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.


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

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

The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham (1925)

After all they had gone through, when they were living amid these scenes of horror and desolation, it seemed inept to attach importance to the ridiculous act of fornication. When death stood round the corner, taking lives like a gardener digging up potatoes, it was foolishness to care what this person or that did with their body. (Chapter 57)

Love, marriage, infidelity and jealousy are frequently the topics of Maugham’s novels, plays and stories.

This is the story of a frivolous middle-class girl, Kitty Garstin the daughter of a particularly pushy mother (‘Mrs Garstin was a hard, cruel, managing, ambitious, parsimonious and stupid woman’) who, four seasons after ‘coming out’ into society is still not married and beginning to panic about it. When her younger sister announces that she is to marry a baronet, Kitty accepts the next half-decent proposal that comes along, from a short, shy, unprepossessing man, a certain Walter Fane, who is a bacteriologist in Hong Kong and back in England for a long summer break.

He was not her type at all. He was short, but not thick-set, slight rather and thin; dark and clean-shaven, with very regular, clear-cut features. His eyes were almost black, but not large, they were not very mobile and they rested on objects with a singular persistence; they were curious, but not very pleasant eyes. With his straight, delicate nose, his fine brow and well-shaped mouth he ought to have been good-looking. But surprisingly enough he was not. When Kitty began to think of him at all she was surprised that he should have such good features when you took them one by one. His expression was slightly sarcastic and now that Kitty knew him better she realized that she was not quite at ease with him. He had no gaiety.

Kitty marries in haste, ships off to Hong Kong and within months realises it has all been a ghastly mistake. Walter is punctiliously polite and considerate but has no style, dash or adventure. Worse, as a scientist his social standing in the colony is very low.

Which goes to explain why she is easy meat for the tall, handsome Charlie Townsend to pick up and seduce. Charlie is the opposite of Walter in every way, breezy, confident in all social situations, graceful, an excellent dancer, a stylish lover and, above all, Assistant Colonial Secretary with every possibility of one day ending up Governor of the colony. True, he is married with three children, but he keeps telling Kitty he has never loved his wife: it is only Kitty that he loves.

He was tall, six foot two at least, she thought, and he had a beautiful figure; he was evidently in very good condition and he had not a spare ounce of fat on him. He was well-dressed, the best-dressed man in the room, and he wore his clothes well. She liked a man to be smart…  Though he had not said anything very amusing, he had made her laugh; it must have been the way he said it: there was a caressing sound in his deep, rich voice, a delightful expression in his kind, shining blue eyes, which made you feel very much at home with him. Of course he had charm. That was what made him so pleasant.

The book opens dramatically with the adulterous couple caught red-handed in Kitty’s bedroom as they are both surprised to see the bedroom door handle turn. Luckily it is locked, but then the handles of the french windows are tried too, before they hear footsteps going away, and then hurriedly get dressed. Who was it? And do they suspect?

The following pages give us Kitty’s backstory, her pushy mother, her father a not very successful KC, the social environment in which Kitty ‘comes out’, the balls and parties, the ‘Season’, Ascot, Cowes. I felt all this was done with tremendous knowledge of this social milieu and with great psychological insight into the character of Kitty, her mother, her father and sister. It was like stepping into a lost world.

We follow Kitty’s hurried and embarrassed marriage to Walter, then whistle through her seduction by Townsend in order to get back up to date, to the ‘Present’ in which the novel is set. Now the book spends several pages describing Kitty’s psychological agonising as she wonders whether it was a servant sneaking up and trying the door or – was it Walter, her husband, trying the door to her room? Does he know?

To cut a long story short, it was and he does. For the next few days Walter treats Kitty with frigid correctness  (and what is marvellous is the way Maugham describes her changing moods, from panic, to regret, to shame – and then to resentment at the way Walter is being so cold to her, and then to anger that he doesn’t raise the subject directly – until Kitty comes right round to believing that it is she who is being persecuted and Walter who is in the wrong: this is quite marvellously believable).

Finally Walter sits her down for a chat and comes straight to the point. He knows all about her adultery. He has evidence and proof. Now, there is a cholera epidemic going on in mainland China. He has volunteered to go and help. She must come with him.

Kitty hyper-ventilates with terror, and gaspingly asks for a divorce. He laughs coldly, looking at her and talking with clinical logic. He’ll give her a divorce alright, if she can persuade Charlie Townsend to divorce his wife and marry her (Kitty) within a week! He sweeps out leaving Kitty bewildered.

Her head full of Mills and Boon fantasies about how Charlie will hold her to his manly bosom and say, ‘Of course, my dear – at last you can be mine’ etc, Kitty hastens to Charlie’s office to put to him Walter’s ultimatum. Of course Charlie is appalled, blusters and there follows a classic bounder-tries-to-drop-his-inconvenient-mistress scene.

Realising he’s got a hysterical mistress on his hands, Charlie is careful to emphasise his ongoing love for Kitty but also comes up with all kinds of excuses why he can’t leave his loyal wife and children.

Again this is not exactly an original scene, but I thought Maugham does it really persuasively, portraying all too well the interplay of Kitty’s increasingly bitter accusations with Charlie’s red-faced attempts at damage limitation. In a nutshell, No, he will not divorce his wife: she’s been so good to him, it would upset her too much, and then what about the children… etc.

Thoroughly disillusioned, Kitty returns to the family home only to find that Walter had already instructed the Chinese servants to pack her bags. With a new insight, she realises that Walter concocted his deadline purely to get her to see what a snake Charlie Townsend really is. With a heavy heart she agrees to accompany him on his medical expedition into mainland China; she has no real choice.

Part two

The book isn’t actually divided into parts, but it might as well be. Part two more or less jumps to the cholera-infected town of Mei-Tan-Fu. Kitty and Walter are brought to a bungalow on a hill outside and overlooking the actual city. It’s the bungalow of the Christian missionary to the city, who died early in the epidemic.

They immediately meet the short, jolly, clever if permanently tipsy Deputy Commissioner, Waddington. they quickly settle in (with the help of numerous servants) and Waddington becomes a kind of chorus to the action – explaining to Kitty (stuck at home all day in the bungalow) what marvels Walter is working putting into place public health care plans, arranging care of the sick, the burial of the dead and liaising with Colonel Yü of the Chinese military to maintain order.

On another notable occasion, over dinner, when Waddington is tipsily gossiping about the colony back in Hong Kong, Kitty asks a casual question about Charlie Townsend and Waddington needs no further prompting to describe him as a good-looking cad who gets his underlings to do all his work, has the full support of a loving and forgiving wife, and amuses himself by seducing a string of second-rate, silly young colonial wives. Kitty flinches as she realises she was just the latest in a long line of conquests for this heartless beast. Slowly she realises there is a wider world around her and her silly fantasies, and how she fits into it, and how she appears to others.

One day Waddington takes her down into the stricken city to visit the French nuns who are doing sterling work looking after the orphans of parents who’ve died from the epidemic. In the presence of their authority and quiet devotion, Kitty feels like an awkward schoolgirl. They praise Walter to the skies and hope she is taking good care of him. She blushes. The reality is that Walter only comes home late at night and they barely talk. Kitty is ashamed of herself.

By this stage, about half way through this 240-page novel, the reader realises that whatever else is going to happen, the book is describing Kitty’s psychological awakening and maturity. For the first time, here in this disease-ridden town, she is grasping that there are other people in the world, who matter, who have lives and loves of their own, and she begins to learn the nature of work, working for others, devoting your life to others.

She volunteers to work with the nuns, overcomes Charlie’s objections and gets up every morning to be carried down to the ferry over the river, taken by a guide to the convent and there looks after the orphans and little children. She slowly grows to like the Chinese. She gets to know the different nuns with their stories and characters. She is taken out of herself. Small incidents highlight their selfless devotion. Kitty watches and learns.

Waddington, a little unexpectedly, also plays a part in the process. She realises that despite being fat and tipsy, he is in clever and sensitive. Before she started with the nuns they had got into the habit of going on soulful walks, especially up to the ancient monument to a rich man’s dead wife, up on the hilltop overlooking the city. These continue and mark Kitty’s growing understanding of the world as a big, big place and herself as just a tiny atom in it.

They sat on the steps of a little building (four lacquered columns and a high, tiled roof under which stood a great bronze bell) and watched the river flow sluggish and with many a bend towards the stricken city. They could see its crenellated walls. The heat hung over it like a pall. But the river, though it flowed so slowly, had still a sense of movement and it gave one a melancholy feeling of the transitoriness of things. Everything passed, and what trace of its passage remained? It seemed to Kitty that they were all, the human race, like the drops of water in that river and they flowed on, each so close to the other and yet so far apart, a nameless flood, to the sea. When all things lasted so short a time and nothing mattered very much, it seemed pitiful that men, attaching an absurd importance to trivial objects, should make themselves and one another so unhappy. (Chapter 54)

The nuns tell Kitty that Waddington is an immoral man, for he lives with a Chinese wife, and not just any old Chinese: she comes from a super-aristocratic family, from Manchu blood. He tried to escape her several times but she has followed him everywhere. Next time he sees her Kitty hesitantly asks Waddington if he may meet his wife and he says yes. In a vivid and memorable scene Kitty meets this slender, elegant, motionless, painted lady, with her thing fingers and long painted fingernails. East meets West.

But on another morning of working at the convent, Kitty suddenly faints and comes to, being tended by the nuns and feeling hot and flushed. She is terrified that she has finally caught the cholera, but they burst out laughing. No, silly – she’s pregnant! Back at the bungalow she anxiously waits for Walter to come home. We have, by now, spent many pages alone with Kitty and her anxious thoughts – while she was given the cold shoulder by Walter at the start, when she was waiting to see Charlie at his office, when she spent days alone in the bungalow. We have spent a lot of time alone with this woman and come to know here pretty well.

Walter, finally arrived home at the end of another long exhausting day, pours himself a whiskey and Kitty tells him she’s pregnant. He asks the obvious question – Is it mine? – and there is a brilliant page where Kitty realises that all she has to say is Yes. Say yes and it will begin the process of healing their marriage, say Yes and it will make Walter so happy, say Yes and she will go some way to making amends for ruining his life. She thinks this all through carefully and clearly and then says… I don’t know. It is a classic Maugham moment, not exactly brutal but… in the context of these posh, scrupulously polite pukka chaps… unexpectedly hard. It has the helpless clumsiness of real life.

Once she’s said it it’s too late to retract. She regrets but carries on, visiting the convent each day, getting to know the nuns more deeply, and listening to a long explanation from the Mother Superior of the immensely liberating effect of giving yourself to God, of giving away your self, of living entirely for others.

One night she is woken by banging on the door. It is Waddington come to fetch her. Walter hadn’t come home. He is in the army barracks, very ill. Kitty dresses and rushes down the hill, across the river, through the deserted streets of the city (accompanied by Waddington and a few soldiers). Walter is in a rough bed, facing the wall, his face empty and wasted.

‘Walter, I beseech you to forgive me,’ she said, leaning over him. For fear that he could not bear the pressure she took care not to touch him. “I’m so desperately sorry for the wrong I did you. I so bitterly regret it.’ He said nothing. He did not seem to hear. She was obliged to insist. It seemed to her strangely that his soul was a fluttering moth and its wings were heavy with hatred.

He dies. Kitty is numb. The Chinese Colonel Yü is present and weeps more than Kitty. He and Walter had become very close. Waddington helps Kitty back to the bungalow. Next day Walter is buried, Colonel Yü in attendance.

Part three

Kitty continues going to the convent but the Mother Superior gently breaks it to her that she must leave. the epidemic is waning. New sisters are on their way to replace those who have died. They will have no more need for her services. But above all she must think of the baby. She must go back to Hong Kong or even back to her family in London to make sure the baby is safe. With many words of wisdom and tears, Kitty acquiesces. On a human note, the Mother Superior gives Kitty a package of handkerchiefs to post from Marseilles to her family in France.

Waddington arranges for her to be taken back across country to Hong Kong, accompanied by guards and servants. the journey passes in a daze, like one of those long Chinese scrolls showing an unfolding landscape of quiet peasants and lumbering buffalo. It dawns on Kitty that for the first time in her life she is free.

The city of the pestilence was a prison from which she was escaped, and she had never known before how exquisite was the blueness of the sky and what a joy there was in the bamboo copses that leaned with such an adorable grace across the causeway. Freedom! That was the thought that sung in her heart so that even though the future was so dim, it was iridescent like the mist over the river where the morning sun fell upon it. Freedom! Not only freedom from a bond that irked, and a companionship which depressed her; freedom, not only from the death which had threatened, but freedom from the love that had degraded her; freedom from all spiritual ties, the freedom of a disembodied spirit; and with freedom, courage and a valiant unconcern for whatever was to come.

And this is where the Hollywood version would end, with a strong empowered woman facing the future bravely as the credits rolled. But Maugham isn’t like that. When Kitty’s ship across the bay docks in Hong Kong she is greeted by Charlie Townsend’s wife. The whole colony has heard about the tragedy. She has volunteered to look after the martyred wife. Kitty simply must come and stay with her while she recovers. She is more or less forced into it.

At the Townsends’ posh house high on the fashionable Peak Kitty meets Townsend. In deepest China Kitty had slowly persuaded herself he was greying, ageing, fattening and repellent. Unfortunately, seeing him again in the flesh she realises with dismay that he really is tall, dark and handsome, unfailingly polite and considerate. Anyone who’s read much Maugham knows that a good deal of his fiction is about couples who practice adultery with suave smoothness, and Kitty is disconcerted by the way Townsend strikes exactly the right note of polite concern for her in front of his wife, despite having had a passionate affair with her and got her pregnant. He is all concern and, puffing away on a cheroot, assures her that he’ll try his damnedest to get her a good pension. Walter was a splendid fellow, heroic of him to go and help the Chinese like that etc etc.

Only after a week or so do they finally find themselves alone in the house without his wife present. And then he pounces. He listens to her recriminations, he agrees, he laments, he condoles, he holds her hand, she gets up and strides into her bedroom, he follows, puts his arm around her and… she feels herself melting and swooning. they make love. The text cuts to afterwards. he dresses and exists with a jaunty air – and why not?

Kitty stares at herself in the mirror with tear-filled red eyes.

Then, letting her face fall on her arms, she wept bitterly. Shame, shame! She did not know what had come over her. It was horrible. She hated him and she hated herself. It had been ecstasy. Oh, hateful! She could never look him in the face again. He was so justified. He had been right not to marry her, for she was worthless; she was no better than a harlot. Oh, worse, for those poor women gave themselves for bread. And in this house too into which Dorothy had taken her in her sorrow and cruel desolation! Her shoulders shook with her sobs. Everything was gone now. She had thought herself changed, she had thought herself strong, she thought she had returned to Hong Kong a woman who possessed herself; new ideas flitted about her heart like little yellow butterflies in the sunshine and she had hoped to be so much better in the future; freedom like a spirit of light had beckoned her on, and the world was like a spacious plain through which she could walk light of foot and with head erect. She had thought herself free from lust and vile passions, free to live the clean and healthy life of the spirit; she had likened herself to the white egrets that fly with leisurely flight across the rice-fields at dusk and they are like the soaring thoughts of a mind at rest with itself; and she was a slave. Weak, weak! It was hopeless, it was no good to try, she was a slut.

Next morning she goes to the P&O office and books a ticket home on the next liner. The clerk says the ship is full but when she gives his name, says he’s heard about her sad story. Everyone in the colony has. And so he fixes her up a berth of her own. Back at the Townsends’ house she finds Charlie alone again. In their final scene he wants to be reassured that it isn’t he who is driving her away. In other words, he not only wants to seduce her in the family home, but he doesn’t want to feel bad about it. He wants her to leave on good terms. He wants his ego to be completely untouched and spotless. But Kitty, although she ‘fell’, has developed a sense of her higher self.

‘I don’t feel human. I feel like an animal. A pig or a rabbit or a dog. Oh, I don’t blame you, I was just as bad. I yielded to you because I wanted you. But it wasn’t the real me. I’m not that hateful, beastly, lustful woman. I disown her. It wasn’t me that lay on that bed panting for you when my husband was hardly cold in his grave and your wife had been so kind to me, so indescribably kind. It was only the animal in me, dark and fearful like an evil spirit, and I disown, and hate, and despise it. And ever since, when I’ve thought of it, my gorge rises and I feel that I must vomit.’

On the ship home she gets a series of cables announcing that her mother is ill and then, at Marseilles, telling her that she’s died. She arrives back to the pawky flat in London to find her father in mourning. There then follows another psychologically persuasive final scene. Right at the start we’d been told that Mr Garstin was much put upon by his domineering wife. She it was who persuaded him to try for silk (to become a King’s Council or senior barrister) because she wanted the social kudos even though it actually resulted in him getting less work and being poorer. She it was who relentlessly pressurised her daughters into the ‘best society’ and to marry well. And the wife and daughters never paid much attention to Mr Garstin, regarding him simply as a work horse and source of money and position.

Now, as she sits with him in the living room of their flat, Mr Garstin announces to Kitty that he has been offered the job of Chief Justice of the Bahamas and has said yes. To his horror Kitty asks if she can come too. She watches his face crumple and – using her newfound wisdom – she realises why.

For the past thirty years he has sacrificed his life for others, for his wife and girls. Now, finally, he is free, and this move to a distant colony offers him the first breath of freedom in a generation, the opportunity to start again. His pregnant daughter coming with him would mean the same old straitjacket all over again. Kitty realises this in a flash and bursts out crying, saying she understands how he has sacrificed his life to them, how she will not be a burden, how she will let him be free – she just can’t stay in London on her own.

Feminism

And on the final page of the novel she gives a heartfelt expression that the new life she’s bringing into the world will be of a liberated woman who can learn from all her mother’s mistakes:

‘Have you already made up your mind about the sex?’ Mr Garstin murmured, with his thin, dry smile.

‘I want a girl because I want to bring her up so that she shan’t make the mistakes I’ve made. When I look back upon the girl I was I hate myself. But I never had a chance. I’m going to bring up my daughter so that she’s free and can stand on her own feet. I’m not going to bring a child into the world, and love her, and bring her up, just so that some man may want to sleep with her so much that he’s willing to provide her with board and lodging for the rest of her life.’

She felt her father stiffen. He had never spoken of such things and it shocked him to hear these words in his daughter’s mouth.

‘Let me be frank just this once, father. I’ve been foolish and wicked and hateful. I’ve been terribly punished. I’m determined to save my daughter from all that. I want her to be fearless and frank. I want her to be a person, independent of others because she is possessed to herself, and I want her to take life like a free man and make a better job of it than I have.’


China and the Chinese

In Hong Kong there are various servants and ‘boys’ catering to their every whim. Only in Mei-Tan-Fu do you get more of a sense of the real China although even here it’s the French nuns that Kitty gets to know. I don’t think a single one of the Chinese servants even there, is named. In fact the only Chinese person we are introduced to is Waddington’s wife.

Kitty shook hands with her. She was slim in her long embroidered gown and somewhat taller than Kitty, used to the Southern people, had expected. She wore a jacket of pale green silk with tight sleeves that came over her wrists and on her black hair, elaborately dressed, was the head-dress of the Manchu women. Her face was coated with powder and her cheeks from the eyes to the mouth heavily rouged; her plucked eyebrows were a thin dark line and her mouth was scarlet. From this mask her black, slightly slanting, large eyes burned like lakes of liquid jet. She seemed more like an idol than a woman. Her movements were slow and assured. Kitty had the impression that she was slightly shy but very curious. She nodded her head two or three times, looking at Kitty, while Waddington spoke of her. Kitty noticed her hands; they were preternaturally long, very slender, of the colour of ivory; and the exquisite nails were painted. Kitty thought she had never seen anything so lovely as those languid and elegant hands. They suggested the breeding of uncounted centuries.

