise melted away. Washington early informed Congress that his would be a war of ‘posts’ (p.136) meaning small specific engagements, and that he would adopt the withdraw-and-fight-another-day tactics of the famous Roman general, Fabius Cunctator.

But not everyone agreed with Washington, and his headquarters was always riven by factions of officers arguing fiercely about strategy. It is the merit of a military history on this scale that it makes it quite clear that the American military command was riven by debates and arguments, sometimes quite bitterly, about what to do, where to strike, when to pull back. And, as it became clear that the war wouldn’t be over by Christmas, there were as fierce, and as partisan arguments in Congress, as there are today.

Not only were there divisions about how to fight but, more importantly, where. Were there ‘key colonies’ or areas which must not be ceded to enemy and, if so, where? Was it vital to hold Boston, or to retire if the army was imperiled? Ditto New York: should Washington’s army defend New York come what may or, again, make a tactical withdrawal in the face of superior British forces, and live to fight another day?

What should the British do?

But while the Patriot side was riven by indecision and infighting about where to defend, where to retreat, and how much of a big battle to engage in, it was, if anything worse, on the British side. In particular, there was a fundamental division between those who thought the British should fight with no quarter, ravaging and destroying the land as they went – as the Union army was to do in the Civil War – giving the retreating army nowhere to hide and wearing down the enemy’s agricultural infrastructure, teaching them who was boss – and others who thought that the only practical policy was to fight a civilised and limited war, in order to win the hearts and minds of men who were, in a sense, our cousins.

This is one of the main big learnings of the book –  that the men in charge of the British war effort hesitated and prevaricated over and over again, especially General William Howe, general in command of British forces from 1775 to 1777. At several points, for example when he had cornered the American Army on New York, Howe hesitated to push his advantage and so let the Americans escape.

Great Britain’s last best chance to destroy the Continental army and crush the American rebellion occurred in September 1776, but the opportunity slipped away through a series of monumental mistakes. (p.139)

Howe had been an MP in the Commons in the build-up to war, and had voted for conciliation and compromise with the rebels. While the hawks called for a slash and burn policy, Howe appears to have thought that the Americans were misled by a handful of fanatics and that, if only they could be dealt a bloody nose, the Congress and most of the population would realise the error of their ways, out down their weapons and accede to His Majesty’s very reasonable demands.

So although Howe defeated Washington in a series of encounters designed to drive him out of New York, he deliberately let slip a couple of sitting duck opportunities to surround and annihilate his opponent. History remembers Washington as a great general but he was fighting an opponent who was reluctant to really comprehensively defeat him.

Indecisive battles

And so both the British and the Americans hesitated among a variety of choices before embarking on anything coherent enough to be termed a ‘campaign’. What is then notable is how many of these campaigns failed – it seems to the untutored reader to have been a war of failures rather than successes.

Thus the engagements at Lexington and Concord led the Americans to besiege Boston, which sounds like a big bold thing to do. But General Howe threatened to burn the city to the ground unless he was allowed to sail away unscathed, the Americans reluctantly gave in, and Howe sailed off with all his men. Hardly a victory.

Similarly, the Americans launched a twin-pronged campaign to capture Quebec and therefore Canada, from the British, with Major General Richard Montgomery capturing forts up Lake Champlain while Major General Benedict Arnold led a force through the wilds of Maine, to join up in front of Quebec City. The section describing the appalling sufferings of Arnold’s men as they hacked their way through swamp and forest, drowned in makeshift rafts on rapids, and began to starve before finally blundering into settled territory in Canada was the most imaginatively gripping part of the whole book, reading like a gruesome novel of backwoods survival.

But the military point is that both the American forces were so weakened by the time they arrived and commenced the Battle of Quebec that their attack was a complete failure. Montgomery was killed and Arnold badly wounded in the attack, before the survivors were forced to regroup and retrace their way back to America. It had been ‘a calamity of epic proportions’ (p.111).

Similarly, Howe launched a great campaign to take New York City from Washington’s army and this involved a whole series of engagements as Washington slowly withdrew back through Long Island, then up Manhattan, and over into new Jersey. But the real story is that Howe missed several glaring opportunities to surround and exterminate Washington’s army, letting it live on.

Similarly, much is made of the Battle of Saratoga, a supposedly great victory by the Americans in October 1777. But when you read about it in as much detail as Ferling supplies, you first of all realise that it wasn’t a battle at all. British General Burgoyne had led an army down from British Canada, hoping to link up with General Howe’s army from New York, and another one coming east from Lake Ontario. Neither turned up and Ferling’s account shows how Burgoyne’s force was steadily weakened and depleted by small engagements along the way, loss of food and supplies, the necessity of leaving detachments to guard all the little forts he captured on the way south, and so on, so that by the time he approached the American stronghold of Albany, at the northernmost point of the River Hudson, his forces were depleted and short of ammunition and supplies. Eventually Burgoyne’s force was surrounded by outnumbering American forces and he surrendered. There was no battle.

A lot of American mythology surrounds the Battle of Trenton, when Washington led his forces across the half-frozen River Delaware to take by surprise detachments of German mercenaries stationed in the small town of Trenton, who were outliers of Howe’s larger British Army stationed in New Jersey. Yes, it was a daring pre-dawn raid, yes it caught the Hessians completely unprepared, and yes it led to the capture of almost all of them (22 killed, compared with just 2 dead on the American side). But its importance was far more psychological than military. The Americans had done nothing but retreat from New York for six months. Trenton wasn’t a victory at all, it just showed that the Americans weren’t completely beaten and still had some kick in them. It stemmed the tide of defections and desertions, and showed sceptics at home and abroad that American troops could win something.

There is much more like this. The really detailed (Ferling quotes lots of contemporary eye-witness testimony) accounts of so much marching – and of long gruelling campaigns like Arnold’s trek north or Burgoyne’s trek south – make up the majority of the text. The suffering and hardships, the climatic extremes, the lack of food and shelter, are quite difficult to read sometimes. I was particularly struck by the way many of the Continental soldiers had no shoes or footwear of any sort. On numerous marches their fellow soldiers followed the blood from bleeding feet left in the snow or mud. In fact the two Patriots who died at Trenton died from advanced frostbite, and thousands of American soldiers lost toes and feet due to lack of basic footwear.

Skirmishing aside, really large full-scale battles didn’t happen that often, but when they do Ferling’s accounts are appropriately gory and blood thirsty, over and again bringing out how war amounts to the frenzied butchering and dismembering, skewering, hacking and eviscerating of other human bodies.

War in the south

By 1779 and 1780 Washington was in despair because he didn’t know what to do next. Ferling makes it clear that right up to the last moments of the war, he was fixated, obsessed, with returning to fight a big battle for New York, despite the fact that the Americans never had enough men to retake it against Britain’s well-entrenched forces. That or maybe another stab at taking Canada from the British, another phantasm which haunted American military minds, despite the catastrophe of the Arnold campaign.

Washington’s obsession with the north meant that he missed the region where the war was eventually won, which was in the southern states. About half way through the book Ferling switches focus from New England, New York and Pennsylvania, to the southern states of Maryland, North and South Carolina and Georgia.

This second half feels different from the first half for two reasons: the French had got involved, and there was a lot more guerrilla and partisan fighting.

France and world war

American representatives had been in Paris since before the start of the war, negotiating trade deals etc. Once conflict broke out, Ferling devotes sections to describing in detail the lengthy negotiations between American representatives and the French government, with the former trying to persuade the latter to join in and support the revolution.

Both sides had many considerations to weigh up: some Americans worried that any victory with the help of the French would mean handing over territory in North America to them – maybe they’d want Canada back, and so become a threat to the young country from the north; or maybe the French would demand back the rights to Louisiana (at that point all the land along both sides of the Mississippi) and would thus block any further American expansion to the west. Risky.

Other Patriots worried that any even-handed military alliance with the French might mean that Americans would get dragged into France’s endless wars in Europe: having begun a war to get free of entanglements with Britain and her power politics on the Continent, the Americans might find themselves ending up worse off than they began.

Many on the French side weren’t that thrilled either, and the French minister who managed the war, Charles Gravier de Vergennes, was presented with a sequence of obstacles, opposition and unexpected dilemmas which Ferling presents with great clarity. I had no idea that, once the French had overtly allied with the Americans in 1778, they again began planning for one of their many attempts to invade England, and sent privateers to board and confiscate British shipping.

In the event, massive French loans to America enabled Congress to feed and clothe and supply its armies, and the fleet France sent turned out to play a vital role in ‘victory’.

British defeat

As 1780 dawned the British were as puzzled as the Americans about what to do next. A series of events led the British to conceive of mounting a ‘Southern strategy’ and General Henry Clinton (who had succeeded the indecisive General Howe in 1778) despatched General Charles Cornwallis to raise Loyalist forces across the south.

Cornwallis did attract Loyalist forces and – as Ferling brings out throughout his book – substantial numbers of slaves defected and/or ran away from their southern plantations to join the British forces who promised them their freedom. But it was never enough. Loyalist support was defeated at the Battle of Kings Mountain (October 1780), and the British Legion, a cavalry force led by swashbuckling Banastre Tarleton, was defeated at the Battle of Cowpens (January 1781).

Cornwallis marched into North Carolina, gambling on a Loyalist uprising but it never materialised. He was shadowed by the American general Nathanael Greene who dominates the American side for these whole southern campaign and emerges (from my amateur perspective) as a much more energetic, successful and important American general than Washington, who spent all these last few years holed up in the north, fantasising about recapturing New York.

It was very typical of this prolonged and indecisive war that a key engagement was the Battle of Guilford Courthouse on 15 March 1781, where Cornwallis’s army beat Greene, but suffered large casualties in the process. As in so many battles of the American War of Independence, Cornwallis held the field but the other side had won.

It wasn’t a war of decisive victories; it was a war of attrition where the winner was the one who could wear down the other side. This describes the American failure at Quebec and the British failure at Saratoga – and that is how the war finally ended.

In 1781 the French arranged to send a significant fleet to the Americas. In fact it went first to the West Indies to secure French territories there, before asking where along the coastline it should be sent.

Cue feverish debate among the Americans and their French allies about whether it should be sent to New York to revive Washington’s endless dreams of recapturing the city. But in the end it went to Virginia, partly under the influence of the French officer Lafayette, who had been fighting alongside the Americans almost from the start, and was now embedded in Greene’s army.

Before he left North Carolina for Virginia, Cornwallis had been receiving confused orders from his commander-in-chief, Clinton, holed up in New York. At some moments Clinton asked him to come all the way back north to help protect the city, and in other despatches ordered him to stay where he was. The one clear message that emerged from this confusion was that Cornwallis should hunker down in a coastal port and await the Royal Navy.

So Cornwallis marched to Yorktown on the Virginia coast, built outworks, prepared for a siege and awaited relief. It never came. Instead the French fleet arrived and Nathanael Greene’s army was joined by a steady flow of Continental soldiers and militias from all across the south, steadily blocking off all Cornwallis’s escape routes.

As so often, there were several windows of opportunity when Cornwallis could have fled north or embarked at least some of his forces across the Cooper river to land east of the city. But he didn’t, he was soon completely surrounded and, with food beginning to run short, giving in to reality, Cornwallis surrendered his army on 17 October 1781.

The British give up

It cannot be emphasised too much that the Americans did not win the American war of Independence through a battle. They simply surrounded a British army which had let itself be taken by a series of accidents and bad judgements, and which decided to surrender. And the Americans couldn’t have done it without the French naval force which blockaded Yorktown, thus preventing any hopes of relieving supplies or escape.

When news of this disaster arrived back in London in late November 1781 the British government… gave up. The British still had 30,000 troops garrisoned in New York, Charleston, and Savannah, could have recruited more, and the war could have been prosecuted for another six years, if anyone had wanted to. But enough of the ruling classes were fed up to make it untenable.

Although the vote was obviously limited to male property owners, nonetheless Britain was a democracy of sorts, and on 27 February 1782, the House of Commons voted against further war in America by 19 votes. The minister responsible for conducting the war, Lord Germain, was dismissed and a vote of no confidence was passed against Lord North, who had led the government throughout. A new government led by the Whig party came to power and immediately opened negotiations for peace. Ho hum.

Conclusions

I’d never read an account of the American War of Independence before. It was a real eye-opener. There was:

1. a lack of focus, as both sides racked their brains to decide what they were trying to do

2. a lack of fighting – especially in 1779 and 1780 long periods passed with no fighting at all – I think Washington didn’t see any action at all in the final two years.

I was really, really struck by the way that a handful of events from the first months of the war have become so mythical that even I have heard of them – Paul Revere’s Ride from Boston to warn the Patriots that the British were coming; the first shot fired at Concord which inspired Emerson’s poem:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

And the Battle of Bunker Hill. But all these happened within a few months of each other right at the very start. American history and mythology dwell on these early, idealistic, and entirely positive events, and then  the following six years of failure and stalemate, well… you hear less about them.

The exception is Washington’s night-time crossing of the Delaware river, ferrying his army across to launch his surprise dawn attack on Trenton, because it was a daring dashing event and it inspired a number of heroic paintings depicting the scene.

Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze

Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze

But it’s as if the events of those first few months have become super-iconic, overflowing with revolutionary zeal and idealism and then…. as with all wars, it wasn’t over by Christmas and in fact dragged on for six long, gruelling years more, during which thousands of men died, thousands of citizens lives were destroyed by marauding militias or Indians, and the entire economy of America was undermined by a lack of supplies which led to galloping inflation, so… you don’t hear much about that.

Ferling’s long, detailed account shows the gruelling reality which lay behind the handful of mythical highlights which we remember.

3. Above all, there was a lack of inevitability. 

Again, I am used to the kind of war where ‘the tide turns’ and the Germans start to be defeated on the Western front or the Japanese are fought back across the Pacific, so that the conclusions of World Wars One and Two possess a grinding sense of inevitability.

But there was no decisive ‘turning point’ in this war and the end, when it comes, is oddly anti-climactic, almost an accident. Oh well. We’re surrounded. Better surrender, chaps.

This sense of contingency is heightened by the way Ferling, at all points, investigates very thoroughly all the arguments and logic underpinning everyone’s strategies. There was no inevitability to Cornwallis deciding to invade Virginia or deciding to retreat to Yorktown – in fact historians to this day struggle to account for it.

Indeed, for the last few years of the war, there was a mounting sense that either side might sue for international arbitration. This had happened in previous wars, where mediators such as Russia or Prussia were invited to arbitrate between the warring sides. As 1781 dawned all sides – American, French and British – were fed up with the war and wanted it to end somehow, but the Americans in particular lived in fear that an international peace treaty might be imposed on them, and that – as was traditional – territory would be allotted to whoever held it when the deal was signed.

This wish to hold on to territory partly explains why commander-in-chief Clinton was reluctant to leave New York, which would be a jewel in the crown if Britain was allowed to retain it, and also explains Cornwallis’s energetic attempts to clear the southern states of rebels, and raise Loyalist forces to keep them secure. If peace suddenly broke out, they would have been retained by the British Empire.

Ferling brings out how this nightmare scenario kept men like Washington and John Adams awake at night – the notion that after six years of sacrifice, and watching the American economy go to hell, the Patriots might end up rewarded only with the New England states and Pennsylvania and New Jersey, while New York (which extends north to a long border with Canada) and the entire south would be retained by Britain.

Worse, if the French insisted on reclaiming Louisiana, the new American republic would be surrounded on all sides by enemies and barriers.

It was not to be – but it might have been – and it is one of the many pleasures of Ferling’s long and exhaustingly thorough account, that the reader develops a real sense of just how contingent and arbitrary this shattering war and, by extension, all human affairs, really are.

The Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775 by Howard Pyle (1897)

The Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775 by Howard Pyle (1897)


Related links

Reviews of other books on American history

Napoleon III A Life by Fenton Bresler (1999)

Fenton Bresler, who died in 2003, was a barrister, newspaper columnist, television pundit and author of many books. He was a popular author rather than a historian, so the tone of this book isn’t scholarly but very much focuses on the personalities, the experiences and feelings of the people involved.

Occasionally this leads the tone to drop into sentimentality or cliché, but for the most part it makes for an entertaining, easy-going and often very illuminating read.

I’m especially glad that Bresler dwells at such length on the origins of Napoleon III’s family: it makes Napoleon III’s relationship with his uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte, much clearer, and also, in the early pages, amounts to a touching portrait of Napoleon himself and his family circle.

The Napoleonic background

Napoleon Bonaparte rose to power in post-revolutionary France emerging as the Republic’s ablest military leader in its war against its European enemies which had broken out in 1792.

In 1799 Napoleon carried out a coup against the so-called Directorate, the five-man government of France, and had himself declared First Consul. He had married Josephine de Beauharnais, a divorcée, in 1795. Josephine came with two children by her first marriage – Eugène born in 1781 and Hortense born in 1783. As Napoleon grew in power, declaring himself Emperor of the French in 1804, it became more pressing that he have a male heir, but Josephine failed to give him one. Thus, in 1810, he divorced her and married an Austrian princess, who soon bore him the much-wanted male child, who Napoleon appointed ‘King of Rome’.

Napoleon had four brothers and, at the height of his power, allotted all of them positions of power on the thrones of the various European countries he had conquered. He also arranged marriages for them with European princesses, in order to expand the family’s reach and power.

One of these plans was to arrange the marriage of his younger brother, Louis Bonaparte, King of Holland, to Hortense, daughter of his first wife, Josephine, in 1806, when she was 23 and he was 28.

The couple didn’t get on but managed to have three children, all boys – Napoléon Louis Charles Bonaparte who died at the age of four, Napoléon Louis Bonaparte (1804 – 1831), and Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte (1808-1873)  – who was to become Napoléon III, the subject of this book.

After Napoleon Bonaparte abdicated in 1814, Hortense and her two surviving sons returned to Paris where she was protected by Alexander I of Russia. However, when Napoleon escaped from the island of Elba and returned to rule France for 100 days before being finally defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Hortense loyally supported her step-father during his brief resumption of power, and was punished for it when the Allies re-occupied Paris for the second time.

Amid a White Terror, in which aristocrats settled scores with defenders of the old regime, amid a climate of lynchings, murders and executions, Hortense and her two sons – the future Napoleon III being just six years old – fled to Switzerland and began years of exile, moving from country to country around central Europe.

Within a few months of their flight Hortense’s estranged husband, Louis, by now the ex-King of Holland, demanded custody of the eldest son, Napoléon Louis. From then on it was just Hortense and Louis-Napoléon, wandering Europe for six years before finding a semi-permanent home in Switzerland. Mother and small son formed a very close bond, Louis’ wife later complaining that he never stopped venerating his mother, even long after her death.

Hopefully, the diagram below makes things a bit clearer. it shows how Napoleon’s parents Charles and Letizia had five sons and three daughters, their dates and who they married. It shows how Napoleon (second from left) married Josephine, who already had Eugène and Hortense, how he persuaded his younger brother Louis to marry Hortense, and they had two sons, the younger of which (and the only one shown here) became Napoleon III. Napoleon divorced Josephine and married Marie of Austria by whom he had his only legitimate son, Napoleon, ‘King of Rome’, later referred to as Napoleon II, who died aged only 21 in 1832.

Napoleon III's family tree

Napoleon III’s family tree

Years of exile

Young Louis-Napoléon spent the 1820s subject to a string of overbearing tutors. He grew into a handsome man, a bit on the short side, but dashing in his army uniform, more intelligent than the other men in his family and, as this book shows in some detail, a great seducer of women. All through his life he seduced and bedded almost every woman he came into contact with.

The family tree I gave above may seem like unnecessary detail but it turns out to be vital in several ways.

By focusing on the ambience and influence of Napoleon on all his family Bresler really conveys the sense of entitlement to royal treatment and to a grand destiny which shaped Louis’ life. By giving all his siblings such exalted roles and royal marriages Napoleon I had created an extraordinarily complex web of relations across European royalty and aristocracy. These uncles and aunts and cousins didn’t just disappear when Napoleon fell from power, but their sense of imperial entitlement continued to exert an influence on Louis right up to the end of his life.

Bresler’s vividly written book does what more academic histories often fail to do – it powerfully conveys the real sense of conviction and motivation which fueled Louis. For Mike Rapport or Gareth Stedman Jones or Karl Marx, Louis-Napoleon was a joke, an empty man who believed nothing and was pushed to the surface by the failure of all the other factions of society and politics, a faute de mieux man.

Bresler’s book – personal and sentimental though it often is, wearing its amateur status with pride – nonetheless embeds you right at the heart of this extraordinary family and has you seeing the world from Louis’ point of view, as a theatre onto which he was irresistibly destined to rise to glory and to lead France.

The extraordinary thing is – that it happened just as he dreamed, exactly as he was so convinced that it would.

Death of the other heirs

Louis-Napoléon’s first political involvement was with the Carbonari, the secret society dedicated to achieving unity and independence for the then-fragmented Italy. His brother joined him in the cause, but caught measles on campaign and Bresler paints the affecting scene where Louis-Napoléon holds his elder brother in his arms as he died. It was 1831.

After Waterloo, Napoleon I’s one legitimate son, Napoléon François Charles Joseph Bonaparte, the so-called ‘King of Rome’, had been taken by his mother back to Austria. Here he was raised as a prince of the royal blood but in virtual house arrest, given the new name Franz, Duke of Reichstadt. Although he just about remembered his father before he went off to fight at Waterloo and never returned, the young prince was forbidden to speak French or even to mention his father’s name.

When Napoleon died in 1821, in exile on the island of St Helena, he bequeathed his son a load of priceless memorabilia but the Austrian Chancellor, Metternich, prevented any of it from reaching the boy. As an Austrian prince Franz was raised to join the army and in 1832 given a battalion to command, but soon afterwards he caught pneumonia and died, aged just 21.

The significance of the early deaths of these two young men was that their removal made Louis-Napoleon the heir to the Napoleonic throne (there were two remaining brothers of Napoleon I, who lived in affluent retirement, but neither had any interest in returning to public life). So from this point – 1832 – onwards, through thick and thin, Louis was convinced that it was his destiny to one day rule as his grandfather had. Everyone who met him reported that he had an unalterable conviction that his destiny was to restore the Napoleonic name and rule France.

Napoleonic writings

Napoleon I spent his years of exile on St Helena dictating his memoirs. These are famously economical with the truth, tending to gloss over the fact that his rule saw Europe wracked by 15 years of bloody warfare, and preferring to position himself to posterity as a champion of the revolutionary values of liberty, equality and fraternity.

His grandson followed in the Emperor’s footsteps and, once he was the heir apparent, published the first of what became a series of political pamphlets, starting with Rêveries politiques or ‘political dreams’ in 1833 at the age of 25. This was followed in 1834 by Considérations politiques et militaires sur la Suisse (‘Political and military considerations about Switzerland’) and in 1839 by Les Idées napoléoniennes (‘Napoleonic Ideas’).

Wordy and pompous, Louis’s books boil down to two central ideas:

  • the primacy of a national interest which transcended all particular class or factional interest
  • and universal (male) suffrage which would allow ‘the people’ to vote for a strong ruler who would implement ‘the advantages of the Republic without the inconveniences’

Napoleonic referendums

I hadn’t realised that the first Napoleon felt it necessary to call a plebiscite in 1804 to approve his move in status from First Consul to ‘Emperor of the French’. Nor that the vote was so overwhelmingly positive, with 99.93% (3,521,675) in favour and only 0.07% (2,579) against.

This was to be Louis’s strategy: it was universal (male) suffrage which got him elected president in 1848, and which he then appealed to again to support his declaration of himself Emperor in 1852. Both times he won by huge majorities.

So one of the fascinations of Bresler’s book is to learn that government by plebiscite, or referendum, was a well-established reactionary strategy for appealing over the heads of the metropolitan (liberal and bourgeois) elite, to the generally more conservative, and uneducated, population at large.

Quite thought-provoking, given the pickle Britain is in following the 2016 EU Referendum…

The advantage of Bresler’s in-depth accounts

The outline of Louis’ biography in the 1830s and 40s is simply stated: he attempted two ‘coups’ designed to raise the army behind his legendary name and to overthrow the then-king, Louis-Philippe – one at a barracks in Strasbourg in 1836, then again in Boulogne in 1840.

Whereas other histories dismiss both these events in a paragraph or so, Bresler goes into as much detail as possible, describing the elaborateness of the preparations, and then how they both unravelled into farce. He drills right down to descriptions of how the conspirators entered the barracks, what Louis said and did, how they tried to persuade the head of each barracks to join them, the misunderstandings, the retreats, the squabbles between the conspirators. He tells us that he has visited the exact sites of both events and walked through the action. Bresler makes it feel like a thriller.

Same goes for all the other key moments in Louis’ career. You might not get the kind of detailed socio-economic or political analysis which you might get from academic history books, but Bresler’s more personal approach not only makes a welcome change, it puts you right there, right on the spot at some of the crucial turning points in French history.

Louis-Napoleon goes to prison

After Louis’ first coup attempt, the government of King Louis-Philippe indulgently exiled Louis to the United States, from where, in fact, he quite quickly returned to be with his dying mother, Hortense, in Switzerland. After the 1840 attempt, however, they lost patience and Louis was tried and sentenced to prison in perpetuity.

Bresler’s account of this imprisonment is absolutely fascinating. He was held in a run-down chateau in the town of Ham in the Somme district of north-east France, along with his loyal doctor and valet. He was kept in a small room at the end of a corridor, with holes in the floor and ceiling and only paper flaps to cover the window, with primitive toilet facilities down the hall. Here he built himself shelves to hold up his books, and spent a lot of time reading.

Louis and the loyal friends who had assisted at the coup and so been sentenced alonside him (General Montholon and Doctor Conneau) were the only inmates. A garrison of 200, of whom 60 soldiers were on duty at any time, was devoted just to oversee them.

One of the most flabbergasting things Bresler tells us is that Louis and the general were both allowed to have their mistresses move in and live with them. How very French! Louis’ mistress, Alexandrine moved in and, over the course of the six years, bore him two illegitimate children, Eugene and Louis, both of which were farmed out to the Cornu family in Paris to look after.

The size of the garrison guarding Louis makes it all the more amazing that in 1846 he managed to escape. Builders had arrived to finally do up the crumbling chateau and Bresler gives a characteristically detailed and nail-biting description of the plan the General, the doctor and the valet concoct, to have Louis disguise himself as one of the workmen and simply walk out the main gate. Which is what he did.

1848 to 1852

I have described the events in France of 1848 to 1852 in my reviews of:

Briefly, King Louis-Philippe of France was overthrown by a popular uprising in February 1848 and a Republic was declared, but there was then a prolonged period of chaos and uncertainty. Liberals tried to form a national government but, when they shut down the workshops which had given work and a dole to the unemployed of Paris, the working men set up barricades which led the government to appoint a general to retake the city which he did during a week of merciless violence in June 1848. Not only were thousands slaughtered but the entire far left / socialist leadership was rounded up and imprisoned.

This helped the drift in both practical politics and the national mood towards the right. His prison sentence having lapsed with the abolition of the old regime, Louis-Napoleon managed to find a new home, and his supporters raised the money for him to stand for election to the new Chamber of Deputies. To everyone’s surprise but his own, he was elected.

In the debates that ensued, Louis was wisely understated and restrained but – in line with his writings – supported the idea of universal (male) suffrage. As the action-packed year of 1848 drew to a close, Louis-Napoleon stepped up from his modest activity in the assembly, to stand in the election for France’s first ever president, running against General Cavaignac, the man responsible for the massacre of the ‘June Days’, and various liberals.

To everyone’s amazement Louis-Napoleon stormed home, with five and a half million votes compared to his nearest rival, the general, who got only one and a half million.

Louis spent the next three years conspiring to convert the four-year presidency to ‘rule for life’, succeeding in December 1851, when he staged a coup against the National Assembly. He followed this up by holding a plebiscite to appeal of the entire male population of France in December 1852, which approved of him declaring himself Emperor Napoleon, taking the number III in memory of Napoleon’s only son who, although he never ruled a country, was now given the posthumous title Napoleon II.

The great strength of Bresler’s book compared to conventional political histories is that they all start from the present – they start from a modern perspective in which the liberal opposition, or even the French socialists – are taken as standard bearers for what we now know ended up happening over the long term i.e. the development of parliamentary democracy, universal suffrage, limiting the power of the rich and aristocracy, introduction of the welfare state, right to work, right to strike, trade unions, pensions and so on.

From this perspective Napoleon III was a freak, an inexplicable anomaly, an apparent step backwards to the pomp and trappings of Napoleon I.

But Bresler shows you the world from a completely different perspective, from the perspective of the extremely upper-class sections of French society, not to mention the very cream of European royalty, and the world of privilege and entitlement they inhabited.

What mattered in this world was not the press or the horribly common deputies in the National Assembly: it was the opinion of Louis-Napoleon’s mother or wife or his cousin the arch-duke and so on, an extremely small, closely-knit society. And within this world there was always the expectation that royalty or imperial values would ultimately triumph. It was God’s will. It was inevitable. And Bresler helps you really appreciate how this fondness for Empire, pomp and grandeur, was shared by millions of ordinary Frenchmen.

What, to the secular liberal writers of history appears a freakish accident appears, from the perspective Bresler gives us, quite natural and almost inevitable.

He also makes the point that Louis-Napoleon was good with people. He may have been a poor public speaker – he had a flat metallic voice and a pronounced German accent – so he came over badly in the National Assembly and among the metropolitan elite of journalists and commentators.

But he had a highly developed sense of the importance of people out there and Bresler describes Louis’ very modern campaigns or ‘charm offensives’ in which he toured virtually all of France, getting on easily with crowds and individuals of all stations of life, in towns and villages the length and breadth of the land. Having been an exile on the run and a prisoner himself living in very reduced circumstances, Louis may have insisted on imperial protocol, but as a person was always modest and approachable. Queen Victoria expected to dislike him but was charmed on their first meeting. Everyone was.

Thus, in 1851, while the deputies and political theorists squabbled in Paris, Louis-Napoleon toured the country and was rewarded with a plebiscite confirming his claim to the title Napoleon III – 7.4 million in favour to 641,000 against.