It would be easy to say that Maugham is remiss for not naming or introducing a single Chinese character (apart from the princess). But then again, even in England, in his plays and novels, only a handful of characters are ever named, set against the teeming multitudes of London or the anonymous fishermen and farmers of the kentish town where Cakes and Ale is set. Even in England Maugham is mostly concerned only with the posh and upper-class characters, with a range of servants, butlers, nurses and maides who only barely have identities.

Similarly, in the Chinese city, the strongest character is the French Mother Superior who, characteristically, isn’t just a good woman but comes from an unbelievably smart aristocratic family – as she tells Kitty in a beguiling chapter.

Though the Mother Superior talked with Kitty not more than three or four times and once or twice for but ten minutes the impression she made upon Kitty was profound. Her character was like a country which on first acquaintance seems grand, but inhospitable; but in which presently you discover smiling little villages among fruit trees in the folds of the majestic mountains and pleasant ambling rivers that flow kindly through lush meadows. But these comfortable scenes, though they surprise and even reassure you, are not enough to make you feel at home in the land of tawny heights and windswept spaces. It would have been impossible to become intimate with the Mother Superior; she had that something impersonal about her which Kitty had felt with the other nuns, even with the good-humoured chatty Sister St Joseph, but with her it was a barrier which was almost palpable. It gave you quite a curious sensation, chilling but awe-inspiring, that she could walk on the same earth as you, attend to mundane affairs, and yet live so obviously upon a plane you could not reach.

In fact, given that Kitty can’t speak a word of Chinese, it’s hard to see how she could have got to know and talked to a Chinese character, even if Maugham had needed one for the kind of morality tale he was aiming to write.

Chinese landscapes

This is a gentle and evocative text. There are quite a few descriptions of landscape, designed to echo and amplify the feelings of the characters, mainly Kitty.

Her eyes travelled over the landscape at their feet. The wide expanse on that gay and sunny morning filled the heart with exultation. The trim little rice-fields stretched as far as the eye could see and in many of them the blue-clad peasants with their buffaloes were working industriously. It was a peaceful and a happy scene.

I wonder if Maugham consciously set out to echo the calm misty feel of traditional Chinese scroll paintings with their idyllically peaceful landscapes and cityscapes. His word pictures certainly achieve a sense of serenity and give the novel a wonderfully dreamy, evocative atmosphere.

Dawn was breaking now, and here and there a Chinese was taking down the shutters of his shop. In its dark recesses, by the light of a taper, a woman was washing her hands and face. In a tea-house at a corner a group of men were eating an early meal. The grey, cold light of the rising day sidled along the narrow lanes like a thief. There was a pale mist on the river and the masts of the crowded junks loomed through it like the lances of a phantom army. It was chilly as they crossed and Kitty huddled herself up in her gay and coloured shawl.

The gaining of wisdom

Whereas the tight little colony of Hong Kong encouraged the characters to magnify their petty affairs and jealousies, the sheer size and scale of China makes them feel small and insignificant

For a moment she thought of the future. She did not know what plans Walter had in mind. He told her nothing. He was cool, polite, silent, and inscrutable. They were two little drops in that river that flowed silently towards the unknown; two little drops that to themselves had so much individuality and to the onlooker were but an undistinguishable part of the water.

Not only its scale, but the sense that its culture is ancient, far older than bumptious Western pretensions. When the ancient Britons lived in mud huts, the Chinese had emperors and palaces. This is the purpose of the Manchu princess figure. In real life Waddington’s mistress would probably have been an anonymous local girl, but Maugham needed an emblematic figure who would epitomise the antiquity and nobility of Chinese culture which he himself responded to so powerfully, and which is another element in Kitty’s education.

Kitty had never paid anything but passing and somewhat contemptuous attention to the China in which fate had thrown her. It was not done in her set. Now she seemed on a sudden to have an inkling of something remote and mysterious. Here was the East, immemorial, dark, and inscrutable. The beliefs and the ideals of the West seemed crude beside ideals and beliefs of which in this exquisite creature she seemed to catch a fugitive glimpse. Here was a different life, lived on a different plane. Kitty felt strangely that the sight of this idol, with her painted face and slanting, wary eyes, made the efforts and the pains of the everyday world she knew slightly absurd. That coloured mask seemed to hide the secret of an abundant, profound, and significant experience; those long, delicate hands with their tapering fingers held the key of riddles undivined.

At the conclusion of her meeting with the Manchu princess, Kitty asks Waddington what these riddles are.

‘I’m looking for something and I don’t quite know what it is. But I know that it’s very important for me to know it, and if I did it would make all the difference. Perhaps the nuns know it; when I’m with them I feel that they hold a secret which they will not share with me. I don’t know why it came into my head that if I saw this Manchu woman I should have an inkling of what I am looking for. Perhaps she would tell me if she could.’
‘What makes you think she knows it?’
Kitty gave him a sidelong glance, but did not answer. Instead she asked him a question.
‘Do you know it?’
He smiled and shrugged his shoulders.
‘Tao. Some of us look for the Way in opium and some in God, some of us in whisky and some in love. It is all the same Way and it leads nowhither.’

And of course, the epidemic raging all around them, the daily burials, the teeming orphans of dead parents who fill the convent – death is all around them. Kitty comes to feel powerfully not the futility of life so much as its insignificance.

The size of China; the ancient nobility of Chinese culture; the epidemic of death sweeping all round her; the selfless dedication of the nuns – these are the factors which educate her, which show her her own insignificance, which show Kitty that pity and charity are the real values – which allow her the insight into her father’s plight – and which fuel her determination to give her daughter a better life.

The movies

It is a powerful book – with a strong central female role, with the power of a fable or morality tale, and with very atmospheric scenery of rural China and the urgency of the plague-filled city. No surprise, then, that it has been adapted for the screen three times:

  • The Painted Veil (1934)
  • The Seventh Sin (1957)
  • The Painted Veil (2006)

The BBC made a radio adaptation in 2012.


Related links

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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

Cakes and Ale by Somerset Maugham (1930)

The sky was unclouded and the air hot and bright, but the North Sea gave it a pleasant tang so that it was a delight just to live and breathe. (Chapter 3)

I’ve been accumulating a pile of second-hand Somerset Maugham paperbacks over the past few years, waiting till I felt the impulse to start reading them. I can’t believe how easy to read and enjoyable they are. Even when the short stories (in particular) have unpleasant moments (the missionary’s suicide in Rain, the revelation of incest in The Book-Bag) they don’t really undermine the general tone of leisured ease and peaceful contemplation which his books exude, the warm-bath feel of the narrator’s well-educated, well-off, comfortable observation of life’s foibles and follies. Even when tragic events happen, somehow all Maugham’s stories have a fundamentally comic air.

Cakes and Ale

This is particularly true of Maugham’s satire on the English literary scene, Cakes and Ale which is a charming story of youth and illusions. It’s easy to see why Maugham himself always said it was his favourite book.

The narrator is William ‘Willie’ Ashenden, who we have met in the book-length set of stories about a spy during the Great War which featured the same character, and was published only two years earlier (1928).

The events

The sequence of events is fairly straightforward: young Willie Ashenden grows up in the (fictional) town of Blackstable (transparently based on the actual town of Whitstable) on the Kent coast, in the care of his conventional uncle who is the town vicar.

Willie is brought up as an impeccable Victorian snob with a strong sense of the town’s social hierarchy including who to talk to and who not to talk to. His uncle and aunt particularly disapprove of a local celebrity, Edward Driffield, a middle-aged man who’s risen from very ‘common’ origins to make a living ‘writing books’ and who has married a local barmaid, Rosie Gann, a woman who, in the great phrase of the day, is no better than she ought to be.

But as it happens, young Willie quite literally bumps into the pair as they’re all out experimenting with the newfangled invention, the bicycle on one fine Kentish summer day. They get talking and he becomes friendly with them, often meeting with them. Around these encounters is woven a portrait of Blackstaple society with its snooty middle class, its publicans, sailors and farm workers, and the local roaring boy, ‘Lord’ George Kemp.

One day Willie is flabbergasted to learn that Edward and Rosie have flown the coop, jumped the moon, done a bunk, disappeared, leaving behind a trail of debts and angry shopkeepers.

Five years later Willie is a 21-year-old medical student working at (the fictional) St Luke’s hospital when he bumps into Rosie in the street. She takes him to her and Edward’s modest house in Pimlico and Willie becomes a regular attendant at Edward’s ‘at homes’. Here he meets writers and artists and playwrights and is encouraged to continue the writing which he himself is pursuing in secret.

He notices that Rosie enjoys the company of a number of other young men including a painter, an actor and a writer, and finds himself becoming jealous. He gets a few opportunities to squire her around town himself, and after one of these nights out she kisses him. He invites her to his rented rooms. She slips out of her complicated Victorian dress. Naked, she is as pneumatic and life-affirming as she is in social life.

In a little while she got out of bed. I lit the candle. She turned to the glass and tied up her hair and then she looked for a moment at her naked body. Her waist was naturally small; though so well developed she was very slender; her breasts were straight and firm and they stood out from the chest as though carved in marble. It was a body made for the act of love. In the light of the candle, struggling now with the increasing day, it was all silvery gold; and the only colour was the rosy pink of the hard nipples.

Rosie stays the night. They have become lovers. Inevitably, after the initial shock and amazement at spending time with such a wonderfully sensuous naked young woman, Willie becomes more suspicious of her other ‘young men’. The ups and downs of their relationship over the next few months are described in detail.

And then the situation again undergoes a violent wrench when Rosie abruptly abandons Edward, and runs off – we later discover, to America with ‘Lord’ George the only man she ever loved.

Thirty years later the narrator, now a successful author, visits New York on a lecture tour and out of the blue gets a note from Rosie, now living in Yonkers, who’s read about his visit in the papers. He goes out there to visit her, now a snowy-haired 70 year old, but still with the same sparkling eyes and vivacity. She explains her real feelings for Driffield, for the narrator, for Lord George. Her philosophy is simple: love is good, why not share it?

The plot

So much for the events in the past; this isn’t how they are presented in the novel. Instead the novel concerns The Present in which Edward Driffield has been dead for many years and has gone from being a minor mostly ignored writer of late Victorian working class life to becoming ‘a classic of English letters’. The mature Ashenden is approached by a literary gadfly and careerist, Alroy Kear.

Kear has been approached by Driffield’s second wife, to write the official biography of her dear departed husband. This request creates a tangled web of narrative which overlays the actual events of the past. For after Rosie fled, Driffield was taken up by an ambitious literary lady and patron of the arts, Mrs Barton Trafford (a type which throngs Maugham’s stories about late Victorian London).

Mrs Barton Trafford determines to ‘make’ Driffield’s reputation and it is fascinating to read the sections which describe the way she set about currying favour with newspaper reviewers, magazine critics and proprietors, persuading the great and good of the day to write serious articles about his novels, and then organised lecture tours up and down the country, fed items to gossip columnists, had his photo taken in dignified poses and widely distributed. All the time the real Ted Driffield preferred nipping down to the pub and spending the evening jawing and yarning with local workers and common folk, but all this was smoothed over by Mrs Barton Trafford’s unstoppable campaign.

It was entirely due to her single-handed efforts over 10 years that Driffield eventually found himself widely lauded as a Grand Old Man of English Literature. Which made it all the more galling (and comic) when he falls ill, she packs him off to Cornwall to recuperate, and he promptly marries the nurse he was sent with, Amy. This second Mrs Driffield promptly steps into the role of Guardian and Protector of the now elderly writer, sidelines Mrs Barton Trafford and it is she who, now, decades later, has commissioned the fiercely careerist Kear to write her late husband’s official biography.

And where does Ashenden come into all of this? Kear, in his feline insinuating way, invites him to dinner at his club and down to Blackstable to meet the second Mrs Driffield, because he – Kear – knows that Ashenden grew up in the same town and had contact as a boy and then as a young man with the Driffield household. Nobody else still living has that knowledge. Ashenden is the best and only source for those years of Driffield’s life. Hence Kear’s comically silky manner and obsequiousness to our amused and playful narrator.

Two track narrative

So the novel runs on two time frames: in the present Kear makes his first approach, takes Ashenden to dinner, has follow-up meetings, then invites him down to Blackstaple to meet the widow. And each of these encounters is a trigger for the narrator to reminisce about the key episodes in his acquaintance with Ashenden. Think of the corny technique in old movies where a character reminisces and the screen goes all wavy and shimmery to convey the sense of travelling back decades to a character’s youth. The episodes are quite substantial:

  1. a year or so in Blackstaple when Willie was 16
  2. a good spell in Pimlico, when Willie escorts Rosie around London, then becomes her lover (for over a year), gets jealous of her continuing affairs with other young men, then she absconds
  3. the final meeting in New York 30 years later

The first two episodes are extended exercises in nostalgia and social comedy. In both of them the mature narrator looks back to his earlier self with fondness and indulgence. And it’s not just about him and Mr and Mrs Driffield, arguably the real strength of the book is the complete social context Maugham creates. In Blackstaple we get thorough portraits of his stern uncle and straitlaced aunt, of the verger who helps out in the church, of laughing ‘Lord’ George, and of his uncle’s simple, vivacious housemaid Mary-Anne, who went to school with Rosie, initially disapproves of her until she comes to visit at which point she, like everyone else, is won over by Rosie’s simple happiness.

In fact it’s an oddity, presumably deliberate, that Driffield himself, the central figure around who the entire story and all the other characters rotate, is left peculiarly blank. We hear very little about his works or literary opinions. There is far more, for example, and far more vivid characterisation of Willie’s uncle’s maid Mary-Anne.

Similarly, during the second flashback, in Pimlico, the most vivid character is Willie’s cockney landlady, Mrs Hudson, who is given pages of comic dialogue and no-nonsense common sense.

I wish to goodness I had had the sense (like Amy Driffield with her celebrated husband) to take notes of her conversation, for Mrs. Hudson was a mistress of Cockney humour. She had a gift of repartee that never failed her, she had a racy style and an apt and varied vocabulary, she was never at a loss for the comic metaphor or the vivid phrase. She was a pattern of propriety and she would never have women in her house, you never knew what they were up to (‘It’s men, men, men all the time with them, and afternoon tea and thin bread and butter, and openin’ the door and ringin’ for ’ot water and I don’t know what all’); but in conversation she did not hesitate to use what was called in those days the blue bag. One could have said of her what she said of Marie Lloyd: ‘What I like about ’er is that she gives you a good laugh. She goes pretty near the knuckle sometimes, but she never jumps over the fence.’ Mrs. Hudson enjoyed her own humour and I think she talked more willingly to her lodgers because her husband was a serious man (‘It’s as it should be,’ she said, ‘ ’im bein’ a verger and attendin’ weddings and funerals and what all’) and wasn’t much of a one for a joke. ‘Wot I says to ’Udson is, laugh while you’ve got the chance, you won’t laugh much when you’re dead and buried.’

Mrs. Hudson’s humour was cumulative and the story of her feud with Miss Butcher who let lodgings at number fourteen was a great comic saga that went on year in and year out. ‘She’s a disagreeable old cat, but I give you my word I’d miss ’er if the Lord took ’er one fine day. Though what ’e’d do with ’er when ’e got ’er I can’t think. Many’s the good laugh she’s give me in ’er time.’

A lot of the novel is like this, a loving recreation of the working class diction and humour of the 1890s and 1900s, of a world of slaveys and hansom cabs and music halls and elaborate Victorian dresses which were all long, long gone when Maugham published the book in 1930.

On another level, there is sustained satire of the London literary scene and the machinations required to ‘get ahead’ in it. Mrs Barton Trafford stands out as a magnificent portrait of a social schemer. But all the scenes with Alroy Kear in them are priceless, for Kear isn’t stupid – he is very very clever and his super-polite approaches to Ashenden and Ashenden’s amused prevarications and toying with him, are described in exquisite detail.

Love

But the heart of the novel isn’t the satire of the literary world, still less the career of the fairly innocent old man who is amused to find himself elevated to the pantheon of English Literature. It is Love. The character of Rosie the barmaid-turned-wife of the middle-aged writer is the real star of the book. She is what we still, despite all the efforts to liberalise our attitude to sex, call ‘promiscuous’. While married to Driffield she is also sleeping with the painter, Lionel Hillier, the actor Harry Retford and Ashenden and, as he later finds out, ‘Lord’ George as well.

We watch the narrator’s point of view mature from regarding her with awe when he is a snobbish 16 year old – to experiencing his first storm of sexual bliss with her and then on to his feelings of sexual jealousy with her, when he is in his early 20s – and then, finally, as a much older man, he listens with accepting wisdom to her account of why she abandoned Driffield to run off with ‘Lord’ George.

All the way through she simply believes that Love is a good thing, Love ought to be shared, Love ought to be encouraged, ‘Lord’ George asked her to go with him and she thought, well, why not?

This trajectory in which the narrator becomes more and more open-minded, forgiving and tolerant reaches its apogee when Willie is having tea with Kear and the second Mrs Driffield, who both openly insult Rosie for being a wanton hussy and nymphomaniac. For once the narrator loses his urbane self-possession and becomes quite heated in her defence.

‘She was virginal like the dawn. She was like Hebe. She was like a white rose.’
Mrs. Driffield smiled and exchanged a meaning glance with Roy.
‘Mrs. Barton Trafford told me a great deal about her. I don’t wish to seem spiteful, but I’m afraid I don’t think that she can have been a very nice woman.’
‘That’s where you make a mistake,’ I replied. ‘She was a very nice woman. I never saw her in a bad temper. You only had to say you wanted something for her to give it to you. I never heard her say a disagreeable thing about anyone. She had a heart of gold.’
‘She was a terrible slattern. Her house was always in a mess; you didn’t like to sit down in a chair because it was so dusty and you dared not look in the corners. And it was the same with her person. She could never put a skirt on straight and you’d see about two inches of petticoat hanging down on one side.’
‘She didn’t bother about things like that. They didn’t make her any the less beautiful. And she was as good as she was beautiful.’
Roy burst out laughing and Mrs. Driffield put her hand up to her mouth to hide her smile.
‘Oh, come, Mr. Ashenden, that’s really going too far. After all, let’s face it, she was a nymphomaniac.’
‘I think that’s a very silly word,’ I said.
‘Well, then, let me say that she can hardly have been a very good woman to treat poor Edward as she did. Of course it was a blessing in disguise. If she hadn’t run away from him he might have had to bear that burden for the rest of his life, and with such a handicap he could never have reached the position he did. But the fact remains that she was notoriously unfaithful to him. From what I hear she was absolutely promiscuous.’
‘You don’t understand,’ I said. ‘She was a very simple woman. Her instincts were healthy and ingenuous. She loved to make people happy. She loved love.’
‘Do you call that love?’
‘Well, then, the act of love. She was naturally affectionate. When she liked anyone it was quite natural for her to go to bed with him. She never thought twice about it. It was not vice; it wasn’t lasciviousness; it was her nature. She gave herself as naturally as the sun gives heat or the flowers their perfume. It was a pleasure to her and she liked to give pleasure to others. It had no effect on her character; she remained sincere, unspoiled, and artless.’
Mrs. Driffield looked as though she had taken a dose of castor oil and had just been trying to get the taste of it out of her mouth by sucking a lemon.

She loved love. And what is wrong with that? But lots of people from that day to this think that love should only exist in pre-set, socially acceptable formulations, should be rationed to ‘loving’, ‘committed’ relationships. Why?

In 1978 I joined the Campaign for Homosexual Equality although I am not myself gay. It seemed to me outrageous that gays and lesbians should be subject to different laws than straight people. Why shouldn’t people be free to do whatever they want with their bodies and their private parts, so long as they don’t actively harm others?

Maugham was himself bisexual, with a prevalence for homosexuality. He certainly chose to live the last forty years of his life with a male partner. Who cares? As he himself put it:

My own belief is that there is hardly anyone whose sexual life, if it were broadcast, would not fill the world at large with surprise and horror.

Exactly. So, mixed in with all Cakes and Ale’s social comedy and satire on London literary world, is a fairly straightforward plea for sexual tolerance and compassion, all conveyed through the wonderful character of Rosie the barmaid. As one critic writes it is ‘Her character, charm, beauty and humour draw everyone around her like moths to a flame.’

Happy

It’s a wonderfully life-affirming book. Maugham wrote it in the Villa Mauresque on the Riviera, which he had recently bought (in 1927) and where made his home along with his partner Gerald Haxton for the rest of their lives. Just turning 50, Maugham was a success, both in terms of having made a name for himself in the literary world, but also in simple cash terms, having made pots of money from his plays, short stories and from the movie adaptations which were beginning to be made of them.

He lived in a big house in the sunshine by the sea with his lover and wrote this book.

Which helps explain why Cakes and Ale radiates happiness. The wonderfully life-affirming characterisation of Rosie is embedded in a beautifully evocative portrait of rural Kentish life, and studded with wickedly satirical portraits of London bookland.

And it is cunningly and artfully constructed, with the flashbacks from the various situations in the present giving a pleasing complexity to its structure and to the canny, well-paced unfolding of the narrative.

On all levels it is a book to treasure and reread.


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 very brief 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

The Narrow Corner by W. Somerset Maugham (1932)

If Dr Saunders was somewhat lacking in sympathy, he made up for it by being uncommonly tolerant. He thought it no business of his to praise or condemn. He was able to recognize that one was a saint and another a villain, but his consideration of both was fraught with the same cool detachment. (Chapter 11)

I started reading this 200-page novel because I saw it in the charity shop for £1. But it turns out, by accident, to be closely linked to the last Maugham novel I read, The Moon and Sixpence. In his typically breezy preface Maugham explains that he created the character of Captain Nichols in that book, a disreputable sea captain, based on someone he met in the South Seas, because he needed three or four ‘witnesses’ to help the narrator piece together the latter stages of the life of Charles Strickland, the ‘primitivist’ painter who’s the subject of The Moon and Sixpence.

But the character stuck in his mind, along with another minor character, Dr Saunders, he had created to make a cameo appearance in his first travel boom, On a Chinese Screen. Both haunted and niggled at his imagination until here, 13 years after The Moon, they finally appear in their own story.

The plot

Dr Saunders is the short, ugly but immensely competent doctor based in Fu-Chou, China. He is persuaded by a well known Chinese rogue and mastermind of all kinds of dubious businesses, Kim Ching, who lives on the distant island of Takana, to travel quite a long way by boat, to treat his cataracts. Kim Ching’s two dutiful sons pay Dr Saunders a mighty amount and so he overcomes his reluctance and goes. He arrives on the island, is put up at the best (only) hotel and performs the operation successfully.

Now he has to wait for the monthly ship to pass by and take him off the island and back north to his home in China. He smokes opium, prepared for him by his sleek young Chinese help, Ah Kay. The text gives several very evocative descriptions of the technical preparations and then the state of mind created by smoking opium. Saunders floats serenely and watches the world go by.

Ah Kay now made himself a couple of pipes, and having smoked them put out the lamp. He lay down on a mat with a wooden rest under his neck and presently fell asleep. But the doctor, exquisitely at peace, considered the riddle of existence. His body rested in the long chair so comfortably that he was not conscious of it except in so far as an obscure sense of well-being in it added to his spiritual relief. In this condition of freedom his soul could look down upon his flesh with the affectionate tolerance with which you might regard a friend who bored you but whose love was grateful to you. His mind was extraordinarily alert, but in its activity there was no restlessness and no anxiety; it moved with an assurance of power, as you might imagine a great physicist would move among his symbols, and his lucidity had the absolute delight of pure beauty. It was an end in itself. He was lord of space and time. There was no problem that he could not solve if he chose; everything was clear, everything was exquisitely simple; but it seemed foolish to resolve the difficulties of being when there was so delicate a pleasure in knowing that you could completely do so whensoever you chose. (Chapter eight)

Then one day two white men walk into the bar. One is the tremendously shifty, cockney, middle-aged, stubbly, nervy Captain Nichols; the other is a handsome young Australian man introduced as Fred Blake, who is also oddly nervous.

When Blake goes off Nichols confides to Saunders that he was ‘on the beach’ without a job in Sydney, and desperate to get away from his nagging wife when he was approached by a powerful underworld figure who offered him money and the lugger to take a young man off for a cruise; all very suspicious. As soon as Nichols showed himself interested, the shady figure said, ‘Now, this evening.’

Nichols was given a cab ride to an out of the way bay, rowed out to the boat and had barely got his bearings before young Blake was put aboard from another dinghy. He was given £200 to go cruising and keep a low profile, then the dodgy but obviously well-connected man disappeared back to shore. And Nichols has spent the last month as they cruise aimlessly round the south seas trying to puzzle out what Blake’s mystery is…

They chat, they drink, they smoke, they are passing through on a lugger, the Fenton, a relatively small vessel which can fish for pearls or do smuggling. Later that day Saunders asks Kim Ching about them, and Kim knows Nichols, a no good man, and warns Saunders to have nothing to do with him.

Nonetheless, Saunders wants to go home and asks if he can hitch a lift on the lugger, if it’s heading north. Nichols says sure, Blake is dead against it and they have a fierce argument in front of Saunders but Nichols insists he is captain and the captain comes. Obviously Blake is hiding something. Nichols partly wants the doc to come because he has bad dyspepsia which he (rather comically) complains about and hope the doc can cure. So Ah Kay packs Saunders bags, they say goodbye to the grateful and influential Kim Ching, and go aboard.

Saunders is a connoisseur of character. Like many a Maugham narrator, like the narrator of the travel book The Gentleman in the Parlour, he is cool and non-judgmental. He observes men with all their foibles and is amused. Nichols knows that Saunders knows that he is a crook. They amuse each other with their canniness. (‘Nichols took an artist’s delight in his own rascality’.) Blake on the other hand is young and earnest and nervous.

Another perennial theme of Maugham’s is demonstrated by a big storm which blows up, maybe a typhoon, which goes from too rough for Saunders to handle to really rough. the point being that Nichols, the shifty crook, shows his true colours as a supremely confident master of sailing, in complete control of the little lugger, making all the right decisions while enormous waves crash over it, and threaten to capsize it for hours on end. He has stamina, courage and competency.

The central Maugham theme being that people aren’t ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but complex mixtures of contradictory characteristics, which is why ‘judging’ them is so futile. On the extreme contrary, the doctor not only doesn’t judge, he savours, like a fine wine, the complicated blend of aromas and scents, qualities and characteristics, which each human presents for his delectation.

For the first 160 pages or so, the novel is very slow-paced, lazy and leisurely describing sea voyages, green islands, warm seas, blue skies, slow natives, smiling Chinese, opium nights, and Dr Saunders leisurely contemplating the odd people fate throws in his way. At some stage it reminded me of the Symbolist classic, Against the Grain by Joris-Karl Huysmans from 1884 in which the elite protagonist, a moneyed aristocrat, retires from the world altogether to a secluded chateau and devotes himself to the world of the senses, cultivating collections of fine paintings, rare wines, exclusive scents, erotic books and so on. Although in a different setting, Dr Saunders has much the same approach to life.

After surviving the storm our crew of Saunders, Ah Kay, Nicholas, Blake and the two ‘blackfellows’ who man the ship, are happy to put in at the nearest sheltered haven, Kanda-Meira, twin islands of the Dutch East Indies.

Here they encounter the characters who will trigger the action. The island is a decent size, is administered by Dutch officials, has a main town which is bustling with all ethnic groups (Chinese, natives, Indians, Arabs). They bump into a pleasant, big strong Danish man named Erik Christesson. He volunteers to show them round the island and, while Saunders and Nichols are content to drink and play cards, Erik and young Blake form a strong friendship, going on some long hikes up the side of the local volcano and around the ruins of the original Portuguese forts. They become close friends, Blake sort of hero-worshiping the strong young Dane who is so confident and bluff, while the Australian is nervous and unhappy.

A gay novel?

Up to this point the suspicion had been growing on me that this was a sort of gay novel. Obviously nothing overt or obvious, homosexuality was illegal in Maugham’s day. But:

1. Dr Saunders has a very close relationship with his servant Ah Kay, who he describes a couple of times as beautiful, slender, slim, well-dressed, obedient, smooth-skinned and generally lovely.

2. On a growing number of occasions Saunders notices just how devastatingly handsome young Fred Blake is, with a Grecian profile, sensual lips, a handsome body when he strips off to wash in the sea.

As he sat there, in the mellow light, in his singlet and khaki trousers, with his hat off so that you saw his dark curling hair, he was astonishingly handsome. There was something appealing in his beauty so that Dr Saunders, who had thought him a rather dull young man, felt on a sudden kindly disposed to him. (Chapter 17)

3. The Dane Christessen (aged about 30) is described as a bit thick and slow, but is nonetheless physically impressive and Saunders, once again, on a number of occasions notices the puppy-like devotion he inspires in handsome young Blake.

So nothing especially overt but, in the lazy sensual atmosphere of tropical climate, opium nights, stripping off and swimming in the sea, and of repeated descriptions of trim native boys and strapping white men, I began to enjoy the rather homoerotic atmosphere.

Femme fatale

And couldn’t help thinking that Maugham himself enjoyed himself writing this first three-quarters of the novel, with its lazy inconsequential sensuality. Unfortunately, all this evaporates in the final quarter which descends a bit into melodrama and also involves a lot of backstory and explication i.e. becomes a lot more logical and harried.

For Christessen introduces our characters to a household which live on a nutmeg plantation. The place is owned by old Swan, a man so decrepit and wizened that he gives the impression of being only half there, off in his own dream world of memories a lot of the time. His daughter, Catherine, married an Englishman named Frith, a former teacher from Britain – a particularly odoriferous Maugham creation, a fat lazy man who has spent twenty years translating the Portuguese epic poem, The Lusiads, into rhyming English verse, and also, given half a chance, starts sounding off about Hindu philosophy.

Frith and his wife had a daughter, Louise, before Frith’s wife died suddenly of heart failure. So now Frith hosts a dinner party, old Swan tells disreputable stories, Saunders is entranced by the eccentric Frith, Captain Nichols tucks into the grub and Blake is stunned when the lissome young Louise walks through the door. She is stunning, breath-takingly, staggeringly attractive.

She was wearing a sarong of green silk in which was woven an elaborate pattern in gold thread. It had a sleek and glowing splendour. It was Javanese, and such as the ladies of the Sultan’s harem at Djokjakarta wore on occasions of state. It fitted her slim body like a sheath, tight over her young nipples and tight over her narrow hips. Her bosom and her legs were bare. She wore high-heeled green shoes, and they added to her graceful stature. That ashy blond hair of hers was done high on her head, but very simply, and the sober brilliance of the green-and-golden sarong enhanced its astonishing fairness. Her beauty took the breath away.

Later the others drink and play cards but Louise takes Blake for a stroll round the tropical garden and he kisses her then touches her breasts. they go back in.

He knows he can have her. He knows she wants him. In a separate encounter, later that night, Christessen drops in for a drink at Dr Saunders’ hotel and tells the doctor that he and Louise are engaged. As a young man he had a great respect and devotion to Catherine, Mrs Frith, the girl’s mother and she asked him to marry her daughter and look after her. From the way he tells it, Saunders suspects that Christessen was actually in love with the mother, who gave him the kind of love and security he had lacked since coming out to the East as a vulnerable young man. Anyway, when she passed away, he promised to keep his vow.

That night he goes back up to the nutmeg plantation where he spent so many happy days as a young man, sits in the rocking chair outside the darkened building, everyone is asleep and reveries about the old days. Which is why he is startled when an upstairs french window which he knows is Louise’s opens, she comes out onto the verandah, beckons someone else, and a man’s figure tiptoes out, climbs over the balustrade and drops to the garden beneath. Louise goes back into her room and in a few steps Christessen strides over to the figure on the floor, still fastening his shoes, hauls him to his feet and starts strangling him. Until a stifled squeak makes him look again and realise that it is Fred Blake – the young man he’d come to look on as a new best friend, as a younger brother to mentor and look after. Horrified he lets Blake drop to the floor choking and staggers off into the night.

To cut a long story short, Blake recovers, puts his boots on, goes very cautiously down the road back into town, and heads for Christessen’s house, determined to find out what on earth the big Dane was doing there and why on earth he attacked him like that. Remember: he doesn’t know that Christessen thinks he is engaged to Louise. He knows on the Dane’s door, then tiptoes in, lights a match – and see the bog man lying on the floor with half his head shot away. He has committed suicide.

Terror-stricken he stumbles out and blunders across town to Saunders’s hotel, where he wakes the good doctor from a pleasant opium haze. Saunders listens impassively then tells him the Dane was engaged to Louise. Blake is horror stricken and collapses in tears. He also hates Louise for not telling him. For him, Blake, she was just another bit of skirt who threw herself at him because he is so damn handsome – if he’d had any idea they were engaged he’d never have done that – why oh why didn’t she tell him? Saunders gives him a knockout shot of morphine and they both go back to sleep.

In the morning the Dutch police call as a formality. They have found Christessen’s body and it is obviously suicide, they just want to double check his last movements, so Saunders gives an accurate description of Erik’s coming to have a drink with him then leaving, everything seemed alright. The police attribute it to the characteristic intense loneliness of the East, Blake is in the clear.

Blake’s story

As if this wasn’t enough, the book now lets us in on the reason Fred Blake is on the run. This is another tragic love story. Blake’s father is a successful and influential lawyer in Sydney. Among  his many contacts is an important politician Pat Hudson. Blake’s dad has him and Mrs Hudson round for dinner. Unfortunately Mrs Hudson – thin, old, a bit leathery – falls head over heels in love with handsome Blake. He tells this long convoluted story to Saunders in by far the longest chapter in the book, which lasts 25 pages.

Blake and Mrs Hudson have sex everywhere. She is voracious. She is imaginative and teaches him all sorts of new tricks (I thought this must be a bit racy for a novel published in 1932). She takes insane risks of being caught or seen. She wants to live dangerously. Eventually Blake gets sick and tired of it and tries to end the affair. She refuses to take no for an answer, bombards his home and office with phone calls, sends letter, waits outside his office morning, noon and night. She becomes a stalker. Finally she sends him an unusually sober and sensible letter saying she sees his point but her husband has been told some gossip and suspects. Can she see him just one last time so they can straighten their stories out about the few times they’ve been seen (at the cinema together, things like that).

Naively Blake agrees and goes along to her house. She starts with the story confirming thing, but then asks for a good bye kiss, then a goodbye grope, then begs him to make love to her one last time. Weak as a young man, Blake agrees and they are in mid-fling when the door opens and the husband comes in. He strides straight over to Blake without a word and attacks him. They have one hell of a fight, punching, wrestling, pushing, throwing, smashing up all the furniture. Eventually Pat Hudson has Blake in a death grip on the floor, kneeling on his neck and intending to snap it when Blake, scrabbling around with his hands feels a gun being put into one of them. He grabs it and fires. Hudson falls off him. Blake fires again. Hudson is dead. There is blood everywhere.

Mrs H planned it, lured Blake in and made sure her husband would come home, and had the gun to hand. Now sh wants to run away with him to America and get married and make love to him all day long. Appalled Blake staggers home, tries to eat an ordinary dinner with his mother and father but breaks down and tells them everything. His father is a hard case. A general election is due and Hudson was a vital supporter of the Labour Party. This adds a power political element to an already messy situation. His dad decides Fred will have to ‘disappear’. He contacts one of his best fixers to find a boat and a skipper who won’t ask any questions. For the time being, to avoid the police investigation, Fred is admitted to hospital on suspicion of having scarlet fever – this will put the cops off the trail and also stall Mrs Hudson.

A few days later he is spirited out of the hospital and onto the same lugger Captain Nichols had been deposited on only half an hour before. Thus the backstory and the main narrative join up. Which explains Blake’s nerviness and also a handful of occasions on which Nichols or Saunders have had the opportunity to read fresh newspapers from Australia (always at a premium in the East) and Fred has hidden or thrown them away.

Then, in one of them, he’d read that Mrs Hudson, widow of the leading politician Pat Hudson, had been found hanged, obviously distraught at the still unsolved murder of her husband. Blake is horror-stricken. His father obviously arranged it. She was mad and obsessive, but… they had slept together, he knew her, he feels awfully to blame for her ‘death’.

And now he feels like a doomed man, a fated man – everywhere he turns his handsome good looks attract women and instead of fun and games, somehow it seems to lead to death and disaster. All this time Saunders has listened, the great collector of human stories, the connoisseur of human weakness and folly.

Back in the present, Saunders is there when Louise comes into the hotel room where Blake is. they stare intently at each other, neither talking, Blake with genuine hatred in his eyes. She leaves without a word. Later that day the Fenton sails, carrying off Blake and Captain Nichols never, alas, to be seen again. I would pay good money for another novel featuring the shifty rascal Nichols – a very enjoyable character.

Dr Saunders pays a final visit to the house of Frith, encountering mad old Swan and Louise, who he is surprised to find completely calm and self-possessed.

Coda

In the last chapter, a month later, Doctor Saunders is sitting on the terrace of the van Dyke Hotel in Singapore when Nichols approaches him, looking down at heel and seedy. The kid Blake disappeared overboard, fell or jumped. The sea was dead calm. It was night, they’d been drinking Blake had been low, Nichols went to bed, Blake wasn’t there in the morning. What’s worse the boy had won almost all the money Nichols was paid for doing the job, the £200, off him at cribbage. After he’d disappeared, Nichols broke into Blake’s strong box but there was no money in it; the kid must have put all the money in a belt and been wearing it when he jumped. The doctor is dismayed and just about to ask some questions when Nichols goes pale and – his wife comes up to him, the legendary wife he is always trying to avoid. Without further ado she commands the rough old sea captain to get up and follow here, which he does like a scolded child. Leaving the doctor never to know the complete story, leaving him remembering the slow, calm, self-possessed movements of beautiful young Louise, the still centre of this perfect emotional storm.

Conclusion

This bald summary of the rather complicated plot doesn’t convey the real experience of the book, which is one of civilised and leisurely observation of some wonderful characters. Frith the fat old philosopher is a corker, particularly the scene where he arrives in great deliberation to read to Dr Saunders an excerpt from his translation of the The Lusiads and Saunders, despite his best efforts to the contrary, falls asleep. Hundreds of moments of acute perception and insight. I particularly liked the character of the rather mad old Swan, owner of the plantation where Frith and the fragrant Louise live. In our own day, everyone is so earnest about mental health and social care and Alzheimer’s. In an old author like Maugham, people are more free to be weird and strange as I remember them from my boyhood.