The Empire of Napoleon III

Domestic

I hadn’t realised that the 1851 coup led to such violence and repression. The population of Paris brought out the barricades (again) which the army quickly stormed with the loss of up to 400 lives. But it was the political repression afterwards which surprised me. About 26,000 people were arrested, mostly members of the left-wing opposition, some 4,000 in Paris alone. The 239 inmates who were judged most severely were sent to the penal colony in Cayenne, 9,530 political opponents were sent to Algeria, 1,500 were expelled from France, and another 3,000 were given forced residence away from their homes.

Louis-Napoleon – painted by Bresler as essentially a mild man – set up a commission to review the sentences and some 3,500 were eventually reprieved.

Imprisonment of the left opposition was accompanied by strict press censorship: No newspaper article dealing with political or social questions could be published without the permission of the government, fines for breaches were increased, and the list of press offenses was greatly expanded. After three warnings, a newspaper or journal could be suspended or even permanently closed.

On the plus side, the 18 years of the Second Empire are remembered for the growth of the French economy and boom times, especially in Paris. Having spent time in exile in Britain, Napoleon III had seen the power of the industrial revolution and he encouraged the expansion of the French railway network and the diversification of the French economy into iron and steel works.

Probably the most famous development of his time was the extensive remodelling of Paris by the architect Hausmann, responsible for creating the broad, straight boulevards which cut through Paris’s squalid slums and created the airy, sunny Paris which survives to this day. Bresler shows how closely Louis followed these plans for a new imperial capital.

The Emperor selected the Elysée Palace as his Paris residence and the palace remains to this day the official seat of the French President. He inaugurated a calendar of weekly balls and concerts at which all the great and good could meet and mingle, intrigue and do business.

A new Opera House was built, amid an outpouring of fine arts and gilded decoration. The Second Empire almost exactly corresponds with the output of Offenbach, creator of witty entertaining operettas such as Orpheus in the Underworld and the Tales of Hoffman.

The Emperor Napoleon II in his pomp by Franz Xaver Winterhalter

The Emperor Napoleon III in his pomp by Franz Xaver Winterhalter

Foreign Policy

The Crimean War 1853-56 Napoleon III supported Britain and Turkey in their bid to halt Russian expansion into the Balkans, the reason war broke out. After the long grinding war, horribly mismanaged on the Allies’ side, the conference which agreed the peace was held in Paris, a diplomatic coup for Napoleon.

Mexican adventure Less successful was the scheme Napoleon III was persuaded to support, of sending a European monarch to rule over chaotic Mexico. France along with Britain and Spain had invaded the Mexican Republic in the winter of 1861 in order to reclaim the foreign debts which the Republic had inherited from the monarchy it had just overthrown. Once the money was paid Britain and Spain withdrew but the French decided to stay on and, though his contacts with the Austrian royal family, Napoleon managed to persuade Maximilian, younger brother of the Austrian emperor Francis, to take the ‘throne’ of Mexico, as Emperor Maximilian I.

This bizarre situation was only possible with the backing of the most reactionary elements of Mexican society and due to the simple fact that Mexico’s neighbour, the United States, was bogged down in its own brutal civil war (1861-65).

But:

  1. Maximilian turned out to be a ‘modern’ ‘liberal’ emperor, much to the disgust of the Catholic, landowning autocracy who, therefore, never gave him the unstinted support he required
  2. Even with the backing of over 30,000 French troops, Maximilian was never able to defeat the Republican forces of the republican President Benito Juárez
  3. Once the American Civil War was over, the Americans began to actively support Juárez

Facing increasing opposition at home, Napoleon withdrew the last of France’s army in 1866. Maximilian’s ’empire’ collapsed, and he was captured and executed by the Mexican government in 1867.

True to form, Bresler concentrates less on the international power politics of the tale and more on the personal experiences of those concerned. Before the end, Maximilian’s wife, Carlotta, sailed to France and insisted on an audience with Napoleon III, by this time a sick man, and begged for military help to be sent to her husband. She apparently broke down in front of Napoleon and his wife, before travelling on to see the Pope to beg for help, in front of whom she began raving that everyone was trying to poison her. By this stage seriously unhinged, Carlotta was committed to a lunatic asylum in Belgium where she lived for a further sixty years.

Here, as in so many other places, Bresler really brings history alive by going beyond the dates and geopolitical events to show you the characters and suffering and personalities of the people involved.

The Franco-Prussian War and overthrow

I’ve covered the events of the Franco-Prussian War in other blog posts:

Bismarck tricked Napoleon III into declaring war on Prussia. This was just the patriotic war which Bismarck had been seeking in order to persuade the still-independent states of southern Germany to unite with the North German Confederation which Bismarck had forged under the leadership of Prussia.

It worked beyond his wildest dreams. Not only did Napoleon III declare war on Prussia but the French Chamber of Deputies rose to their feet acclaiming the war, and mobs marched round French provincial towns singing the Marseillaise.

What idiots. Within weeks the main French Army was surrounded and neutralised at Metz and the army marching to their relief was cornered and annihilated at Sedan. The Germans had better weapons, better logistics and better leadership. Many French soldiers were still trying to figure out where they were being deployed to when the decisive engagements of the war were over.

Napoleon, now quite ill with very painful bladder stones, made the quixotic decision to go to the front and lead by example like his grandfather. Except he was nothing like his grandfather. Bresler quotes the accounts of exasperated generals that Louis made and reversed judgements, confusing everyone until he eventually handed over authority to the general on the spot just in time to be captured along with the wreckage of his army at Sedan.

Once peace was made, Louis was accompanied through the lines to parley with his former colleague, the German King Wilhelm I. Must haven been an embarrassing conversation. Bismarck, who Napoleon had entertained at the French court only a few years earlier, was there with his army, and also spent some time condoling with the tired old man.

Napoleon III was moved to a castle in Germany, before being sent into exile in England. He wasn’t in France to see the catastrophe which followed, namely the French government refusing to capitulate and fighting on from Bordeaux while the Germans surrounded and besieged Paris. They eventually broke the siege, fought their way into the capital and the government finally capitulated.

The Germans marched about the place with characteristic arrogance and the German leaders assembled in the Palace of Versailles where King Wilhelm of Prussia was crowned Kaiser of the new German Empire which had been created by Bismarck. The new German Reich was built on the humiliating defeat of France.

And then, when the Germans withdrew, Paris collapsed into chaos as far left socialists declared a socialist republic and started executing the rich and Catholic priests. The new national government responded by embarking on a second siege of Paris – this time by French forces – who, after more privation and hunger, themselves finally broke into the city, the cue for vicious street fighting, in which the enraged government forces were encouraged to take revenge on the ‘communards’ for all the atrocities they were said to have committed, including executing the archbishop of Paris. It is still stunning to read that French forces killed 20,000 of their own people in just one week.

Napoleon III missed all this. He was in England, at Chislehurst. Bresler shares with us his entertaining investigations which tend to suggest that as far back as 1860, Louis – who had spent his entire childhood in exile and six years in prison – had been making plans in case the same thing happened again. Thus a British agent probably acting for him had used a large amount of money to buy Camden Place, a fairly modest (for an emperor) mansion in Chislehurst overlooking a wide expanse of grass and woodland (now home of the Chislehurst Gold Club).

Here he joined his wife, Eugénie, who had fled Paris with their son before the Prussians arrived, and here he was to live for the last three years of his life until his death in January 1873 from complications after an operation to remove his painful bladder stones.

 The Empress Eugénie and her son by James Tissot (1878)

The Empress Eugénie and her son in the grounds of Camden Place, five years after the death of her husband, by James Tissot (1878)

A medical indictment

The last chapter in the book is a surprisingly fierce indictment of the British doctors who, in Bresler’s opinion, killed Napoleon III. The Emperor had suffered from stones in the bladder for some years, which caused him a lot of pain. This ailment flared up severely during the height of the Franco-Prussian War so that even as he attempted to guide the army he was sweating with pain.

Bresler goes into full barrister mode to marshal evidence for the prosecution from two modern specialists in ailments of the bladder – James Bellringer and Sir David Innes Williams.

Bresler met, interviewed and corresponded with these witnesses and uses their testimony to assemble an argument that the procedure to destroy the stone in the bladder – inserting a device down the urethra which grasps and attempts to crush the stone so that the minuscule fragments can be passed in urine – should never have been carried out. What happened was his English doctors carried out a first procedure, but less than half the stone was destroyed and passed. After a few days’ recovery, another procedure took place in January 1873, but again the stone proved bigger than anticipated.

All was in readiness for a third procedure when the Emperor suddenly flagged, weakened, and died of heart failure. According to the modern doctors this was almost certainly due to sepsis i.e. the bladder was infected by the blockage and the medical procedure the English doctors carried out dislodged some infected bladder tissue which got into the circulation and infected the heart, causing it to fail.

Apparently, the Emperor’s death at the hands of ‘incompetent’ British doctors was a source of bitterness among French doctors and a subject of dispute between the two nations’ medics for years afterwards.

All this is fairly interesting but the revelation for me was that Napoleon submitted to these painful operations because he was planning another coup. Elaborate arrangements had been made; he was to join a cousin in Switzerland then ride with supporters to Lyon, recruiting support along the way, raising the Imperial flag and so on., just as he had tried in 1836 and 1840.

But the crucial element in raising the troops was that Napoleon should be able to ride a horse. Over the previous few years this had become pretty much impossible because of the acute pain in his bladder caused by the horse’s jogging movement. So the immediate cause of his death might have been medical ‘incompetence’. But the ultimate cause was his relentless, obsessive refusal to be denied what he saw as his pre-destined fate, to rule France and to hand on the Empire to his son.

This is not quite so completely bonkers as it sounds because Bresler explains how the Third Republic, created after Napoleon’s fall, remained deeply unpopular for years, so much so that there was even talk of restoring the grandson of Charles X, the king who had fled the throne back in 1830, the 60-year-old Comte de Chamborde.

The sensible academic histories I read make history sound like an inevitable unfolding of socio-economic trends. Bresler’s book reinserts the element of populism and mass psychology which combine with the fanaticism or abilities of specific individuals to remind us just how weird and contingent history often is. These apparently anachronistic sentiments of both royalists and imperialists, were to play a role in helping bitterly divide France during the long drawn out Dreyfus Affair and beyond. Reading Bresler’s book helps you understand their strong and abiding emotional appeal to large sectors of the French public.

A personal history

Bresler wears his personal approach on his sleeve. Rather than quote the latest academic texts, he prefers to reference very old previous biographies of Napoleon III, including some he was lucky enough to find in second hand bookshops in Paris.

He tells us about his own personal visits to various key sites in the story, and the chats he has with the local tourist board officials. For example, he shares with us his surprise that the tourist chaps in Boulogne didn’t seem to realise the shattering importance of Napoleon III’s botched coup there. Why isn’t there some plaque or guide to the precise events and locations, things which Bresler recreates for us in dramatic detail?

At another moment he stands on the very same quayside where the Emperor Maximilian reluctantly took ship to set off for his adventure in Mexico and is as affected as a sentimental novelist.

I have stood on the landing stage at Miramar from which they embarked and it seemed as if an air of melancholy still lingers upon the scene. (p.314)

Bresler visits as many of the exact locations where Napoleon lived throughout his life as he can (including a trip to the remains of the Chateau d’Ham where he was imprisoned), and especially all the houses in London which he rented. Lastly of course he visits the grand Camden Place where Louis and the Empress spent their last years in exile – and which stands to this day, as the headquarters of Chislehurst Golf Club.

This is all rather sweet and endearing, a refreshing change from the earnest, statistical and geo-political accounts of history I’m used to reading. Much closer to the personalised way in which most people actually experience life.

A verbal tic or token of Bresler’s very personal involvement with his hero is his repeated use of the word ‘sad’. Academic historians rarely express emotion, and then it’s at most the cliché that this or that decision was ‘tragic’ – but Bresler again and again takes the kind of soft, sentimental and rather naive point of view epitomised by the word ‘sad’.

The two boys [the illegitimate sons of Napoleon III], then aged fifteen and thirteen, were taken away from her [their mother, Lizzie Howard] and sadly, with the callousness of youth, soon forgot her. (p.275)

In later years, Margot married a Prussian named Kulbach and died at the sadly early age of forty-five. (p.322)

As for Louis, he would be a prisoner-of-war (albeit in the soft comfort of the new German Emperor’s summer palace) soon to be released to his last sad exile at Camden Place, with his health so badly deteriorated that he had become a pale, indecisive and sad version of the witty, commanding and assured man he had once been. (p.323)

I believe that two other factors, apart from his ill-health, led to his sad deterioration. (p.328)

Sadly [these criticisms] also apply to Louis himself. (p.332)

The year 1865 began on a sad note for Louis. (p.334)

The sad news of Maximilian’s death was much more in keeping with the reality of French life and the circumstances of Louis’ rule than all the fine uniforms and magnificent spectacles.

Sadly, they were all living in a fool’s paradise. (p.353)

Mathilde’s entry in her diary for that day makes sad reading. (p.366)

And much more in the same ilk. The ghost of Barbara Cartland floats over many of these pages.

Imperial sex

Everything we were brought up to believe about the French is confirmed by this book. The amount of infidelity, adultery, prostitutes, procuring, pandering and debauching taking place among the French upper classes is mind boggling.

Napoleon I had many ‘flings’ and a number of illegitimate children. Josephine had a number of lovers. But their grandson and his peers far outdid the older generation. Louis loved sex and he had it with as many women as possible. I’ve mentioned the lover he had while imprisoned at Ham but she’s just a drop in the ocean. Soon after he became Emperor he realised he needed an Empress and so married the Spanish aristocrat, Doña María Eugenia Ignacia Augustina de Palafox y KirkPatrick, 16th Countess of Teba, 15th Marchioness of Ardales – Eugénie for short.

But that didn’t stop him having an ‘official’ mistress – Bresler relishes the way the French have a phrase for top mistress, maitresse de titre – who was for a while the Englishwoman Lizzie Howard, but also a steady string of other young ladies who were presented to him at the numerous balls and concerts which Napoleon arranged.

There was a well-established process. After (or even during) the ball, a flunky brought the potential victim into Napoleon’s private study at the Élysée Palace. The Emperor made a quick visual assessment. If he wasn’t interested, he chatted politely for a few minutes then said that his papers called him, the flunky reappeared, the young lady retired, presumably counting her blessings. But if Napoleon liked what he saw, he dismissed the flunky and then, after a bit of chat, took the young lady up some hidden backstairs to a bedroom. Here a servant was waiting who helped the lady disrobe and then led her into the Imperial Bedroom where Napoleon was waiting, also naked.

Bresler includes quite a few gory descriptions of Napoleon’s love-making which was quick and to the point, his point anyway. One young lady recorded that she had barely had time to make a few coy protestations before he grabbed her in an intimate place, manhandled her onto the bed and was in like Flynn. There were a few minutes of grunting noises and – one victim leaves a wonderful detail – the carefully waxed ends of Napoleon’s moustache began to melt and wilt with the heat of his exertion before, with a final grunt and grimace it was all over, the Emperor stood up and the lady was despatched back to the changing room, helped back into her upper class costume, and led away..

For a while the maîtress en titre was the slender, sexy Virginia Castiglione who, Bresler reveals, was very probably a spy sent to seduce Napoleon (not very difficult) and report back on his thoughts about Italian unification to the canny Prime Minister of Piedmont, the Count of Cavour. How novelish this all is!

A propos of Italy, Bresler gives an entertaining description of the surprising crudity of King Victor Emmanuel, who ended up becoming the first king of united Italy. He was once at the Paris opera as a guest of Napoleon’s and pointed out a particularly tasty ballet dancer. ‘How much for the little girl?’ he asked. ‘I’ve no idea,’ replied Napoleon. ‘For your majesty,’ quickly interjected Napoleon’s fixer and procurer, Bacciochi, ‘five thousand francs.’ ‘That’s damn expensive,’ grunted Victor. ‘Never mind,’ said Napoleon turning to Bacciochi. ‘Put it on my tab.’

There’s a strong flavour of Harvey Weinstein about Napoleon III.

From 1863 to 1864 Napoleon’s maîtress en titre was Marguerite Bellanger, a bouncing 23-year-old country girl who catered to Napoleon’s every whim, eventually giving birth to yet another illegitimate child, Charles Jules Auguste François Marie. But none of us get any younger. On one occasion Napoleon returned to the Imperial Palace so exhausted by a prolonged session with Margot that he collapsed and had to be carried to bed – at which point the Empress Eugénie stormed round to Margot’s house in person and shouted that she was killing the Emperor – to which Margot tartly replied that if he got enough at home he wouldn’t have to play away.

(Eugénie emerges as not exactly likeable but as a very tough, independently-minded woman. She caused lots of ructions among Louis’ advisers by insisting on sitting in on Cabinet meetings and, in some of the most fraught decisions, casting the deciding vote. She was, for example, all in favour of declaring war on Prussia in 1870. After meeting the French Cabinet in 1866, Bismarck had described Eugénie as ‘the only man in his Government’, though just as able as all the men to make a catastrophically bad decision – p.340).

But it wasn’t just Louis who was at it. Almost every French figure of note seems to have had a mistress, and quite a few of these were married women whose husbands didn’t mind because they had their own harem of lovers. The atmosphere was rampant with infidelity, and the text is cluttered with countless love children being farmed out or given away.

It all makes quite a contrast with the unimaginative faithfulness of the stiff Prussian Bismarck or the sweet uxoriousness of Victoria and Albert, and goes a long way to explaining the reputation for sexual licence which France, and especially Paris, enjoyed well into the period of my youth.

(In W. Somerset Maugham’s novel, Christmas Holiday, which I’ve just read, young Charley’s family assume that his main motivation for going to Paris to see his university chum will be to have the kind of sexual adventures i.e. sex, which were considered impossible and unacceptable in the England of the time – and that was published in 1939.)

La gloire

One last point. In accounts of the Franco-Prussian War, the Great War, and then of France’s colonial disasters in Algeria and Indo-China, again and again I’ve come across the obsession of the French military and political class with la gloire – glory.

Glory is an important part of French cultural history and political discourse. Again and again the French have behaved recklessly and stupidly because obsessed with retaining or winning la gloire for la patrie.

Bresler suggests this delusion started with the first Napoleon – within a decade of his fall, many Frenchmen had forgotten the misery of the non-stop wars he’d engaged in, let alone the fact that he was militarily defeated – twice – and become dazzled by the vague blurry memory of the ‘glory’ of the days when France had a land Empire which controlled most of Europe.

‘I swear to rule for the interests, happiness and glory of the people of France,’ said Napoleon as part of his Coronation Oath; and he had used that same vital ‘glory’ when accepting his earlier nomination as Consul for Life.

These two appeals to ‘glory’ are an indication of the psychological appeal of Napoleon I, and later of Napoleon III, to the French nation: it appealed to the average French person’s desire, above all else, for national glory; for France to be perceived as the finest, the best, in whatever context she is engaged. General de Gaulle trumpeted the same message in the 1960s. Even today’s French politicians use it as an essential part of their platform. By contrast, no British politician has ever promised glory to the electorate. It has never been part of a British sovereign’s Coronation Oath to swear allegiance to the achievement of glory as a sacred mission. No British sovereign or politician would dream of making a similar claim but to Napoleon I and Napoleon III such boasting came easily.

‘Boasting’. That’s the word. This will-o’-the-wisp gloire explains much of France’s preposterous pomposity and yet is so weirdly at odds with France’s miserable military record of the past 200 years.

  • Napoleon – defeated and exiled – twice, 1814, 1815
  • 1830 revolution overthrows Bourbon King Charles
  • 1848 democratic revolution – defeated, leads to constitutional chaos, then autocracy
  • Napoleon III – humiliating failure in Mexico 1867, crushing defeat in Franco-Prussian War 1870
  • The Commune – Red Terror then government reprisals lead to massacres in Paris 1871
  • Dreyfus Affair 1894-1906, twelve year long humiliating revelation of corruption and lies in the French army and government
  • First World War 1914-1918 – French narrowly escape defeat thanks to the British – epic mutinies at Verdun and elsewhere in 1917 shame the army
  • Between the wars – political chaos
  • Second World War – defeat and occupation by the Nazis, widespread collaboration, national humiliation
  • 1950s – humiliating failure in Indo-China leading up to catastrophic defeat in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu
  • 1950s – humiliating failure in Algeria, leading to French Army attempts to assassinate the French president
  • 1958 the French Army plans a coup d’etat against the government
  • 1968 – chaos leading to near revolution

A few years ago I took the kids to Paris and visited the traditional tourist sights. It was when inspecting the Arc de Triomphe really closely, reading the dates and names of battles, that it began to dawn on me – the history of the French Army for the past two hundred years, 1815 to 2015, is a history of unending defeats.

This is what makes the French obsession with la gloire, with boasting about their ‘achievements’, all the more amusing.

No one has ever lost popular support in France by reminding people of their eternal glory. (p.250)

Bresler’s book is a highly entertaining, insightful, emotional and personal account of the strange life and enduring legacy of this most unlikely of political figures.


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Bismarck: The Iron Chancellor by Volker Ullrich (2008)

Bismarck, a potted biography

Born in 1815, Otto von Bismarck completed university and began the tedious, exam-passing career path of becoming a Prussian civil servant, but rejected it as boring and went back to manage his father’s lands in Pomerania. He gained a reputation as a fast-living, hard-drinking, traditional Prussian Junker (‘minor aristocrat’), who loved hunting, drinking and sounding off about how the world was going to the dogs.

Local politics Because of his status as local landowner, during the later 1830s and early 1840s Bismarck became involved in local administration, local courts and land disputes, then in local parliamentary business, coming to the attention of local conservative politicians, one of whose brothers was a personal adviser to the king of Prussia. Useful connections. Steps up the ladder.

The Vereinigter Landtag In 1847 Bismarck stood in for a member of the Pomeranian provincial parliament, who was ill, and made his first speech on 17 May. He went on to make a mark as an arch conservative, an uncompromising ally of the Crown, and a vehement critic of all liberal ideas.

The 1848 revolution Barely had Bismarck come to the attention of the political classes than the Berlin insurrection broke out in March 1848 which threatened to overthrow Friedrich Wilhelm IV. The king’s advisors wanted him to flee the city and then let the army pound it into submission. The king wisely decided to stay and submitted to ‘shameful’ ordeals such as removing his hat when the victims of the street fighting of March were paraded before the palace. To his courtiers’ astonishment, he then went riding out among his citizenry to talk to them and apologise for the bloodshed. His personal bravery and appearance of compassion won him many converts.

Still stuck on his country estates, at one point Bismarck had considered raising an armed force from the farmers on his lands in Pomerania, to march on Berlin and overthrow the liberal parliament and to ‘liberate’ the king, but was talked out of it. Later in 1848, as the counter-revolution gained momentum, Bismarck set up a counter-revolutionary newspaper, the Neue Preussische Zeitung and also helped to set up a ‘Junker’ parliament of landowners in East Prussia, worried about the radical threat to property.

The counter revolution The liberal revolutionaries had set up a hopefully titled ‘National Parliament’ which, as the king’s forces re-established control, was forced to move from Berlin to Frankfurt and continued sitting and passing decrees, even as power returned to the kings and conservatives. In October 1848 Austrian troops retook Vienna from its rebellious citizens. By November 1848 the counter-revolution was victorious in Berlin, also. The Berlin National Assembly was first moved to Brandenburg and then dissolved. The king granted a new constitution which made a few concessions to liberal views, but kept himself and his army as the ultimate source of power.

MP to the new parliament In 1849 Bismarck was elected to the new Landtag as a prominent advocate of the ultraconservatives. He was then elected onto the ‘Union Parliament’ which sat in Erfurt and was supposed to advise on the constitution of what many hoped would become a federal Germany. Bismarck’s position was always simple and clear: Prussia first. Prussia, its king and power and traditions, must not be subsumed and diluted by absorption into a Greater Germany.

The renewed German Confederation In 1850, after stormy diplomatic exchanges which almost led to war, Prussia acceded to the Austrian demand to set up a new version of the pre-1848 German Bund or Confederation, to be based in Frankfurt. In 1851 Bismarck was appointed Prussian envoy to the Bundestag in Frankfurt – at just 35, a notable achievement over the heads of many older, more qualified candidates.

Prevents customs union with Austria The 1850s saw a sequence of events in which Bismarck emerged as a canny and astute exponent of power politics. The perennial dispute between Austria and Prussia crystallised into Austria’s wish to join a customs union of the north German states. Bismarck helped to exclude Austria, fobbing her off with a subsidiary agreement. Here presence would have diluted the power of  his beloved Prussia.

The Crimean War of 1854-56 showed how much Bismarck had learned and how far he had come from an unquestioning devotion to arch conservatism. Unexpectedly, the war pitched Christian Britain and France in support of the Muslim Ottoman Empire, against Christian Russia, in a bid to stem Russia’s annexation of the Balkans and creeping progress towards the Mediterranean. Arch conservatives, including the King of Prussia, had a lifelong sympathy for the most autocratic crown in Europe (Russia), and for the so-called ‘Holy Alliance’ which in previous decades had bound together the three autocracies of Prussia, Russia and Austria, and so wanted to go to Russia’s support. But Bismarck saw that Prussia’s best course lay in neutrality, which he managed to maintain.

Friendships with France Russia duly lost the Crimean War and was punished in the resulting Treaty of London. The France of Napoleon III emerged as the strongest power on the continent. Bismarck realised that, for the time being, Prussia should ally with France.

The New Era In 1858 Prince Wilhelm became regent for his brother the king of Prussia, who had had a stroke. Wilhelm showed himself much more amenable to liberals and German nationalists than his brother. It was the start of a so-called New Era. Bismarck surprised his right wing allies by showing himself remarkably open to the change. He had become well known for predicting that, sooner or later, Prussia would be forced into conflict with Austria for complete dominance of Germany. If liberals and nationalists contributed to Prussia’s strength and readiness for that battle, all the better. This is Realpolitik, you happily change alliances, friends and enemies and even principles – all in support of one consistent goal.

Diplomatic exile In the new atmosphere, Bismarck’s opponents had him despatched to St Petersburg as Prussian envoy. He was stuck there for three years but although he hated being torn out of domestic politics, he made many useful contacts in Russian circles. Bismarck lobbied hard to be given a high position in Prussia and was recalled in 1862, but Wilhelm disliked his crusty conservatism and despatched him on to Paris.

Appointed Prussian Prime Minister In 1861 the old king died and his brother ascended the throne as King Wilhelm I. In 1862 arguments between the liberal parliament and conservative administration about reforming the Prussian army led to a constitutional crisis. Bismarck was recalled from Paris and single-handedly persuaded King Wilhelm not to abdicate. Impressed by his staunch support, his parliamentary skill and his knowledge of foreign affairs, Wilhelm appointed Bismarck Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary of Prussia.

1863 Bismarck’s administration found itself embroiled in the ongoing arguments about army reform, as well as problems with the national budget, and sank to record unpopularity. Austria tried to renew the German Confederation on terms favourable to it, but Bismarck persuaded King Wilhelm to reject the demands, and counter-demand Prussian parity with Austria, a joint veto on declarations of war and – in a bold coup – the calling of a new National Assembly based on universal manhood suffrage.

The unification of Germany

30 years ago in my History A-Level, I learned that Bismarck is famous as the man who unified Germany via three short tactical wars. These three wars remain central to his achievement.

1. War with Denmark 

A dispute with Denmark about the ownership of the provinces of Schleswig and Holstein in the Jutland peninsula had been rumbling on since the 1830s. A treaty had been signed in London in 1852. In 1863 the new Danish King, Christian IX, broke the terms of the accord by incorporating Schleswig into Denmark. Bismarck solved the problem by co-opting the Austrians to help, then declaring war and invading the provinces, defeating the Danish army at the Dybøl Redoubt on 18 April 1864. This patriotic victory silenced most of his domestic critics, solved the army problem in favour of substantial extra funding, demonstrated Prussia’s military superiority over Austria, and appealed to all liberal nationalists. Suddenly everyone was behind him.

Hostilities with Denmark rumbled on till October when Bismarck achieved complete control of the two provinces, to be shared between Prussia and Austria.

2. War with Austria 

However, this only delayed the final confrontation between Prussia and Austria for dominance of Germany which Bismarck had been predicting, and planning for, for years. Ever since a new map of Europe was drawn up in 1815, after the defeat of Napoleon, German-speaking populations had been divided up into 39 states and free cities, dominated by big Prussia in the north and the enormous Austrian Empire in the south. From Mike Rapport’s great book about the 1848 revolutions, I learned that German nationalists had for some time been fretting about two alternative solutions to the challenge of creating a ‘united’ Germany, namely to include or exclude the German-speaking population of Austria – the so-called ‘Greater’ or ‘Lesser Germany’ positions.

Bismarck cut through the problem by engineering a war with Austria in 1866, which the Prussians decisively won at the battle of Sadowa on 3 July 1866. He had prepared the way by keeping the Russian Czar onside, liaising with his friend Napoleon III of France, and currying favour with liberals by, once again, proposing a new national Parliament.

After the crushing victory at Sadowa hotheads like Wilhelm I wanted to press on and take Vienna. Bismarck demonstrated his grasp of Realpolitik by refusing all such suggestions and engineering a peace treaty which left Austria with all its territory intact, but forced Austria to agree to the dissolution of the old German Confederation and the reorganisation of all Germany north of the river Main under Prussian control.

Thus Prussia annexed Hanover, Hesse, Nassau and the free city of Frankfurt. By making concessions to liberals at home on the budget issue, Bismarck secured widespread support at home as well as establishing the new North German Confederation under Prussian leadership, as the major power in central Europe. Extraordinary canny success.

Bismarck himself drew up the constitution of the new North German Confederation which was designed, at every point, to extend Prussian power. For example the ‘president’ was to be the King of Prussia, who had sole control of the army and power to appoint or dismiss the Chancellor. Bismarck instituted reforms of trade and freedom of movement, unified weights and measures, and published a new criminal code, which laid the basis for a renewed German economy. From a liberal point of view, these were all reforms they’d been calling for for a generation. From Bismarck’s point of view, that may or may not have been true, all he cared about was these reforms self-evidently made Prussia stronger – his undying goal.