Swan talked in a high cracked voice with a strong Swedish accent, so that you had to listen intently to understand what he said. He spoke very quickly, almost as though he were reciting a lesson, and he finished with a little cackle of senile laughter. It seemed to say that he had been through everything and it was all stuff and nonsense. He surveyed human kind and its activities from a great distance, but from no Olympian height, from behind a tree, slyly, and hopping from one foot to another with amusement. (Chapter 20)

Later, Louise comments on her grandfather:

‘Old age is very strange. It has a kind of aloofness. It’s lost so much that you can hardly look upon the old as quite human any more. But sometimes you have a feeling that they’ve acquired a sort of new sense that tells them things that we can never know.’

Having lived through the old age, illness and dementia of both my parents, I know what she means. The really old are uncanny, no longer relating to our world of deadlines and urgency, living by their own pace, and party to incommunicable truths.

Three traits

Maugham’s books have three characteristics: every page displays examples of his odd, rather clumsy non-English way with the English language; there are repeated meditations on the odd pointlessness and absurdity of existence; almost all his characters seem to have blue eyes.

Maughamese

  • There were few Chinese, for they do not settle where no trade is.
  • The grand houses of the old perkeniers, in which dwelt now the riff-raff of the East.
  • There was a wide space in front of it, facing the sea, where grew huge old trees, planted it was said
    by the Portuguese.
  • Often it is the same with men, with Anglo-Saxons at all events, to whom words come difficultly.
  • He was surprised and a trifle touched by the emotion that with this shy clumsiness fought for expression.
  • She gave them both a cool survey in which was inquiry and then swift appraisement.

Blue eyes

Fred Blake was a tall young man, slight but wiry, with curly, dark brown hair and large blue eyes. He did not look more than twenty. In his dirty singlet and dungarees he looked loutish, an unlicked cub, thought the doctor, and there was a surliness in his expression that was somewhat disagreeable; but he had a straight nose and a well-formed mouth.

Captain Nichols looked at him with his little shifty blue eyes and his grinning face was quick with malice.

The little old man had very pale blue eyes with red-rimmed, hairless lids, but they were full of cunning, and his glance was darting and mischievous like a monkey’s.

She wore nothing but a sarong of Javanese batik, with a little white pattern on a brown ground; it was attached tightly just over her breasts and came down to her knees. She was barefoot… Dr Saunders noticed that her brown hands were long and slender. Her eyes were blue. Her features were fine and very regular. She was an extremely pretty young woman.

The meaning of life

Maugham was an atheist. There is no meaning of life. It is all a dream. On this Dr Saunders and Frith in his lengthy expositions of Eastern philosophy, agree. but Saunders expresses another recurrent Maugham trope which is the sheer oddity, the surreality, of pondering the way all organic life has crawled out of the protozoic slime, struggled into multi-cellular life, fought and died and triumphed for billions of years – and all to arrive at the odd moments of life and death which Saunders, as a doctor, has witnessed first hand again and again. There’s no ‘why’ to any of this; just wonder that it should be, and a connoisseur’s savouring of the infinite absurdity of existence. Saunders attends a Japanese pearl diver who is dying of dysentery.

But in the hold where the pearl shell was piled, on one of the wooden bunks along the side, lay the dying diver. The doctor attached small value to human life. Who, that had lived so long amid those teeming Chinese where it was held so cheap, could have much feeling about it? He was a Japanese, the diver, and probably a Buddhist. Transmigration? Look at the sea: wave follows wave, it is not the same wave, yet one causes another and transmits its form and movement. So the beings travelling through the world are not the same today and tomorrow, nor in one life the same as in another; and yet it is the urge and the form of the previous lives that determine the character of those that follow. A reasonable belief but an incredible. But was it any more incredible than that so much striving, such a variety of accidents, so many miraculous hazards should have combined, through the long aeons of time, to produce from the primeval slime at long last this man who, by means of Flexner’s bacillus, was aimlessly snuffed out? Dr Saunders thought it odd, but natural, senseless certainly, but he had long made himself at home in the futility of things. (Chapter 11)

‘At home in the futility of things’. Very comfortably at home. That is the Maugham mood.

He awoke in the morning with a clean tongue and in a happy frame of mind. He seldom stretched himself in bed, drinking his cup of fragrant China tea and smoking the first delicious cigarette, without looking forward with pleasure to the coming day… and Ah Kay brought him his breakfast out on the veranda. He enjoyed his papaia, he enjoyed his eggs, that moment out of the frying-pan, and he enjoyed his scented tea. He reflected that to live was a very enjoyable affair. He wanted nothing.
He envied no man. He had no regrets. The morning was still fresh and in the clean, pale light the outline of things was sharp-edged. (Chapter 19)


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

The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham (1919)

The writer is more concerned to know than to judge. (Chapter 41)

After three volumes of short stories, I thought I’d try some of Maugham’s (shorter) novels.

This novel, very successful in its own day, is an account of a fictional English painter, ‘Charles Strickland’, who leaves his respectable job as a stockbroker and goes to seek his destiny as a painter first in Paris, then in the South Seas. It is loosely inspired by the career of French stockbroker-cum-artist Paul Gauguin (1848-1903). And it initially feels less appealing than the short stories because of the style.

Orotundity

In some of the short stories Maugham allows himself a page or so of meandering introduction, but generally he gets to the meat of the characters and their interaction quite quickly. In the novel, he has space for a much more leisurely approach and this results in a markedly more orotund and verbose style. He sounds pompous in a way he rarely does in the stories.

Here he is, early on, describing the impact of the war on the younger generation (bearing in mind that Maugham was 40 when the Great War broke out, 45 when this novel was published).

Now the war has come, bringing with it a new attitude. Youth has turned to gods we of an earlier day knew not, and it is possible to see already the direction in which those who come after us will move. The younger generation, conscious of strength and tumultuous, have done with knocking at the door; they have burst in and seated themselves in our seats. The air is noisy with their shouts. Of their elders some, by imitating the antics of youth, strive to persuade themselves that their day is not yet over; they shout with the lustiest, but the war cry sounds hollow in their mouth; they are like poor wantons attempting with pencil, paint and powder, with shrill gaiety, to recover the illusion of their spring. The wiser go their way with a decent grace. In their chastened smile is an indulgent mockery. They remember that they too trod down a sated generation, with just such clamor and with just such scorn, and they foresee that these brave torch-bearers will presently yield their place also. There is no last word. The new evangel was old when Nineveh reared her greatness to the sky. These gallant words which seem so novel to those that speak them were said in accents scarcely changed a hundred times before. The pendulum swings backwards and forwards. The circle is ever travelled anew.

Pompous, isn’t it? And waffle, empty of content. And sometimes incomprehensible. ‘The new evangel was old when Nineveh reared her greatness to the sky’ – there’s nothing that pointless in any of the short stories. Later on the narrator descants on the role of the conscience.

I take it that conscience is the guardian in the individual of the rules which the community has evolved for its own preservation. It is the policeman in all our hearts, set there to watch that we do not break its laws. It is the spy seated in the central stronghold of the ego. Man’s desire for the approval of his fellows is so strong, his dread of their censure so violent, that he himself has brought his enemy within his gates; and it keeps watch over him, vigilant always in the interests of its master to crush any half-formed desire to break away from the herd. It will force him to place the good of society before his own. It is the very strong link that attaches the individual to the whole. And man, subservient to interests he has persuaded himself are greater than his own, makes himself a slave to his taskmaster. He sits him in a seat of honour. At last, like a courtier fawning on the royal stick that is laid about his shoulders, he prides himself on the sensitiveness of his conscience. Then he has no words hard enough for the man who does not recognise its sway; for, a member of society now, he realises accurately enough that against him he is powerless. When I saw that Strickland was really indifferent to the blame his conduct must excite, I could only draw back in horror as from a monster of hardly human shape.

This may or may not be true or interesting, But it is certainly very wordy.

That said, this fairly short novel (217 pages in the Pan paperback edition) is divided into 58 chapters, giving an average of 3.75 pages per chapter. The point being that, although there are these occasional half page digressions, by and large the narrative moves on at quite a lick, moving from one scene to the next with a speed which makes it very readable.

1. The two narrators

The novel is told in the first person by a novelist. In the early scenes he is a young novelist who has just published his first book and is shy and nervous at the high-toned parties he finds himself being invited to. Presumably he’s in his early twenties. He spends five years in Paris, and then it’s fifteen years before he finds himself in Tahiti, so at least twenty years passes, which means he’s in his early or mid-forties.

Not unlike Maugham, who was born in 1874, published his first novel in 1897, aged 23, and made his first trip to the Pacific in 1916, aged 42.

The text itself is narrated by the older narrator which means that when he looks back on the early parts of the story, there’s quite a lot of commentary on the idealism of a young man, a beginner in ‘the world of letters’, on the social awkwardness of being a beginner in the art of letters, and so on – all set in stuffy upper-middle class Victorian society, all told with the urbane wisdom of age.

So there are a lot of sections starting with or including the thought – ‘When I look back I wonder at my young self, wonder that I didn’t realise, didn’t know, was too young to understand…’ and so on.

I was very young when I wrote my first book. By a lucky chance it excited attention… (p.13)

When I reflect on all that happened later… (p.26)

I did not know then how great a part is played in women’s life by the opinion of others… (p.38)

Now that I look back I am more than ever impressed by Stroeve’s acuteness…

Looking back, I realise that what I have written about Charles Strickland must seem very unsatisfactory.

Maugham’s own tone and voice, his worldly wisdom, is much evident in most of the short stories too, but there he really is an old man of the world, a tone and presence which I find reassuring and charming. But for some reason, I found his harping on about the immaturity of his younger self in this novel a bit irritating. Maybe because his younger ignorant and naive self just isn’t interesting.

His depiction of high society literary suppers is alright, his portraits of Mrs Strickland and her thick army brother-in-law are fun – but the novel only really comes alight when the narrator visits Strickland in Paris and discovers him to be completely transformed into a monster of egotism and obsession. That’s when the story catches fire and becomes really compelling. Maugham writing about Maugham (about being a writer, especially a naive young writer) is dull; Maugham writing incisively and analytically about almost anyone else is riveting.

2. The plot

The first-person narrator (he’s never named; let’s call him N), as part of his social life, encounters first Strickland’s wife, then the man himself, more or less as random elements of the social whirl experienced by a bright young novelist in London. These early scenes establish the tone and mores of the period, the stuffy late-Victorian 1890s, establishing Strickland as a boring suburban stockbroker, happily married to a wife who dabbles in a small way with holding a salon, or dinner parties, for low-level artists and writers.

1. Establishing scenes in London

N is taken up by the upper-middle class ladies who like the presence of artists and writers (though generally ignoring their art or writing) – a satire on the art-loving haute bourgeoisie of the 1890s. He is regularly invited to parties by the lion-hunter Rose Waterford. She introduces him to Mrs Strickland, who also hosts parties for the literary-minded. He visits Mrs Strickland, is told about her two lovely children, meets her stiff, unimaginative brother-in-law, Colonel MacAndrew, and finally Mr Strickland himself, an ugly commonplace man with large features. All part of the thrilling new social life he is enjoying.

One day the narrator bumps into Miss Waterford in the street, who tells him with glee in her eyes, that Strickland has run away from his wife. N goes right round to find Mrs Strickland in floods of tears being comforted by the stiff-upper-lip colonel. Next day he goes round again and a more controlled Mrs Strickland tells him about the letter Strickland wrote her, saying he had left for Paris and was never coming back. She asks the narrator to go to Paris, find Strickland and beg him to return.

2. Quick trip to Paris

N travels to Paris and discovers Strickland, not wasting money in a luxury hotel with some scarlet woman, as his wife and brother-in-law suspected, but living in a shabby pension, with no woman in sight. He surprises N (and the reader, a bit) by his complete insouciance. His wife is upset? ‘Doesn’t care.’ What about his children? ‘They’ve been pampered enough; time they stood on their own two feet.’ Where’s the other woman? ‘There’s isn’t another woman, you blasted fool.’ So why on earth has he walked out on his wife? Because he wants to paint, always has, did it as a kid, had to stop to earn a crust, been doing it recently at night school; now’s the time, now or never, to make a break and fulfil his dream.

Back in London Mrs S and the Colonel at first refuse to believe it. After a few days Mrs S accepts is and becomes extremely bitter: to have left her for another woman was at least understandable, and she could have hoped to defeat a rival. But he left her for an idea. There is no hope and her anger becomes complete. After discussion with friends, Mrs Strickland she sets up as a freelance typist for she is clever and quick.

3. Living in Paris

It is five years later. Mrs Strickland has by now set up a successful agency for typists. The Narrator informs her that he is going to Paris to live for a while and might contact her husband, and she doesn’t object to the narrator passing on her news.

But her wishes turn out to be completely irrelevant to what follows. She and London are completely forgotten when N arrives in Paris and encounters Strickland. He is now a very poor, shabby figure, who’s grown an enormous red beard and become known as notoriously rude and reclusive.

We are introduced to Dirk Stroeve, an artist the narrator met in Rome, a jolly stumpy fat man with red cheeks and blue eyes, who paints lamentably obvious commercial paintings of doe-eyed Italian peasants, which he can easily sell and make a living. It is an oddity that, although he himself paints lamentably rubbish paintings, he has an unerring eye for class in other artists – and he considers Strickland a genuine genius. He is obsessed with Strickland and regularly sees him. The narrator sees them together and observes Strickland’s deliberately cruel, humiliating treatment of his fat fan.

We get to know this setting and these characters in great depth – then Strickland falls ill. Characteristically, he has told no one and the narrator and Stroeve only hear about it by accident. They immediately go round and find Strickland in bed with a high fever, no food and nobody looking after him. They get food, drink and a doctor who prescribes medicine.

Back at his studio the narrator witnesses good-natured Stroeve asking his wife, Blanche, a placid, grey, unemotional woman who keeps his apartment in perfect order, if it’s alright if they move Strickland here, so as to look after him. The Narrator observes and describes all this with Maugham’s characteristic acuity. Stroeve’s wife fiercely resists, the excuse being how rude Strickland has always been to Stroeve, but the narrator thinks there’s something excessive about her protests.

Eventually she gives in and the narrator and Stroeve get Strickland into a cab and to Stroeve’s apartment. Here both he and his wife tend Strickland night and day. Slowly Strickland recovers. Slowly he gets up and walks around. Eventually he is up and painting again. The narrator meets Stroeve in a cafe and is surprised to see him unhappy. Strickland is painting – good – but refuses to have anyone round him: he has booted Stroeve out of his own studio!

Next thing he knows Stroeve comes knocking on the narrator’s door. Strickland has seduced and run off with his wife. So timid and concerned for everyone’s happiness, Stroeve is in tears but lets him. The narrator finds it very puzzling that the woman who fought so fiercely against Strickland going to stay with them, has now thrown in her lot with him.

There is much mulling over these events before the next decisive occurrence: Stroeve arrives on the narrator’s doorstep in floods of tears to announce that his wife has tried to kill herself. Strickland abandoned her and so she swallowed a load of oxalic acid. They go to the hospital but she refuses to see them, making Stroeve distraught. The attitude of the attending doctor and nurse, the hospital environment, are all described with a grim accuracy. On repeated visits Blanche refuses to see the narrator or anyone. Finally she dies of her injuries and the Narrator and Stroeve arrange the funeral together.

A week later Stroeve takes the narrator to dinner and tells him he’s going back to his native Holland. Over and again he wonders if he did right to ever leave. His father is a carpenter, son of carpenters. Maybe he’d have been happier if he’d followed his father’s trade and married the flaxen-haired girl next door.

Then Stroeve tells him about first the night he went back to the studio where Strickland and Blanche had been living, all in perfect order by the homely Blanche. And he had come across some of the paintings Strickland had made there. When he came across a stunning nude of Blanche he was seized with rage and went to destroy it, but couldn’t: as a keen appreciator of art he realised he was in the presence of the real thing. As he listens, the narrator describes the way:

I really felt something of the emotion that had caught him. I was strangely impressed. It was as though I were suddenly transported into a world in which the values were changed. I stood by, at a loss, like a stranger in a land where the reactions of man to familiar things are all different from those he has known. Stroeve tried to talk to me about the picture, but he was incoherent, and I had to guess at what he meant. Strickland had burst the bonds that hitherto had held him. He had found, not himself, as the phrase goes, but a new soul with unsuspected powers. It was not only the bold simplification of the drawing which showed so rich and so singular a personality; it was not only the painting, though the flesh was painted with a passionate sensuality which had in it something miraculous; it was not only the solidity, so that you felt extraordinarily the weight of the body; there was also a spirituality, troubling and new, which led the imagination along unsuspected ways, and suggested dim empty spaces, lit only by the eternal stars, where the soul, all naked, adventured fearful to the discovery of new mysteries. (Chapter 39)

Stroeve tells the Narrator he had gone to see Strickland and say goodbye. Amazingly, Stroeve asked Strickland if he wanted to come with him to Holland and live simply with his peasant mother and father. It was during this description of the simple homely life of his parents back in Holland that the reader feels the ghost of Vincent van Gogh, Gauguin’s ill-fated friend, hovering closest to the Stroeve character, despite Maugham’s attempts to distance his character from the legendary Dutch artist.

Then the narrator bumps into Strickland in the street. Characteristically, Strickland behaves like a monster, completely impervious to all the narrator’s conventional reproofs. So what if Blanche killed herself; it was her choice. So what if Stroeve’s world is in ruins. He chose her. And then Strickland tells us the story behind their marriage, namely that Blanche was a servant to a posh Italian family, the son of the family made her pregnant and they kicked her out on the street, where she tried to commit suicide. Stroeve found her, saved her, and married her.

This leads the narrator on to thoughts about the strangeness of people and the unknowability of human relationships. Specifically the way, for his part, Strickland loathes and hates sex as a distraction from his mission to pain, but when it comes, it seizes him like an animal.

I do not know what there was in the way he told me this that extraordinarily suggested the violence of his desire. It was disconcerting and rather horrible. His life was strangely divorced from material things, and it was as though his body at times wreaked a fearful revenge on his spirit. The satyr in him suddenly took possession, and he was powerless in the grip of an instinct which had all the strength of the primitive forces of nature. It was an obsession so complete that there was no room in his soul for prudence or gratitude.

For her part, Blanche showed a complex combination of ‘female’ traits. Her degradation, her attempted suicide after being kicked out by the Italian family, were not healed by marriage to the kind, loving Stroeve, She needed to re-enact the humiliation and sexual abasement of the original trauma – in that way Strickland’s brutal sexual needs and Blanche’s wish to be humiliated met and matched – but at the same time she wanted to reclaim him, to own him. At least that’s how Strickland sees it:

‘When a woman loves you she’s not satisfied until she possesses your soul. Because she’s weak, she has a rage for domination, and nothing less will satisfy her. She has a small mind, and she resents the abstract which she is unable to grasp. She is occupied with material things, and she is jealous of the ideal. The soul of man wanders through the uttermost regions of the universe, and she seeks to imprison it in the circle of her account-book. Do you remember my wife? I saw Blanche little by little trying all her tricks. With infinite patience she prepared to snare me and bind me. She wanted to bring me down to her level; she cared nothing for me, she only wanted me to be hers. She was willing to do everything in the world for me except the one thing I wanted: to leave me alone.’

I fully understand that this is two men talking about the motivations of a woman who has not only killed herself but was never given any voice in the novel; and that the whole thing is the creation of a male mind (Maugham’s). But it is nonetheless a very powerful portrait of this particular woman and of this particular relationship which she got into with Strickland.