However, the various southern states of Germany revolted against Prussian domination, electing liberal and anti-Prussian governments.

3. War with France

What Bismarck needed was war to prompt in the populations and nationalists of the south German states a sense of patriotic Germany unity which he could then exploit to suborn them into his confederation. For the next few years he closely monitored the situation in Europe for an opportunity.

It came when the throne of Spain fell vacant and a young prince from the Hohenzollern dynasty (the same dynasty as the King of Prussia) who happened to be married to a Portuguese princess, was offered the job.

Bismarck orchestrated both the offer and the timing of its release to the press and via ambassadors to the other nations of Europe, perfectly.

Already concerned about German encroachment into Denmark, political and public opinion in France was outraged at this ‘encirclement’ of France by the Hohenzollern monarchy.

But Bismarck cannily provoked the French government to go too far and demand that not only the young prince renounce the offer (reasonable enough) but that King Wilhelm himself renounce the offer, renounce the claim permanently (Prussia would never offer to put one of its royal family on the throne of Spain), and to apologise to France for any insult.

This demand was sent in a telegram to Bismarck while he was staying at the spa town of Ems. Bismarck was gleeful. He carefully doctored the text of the French demand to make it sound even more blunt, rude and threatening than it already was, and then had it widely published and distributed, ensuring outrage among German opinion at these extortionate demands.

Stung by the widespread publication of ‘the Ems telegram’, the french ruler Napoleon III found himself criticised at home for being weak, and let himself be goaded into declaring war on Prussia. The French Chamber of Deputies roared its approval. Patriotic men thronged to the local barracks all across France. Mobs sang the Marseillaise. The people rushed enthusiastically to war, confident that France had the strongest army in Europe.

Bismarck had achieved everything he wanted to. To the Prussian public, to all the south German states and to the world at large he could present himself as the victim of French aggression. A French army penetrated a few miles into German territory but was then halted and pushed back. Prussian forces quickly counter-invaded, surrounded the fortress at Metz and then massacred the army sent to relieve it, at the Battle of Sedan.

Napoleon III had rushed to the front to lead the French army himself, on the model of his glorious uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte, but he was no Bonaparte and the French army turned out to be a shambles. Napoleon was himself captured and the Second Empire collapsed. Bismarck had achieved his goal.

However, the French elected a new government and fought on, compelling the Prussians to march on to Paris and subject it to a prolonged siege which dragged into 1871.

The Franco-Prussian War and the rising up of the revolutionary Commune in Paris in 1871, are two long stories in their own right. More important from Bismarck’s point of view, was that the southern German states did indeed a) come in in support of Prussia b) go further and sign up to the German Confederation – Baden and Hesse-Darmstadt in 15 November, Bavaria and Württemburg on 23 November.

This meant that Bismarck could announce the climax of all his ambitions – the declaration of a new German Reich or Empire, with the Prussian King Wilhelm I, as its Kaiser or Emperor.

Symbolically, this grand ceremony didn’t take place on German soil at all but in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles in France, occupied by the Germans for another four months until a final peace treaty was signed with France.

German unification – which so many nationalists and liberals had been hoping for throughout the nineteenth century, was only achieved thanks to the ruthless destruction of France. Germany was forged amid bloodshed and war. This key fact of modern European history has more than symbolic importance. It was to resonate on through the next 80 years of European history…

A map of German unification

This handy maps shows how extremely fragmented Germany was between 1815 and the 1860s. Note how even Prussia itself was splintered, with the sprawling eastern half separated from Westphalia in the west by tiny statelets like Hanover, Brunswick and Anhalt.

Black arrows show the route of Prussian armies a) north into Holstein and Schleswig in 1864, b) south-east into the province of Bohemia (part of the Austrian Empire) to the battle site of Sadowa in 1866, and c) west through the Palatinate and Alsace into France and towards the decisive battlefield of Sedan in 1870.

The unification of Germany 1815-71

The unification of Germany 1815-71

Preserving the balance of power

Given the unstintingly reactionary Prussian beliefs of the young Bismarck and the blunt brutality with which he was prepared to go to war three times to achieve his aims, I’ve always thought the most intriguing and impressive thing about him was the way that, once he had achieved his stated aims, Bismarck stopped war-mongering and had the wisdom to consolidate.

The European balance of power Admittedly this was partly a reaction to the response of the other powers to the arrival of a large unified new power in the centre of Europe. Britain, a recovering France, and autocratic Russia, all reacted with alarm.

From Bismarck’s perspective it was a gift when trouble erupted in the Balkans, namely nationalistic uprisings of Serbs and others against Ottoman Rule, which led to the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78. THis distracted everyone’s attention away from Germany, and when the peace conference which ended the war was held in Berlin – the Congress of Berlin 1878 – Bismarck was able to present himself as a genially ‘honest broker’ between the various parties, with no vested interests in the area.

However, Russia was left aggrieved when it didn’t get all it wished, namely access to the Dardanelles (and so the Mediterranean) and felt badly rewarded for the policy of benign neutrality which it had adopted during the Franco-Prussian War.

As a result of this resentment, the ‘League of Three Emperors’ (Russia, Prussia, Austria) fell apart and Russia found herself being drawn into alliance with France.

This created the nightmare scenario, for Bismarck, of facing enemies on two fronts, east and west, and so he sought a rapprochement with Austria to the south, cemented in the Dual Alliance of 1879, and expanded to include Italy in 1882.

Thus this final third of Ullrich’s book shows how the seemingly innocent aims of German nationalism, which sounded so reasonable in the 1840s, led inevitably to a situation where Germany became permanently paranoid of being attacked on both its flanks, and led to the creation of the network of alliances which was to be triggered, with disastrous consequences, when Austria invaded little Serbia, in August 1914.

German colonies Initially Bismarck was dead set against Germany acquiring colonies as a distraction from the more important task of unification and consolidation. But he changed his mind.

He was motivated by a conscious desire to create enmity with Britain, who he was afraid would gain too much influence over the German state, seeing as the Kaiser’s heir, the young Crown Prince (Wilhelm II-to-be) had married a daughter of Queen Victoria.

Partly it would bring Germany into friendly collaboration with France in the South Seas and Africa where their colonies bordered each other.

With this new motivation, Germany took part in the ‘Scramble for Africa’ from the 1880s onwards, acquiring Togoland, Cameroon, German East Africa and German South-West Africa, where they proceeded to behave with genocidal brutality. But Bismarck wasn’t all that interested in the details. Europe was always his focus.

Domestic politics From the 1860s to 1890 Bismarck ruled Prussia, then the newly united Germany. It’s a long period and a lot happened, including:

  • A financial and economic depression starting in around 1873. This provoked anger, frustration, and the rise of modern anti-Semitism, the association of Jews in the popular press and among all classes with cosmopolitan capitalists, financiers, with the alleged bloodsuckers who were bleeding germany dry.
  • The southern states so recently joined to Germany were predominantly Catholic and banded together to form a Catholic party in the new Reichstag. The impeccably Protestant Bismarck saw this as a political threat and implemented a sweeping set of laws designed to restrict Catholic involvement in public life. These sweeping anti-Catholic polities became known as the Kulturkampf or Culture War.
  • Bismarck attacked Social Democratic movements by banning newspapers, political meetings and so on – but this policy rebounded. It hardened the resolve of social democrats and socialists, and created an embattled atmosphere in which radical theories like those of Karl Marx flourished.
  • On the other hand, Bismarck sought to undermine the appeal of radical politics by acceding to many of its policies. Between 1881 and 1889 Bismarck oversaw laws introducing sickness and accident insurance, old age and invalidity pensions – giving Germany the most advanced welfare state anywhere in Europe. Once again not because he particularly ‘believed’ in these policies; but because he saw them as an effective way of neutralising his enemies and retaining his grip on power.

For these next twenty or so years, from 1871 to 1890, Bismarck was the dominating figure in German politics, stamping his personality on the era in the so-called ‘Bismarck System’, and projecting it across Europe into the Concert of Powers.

During the 1880s, Bismarck’s policy of maintaining the status quo at any costs (including himself as Chancellor) came to seem more and more outmoded in a world where large-scale migration from the agricultural east to the industrial west was fuelling the runaway success of German heavy industry, leading to the growth of new cities and industrial areas, with the concomitant rise of working class militancy and new political demands. Economic, technological and social changes increasingly called for new policies.

In March 1888 Kaiser Wilhelm I died and Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm succeeded him as Friedrich III. However, he had throat cancer and died after a reign of just 99 days. He was in turn succeeded by his eldest son, who took the throne as Kaiser Wilhelm II – the same Kaiser Bill who ruled Germany during the First World War.

There was no love lost at all between the self-confident young ruler, aged 39, who wanted to change everything and the old Chancellor aged 73, who wanted everything to stay just the same.

The conflict quickly came to a head as Bismarck devised a new law solely designed, in his usual way, to create division among the centrist parties currently in power and keep them weak. The Kaiser refused to begin his new reign with strife and confrontation, and instead expressed a desire to extend the welfare system for the poor.

With typical thoroughness Bismarck worked through all the options available to him, including forming an unlikely alliance with an old bete noire, the leader of the Catholic party. He even, apparently, contemplated some kind of coup in which he usurped the Kaiser. But as his allies deserted him, Bismarck finally realised his time had come and, on 12 March 1890, tendered his resignation to the Kaiser in a letter which, characteristically, blamed the king for forcing him out and made ominous threats about the disasters which must inevitably follow when he had gone.

It was the removal of Bismarck which gave rise to the famous cartoon by Sir John Tenniel (illustrator of the Alice in Wonderland books) first published in the British magazine Punch on 29 March 1890, ‘Dropping the pilot’.

Image result for dropping the pilot

Most educated Germans were grateful that a long period of stagnation was over. Liberals looked forward to an era of reform. But the foreign powers regarded Bismarck most importantly as a man of peace, a lynchpin in the system of European stability, and worried about what would come next.

Bismarck went into disgruntled retirement where he dictated his memoirs in a hodge-podge manner until his death, aged 83 in 1898. He was a crude, blustering, reactionary bully, but cunning, clever and hard-working. By and large, countries get the leaders they deserve.

A liberal summary

Opinions about Bismarck are as divided today as they were at the time. One contemporary critic wrote that:

He made Germany great and Germans small.

Meaning that Bismarck’s policy of dividing and ruling his parliamentary opponents, of allying with particular parties when he needed them and then dropping them when he didn’t; of deliberately undermining any power bases or parties which threatened his own rule – all this conspired to keep German political culture immature, preventing the growth of a diverse and politically mature middle class, the key social element which is the sine qua non of democracy.

Instead, Bismarck acculturated an entire generation to deferring to a Strong Leader. His readiness to muzzle the press, undermine the civil service, ignore parliament, his cultivation of anti-Semitism, his use of foreign wars as a tool for maintaining domestic power, all these set a very bad precedent.

As did the extremist attitude and language he injected into German political culture.

He who is with me is my friend, he who is against me is my enemy – to the point of annihilation.

The violence of his language towards anyone who stood in his way – liberals, social democrats, Catholics, Jews, the French – set a toxic tone to German political culture which was to poison it for the next fifty years.

That Germany would be united sooner or later was probably inevitable. That it was united by such a reactionary, manipulative, authoritarian bully was not necessarily inevitable, and was to have terrible consequences.

Bismarck quotes

An eminent European statesman for such a long period, Bismarck had various quotes attributed to him, including:

Politics is the art of the possible.

Not by speeches and votes of the majority, are the great questions of the time decided – that was the error of 1848 and 1849 – but by iron and blood. (giving rise to the phrase ‘blood and iron’)

The whole of the Balkans is not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier.

The best one of all is, alas, unverified:

Sausages are like laws: I enjoy them both, but it is best not to enquire too closely into how either of them are made.


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1848: Year of Revolution by Mike Rapport (2008)

1848 became known as ‘the year of revolutions’ and ‘the springtime of nations’ because there was political turmoil, fighting and unrest right across Europe, resulting in ministries and monarchies being toppled and new nation states proclaimed.

Causes

The underlying causes were agricultural, economic and demographic.

1. Agricultural failure

From 1845 onwards grain harvests across Europe were poor, and this was exacerbated when the fallback crop, potatoes, were hit by a destructive blight or fungal infection which turned them to mush in the soil. The result of the potato blight in Ireland is estimated to have been one and a half million deaths, but right across Europe peasants and small farmers starved, often to death. Hence the grim nickname for the decade as a whole, ‘the Hungry Forties’.

2. Economic downturn

This all coincided with an economic downturn resulting from industrial overproduction, particularly in the textile industry. Textile workers and artisans were thrown out of work in all Europe’s industrialised areas – the north of England, the industrial regions of Belgium, Paris and south-east France, the Rhineland of Germany, around Vienna and in western Bohemia.

3. Population boom

Hunger and unemployment impacted a population which had undergone a significant increase since the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. Countryside and cities alike had seen a population explosion.

The surplus of population was across all classes: it’s easy to see how an excess of many mouths to feed in a countryside hit by bad harvests, or in towns hit by economic depression, would result in misery and unrest. A bit more subtle was the impact of rising population on the middle classes: there just weren’t enough nice professional jobs to go round. Everyone wanted to be a doctor or lawyer or to secure a comfortable sinecure in the labyrinthine bureaucracies of the autocracies – but there just weren’t enough vacant positions. And so this created a surplus of disaffected, well-educated, middle-class young men who found roles to play in the new liberal and radical political movements.

If the surplus poor provided the cannon fodder in the streets, the surplus professional men provided the disaffected theoreticians and politicians of liberal reform and nationalism.

Inadequate response

As usual, the politicians in charge across Europe didn’t fully understand the scale of the poverty and distress they were dealing with and chose the time-honoured method of trying to repress all and any expressions of protest by main force.

Rapport’s book describes massacres in cities all across Europe as the garrisons were called out and soldiers shot on marching protesters in capital cities from Paris to Prague. This had an inevitable radicalising effect on the protesting masses who set up barricades and called on more of their fellow workers-urban poor to join them, and so on in a vicious circle.

However, these three underlying problems (population, hunger, slump) and the repressive response by all the authorities to almost any kind of protest, did not lead to one unified political movement of reform in each country. Instead the most important fact to grasp is that the opposition was split into different camps which, at the moments of severe crisis formed uneasy coalitions, but as events developed, tended to fall apart and even come to oppose each other.

There were at least three quite distinct strands of political opposition in 1848.

1. Liberalism

Of the big five states in 1840s Europe – Britain, France, Prussia, Austria and Russia – only France and Britain had anything remotely like a ‘democracy’, and even in these countries the number of people allowed to vote was pitifully small – 170,000 of the richest men in France, representing just 0.5% of the population, compared to the 800,000 who were enfranchised by the 1832 Reform Act in Britain (allowing about one in five adult British men the vote).

Despite the small electorates, both Britain and France at least had well-established traditions of ‘civil society’, meaning newspapers, magazines, universities, debating clubs and societies, the theatre, opera and a variety of other spaces where views could be aired and debated.

This was drastically untrue of the three other big powers – Prussia, Austria and Russia had no parliaments and no democracies. They were reactionary autocracies, ruled by hereditary rulers who chose ministers merely to advise them and to carry out their wishes, these moustachioed old reactionaries being Czar Nicholas I of Russia, Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria and Frederick William IV of Prussia.

Therefore, while liberals in Britain merely wanted to expand the franchise a bit, and even the radicals were only calling for complete manhood suffrage (encapsulated in ‘the Great Charter’ which gave the movement of ‘Chartism’ its name and whose collection and presentation to Parliament amounted to the main political event of the year in Britain) and whereas in France liberals wanted to see expansion of the suffrage and the removal of repressive elements of the regime (censorship) – in the three autocracies, liberals were fighting to create even a basic public space for discussion, and a basic level of democracy, in highly censored and repressive societies.

In other words, the situation and potential for reform in these two types of nation were profoundly different.

But to summarise, what marked out liberals across the continent is that they wanted constitutional and legal change, effected through what the Italians called the lotta legale, a legal battle (p.43).

2. Nationalism

Sometimes overlapping with liberal demands, but basically different in ambition, were the continent’s nationalists. Italy and Germany are the obvious examples: both were geographical areas within which the population mostly spoke the same language, but they were, in 1848, divided into complex patchworks of individual states.

In 1806 Napoleon had abolished the 1,000 year-old Holy Roman Empire, creating a host of new statelets, kingdoms, duchies and so on. Some thirty-nine of these were formed into the German Confederation. The German states were a peculiar mix of sovereign empires, kingdoms, electorates, grand duchies, duchies, principalities and free cities. The German Confederation was dominated by the largest two states, Prussia in the North and the Austrian Empire in the south.

Italy was arguably even more divided, with the two northern states of Lombardy and Piedmont under Austrian rule, the central Papal States under control of the Pope, while the south (the kingdom of Sicily and Naples) was ruled by a bourbon king, with other petty monarchies ruling states like Tuscany and Savoy.

1848 was a big year for the famous Italian nationalists, Garibaldi and Mazzini, who attempted to stir up their countrymen to throw off foreign rule and establish a unified Italian state. It is an indication of how dire Italy’s fragmentation was, that the nationalists initially looked to a new and apparently more liberal pope to help them – Pope Pius IX – the papacy usually being seen as the seat of reaction and anti-nationalism (although the story of 1848 in Italy is partly the story of how Pope Pius ended up rejecting the liberal revolution and calling for foreign powers to invade and overthrow the liberal government which had been set up in Rome.)

So 1848 was a big year for nationalists in Italy and the German states who hoped to unite all their separate states into one unified nation. Far less familiar to me were the nationalist struggles further east:

  • the struggle of Polish nationalists to assert their nationhood – after 1815 Poland had been partitioned into three, with the parts ruled by Prussia, Russia and Austria
  • as well as a host of more obscure nationalist struggles east of Vienna – for example:
    • the struggle of Magyar nationalists – the Hungarians – to throw off the yoke of German-speaking Vienna
    • the Czechs also, attempted to throw off Austrian rule
    • or the struggle of Ukrainian nationalists to throw off the domination of their land by rich Polish landowners

Many of these movements adopted a title with the word ‘young’ in it, hence Young Italy, Young Germany, Young Hungary, Young Ireland, and so on.

Map of Europe in 1848. Note the size of the Austrian Empire but also the deep penetration into Europe of the Ottoman Empire

Map of Europe in 1848. Note the size of the Austrian Empire in blue, but also the deep penetration into Europe of the Ottoman Empire (Source: Age of the Sage)

Rapport shows how nationalists in almost all the countries of Europe wanted their lands and peoples to be unified under new, autochthonous rulers.

N.B. It is important to emphasise the limits of the 1848 revolutions and violence. There were no revolutions in Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden-Norway, in Spain or Portugal or in Russia. The Springtime of Nations most affected France, Germany, Italy and the Austrian Empire.

3. Socialism

After liberalism and nationalism, the third great issue was the ‘social question’. While the rich and the upper-middle class seemed to be reaping the benefits from the early phases of the industrial revolution – from the spread of factory techniques for manufacturing textiles, the construction of a network of railways which helped transport raw materials and finished goods and so on – a huge number of rural peasants, small traders, and the urban working class were living in barely imaginable squalor and starving.

The paradox of starvation in the midst of plenty had prompted a variety of theoretical and economic analyses as well as utopian visions of how to reform society to ensure no-one would starve. These had become more prominent during the 1830s. It was in 1832 that the word ‘socialism’ was first coined as an umbrella term for radical proposals to overhaul society to ensure fairness and to abolish the shocking poverty and squalor which so many bourgeois writers noted as they travelled across the continent.

So ‘socialist’ ways of thinking had had decades to evolve and gain traction. Rapport makes the interesting point that by 1848 Europe had its first generation of professional revolutionaries.

The great French Revolution of 1789 had propelled men of often middling ability and provincial origin into high profile positions which they were completely unprepared for. By contrast, 1848 was a golden opportunity for men who had devoted their lives to revolutionary writing and agitating, such as Louis-August Blanqui and Armand Barbès.

(As Gareth Stedman Jones makes clear in his marvellous biography of Karl Marx, Marx himself was notorious to the authorities as a professional subversive, and his newspaper, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung became the bestselling radical journal in Germany, but he had little impact on the actual course of events.)

The various flavours of socialists were united in not just wanting to tinker with constitutions, not wanting to add a few hundred thousand more middle-class men to the franchise (as the liberals wanted) – nor were they distracted by complex negotiations among the rulers of all the petty states of Italy or Germany (like the nationalists were).

Instead the socialists were united in a desire to effect a comprehensive and sweeping reform of all elements of society and the economy in order to create a classless utopia. For example, by nationalising all land and factories, by abolishing all titles and ranks and – at their most extreme – abolishing private property itself, in order to create a society of complete equality.

A crisis of modernisation

Rapport sums up thus: The revolution and collapse of the conservative order in 1848 was a crisis of modernization, in that European economies and societies were changing fast, in size and economic and social requirements, but doing so in states and political cultures which had failed to keep pace and which, given the reactionary mindsets of their rulers and aristocracy, were dead set against any kind of reform or change. Something had to give.

1848

Rapport tells the story of the tumultuous events which swept the continent with great enthusiasm and clarity. He gives us pen portraits of key reformer such as the nationalists Mazzini and Garibaldi and the socialist Blanqui, and of arch conservatives like Klemens Metternich, Chancellor of Austria, the young Bismarck of Prussia, and the sneering Guizot, unpopular premiere of France.

This is a great cast to start with but quite quickly the reader is overwhelmed with hundreds more names of radicals, republicans, liberals, reactionaries, conservatives and monarchists, ordinary workers and emperors – Rapport clearly and effectively presenting a cast of hundreds of named individuals who played parts large and small during this tumultuous year.

The first and decisive event of the year was the overthrow of King Louis Philippe in France and his replacement by a hastily cobbled-together Second Republic, in February 1848. This was a genuine revolution, and in what many took to be Europe’s most important nation, so news of it spread like wildfire across the continent, emboldening radicals in Italy, Austria, Prussia and further east.

Rapport describes events with a keen eye for telling details and the key, often accidental incidents, which could transform angry hunger marchers into an revolutionary mob. For example, the outraged citizen of Milan who knocked a cigar out of the mouth of a preening Austrian officer, sparking a street fight which escalated into a ‘tobacco riot’, prompting the city’s Austrian governor to call out the troops who then proceeded to fire on the mob, killing six and wounding fifty Italian ‘patriot and martyrs’. That is how revolutions start.

There is a vast amount to tell, as Rapport describes not only the turmoil on the streets, but the complex constitutional and political manoeuvrings of regimes from Denmark in the north to Sicily in the south, from Ireland in the west to Hungary, Ukraine and Poland in the east. I didn’t know so much happened in this one year. I didn’t know, for example, that in the Berlin revolution, in March, one day of epic street fighting between liberal reformers, backed by the population against the king’s army, resulted in 800 dead!

Fierce streetfighting around Alexanderplatz in Berlin on the night of 18-19 March 1848

Fierce fighting at the Alexanderplatz barricade in Berlin on the night of 18-19 March 1848

It was eye-opening to be told in such detail about the scale of the violence across the continent.

I knew that the ‘June Days’ in Paris, when General Cavaignac was tasked with using the army to regain control of all the parts of the city where revolutionary barricades had been set up, resulted in vast bloodshed, with some 10,000 killed or injured. But I didn’t know that when Austrian Imperial troops retook Vienna from the liberal-radical National Guard in the last week of October 1848, the use of cannon in urban streets contributed to the death toll of 2,000 (p.287).

There were not only soldiers-versus-workers battles, but plenty of more traditional fighting between actual armies, such as the battle between the forces of the king of Piedmont and Austrian forces in north Italy leading to the decisive Austrian victory at Custozza on 25 July 1848.

But it was the scale of the urban fighting which surprised and shocked me.

In another example, for a few months from April 1848 the island of Sicily declared its independence from the bourbon king of Naples who had previously ruled it. However, the king sent an army by ship which landed at Messina, subjecting the city to a sustained bombardment and then street by street fighting, which eventually left over two thirds of the city in smouldering ruins (p.260).

The social, political but also ethnic tensions between native Czech republicans and their overlord Austrian masters, erupted into six days of violent street fighting in Prague, June 12-17, during which Austrian General Windischgrätz first of all cleared the barricades before withdrawing his troops to the city walls and pounding Prague with a sustained artillery bombardment. Inevitably, scores of innocent lives were lost in the wreckage and destruction (p.235).

So much fighting, So much destruction. So many deaths.

New ideas

Well, new to me:

1. The problem of nationalism The new ideology of nationalism turned out to contain an insoluble paradox at its core: large ethnically homogenous populations were encouraged to agitate for their own nation, but what about the minorities who lived within their borders? Could they be allowed their national freedom without undermining the geographical and cultural ‘integrity’ of the larger entity?

Thus the Hungarian nationalists had barely broken with their Austrian rulers before they found themselves having to deal with minority populations like Romanians, Serbs, Croats and others who lived within the borders the Hungarians claimed for their new state. Should they be granted their own independence? No. The Hungarians not only rejected these pleas for independence, but went to war with their minorities to quell them. And in doing so, split and distracted their armies, arguably contributing to their eventual defeat by Austria.

Meanwhile, Polish nationalists were dead set on asserting Polish independence, but in Galicia quickly found themselves the subject of attacks from the Ruthenian minority, long subjugated by Polish landowners, and who claimed allegiance to a state which they wanted to call Ukraine. Like the Hungarians, the Poles were having none of it.

Thus nationalism spawned mini-nationalisms, sub-nationalisms, and ethnic and cultural conflicts which began to look more like civil wars than struggles for ‘independence’.

As a result, two broad trends emerged:

1. The chauvinism of big nations Nationalists from the larger nations developed an angry rhetoric castigating these troublesome little minorities as culturally less advanced. Rapport quotes German nationalists who criticised the Slavic minorities for their alleged racial and cultural inferiority – a rhetoric which was to have a long career in Germany, leading eventually to the Nazis and their Hunger Plan to starve and enslave the Slavic peoples.

2. Austro-Slavism In response to the breakaway aspirations of Hungary, the Hapsburg (Austrian) monarchy developed a strategy of Austro-Slavism. This was to appeal directly to the many minorities within the empire, and within Hungarian territory in particular, and guarantee them more protection within the multicultural Austro-Hungarian Empire than they would receive in one of the new, ethnically pure, nationalist states. ‘Stay within our multicultural empire and you will be better off than under repressive monoglot Hungarian rule.’

Thus when representatives of the Slovaks asked the new Hungarian Parliament (which had been created in March 1848 as a concession from Vienna) to allow the teaching of the Slovak language and the flying of the Slovak flag in Slovak regions within the new Hungary, the Hungarians vehemently refused. They accused the nationalists of ‘Pan-Slavic nationalism’ and of wanting to undermine the integrity of the new Magyar (i.e. Hungarian) state. Not surprisingly when, later in the year, open war broke out between Austria and Hungary, many Slovak nationalists sided with Austria, having made the simple calculation that they were likely to have more religious, racial and linguistic freedom under the Austrian Empire than under the repressively nationalistic Hungarians.

3. The threshold principle of nationalism The threshold principle is an attempt to solve the Nationalism Paradox. It states that a people only ‘deserves’ or ‘qualifies’ to have a state of its own if it has the size and strength to maintain and protect it. Surprisingly, Friederich Engels, the extreme radical and patron of Karl Marx, espoused the threshold principle when it came to the smaller nationalities in and around Germany. Being German himself he, naturally enough, thought that Germany ought to be unified into a nation. But the Czechs, Slovaks and other ‘lesser’ peoples who lived within the borders of this new Germany, Engels thought they didn’t deserve to be nations because they didn’t come up to ‘German’ standards of culture and political maturity. (Explained on page 181).

This was just one of the problems, paradoxes and contradictions which the supposedly simple notion of ‘nationalism’ contained within itself and which made it so difficult to apply on the ground.

Nonetheless, 1848 marks the moment when nationalism clearly emerges as a major force in European history – and at the same time reveals the contradictions, and the dark undercurrents latent within it, which have dominated European politics right down to this day.

4. Grossdeutsch or Kleindeutsch? Uniting the 39 states of Germany sounds like a straightforward enough ambition, but at its core was a Big Dilemma: should the new state include or exclude Austria? The problem was that while the Austrian component of the Austrian Empire spoke German and considered themselves culturally linked to the rest of Germany, the Hapsburg monarchy which ruled Austria had also inherited a patchwork of territories all across Europe (not least all of Hungary with its minorities, and the northern states of Italy): should those obviously non-Germanic part of the Austrian empire be incorporated into Germany? Or would Austria have to abandon its empire in order to be incorporated into the new Germany?

Exponents of a Grossdeutsch (Big Germany) option thought it ridiculous to exclude Austria with its millions of German-speakers; of course Austria should be included. But that would mean tearing the Austro-Hungarian empire in half because obviously you couldn’t include millions of Hungarians, Romanians and so on inside a ‘German’ state (the Kleindeutsch, or Little Germany, position).

Or could you? This latter thought gave rise to a third position, the Mitteleuropäisch solution, under which all of the German states would be incorporated into a super-Austria, to create a German-speaking empire which would stretch from the Baltic in the north to the Mediterranean in the south, a bulwark against Latins in the west and south, and the Slavic peoples to the east and south-east, promoting German culture, language and way of life across the continent, by force if necessary. (pp.298-300)

Comical and hypothetical though this may all sound, it would prove to be at the centre of world history for the next century. It was the ‘German Problem’ which lay behind the seismic Franco-Prussian War, the catastrophic First World War, and the global disaster of the Second World War.

The European Economic Community, established by the Treaty of Rome in 1957, at bottom was an attempt to settle the ‘German Problem’ i.e. to tie the German and French economies so intricately together that there could never again be war between the two of them.

Some people think the ‘German Problem’ was only really settled with the reunification of the two Germanies in 1990, but others think it still lives on in the disparity between the rich industrial West and the mostly agricultural and impoverished East.

And the question of German identity, of who is or isn’t Germany, has been revived by Angel Merkel’s over-enthusiastic acceptance of a million refugees in 2017, which has led to the widespread popularity of far right political parties in Germany for the first time since the Second World War.