When Blanche found out that Strickland was completely unreformable or controllable, having burned her boats with Stroeve, she took the only way out. Stroeve would have willingly taken her back. But Blanche realised she didn’t want to go back to being placidly accepted by the kindly Dutchman.

When Blanche saw that, notwithstanding his moments of passion, Strickland remained aloof, she must have been filled with dismay, and even in those moments I surmise that she realised that to him she was not an individual, but an instrument of pleasure; he was a stranger still, and she tried to bind him to herself with pathetic arts. She strove to ensnare him with comfort and would not see that comfort meant nothing to him. She was at pains to get him the things to eat that he liked, and would not see that he was indifferent to food. She was afraid to leave him alone. She pursued him with attentions, and when his passion was dormant sought to excite it, for then at least she had the illusion of holding him. Perhaps she knew with her intelligence that the chains she forged only aroused his instinct of destruction, as the plate-glass window makes your fingers itch for half a brick; but her heart, incapable of reason, made her continue on a course she knew was fatal. She must have been very unhappy. But the blindness of love led her to believe what she wanted to be true, and her love was so great that it seemed impossible to her that it should not in return awake an equal love.

Having heard all this, the narrator tells Strickland to his face that he is a loathsome, hateful, sorry apology of a man. Strickland laughs as he always does, and points out that the narrator likes his company because it makes him feel so superior. Which is why, when Strickland for the first and only time, invites the narrator to come and see his paintings – he goes.

Here in Strickland’s studio he sees something he’d never seen before: the crudity of the design, the roughness of the brushstrokes, the garish colours – this sounds, up to a point, as if describing the paintings of the real Paul Gauguin. However actual description is skipped over quickly so that the narrator can get to the psychological impact of the works, always what interests him most.

When I imagined that on seeing his pictures I should get a clue to the understanding of his strange character I was mistaken. They merely increased the astonishment with which he filled me. I was more at sea than ever. The only thing that seemed clear to me—and perhaps even this was fanciful—was that he was passionately striving for liberation from some power that held him. But what the power was and what line the liberation would take remained obscure. Each one of us is alone in the world. He is shut in a tower of brass, and can communicate with his fellows only by signs, and the signs have no common value, so that their sense is vague and uncertain. We seek pitifully to convey to others the treasures of our heart, but they have not the power to accept them, and so we go lonely, side by side but not together, unable to know our fellows and unknown by them. We are like people living in a country whose language they know so little that, with all manner of beautiful and profound things to say, they are condemned to the banalities of the conversation manual. Their brain is seething with ideas, and they can only tell you that the umbrella of the gardener’s aunt is in the house.

The final impression I received was of a prodigious effort to express some state of the soul, and in this effort, I fancied, must be sought the explanation of what so utterly perplexed me. It was evident that colours and forms had a significance for Strickland that was peculiar to himself. He was under an intolerable necessity to convey something that he felt, and he created them with that intention alone. He did not hesitate to simplify or to distort if he could get nearer to that unknown thing he sought. Facts were nothing to him, for beneath the mass of irrelevant incidents he looked for something significant to himself. It was as though he had become aware of the soul of the universe and were compelled to express it.

So the narrator (and reader) is left puzzling at length over a man who behaved appallingly to all around him but was driven by a higher calling, by fanatical devotion to his art.

With Strickland the sexual appetite took a very small place. It was unimportant. It was irksome. His soul aimed elsewhither. He had violent passions, and on occasion desire seized his body so that he was driven to an orgy of lust, but he hated the instincts that robbed him of his self-possession. I think, even, he hated the inevitable partner in his debauchery. When he had regained command over himself, he shuddered at the sight of the woman he had enjoyed. His thoughts floated then serenely in the empyrean, and he felt towards her the horror that perhaps the painted butterfly, hovering about the flowers, feels to the filthy chrysalis from which it has triumphantly emerged. I suppose that art is a manifestation of the sexual instinct. It is the same emotion which is excited in the human heart by the sight of a lovely woman, the Bay of Naples under the yellow moon, and the Entombment of Titian. It is possible that Strickland hated the normal release of sex because it seemed to him brutal by comparison with the satisfaction of artistic creation. It seems strange even to myself, when I have described a man who was cruel, selfish, brutal and sensual, to say that he was a great idealist. The fact remains.

And then, after several chapters of thoughts and meditation on these striking events – ‘A week later I heard by chance that Strickland had gone to Marseilles. I never saw him again.’

This concludes the lion’s share of the story. You feel that the love triangle between Strickland, Stroeve and Blanche was the dramatic core of the novel. It certainly leaves you shaken like one of  his best short stories, shaken and meditating on the behaviour and psychology of all three characters. And because they are three such strongly drawn characters the narrator’s post mortem on them and the events is interesting (unlike his thoughts on his own younger self, as mentioned earlier).

4. Marseilles

15 years later the narrator arrives in Tahiti on research for a book he’s writing. There is vivid description of the island, the air and the people. He meets one Captain Nichols who knew Strickland during the period when the latter arrived in Marseilles from Paris. Nichols is a dodgy character and he gives a lurid account of befriending Strickland on the streets of Marseilles and then their adventures cadging jobs, begging, living in flop houses. it’s quite a detailed account of the different establishments in Marseilles which give beggars, food, soup and lodging, which reminded me of the journalistic detail of George Orwell’s Down and out in Paris and London. Eventually, they get on the wrong side of a tough mulatto named Tough Bill. Strickland lays him out in a bar room brawl, but they hear the gang master has vowed to kill him, so Strickland wangles a job on the first ship out of Marseilles, which happens to be heading for the Pacific.

The chapters describing all this are interesting in themselves, but also because Maugham paints an amusing portrait of Nichols himself as a henpecked wastrel, at the beck and call of his starched thin-lipped wife. And in a throwaway last sentence, remarks that the whole sequence of events may be no more than a fantasy, given that Nichols is a famous liar and fantasist.

5. Tahiti

In Tahiti the narrator meets various characters who provide glimpses and views of Strickland in his final years there, including the Jewish trader Cohen, the obese hotel owner Tiaré Johnson who arranged for Strickland to marry a fifteen-year-old local girl, Captain Brunot (who tells the narrator his own story about buying and settling a small offshore atoll), and Doctor Coutras, fat and good natured, who diagnoses Strickland with the leprosy which eventually kills the painter.

Several years pass, and Coutras tells the story of his final visit to Strickland’s remote hut, to find his wife, Ata, weeping, and Strickland’s dead body on the mat. He had been blind for the final year of his life.

And inside the hut he discovers that Strickland had painted all the walls with his final masterpiece, a panorama of Tahitian landscape and life, done in terrible demonic colours, with a voodoo power and compulsion. After the doctor leaves, Ata burns it to the ground as per the painter’s final wishes.

The narrator is shaken by Coutras’s account and thinks, hopes that Strickland finally reached the perfection he was striving for, but was bloody minded to the end, burning it down indifferent whether the world ever knew of it.

6. Back in England

Eventually the narrator leaves Tahiti, after a stifling embrace and many presents from vast Tiaré Johnson, arriving back in conventional London. Out of courtesy he contacts Mrs Strickland and pays a visit to pass on what he’s discovered. He discovers her now to be a prim and proper sixty-year-old, living in some comfort, the proud mother of two sterling children, a parson in the Army and the wife of a major in the Guards. And it is the final irony in the book that he discovers she is now playing the part of ‘the wife of a genius’. For the narrator’s visit coincides with that of a Mr. Van Busche Taylor, the noted American art critic. Strickland is now a modern classic. His paintings are bought and sold for small fortunes. Many monographs have been written about him. And his wife is cultivating the image of the soulful survivor of his great genius.

The final punch of the book is in the complete transformation of Strickland’s inhuman, despicably selfish, art-haunted behaviour into polite drawing room conversation. He has been assimilated, incorporated, into the narrative of Great Art and Inspired Geniuses.

It is the genuine success of the novel that it has shown us that Strickland’s personality and driven quest was something completely different, other, strange, repellent and compelling than this. The book ends on this travesty and on the prescient insight that modern art will be bought up, tidied up and neutered by America, country of Puritan morality and narrow judgmental critics, right up to the present day when Gauguin’s art is routinely vilified and attacked for its racism, sexism, colonialism, objectification of women, exploitation of under-age girls, male gaze and general wickedness.

How Maugham would have laughed at the smug judgmentalism of modern politically correct American art critics.

The narrator

By this stage it should be obvious that he is a very fallible narrator. At numerous points he says he has had to piece together accounts of events which he didn’t witness. Even events which he personally witnessed leave him puzzled and confused and he spend entire chapters trying to figure out the real motivation and psychological prompting of the main characters. Other sequences, like the scenes set in Marseilles, might be complete fiction made up by a fantasist.

The narrator’s perfect understanding of his own fallibility and partiality inform the reader that Maugham was aware of all the developments of his time which focused on the problematics of the narrator, from Henry James and Joseph Conrad onwards.

I am in the position of a biologist who from a single bone must reconstruct not only the appearance of an extinct animal, but its habits.

By the end of the book you have read quite a few passages, not only about art and love and sex, about character and England and France and the South Seas – but about the difficulty of ever telling a coherent believable story. In its quiet understated way this is as much a meditation on the problematics of fiction as many a more showy Modernist work.

Characters

Maugham is so good at thumbnail sketches of characters, before going on to penetrate deeper into their psychology. Here’s Mrs Strickland’s older sister.

Mrs. Strickland’s sister was older than she, not unlike her, but more faded; and she had the efficient air, as though she carried the British Empire in her pocket, which the wives of senior officers acquire from the consciousness of belonging to a superior caste. Her manner was brisk, and her good-breeding scarcely concealed her conviction that if you were not a soldier you might as well be a counter-jumper. She hated the Guards, whom she thought conceited, and she could not trust herself to speak of their ladies, who were so remiss in calling. Her gown was dowdy and expensive.

And the lengthy portrait of the obese Tahitian in the final chapters is not only wonderfully done in itself, but an indication of how far the narrator has come, in geography, in experience and in human sympathy, from the dowdy drawing rooms of Victorian England.

Tiaré Johnson was the daughter of a native and an English sea-captain settled in Tahiti. When I knew her she was a woman of fifty, who looked older, and of enormous proportions. Tall and extremely stout, she would have been of imposing presence if the great good-nature of her face had not made it impossible for her to express anything but kindliness. Her arms were like legs of mutton, her breasts like giant cabbages; her face, broad and fleshy, gave you an impression of almost indecent nakedness, and vast chin succeeded to vast chin. I do not know how many of them there were. They fell away voluminously into the capaciousness of her bosom. She was dressed usually in a pink Mother Hubbard, and she wore all day long a large straw hat. But when she let down her hair, which she did now and then, for she was vain of it, you saw that it was long and dark and curly; and her eyes had remained young and vivacious. Her laughter was the most catching I ever heard; it would begin, a low peal in her throat, and would grow louder and louder till her whole vast body shook. She loved three things – a joke, a glass of wine, and a handsome man. To have known her is a privilege. (p.177)

By the time we get to Tahiti we feel the narrator’s understanding and compassion for all types of humanity has broadened and deepened out of all recognition from its tyro beginnings.

Maugham’s philosophy

In numerous short stories and here, embedded throughout the narrative, are various expressions of Maugham’s philosophy of life, namely people are more complex than they seem; alongside charming and polite qualities can go malice, hate and envy. Thus the thrust of The Traitor in the Ashenden stories is that Caypor is a mild-mannered jovial chap who loves his dog, is a keen botanist, is in love with his wife and courteous to all around him. Shame he also spies for the Germans and so has to be handed over to the authorities to be executed for treason.

For his part, the mature Maugham depicts himself as observing and recording – detached, calm and unruffled – the absurd and unexpected behaviour of all sorts of people. Here there are early, rather clunky formulations of this indulgent, non-judgmental approach:

I had not yet learnt how contradictory is human nature; I did not know how much pose there is in the sincere, how much baseness in the noble, nor how much goodness in the reprobate.

Or again:

I expected then people to be more of a piece than I do now, and I was distressed to find so much vindictiveness in so charming a creature. I did not realise how motley are the qualities that go to make up a human being. Now I am well aware that pettiness and grandeur, malice and charity, hatred and love, can find place side by side in the same human heart.

It’s not rocket science, is it? But then a writer’s philosophy doesn’t need to be. James Joyce’s ‘philosophy’ never seemed to me to amount to much, but that’s irrelevant beside his achievement, the awesomeness of his stories and novels. Same here. Saying that people are a funny old mix of good and bad is desperately banal; but showing it in stories of tremendous psychological penetration and plausibility, is a great achievement.

Who can fathom the subtleties of the human heart? Certainly not those who expect from it only decorous sentiments and normal emotions.

Style

In my reviews of the first three volumes of short stories I’ve said enough about the odd unEnglish nature of many of Maugham’s sentences and its probable origin in a) hangovers from the peculiar manneredness of Victorian phraseology which lingered on like fossils embedded in his more modern prose, b) the fact that he was brought up speaking French and English was in many ways his second language. Still, some particularly odd sentences deserve highlighting.

The nurse was pitiful to his distress… (Ch 36)

He had even a black border to his handkerchief. (Ch 38)

Best of all:

I do not suppose he had ever noticed how dingy was the paper on the wall of the room in which on my first visit I found him. (p.76)

Dr. Coutras had delivered sentence of death on many men, and he could never overcome the horror with which it filled him. He felt always the furious hatred that must seize a man condemned when he compared himself with the doctor, sane and healthy, who had the inestimable privilege of life. (p.201)

Not English, is it? It’s Maughamese.

Ole blue eyes

Its trivial but I can’t help noticing how many of Maugham’s characters have blue eyes:

[Charles Strickland] was a man of forty, not good-looking, and yet not ugly, for his features were rather good; but they were all a little larger than life-size, and the effect was ungainly. He was clean shaven, and his large face looked uncomfortably naked. His hair was reddish, cut very short, and his eyes were small, blue or grey. (Chapter 6)

The Colonel gulped down his whisky. He was a tall, lean man of fifty, with a drooping moustache and grey hair. He had pale blue eyes and a weak mouth. (Chapter 8)

[Dirk Stroeve] was a fat little man, with short legs, young still—he could not have been more than thirty—but prematurely bald. His face was perfectly round, and he had a very high colour, a white skin, red cheeks, and red lips. His eyes were blue and round too, he wore large gold-rimmed spectacles, and his eyebrows were so fair that you could not see them. He reminded you of those jolly, fat merchants that Rubens painted. (Chapter 19)

‘When I was a little boy I said I would marry the daughter of the harness-maker who lived next door. She was a little girl with blue eyes and a flaxen pigtail.’ (Chapter 38)

Captain Nichols… was a very lean man, of no more than average height, with grey hair cut short and a stubbly grey moustache. He had not shaved for a couple of days. His face was deeply lined, burned brown by long exposure to the sun, and he had a pair of small blue eyes which were astonishingly shifty. They moved quickly, following my smallest gesture, and they gave him the look of a very thorough rogue. (Chapter 46)

Mr. Coutras was an old Frenchman of great stature and exceeding bulk. His body was shaped like a huge duck’s egg; and his eyes, sharp, blue, and good-natured, rested now and then with self-satisfaction on his enormous paunch. (Chapter 55)

Why always blue, I idly wonder. Was it simply that Maugham liked blue eyes?


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

Bouvard and Pécuchet by Gustave Flaubert (1881)

How happy they felt when they awoke next morning! Bouvard smoked a pipe, and Pécuchet took a pinch of snuff, which they declared to be the best they had ever had in their whole lives. Then they went to the window to observe the landscape. (Chapter 2)

Bouvard and Pécuchet was Flaubert’s last work, left unfinished at his death in 1880. However, the first ten chapters seemed complete enough to be published one year after his death, in 1881, and subsequent editions have included the notes found with the manuscript which indicate how the book was intended to be concluded.

These completed ten chapters make up some 260 pages in my Penguin paperback edition and the notes suggest there would only have been one or two further chapters i.e. we have almost all the intended text, and certainly enough material to form a judgement.

The plot

Briefly, Bouvard and Pécuchet are two humble copy-clerks, aged 47, who work in offices in different parts of Paris. One hot summer day in 1838 they happen to sit at the same public bench and notice that they’ve both written their names in the rims of their hats. They quickly find out they have other things in common, lots of other things, the kind of work they do, the things they like, the subjects they like discussing, everything. They take to meeting once a week for dinner and then more often. They fantasise about putting their schemes and ideas into practice, travelling the world, exploring, discovering.

Then Bouvard’s uncle dies – except his ‘uncle’ is in fact his natural father who sired him out of wedlock and ignored him most of his adult life. To make amends for his neglect, his uncle/dad leaves him a fortune. Bouvard and Pécuchet decide to pack in their jobs and go to Live in the Country, Close to the Land, Working the Soil, getting Back to Nature.

So they buy a farm in Normandy, and chapter two is a long, encyclopedic and deeply researched account of how they fail at absolutely everything they turn their hands to. For the book is meant to be a comedy – admittedly a rather dry comedy – and its subject is the irremediable stupidity of the two protagonists, and the blundering obtuseness of the world they live in. Flaubert wrote to one correspondent, as he laboured long and slowly over what he hoped would be his masterpiece, that he intended its sub-title to be: ‘The Encyclopedia of Human Stupidity.’

In many ways Bouvard and Pécuchet is more of a fable than a novel, in the lack of real plot or progression and the laboured making of a fairly straightforward ‘moral’ or point.

It certainly shows the triumph of the schematic, diagram-making Flaubert over the story-teller. Writing it became an obsession with Flaubert, who claimed to have read over 1,500 books in his research for it.

Having now read all of Flaubert’s works I am a bit bored by the repeated claims that he read x number of books to research each of them. Flaubert is famous for the crafting of his style, but pretty much all of that disappears in translation. What you are left with, especially in the historical works, is great sheets of facts and names, like the almost flat surfaces of a carved frieze, as carefully and intricately designed and, often, as lifeless.

In this final book Flaubert’s obsession with facts and research reached new peaks. He first created an overall schema of human knowledge for his incompetent duo to investigate, and then set about filling in each ‘section’ with a pulverising wealth of pedantic detail. As is shown by a summary of the chapters:

Structure (with dates)

Chapter 1. First meeting and birth of their friendship. Bouvard’s inheritance (1838–41)

Chapter 2. Travel to the Normandy village of Chavignolles. Agriculture – landscape gardening, market gardening, crops (March 1841 – autumn 1842)

Chapter 3. Study of chemistry, anatomy, medicine, biology, geology.

Chapter 4. Archaeology, architecture, history (they attempt to write a biography of the Duc d’Angoulême). They set up their own ‘museum of curiosities’, and invite locals to come and visit -uniformly unimpressed.

Chapter 5. Literature, drama, grammar and aesthetics. At one point they take to declaiming great plays in front of their servants and puzzled locals.

Chapter 6. Politics – The events in this chapter coincide with the ‘revolution’ of 1848, the overthrow of King Louis Philippe, the establishment of the Second Republic, the reaction against it, and election of Louis Napoleon, first as president, and then his military coup in 1851. Different from preceding chapters, it shows the psychological impact of these events on the diverse cast of villagers, educated or peasant.

Chapter 7. Love – the hapless duo fall in love – Pécuchet with the local widow, Madame Bordin, and Bouvard with their serving girl, Mélie -and are both bitterly disappointed: Madame Bourdin turns out to be after Pécuchet’s property, and Mélie gives Bouvard the clap.