All of which tends to suggest that the virus of nationalism, unleashed in 1848, can never really be cured.

Results

It takes four hundred pages dense with fact and anecdote to convey the confused turmoil of the year 1848, but Rapport had already spelled out the overall results in the opening pages.

Although all the protesters hated the reactionary regimes, they couldn’t agree what to replace them with. More specifically, the liberals and socialists who initially found themselves on the same barricades calling for the overthrow of this or that ‘tyrant’ – once the overthrow had been achieved or, more usually, a liberal constitution conceded by this or that petty monarch – at this point these temporarily allied forces realised that they held almost diametrically opposed intentions.

The liberals wanted to hold onto all their property and rights and merely to gain a little more power, a little more say for themselves in the way things were run; whereas the socialists wanted to sweep the bourgeois liberals out of the way, along with the monarchy, the aristocracy, the church and all the other tools of oppression.

It was this fundamentally divided nature of the forces of ‘change’ which meant that, as events worked their course, the forces of Reaction found it possible to divide and reconquer their opponents. Almost everywhere, when push came to shove, middle-class liberals ended up throwing in their lot with the chastened autocracies, thus tipping the balance of power against the genuine revolutionaries.

The high hopes of 1848 almost everywhere gave way to the resurgence of the autocracies and the restoration of reactionary regimes or the imposition of old repression in new clothes. Nowhere more ironically than in France where the overthrown monarchy of Louis Philippe gave way to the deeply divided Second Republic which staggered on for three chaotic years before being put out of its misery when the canny Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte – who had gotten himself elected president right at the end of 1848 – carried out the coup which brought him to power as a new Emperor, Napoleon III, in 1851.

Rapport’s account also makes clear that the violence and turmoil wasn’t limited to 1848 – it continued well into 1849:

  • in Germany where the newly established ‘national’ parliament was forced to flee to Frankfurt and, when the Prussian king felt strong enough to surround and close it, its suppression sparked a second wave of uprisings, barricades, vicious street fighting and harsh reprisals in cities all across Germany e.g. Dresden where Richard Wagner took part in the insurrection, whose violent suppression left over 250 dead and 400 wounded.
  • and in Italy where the republics of Rome and Venice were besieged and only conquered after prolonged bombardment and bloodshed. (It is a real quirk of history that the Roman republic was besieged and conquered by French troops, ordered there by ‘President’ Napoleon. Why? Because the French didn’t want the approaching Austrians to take control of Rome and, therefore, of the Papacy. Ancient national and dynastic rivalries everywhere trumped high-minded but weak liberal or republican ideals.)

More than anywhere else it was in Hungary that the struggle for independence escalated into full-scale war  (with Austria) which dragged on for several years. By the end, some 50,000 soldiers on both sides had lost their lives. When the Austrians finally reconquered Hungary, they quashed its independent parliament, repealed its declaration of rights, reimposed Austrian law and language and Hungary remained under martial law until 1854.

The Hungarian revolt led to the establishment of an independent parliament in 1849 which seceded from the Austrian Empire. Unfortunately, this was crushed later in the year by a combination of the Austrian army which invaded from the west, allied with Russian forces which invaded from the East. The parliament was overthrown, Hungary’s leaders were arrested, tried and executed, and the country sank into sullen acquiescence in the Austro-Hungarian Empire which lasted until 1918, when it finally achieved independence.

None of the ‘nations’ whose nationalists were lobbying for them to be created ended up coming into existence: both Italy and Germany remained patchwork quilts of petty states, albeit some of them reorganised and with new constitutions. Italy had to wait till 1860, Germany until 1871, to achieve full unification.

Polish nationalism completely failed; Poland didn’t become an independent nation state until 1918.

Same with the Czechs. They only gained nationhood, as Czechoslovakia, in 1918 (only to be invaded by the Nazis 20 years later).

Only in France was the old order decisively overthrown with the abolition of the monarchy. But this, ironically, was only to give rise to a new, more modern form of autocracy, in the shape of Napoleon III’s ’empire’.

It is one among many virtues of Rapport’s book that he explains more clearly than any other account I’ve read the nature of Napoleon’s widespread appeal to the broad French population, and the succession of lucky chances which brought him to the throne. Karl Marx dismissed Napoleon III as an empty puppet who made himself all things to all men, not quite grasping that this is precisely what democracy amounts to – persuading a wide variety of people and constituencies that you are the solution to their problems.

Everywhere else the European Revolution of 1848 failed. It would be decades, in some cases a century or more, before all the ideas proclaimed by liberals came into force, ideas such as freedom of expression and assembly, the abolition of the death penalty (1965 in Britain), of corporal punishment and censorship (Britain’s theatre censorship was only abolished in 1968), the emancipation of minorities and the extension of the franchise to all men and women (in the UK it was only in 1928 that all men and women over the age of 21 were allowed a vote – 80 years after 1848).

Order over anarchy

The political and economic situation had certainly got bad enough for a constellation of forces – and for hundreds of thousands of alienated urban poor – to mobilise and threaten their rulers. But none of the reformers who inherited these situations could command the majority needed to rule effectively or implement their plans before the Counter-Revolution began to fight back.

The failure of the French Second Republic, in particular, made clear a fundamental principle of advanced societies. that the general population prefers an able dictatorship to the uncertainty and chaos of ‘revolution’.

(This is also the great lesson of the wave of anarchy which swept across Europe after the Great War, described in by Robert Gerwarth’s powerful book, The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End 1917-1923.)

Again and again, in different countries, Rapport repeats the lesson that people prefer order and security, albeit with restricted political rights, to the ‘promise’ of a greater ‘freedom’, which in practice seems to result in anarchy and fighting in the streets.

People prefer Order and Security to Uncertainty and Fear.

When faced with a choice between holding onto their new political liberties or conserving their lives, their property and their communities against ‘anarchy’ or ‘communism’, most people chose to sacrifice their freedom for the sake of security. (p.191)

A simple lesson which professional revolutionaries from Blanqui to our own time seem unable to understand. It is not that people are against equality. If asked most people of course say they are in favour of ‘equality’. It’s that most people, in countries across Europe for the past 170 years, have time and time again shown themselves to be against the anarchy which violent movements claiming to fight for equality so often actually bring in their train.

P.S.

I get a little irritated by readers and commentators who say things like, ‘the issues in the book turn out to be surprisingly modern, issues like freedom of speech, constitutional and legal reform, the identity of nations and their populations’.

Rapport himself does it, commenting that many German states expressed ‘startlingly modern-sounding anxieties’ (p.337) in response to the Frankfurt Parliament’s publication of its Grundrechte or Bill of Basic Rights, in December 1848.

This is looking down the telescope the wrong way. All these themes and issues aren’t ‘surprisingly relevant to today’. What phrases like that really express is that, we are still struggling with the same issues, problems and challenges – economic, social and cultural – which have dogged Europe for over 200 years.

The past isn’t surprisingly ‘relevant’. It is the world we live in that is – despite all the superficial changes of clothes and cars and techno-gadgets – surprisingly unchanged. We are still struggling with the problems our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and their parents and grandparents, failed to solve.

If you’re of the tendency who think that handfuls of people living a hundred or two hundred years ago – early socialists or feminists or freethinkers – were ‘prophets’ and ‘surprisingly relevant’ it’s because this way of thinking tends to suggest that we standing tip-toe on the brink of solving them.

I, on the contrary, take a much more pessimistic view, which is that this or that thinker wasn’t a startlingly far-sighted visionary, simply that they could see and express problems and issues which over the past two hundred years we have completely failed to solve.

When so many better people than us, in more propitious circumstances, have failed, over decades, sometimes centuries, to solve deep structural issues such as protecting the environment, or how to organise states so as to satisfy everyone’s racial and ethnic wishes, or how to establish absolute and complete equality between the sexes – what gives anyone the confidence that we can solve them today?

All the evidence, in front of the faces of anyone who reads deeply and widely in history, is that these are problems intrinsic to the human condition which can never be solved, only ameliorated, or fudged, or tinkered with, in different ways by different generations.


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Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (1986)

Watchmen was initially published as a limited series of 12 comic books in 1986. It was subsequently packaged up into an omnibus paperback volume, which I bought for my son’s birthday a few years ago.

The pictures are by Dave Gibbons, but it is the complex, multi-layered narrative written by Alan Moore which critics instantly realised as something new and epoch-making in comic books. Watchmen won hosts of prizes and has come to be seen as a founding masterpiece of the (then new) genre of graphic novels, and one of the most influential comic stories ever written.

Its importance stems from:

  • the complexity of the narrative with its numerous intertextual elements
  • the cynical, jaded attitude shown by all the characters throughout
  • and the downbeat ending where the ‘goodies’ (if that’s what they are) do not defeat the baddie

The plot

1. Background

The story is set in a parallel universe in the 1980s. It is essentially the real world but with some key changes. (The story is, naturally enough, set in New York, home of most superhero narratives.)

In this alternative universe, back in the 1930s, various guys and women took up the new fad for caped law enforcers, with the result that there was a rash, an outburst, of masked vigilantes.

Some of them genuinely excelled at what they did –

  • Adrian Veidt who named himself ‘Ozymandias’, was the cleverest man in the world, who developed a corporate empire based on merchandising his own character
  • the ‘Night Owl’ was a technical genius who built gadgets and a flying ship to help him fight crime

Others were more run-of-the-mill, ordinary guys and gals, who liked dressing up and a good fight, examples being the self-named ‘Dollar Bill’, ‘the Mothman’, ‘Hooded Justice’ or ‘the Comedian’.

At the end of the decade these self-declared heroes came together to form a crime-busting association called the Minutemen in 1940. The narrative jumps back and forth between this founding meeting, and later meetings, up to and including a decisive one in the 1960s.

So many masked vigilantes came on the scene during these decades that the U.S. government eventually passed a law in 1977, the Keene Act, banning them. At that point – seven or eight years before our narrative begins – most of them hung up their masks and capes, and settled into comfortable, or less comfortable, middle-aged retirement.

2. The story

The ‘now’ of the narrative, is October 1985.

What triggers the story is the murder of one of the old vigilantes, the so-called ‘Comedian’. He is beaten up and thrown out of a window.

A member of the old gang team, Rorschach (so-named because mysterious constantly changing black and white patterns move across his mask), investigates the murder. We are privy to his thoughts which are written in exactly the tough guy style of Raymond Chandler, describing the city as a sewer and its inhabitants as vermin.

Rorschach starts at the scene of the crime, where the Comedian landed – splat – on the pavement. He goes on to visit Dan Dreiberg – once the so-called ‘Night Owl’ – as well as ‘Dr Manhattan’, to ask them what they knew about the Comedian in his retirement.

The narrative then leaves Rorschach to show us the backstory of the Night Owl, but especially of Dr Manhattan, arguably the most interesting character in the book.

Whereas most of the other Minutemen are just strong, athletic men and women with a fondness for dressing up in tight outfits and punching muggers, Dr. Manhattan is a genuinely genetically-altered superhero. Originally he was Dr Jonathan Osterman, a nuclear physicist who, in 1959, got trapped inside an ‘Intrinsic Field Subtractor’, was obliterated down to his constituent sub-atomic particles, before managing – nobody knows how – to reconstruct himself.

This rebuilt, molecularly perfect Osterman is now tall, statuesque, and a vibrating blue colour.

When he went along to meet the other Minutemen he took the moniker ‘Dr Manhattan’. He has a winningly Zen approach to life, the universe and everything, seeing that he can not only manipulate all metal substances, but can also foresees the future. Humans bore him.

The movie makes clearer what, for me, was rather obscure in the book, which is that it was with this apparently random incident – the creation of Dr Manhattan – that the alternative universe of the comic book diverges from history as we know it.

The divergences become quite drastic because, once he was fully reconstituted, Dr Manhattan put himself at the disposal of the U.S. government who immediately drafted him into their war machine and Cold War strategy.

He was sent to Vietnam, where he appears as an indestructible blue giant capable of destroying all the North Vietnamese weaponry (tanks and machine guns). Thus the North surrender within weeks, and Richard Nixon becomes a hero for winning the war. (In a throwaway line, typical of the density of the references and ideas in the text, we learn that the investigative reporters Woodward and Bernstein were bumped off in a multi-storey car park and so never got to report the Watergate scandal, with the result that President Nixon – in this universe – was been elected for an unprecedented third term. In fact, Nixon is on his fifth term when the book is set.)

Dr Manhattan lives with the former ‘Silk Spectre II’, real name Laurie Juspeczyk, daughter of the original ‘Silk Spectre’ superheroine from the 1940s.

(In a digression which is typical both for its complex filling-in of the back story, and for its brutality, we are shown the scene where, after one of the 1940s meetings, the Comedian badly beats up and begins to rape the Silk Spectre before being interrupted by some of the other superheroes who then beat him up. This incident, disturbing in itself – and obviously quite a jarring ‘subversion’ of the superhero mythos – echoes and re-echoes, like so many other incidents, throughout the text).

But Laurie is getting fed up with Dr Manhattan’s lack of emotion (in a great scene she discovers that while he is ‘making love’ to her, his true self is carrying on conducting experiments in his laboratory – the love-maker is merely a clone: he can clone himself at will, in real time).

After a big row, Laurie leaves him and turns up on the doorstep of Dan Dreiberg, ‘Night Owl II’ who, she wanly confesses, is now more or less her only friend from ‘the old times’. After some chat, they have sex – as Laurie’s full-busted figure all along suggests she will – and then don the old costumes and go out in Night Owl’s impressive flying machine to fight crime.

Meanwhile, Dr Manhattan has been persuaded against his better judgement to do a TV interview – but instead of being praised for being a key element in America’s Cold War protective armoury, he is surprised by an investigative reporter who bombards him with accusations that everyone he’s worked with has got sick from radiation poisoning.

Dr Manhattan is hounded off the set and out of the studio doors by the audience and a baying crowd, crystallising his feeling that he’s had it with puny mortals and their silly concerns. In front of this live audience, Manhattan teleports himself to Mars. Here, in complete peace and quiet, he creates a palace from his thoughts alone.

This very public disappearance of America’s most important military asset badly affects the balance of power in the ongoing Cold War, and is a key moment in the plot – for the Russians decide to test the resolve of the West, now that their key weapon has so publicly and spectacularly resigned.

Multi-leveled text

The text is complex and multi-leveled. Here are some of the other elements:

1. Newsvendor We keep being taken back to a newsvendor on a street corner in New York, who reads out the day’s news headlines, news which is echoed on the TV sets which various characters watch or have on in the background of conversations.

The reappearance of the newsvendor in each of the twelve instalments is a device for showing how, over the 12 days of the narrative, the U.S.S.R. invades Afghanistan and then threatens to push on into Pakistan. They have been emboldened to do this by Dr Manhattan’s disappearance. Thus the papers and TV are full of speculation about whether the West will respond to Russian aggression thus sparking a nuclear war.

2. Countdown clock This sense of mounting tension is emphasised by the way that each of the twelve editions of the magazine opens with a big image of a clock whose hands start at twelve to midnight, and move forward one minute with each episode. As if counting down towards disaster…

3. The Black Freighter Throughout all the instalments, what you could call the Main Narrative is punctuated by an apparently unrelated story about a doomed pirate, set in the 18th century and written in 18th century prose. This is a story which appears in daily instalments in a newspaper which is being read by a black kid who buys it from the newsvendor who I mentioned above.

While the newsvendor chats with his adult customers about the impending war, the kid sits propped against a fire hydrant, his mind totally absorbed by the grim tale of a pirate set adrift in a doomed boat full of corpses, and his various ill-fated attempts to escape.

At regular intervals the pictures and text of this Gothic tale ‘take over’ the main narrative set in 1985; sometimes the monologue of the damned pirate jostle alongside dialogue of the ‘contemporary’ characters; sometimes the entire Watchmen strip disappears for a page or so, replaced by detailed drawings of the pirates’ adventures.

The pictures of the pirate narrative are done in a deliberately different style from the main illustrations, using a pastiche of the highly-visible dots you used to see in really old comic books. Not only does this so-called ‘Black Freighter’ narrative routinely invade the ‘main text’, but its words often cleverly counterpoint the thoughts or dialogue of the main characters. For example the ghoulish pirate survivor might be thinking about death on the high sea, while the newsvendor and his customers are worrying about the risk of thermonuclear war and mass death. It’s all dark stuff.

4. Scrapbook This ‘intertextuality’ is also exemplified in the way that each of the twelve instalments ends with four pages of prose which are kind of scrapbooks of texts relevant to the main narrative. For example, the first couple of instalments end with excerpts from the tell-all book supposedly written by one of the Minutemen, Hollis Mason, an account of the early days of the group which he titled Under the Hood. These lengthy prose extracts expand our understanding of various plotlines referred to in the comic book sections.

Later on, the prose sections become more varied, but always shed new light on aspects of the main story. For example, the end of chapter nine features several ‘texts’ relating to the original Silk Spectre I, Sally Jupiter, namely an interview with her in an old newspaper from 1939, correspondence with a film studio interested in making a movie of her life, a fan letter from a would-be crime fighter, and then a magazine interview with an older, alcoholic Sally Jupiter from 1976.

Critique of Watchmen’s multitextuality

Some readers and critics think these multiple levels give the book greater ‘depth’. I disagree. I think it makes it a lot more complex but complexity and depth are not the same thing.

When I was a kid in the 1970s there were any number of magazines about pop music or teen heart-throbs which used the same approach of coming up with imaginative and diverse visual ideas to vary their appearance and format. These could include letters from the stars, or their horoscopes, or recipes for their favourite meals, or their top fashion tips, or mocked-up pages from their diary, each in the appropriate visual style, using different page layouts, letter heads, maybe notes with mocked-up handwriting of the hearth-throb in question – and so on and so on.

This didn’t make magazines like Jackie any more profound – it just made them more visually imaginative and interesting. Now I really think about it, I remember any number of ‘annuals’ of my favourite TV shows such as Dr Who or Blue Peter, which came up with all kinds of visually inventive ways of presenting tit-bits of information about the stars of the show, or features about keeping a rabbit or the solar system or instructions on how to build your own dalek – and so on and so on.

It never struck me that the proliferation of visually novel ways of presenting all this turned my Dr Who annual into War and Peace. It was just par for the course; they were all like that.

Thus the inclusion of extraneous mocked-up texts onto the end of each instalment of Watchmen didn’t strike me as some radical new innovation, but as an editorial ploy I was used to ever since I started reading comics and annuals.

Thus the clutch of texts tacked onto the end of instalment 10 of Watchmen – in this case all relating to ‘Ozymandias’, the superhero alias of go-getting entrepreneur Adrian Veidt and which include a letter to a toy manufacturer about a new range of Ozymandias merchandise, and the Welcome letter to anyone who’s sent away for a pack of his Veidt Method of Physical Fitness and Self Improvement – these are fun, and they add to the visual and factual complexity a bit – but they don’t add any real depth to the book.

The crime trope

Watchmen mashes up tropes from numerous sources. One of the most obvious is pulp crime novels, the king of which was Raymond Chandler. There are plenty of Chandleresque pictures of Rorschach, in particular, walking down mean streets in the dark with his collar pulled up muttering murderous thoughts about the scum of the streets.

And the fundamental motor of the narrative is a whodunnit – ostensibly to find out who killed the Comedian, whether there really is a conspiracy to kill off the other retired old Minutemen, and why.

Clever and novel many elements of the book may be – such as the idea that superheroes can grow old and vulnerable and themselves be victims of a serial killer. And yet this whodunnit thread of the book is strangely uncompelling – and when the denouement is reached I found it more strange and inexplicable than a dazzling and satisfying revelation.

Maybe it was Moore’s aim to ‘subvert’ the thriller genre – or by mashing up elements from pulp crime thrillers with the superhero genre with quite a bit of pulp science fiction thrown in, to create something bold and new.

Whatever the motivation, this central thread of the plot just didn’t do it for me. I found it a) difficult to wade through the welter of distracting detail to even understand that it was a crime thriller and b) was so thrown by the spectacular side-plot about Dr Manhattan that I stopped caring about the whodunnit element and became intrigued solely by his actions.

As to the denouement, suffice to say that it turns out (as so often) to be one of the gang themselves who is knocking off their own members.

And he’s doing it because (like so many mad fanatics before him) he has become deluded into thinking that the only way to bring true peace to the world is by committing a really awesome atrocity (in this case, wiping out the population of New York – as usual), showing humanity what they are capable of – and thus shaming them into peace.

Sound likely to you?

And so the climax of the book turns out to be nothing to do with the mounting paranoia about a nuclear war between America and Russia which has been steadily promoted by the narrative, and reinforced by the ominous full-page picture of a clock ticking towards midnight! Turns out that that whole threat, much discussed by all the characters from the newsvendor and his customers to all the superheroes, was a red herring.

Instead, the climax of the story is the unleashing of a secret weapon which destroys half of New York (and, in the movie, just to universalise things a bit, also wrecks Los Angeles, Moscow and Hong Kong).

Conclusion

I didn’t feel engaged with any of the characters. I didn’t really believe in them, and I found it impossible to believe in the idea of ordinary men and women just putting on masks, adopting silly pseudonyms and then magically being able to ‘fight crime’.

Either the idea of masked crime fighters is risible or it isn’t – but it is a difficult balance to make it both sad and silly (as it seems to be in the opening pages depicting the Comedian as a raddled drunk and Rorschach as a maniac) and then in the next few pages ask us to believe that Night Owl and Silk Spectre actually can fly round the city in their cool flying machine, rescuing kids from burning buildings.

Once undermined in the early pages, I found the notion of crime-busting superheroes stayed undermined.

The only character I liked was Dr Manhattan because the purity of his conception and his indifference to the human trivia who surround him lifted him far above the crime-busting silliness of much of the rest of the plot. I immediately sympathised with his wish to get away from silly humans, and found that identifying with this essentially science-fiction character made me more or less indifferent to the Chandleresque whodunnit plot.

Within the world of comic books, Watchmen had a powerful impact because of its complexity: because it created new heroes while at the same time undermining the entire superhero ethos, because of its stylish mix of sci-fi, noir and superhero tropes, because of its downbeat vibe and its very downbeat ending – because this pessimistic mood caught the vibe of Mrs Thatcher and Ronald Reagan’s 1980s, because of the cleverness of adding in the intertextual elements of letters, quotes from fictional books, magazine articles, added extra complexity and resonance.

But from outside the world of comic books, it still looks as if Watchmen adopts almost all the familiar tropes of the superhero comic book, and subverts few if any of them. And even these ‘subversions’ I found a) difficult to actually understand b) had no impact on me.

Watchmen administered a seismic shock to the comic book genre which influenced a whole generation to write more ‘realistic’ and ‘gritty’ stories. To outsiders like me, it looks like a very clever play on existing tropes which doesn’t, ultimately, change any of them at all.

Art work

I couldn’t understand why the book is meant to mark a great departure in comic book style. The page is still made up of cartoons. All the ‘good’ guys are tall, muscular and handsome.

And all the women are long-legged, slender-waisted and big busted i.e. look like the same idealised, soft porn figures that have been half the point of comic books right back to their origins in the 1930s.

Although there are several women among the original Minutemen, we only really get to know one – Silk Spectre – and her role is to wear a tight outfit and be made love to first my Dr Manhattan then (several times) by the Night owl. But all the women seem to be variations on the same sex goddess trope. I was amused to discover that a number of manufacturers make a ‘Silk Spectre’ costume. Can you see why?

The movie

It took Hollywood  20 years to sort out the rights, the script and to settle on a visual strategy for turning such a complex and multi-layered comic strip text into a movie. The result is that rare thing, an attempt at a really faithful, accurate rendition of the original book.

Watchmen the movie uses all the characters and tells the exact same story, in the same order, as the source book. It even shoots scenes from the same angles shown in the comic strips. With the result that:

1. It is very long – two and a half hours long.

2. This is without the inclusion of the pirate story, the so-called Black Freighter plotline. This was originally going to be included as live-action footage interspersed among the main narrative, as happens in the book, but it turned out that it would have cost too much (some $20 million extra), so someone had the bright idea of making it as an animation. In the event even this animated version of the sub-plot was cut because it would have made the final version of the film well over three hours long. However, the Tale of the Black Freighter is available as a standalone DVD and has been reincorporated into the movie in a Directors’ Cut version.

3. More interestingly, director Zack Snyder’s choice to follow the comic book narrative so closely means that the movie does not follow the familiar three-act movie structure. Instead it follows closely the rather meandering, and sometimes distracted, narrative of the book. Many movie fans complained about this because it didn’t produce the usual feast of fights and fireworks every fifteen minutes – the amount of time a bored teenager can sit through ‘character’ stuff’ before he needs another fix of CGI and explosions.

But I liked the film for precisely that reason. Following ‘book logic’ and not movie screenplay rules, results in a very different feel to the movie. It feels much slower and often rather confusing. I liked that.

The movie was also criticised for the quality of the acting. If we were talking about the real world, I’d agree that the acting was wooden, as was the direction. But I found the Watchmen book itself oddly wooden, opaque, emotionless and flat, and so I thought the movie captured that quality really well.

Since I didn’t believe in any of the characters from the book, finding them all just cyphers drifting through a weird mash-up of science fiction, noir and comic book clichés without any discernible purpose or end, I thought the movie faithfully captured that odd sense of anomie – and that is rare and interesting in a Hollywood film.

Seen from this point of view, i.e. the hope that the film would not follow superhero movie convention, it was disappointing that so much did still fall into superhero cliché – namely the familiar stylised fights, for example where Night Owl and Silk Spectre II defeat a whole gang of muggers with superhuman speed and slow-motion violence; or where flying machines swoop around the New York skyline; or where Night Owl and Silk Spectre have sex in his flying machine, she wearing only her knee-length PVC boots, both of them revealed to have the air-brushed-to-perfection bodies of porn stars.

This didn’t feel like it was subverting very much.

In other words, the film of Watchmen successfully captures the complex storylines and odd mood of the book, and so both audiences and critics – who essentially want the same meal dished up with slight variations – didn’t like it.

The film didn’t make much return on investment with a box office of $185.3 million on a budget of $138 million. After twenty years, a prequel comic was published chronicling the adventures of the Comedian and Rorschach in the earlier days. There’s talk that the Watchmen characters will be adapted for an HBO TV series. Everything is swallowed by the machine. Nothing subverts anything. In time, everything is turned into product.


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A Brief History of Superheroes by Brian J. Robb (2014)

Robb has previously written biographies of Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt. This volume is one of a series titled ‘A brief guide to [or A history of] …’ which includes guides to Stephen King, ghost-hunting, the Roman Empire, Star Wars and any other topics they thought would sell. Written for a popular audience, then.

No illustrations

At 340 pages, including notes and index, it’s quite a long book, but its most obvious feature is that there are no illustrations, none, nada, zip – which is a big drawback seeing as comic books are a largely visual medium. When it gives descriptions of the early artwork for Superman, or how Batman’s look was refined over time, or the visual makeover of many comic book heroes in the 1960s, the reader is crying out for illustrations to show what he’s talking about. But you have to turn to the internet to do your own research…

So the book is solely prose, made up of thumbnail profiles of the writers, artists and publishers who created comic book superheroes, along with a dense account of how they developed and evolved over time.

Superman 1938

Comic Superhero history starts in May 1938 when Superman made his first appearance in Action Comics #1. In other words, Superman is 80 years old this year, in fact this month!

He was the creation of two schoolfriends from Cleveland, Jerry Siegel (writer) and Joe Shuster (artist). Everything before this date is the pre-history of superhero comics; everything afterwards is the complex unfolding of superhero comic history.

Cultural forebears of superheroes

The prehistory is entertaining because Robb (like many others writing on the subject) feels compelled to give a brisk popular history of the wide-ranging role of ‘the hero’ in myth, legend, history and folklore (the word ‘hero’ is itself of Greek derivation).

Thus a man gifted with magic powers to protect his people can be made to include Moses and Aaron and the Biblical hero Samson. It can include the pantheon of Greek gods and mortal heroes like Heracles, Perseus and Theseus. Robb quotes Joseph Campbell on the importance of ‘the Journey’ in numerous ancient stories about heroes, and references the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Odyssey and the Mahabharata as cultural forebears of Batman and Robin. This is both fun and a little pompous.

Folklore forebears of superheroes

More persuasive is the notion of a lineage from more folklore elements of ‘the hero’ through to the popular fictions of the late 19th century. Robin Hood and Dick Turpin are two prime examples. Robin Hood is not only an epitome of schoolboy morality (stealing from the rich to give to the poor) but he wears an early version of the superhero costume: tights and a distinctive cap, all in bright primary colours (Lincoln green with some red thrown in). Dick Turpin concealed his face behind a neckerchief and a pulled-down hat, and wore a cloak or cape.

Pop culture forebears of superheroes

But in fact, historians have no idea what Robin Hood or Dick Turpin wore. The images I’ve described above derive from movies, and it is Hollywood which is probably the prime factor in the origin of the superhero look.

Superheroes didn’t derive from scholarly study of ancient mythology and folklore: they came out of the extraordinary rich, bubbling swamp of popular and pulp culture of the 1920s. If Jerry and Joe knew about Sherlock Holmes or the Scarlet Pimpernel it wasn’t from reading the books about them (Sherlock had debuted in 1887, the Pimpernel in 1905). It was from paying a few cents to sit in the cheap seats of the local movie house, chomping on popcorn and watching the adventure films of a movie star like Douglas Fairbanks, who starred in a movie about Zorro (created 1919, turned into a movie in 1920), Robin Hood (1922) or the Black Pirate (1926).

In a sense superheroes began in the movies before, in our time, returning to the movies.

Like other historians of the subject, Robb pays special attention to characters with dual identities, a standard feature of most comic book superheroes – the classic example being Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

(Although if you stop and think about it for a moment, a dual identity is a basic element of almost all detective, spy and crime fiction of the kind that was growing more and more popular at the end of the 19th century and start of the 20th. Many thousands of detective stories take their time working up to the grand ‘reveal’ of the ‘true identity’ of the criminal, of the dope dealer or jewel thief or murderer etc caught by Sherlock Holmes or any one of the hundreds of copycat detectives invented in the 1890s and 1900s. (See my review of The Shadows of Sherlock Holmes a collection of stories about fictional detectives inspired by Holmes.) Spy stories, are by their very nature, about people concealing their true task and intentions.

Anyway, Robb’s book becomes really interesting when it gets to the extraordinarily dense jungle of popular culture which flowered in the 1890s and then just got denser and denser in the decades that followed, proliferating in penny dreadfuls, shilling shockers, pulp magazines, newspaper supplements and then in the new format of moving pictures and related magazines and merchandising.

Robb dwells on two Edwardian doers of good deeds who hid their true identity:

  • the Scarlet Pimpernel (real name Sir Percy Blakeney) who rescues aristocrats from the guillotine, leaving a calling card with a picture of the pimpernel flower
  • Zorro, who wears a black face mask and cape, protects the poor of California, and leaves a distinctive ‘Z’ carved into various objects with his stylish swordplay

Just as important for a superhero is the fiendish villain, and these were prefigured by – among many – Holmes’s opponent, the ‘Napoleon of crime’, Professor Moriarty, or the diabolical criminal mastermind Fu Manchu (1913).

British hero fiction included John Buchan’s hero Richard Hannay who debuted in 1915, followed by the more thuggish Bulldog Drummond, who appeared in 1920. Lesley Charteris’s crime-fighting hero, the Saint, first appeared in 1928. Biggles the heroic fighter pilot first appeared in 1932. All these heroes were morally unambiguous fighters against Crime and Fiendish Plots.

In America the spread of radio gave rise to a florid variety of heroic fighters against crime: the Shadow, a masked crime-fighting vigilante (1930), the Spider (1933) and Doc Savage (1933), a kind of ‘peak human’, reared to have perfect abilities, who had a base in mid-town Manhattan and a rich armoury of state-of-the-art gadgets, funded by money from a secret Mayan goldmine, to help him fight crime.

In 1936 the Green Hornet, another crime-fighting, masked vigilante was created specially for radio. Also in 1936 appeared The Phantom, who wore a skin-tight bodysuit and a ‘domino’ eye-mask to fight crime.

Off in another part of the rich jungle of popular and pulp culture which exploded around the time of the Great War, was the more unrestrained world of science fiction and fantasy. Important forebears were John Carter of Mars (1912) and Tarzan (1912), both created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Philip Francis Nowlan’s hero Buck Rogers (1928) and Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian (1932), soon joined by Alex Raymond’s newspaper strip hero Flash Gordon (1934).

What these numerous figures have in common is that they are modern, pulp versions of ‘the hero’, who always outwit their fiendish opponents after a string of exciting adventures, and that they appear in series or serials: once invented they can appear in almost limitless numbers of adventures (as Conan Doyle, who came to hate his invention, Sherlock Holmes, knew all too well).

By now you might share the feeling I had that the first appearance of Superman in 1938 was maybe not quite the dazzling innovation I thought it was; in fact reading about this proliferation of heroes might make you wonder why it took quite so long to come up with what seems to be the logical conclusion of all these trends.

Robb tells the story of how two teenagers from Cleveland conceived the idea, developed it over many years, were repeatedly rejected by newspapers and comic publishers, and were forced to work on other characters and projects, until finally given their big break in 1938.

I found the two most interesting things about Superman were:

1. His descent not so much from all these detectives and crime fighters, but from the Victorian circus strongman. These popular performers generally wore tights and pants, a figure-hugging suit to highlight their musculature which was strapped in with an impressive belt, and often stylised boots.

Victorian circus strongman, whose shiny boots, tight pants, utility belt and stylised vest all anticipate the 'superhero look'

A Victorian circus strongman, whose shiny boots, tight pants, utility belt and stylised vest all anticipate the ‘superhero look’

2. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster sold the exclusive rights to their then-new character, Superman to DC (short for Detective Comics) Publishing for just $130 (split between the two of them). Superman was an instant hit and not only went on to generate hundreds of millions of dollars for the publisher and the film company that eventually bought it, but to inspire an entire genre of superhero fiction across all media.

As they watched this happen Siegel and Shuster continued to work as a comic book writer and illustrator, respectively, but made repeated attempts to sue for a share of the vast revenue generated by their invention. In fact their heirs are still locked in litigation with DC’s parent company, Time Warner, to this day.

The development of the comic strip

Robb gives a brief and fascinating recap of how the comic strip itself evolved. As far back as the record stretches, human beings have always told stories. Bas-relief carvings on Greek and Indian temples capture moments from religious or legendary narratives. (Robb doesn’t mention it but I’d have thought the 12 Stations of the Cross which appear in tens of thousands of Catholic churches are an early example of a story told through snapshots of key moments.) He does mention the use of ‘scroll speech’ in medieval and Renaissance art work, where a scroll unfolds from a figure’s mouth, containing their speech (something I’m familiar with from my readings of the British Civil Wars).

17th century cartoon with speech scroll

17th century Civil War cartoon with speech scroll

Robb says the next step forward was marked by the popular engravings of the 18th century artist William Hogarth, famous for the series of pictures which depict The Rake’s Progress and A Harlot’s Progress. These popular engravings showed the decline of the eponymous rake and harlot with plenty of humorous detail. They gave rise to similar pictorial sequences by Rodolphe Töpfler later in the century, and by the Victorian artist Gustave Doré, among others. Throughout the 19th century Punch in Britain and similar magazines across the Continent used cartoons, often with speech captions, to convey narratives with punch lines.

Capitalist competition creates comics

But all these sometimes dubious historical antecedents are there simply to pave the way for the real start of popular comic books which, as with most things American, came out of ferocious competition to make money.

Starting in 1887 a newspaper war was waged between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper empires. One among many fronts in this war was the innovation of cartoon strips with catchy titles and populist characters. In 1892 The Little Bears was created by Jimmy Swinnerton for Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner, probably the first cartoon strip anywhere which featured regularly recurring characters.

In 1895 Pulitzer debuted a strip titled The Yellow Kid for his paper The New York World, drawn by Richard Felton Outcault, which pioneered the use of speech text to indicate dialogue. In 1897 the paper added a supplement featuring just Outcault’s strips and expanding it to describe an array of characters from the yellow kid’s neighbourhood – titled McFadden’s Row of Flats – and a new term, ‘comic book’, was invented to describe it.

As a direct response to all this, Hearst’s New York Journal commissioned their own strip, The Katzenjammer Kids, created by Rudolph Dirks. Dirks developed Outcault’s device of speech balloons and invented the ‘thought balloon’, indicated by a series of bubbles leading up to the text balloon itself. The same year saw the first use of colour printing (as the name, The Yellow Kid, indicates).

These kind of narrative cartoons featuring recurring characters proved tremendously popular (nicer, after all, than reading the depressing news) and spread like wildfire to every other newspaper which could find a decent illustrator. By 1912 Hearst was devoting an entire page of the New York Daily Journal to comic strips, a feature which became known as the ‘funny pages’, the ‘funny papers’, or simply ‘the funnies’.

It was quickly realised that the strips which appeared during the week could be repackaged into a bumper weekend supplement. Rather than broadsheet size, it made financial and practical sense to publish them in magazine format, which was easier for readers to handle and read. The comic book was born.

Superhero history

So much for the multi-stranded prehistory of the comic superhero.

The publication of Superman in 1938 transformed the landscape, inventing a whole new genre of superhero. From this point onwards Robb’s book becomes a dense and fascinating account of how numerous newspapers and publishers sought to cash in on the fad by creating their own superheroes. He describes the complicated evolution of the two publishing houses which would eventually become known as Marvel and DC, and reading his book gives you a good sense of the difference between them.

Basically, DC owned Superman (1938) and Batman (1939) who spawned hundreds of imitators but managed to remain ahead of the pack. Through the war years the superheroes performed their patriotic duty with a strong sideline in film noir-style violence against all manner of crime or fantasy baddies.

In the 1950s there was a moral backlash against comics, with a nationwide panic in America that they were one of many influences turning teenagers into ‘juvenile delinquents’. This resulted in 1954 in the establishment of The Comics Code Authority (CCA) which forced comic books to abandon much violence and all references to drugs and sex, tending to replace hard 1940s stories with softer, romance elements.

Marvel began existence in 1939 as ‘Timely Publications’, and by the early 1950s was generally known as Atlas Comics. The Marvel branding began 1961 with a rack of superhero titles created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and others. Robb describes the period 1961-62 as a kind of annus mirabilis, during which Lee oversaw the creation of The Fantastic Four and their nemesis Dr Doom (November 1961), Ant-Man (January 1962), the Incredible Hulk (May 1962), Spider-Man (August 1962), the Mighty Thor (August 1962), Iron Man (March 1963), the Avengers (September 1963) and the X-men (1963).

Even if you think comic books are rubbish, this is by any measure still an incredible outpouring of creativity, the creation of characters which would go on to have multi-billion dollar futures in popular culture.

Although other artists and writers were involved, Stan Lee is commonly associated with this outburst of imagination and the key element of it seems to have been his conviction that superheroes must be flawed – realistic characters who often struggle with their own superpowers. Thus Spider-Man is deeply confused about how to use his skills, the X-Men bicker amongst themselves, the Fantastic Four are riven by rivalries, and the Hulk considers committing suicide he is so upset by the scientific accident which has turned him into a monster.

It was this troubled psychology which set them completely apart from DC’s untroubled hero Superman and made them feel more contemporary than their older cousins (although, admittedly, DC’s Batman is a much darker creation).

In a second nod to contemporary concerns, Lee’s Marvel creations were nearly all connected to contemporary paranoia about the atom bomb and atomic energy. It is radioactivity which messes up the DNA of almost all these superheroes, a paranoia about the potentially damaging impact of modern science which remains relevant right down to the present day.

It is this more ‘modern’ way of conceiving superhero psychology, as well as the more modern concerns about science, which possibly account for the relative success of the Marvel characters in the movies, and the rather staid, static quality of the DC movies.

The difference between the Superman era and the Fantastic Four era is recognised by comic book historians who have divided the past eighty years into a series of ‘ages’.

The golden age of comic books was from 1938 to about 1950, when waning interest in superheroes was capped by the baleful influence of the Comics Code Authority.

The silver age of comic books is dated from DC Comics’ new character Flash, introduced in Showcase #4 in October 1956. This led up to the Marvel outburst in the early 1960s which spawned a great sprawling cast not only of heroes but of baddies and enemies. This era also another important Marvel innovation, which was introducing one set of heroes into the adventures or ‘universe’ of another set. As the 1960s progressed, the interactions of heroes from different narratives became not only more complex in itself, but led to the notion of parallel worlds in which the various characters might have different superpowers, fight each other and even die.

The bronze age of comic books runs from about 1970 to 1985. The bright, Pop optimism of the 1960s turned into a nitty-gritty concern with social ‘issues’, such as the environment, feminism, racism and drugs, along with more realistic depictions of alcoholism, addiction, urban decay and so on.

Alongside the two giants of Marvel and DC there arose a new wave of independent comic book publishers who took a whole new approach to the superhero genre. This was crystallised in the epoch-making Watchmen, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, which set out to deconstruct the entire mythos of superheroes.

Superheroes in movies

Although Robb doesn’t quite make this point, his book ends where it began, with the movies. Not with the distant antecedents of Gilgamesh or Robin Hood, but with the fact that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster loved the movies and were influenced by what they saw, by the sight of Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckling his way across the screen and that now, we in our time, queue up to watch the Amazing Spiderman, Thor and Iron Man swing across our multiplex 3D screens.

Poster for Douglas Fairbanks in The Mask of Zorro (1920)

Poster for Douglas Fairbanks in The Mask of Zorro (1920)

Radio Robb’s last few chapters give a bewilderingly dense account of the way superheroes were adapted to other media beyond comic books. Radio was the first, and it’s interesting to learn that radio developed catchphrases, plot lines and even new characters, which hadn’t existed in the original comics but which the comics then co-opted.

Television From the 1950s various television series portrayed superheroes, probably the most memorable being the camp classic Batman of the 1960s.

Animations Movies were slower to adapt superheroes because of the technical challenges of portraying superhero action. It was easier to do this in animations, so there have been scores of animated TV shows and movies about superheroes.

The Modern Age of Superhero Movies starts with Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of Superman in the film of the same name, directed by Richard Donner in 1978. Although the special effects look creaky to the modern eye, they were a quantum step up from all previous attempts and made superhero film-making a real possibility. Three sequels were released, in 1980, 1983 and 1987.

The next benchmark was the pair of Batman movies directed by Tim Burton and starring Michael Keaton. Robb is great on the showbusiness gossip and behind-the-scenes manoeuvring which accompanied these films, for example the way that Keaton, previously known mainly for light comic roles, was widely opposed by comicbook fans, who mounted a campaign to prevent him taking the role. In the event, Burton’s two Batman movies (Batman, 1989 and Batman Returns 1992) were widely seen as a triumph, and made stacks of money ($411 million and $266 million, respectively).

Robb details the ongoing attempts to stage other superhero movies during the 1980s and 90s, which met with mixed success, and a fair share of dazzling flops. Along with most fans he considers the last two Reeve Superman movies (Superman III, 1983 and Superman IV, 1987) and the Val Kilmer and George Clooney Batmen (Batman Forever, 1995, and Batman and Robin, 1997) to be disasters.

The modern age of superhero movies

The Current Age of Superhero Movies was launched with the X-Men directed by Bryan Singer and released in 2000. With an intelligent script, the steadying presence of two top-class British actors (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen) and state-of-the-art, computer-generated graphics, X-Men inaugurated the modern age.

It cost a lot to make, but it:

a) made a fortune ($296 million)
b) spawned a host of sequels (there are now no fewer than 10 films in the X-Men series)
c) and led to a number of successful television spin-off series

The X-Men movies played an important role in creating the superhero cultural, film and TV universe that we now inhabit.

This is a list of the main superhero movies of the last 18 years, excluding various flops and failures, with an indication of their costs and revenues.

2000 X-Men ($296 million gross on $75 million budget)
2002 Spider-Man ($821 million on $139 million)
2003 Daredevil ($179 million on $78 million)
2003 X-Men 2 ($407 million on $125 million)
2004 Fantastic Four ($330 million on $100 million)
2004 Spider-Man 2 ($783 million on $200 million)
2005 Batman Begins ($374 million / $150 million)
2006 Superman Returns ($223 million / $223 million)
2006 X-Men: The Last Stand ($459 million / $210 million)
2007 Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer ($290 million / $130 million)
2007 Spider-Man 3 ($890 million / $258 million)
2008 Batman: The Dark Knight ($1 BILLION / $185 million)
2008 Iron Man 1 ($585 million / $140 million)
2008 The Incredible Hulk ($263 million / $150 million)
2009 Watchmen ($185 million / $138 million)
2009 X-Men Origins: Wolverine ($373 million / $150 million)
2010 Iron Man 2 ($624 million / $200 million)

2011 Thor ($449 million / $150 million)
2011 X-Men: First Class ($353 million / $160 million)
2011 Captain America: The First Avenger ($370 million / $140 million)
2012 The Amazing Spider-Man ($757 million / $230 million)
2012 Batman: The Dark Knight Rises ($1.08 BILLION / $300 million)
2012 Marvel’s The Avengers ($1.5 BILLION / $220 million)
2013 Iron Man 3 ($1.2 BILLION / $200 million)
2013 Man of Steel ($668 million / $225 million)
2013 Thor: The Dark World ($645 million / $170 million)
2013 The Wolverine ($414 million / $120 million)
2014 The Amazing Spider-Man 2 ($709 million / $293 million)
2014 Captain America: The Winter Soldier ($714 million / $177 million)
2014 Guardians of the Galaxy ($773 million / $232 million)
2014 X-Men: Days of Future Past ($747 million / £205 million)
2015 Ant-Man ($519 million / $142 million)
2015 Avengers: Age of Ultron ($1.4 BILLION / $444 million)
2015 Fantastic Four ($168 million / $155 million)
2016 Captain America: Civil War ($1.15 BILLION / $250 million)
2016 Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice ($874 million / $300 million)
2016 Deadpool ($783 million / $58 million)
2016 Doctor Strange ($678 milllion / $165 million)
2016 X-Men: Apocalypse ($544 million / $178 million)
2017 Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 ($864 million / $200 million)
2017 Superman: Justice League ($658 million / $300 million)
2017 Spider-Man: Homecoming ($880 million / $175 million)
2017 Thor: Ragnarok ($854 million / $180 million)
2017 Logan ($619 million / $127 million)
2018 Ant-Man and the Wasp
2018 Avengers: Infinity War
2018 Black Panther ($1.334 BILLION / $210 million)
2018 Deadpool 2

Quite a few, aren’t there?

The first superhero movie to gross over a billion dollars was Christopher Nolan’s Batman: The Dark Knight, and six other superhero movies have grossed over a billion since then.

The X-Men movies between them have generated $5 billion.

In 2010 Marvel produced the first in a carefully planned sequence of movies designed to maximise revenue from their stable of characters, and which has become known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe or MCU. This is divided into ‘phases’ of six movies each, the first five of each phase devoted to individual Marvel heroes, the sixth bringing the previous five altogether into a grand finale which ties together plotlines from the previous movies.

As I write we are approaching the end of Phase Three, which has just seen the phenomenal success of Black Panther (phase 3, movie 5) which grossed over $1.3 billion, and paved the way for the sixth in this phase, Avengers: Infinity War which has just opened in the States to the usual mass marketing and hype.

Summary

Despite having no illustrations at all, Robb’s book is an eminently readable and very enjoyable overview of the entire history of the superhero comic book phenomenon, which puts it in the context of expanding popular culture, twentieth century history, and the evolving media of radio, TV and film – all told in a light, accessible prose style with a sure sense of the interesting anecdote and fascinating fact.

Great fun, and a very useful introduction to a cultural phenomenon which is bigger than ever, and set to dominate our movie and TV screens for the foreseeable future.


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Up at the Villa by Somerset Maugham (1941)

‘Don’t be afraid. The devil’s a sportsman and he looks after his own.’ Rowley Flint

This is a ripping little novella, gripping and compelling, slightly ludicrous and strangely affecting, which I read from cover to cover in a single two-hour sitting. Maybe it would be the perfect introduction to Maugham for someone who’s never read him.

Background

When she was 22, Mary, a young lady from a good family, married Matthew Panton. Little did she realise he would turn into an alcoholic and a gambler. He gambled and was reduced to sottish inebriation every night, often not coming home at all because he had gone off with the first woman he could drunkenly chat up. After eight years he had gambled away his inheritance so it was tragic, but also a blessed relief, when he killed himself while driving blind drunk and had a high-speed car crash.

After prolonged discussion with the family lawyers it emerged that Mary had just enough income to survive, if she was frugal. So she welcomed a kind offer from friends, the Leonards, to go and recuperate at their villa overlooking Florence. It was not grand, it was a bit cold, but it was the perfect rest cure, with the added benefit of being looked after by the kind maid, Nina, and her husband, Ciro.

The plot

The story unfolds over a few fateful days. Mary is expecting a proposal of marriage from an old friend of her family’s, the eminent diplomat, Sir Edgar Swift, K.C.S.I., of the Indian Civil Service. Twenty five years her senior, he’s been in love with her since she was a teenager. They have had many discussions about it and now he is stopping over on a trip to Cannes, to propose to her.

Sir Edgar arrives, has tea, they talk politely and he informs her that he has been confirmed in the governorship of Bengal. Behind this is the possibility that he will one day be made Viceroy of all India. Marry him, and all that pomp and circumstance would be hers.

Maugham carefully investigates Mary’s feelings and hesitations on the matter – of course it would be a glorious life and yet… the age difference. She tells Sir Edgar she will give him her answer in three days’ time.

Submitting to her wish, Edgar leaves. As an after-thought, he insists she carry the revolver he’s given her when she goes out, since ‘you never know with all these foreigners about’. Touched and amused by his concern, she absent-mindedly agrees.

Mary then motors into Florence to attend a party given at a restaurant, Peppino’s, by the old Princess San Ferdinando. Despite her title, the Princess is in fact a humorously cynical old American lady who married an Italian prince some forty years earlier. He had affairs; he died. Whereupon she inherited his land, house and inheritance and has made herself into a well-established grande dame and hostess of Florentine society.

This is the kind of party which Maugham, for so long a hobnobber among the rich and titled, describes with such urbane confidence. I particularly enjoyed the character of the choleric old English traveler, Colonel Trail, much given to imbecile spluttering and indignation.

Also a guest is the wicked debauchee, young Rowley Flint, a kind of Errol Flynn character. (As a sample of his repartee, at one point he tells Mary that she is ‘an almost perfect specimen of the genus peach’ which made me laugh.) Rowley smooths up to Mary, with the sly encouragement of the wicked old princess, but Mary easily fobs him off – all carried off in the kind of sparkling dialogue which Maugham deploys to such effect in his many comic plays.

The Princess had arranged the party specially to hear a singer perform at Peppino’s but, to the Princess’s disgust, the singer is off sick tonight and has been replaced by a violinist. He is a shy, frail-looking man who plays a set of sentimental songs, but can’t overcome the disappointment of the rich clientèle. When he passes around a hat only a few coins and small notes are given.

Feeling sorry for him, Mary astonishes Rowley by handing over a hundred lira note.

At the end of the evening the Princess suggests to Mary that she give Rowley a lift to his hotel in her stylish little coupé. So she does. Rowley flirtatiously suggests they drive on into the country for a while, it being such a fine June evening.

During this drive a) Rowley makes a pass at Mary which b) she confidently rebuffs, during which she c) explains that he is the last kind of man she would have an affair with. If she was tempted to have an affair, it would be to make someone happy; to find someone less fortunate than herself, and to make him the gift of her lovely sexual body; to make the affair an act of charity. Rowley thinks this a ridiculous attitude and they squabble. So Mary drives Rowley back to his house, then turns round to drive up the hill to the villa.

At a bend in the road up the hill there is a fine viewing point and she pulls over and parks, gets out and stares out over the panorama of Florence by moonlight. Her mind and heart are confused and whirling: should she marry old Sir Edgar in order to have a distinguished middle-age? What of Rowley’s arguments that she is still young and beautiful and ought to enjoy life while she can? All mixed in with sad memories of her one true love, the husband who turned into a useless drunk.

She is so deep in thought that she is startled when a cigarette is lit in the shade of the tree next to her. Out from the shadow comes the violinist from Peppino’s, looking even poorer in his own clothes than when he’d been dressed in the threadbare costume of the troupe of musicians at the restaurant.

Initially scared, Mary is softened by his gentle attitude and poverty. Turns out he’s renting a room in one of the shacks further up the hill. Mary offers him a lift. On the way it turns out he’s had nothing to eat and so, by now feeling thoroughly sorry for him, she drives him on up to the villa.

She hears his story. His name is Karl Richter and he’s not Italian at all, but Austrian. He was among a student group which spoke out about the Anschluss (whereby Hitler’s Germany incorporated Austria in March 1938) whereupon they were all arrested, a couple shot and the rest thrown into a concentration camp. After a few months he managed to escape and made his way across the mountains to Italy, where he just about scrapes a living playing the violin.

As it happens the villa is decorated with impressive murals and, because Karl had mentioned that he was an art student back in Austria, Mary shows them to him. Then she takes him into the kitchen and cooks him bacon and eggs which he eats ravenously. Back in the living room there is a gramophone which, when she turns it on, proves to have a record of Austrian waltzes on it.

So it feels perfectly natural that they start dancing, her feeling his strong undernourished body pressed against her, he almost drunk with happiness, with a full stomach for the first time in months, mind filled with the wondrous art of the villa, and holding a beautiful woman in his arms.

Suddenly they are both overcome with passion, his fairly understandable, but Mary’s a logical consequence of the aim she stated to Rowley back in the restaurant – to make her love/body a gift of charity, to make someone happy. They make love.

Maugham tactfully skips the actual sex. Later she is sitting in an armchair chair, he sitting at her feet. Now the argument starts. He declares his undying love and that she must marry him, live with him, become his.

Mary delicately tries to explain that she’ll be leaving Florence in a few days because she’s going to say Yes in marriage to another man (Sir Edgar). Karl is upset and the more Mary tries to explain, the worse it gets. In her honest way, she can’t help revealing that she only took Karl to bed out of charity; she was doing a good deed. But from Karl’s point of view, the doorway to a wondrous better life had barely opened before she is slamming it shut in his face.

‘I didn’t mean to be cruel. My heart was full of tenderness and pity.’
‘I never asked for your pity. Why didn’t you leave me alone? You have shown me heaven and now you want to thrust me back to earth. No. No. No.’

At one point Karl approaches her threateningly, Mary remembers the gun and takes it from her handbag. Karl is so angry he shouts, ‘Yes, go on, shoot me, put me out of my misery.’ She drops it, he grabs her and, er… ravishes her, this time with real anger and aggression.

Once again they are lying on the bed after passion. Karl gets to his feet and she hears him padding round the dark bedroom. Suddenly there is a loud bang: he has shot himself through the chest.

Oh my God!

Part two

Maugham describes Mary’s panic-stricken reaction to this disaster. Practical worries swamped by her emotional reaction to the suicide of the man she’s just made love with. It’s made worse by the maid, Nana, tapping on the bedroom door, asking what the bang was. ‘It’s nothing,’ says Mary, ‘must have been a car backfiring in the road below.’ The only person she can think of who can help her in this crisis is Rowley, so she phones him and this begins part two of the book.

For Rowley turns out to be fantastically helpful, resourceful and reliable. Woken by her call in the middle of the night, he borrows his hotel porter’s pushbike and quickly cycles up to the villa.

Mary turns the light on, shows him the body and tells him the whole story with no omissions.

Rowley is shocked and appalled but quickly regains control. He tells her to fetch the car. They carry the body out and put it in the back. Rowley gets a towel and mops up all the blood on the floor. He drives to a place she suggests, up a remote hilltop road towards thick woods. They’re about to get the body out of the back when they see lights from a car coming along the same road. With quick thinking Rowley gets in the back with her (their feet on the warm corpse which is in the chairwell) and as the car goes by, make a big show of snogging, just another courting couple. The Italians in the car driving by whoop encouragement and start singing La donne e mobile. Italians.

Having finally disposed of the body, they drive back to the villa where Mary she says she’s got a luncheon appointment the next day but obviously can’t go. Quite the opposite, Rowley tells her. She mist take a sleeping pill now, and tomorrow she must go and be her usual bright and happy self.

Which is what she does. Takes pill, sleep deeply, wakes late. Bath and make-up helped by the maid. Then off to lunch at the Atkinsons’ and another of the frightfully posh social scenes Maugham does so well – old man Atkinson (‘a fine, handsome, grey-haired man, plethoric and somewhat corpulent, with an eye for a pretty woman’) flirting with Mary outrageously and Mary doing her best to keep up the light-hearted banter in between panic-stricken flashbacks to the night before.

I suppose it’s about here that one should mention that not much of this is very plausible. Mary is flustered alright, but shows little of the psychological trauma you might expect in a modern rendition of these events. The fact that she has to go to this lunch party – and that the conversation turns to the wretched little violinist they’d been forced to listen to the night before, instead of the hoped-for singer – are not indicators of ‘real life’ but of exactly the same kind of narrative logic you find in Maugham’s plays, or indeed of the popular American films noirs of the period.

Events are carpentered together in order to produce the best dramatic effects, with only a passing concern for psychological plausibility. This is brought out even more in the next few scenes which have a kind of melodramatic or even soap opera logic.

Chapter 7 Back at the villa after her lunch ordeal, Mary is sitting in the exquisite garden when Rowley saunters in and up to her. They review the events of the night before and Rowley points out they’ve been damn lucky. Mary tells him she’s really frightfully grateful. With a charming smile Rowley explains it’s because he likes the risk, the gamble, the excitement of an adventure.

Then he asks about the gun, which they had forgotten in all the excitement. Mary had put it back in her bedroom drawer – bad idea. To her horror, Rowley gets it then goes down to his bicycle and cycles off to the wood where he dumped the body. A little later he returns safely, saying he dropped it in a stream nearby.

It is only now that she gives a really thorough blow-by-blow explanation of what happened the night before, the flow of the conversation, the sex, the suicide. And Rowley gives his explanation:

‘I think I can tell you why he killed himself,’ he said at last. ‘He was homeless, outcast, penniless and half-starved. He hadn’t got much to live for, had he? And then you came. I don’t suppose he’d ever seen such a beautiful woman in his life. You gave him something that in his wildest dream he could never have dreamed of. Suddenly the whole world was changed because you loved him. How could you expect him to guess that it wasn’t love that had made you give yourself to him? You told him it was only pity. Mary, my dear, men are vain, especially very young men: did you never know that? It was an intolerable humiliation. No wonder he nearly killed you. You’d raised him to the stars and then you flung him back to the gutter. He was like a prisoner whose jailers lead him to the door of his prison and just as he is about to step out to freedom, slam it in his face. Wasn’t that enough to decide him that life wasn’t worth living?’

Mary is surprised that Rowley, according to ex-pat received opinion a well-known wastrel and ne’er-do-well, turns out to have such sensitive insight into other people. Which comes on top of her surprise at how sensible, calm and decisive he had been last night.

Mary hands him a telegram she received that morning from Sir Edgar. He will be arriving that afternoon. ‘Are you going to marry him?’ asks Rowley. ‘I need someone to look up to, someone to look after me,’ replies Mary.

But then she horrifies Rowley by announcing she will tell Edgar all about last night. ‘No, no, no,’ says Rowley. He knows these Empire Building types, the soul of integrity and honour. Sir Edgar has a shining ideal of her; it would be madness to destroy it. But I must she says, I must tell him the truth.

‘Have it your own way, sweetheart,’ replies insouciant Rowley, bids her adieu and saunters back out of the garden.

Chapter 8 There follows kind of scene Maugham excels at and which feels like it comes straight out of one of his plays. The worthy and dignified suitor, Sir Edgar, arrives to ask the hand of the younger women he has worshiped chastely and honourably all her adult life.

Unfortunately, ignoring Rowley’s advice, Mary does tell him about last night, leaving out nothing – the pity, the sex, the suicide, the hiding the body.

I don’t know whether we’re meant to be moved or amused or both by the subtlety with which Maugham describes the psychological negotiations which then ensue. It is like watching two masters play chess.