Chapter 8. Gymnastics and keeping fit, occultism (table turning), using magnetism as a cure (till the local doctor bans them from seeing his patients), spiritualism, Swedenborgism, magic, divination, theology. A lengthy investigation of philosophy leads them to despise all systems and eventually to contemplate suicide. They’re hanging nooses from the ceiling when the bell rings for the Christmas service. They attend and feel a great surge of redemption.

Chapter 9. Religion – lengthy chapter recapitulating all the arguments for and against, in conversation with the abbé, and local notables. After exploring, discussing and experiencing every type of Christian belief from rationalist to mystical, they emerge (as usual) disillusioned. At first they repel the locals for the eccentric fervour of their sudden piety, and then alienate everyone as their questioning of Christianity becomes more subversive. The local aristocrat’s sister has taken in two orphans – Victor and Victorine – who, however, have proved to be tearaways. Accompanying the servant tasked with taking them off to the local orphanage, our heroes are moved by the orphans’ plight and decide to take them in and raise them themselves.

Chapter 10. Education. Bouvard and Pécuchet apply all known theories of pedagogy to the two troublesome teenagers, who prove completely resistant. Victor becomes violent, Victorine develops a penchant for kissing boys. The pair try to dun into the children everything they have learned about physiology, chemistry, astrology, grammar and so on but, because they never understood these subjects themselves, they make a hash of trying to teach the kids, who keep asking awkward questions which expose our pair’s ignorance. Fail.

Right up to the end Bouvard and Pécuchet continue to practice their mad enthusiasms on the locals, trying out phrenology and irritating the barber whose shop they ask to use; telling the farmers how to apply chemistry to their land; angering the old farmer Gouy who has returned to make a success of their farm; criticising the gamekeeper, Sorel, for his brutality; terminally alienating the abbé for their apostasy from Catholicism; and so on.

Eventually Bouvard and Pécuchet’s oddness, immorality and irreligion have alienated pretty much the entire local community. The completed portion of the text ends as the pair are taken to court and tried for insulting the gamekeeper, who had caught a poacher. Bouvard and Pécuchet try to defend the poacher with a motley of half-cocked philosophical and political theory.

From Flaubert’s notes we can work out that in the final chapters the desperate duo narrowly escape being sent to prison by their exasperated neighbours, before eventually abandoning their Quest for Knowledge altogether. They decide to return to being simple copyests, copying out into a vast super-encyclopedia the contents of all the books they’ve gathered in the course of their adventures.

Apparently, Part Two of the book was intended to consist of this vast Copy of World Knowledge which the bumbling pair had cobbled together – of which the Dictionary of Received Opinion was to form a small part.

As they’re such good friends, Bouvard and Pécuchet’s final act was intended to be ordering a special desk-for-two, designed so that they can do their work sitting next to each other.

Satire or schema?

Flaubert’s aim is obviously to satirise 18th and 19th century attempts to catalogue, classify, list, and record all of scientific and historical knowledge. The trouble is that this aim coincides all-too-well to his own habits as an omnivorous reader-and-regurgitator. On every page of Bouvard and Pécuchet you have the feeling that you’re reading a the fleshing out of a static schema rather than a fictional text – what one of Flaubert’s most famous fans, Julian Barnes, describes as ‘a vomitorium of pre-digested book learning.’

His procedure is to list in pedantic detail all the learning about a particular subject, and then painstakingly show his hapless duo misunderstanding it and (if it has any practical application) screwing it up.

Here’s an extended example of the pair following all the best technical advice and then making a mess of market gardening – an excerpt which gives a good flavour of the book’s relentless approach.

Pécuchet was disgusted with gardening, and a few days later he remarked:

‘We ought to give ourselves up exclusively to tree culture – not for pleasure, but as a speculation. A pear which is the product of three soils is sometimes sold in the capital for five or six francs. Gardeners make out of apricots twenty-five thousand livres in the year! At St. Petersburg, during the winter, grapes are sold at a napoleon per grape. It is a beautiful industry, you must admit! And what does it cost? Attention, manuring, and a fresh touch of the pruning-knife.’

It excited Bouvard’s imagination so much that they sought immediately in their books for a nomenclature for purchasable plants, and, having selected names which appeared to them wonderful, they applied to a nurseryman from Falaise, who busied himself in supplying them with three hundred stalks, which he wanted to get rid of. They got a lock-smith for the props, an iron-worker for the fasteners, and a carpenter for the rests. The forms of the trees were designed beforehand. Pieces of lath on the wall represented candelabra. Two posts at the ends of the plat-bands supported steel threads in a horizontal position; and in the orchard, hoops indicated the structure of vases, cone-shaped switches that of pyramids, so well that, in arriving in the midst of them, you imagined you saw pieces of some unknown machinery or the framework of a pyrotechnic apparatus.

The holes having been dug, they cut the ends of all the roots, good or bad, and buried them in a compost. Six months later the plants were dead. Fresh orders to the nurseryman, and fresh plantings in still deeper holes. But the rain softening the soil, the grafts buried themselves in the ground of their own accord, and the trees sprouted out.

When spring had come, Pécuchet set about the pruning of pear trees. He did not cut down the shoots, spared the superfluous side branches, and, persisting in trying to lay the ‘duchesses’ out in a square when they ought to go in a string on one side, he broke them or tore them down invariably. As for the peach trees, he got mixed up with over-mother branches, under-mother branches, and second-under-mother branches. The empty and the full always presented themselves when they were not wanted, and it was impossible to obtain on an espalier a perfect rectangle, with six branches to the right and six to the left, not including the two principal ones, the whole forming a fine bit of herringbone work.

Bouvard tried to manage the apricot trees, but they rebelled. He lowered their stems nearly to a level with the ground; none of them shot up again. The cherry trees, in which he had made notches, produced gum.

At first, they cut very long, which destroyed the principal buds, and then very short, which led to excessive branching; and they often hesitated, not knowing how to distinguish between buds of trees and buds of flowers. They were delighted to have flowers, but when they recognised their mistake, they tore off three fourths of them to strengthen the remainder.

They talked incessantly about ‘sap’ and ‘cambium’, ‘paling up’, ‘breaking down’, and ‘blinding of an eye’. In the middle of their dining-room they had in a frame the list of their young growths, as if they were pupils, with a number which was repeated in the garden on a little piece of wood, at the foot of the tree. Out of bed at dawn, they kept working till nightfall with their twigs carried in their belts. In the cold mornings of spring, Bouvard wore his knitted vest under his blouse, and Pécuchet his old frock-coat under his packcloth wrapper; and the people passing by the open fence heard them coughing in the damp atmosphere.

Sometimes Pécuchet took his manual from his pocket and studied a paragraph of it standing up with his grafting-tool near him in the attitude of the gardener who decorated the frontispiece of the book. This resemblance flattered him exceedingly, and made him entertain more esteem for the author.

Bouvard was continually perched on a high ladder before the pyramids. One day he was seized with dizziness, and, not daring to come down farther, he called on Pécuchet to come and help him.

At length pears made their appearance, and there were plums in the orchard. Then they made use of all the devices which had been recommended to them against the birds. But the bits of glass made dazzling reflections, the clapper of the wind-mill woke them during the night, and the sparrows perched on the scarecrow. They made a second, and even a third scarecrow, varying the dress, but none of them worked.

But they still hoped for plenty of fruit. Pécuchet had just mentioned it to Bouvard, when there was a crack of thunder and rain started to fall – a heavy and violent downpour. The wind at intervals shook the entire surface of the espalier. The props gave way one after the other, and the unfortunate distaff-shaped trees, swaying under the storm, smashed their pears against one another.

Pécuchet, surprised by the shower, had taken refuge in the hut. Bouvard stuck to the kitchen. They saw splinters of wood, branches, and slates whirling in front of them; and the sailors’ wives on the sea-shore ten leagues away, gazing out at the sea, had not eyes more wistful or hearts more anxious. Then, suddenly, the supports and wooden bars of espaliers facing one another, together with the rail-work, toppled down into the garden beds.

What a picture when they went to inspect the scene! The cherries and plums covered the grass, amid the dissolving hailstones. The Passe Colmars were destroyed, as well as the Besi des Vétérans and the Triomphes de Jordoigne. Of the apples, there were barely left even a few Bon Papas; and a dozen Tetons de Venus, the entire crop of peaches, rolled round in the pools of water by the side of the box trees, which had been torn up by the roots. (Chapter two)

The whole book follows this pattern. The dim duo get excited by a new topic – anatomy, chemistry, philosophy – order up as many textbooks as possible (which Flaubert names and summarises with loving care) – and then proceed to misunderstand, misapply and misuse everything they’ve read, failing at everything they turn their hands to, again and again.

So, for example, the chapter on science refers to textbooks by Regnault, Girardin, Alexandre Lauth, the Dictionary of Medical Sciences, the treatises of Richerand and Adelon, the Manual of Health by Francois Raspail, the Manual of Hygiene by Dr Morin, Becquerel’s treatise, Bégin and Lévy on diet. That’s 11 textbooks quoted and summarised in 15 pages, about one every page and a half; elsewhere the ratio is much denser. Hundreds of them.

Futility

Again and again, they generalise from their own inability to really understand a subject that it must the subject which is at fault:

History

To judge impartially they would have to read all the histories, all the memoirs, all the newspapers, and all the manuscript documents, for the least omission might cause an error, which might lead to others and so on ad infinitum. They abandoned the subject.

Grammar

They concluded that syntax is a fantasy and grammar an illusion.

Aesthetics

‘All these people who compose books of rhetoric, poetics and aesthetics seem complete idiots to me.’ (Bouvard)

Politics

‘Progress – what a farce! Politics – what a filthy mess!’ (Bouvard)

Divination

Their search never revealed anything, and each time they were extremely crestfallen.

Philosophy

They both confessed that they were tired of philosophers. So many systems only confuse you. Metaphysics is useless.

As you can see, the ‘novel’ can easily be read as an opportunity for Flaubert to express his own pessimism and universal disgust via the mouths of his dumb duo.

Epistemology

Epistemology is ‘the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope’. For intellectual critics the book amounts to a sustained critique of humans’ ability to know anything. Although they buy all the books on whichever is their latest fad, although they study them carefully and make copious notes, when Bouvard and Pécuchet come to apply this ‘knowledge’ it relentlessly ends in failure. Which suggests that people don’t – and can’t – learn.

1. The tradition of learned wit This scorn for knowledge places the book firmly in the long line of fictions of ‘learnèd wit’ i.e. the tradition of satires on the university-based, book learning of their times which attacked the arcane beliefs of medieval scholars (Rabelais), the conventions of chivalry (Don Quixote), the new 18th century fashion for ‘science’ and ‘experiments’ (Swift) or blind belief in Optimist (Candide).

Like this tradition, Flaubert ridicules knowledge and science, but the great difference is that he does it in a naturalistic style. Whereas the tradition of ‘learnèd wit’ from the later Middle Ages to the 18th century rejoiced in arcane language, out-of-the-way literary references and so on, Flaubert replaces the paraphernalia of quotes from the Bible, classical myths and abstruse theology with modern-day textbooks, guides and pamphlets, presenting the great wealth of current knowledge in a completely deadpan, serious way. (Except for the chapters about philosophy or religion which, by definition, deal with abstruse theology and Biblical quotes).

But such a crudely dismissive attitude to current scientific and cultural knowledge raises an elementary problem which is that a lot of it isn’t risible.

2. People do learn Because in agriculture, physics, chemistry, archaeology, even in the arts, there have been huge, enormous, world-changing strides since Flaubert was doing his slavish research in the 1870s. Sure, in every age lots of people are dim and/or uneducated; but in the last 140 years amazing advances have taken place on all the fronts of human enquiry and knowledge.

Thus the fundamental aim of the book – to imply that human knowledge is useless and the quest for it pointless – is wrong. There have been huge strides in, for example, agriculture. Today we can feed populations undreamed of in Flaubert’s time. In other words, his dismissal of all human knowledge seems glib and superficial, itself wilful and ignorant.

Thus I found it difficult to accept, to buy into, the book’s fundamental premise, and this made it hard to read or enjoy. Instead of someone saying something sharp and insightful about the world or human nature, it feels like an ungainly selection of very out-of-date information, assembled in the name of an untenable premise.

Its strengths

1. Narrative energy Well, there isn’t much, since in each chapter Bouvard and Pécuchet do much the same thing, namely research a topic and fail to understand or apply it. There is a sort of energy created by the narrative scaffold whereby Flaubert manoeuvres them towards each a new subject – the involvement of other characters, in particular – and the events which supposedly spark interest in each new subject though I for one found a lot of them flimsy and contrived. And then there is a sort of interest in finding out what new humiliations the author has in store for his chumps, though many times the disquisition on a particular subject ends with no particular pay-off before they set off on a new subject.

2. Episodic Because Bouvard and Pécuchet are continually abandoning each of their projects, each chapter does open with a sense of novelty (and mild hope for something new) – a bit like watching the latest episode of a long-running sitcom in which you can be confident a set of well-known characters will get themselves into a new pickle within a familiar set of conventions.

But on the down side, each of the chapters is not only long, but exhaustively long and often quite draining to read. Oscar Wilde said that a man who sets out to exhaust his subject invariably ends up by exhausting his listeners, and I think this is more true of Flaubert than any other major writer.

Cast and comedy

It would be incorrect to say the book only features the odd couple. Other characters weave in and out and by the end we’ve probably been introduced to thirty or so characters.

When they decide to buy some land in Normandy (near the village of Chavignolles) it comes with a house and a farm. The farmer, Old Gouy, has been farming it for years, along with his wife. Bouvard and Pécuchet criticise old Gouy so much that he quits, and that’s the start of the several years they spend putting into practice their book learning with such disastrous results. In the manor house they inherit an old housekeeper, Madame Germaine, whose main role is to complain about every request. Later on they acquire a wandering carpenter and his teenage help, Mélie. Late in the book Germaine quits and is replaced by a useless hunchback, Marcel.

Chavignolles supplies a surprisingly varied cast of rural characters, including:

  • Madame Bordin, a middle aged lady who very gently flirts with Bouvard
  • the Abbé Jeufroy, who they exhaust with their enquiries about theology
  • the lawyer, Monsieur Marescot
  • Monsiruer Girbal, superintendent of taxes
  • Captain Heurtaux, a local landowner
  • Beljambe, the innkeeper
  • Langlois, the grocer
  • Monsieur Foureau, the mayor
  • the local landowner, to whom everyone defers, the Comte de Faverges
  • Larsonneur, a local antiquary they write to about their discoveries

There are experts they correspond with, the gamekeeper, Sorel, who brings in a little burst of other characters in the final chapter. This cast turns out to be quite large enough to supply some quite comic scenes, a bit like Last of the Summer Wine, but in French.

With the result that there are quite a few ‘crowd’ scenes: Take the scene in chapter three where the couple accost the abbé in the road and start quizzing him about the Creation, enumerating all the arguments against the Biblical story which they have just read in their latest book. The abbé is joined by his assistant, then the mayor passing by, and then the Comte, so that by the time our duo exclaim that man is descended from apes there is enough of a crowd to respond with exclamations of horror and outrage, reported with deadpan irony by Flaubert.

Or when the couple hold a dinner party for all the worthies of the village to show off their home-grown food (which proves to be inedible) and then proudly display their garden, landscaped according to the latest principles (which the guest find ugly and disturbing).

Or the scene where our couple proudly show invited guests round their ‘museum of curiosities’, filled with interesting historical and geological curios – which is in fact an emporium of broken rubbish and random rocks, the locals treating our heroes with politeness and behind their backs muttering that they’re mad.

So there are scenes of group comedy as well as quite a few moments of out and out absurdity.

On the principle that inflammation can be prevented by lowering temperatures, they treated a woman suffering from meningitis by hanging her from the ceiling in her chair and pushing her to and fro – until her husband arrived and threw them out. (Chapter three)

If at some moments, the relentlessness of their obtuseness, and the inevitability of their failure in every enterprise they undertake, can be rather depressing; at other moments, when they pat each other on the back, take a pull on their pipes, order up a new set of textbooks, and so on, you can’t help liking them.

Details

All the above criticisms see the text at a distance, extracting generalisations about themes and character.

There’s a separate strand or level where Flaubert scores, and that is in the precision of his imagination. Flaubert became famous for the painstaking care he took with his style, agonising for a day about where to place a comma in a sentence etc but, alas, most of this painstaking work is lost in translation.

What is not lost is the clarity of the details he imagines. His ability to zero in and include just the right amount of, particularly visual, detail, is displayed throughout the book.

In the kitchen, bundles of hemp hung from the ceiling. Three old guns stood in a row over the upper part of the chimney-piece. A dresser loaded with flowered crockery occupied the space in the middle of the wall, and the window-panes with their green bottle-glass cast a pallid light over the tin and copper utensils. (Chapter two)

There are many moments like this, scattered among the more turgid reams of technical knowledge, moments when Flaubert conceives a scene and paints it in very visual terms.

The harvest was just over, and the dark masses of the stacks in the middle of the fields rose up against the tender blue of the night sky. Nothing was astir about the farms. Even the crickets were quiet. The fields were all wrapped in sleep.

The pair digested while they inhaled the breeze which blew refreshingly against their cheeks.

Above, the sky was covered with stars; some shone in clusters, others in a row or alone, at great distances from each other. A zone of luminous dust, extending from north to south, parted above their heads. Between these bright patches were vast empty spaces, and the firmament looked like an azure sea dotted with archipelagos and islets. (Chapter three)

Although, to be honest, having struggled through to the end, there are far fewer scenes of acute visual precision than in, say, Madame Bovary. Reviewing all his novels I think Bovary has more of these painted scenes than any of the others, which is one reason why it remains his best book.

Failed purpose

In fact, there is a glaring central issue with the book. Flaubert wrote to numerous friends that he hoped the book would shame the human race, amounted to a great roar of disgust and so on and so forth, but in this respect it is a complete failure. The twentieth century came along and dwarfed anything Flaubert could have imagined. Now when we look back at the tradition of Books Disgusted by Human Existence it might include Kafka, Celine, Camus, Sartre – the existentialist tradition, as well as countless twentieth century novels made ‘scandalous’ by their sexual explicitness or violence.

Seen in the light of these traditions, Bouvard and Pécuchet barely registers. Nobody reads his book in order to be ‘disgusted with humanity’. In fact, Bouvard and Pécuchet has ended up having exactly the opposite effect of what he intended. A modern reader finds it a sweet and gentle novel of rural France and its quaint characters. If you skim over the tedious expositions of mid-nineteenth century phrenology or geology or aesthetics, you are left with a series of comic scenes:

  • Pécuchet hiding in a ditch overhearing the colloquy between the local tough Gorjou and his married mistress
  • the villagers peeking through holes in the fence to watch the couple ludicrously act out scenes from French classical plays
  • the lofty condescension of the local aristocrat, as the pair show him round their ramshackle collection of local curios
  • the irritation of the barber who gives them a corner of his shop to practice ‘phrenology’ in, only for it to become packed out with credulous peasants
  • the ridiculousness of the pair trying to argue the gamekeeper out of shooting animals by invoking the pantheistic philosophy of Spinoza

In fact, if Bouvard and Pécuchet has any value, it is as precisely the opposite of a searing, devastating, world-shaking monster of bourgeois-bating satire – and instead as a gentle, humorous portrait of rural French life and its cast of harmless buffoons.