Mary realises she has shattered Edgar’s idealised vision of her – but that he is bound by his own code of nobility to continue with his proposal of marriage. That much she expected.

However, Edgar surprises Mary by announcing that he cannot now, of course, accept the post of Governor of Bengal. Why? Because now more than ever (i.e. in the dying days of the Raj) the British are only ruling by dint of their integrity. Sir Edgar wouldn’t be able to sleep at nights knowing that at some point, any point, in the future, the whole affair might somehow come out tarnish his reputation and, by extension, the entirety of British rule.

Not least because of the role played by bloody Rowley Flint. Sooner or later he’ll tell one of his many women and it will all come out. So it’s not so much his own personal fate Sir Edgar is concerned about, but  that it might damage British rule in India and the Foreign Service to which he has dedicated his life.

No, he will resign his commission and they can live quietly somewhere, maybe the Riviera, on his pension.

Mary hadn’t expected this at all. She is appalled. She realises that her confession has made Sir Edgar abandon his career, now, just as it reached its climax of success, the reward of thirty years of loyal service. But that he feels obligated by his sense of honour to pursue his suit regardless of the cost to himself.

Her confession has ruined his life, and yet he has the honour and dignity to accept the fact quite calmly.

And so – just as in the best of his plays – we watch Maugham make his character think on her feet. She realises she must do the right thing and force Sir Edgar to drop his marriage proposal, in order to rescue his career. But it must be in such a way so as not compromise him, to make him feel he is fulfilling his duties. She must place herself in a guilty position, she must paint herself in such a way that he can honourably dump her.

And so Mary lights on the solution of telling Sir Edgar that, given the difference in age and the fact (previously well aired) that she doesn’t really love him, that although she respects him and has great affection for him etc,. she had only said yes because when he was working full time as governor they wouldn’t see very much of each other and so the marriage would have worked as a sort of companionable arrangement.

However, if he is to quit his job and they are to live as a retired couple on the Riviera, well, they would be in each other’s faces all day long. And this wouldn’t work.

He was silent for a long time. When he looked at her again his eyes were cold.
‘You mean that you were prepared to marry the Governor of Bengal, but not a retired Indian Civilian on a pension.’

Excellent. Result. Mary has made herself appear heartless and scheming. She has killed not only his love for her, but his respect. She has given Sir Edgar the gift of enabling him to drop his suit with a clear conscience.

‘In that case we need not discuss the matter further.’
‘There doesn’t seem much point in doing so, does there?’

Abruptly frigid and correct, Sir Edgar stands up. He shakes her hand. He leaves. End of scene.

Chapter 9

Rowley rings up and is his usual flippant self.

‘Have you got any ice in the house?’ he said.
‘Is it to ask me that that you made me come to the phone?’ she answered coldly.
‘Not entirely. I wanted to ask you also if you had any gin and vermouth.’
‘Anything else?’
‘Yes. I wanted to ask if you’d give me a cocktail if I got into a taxi and came along.’
‘I’ve got a lot to do.’
‘That’s fine. I’ll come along and help you.’

Rowley turns up and, to cut a long story short, renews the proposal of marriage which he had made a few nights earlier, when he was drunk and she was driving him home. He tells Mary he has a farm in Kenya which he’d been letting a manager manage for him, but he’s just sacked him and fancies going out to manage the place himself. Fancy coming along?

‘How on earth could I ever hope to keep you even moderately faithful?’
‘Well, that would be up to you. They say a woman ought to have an occupation, and that would be a very suitable one for you in Kenya.’

But:

‘But I don’t love you, Rowley.’
‘I told you the other night, you will if you give yourself half a chance.’

Does it matter that none of this is particularly plausible? No. It is a social comedy, a comedy of manners, just like his many smash-hit West End plays. The reader’s job is not to seek for deep psychological analysis or investigation of the human condition. It is to be entertained and amused.

What the hell. Mary says Yes.

Rowley gave a great throaty chuckle. He jumped up and dragged her to her feet and flung his arms round her. He kissed her on the mouth. ‘So now what?’
‘Well, if you insist on marrying me… But it’s an awful risk we’re taking.”
‘Darling, that’s what life is for – to take risks.’

As delicious, as piquant, as sharp and sweet as a lemon sorbet.

Dolce far niente

Decades of holidaying on Capri and then living at his sumptuously-located villa in the south of France gave Maugham a profound feel for the physical and psychological well-being produced by beautiful Mediterranean landscapes and the balmy air of southern nights.

To dine there on a June evening, when it was still day, and after dinner to sit till the softness of the night gradually enveloped her, was a delight of which Mary felt that she could never tire. It gave her a delicious feeling of peace, but not of an empty peace in which there was something lethargic, of an active, thrilling peace rather in which her brain was all alert and her senses quick to respond. Perhaps it was something in that light Tuscan air that affected you so that even physical sensation had in it something spiritual. It gave you just the same emotion as listening to the music of Mozart, so melodious and so gay, with its undercurrent of melancholy, which filled you with so great a contentment that you felt as though the flesh had no longer any hold on you. For a few blissful minutes you were purged of all grossness and the confusion of life was dissolved in perfect loveliness.

Although at its core is a grisly sequence of events, this short book is punctuated by lyrical descriptions of beautiful scenery and stylish living. Here’s a description of the Atkinsons’ lunch party.

On that warm day of early June there was an animation in the air which put everyone in a good humour. You had a sensation that no one there was affected by anxiety; everyone seemed to have plenty of money, everyone seemed ready to enjoy himself. It was impossible to believe that anywhere in the world there could be people who hadn’t enough to eat. On such a day it was very good to be alive. (p.66)

God knows, there’s no shortage of ‘serious’ and ‘literary’ authors who can effortlessly convey feelings of anguish and despair, delving deeply into the tragedy and absurdity of existence. One of Maugham’s great appeals as a storyteller is that, even in the midst of sordid or even murderous events, he is able in the settings and the atmosphere of his stories to convey moods of great tranquility and serenity.


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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

Christmas Holiday by Somerset Maugham (1939)

It was all very strange and complicated. It looked as though nothing were quite so simple as it seemed; it looked as though the people we thought we knew best carried secrets that they didn’t even know themselves. Charley had a sudden inkling that human beings were infinitely mysterious. The fact was that you knew nothing about anybody. (p.213)

At 250 pages in the Pan paperback edition – notably longer than either Cakes and Ale or The Moon & Sixpence – this is a leisurely, rather rambling story of a young man’s trip to 1930s Paris in search of romance and adventure, and the more sordid realities of what he actually finds there.

Charley Mason

Charley Mason is 23 and just down from Cambridge. The opening fifteen or so pages give a light satirical portrait of his family, notably his bien-pensant, middle-class parents (Leslie and Venetia) who pride themselves of being abreast of all the latest developments in the arts from Virginia Woolf to Stravinsky. Their comfortable lifestyle and complacent opinions are based on the convenient fact that grandfather Mason was a canny market gardener who bought up patches of what was then countryside just north of London which he and his heirs developed into a sizeable property empire.

Charley’s dad wants him to inherit the steady comfortably-paid job of estate manager but Charley wants to be an artist. Or maybe a musician. His parents persuade him to go to Cambridge while he thinks it over. Emerging with a good degree, Charley decides to look up his friend from prep school, Rugby public school and Cambridge, Simon Fenimore. Simon had been a fire-breathing communist at Cambridge and had left after just two years. He wasn’t embarrassed about using his posh connections to get himself a job as foreign correspondent to a good newspaper, based in Paris.

Thus it is that Charley has arranged to look up his old friend on a visit to Paris for the Christmas holiday. So far this has been told in brisk flashback.

From now on the narrative becomes more dense and slow-moving. Firstly, Simon isn’t there to meet him at the Gare du Nord, and has arranged his accommodation in a more upmarket hotel than Charley wished. Charley wants to experience romantic, Bohemian Paris, he wants to starve in a garret and write sonnets to his mistress. So is he is miffed to be staying in relative comfort…

Simon Fenimore

When Simon does finally call by and take Charley out for dinner it is to reveal himself to be – through extensive monologue – a fanatic, who thinks ‘the people’ are sheep, that they need a strong leader, that the revolution is coming, and that he must achieve total mastery over himself, through mortification and self-discipline, in order to make himself ready for the great day.

In a small example, Simon had really wanted to rush to the Gare du Nord to meet his good friend off the train, but had forced himself not to, in order to conquer his wishes, to mortify himself, to perfect his will-power. As he explains:

‘These are my Wanderjahre. I’m going to spend them in acquiring the education I never got at the stupid school we both went to or in that suburban cemetery they call the University of Cambridge. But it’s not only knowledge of men and books that I want to acquire; that’s only an instrument; I want to acquire something much harder to come by and more important: an unconquerable will. I want to mould myself as the Jesuit novice is moulded by the iron discipline of the Order. I think I’ve always known myself; there’s nothing that teaches you what you are, like being alone in the world, a stranger everywhere, and living all your life with people to whom you mean nothing. But my knowledge was instinctive. In these two years I’ve been abroad I’ve learnt to know myself as I know the fifth proposition of Euclid. I know my strength and my weakness and I’m ready to spend the next five or six years cultivating my strength and ridding myself of my weakness. I’m going to take myself as a trainer takes an athlete to make a champion of him. I’ve got a good brain. There’s no one in the world who can see to the end of his nose with such perspicacity as I can, and, believe me, in the world we live in that’s a great force. I can talk. You have to persuade men to action not by reasoning, but by rhetoric. The general idiocy of mankind is such that they can be swayed by words and, however mortifying, for the present you have to accept the fact as you accept it in the cinema that a film to be a success must have a happy ending. Already I can do pretty well all I like with words; before I’m through I shall be able to do anything.’

Like the young socialist, Ernest, in Maugham’s last play, Sheppey, Simon is portrayed as deeply confused and troubled, his ideas veering wildly from Leninist communism to a Nietzschean view of the Strong Man rising through strength of will above the common ob.

Is he a communist or a Fascist? Like so many other young men between the wars, he could be either, in the sense that his core characteristics are burning anger and a sneering contempt for contemporary social values and the sheep who passively accept it. Thus, to prove how superior he is to conventional morality, Simon tells Charley some rather shocking stories about how brutally he treats his women.

I thought the novel would expand on his entertainingly unpleasant character and that, maybe, it would lead towards a big political rally or something, and that Charley would turn out to be a pawn in his fiendish conspiracy.

Maybe I’ve been watching too many superhero movies with their bubblegum plots. Instead Simon takes Charley to a brothel, but a brothel with a twist. It’s called the Sérail and the women wear Turkish and Levantine outfits, sitting around bored until some man or other picks them to dance with to the small live band. Simon chooses a couple of women for them, pairing off Charley with a slight girl who turns out to be Russian, and here the narrative takes a massive unexpected turn.

Lydia

Before Simon disappeared off to have sex with his hooker, he had given Charley tickets to the Midnight Mass at St. Eustache, which he knew Charley wanted to see. On a whim Charley asks the prostitute Simon selected for him, introduced as ‘the Princess Olga’ because she is Russian, to accompany him.

On the way she tells him that her name is really Lydia and she isn’t a princess. The church service is OK, Charley isn’t that impressed, but the biggest impression is made by Lydia who burst into tears and then collapses on the floor in a crumpled heap, crying her eyes out.

Embarrassed, Charley picks Lydia up and takes her for a meal at a very late-opening cafe, and it’s here that she tells him her story in a long monologue: briefly, she married a dashing French man, Robert Berger, who turned out to be an inveterate gambler and thief. His mother encouraged the match in the hope it would calm her son down, but it didn’t, and one day he stabbed a bookie to death. A few days later the police came, searched the little house they all lived in (Lydia, husband, mother-in-law) and took him away. Berger was charged, tried, found guilty and sentenced to fifteen years’ penal servitude at St. Laurent in French Guiana. Lydia still loves him, but was forced to move in with some Russian friends of her mother’s, Alexey and Evgenia, the man a drunk, the woman unsympathetic.

By now feeling very sorry for her, Charley invites Lydia back to his clean but tatty hotel room: being a jolly nice chap he doesn’t make a move on her and they sleep in separate beds. Next day – Christmas Day – they stay in the room all day long, in front of a little fire, sending down to the concierge for food, while Lydia tells her story in great and entrancing detail, describing every single step in their relationship, wooing, falling in love, meeting the mother-in-law, marriage, domestic happiness, and then slowly dawning realisation that all is not right.

I like the comment made by Eric Ambler, that Maugham isn’t a great novelist, but he is a great storyteller. For the purpose of the novel, the long excursion into Lydia’s story is a) not really necessary b) is artistically flawed in the most basic sense that she recounts a host of conversations and incidents which took place years before, with word perfect recall of all the details and every word of the conversations, something the reader can’t help noticing would be palpably impossible.

But who cares? As always with Maugham, something about the psychological penetration with which he describes her character and (after all, not that exceptional) story, is hypnotic, overcoming all logical drawbacks and really drawing you in.

So why, Charley asks, is she now working at the Sérail? Not for the money, she replies, she could earn more elsewhere. It is to mortify and punish herself. Why? Because she believes that through her suffering she can maybe, atone for the guilt and suffering of her beloved husband.

‘There’s no logic in it. There’s no sense. And yet, deep down in my heart, no, much more than that, in every fibre of my body, I know that I must atone for Robert’s sin. I know that that is the only way he can gain release from the evil that racks him. I don’t ask you to think I’m reasonable. I only ask you to understand that I can’t help myself. I believe that somehow – how I don’t know – my humiliation, my degradation, my bitter, ceaseless pain, will wash his soul clean, and even if we never see one another again he will be restored to me.’ (p.131)

So within just 24 hours of his arrival in Paris (and by page 140 of this 250 page book), Charley has a) realised that his best friend has become a semi-Fascist fanatic and b) spent Christmas Day with a depressed Russian émigrée married to a convicted murderer.

What does the remainder of his Christmas holiday have in store, the reader wonders?

Simon’s account of the trial of Robert Berger

What it turns out to have in store is a lot more of the same. Charley suggests to Lydia that she stay with him in the hotel for the rest of his stay: no sex, just friendship. She is hugely relieved to get out of the household of Alexey and Evgenia. They are typical emigre Russians; he had once been a lawyer in Petersburg; now he is reduced to playing the violin in an orchestra at a Russian restaurant, and Evgenia runs the ladies’ cloak-room. Lydia goes to fetch her things, and Charlie goes to see Simon at his newspaper office.

Here Simon explains that he set Charley up with Lydia partly as a typically callous joke: he knew that Charley bears a resemblance to Lydia’s husband, Robert Berger, and was interested to see what would develop.

There then follows a deeply implausible 20 or so pages where Simon describes in mind-boggling detail the police investigation which led up to the conviction of Robert Berger. He gives a fly-on-the-wall account of Berger’s interrogation, he is magically privy to the thought processes of the chief investigator. The whole text turns for a while into an Agatha Christie novel in which we eavesdrop on Poirot’s thoughts.

The explanation given for Simon’s in-depth knowledge of every aspect of the case is that Simon, as journalist, had covered the investigation and trial in minute detail. Thus his narrative goes on to give us a highly detailed, court-room drama-style account of Berger’s trial, down to the appearance and behaviour of all the witnesses, the speeches of the lawyers for the prosecution and defence, of the judges and so on.

Over and above reporting the trial, Simon then went on to write a series of articles about the Berger, taking him as a type of ‘the murderer’. He gives Simon a copy to read. It had become clear during the trial that Berger committed crimes for the fun and the excitement. He liked to wait outside department stores for posh people to drive up in their cars, park them outside and go in. That’s when Berger strolled out of the hotel, stepped into the car and drove it off (in the long-distant days before cars had car locks etc).

Berger would then drive round at night seeking likely-looking women waiting at bus stops and offering them a lift home. He was handsome and smooth-talking; many said yes. A little into the drive he would fake the car breaking down, ask them to poke around under the bonnet for him while he went through the charade of pressing the pedals etc, and at the first opportunity drove off with their handbags and purses. He stole the money and jewellery and threw the bags away.

Simon’s article had speculated that all these petty crimes led Berger on towards the ultimate crime. Simon speculated on how Berger had spent some time thinking about the perfect victim, eventually settling on the small, homosexual bookie, Teddie Jordan, who he routinely met at Jojo’s bar and other low-life haunts. Berger led Jordan on to think that he himself was gay, made an appointment with him and, as the little man was changing a record on the gramophone, stabbed him from behind, then stole all his cash.

Charley is horrified by Simon’s cynical depiction of Crime as Sport, and repelled by the cold calculating criminal mind of Berger.

Charley finished the essay. He shuddered. He did not know whether it was Robert Berger’s brutal treachery and callousness that more horrified him or the cool relish with which Simon described the workings of the murderer’s depraved and tortuous mind.

Charley is also dismayed by the fact that lovely Lydia was attracted to such a hound. They finish their drinks, separate and Charley walks back to the hotel, considerably disillusioned.

Back at the hotel, Lydia returns with her stuff. She expands on her Russian background. She had told Charley about her father: he was a socialist who accepted the revolution but nonetheless was expelled from his job at the university and when he heard the police were coming for him, fled with his wife and baby Lydia to England. Here they lived for 12 years but he missed Mother Russia and, when he contacted the Bolshevik Embassy in London, they assured him they’d find him a good post back in Moscow. Instead, immediately on his arrival he was arrested, imprisoned, tortured and then thrown out a fourth floor window.

Now Lydia tells Charley how obsessed Simon is with the figure of Felix Dzerzhinsky. This was the cold, unfeeling head of the Cheka or Bolshevik Secret Police, responsible for the arrest, torture, imprisonment and execution of hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens, and the terrorisation of the entire nation. Lydia explains that Simon asked her again and again about Dzerzhinsky’s life and career, and wanted to meet Alexey, because Alexey had once defended Dzerzhinsky in a Tsarist-era trial.

Why? Because deep down Simon sees himself as the English Dzerzhinsky.

Nonsense, says Charley. The English will never have a revolution and no such figure would be tolerated in England. Besides, the lives of the working classes were being improved all the time, with guaranteed working hours, social security, pensions, paid holidays, and slums being cleared to provide better housing.

Lydia replies – in terms which echo George Orwell’s opinions of this period – that a war is coming and regardless of the outcome, it will prompt sweeping social and political change in Britain. She ends with a personal warning:

‘You’re deceived in Simon. You think he has your own good nature and unselfish consideration. I tell you, he’s dangerous. Dzerzhinsky was the narrow idealist who for the sake of his ideal could bring destruction upon his country without a qualm. Simon isn’t even that. He has no heart, no conscience, no scruple, and if the occasion arises he will sacrifice you who are his dearest friend without hesitation and without remorse. (p.183)

The Louvre and the piano – Russia versus England

The following day they get up and Charley takes Lydia to the Louvre; after all, as well as ‘adventure’, he had come to see the paintings. Now, scattered throughout the novel so far, at moments of reflection, Charley had tended to compare the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day he is having with a Russian prostitute with the traditional family Christmas his jolly English parents would be enjoying with their cousins.

While he sat in a shabby Paris hotel room with an ugly, crying Russian prostitute, they were exchanging presents, pulling crackers, wearing silly hats and tucking into roast turkey and all the trimmings.

In other words, the complacently comfortable middle-class existence of Charley’s parents is used to set off and contrast with the fanatic Simon and, even more, the rough life of Lydia the Russian exile, murderer’s wife and prostitute.

The next thirty or so pages intensify this theme. In it Charley takes Lydia to the Louvre and Maugham contrasts the worthy platitudes with which his mother and father (Leslie and Venetia) had shown him and his sister round, carefully allotting a fixed time to each masterpiece and lecturing them on each painter’s respective merits – with the simple, uneducated passion of Lydia.

Unlike his parents’ pedagogic perambulations, Lydia leads Simon hurriedly through the rooms and past countless ‘masterpieces’ in order to show him a small still life by Chardin. She she then proceeds to interpret this as an emblem of the Passion of Christ and epitome of how art can transform suffering.

‘It’s so humble, so natural, so friendly; it’s the bread and wine of the poor who ask no more than that they should be left in peace, allowed to work and eat their simple food in freedom. It’s the cry of the despised and rejected. It tells you that whatever their sins men at heart are good. That loaf of bread and that flagon of wine are symbols of the joys and sorrows of the meek and lowly. They ask for your mercy and your affection; they tell you that they’re of the same flesh and blood as you. They tell you that life is short and hard and the grave is cold and lonely. It’s not only a loaf of bread and a flagon of wine; it’s the mystery of man’s lot on earth, his craving for a little friendship and a little love, the humility of his resignation when he sees that even they must be denied him.’

It is, in other words, an artistic emblem of the self-sacrifice she is carrying out on the part of her transgressing husband.

They eat in the Latin Quarter, then go back to the hotel room where Lydia reveals that she has brought some piano music from the apartment she shares with Alexey and Evgenia.

Now it just so happens that Charley is an expert pianist, a natural at school who continued his training at Cambridge. As she places Scriabin or Schumann in front of him, he is immediately able to play them note perfect. Lydia has a go, plays terribly, but with an inspiring Russian passion.

Leaving aside the implausibility of all this, Maugham’s aim is, very obviously, to contrast Charley’s bright cheerful perfectionism, reflecting the happy sunlit life he has led in carefree England, with Lydia’s uninformed, uneducated, but infinitely more passionate and heart-felt emotionality.

Russia versus England – in which Russia beats England dead for passion and vibrancy. The only slight catch with all this being that Russian passion and spirituality seems to have led to… Stalin and Dzerzhinsky – to a world of terror, labour camps and death. Whoops. So England beats Russia for providing peace, stability and comfortable living for the majority of its population.

I found it difficult to understand what Maugham was getting at in these pages. Is he just presenting these two points of view with no intention to judge, leaving it to us to draw conclusions? Or is he hinting at what we could call ‘the Orwell Vision’ i.e. that peaceful complacent England is doomed.

The life Simon described lacked neither grace nor dignity; it was healthy and normal, and through its intellectual interests not entirely material; the persons who led it were simple and honest, neither ambitious nor envious, prepared to do their duty by the state and by their neighbours according to their lights; and there was in them neither harm nor malice. If Lydia saw how much of their good-nature, their kindliness, their not unpleasing self-complacency depended on the long-established and well-ordered prosperity of the country that had given them birth; if she had an inkling that, like children building castles on the sea sand, they might at any moment be swept away by a tidal wave, she allowed no sign of it to appear on her face.

Last day

They wake up on Charley’s last day in Paris. During the night he had seen Lydia crying in her sleep (a haunting image which recurs in several Maugham stories) but she remembers nothing on waking.

1. They go to a café to meet two men recently returned from the colonial penitentiary where Berger is being held. They describe conditions there. (Maugham had actually visited this far-away French prison on an island off South America and set two short stories there which give a lot of information about the lives and conditions of prisoners, A Man With A Conscience and An Official Position). The two men and describe meeting Berger and reassure Lydia that, as a confident, quick-witted, intelligent crook, he’s doing just fine. They explain how Lydia can get money to him through back channels.

2. Charley goes off separately for a last meeting with Simon. (pp.224-234) Simon reveals himself to be even more fiercely contemptuous of his fellow man than we first thought, having become convinced that most men are cattle ruled by boundless egotism and only kept in check by brute force.

‘Democracy is moonshine… The rise of the proletariat has made it comparatively simple to make a revolution, but the proletariat must be fed. Organisation is needed to see that means of transport are adequate and food supplies abundant. That, incidentally, is why power, which the proletariat thought to seize by making the revolution, must always elude their grasp and fall into the hands of a small body of intelligent leaders. The people are incapable of governing themselves. The proletariat are slaves and slaves need masters.’

Simon systematically trashes the ideas of liberty, equality, fraternity and democracy. For Simon the Bolshevik revolution, and the Italian and German fascist movements which followed, all tell the same message: ‘the people’ are idiots, most of them born to be slaves. All that matters is power, having the charisma and force of personality to become a dictator. And he brings up the name of Dzerzhinsky, as the man who brought the implements of terror and repression to scientific perfection. By now we realise that Simon Fenimore is a portrait of an English Fascist dictator-in-waiting.

This is all highly schematic – sort of interesting as social history, but questionable as fiction, or only as the kind of fiction of ideas found in Brave New World (1932) or in George Orwell’s pre-war novels with their obsession with impending social collapse.

Charley goes home

Then Charley goes home. He tries to kiss Lydia at the station but she turns away and walks away without looking back. OK.

Charley has lunch on the train with ‘half a bottle of indifferent Chablis’, opens a fresh copy of The Times with its reassuringly thick paper, and a few hours later soon steps out onto the soil of England. Phew! What a relief.

At Victoria station he’s met by his mother, crying with relief, then taken home to the bosom of the family and, after a hearty dinner, is soon caught up in a game of family bridge, being told all the gossip about the in-laws at Christmas, especially the fact that cousin Wilfred has been offered a peerage. How simply ripping!

But as he sits there half-heartedly playing the game and listening to his parents prattle on, Charley finds his mind drifting back to Simon with his tortured, dark eyes fantasising about a Fascist dictatorship, to the vision of Lydia once more heavily made-up and plying her trade at the Sérail, to the big Russian singer they heard at one of the émigré nightclubs, pouring out her heart in songs of barbaric passion, to the two returnees from the French convict island, shifty, paranoid and damaged, and to the figure of shaven-headed Robert Berger wearing his prison pyjamas 5,000 miles away, off the coast of South America – and Charley realises he is greatly changed.

His sister had asked him if he had had adventures in Paris and he had truthfully answered no. It was a fact that he had done nothing; his father thought he had had a devil of a time and was afraid he had contracted venereal disease, and he hadn’t even had a woman; only one thing had happened to him – it was rather curious when you came to think of it, and he didn’t just then quite know what to do about it: the bottom had fallen out of his world. (p.252)

Inelegant prose

I’ve pointed out in other posts the surprising trouble Maugham had writing plain, clear English and my theory that it stems from the fact that for the first six or so years of his life he spoke only French (having been born and brought up in the British Embassy in Paris).

I don’t know whether it’s a sign of his disengagement from the subject of this novel, or of his age (he was 65 when the book was published), or the fact that writing a long work of prose always brought out the oddity in his writing – but the problem recurs in this book in sentences which often make you stumble as you read, and sometimes force you to reread the whole thing to understand it properly.

The situation was odd, and though it was not to find himself in such a one that he had come to Paris, it could not be denied that the experience was interesting. (p.79)

He talked quite naturally, but she had no notion what were his powers of dissimulation, and she could not help asking herself whether he proposed the drive in order to break unhappy news to her. (p.99)

She felt on a sudden warm with love for that woman who but just knew her, and yet, contrary to all expectation, because her son loved her, because with her sharp eyes she had seen that she deeply loved her son, had consented, even gladly, to their marriage. (p.102)

He decided to settle the matter there and then, but being shy of making her right out the offer he had in mind, he approached it in a round-about way. (p.237)

Maybe he’s trying to copy Henry James’s lengthy, ornate and carefully balanced periods, in which case – quite simply – he can’t manage it, not without coming over as clumsy and obscure.


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 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

Theatre by Somerset Maugham (1937)

Her dressing-room was like the cabin of a ship. The world seemed a long way off, and she relished her seclusion. She felt an enchanting freedom. She dozed a little, she read a little, or lying on the comfortable sofa she let her thoughts wander. She reflected on the part she was playing and the favourite parts she had played in the past. (Chapter 13)

My view of the world, art and literature rests on history and biology. There were some 3 billion humans alive when I was born in the 1960s, four billion in 1974, five billion in 1987, six billion in 1999 and we reached seven billion in March 2012. By the time I die 20 years hence there will be around 9 billion. The shortage of resources (starting with land and water) the environmental degradation (deforestation, desertification, ocean acidification) and global warming (if it is indeed true) mean that my children will grow up in a world of weeds, dead seas and vast multicultural slums.

Reading Somerset Maugham is to be transported far, far away from this pressing reality, to a world populated by only a few thousand people, the people who count – upper-class, white, English people who’ve been to the right schools and are members of the cabinet, the civil service, the colonial service, along with, maybe, a handful of writers and artists thrown in.

It is a small, cosy world of gentleman’s clubs in Pall Mall, replicated in miniature throughout Britain’s colonies in the East where pukka chaps administer provinces the size of Wales equipped only with a walking stick and a stiff upper lip. Beyond it lie the entire working class of Great Britain – useful as occasional Cockney walk-on parts – and beyond them the vast teeming populations of India, Malaya or any other colonial country where the author sets his scene, ‘natives’ who provide anonymous and exotic backdrops, with the exception of a handful of loyal and dutiful servants.

Even within this very circumscribed circle of jolly decent chaps and chapesses, Maugham rarely loiters for long. His métier is the penetrating snapshot. He establishes a setting – the club, the dinner party – with deceptive simplicity, then one or other of the guests produces an anecdote of astonishing brutality or immorality, before everything winds up with reassuring brandy and cigars.

Even his two most famous novels, The Moon and Sixpence and Cakes and Ale, are really built up from much shorter, potentially discrete stories. The most powerful thing in Moon, Strickland’s affair with his best friend’s wife, could quite easily stand alone as a 30-page story. Similarly, the narrator’s central love affair with Rosie in Cakes and Ale could exist without any of the apparatus of her being married to a famous old writer, let alone the further paraphernalia of Alroy Kear writing his biography of the writer which ostensibly gives the novel its structure.

Theatre

Theatre shares many of these characteristics:

  1. It is a description of the English theatre in Edwardian and then post-Great War days, the theatre being (in my own experience of it and everything I’ve read and seen about it) itself a small and ‘precious’ world which the actors and everyone involved in likes to think of as an exclusive coterie.
  2. Despite quite a few walk-on parts, it is really only concerned with three characters – the middle-aged actress Julia Lambert, her charming and devoted husband Michael, and her careless young lover, Tom.
  3. It is very artfully constructed from individual scenes. It has a very consciously built flavour. Instead of the flowing narrative which the novel is capable of, it is divided into discrete and precise scenes. Maybe it started life as a play. On the surface it is a social comedy with some raw passions occasionally thrown in; but not very far beneath the surface you can see the joins and the framework of its artful assembly, and that, too, is part of the pleasure.

And it is a funny book. Very funny. You can almost hear Maugham chuckling as he produces scene after amusing scene, spins out his comic dialogues and devises his ironic climaxes.

The blurb

The blurb describes the plot thus:

Julia Lambert is in her prime, the greatest actress in England. Off stage, however, she is bored with her handsome husband, coquettish and undisciplined. She is at first flattered and amused by the attentions of a shy and eager young fan, but before long Julia is amazed to find herself falling wildly, dangerously, in love.

Which gives you the names of the characters and the bare bones of the plot, but doesn’t even hint at the sophisticated pleasures on offer.

The plot

The book opens with the middle-aged and very successful married couple – superstar actress Julia Lambert and handsome actor-manager Michael Gosselyn – chatting in the comfort of the their swanky West End house. A non-descript young accountant is in the living room where he has been tasked with going over the books of the couple’s successful London-based theatre company.

Part one – A long flashback

Julia wanders up to Michael’s bedroom and idly opens the old boxes of mementos which are stored there. As in a movie, the screen ripples and we are transported back to the earliest days of their careers, meeting as budding actors still in their teens in the provincial theatre of ‘Middlepool’. Here we learn that Michael is stunningly beautiful, Greek god-like beautiful, but has no passion; he looks great in costume drama but can’t produce much variety of feeling; whereas Julia has tremendous command of herself and the ability to project a wide range of feeling without, in fact, feeling very much herself.

They fall in love, mostly meaning that Julia is besotted with Michael and he acquiesces in her adoration. We follow in detail their fates in various productions, and the dawning realisation that Julia is the real acting star. Michael’s good-humouredly accepts the fact and begins to develop the idea that the couple should go into business together and buy their own theatre.

Michael is picked for a part which involves going to the States for a year. Here his lack of real talent becomes clear, with terrible reviews, but he makes a packet of money. Julia, still in England, develops a growing band of fans including a patient old man, Charles Tamerley, and an ageing lesbian, Dolly de Vries. All these developments occur under the sharp-tongued but benign gaze of the manager of the ‘Middlepool’ theatre company, the lovable Jimmie Langton.

It also happens on the verge of the Great War. Michael’s father is a pukka military man and so when the First World War breaks out, strings are pulled to get Michael made an officer, and he is soon attached to the general staff. He has a cracking war, brisk and efficient for a succession of generals at Staff HQ, while never being in any danger himself. He regularly returns to London to pep up Julia, who continues to perform in the many plays staged during the war to keep up spirits. It was boom years for the theatre, apparently.

They have a baby, Roger, and wait awhile to have sex again. One day, in Michael’s embraces, Julia realises that she is no longer in love with him. He no longer smells young. She is repulsed. Marital relations are not resumed, but  this turns out to suit Michael. He is an incredibly posh and proper, polite and decent gentleman, and never liked all that messy business anyway.

So now they are actively looking for backers to help them buy a theatre and set up their own company. There is some comedy about the way that decent, dim Michael doesn’t realise that the rich widow, Dolly de Vries, has a lesbian crush on Julia. Once Julia has carefully explained it, they both realise they can exploit the situation to get the additional funding out of her. Dolly is taken into partnership and they buy, refurbish, and rename a theatre, the Siddons Theatre, after the famous 18th century actress.

Many years pass in which Michael handles the financing and management of the theatre perfectly, and Julia becomes the most famous and accomplished actress in England.

This long flashback, in many of its details quite a lot too good, too simple and too fortunate to be true, is nonetheless very entertaining. The character of the old manager Jimmie Langton is particularly enjoyable, as are the many occasions on which Michael demonstrates that he is a jolly decent, ambitious but scrupulously fair and honest chap. Mention should go to Evie, Julia’s long-suffering and all-seeing dresser, a typical walk-on Cockney part.

Part two – Back to the present: the Tom Fennell plotline

Julia stops reminiscing and returns to the present. End of scene.

In what is effectively Act Two of the book she is rung up the next day by the accountant who was working on the books in scene one. He invites her for tea at his flat in Tavistock Square. On a whim she goes. It is dingy and squalid. To her amazement he ravishes her. Before she knows it she is on the sofa being made love to. Half an hour later, dressed again, bright-eyed and flushed, she stumbles out into the square and catches a taxi back to her swanky West End home.

There then commences the long and, eventually, tiresome story of Julia’s helpless besotted love for young Tom Fennell, the articled clerk with a firm of accountants who we met doing their accounts on the opening page. Tom is slight and nowhere near as handsome as Michael, but young and bright-eyed. Before long Julia suspects his motivation is not love for her but ambition to meet the swanky people she knows, to move in High Society, to ‘get on’. And also because he likes sex.

Julia was shrewd, and she knew very well that Tom was not in love with her. To have an affair with her flattered his vanity. He was a highly-sexed young man and enjoyed sexual exercise. From hints, from stories that she had dragged out of him, she discovered that since he was seventeen he had had a great many women. He loved the act rather than the person. He looked upon it as the greatest lark in the world. (Chapter 14)

Julia buys him lavish presents and begins to accompany him to night clubs where they dance. Michael knows they are friends and, in his innocence, is happy to see a young man get a boost from his lovely wife. In fact Tom has saved Michael quite a bit of money by being sharp with his accounts, which is what matters to a businessman like Michael, and so he’s happy to acquiesce in Julia’s suggestion that they rent out to Tom a spare apartment in a block they’ve recently bought and refurbished.

The next scene is set at the house in Taplow which Michael and Julia rent for the summer. Julia invites Tom to stay for a fortnight, hoping to catch some private time with him lazing on the river or in their bedroom.

But the couple had also invited their rather distant son, Roger, now aged 17 and in his last year at Eton (natch). To Julia’s chagrin, and then anger, young Tom sheds his adult pretensions, reverts to behaving like a teenage boy, and quickly becomes firm friends with Roger. Every day they are off punting or playing tennis or gadding round the countryside in the nippy little roadster which Julia bought Roger for his birthday.

At several points the pair of young lads come home very late and Julia hears them tramping around the landing and bathrooms of the house. Given the track record of surprises in Maugham’s short stories, I was fully expecting Julia to overhear them having sex – which would have produced the most almighty scene between Julia and Tom.

In fact I’ve been reading Selina Hastings’ brilliant biography of Maugham and have been astonished at the sexual promiscuity of Maugham and others in his homosexual circle. In particular, the biography describes in great detail the dependent relationship between Maugham and his gay partner-cum-secretary, Gerald Haxton, a wild roaring boy, a compulsive gambler and charming alcoholic, who not only had sex with Maugham whenever required but pimped for him, bringing back handsome sailors from Marseilles when they were on the Riviera or willing boys on their journeys to exotic places. In return Maugham lavished affection and luxury presents on him, his heart in thrall to the handsome young man whose bad behaviour, tantrums and resentment at being a ‘kept man’ he had to routinely endure.

Which is why, when Julia’s relationship with Tom begins to turn sour, it is hard not to catch echoes of the Maugham-Haxton relationship, and to wonder whether Julia’s feelings can plausibly be attributed to a a woman who has kept herself chaste and faithful through a twenty year-long marriage – or are really the very plausible mixed feelings of an older homosexual for his dashing but hurtful and unfaithful young lover.

Anyway, Tom behaves badly in all kinds of ways and every few pages we have passages of Julia alone, in tears, struggling to control her hurt feelings and wondering why she still loves him.

Tom more or less ignores her during the Taplow weekend. At its conclusion she, with deliberate scorn, gets the butler to give him an envelope containing the money he’ll need to tip the house’s servants. Back in London a letter is delivered by hand containing the money, and also a package containing all the gifts she has lavished on him (cuff links, gold cigarette case etc). He is rejecting her. It is over. But she rings Tom up and, during a tearful phone call, he says how much he hates being ‘a kept boy’. Julia hates him right up to the minute he speaks and then her heart melts. This kind of break-up and tearful reconciliation happens numerous times.

Roger has come to London and spends more time with Tom. One night he comes home and matter-of-factly tells Julia that Tom has just helped him lose his virginity, arranging a night out with two chorus girls, then back to Tom’s where he said ‘Take your pick’.

Julia doesn’t know which to be more upset by, her beloved baby becoming a man, and in such a sordid manner, or the realisation that Tom had slept with both these chorus girls, and in all likelihood many others too.

To add insult to injury, Tom then arranges an introduction for Roger’s seducer, Joan Denver, to visit Julia at the theatre and ask if she can be an understudy in a play. She is stumpy, snub-nosed and ungainly. Not bloody likely, thinks Julia.

Tom tries to persuade her to take on another young aspiring actress he knows (which Julia realises by now is code for ‘has slept with’), a certain Avice Crichton. Julia goes see her perform and is appalled by her bad acting and brassy manner. Angry at Tom (as usual) she agrees to give her Avice a small part, with the sole intention of having her publicly fail and so humiliate her ‘lover’.

Stung to new heights of tearful, heart-wrung fury, Julia puts all her feelings about the wretched affair into her latest performance. This leads to a funny scene. Julia is under the impression she is giving the performance of a lifetime. However, Michael comes backstage to break the news that she was awful. In fact has been awful for the past four days (ever since she was upset by the Crichton incident).

This gives Julia a flash of insight. She realises that she is a great artist and realises that letting her feelings pour out, unimpeded and undisciplined, via the impassioned character in the play is ruinous. She is at her best when she is controlled and calculating in her effects. Great acting isn’t about self-expression, but about the disciplined deployment of effects.

On the back of all this, Michael suggests to Julia that she is run-down and she acquiesces in his suggestion that she go and stay with her ageing mother and aunt (French, as it happens) in St Malo in Brittany.

This episode makes a very pleasant eight or so page interlude in the main plot, with Maugham giving us travel writer type descriptions of the grey stone villages of Brittany. We are by now on about page 185 of the 230-page-long book – but I for one was impatient for the narrative to hurry on to its climax – be it delightfully comic or devastatingly bleak (as his short stories so often are).

In the calm of Brittany she reflects on her life and in particular how unfair she has been to people, especially her long-suffering and wealthy devotee, Charles Tamerley. She returns to London determined to give him what he wants i.e. sex with her. Her elaborate preparations for this grand self-sacrifice, and then her performance of A Lady Waiting To Be Plucked when he arrives to take her to dinner, are hilarious.

Except that Charles doesn’t want to do any Plucking. He freezes as she is in the middle of her seductive best – Julia realises she has made a dreadful mistake – and is hard pressed to escape with her dignity just about intact. It is a very comic scene.

Part three – Avice Crichton

Julia returns home from the Brittany holiday, just as Michael begins rehearsals for the new play which will open the season this coming September. Avice, as she had promised Tom, has a minor part in it, but with an important ten-minute scene. During rehearsals it quickly becomes clear that Avice is wooden and lumpy. Michael wants to sack her, but Julia insists Avice remains a) because if she were fired, then Avice would tell Tom it was Julia’s fault, jealousy etc; b) Julia wants Avice to fail as publicly and embarrassingly as possible, in order to punish Tom.

Cannily, she suggests to Michael that Avice is in awe of him, as director, and that he take her to dinner and try to coax her into a better performance.

My mind was agog with possibilities: will Michael fall in love with Avice, reducing Julia to genuine despair? Will Avice’s acting be transformed by Michael’s guidance so that she acts Julia off the stage and the older woman realises her time is up? What will happen?

Before we can find out, there’s a puzzling chapter where Julia has dinner with her son, Roger, now 18 and back from his summer in Austria before he goes on to Cambridge.

Julia is disconcerted when Roger launches a sustained attack of her character, saying there is nothing whatsoever real about her, she is a tissue of quotations and mannerisms, he dreams of opening the door of a room she’s just gone into and finding it empty.

Roger was brought up in a fantasy land of endless performance, so now he wants Reality, though God knows where he’ll find it… Julia isn’t upset by this so much as puzzled, as she always has been, by a son who lacks her husband’s good looks or her own vitality. Oh well…

Maugham spends so much time and effort on this chapter I wondered whether, right at the end, something melodramatic and soap opera-ish would happen, like Roger killing himself or running off to Africa. But nothing whatever happens with him. He goes off to university to find himself as promised…

And in the event, the first night of the new season is a triumph. Julia acts everyone off the stage. Maugham gives a highly entertaining and instructive explanation of the full panoply of tricks Julia uses to crush and destroy Avice, stealing every scene from her with canny stage ‘business’, by adopting better positioning on stage, by using every trick in the book to upstage her.

The play receives nine curtain calls, after which Michael sweeps into Julia’s dressing room to congratulate her and to scold her for upstaging Avice who, he admits, they’ll have to get rid of.

Tom pops up briefly to admit that, well, yes, actually Avice is rubbish, sorry about that but thank you so much for letting her be in the play and all the help and support you gave her. Julia purrs and smiles but she realises she now couldn’t care less about Tom or Avice. She has completely got over her little ‘adventure’. Then a throng of well-wishers burst in with champagne.

When things have finally quietened down Julia decides she’ll skip the Grand Party being hosted for her by the eternally faithful Dolly the lesbian. Instead, she gets Evie, her long-suffering cockney dresser, to help her slip out the side door, avoid the fans, dressed down in a dull brown coat, grab a taxi and head off to a quiet little side-table at the Berkeley Hotel. Here she a) treats herself to a celebration dinner of steak with fried onions and potatoes, and a tankard of beer – something she has denied herself for the past ten years in the name of keeping slim, and b) stares out over the crowds of young and old, rich and poor, beautiful and ugly, drinking, smoking, eating and dancing in the restaurant’s main area, as she ponders on ‘the theatre’.

Real life is the fake, she thinks, real life with its messiness and ugliness. How silly of her son to seek it out. Acting takes the sordid mess of ‘life’ and transforms it into art and symbol, into rounded narratives with depth and meaning. She is free of her passion for that wretched little man. She has an elegant and successful husband who adores her. She has just had one of the great professional triumphs of her life. She has crushed a pathetic little rival like a beetle under her shoe. She has never been so happy. She has never felt so free!

Entertainment

The book is very entertaining on numerous levels, but I found it marvellous and relaxing as a window into a world of genteel manners and decorum which is now utterly lost. We are not only introduced into the circles of the rich and the very rich, via Julia and Michael’s parties, but amusingly watch Julia learn to mimic and play them to perfection.

In fact Julia is not only a ‘character’ in the story, she is a wonderful comic device, in at least two obvious ways:

1. Throughout the book we are given her real thoughts in brackets, placed next to her actual words and deeds, so that we can enjoy the ironic juxtaposition of her harsh inner criticisms of people even as she acts gracefully and politely to them. This reaches a peak of perfection in her later encounters with Dolly de Vries who, alarmed by reports that Julia is gadding round town with a young lover, first of all tells Michael – who promptly tells Julia, in his innocent way believing there is no harm in it. Or in her polite reception of the ambitious little chorus girls Tom pushes her way who, in her heart of hearts, she loathes:

‘You won’t forget me, Miss Lambert?’ said Joan.
‘No, dear, I promise you I won’t. It’s been so nice to see you. You have a very sweet personality. You’ll find your way out, won’t you? Good-bye.’
‘A fat chance she’s got of ever setting foot in this theatre,’ said Julia to herself when she was gone. ‘Dirty little bitch to seduce my son.’ (Chapter 20)

2. And secondly, Julia is almost always acting, performing whatever is appropriate to the scene and setting and people she finds herself with, even her own husband. It is richly comic the way the narrator describes her putting on performances throughout so-called ‘normal’ life, even her performance of a grand lady of the theatre not putting on a performance.

This sense of continual artificiality is not far removed from the world of camp. What I mean is that the story, taken at face value, is a ‘beautiful’ and ‘moving’ tale of a middle-aged lady’s passionate love affair for an ‘impetuous young man’. But Maugham deliberately undermines the seriousness of his own narrative with ironic reminders that almost the entire thing is rich in histrionic performance by the main characters. Even when she’s at her most distraught, a part of Julia’s mind is noting her own mannerisms and tucking them away for possible use in a performance some day.

Here she is inwardly seething at Tom for ignoring her in favour of her son, Roger.

Tom and Roger came back to eat an enormous tea and then played tennis till the light failed. After dinner they played dominoes. Julia gave a beautiful performance of a still-young mother fondly watching her son and his boy friend. (Chapter 14)

When she first meets Michael’s stuffy old parents:

She felt instinctively that she must conceal the actress, and without effort, without deliberation, merely because she felt it would please, she played the part of the simple, modest, ingenuous girl who had lived a quiet country life. (Chapter 4)

When she attends a party filled with silly chorus girls, Julia knows just the right note to strike:

The Dexters’ party was theatrical. Grace Hardwill, Archie’s wife, played in musical comedy, and there was a bevy of pretty girls who danced in the piece in which she was then appearing. Julia acted
with great naturalness the part of a leading lady who put on no frills. She was charming to the young ladies, with their waved platinum hair, who earned three pounds a week in the chorus. A good many
of the guests had brought Kodaks and she submitted with affability to being photographed. She applauded enthusiastically when Grace Hardwill sang her famous song to the accompaniment of the composer. She laughed as heartily as anyone when the comic woman did an imitation of her in one of her best-known parts… (Chapter 14)

This is the dominant impression of the book – Maugham guying his own character and milking for comic entertainment the grande dame of the theatre is almost never, actually, ‘herself’.

Another comic running thread running throughout the book is the way Julia strings along her aged, wealthy devotee, Charles Tamerley, by staging a variety of ‘scenes’ for him, including the Distraught But Faithful Woman or The Woman Shaken By Emotion for her Lover. All this leads up to the climactic comedic scene where Julia offers him her Virginal Body, and is comically disconcerted to discover that he is not only not interested, but appalled.

This arch self-consciousness is the book’s most distinguishing feature and every scene which features it is deliciously entertaining.

Historical notes

When Charles doesn’t respond to Julia making herself abundantly available to him, she wonders whether he is a) impotent or b) homosexual.

Julia reflectively lit a cigarette. She asked herself if Charles had used his devotion to her as a cover to distract attention from his real inclinations. But she shook her head. If he had been homosexual she would surely have had some hint of it; after all, in society since the war they talked of practically nothing else.

Was homosexuality really that much of a common topic of discussion in the Twenties and Thirties? Is Maugham being satirical? Or was it very much the topic of discussion in his own, very much homosexual circles?

‘Getting off’ This is the expression we used as teenagers in the 1970s to describe have a fumble with a member of the opposite sex. I was surprised to see it being used by posh people in the 1930s.

Julia: ‘What I want to say is, if I really set my mind on getting off with a man, d’you think I could?’
Evie: ‘Knowing what men are, I wouldn’t be surprised. Who d’you want to get off with now?

Sex appeal Also a surprisingly common phrase by the mid-1930s.

‘Sex appeal,’ Julia murmured to herself… ‘It’s not as if I had no sex appeal… It’s ridiculous to suppose that I could have got to my position if I hadn’t got sex appeal. What do people come to see an actress for? Because they want to go to bed with her. Do you mean to tell me that I could fill a theatre for three months with a rotten play if I hadn’t got sex appeal? What is sex appeal anyway?’

Adaptations

Unsurprisingly, this novel about the stage was itself adapted for the stage, and has been made into no fewer than three movie adaptations, the latest as recent as 2004.


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

Collected short stories of Somerset Maugham volume four

Consisting of a preface and 30 tales, this is the longest of the four volumes of Somerset Maugham’s collected short stories, made up of 461 densely-printed pages.

Preface Maugham says these stories were set early in the twenties, long before aviation became common. The British people who staffed remote outposts in Malaysia were very isolated and a long way from home. They served five years with hardly any contact with other white people, rarely saw newspapers, and dreamed of a Britain which slowly changed and left them behind.

Now, as he is writing the preface in the early 1950s, the experience of colonial administrators has changed out of all recognition. Radio, TV, jet airplanes, have all reduced the distance and abolished the sense of psychological isolation, which was so often his subject in the stores from the 20s and 30s.

In this preface Maugham is also at pains to emphasise how much he respected the people who did these thankless jobs so far from their homeland. I know from his biography that Maugham received a lot of criticism for enjoying the hospitality of Brits in faraway places and then betraying their confidences and telling stories about real people which, in these small colonial societies, could be very damaging to the individuals described.

In this preface he goes out of his way to emphasise that his often lurid stories are about rare and exceptional people or incidents, and that in reality almost all the Brits he met administering the empire were honest and good.

The short stories

The Book-Bag (1932 – Malaya – 1st person narrator) This is an eerie, powerful and disturbing story, up there with Rain as one of his best. In Penang Maugham stays with the British Resident who tells him a story about a chap they bumped into at the club earlier in the evening, Tim Hardy. His parents had been divorced and Tim and his sister Olive were brought up apart, she in Italy, he in Britain. Then the parents died and the adult siblings hooked up and came to stay in Malaysia, keeping themselves to themselves. Over a period of time Maugham’s host, Featherstone (the man telling us the story) falls in love with Olivia but she is playfully stand-offish. Then Tim, her brother, is called back to England. After a few months he telegraphs from there to say he’s met someone and fallen in love. Then another telegram to say he’s got married. Featherstone notices Olivia taking this nervously, but continues to woo her right up till the moment when Tim Hardy arrives back at Penang with his new blushing bride. Everyone welcomes them and Featherstone accompanies them all the way to the bungalow Tim had shared with his sister. He is outside when he hears a gunshot. Featherstone rushes in to find that the beautful Olivia has shot herself, blowing half her face off. In shock Featherstone staggers back to his house and sits stunned, as darkness falls. He is startled by a knock at the door. It is Tim Hardy’s new wife, in hysterics. She needs to leave, now, right away, she never wants to see Tim again, she is weeping, hysterical. Suddenly Featherstone realises the truth. Hardy and his sister were lovers. Olivia shot herself in rage and jealousy at Tim abandoning her for another woman. And this is the story Featherstone calmly tells the narrator, over gin at the club.

French Joe (1926 – Thursday Island, the Torres Straits – 1st person) The hermit they call French Joe fled to a remote South Sea island after the suppression of the Paris Commune of 1871, having been a commune-ist. This is a brief but intense, three-page description of French Joe’s character and oddities.

German Harry (1924 – Trebucket, near Thursday Island, Torres Straits – 1st person) Another brief thumbnail sketch, this time of a grumpy old German who lives on a desert island, the conclusion being that isolation brings no enlightenment, but a return to savagery.

The Four Dutchmen (1928 – Singapore – 1st) The four fat, friendly Dutchmen who crew a lugger, are legendary throughout the South Seas for their bonhomie. Until the captain takes a native mistress and his insistence that she accompanies them on their voyages drives a wedge between him and the others. The captain finds the girl in bed with the chief engineer, shoots the latter dead, then goes up on the bridge and shoots himself.

The Back Of Beyond (1931 – Timbang Belud, Malaysia – 3rd person narrator) George Moon is the Resident in Timbang Belud, a fictitious town in the Federated Malay States (a British colony). He is on the verge of retiring. One morning he is surprised to get a visit from Tom Saffary, with whom he has argued in the past. Both have heard of the death of the popular member of their ex-pat community, ‘Knobby’ Clarke, on board ship back to Britain. Now Saffary tells Moon the story behind it. In a sequence of very believable scenes and dialogues, Saffary describes how he realised that his wife, Violet, was having an affair with Clarke. The guilty couple had got as far as deciding to run away together, when suddenly Clarke’s wife announced that she was pregnant. Unable to leave her, Knobby decides to do the decent thing and leave the scene of his affair, taking his wife back to Blighty for the birth. But overcome by misery at leaving his true love (Violet) he killed himself on the ship home. Which plunges Violet into such unhappiness that she reveals all to Saffary. Which explains why Saffary is now in Moon’s office, helplessly crying his eyes out. Moon gives him what succour he can and the crying man eventually leaves.

Then, adding a further level to the narrative, Moon reflects on his own marriage, and the wife he divorced years ago when he discovered that she was having an affair. Meeting her years later, he realized his mistake in giving up years of happiness, comfort and companionship for the momentary satisfaction of his pride disguised as honour.

So this tale is a complex interplay of timelines, and of two highly emotional stories, handled with immaculate skill.

P. & O. (1923 – P&O liner from the East back to England – 3rd) Another longish story, given depth and resonance by the complete verisimilitude with which Maugham creates his characters. Mrs Hamlyn is a middle-aged, pukka lady on the long sea journey from the East back to Britain. There is a lot of social observation of the other passengers and a distracting side story about whether or not the second class passengers should be allowed to attend the Christmas party being arranged by the first class passengers – but all this is really just to create more ‘reality’ as background to the principle story. The story consists in the fact that Mrs Hamlyn casually meets a big Irish man named Gallagher, they chat, they flirt. She is surprised to hear, a few days later, that he’s become confined to his bed with, of all things, hiccups. Mrs Hamlyn encounters the short cockney man, Pryce, who was Gallagher’s assistant on his rubber plantation out East and is accompanying him home. Pryce explains that before Gallagher left, he had offended a fat old native woman who put a hex on him, vowing he would die before they next sighted land. Initially laughing this off, Mrs Hamlyn comes to almost believe it as she watches Gallagher become progressively more ill. One night, on deck, she sees a crowd around a small fire and observes from a distance the magic ceremony which Pryce has organised, led by one of the ship’s Malay sailors, and which involves sacrificing a cockerel in a bid to counter the old woman’s curse. But it doesn’t work, and Gallagher eventually dies and is buried at sea. The Christmas party, which had been rumbling along in the background, goes ahead, with the second class passengers now invited. But the oddest thing about the story is the impact of all this on Mrs Hamlyn: she had previously been tired and depressed. Somehow, now, she feels rejuvenated and energised. Gallagher’s death makes her realise how important life is. She faces the future radiant with hope.

This is another complex, absorbing and completely compelling story, rich in layers and meanings.

Episode (1946 -Brixton – 3rd) A story told to the narrator by his friend Ned Preston, a semi-invalid who has become an unpaid ‘prison visitor’. At a typically Maughamesque upper-class party Ned tells the guests the story of a convict he’s met in prison, Fred Manson. Fred was a postman in Brixton where he chatted up the ladies and, one day, a young woman called Gracie Carter. They walk out together. Her family are appalled because they have invested a lot of time and money getting her into teacher training school and don’t want her consorting with a rough postman. But Gracie rejects them in favour of Fred who, alas, is shortly afterwards arrested and convicted for stealing money out of the letters he handles and sent to Wormwood Scrubs. It is here that Ned meets him, hears his story, and gets into the habit of visiting the Carter family to pass on Fred’s messages. From this vantage point that Ned is able to paint such a convincing picture, giving not only Gracie’s side of events but the opinions of her respectable working class parents, especially the mother. So for some months Fred and Gracie correspond and have occasional prison visits. She is devoted to him, waiting only for his release. Then only a month before the big date, Fred has quite a bad illness and takes a few weeks to recover. And when he does Ned is astonished to discover that he doesn’t want to marry Gracie any more, he doesn’t even want to see her. He is sick of her cloying possessiveness. He’s had enough of her. When Ned passes this shocking news on to Gracie the latter says, ‘Well, there’s nothing for me to do but go and stick my head in a gas-oven.’ Which is what she does. The end. A grippingly detailed account of working class life with a stunningly abrupt ending.

The Kite (1946 – London – 1st) A second story sourced from the narrator’s friend Ned, the prison visitor. Herbert Sunbury is brought up in a close-knit, if not cloying lower-class suburban family. He enjoys flying kites with his dad, really enjoys it, it is a passion and hobby every Saturday to go to the nearby park and fly one. He becomes attached to the rougher, more ambitious Betty Bevan, disapproved of by Herbert’s parents, who seduces him into marrying her. But they are forced by poverty to live in a tiny apartment and soon her clinging possessiveness drives Herbert to distraction. All he wants is to spend Saturday afternoon with his dad flying their kite, but Betty tries to stop him and, in a climactic argument, makes it a point of honour: me or the kite. Herbert pushes her out of the way, and goes and spends a happy afternoon with his dad flying the kite. That night there’s a bit of rummaging around in the bins and sheds at the back of the Sunburys’ terraced house. In the morning Herbert discovers that Betty had been round and has smashed to pieces the new superkite which was his dad’s new prize possession. At which point Herbert refuses to give Betty her support money or, when the furniture rental falls due, to pay it. With the result that he is summonsed before a magistrate who orders him to pay his wife her support. Still refusing, Herbert is sentenced to imprisonment. Which is where Ned meets the Man Who Is In Prison Because His Wife Smashed Up His Kite.

A Woman Of Fifty (1946 – Mid-West America – 1st) This story has the tone of a very senior author, a man of the world (Maugham was 72 when it was published).

In the placid surroundings of a mid-Western university, at a faculty party, Maugham meets a middle-aged woman named Laura and it sparks a distant memory, taking several days for him to remember her part in a scandal which took place a generation earlier. Against her family’s advice, as a beautiful young woman, Laura had married a handsome, young hot-headed Italian man, Tito, son of an elegant if penniless count. Tito turns out to be an addicted gambler, and becomes increasingly harsh to his wife. To save him from his addiction, Laura closes their apartment and moves them into the count’s dilapidated palazzio outside town. Slowly Tito begins to suspect there is something between Laura and his father, an old but elegant and courtly man. Eventually, in a passion of jealousy, Tito shoots his father dead and is arrested. A distraught Laura is persuaded that the only way to save Tito from a life in solitary confinement is to ‘confess’ that she was having an affair with the father and so Tito’s act was defensible as a crime passionel: which she does. The kick in the story is that, some time later, when the narrator is talking the story over with some American ex-pats who knew her, one of the ex-pats says that Laura confessed to her that she was in fact having an affair with the father!

And now, 25 years later, here is Maugham meeting the heroine of this wild, garish, violent melodrama, transformed into a plump respectable matron, in the respectable surroundings of a cocktail party at a nice American university.