Brief summary

Its complete lack of psychological development or anything resembling a conventional ‘plot’ – the monotonous effect of the pair’s relentless failures – and the long passages of dusty book learning which are transcribed purely to bring out their contradictions and futility – make Bouvard and Pécuchet in many ways a difficult book to read.

The (occasional) precision of Flaubert’s visual imagination, the (occasional) comic scenes – especially involving exasperated members of the local community – and the warmth of the relationship between the hapless pair – just about make it worth reading.

If I was recommending Flaubert’s books to a friend who hadn’t read them I think I would order them thus:

  • Madame Bovary – the best written, most sensual and pictorial, and the most compelling plot
  • Sentimental Education – for all the flaws of the central character, portrays the social and political life of Paris through an important period in its history
  • Three Tales – short and very readable products of his mature style
  • Salammbô – a richly atmospheric and grisly, though dry and often melodramatic historical novel
  • Bouvard and Pécuchet – difficult, often deadly boring
  • The Temptation of Saint Anthony – very hard to read

The movie

The French made a movie of it.


Related links

Flaubert’s books

The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Gustave Flaubert (1874)

These images appear suddenly, as in flashes – outlined against the background of the night, like scarlet paintings executed upon ebony.

Saint Anthony

Saint Anthony a.k.a Anthony the Great (c. 251 – 356) was a Christian monk and visionary who reacted against the increasing acceptance and normalisation of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire by becoming, first an ascetic, and then rejecting social life altogether by going to live in the Egyptian desert, to fast and pray by himself, relying only on gifts of food from pilgrims and local villagers.

Rumours and legends spread about his simple life and holiness, and soon he gained a following. He is known to posterity because his contemporary, Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, wrote a long biography of him. For many years Anthony was credited as the founded of monasticism i.e. the idea that holy men should go and live in isolation from society, ideally in remote locations, to live simple lives and praise God – though modern scholars now know he was part of a widespread movement of religious puritans away from urban centres, which predated and accompanied him.

Athanasius’s biography describes how Anthony was tempted by the devil and by demons who appeared in numerous disguises, trying to seduce him with food and the pleasures of the flesh or, more subtly, trying to lure him into some of the heretical beliefs with which his age abounded.

Continually elaborated in the retelling, embellished with demons, naked women and weird monsters, the legend of the ‘Temptation of St Anthony’ went on to become a familiar subject in western art, inspiring lovingly grotesque depictions by the likes of Hieronymus Bosch and Mathias Grünewald.

The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Hieronymus Bosch

The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Hieronymus Bosch (1501)

In more modern times the Temptation was painted by Max Ernst and Salvador Dali, and was the subject of a symphony by the German composer Paul Hindemith (1934).

And it inspired this prose fantasia by Gustave Flaubert, published in 1874.

The mundane and the fantastic in Flaubert

As I’ve read through Flaubert I’ve realised his output can be very simply divided into two categories: the contemporary realist works (Madame Bovary, The Sentimental Education) and the exuberant historical fantasias (Salammbô, The Temptation of Saint Anthony).

In other words, alongside his painstaking attention to the detail of contemporary life, Flaubert was also fascinated and inspired by a wide range of historical and fantastical subjects. He had a long-running interest in the ancient world of the Mediterranean (an interest fuelled by his visits to Tunisia and Egypt) and a lifelong fascination with religion, all religions, ranging as far afield as Buddhism and Hinduism.

It is as if all the uncontrolled sexual, sadistic, fantastical and philosophical fantasies which Flaubert kept completely bottled up when creating the painstaking ‘realist’ novels, just had to erupt somewhere else – in the sustained cruelty of Salammbô and into the extended philosophical and psychological fantasia of Saint Anthony.

The problem of ‘evil’ in 19th century literature (i.e. it is boring)

Flaubert wrote three completely different versions of the Temptation (1849, 1856 and this one).

The long introduction to the Penguin paperback edition by Kitty Mrosovsky compares how the images and ideas changed in the three versions. She then goes on to quote the opinions of later French writers and critics, from Baudelaire through Valéry, from Sartre to Michel Foucault.

What becomes clear is that if you write about God and the devil, heaven and hell, being and nothingness, sex and sin, any number of critics will be able to impose their own critical schemas and obsessions on your text, and it can be turned into a Symbolist, Freudian, Modernist, Existentialist or Structuralist masterpiece, depending on which critic you’re reading.

In other words, modern texts on this kind of subject often turn out to be strangely empty.

Inner right wing of the Isenheim Altarpiece depicting the Temptation of St. Anthony by Matthias Grünewald (1512-1516)

Inner right wing of the Isenheim Altarpiece depicting the Temptation of St. Anthony by Matthias Grünewald (1512-1516)

Personally, I find the history of the late Roman Empire, the rise of Christianity and the efflorescence of its countless heresies, absolutely riveting. By contrast I often find the way secular ‘modern’ writers use this era and these ideas to spool out endless ruminations about the meaning of life, unutterably boring. Why?

I think the reason I like the history of the actual heresies – all those gnostics and Arians, the Adamites, Marcionians, Nicolaitans, Paternians, Archonites and so on – is that they are interesting in themselves, and they really mattered. There were riots, insurrections, people fought to the death about these beliefs and – arguably – the weakness of the Church in North Africa after centuries of bitter sectarian fighting made it easy for militant Islam to sweep across the region in the 7th century. This was of world-historical importance.

And the arcane Christological heresies of the 3rd or 4th centuries AD are interesting in themselves as thought-provoking explorations of the potential of Christian theology – was Christ a man? or a God? or half-man and half-God? Which half was which? Did God speak through him or were his words his own? Has the Son existed for all time, like God, or was he created at some later date i.e. is he equal to, or inferior to, God the Father? How can they be part of the same Substance when Jesus continually refers to ‘his Father’ as a distinct entity? And how does the Holy Spirit fit into each of these scenarios?

1. The long line of 19th century non-believing poets and writers who tackled issues of ‘sin’ and ‘damnation’ and ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ – from Byron via Baudelaire to Rimbaud and beyond – were just playing at being ‘damned poets’. There is no sense of risk in their work. The absolutely worst thing they could conceive of in their fictions, was suicide (which, when all is said and done, is just a personal psychological disorder), or murdering someone (just the one person) the subject of Dostoyevsky’s 500-page-long Crime and Punishment. Even the primevally wicked Mr Hyde only in fact murders one person. The worst thing most of these writers did, in practice, was sleep around and get drunk a lot.

In a sense the twentieth century made much 19th century literature redundant. The First World War went a long way towards (and then the Second World War, the Holocaust and the atom bomb, completed the work of) redefining forever the meaning of evil, despair, horror.

Agonising over one person’s soul seems, well, rather paltry in the light of the world we live in. (This is the reason I find the novels of Graham Greene, and their enormous obsession with the sinfulness or damnation of just one person, rather ludicrous.)

2. Also, no-one believes in Christianity any more. Not in a literal hell and damnation, not like they used to. In the Middle Ages the idea of damnation really mattered, psychologically: in Chaucer and Dante it is a real place, with real fire, and real demons skewering your tortured body. By the nineteenth century, in the hands of a dilettante like Byron, it is a fashion accessory, part of the pose of tormented genius.

The Temptation of Saint Anthony

The Temptation is divided into seven parts. It is written as if a play, with prose instructions describing the setting and goings-on (Opening words: ‘The setting is Thebaid, high on a mountain…’) while the dialogue of the ‘characters’ is given in dramatic format- the name, a colon, the speech.

It starts with Anthony outside his primitive hut in the desert at nightfall, and he proceeds to have a bewildering series of visions, some of which transport him to cities and palaces, where he encounters emperors and queens, and all manner of famous individuals such as the Queen of Sheba, Helen of Troy, the Buddha, the Greek gods and so on.

Right from the start Anthony – surprisingly – bemoans his lot, hates being alone, wonders whether he shouldn’t have followed another vocation, grumbles and complains in what – to be honest – is Flaubert’s awful, stagey dialogue.

Another day! another day gone!… What solitude! what weariness!… Ah! woe, woe is me! will this never end? Surely death were preferable! I can endure it no more! Enough! enough!… Assuredly there is no human being in a condition of such unutterable misery!… What shame for me! Alas! poor Anthony!… It is my own fault! I allow myself to be caught in every snare! No man could be more imbecile, more infamous!…

Since he doesn’t really do anything, we only know Anthony through his speech and his speech is hammy Victorian melodrama. As with the dialogue in Salammbô, every sentence seems to end in an exclamation mark but, paradoxically, the more exclamation marks he uses, the less dramatic (or interesting) the speech becomes, the more tiresome and simple-minded.

I found it impossible to take Anthony seriously as a character.

He stamps his foot upon the ground, and rushes frantically to and fro among the rocks; then pauses, out of breath, bursts into tears, and lies down upon the ground, on his side.

In fact, given the extravagant cast of characters, there is also surprisingly little drama, hardly any sense of conflict or threat, in the whole work. Anthony remains the same miserable moaner all the way through. There is no change or development, no sense of critical encounters or turning points or sudden revelations.

As I’ve read through Flaubert’s works I’ve become increasingly aware of the importance of Set Piece Scenes in his fiction. In a sense the Temptation is a reductio ad absurdam of this approach: it consists of nothing but an apparently endless series of set-piece encounters and scenes. This accounts for the highly static impression it makes on the reader.

One critic compares the entire book to the panoramas created by magic lanterns in the mid-nineteenth century. These enchanted their simpler audiences by projecting a series of images onto a flat wall. You can envisage the entire book as just such a series of slides.

The Temptation Of St Anthony by Joos van Craesbeeck

The Temptation of St Anthony by Joos van Craesbeeck (1650)

Part one – Human frailty

We find Saint Anthony in front of his hut in the desert as the sun sets. The entire book takes place in the space of this one night, from dusk to dawn.

Anthony is moaning about his lot in life and wonders why he didn’t do almost anything else, become a soldier or a teacher. Almost continually his thoughts are interrupted by wolves prowling just outside the light of his torch, or by birds, by strange noises.

Personally, I found almost all the scenes involving Anthony off-putting because he comes across as so wet and feeble. As in Salammbô and the realist novels, I often found the quiet, descriptive passages the most enjoyable, the ones where Flaubert uses his extensive background reading in the period to depict ordinary life of the time. Here he is imagining the life of your ordinary Alexandrian merchant.

The merchants of Alexandria sail upon the river Canopus on holidays, and drink wine in the chalices of lotus-flowers, to a music of tambourines which makes the taverns along the shore tremble! Beyond, trees, made cone-shaped by pruning, protect the quiet farms against the wind of the south. The roof of the lofty house leans upon thin colonettes placed as closely together as the laths of a lattice; and through their interspaces the master, reclining upon his long couch, beholds his plains stretching about him – the hunter among the wheat-fields – the winepress where the vintage is being converted into wine, the oxen treading out the wheat. His children play upon the floor around him; his wife bends down to kiss him.

Anthony sees this vision because he himself is lonely and hungry. The local villagers used to come and give him food, now they’ve stopped. Anthony reminisces about his days back in the city, as a trainee monk, when he was invited by Athanasius to join a set piece debate against the Arians (a very popular type of Christian heresy). Then he sees visions -‘ a stretch of water; then the figure of a prostitute; the corner of a temple, a soldier; a chariot with two white horses, prancing’, then he faints.

Part two – the Seven Deadly Sins

Out of the darkness comes the Devil, like a huge vampire bat, and under its wings are suckling the Seven Deadly Sins. It is a disappointment, then, that this ominous creature doesn’t speak. Instead Anthony hallucinates that his mat is a boat, rocking on a river, floating past the temple of Serapis.

Papyrus-leaves and the red flowers of the nymphæa, larger than the body of a man, bend over him. He is lying at the bottom of the boat; one oar at the stem, drags in the water. From time to time, a lukewarm wind blows; and the slender reeds rub one against the other, and rustle. Then the sobbing of the wavelets becomes indistinct. A heavy drowsiness falls upon him. He dreams that he is a Solitary of Egypt.

I like passages like this, clips or little scenelets of vivid description. When Anthony wakes the Devil has, apparently, disappeared – very disappointing. Anthony finds a husk of bread and his jug empty and this prompts a vivid hallucination of a great banqueting table set for a feast, replete with intoxicating sights and smells.

Then many things appear which he has never seen before – black hashes, jellies, the colour of gold, ragouts in which mushrooms float like nenuphars upon ponds, dishes of whipped cream light as clouds.

It was only the notes which explained to me that what now follows is a sequence in which Anthony hallucinates each of the Seven Deadly Sins in turn. This one represented the Sin of Gluttony. As in a hallucination the food morphs into lips and then into one loaf on a table which now stretches to right in front of his face. He pushes it away and it vanishes.

Then Anthony stumbles over something underfoot, which turns into money, lots of money, a crown, precious jewels.

As water streams overflowing from the basin of a fountain, so diamonds, carbuncles, and sapphires, all mingled with broad pieces of gold bearing the effigies of Kings, overflow from the cup in never ceasing streams, to form a glittering hillock upon the sand…

It is the Sin of Avarice. As he throws himself upon the pile it vanishes. He trembles in the knowledge that, had he died in the middle of succumbing to any of these temptations, he would have gone to hell.

Now the scene completely changes and Anthony thinks he sees a panoramic overview of the city of Alexandria. In style this is identical to the numerous panoramic overviews of Carthage which Flaubert gave us in Salammbô. He sees crowds of vengeful monks pouring through the streets, seeking out their heretical opponents, the Arians, and then Anthony suddenly sees himself to be one of them, bursting into the houses of the heretics, burning their books, torturing and eviscerating them, wading up to his knees in the heretics’ blood!

And the blood gushes to the ceilings, falls back upon the walls like sheets of rain, streams from the trunks of decapitated corpses, fills the aqueducts, forms huge red pools upon the ground. Anthony is up to his knees in it. He wades in it; he sucks up the blood-spray on his lips; he is thrilled with joy as he feels it upon his limbs, under his hair-tunic which is soaked through with it.

This is the Sin of Wrath.

Next the scene morphs to a Roman city (which I deduce is the newish capital of the Roman Empire, Constantinople) and Anthony finds himself ushered through countless rooms in a grand palace, past armed guards to arrive in the presence of the Emperor. This painted, dazzling personage treats him as an equal, discusses politics and religion with him and places his imperial diadem on Anthony’s brow. He is taken out into the balcony overlooking the Hippodrome where the great chariot races are held, walking past prison cells in which are imprisoned his theological enemies, the Arians, grovelling and begging hur hur hur. The Sin of Pride.

Then the scene morphs into the throne room of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon 600 BC, a long banqueting table, and crawling in the dirt all the kings Nebuchadnezzar has defeated, whose hands and feet have been cut off. A little way off sit the king’s brothers, all of whom have been blinded. As in Salammbô the reader becomes aware of Flaubert’s oppressive interest in sadism and cruelty. Anthony enters the mind of the king of kings and is immediately drenched in feelings of lust and cruelty. He climbs on the table and bellows like a bull and then…

Comes to himself. He is alone in front of his hut. He picks up his whip and flagellates himself, enjoying the pain, the tearing of his rebellious flesh, whereupon…

He sees men riding on onagers (a kind of Asiatic wild ass) and then a procession of camels and horses and then a white elephant with a golden net and waving peacock feathers, which bears the Queen of Sheba. The elephant kneels, the queen slides down its trunk onto a precious carpet laid out by her slaves and she greets Anthony. As with Salammbô, there is in these scenes an excess of description over psychology or character.

Her robe of gold brocade, regularly divided by furbelows of pearls, of jet, and of sapphires, sheaths her figure closely with its tight-fitting bodice, set off by coloured designs representing the twelve signs of the Zodiac.

She wears very high pattens – one of which is black, and sprinkled with silver stars, with a moon crescent; the other, which is white, is sprinkled with a spray of gold, with a golden sun in the middle. Her wide sleeves, decorated with emeralds and bird-plumes, leave exposed her little round bare arms, clasped at the wrist by ebony bracelets; and her hands, loaded with precious rings, are terminated by nails so sharply pointed that the ends of her fingers seem almost like needles.

A chain of dead gold, passing under her chin, is caught up on either side of her face, and spirally coiled about her coiffure, whence, redescending, it grazes her shoulders and is attached upon her bosom to a diamond scorpion, which protrudes a jewelled tongue between her breasts. Two immense blond pearls depend heavily from her ears. The borders of her eyelids are painted black.

And she claims they have been searching the wilderness for him and, now they have found him, she will marry him and worship him and anoint him and caress him. There is a great deal of Miltonic description of the riches and luxuries from far-flung exotic places which she can offer him, but then it focuses down to the pleasure of her body, which sums up a whole world of desire. The Sin of Lust.

I am not a woman: I am a world!

But Anthony stands firm and after flirting with him some more, she turns on her heel, remounts her elephant and departs along with all her servants, laughing, mocking him.

Part three – Hilarion (11 pages)

A small child appears. Going up to him Anthony recognises the face of his one-time disciple, Hilarion, long since departed for Palestine. This phantasmal Hilarion sets about systematically undermining Anthony’s faith:

  • he criticises Anthony’s teacher, Athanasius, pointing out his theological errors
  • he says Anthony’s mortification is pointless since many heretics do just the same
  • Jesus went cheerfully about his ministry, mixing with people, talking, teaching, unlike misanthropic Anthony
  • when Anthony points to the Scriptures as the basis of faith, Hilarion immediately rattles off a list of the inconsistencies in the Gospel accounts of Jesus
The Temptation of St. Anthony by David Teniers the Younger (1647)

The Temptation of St. Anthony by David Teniers the Younger (1647)

Part four – the Heresiarchs and the circus victims (60 pages)

The heresiarchs Hilarion ushers Anthony into a vast basilica full of people who turn out to be a collection of all the founders of heresies, all the rival theologians and preachers and mystic, the Gnostics and neo-Platonics and religious thinkers, of his time. This is quite a long list and, as most of them only get a sentence or so designed to baffle and demoralise Anthony, it is very difficult from Flaubert’s text alone to properly understand their deviant beliefs.

After all these years I still recommend Paul Johnson’s excellent History of Christianity (1977), whose long second chapter is devoted to a detailed exposition of the Christian heresies which exploded around the Mediterranean and caused outrage, riots and even wars (when different candidates for emperor adopted opposing theologies) until well into the 8th century.

Thus Anthony meets in quick succession the heresiarchs Mani, Saturninus, Cerdo, St Clement of Alexandria, Bardesanes, the Herbians, the Priscillianists, Valentine, Origen, the Elkhasaites, the Carpocratians, the Nicolaitans, the Marcosians, the Helvidians, the Messalians, the Paternians, Aetius, Tertullian, Priscilla, Maximilla, Montanus, the Archontics, the Tatianians, the Valesians, the Cainites, the Circumcellions, Arius. Pandemonium breaks out:

The Audians shoot arrows against the Devil; the Collyridians throw blue cloths toward the roof; the Ascites prostrate themselves before a waterskin; the Marcionites baptise a dead man with oil. A woman, standing near Appelles, exhibits a round loaf within a bottle, in order the better to explain her idea. Another, standing in the midst of an assembly of Sampseans distributes, as a sacrament, the dust of her own sandals. Upon the rose-strewn bed of the Marcosians, two lovers embrace. The Circumcellionites slaughter one another; the Valesians utter the death-rattle; Bardesanes sings; Carpocras dances; Maximilla and Priscilla moan; and the false prophetess of Cappadocia, completely naked, leaning upon a lion, and brandishing three torches, shrieks the Terrible Invocation.