Mayhew (1923 – Capri – 1st) Mayhew was a big, brawny lawyer in Detroit when he heard of an old house for sale on Capri and, on a whim, decided to buy it. He realises he wants to escape the rat race, sells all his worldly possessions, buys an annuity i.e. an annual pension with the money, and retires to the house with its great view over the Bay of Naples. Here Mayhew becomes obsessed with the Roman emperor Tiberius (14-37) and decides to devote his life to researching and writing a history of the Second Century of the Roman Empire. He spends 15 years acquiring books, making vast volumes of notes, employing all his forensic skills. His once big, tough body wastes away. He becomes a shadow of himself. Finally he sits down to write this great magnum opus and drops dead.

The Lotus Eater (1935 – Capri – 1st) Maugham dates the first part of this story to 1913. On Capri he meets a charming Englishman named Wilson. After the usual drinks and dinner they get to chatting and Wilson tells him that he used to be a respectable bank manager in London but one day realised that he just wanted to escape the rat race. Wilson calculated to perfection the money he had and bought an annuity which would last him till age 60, he being 35 when he made the decision. When that day comes and his money dries up, Wilson has cheerfully vowed to kill himself. He has lived on Capri in a simple house and meagre rations but in perfect happiness ever since.

Then the Great War breaks out and Maugham doesn’t return to Capri for many years. It is then that he hears the grim second part of the story. As the deadline for the end of his pension – and his act of suicide – approached, Wilson found he couldn’t do it. He began borrowing money from the shopkeepers, putting off paying his landlord, kept this up for a year or so, and then went completely bust. On the day before the landlord was due to evict him, Wilson barricaded the doors and windows and lit a brazier, planning to asphyxiate himself to death. But it was a leaky old house and enough air got in so that he lost consciousness but didn’t quite die. The landlord’s wife found him, he was sent to hospital, it was touch and go whether he’d survive but, although he was eventually cured in body, it became apparent that Wilson had gone a bit mad. After some consideration the landlord – a simple peasant himself – put Wilson up in a lean-to next to his barn and the wizened, mad old Englishman became a regular sight on the island, hiding behind trees, dodging behind rocks, avoiding all human contact. Finally he was found dead having spent the night at a famous beauty spot.

Salvatore (1924 – Capri – 1st) Maugham starts the story by teasingly asking the reader whether he can do it – leaving us a bit mystified at what he means by ‘it’. He then proceeds to tell the story of a beautiful Italian youth on Capri, Salvatore, who falls in love with a local girl, has to do national service, catches an illness in distant China, is invalided out of the Navy and returns to his native village where he discovers that his beloved (and her family) have all heard about his illness, learning that he will never be fully well again, and so she has married another man. After his initial disappointment, Salvatore’s family fix him up with another woman, not so good-looking, older than him, but sturdy and loyal. They have children. Watching big strong Salvatore bathe the babies in the sea is a pleasure to visitors to the island like the narrator.

And now Maugham reveals what the challenge is that he mentioned right at the start of the story: it was to see whether he could hold the reader’s attention with a description of human goodness. Nothing bad happens. there are no murders or suicide. the story is a portrait of simple goodness.

The Wash-Tub (1929 – Positano – 1st) The narrator is in Capri, gets bored and rows over to Positano. It’s out of season so he’s surprised to find another guest at the hotel, is introduced and gets to know him, a charming American professor who says his name is Barnaby. That’s funny, says the narrator: this summer London was taken by storm by an American millionairess. She said she was a rough daughter of the West, married to One-Bullet Mike (who got  his name because he shot two bandits with one bullet), that she had cooked and kept camp for a gang of miners out West, till One-Bullet Mike struck oil and paid for her to fulfil her ambition of visiting Europe.

By accident the narrator sees the photo of this same Mrs Barnaby in his new friend’s hotel bedroom, whereupon the full story comes out. This sophisticated university professor is in fact Mrs Barnaby’s husband. On the liner from the States to Britain, Mr Barnaby was taken ill and cabin-bound for a few days. One morning Mrs Barnaby got nattering to the Duke and Duchess of Richmond and experimentally told a tall tale about the West, which went down well, then another, and another – and soon found herself being introduced to other aristocratic Brits as a ‘Daughter of the American West’. She came back to their cabin and told her husband all about it and they treated it as a big joke, her husband telling her old Bret Harte tales of the Wild West which Mrs Barnaby then retold to the posh British passengers as her own experiences.

But Mrs Barnaby became such a celebrity aboard ship that she eventually asked her husband to remain in the cabin, even when he was better. Her cover story had been that One-Bullet Mike had struck oil back West while he sent his good lady wife for the trip of a lifetime, and she couldn’t afford to change it now.

Things eventually went so far that she asked him not to get off at Southampton and show up all her stories as lies; she asked him to go on to France and, since the professor fancied doing some research at the Sorbonne, he agreed. But as Mrs Barnaby established a base in a swanky London hotel and set about taking ‘the season’ by storm, she realised he must never come to England and burst her bubble. So she sent word to him in Paris to go somewhere out of the way and obscure for the whole summer – and that’s why he is whiling away the summer in remote Positano, reading books and bored to death!

A Man With A Conscience (1939 – French Guiana – 1st) Maugham gives us a detailed factual introduction to St Laurent de Manoni, capital of the French penal colony on Guiana, a prison for murderers, which he had himself visited and been shown round.

The narrator meets the governor and has the rules and regulations of the prison explained to him. Then he tells the story of a convict he names Jean Charvin. Charvin grows up with a best friend, Henri. They both fall in love with the same small-town beauty, Marie-Louise. Jean works in a boring job in Le Havre. Henri is offered a job with a trading company in faraway Cambodia, but it is so far away that Marie-Louise refuses to go, so – victory for Jean.

But then, before the Cambodia job falls due, Henri is offered a job at the very firm where Jean works in Le Havre, threatening to stay and win Marie-Louise’s hand. To avoid his friend getting the job and – therefore, probably winning the hand of the town beauty in marriage – Jean tells the boss that his best friend Henri is unreliable and shouldn’t be given the job. And so Henri doesn’t get the Le Havre job and is forced to accept the post in faraway Cambodia, leaving the ground clear for Jean to woo and marry Marie-Louise. But – slowly he comes to realise that she is dull and superficial. Slowly he comes to resent her.

Then, disaster – they all hear that Henri got an illness and died out in Cambodia. Now Jean feels mortally guilty at having sent his best friend out to his death. He begins to have bad dreams and then nightmares in which his dead friend reproaches him. And he projects that guilt and resentment onto empty-headed Marie-Louise. One morning Jean is exercising with his dumb bells when she a particularly idiotic remark about Jean’s mother, and with all his strength Jean cracks her round the head, smashing her skull. Jean’s guilty dreams about poor Henri disappear. From that day to this, he has slept perfectly.

Jean is arrested, tried and sentenced, but no-one can adduce a motive, and so he only gets six years. He has been a model prisoner and hopes, upon release, to be able to go back to France and get a job. And here Maugham adds his characteristic touch, the sliver of ice in the heart, the glint of cold cynicism. Jeans tells Maugham that he’d even like to get married again – but next time he’ll marry for money, not for love!

An Official Position (1937 – French Guiana – 3rd) Still in the penal colony in French Guiana, the third person narrator describes the life and character of Louis Remire, convicted for murdering his wife but who, through good behaviour, has been allowed to become the penal colony’s official executioner. His predecessor was assassinated by freed convicts (after serving their time in the prison, convicts are freed, but not allowed to leave the colony, and so roam far and wide, begging and often reverting to crime in order to survive). Remire goes fishing on a rock near his hut and realises that for the first time in his life he is happy, genuinely happy. He naps a while, then wakes to go back to prison to perform a midnight execution. On the way he is ambushed and, like his predecessor, horribly murdered.

The main drive in this story is in the contrast between Louis’ happy carefree moments fishing by the sea and, later that night, his terror-stricken walk through the dark jungle, which is terrifying enough to make your hair stand on end.

Winter Cruise (1943 – Transatlantic steamer – 3rd) Miss Reid runs a tea rooms in Plymouth. She has saved up and bought herself a return ticket on a tramp steamer which goes from Germany, via England, to the Caribbean. It is crewed by six German sailors. The other passengers alight in the Caribbean and then Miss Reid is the only passenger. The trouble is that she won’t stop talking and is an intolerable bore. She is driving the ship’s crew to distraction with her ceaseless nattering. One night, the ship’s doctor, over a beer with the rest of the crew, suggests that maybe Miss Reid is a virgin and needs to be… needs a… you know. The captain blushes red, considers his options, and then orders the tall, handsome, blonde young radio engineer to do his duty. He reports at Miss Reid’s door late that night and – it happening to be New Year’s Eve – helps her start the new year with a bang.

Mabel (1924 – Burma – 1st) In 1923 Maugham travelled through Burma, Siam and into French Indo-China. He took his time composing his impressions into a travel book, The Gentleman in the Parlour, which was published in 1930. This ‘story’ and the next four ‘stories’ are included in that book as factual encounters, which just goes to show the very thin wall between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ in Maugham’s short stories.

This is a short, comic story of a chap named George who gets engaged to a girl in Britain before going out to Burma, but years pass and when she finally sails out to join him, he gets cold feet, panics, and flees to Singapore. Here, however, he finds a loving telegram from his fiancee awaiting him. So he flees to Bangkok. And to Saigon. And to Hong Kong. Each time followed – uncannily – by a telegram from his beloved promising to catch him up. So he flees into China, deep into remote rural China, where he hides out in a place called Cheng-tu. And a few weeks later is enjoying a drink with the local British Consul, when there’s a knock at the door and Mabel waltzes in, fresh as a daisy, and asks if he’s ready to marry her now.

Masterson (1929 – Burma – 1st) Another excerpt from the 1930 travel book, The Gentleman in the Parlour. At a village in Burma, Maugham dines with Masterson, who is twitchy and unhappy. It emerges that he has been there for years, taken a beautiful Burmese girl as a mistress, and had three children with her. But eventually she became insistent that he marry her. She wasn’t getting any younger and soon no Burmese man would look at her. But Masterson can’t bring himself to; it would mean the end of his dream, which is to eventually quit the East and retire back to Cheltenham, to become a kindly old buffer pottering about second-hand bookshops, quite impossible with a ‘native’ wife. . So as quietly and politely as she came, the Burmese wife packs her bags, takes the children and leaves. And now Masterson is lonely and miserable.

Princess September A number of prominent authors were invited to donate volumes to a doll’s house which was being created for the young Princess Elizabeth in the early 1920s. Maugham wrote this fairy story. It has an Oriental setting, probably inspired by Maugham’s 1921 trip to Siam, and he later included it as a chapter in his travel book The Gentleman in the Parlour.

The King of Siam had nine daughters named after the months of the year. The youngest daughter named September had a very pleasing personality. Her other sisters were all of sullen nature. One year on his birthday the King gave each of his daughters a beautiful green parrot in a golden cage. The parrots shortly learnt to speak.

Unfortunately, the parrot of Princess September died. She was heartbroken. Presently a little bird bounded into her room and sang a lovely song about the king’s garden, the willow tree and the goldfish. The princess was thrilled. The bird decided to stay with her and sing her beautiful songs. When the princesses’ sisters became jealous when they came top know of the sweet bird that sang better than their parrots.

The malicious sisters urged Princess September to put the bird in a cage. The innocent princess put the bird into a cage. The bird was bewildered but the princess justified caging the bird as she was afraid of the lurking cats. When the bird tried to sing, it had to stop midway as it felt wretched in the cage.

The next morning the bird asked Princess September to release her from the cage, she did not listen to it. Instead she assured the bird that it would have three meals a day and nothing to worry all day. The bird was not happy with it and pleaded to let it out from the cage. September try to console the bird saying that she had caged the bird because of her love for it. The distraught bird did not sing the whole day and stopped eating its food.

The next morning the princess noticed the bird lying in the cage still. Thinking that the bird was dead, she started weeping. Then the bird rose and told the princess that it could not sing unless it was free and if it could not sing it would die. Taking pity on the bird, the kind princess released the bird. The bird flew away. Yet, it returned to enchant the princess with its sweet songs. The princess kept her windows open day and night for the bird to come and go whenever it wanted.

A Marriage Of Convenience (1929 – Aboard ship off Vietnam – 1st) Another excerpt from the 1930 travel book, The Gentleman in the Parlour. Maugham is on a small steamer running up the Indo-China coast carrying a rum collection of passengers, including an American husband and wife who run a miniature circus. Another passenger is a French Governor, a small man married to an enormous, stout woman.

She was a large woman, tall and of a robust build, of fifty–five perhaps, and she was dressed somewhat severely in black silk. On her head she wore a huge round topee. Her features were so
large and regular, her form so statuesque, that you were reminded of the massive females who take part in processions. She would have admirably suited the role of Columbia or Britannia in a patriotic demonstration. She towered over her diminutive husband like a skyscraper over a shack.

The Governor candidly tells his back story. When he first applied for the post he was rejected because he wasn’t married. The interviewer said the post would be his if he could find a wife within a month, and recommended advertising for a wife in Le Figaro. The Governor did so and was amazed to be overwhelmed by offers of marriage, so many (over a thousand) that he didn’t know where to begin. Then he took the advice of a friend who said he had a nice cousin holidaying in Geneva who might be suitable. So he travelled straight to Geneva, found the (large, imposing) cousin and proposed. Laughing, she accepted. And here they are, both completely happy!

Mirage (1929 – Haiphong, Vietnam – 1st) Another excerpt from the 1930 travel book, The Gentleman in the Parlour.

The ship Maugham’s on which is still steaming up the coast of Indo-China, docks at Haiphong, which Maugham goes to explore. Sitting at the bar of his hotel he is approached by a big, shabby, red-faced, fat old boy who announces that his name is Grosely and that he was in the same class as Maugham back at St Thomas’s Hospital, must have been in back in 1892.

It takes Maugham a while to remember that this Grosely was once a slender, attractive 19-year-old boy who lived a surprisingly luxury life for a student – until, that is, he was arrested for defrauding pawn shops on an industrial scale. Grosely takes him back to his house which turns out to be a dingy room in the roughest part of the native quarter, where he lives with a local woman. She makes him several opium pipes while he tells Maugham his story.

After getting arrested and briefly imprisoned, thus ending his medical school career, Grosely headed out East to make his fortune and became a ‘tide-waiter’ i.e. liaised between trading ships coming into Shanghai and H.M. Customs. Obviously crooked, he spent decades raking off bribes and kickbacks, but always harboured the fond ambition of going back to London to show everyone he’d done good. Finally he did make the trip ‘home’ and spent a miserable month realising he knew no-one and that the entire place had changed. Even the tarts in Piccadilly didn’t want to be propositioned by a fat, red-faced old buffer. (Maugham describes his unhappiness and alienation brilliantly.)

Eventually Grosely takes ship back out East, stopping at various places on the way, until the ship puts in at Haiphong and… and… Maugham realises what happened next. Grosely had lived for years for one mirage – Old London Town – and it had let him down badly. Now, in his retirement, he was worried that returning to China would be no good either; that he would see his life for what it really was. So, instead, he parked himself with a retired prostitute in seedy Haiphong and spent every evening dreaming of the happy China he’d once known, continually promising himself to finish the journey and return to China, knowing deep down he never will, happy to live with his mirage.

The Letter (1924 – Singapore – 3rd) An absolutely riveting story, told from the point of view of the family lawyer – Mr Joyce – defending a white woman – Lesley Crosbie- accused of murder. She claims that tall, good-looking Geoff Robinson came to her bungalow late at night and tried to rape her so she defended herself in a blind panic, grabbing a gun which went off in her hand. Now she is in gaol awaiting the trial which should be a formality leading her to release when – the lawyer’s Chinese assistant mentions to him the existence of ‘a letter’.

The Chinaman explains that only days before his death, Robinson had received a letter from Lesley begging him to come and see her. The lawyer realises that the existence of such a letter implies a relationship between the defendant and the murdered man and would completely change the complexion of the case. The sleek, inscrutable Chinese assistant goes on to say that he has a friend who possesses the letter, and will sell it for $10,000.

This is a huge amount but when Joyce goes to meet Lesley’s husband, Crosbie, at the club, the latter in his simple-mindedness, immediately vows to raise the cash. And so, late that night, Joyce and Crosbie are taken by the Chinese to a creepy room above a native store where a fat Chinese with a gold necklace (gangster bling even in those days) takes the cash and hands over the letter.

The trial goes ahead and, in the absence of the letter, Lesley is indeed released. Only when the couple get back to Joyce’s house does Crosbie confront his wife with the truth and storm out. And then the apparently mild, frail and posh Lesley confesses everything to the horrified lawyer. She and Robinson had been having an affair for years. It was her passion, her whole life. Then she learned that he was seeing a Chinese woman and sent the letter demanding a meeting to confront him. At this midnight meeting Lesley goaded Robinson so much that finally he snapped and said he no longer loved her, and had been living with the Chinese woman all along. At which point Lesley cold-bloodedly shot him six times at point blank range.

Lesley finishes telling all this to the stunned lawyer, gets up and walks out leaving him, as so many of Maugham’s storytellers, stunned with horror at the depths of human passion.

The Outstation (1924 – Malaysia – I) A new assistant, Cooper, arrives to help British resident Warburton at an isolated outstation in Malaya. They do not get on. Warburton is an upper-class snob who blew a fortune hanging out with England’s finest aristocrats – a natural gentleman – whereas new boy Cooper was born and educated in Barbados and has a chip on his shoulder about being an outsider. But, counter-intuitively, it is Warburton, the snob, the one who dresses impeccably for dinner every day in that ridiculous imperial way, who in fact understands and likes the Malays, who speaks fluent Malay and rules them wisely, loves the people so much that he wants to be buried there when he dies. And it is Cooper, fiercely anti-snob who is, paradoxically, harsh and bullying to his Malay servants.

Warburton, seeing Cooper alienate and enrage the Malays, writes an official request for Cooper to be transferred but this is rejected. So Warburton lets Cooper bully his houseboy and all the other servants and Malays he come sin contact with, so severely that, with complete inevitability, Cooper is one night murdered in his sleep. Warburton goes about the formalities with scrupulous efficiency, but in his heart rejoices.

The Portrait Of A Gentleman (1925 – Korea – 1st) At a loose end in Seoul, Maugham comes across an old copy of The Complete Poker Player by one Mr John Blackbridge, published in 1879. This is barely a story, just a series of quotes to back up Maugham’s claim that the book is the most perfect example of an author unconsciously painting a self-portrait that he knows of. In fact, neither the book nor the quotes Maugham chooses are particularly impressive. Maugham was conventional in  his tastes and opinions.

Raw Material (1923 – Shanghai – 1st) Maugham tells us he had always wanted to write a novel about card sharps. In Shanghai, and then in Peking, he meets two Americans who like playing cards in the clubs and bars he frequents – elegant little Campbell and big, bearish Peterson. Maugham becomes convinced they are professional card sharps and that their claims of being a banker and mining engineer, respectively, are just ‘cover’ stories. Maugham takes careful notes of their conversation and method of play, so as to use them in future stories. Imagine his chagrin when, back in New York, at a smart salon, he is introduced to… none other than Campbell and Peterson, who really are a banker and a mining engineer. How disappointing. How silly an author’s whims and fancies.

Straight Flush (1929 -Aboard ship – 1st) Aboard ship on a very rough passage in the North Pacific, Maugham encounters two old millionaires, Mr Rosenbaum and Mr Donaldson who tell him the stories of why they, separately, gave up poker: Donaldson because he took part in a game out West where two brothers fell out and one shot the other dead right in front of him; and Rosenbaum because during a fateful game he realised he was going so blind he could no longer see a straight flush when he had one.

The End Of The Flight (1926 – Borneo – 1st) Maugham stays with the District Officer in a remote town on the north coast of Borneo, who proceeds to tell him a story about the last man to sleep in the spare bedroom, an extremely nervy Dutchman who was fleeing from a native, an Achinese, who he had offended and who was convinced that this man had followed him to towns all across the East.

Here, in this out of the way spot, he thought he would finally be safe, but nonetheless locked the door and windows and got into bed with a gun by his side. But in the morning the District Officer had to break the locked door down and found the man dead in his bed, with a kris (the Malay dagger) placed carefully on his neck.

Maugham and the officer both look at the bed where all this happened and in which Maugham is set to sleep that night. Sweet dreams, says the Officer.

A Casual Affair (1934 – Borneo – 1st) As so often Maugham is staying with a District Officer in an out-of-the-way part of the British Empire, this time in Borneo, an amiable little man named Low and his wife, Bee.

As usual there’s a fair bit of circumlocution before we come to the ‘story’. This is that Low is called to attend the corpse of a white man found in a scrappy Chinese slum, his only belongings a suitcase containing a package with a written message requesting it be hand-delivered to the extremely posh Lady Kastellan in London. When Low opens the package it turns out to contain forty or so love letters written by the man, signed only as J., to this Lady Kastellan, detailing the course of a passionate love affair. Low’s wife insists on reading all the letters and drawing her own conclusions. Low then tells Maugham that on his next trip back to England he took the package to Lady Kastellan’s and she accepted it without a tremor, their interview being interrupted by the entrance of Lord Kastellan. During their brief conversation Lady K confirmed the man’s identity as dashing Jack Almond.

Now, the point of the story is that it allows Maugham to show his skill in delineating character: for a start the contrasting characters of Mr and Mrs Low back in Borneo, both essentially comic creations.

It goes on to give a terrifically acute description of Mr Low’s resentment at being treated as a common tradesman by the immensely self-possessed and superior Lady Kastellan. We now understand how the entire anecdote started – with the fact that the Lows happened to glimpse Maugham at a fantastically posh party given by Lady Kastellan, on the occasion of Low’s trip back to England when he delivered the package. They didn’t know her at all but she obviously thought it shrewd, after Mr Low had given her the letters, to invite them. The story is enlivened by Mrs Low’s chagrin at buying a dress specially for this party which turned out to make no impression at all among the millionaire ball gowns.

And this in turn adds spice to Mrs Low’s malicious dislike of Lady Kastellan for leading Jack Almond such a merry dance.

But there’s more: because it’s only when Lady Kastellan mentions Jack’s name that Low realises that he himself knew young Jack as a dashing handsome chap out East, a nice chap who played tennis, drank at the club etc, and was the life and soul for five years, until he went back to England.

From that trip he returned a broken man, fell into dissipation, and disappeared off the social scene. And it turns out that Maugham himself knew Jack during his own brief involvement with the Foreign Office where Jack had been a junior official.

With all the evidence to hand, Maugham now speculates that Jack and Lady Kastellan had a passionate affair but that Lord Kastellan found out. To avoid the threat of scandal it was agreed that Jack would quit his Foreign Office job and be packed off to the colonies, but for five long years he had continued to carry a torch, convinced that Lady Kastellan secretly loved him and would eventually leave her husband for him. Obviously, on that trip back to England, she had calmly disabused him of this notion, and Jack had realised that all his dreams were ashes. He came back to the East a broken man and let himself go to pot.

The story of a disappointed love affair is relatively straightforward. But Maugham manages a) to tell it in an extremely complex and sophisticated way, combining fragments and different points of view of a number of characters, a technique which b) sheds a tremendous light on the psychology of the characters he’s created – on Mr Low, on Bee his wife, on Lady Kastellan and even on the briefly glimpsed Lord Kastellan.

It is a work of tremendous sophistication in every sense – in the airy confidence with which it describes life and manners at the top of the aristocratic tree, as well as its completely convincing description of colonial life – and in the high artfulness of its construction and telling.

Red (1921 – An island near Samoa – 3rd) This is a wonderful story. The fat, raddled old Yankee captain of a schooner puts into a remote island and makes his way to the hut of an isolated European. He’s come to bring supplies to a trader down the coast but could do with a guide to take him there. In the hut is a fat old Swede gone to seed named Neilson, surrounded by books and a piano. Neilson (as usually happens in  Maugham tale) proceeds to tell his life story.

He was 25, a philosophy lecturer, diagnosed with tuberculosis and given one year to live so he decided to travel. He fell in love with the South Seas. He came to this island, stumbled across this particularly beautiful spot and heard about the Love Story connected to it. The story was this:

Years earlier, an American sailor with long pre-Raphaelite red hair – and so nicknamed ‘Red’ – had deserted his ship and fetched up here, falling in love with a beautiful native girl, who he called Sally. He was 20, she was 16, their love was pure and true. He built the hut and they lived together in perfect bliss. After a year he heard that an American ship had anchored outside the reef and paddled out with a native friend to see if he could swap coconuts for real tobacco, which was the one thing which was hard to get in his idyllic life. But the crew slipped Red a mickey fin and, while unconscious, shanghaied i.e. kidnapped him – the native being thrown back over the side, to regain his canoe and return to tell Sally what had happened. Sally was distraught but never gave up hoping that Red would one day return.

A few years later Neilson pitched up looking for somewhere to live out his last year of life, fell in love with the island, with this spot and with the grieving native girl, still young and beautiful. He listened to Sally’s story, became friends with her family, realised he was falling in love with her, and launched a campaign to marry her. Eventually, she acquiesced and married him, but Neilson was never happy because he realised that he never truly possessed her. Always Sally remained faithful to her memory of Red.

25 years have passed. The healthy climate and modest diet ended up curing Neilson’s TB and he lived on here while the native girl got fat and blowsy (as did he).

Neilson had gone off into a storyteller’s trance as he told all this. Now he comes out of it to realise that the jolly fat sea captain opposite him is chuckling in a crude, horrible way. Suddenly he has a flash of insight and asks the captain… can it be… could he be… Yes, the captain confirms. He’s an old seadog known around the islands as Red – though it’s a long time since he had that full head of hair.

So this is the man who kept Sally’s heart from him, who stymied Neilson’s happiness, who ruined both of their lives. He feels a flash of anger, a wish to smash up everything. But the captain is looking at him, chuckling. At that point fat old Sally comes in to serve tea and for a moment Neilson has the opportunity to explain to her that this is the slim young hero she has cleaved to all her long life.

But the moment passes: what would be the point? She goes out and Neilson calls a local to guide the captain to the trader down the coast.

Neil Macadam (1932 – Singapore – 3rd) One of Maugham’s longest stories, at 40 pages, this one describes the arrival of young, earnest, virginal Scot, Neil Macadam, to be assistant curator at the museum at Kuala Solor curated by the kindly, older Scot Angus Munro. Munro’s wife Darya is the daughter of a Russian general and princess, who Munro saved from a life of poverty in Japan. While the old man is a passionate and honest naturalist, his wife is a crazy, impulsive, passionate Russian, mad about Turgenev and Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, unconventionally taking the cigarettes out of shy Macadam’s lips to smoke them herself, or talking with grating candour about sexual and other bodily functions.

At the club in town, when Macadam innocently announces that the Munros have invited him to stay on with them, some of the young bloods snigger and say he isn’t the first one to be seduced by Mrs Munro. At which puritanical Macadam punches the man who said this.

Then Munro announces that he and Macadam are going on a month-long expedition upriver into the jungle to catch specimens and that, unusually, Darya has volunteered to come with. And it’s on this trip that Darya makes her intentions increasingly plain, whenever Munro’s back is turned: she loves Macadam, she can’t do without him, he is so young and virile etc. She surprises him bathing in a pool naked and strips and gets in herself before he can stop her. She tries to sneak into his tent to seduce him but Macadam makes a great fuss to wake up Munro. And so on. She tries everything to have sex with him; Madadam keeps nobly putting her off.

Finally Munro goes off on a lengthy solo exploration from the main camp which they’ve established, and Darya spends the whole afternoon trying to wear down Macadam’s resistance to her. Up till now he’s taken the moral high ground that he can’t possibly betray the trust of a man he respects so much, but when quite literally push comes to shove he admits, at least to himself (and the reader) that he dislikes sex, finds it messy and disgusting, and that is why he is still a virgin.

Darya physically assaults him, trying to kiss him, then biting the hand Macadam puts up between their mouths, provoking him so much that he punches her quite hard, and takes to his feet, fleeing into the jungle. Darya staggers to her feet and hurries after him. On and on they run. Finally in a clearing somewhere he stops exhausted and she unveils her final weapon: if he won’t love her, she will tell Munro that he tried to rape her. The bruise on her face, the bitemark in his hand, everything will incriminate him. Her eyes glow red with triumph. She walks slowly towards her prey: and Macadam turns and flees again, running, running, running he knows not where.

Eventually, exhausted, he stops, completely lost. But he has a compass and he knows the direction of the camp. It takes over an hour but by careful navigation he arrives back at parts of jungle which he recognises, then, finally, at the camp.

At the end of the day Munro arrives back from  his trip and asks where Darya is. ‘Oh, isn’t she in her room?’ asks Macadam, all innocently. Munro rummages round the camp, then asks the Chinese servants. No-one knows where she is. Panic-stricken, Munro organises the Dyak bearers into search parties, one led by young Macadam, one by himself, and they set off to triangulate the jungle. But Macadam knows they won’t find her, he knows they ran for ages into the jungle, he has no idea where. He had a compass, but she didn’t.

Clouds gather over the mountains. Then a tremendous tropical storm comes howling down, splitting the night with lightning, deafening them with thunder.

Macadam knows he has done his duty by his host and his own morality. His heart is pure.

Brief thoughts

Love The stories are all about love. War and peace, diplomacy and politics, all social issues and any interesting ideas about art and culture, are all banished from his stories. Love, passion, marriage, infidelity, murder and suicide are his subject.

Artfulness A large part of the enjoyment is the ornate elaborateness of the initial settings within which the stories eventually come to be told. Sometimes the frame narrative about a planter or resident or a dinner party or a shipboard encounter is as subtle and enjoyable as the central tale.

Travel What a lucky man Maugham was, to have travelled so widely and seen so much. Nowadays travel is a) expensive b) ruined by overpopulation and airplanes, package holidays and cars c) made difficult by dangerous political regimes or wars. But Maugham wandered at will through Burma, Vietnam, Cambodia and China with perfect ease and security, and his stories transport you back to that simpler, less violent age.

Social history Having now read all his short stories, I see how they provide a wealth of social history of two broad types:

  1. the culture, lives, expectations and behaviour of white men in the colonies of the Far East and the Pacific
  2. the culture, language and behaviour of the English upper classes in England, from the Edwardian decade through into the 1920s and little into the 1930s

On both counts, Mauagham’s stories are a treasure trove of fascinating linguistic, cultural, behavioural and fashion history.


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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