As you can see, this glorified list is more a goldmine for editors and annotators than any kind of pleasure for readers. Indeed, the Penguin edition has 47 pages of notes giving you fascinating facts on almost every one of the characters and places mentioned in the text. But if you read it as text alone, all these names quickly blur.

This long section about heretics makes clearer than ever the fact that Flaubert has the mentality of an encyclopedist, a compiler of dictionaries. He boasted to friends about the hundreds of history books he read as research for both Salammbô and Anthony and boy does it show.

Flaubert cuts and pastes together the results to produce scenes packed with exotic names, but almost always without any life or psychology and, as here, disappointingly uninformative. The controversies about the precise meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion which racked the early church are riveting because there was so much to play for; they were political as well as theological arguments, because different sects seized control of entire Roman provinces, Roman emperors disinherited their own children or fought opponents because they espoused divergent beliefs.

Flaubert manages to drain this exciting and complex historical and theological subject of all interest and turn it into a procession of cardboard mouthpieces, who all sound the same.

Following Arius, the chapter continues with a paragraph or so from: Sabellius, the Valentinians, the Sethians, the Theodotians, the Merinthians, the Apollinarists, Marcellus of Ancyra, Pope Calixtus, Methodius, Cerinthus, Paul of Samosata, Hermogenes, the Cerinthians, the Marcosians, the Encratites, the Cainites, the Old Ebionites, Eusebius of Caesarea, Marcellina…

The ceremony of the Orphites Anthony is then taken through a door into a dark shrine where he witnesses a ceremony of the Orphites, who worshipped the snake, the serpent in the Eden story, believing it to be the true saviour. Their chanting awakens a monstrously huge python which they handle and twine around themselves as they hold a blasphemous eucharist.

Christians being thrown to the lions Exhausted with horror at the sheer number of heresies, Anthony falls to the floor and is immediately back in the dust in front of his humble hut. Time passes and a new hallucination begins. He is in a dark room, a prison cell, among other wretches. Outside it is sunny, he hears the roar of a crowd, the sound of lions and has a vision of the arena, tier after tier of seats. He is among Christians about to be thrown to the lions.

Various characters explain why they’re there (interrupting pagan rites, burning down temples, refusing to worship pagan gods) and explore their plight: an Old Man lamenting he didn’t escape, a Young Man bewailing the lost years, a Consoler saying a miracle might happen. The idea (apparently) is to disillusion Anthony by showing him the mean motives, the backsliding and lack of faith of the so-called ‘martyrs’. The portcullis on the other side of the arena opens and out lope lazy lions, panthers, leopards, and then the martyrs’ door opens and the gaoler whips the weeping Christians out into the sand…

In the cemetery And Anthony awakes, dazed, looks around him, then.. falls into another dream. He is in a cemetery where he meets veiled women lamenting the deaths of their husbands, sons or how they themselves were condemned as Christians and persecuted, and then… as they bow and pray together, eat together, their robes slip open and their mouths join and.. I think they have an orgy – presumably the Devil’s intention is to show him the lack of faith and the easy lasciviousness of the widows of the faithful. This scene fades out and…

The Hindu sage Anthony is at the edge of a tropical forest, with parrots and lizards. On a pyre squats a shrivelled man wearing a necklace of shells and with a bird’s nest built in his long matted hair. He is ‘the Gymnosophist’, a Hindu sage. This wizened figure repeats basic Hindu teachings about reincarnation, about striving to reach purity so as not to fall into corruption. Then his pyre bursts into flames and he is burnt alive without a sound.

Simon Magus and Helen of Troy Anthony tramples out the flames and it is dark again. Then through a cleft in the rocks comes a voice followed by a white-haired old man leading a young girl with bite marks on her face and bruises on her arm. It emerges that he is Simon Magus, a magician of the first century mentioned in the Gospels. He claims to be the reincarnation of God and that the woman with him is his ‘First Thought’ or Ennoia, who has been reincarnated through the ages, at one point in the body of the legendary Helen of Troy, before he rescued from her work in a brothel in Tyre. Simon shakes the pot he’s carrying which has a live flame at the top, but the flame shivers and goes out and a great smoke or fog fills the stage.

Apollonius of Tyana Anthony stumbles though the fog to discover Simon and Helen are gone. Now through the fog come a pair of men, one tall and lordly like Christ, the other a short servant. It is Apollonius of Tyana, the sage or thaumaturge, and his servant Dimas. Apollonius declaims grandly. As so often with Flaubert, the reader gets the sense that the author is more interested, intoxicated even, by lists of grand, exotic-sounding and remote peoples and places – than by any kind of sense or logic. Thus Apollonius:

I have conversed with the Samaneans of the Ganges, with the astrologers of Chaldea, with the magi of Babylon, with the Gaulish Druids, with the priests of the negroes! I have ascended the fourteen Olympii; I have sounded the Scythian lakes; I have measured the breadth of the Desert!…

But first I had visited the Hyrcanian Sea; I made the tour of it; and descending by way of the country of the Baraomati, where Bucephalus is buried, I approached the city of Nineveh….

At Taxilla, the capital of five thousand fortresses, Phraortes, King of the Ganges, showed us his guard of black men, whose stature was five cubits, and under a pavilion of green brocade in his gardens, an enormous elephant, which the queens amused themselves by perfuming. It was the elephant of Porus which had taken flight after the death of Alexander….

Upon the shores of the sea we met with the milk-gorged Cynocephali, who were returning from their expedition to the Island Taprobana…

So we returned through the Region of Aromatics, by way of the country of the Gangarides, the promontory of Comaria, the country of the Sachalites, of the Adramites and of the Homerites; then, across the Cassanian mountains, the Red Sea, and the Island Topazos, we penetrated into Ethiopia through the country of the Pygmies…

I have penetrated into the cave of Trophonius, son of Apollo! I have kneaded for Syracusan women the cakes which they carry to the mountains. I have endured the eighty tests of Mithra! I have pressed to my heart the serpent of Sabasius! I have received the scarf of Kabiri! I have laved Cybele in the waters of the Campanian gulfs! and I have passed three moons in the caverns of Samothracia!

And so on. There is not a trace of drama, character, psychology, theology or philosophy in sight. This is quite transparently just a litany of resonant names. Apollonius and Dimas step backwards off a cliff and remain suspended in the air, like Coyote in the Roadrunner cartoons, before ascending slowly into the black night sky.

The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Félicien Rops (1878)

The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Félicien Rops (1878)

Part five – the pagan gods and goddesses (42 pages)

Another long chapter in which Anthony meets what amounts to a list of all the pagan gods and goddesses, each of them given – as we’ve become used to – a few sentences or a paragraph in which to show off Flaubert’s erudition and wide reading, before handing on to the next one.

In fact it starts off with a parade of pre-pagan gods, the blocks of wood or stone which original humans worshipped. Anthony and Hilarion mock the stupidity of the men who worshiped these clods. Then detours (unexpectedly) to a quick review of the original Hindu gods and of the Buddha, who tells the story of his life. The purpose of this temptation is that, as each of these entities tells its story, Hilarion (like a mini-devil) chips in to point out that this or that aspect of their worship is really no different from Christian belief or practice; it is designed to erode Christianity’s claims to uniqueness.

We have appearances from the Buddha, Oanna (of the Chaldeans), the gods of ancient Babylon and their temple prostitutes, Ormuz god of the Persians, the Great Diana of Ephesus with her three rows of breasts.

Cybele’s priests sacrifice a sheep and spatter Anthony and Hilarion with the blood, Atys who in a frenzy castrates himself as do his priests, we see the funeral of Adonis, killed by the boar, and the lamentation of Persephone, Isis suckling her babe and lamenting the death and dismemberment of Osiris.

Anthony is racked with sadness that so many souls have been lost worshiping these false gods; but sly Hilarion points out that so many aspects of the gods or their worship echo the True Religion, seeking to undermine Anthony’s belief.

Now he and Anthony see a vast mountain with Olympus on its height and witness the pantheon of Greek gods, one by one lamenting their decline and fall: Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, Hercules, Pluto, Neptune, Mars, Vulcan, one by one they lament the loss of their powers and the end of their worship, before going tumbling down into a black abyss.

The lament of Osiris for her lost lover, and the sorrow of the Greek gods are the only pages in the book which I found moving enough to reread and savour. In it we can hear the voice of Flaubert, who from his schooldays believed he lived in a fallen world of stupidity and vulgarity. Hence the words he puts into dying Jupiter’s mouth:

‘Eagle of apotheoses, what wind from Erebus has wafted thee to me? or, fleeing from the Campus Martins, dost thou bear me the soul of the last of the Emperors? – I no longer desire to receive those of men. Let the Earth keep them; and let them move upon the level of its baseness. Their hearts are now the hearts of slaves; – they forget injuries, forget their ancestors, forget their oaths – and everywhere the mob’s imbecility, the mediocrity of individuals, the hideousness of every race, hold sway!

Latterly go the household gods, those minor deities who gave grace and dignity to all aspects of daily life in ancient Rome, who laid the bride in her bed, tended at childbirth, at sickness, at feasts, during illness. All scorned, ignored and gone. Finally – surprisingly – a page is devoted to Jehovah, the god of the Old Testament, himself rejected and abused, his followers – the Jews – scorned and scattered over the earth.

It was a struggle to read the previous chapters, but these long laments of the dying pagan gods and the imaginative grace and nobility they brought to everyday life is, I think, genuinely moving. For the first time the text stirred, for me, as actual literature instead of a list of gaudy names.

Part six – the Devil (8 pages)

Hilarion gives way to the Devil himself who chucks Anthony onto his horns and carries him up, up and away, through the sky, into space, up to the moon, beyond the solar system, into the realm of the stars, all the time explaining a) that the universe is infinite, nothing like the earth-centred structure of the ancient Greeks or Jews b) while giving him a compelling lecture on theology (the only theology in the text), explaining in a dry logical, professorial manner the unbounded infinitude and one substance of God.

God has no imperfections, God has no passions, God doesn’t worry or fret about his creatures, he is vastly beyond the momentary whims of man, his is as extended, infinite and integral as the universe. BUT the corollary of this is that He doesn’t listen to prayers and hear the sobs and hopes of his countless creations. He is infinitely remote, completely Perfect, utterly indifferent. (According to the notes, this is a summary of the philosophical pantheism of Spinoza.)

The point is that the Devil’s fluent and vast philosophising leads up to the terrifyingly logical conclusion:

Adore me, then! – and curse the phantom thou callest God!

On some instinct Anthony, despite being overwhelmed by this vision of the universe and the Devil’s compelling logic, lifts his eyes as if to pray. The Devil drops him in disgust.

Part seven (20 pages)

Anthony regains consciousness by the cliff edge. It crosses his mind to end it all by simply rolling over it and falling to his death. This final chapter is in three parts:

1. He is approached by a wizened old woman and a nubile young woman. One argues the case for suicide, the other urges him to embrace life. Slowly it becomes clear they are Death and Lust, respectively. He dismisses them and is confronted by:

2. The Chimera and the Sphinx. The former attracts men towards pointless delusions, the latter devours seekers after God. They squabble and argue until the Sphinx sinks into the sand and the Chimaera goes swooping off in pointless circles.

3. Their argument morphs into the most genuinely surreal and hallucinatory section in the text, where Flaubert creates a parade of the strangest creatures or human-beasts he has come across in all his reading of myths and legends. These include:

  • the Astomi, humans who are completely transparent
  • the Nisnas, who have only one eye, one cheek, one hand, one leg, half a body, half a heart
  • the Blemmyes who have no head at all
  • the Pygmies
  • the Sciapods, who live with their heads and bodies in the earth, only the soles of their feet and legs showing
  • the Cynocephali, men with the heads of dogs who fly through trees in great forests,
  • the Sadhuzag, who has seventy-four antlers which the wind blows through to make beautiful sounds
  • the Martichoras, a gigantic red lion, with human face, and three rows of teeth
  • the Catoblepas, a black buffalo with a pig’s head, falling to the ground, and attached to his shoulders by a neck long, thin, and flaccid as an empty gut
  • the Basilisk, a great violet serpent, with trilobate crest, and two fangs, one above, one below
  • the Griffin, a lion with a vulture’s beak, and white wings, red paws and blue neck

And then there is a terrifying outpouring of Life in a profusion of forms:

And all manner of frightful creatures arise: – The Tragelaphus, half deer, half ox; the Myrmecoles, lion before and ant behind, whose genitals are set reversely; the python Askar, sixty cubits long, that terrified Moses; the huge weasel Pastinaca, that kills the trees with her odour; the Presteros, that makes those who touch it imbecile; the Mirag, a horned hare, that dwells in the islands of the sea. The leopard Phalmant bursts his belly by roaring; the triple-headed bear Senad tears her young by licking them with her tongue; the dog Cepus pours out the blue milk of her teats upon the rocks.

Mosquitoes begin to hum, toads commence to leap; serpents hiss. Lightnings flicker. Hail falls.
Then come gusts, bearing with them marvellous anatomies: – Heads of alligators with hoofs of deer; owls with serpent tails; swine with tiger-muzzles; goats with the crupper of an ass; frogs hairy as bears; chameleons huge as hippopotami; calves with two heads, one bellowing, the other weeping; winged bellies flitting hither and thither like gnats.

They rain from the sky, they rise from the earth, they pour from the rocks; everywhere eyes flame, mouths roar, breasts bulge, claws are extended, teeth gnash, flesh clacks against flesh. Some crouch; some devour each other at a mouthful.

Suffocating under their own numbers, multiplying by their own contact, they climb over one another; and move about Anthony with a surging motion as though the ground were the deck of a ship. He feels the trail of snails upon the calves of his legs, the chilliness of vipers upon his hands: – and spiders spinning about him enclose him within their network.

Finally, in this endless chain of evolutions and transformations, animals turn into insects, flowers turn into rocks, beasts turn to crystal, ice pullulates with life, it is a wild hallucination of the pantheistic vision of life in all things

And now the vegetables are no longer distinguishable from the animals. Polyparies that seem like trees, have arms upon their branches. Anthony thinks he sees a caterpillar between two leaves: it is a butterfly that takes flight. He is about to step on a pebble: a grey locust leaps away. One shrub is bedecked with insects that look like petals of roses; fragments of ephemerides form a snowy layer upon the soil.

And then the plants become confounded with the stones. Flints assume the likeness of brains; stalactites of breasts; the flower of iron resembles a figured tapestry.

He sees efflorescences in fragments of ice, imprints of shrubs and shells—yet so that one cannot detect whether they be imprints only, or the things themselves. Diamonds gleam like eyes; metals palpitate.

His vision narrows right down onto ants, onto the tiniest creatures, onto organisms no bigger than pinheads, furred with cilia and quivering with primordial life. Anthony has seen the origins of life and evolution in reverse, and he bursts out:

‘O joy! O bliss! I have beheld the birth of life! I have seen the beginning of motion! My pulses throb even to the point of bursting! I long to fly, to swim, to bark, to bellow, to howl! Would that I had wings, a carapace, a shell – that I could breathe out smoke, wield a trunk – make my body writhe – divide myself everywhere – be in everything – emanate with odours – develop myself like the plants – flow like water – vibrate like sound – shine like light, squatting upon all forms – penetrate each atom – descend to the very bottom of matter – be matter itself!

And then:

Day at last appears, and, like the raised curtains of a tabernacle, golden clouds furling into larger scrolls unveil the sky.

There in the middle, inside the very disk of the sun, radiates the face of Jesus Christ.

Anthony makes the sign of the cross and returns to his prayers.

Conclusion

Now, either Anthony has learned something definitive in the course of this long, busy night, and Flaubert intends this final outcry, apparently in praise of a kind of pantheistic materialism, as the climax and ‘message’ of the piece (which is very much how it feels when you read it)…

Or the ending has a more pessimistic meaning: namely that the return to his prayers signals a return to the same rut, the same wheel, and that the next night the whole thing will repeat itself all over again. I.e. he is caught like a Beckett character in an endless, pointless cycle of torment and fake wisdom.

I could see that both of these are possibilities but I am happy to leave my reading of the ending completely open because I was just so relieved to get to the end of this long, dense, almost unreadable fantasia of cuttings and notes transmuted into a bizarre sequence of sometimes unbearably tedious scenes.

The only moving part of the whole book is the Lament of the Pagan Gods – where the scenario of each of the gods in turn lamenting the decline of their worship and the end of their influence for once was adequate to the feeling of world sadness Flaubert is obviously aiming at.

Also, the final few pages, the almost hysterical hallucination of the very origins of life, are also head-spinningly delirious. But most if it felt like I was at the dentist having a filling.

The Temptation of St. Anthony by Salvador Dali (1946)

The Temptation of St. Anthony by Salvador Dali (1946)


Related links

Flaubert’s books

Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert (1869)

This is Flaubert’s third novel, and in fact it’s the last one he finished, if we categorise his fourth book, the temptation of Saint Anthony, as a theological fantasia rather than a novel.

With the previous two novels, Flaubert had established a reputation as a highly literary writer, becoming famous for his meticulously detailed realism. He had also gained a reputation for ‘immorality’: Emma Bovary, the heroine of his first book is shown progressing – or declining – from shy convent schoolgirl, through dissatisfied wife, to reluctant seducee and then seasoned and cynical adulterer. But Emma’s small-town tragedy was eclipsed by the astonishing violence and exotically sensual atmosphere of his second book, Salammbô, a historical novel describing in loving detail the stupefying cruelties of 3rd century BC Carthage.

A consequence of Flaubert’s meticulous craftsmanship was that he took a very long time writing each of his books, sometimes spending a whole day crafting a sentence, searching, as he put it, for le mot juste – for just the right word to create the effect he wanted. There was a seven-year gap between Salammbô and this third work – plenty of time for critics and readers alike to wonder which course he would follow – another realistic tale of contemporary French life, or another oriental phantasmagoria.

In the event it was the former. Sentimental Education is sub-titled ‘The history of a young man’ and that is exactly what it is, the story of a young Frenchman’s emotional, intellectual and social development in the years 1840 to 1851.

Among Flaubert’s entertaining and very readable correspondence, are a number of places where he explains his aim in the book. To one one correspondent he wrote that:

I want to write the moral history of the men of my generation – or, more accurately, the history of their feelings. It’s a book about love, about passion; but passion such as can exist nowadays – that is to say, inactive.

The guiding idea is that the young hero is a romantic, who wants to have a pure and romantic love – but he lives in a ‘fallen’, ‘bourgeois’, business-minded age, an age which cannot sustain him or his dreamy ideals, in which his ‘ideals’ seem to be hopelessly frustrated and compromised and he himself eventually becomes – as we shall see – cynical and manipulative.

Now whether this is the fault of the age, with its ‘bourgeois’ values, or of the protagonist for being such a naive fool, is left for the reader to decide.

The plot

Sentimental Education is divided into three parts, is very long (420 pages in the Penguin paperback version which I read) and exceedingly complicated. My summary is consciously as rambling as the plot itself i.e. I haven’t tried to simplify and regularise it; as a reader I found the book often baffling and sometimes incomprehensible.

Part one

We meet the hero, young Frédéric Moreau, in 1840 when he is an eighteen-year-old student, come from his home in Normandy to study law in Paris. The core of the plot is his enduring love for an older married woman, the wife of the art dealer Jacques Arnoux, who he sees on the Paris-to-Normandy river boat (along the river Seine) and spends the rest of the novel pursuing.

All this is completely autobiographical – Flaubert himself hailed from Normandy (his father was a surgeon), he studied law in Paris and he fell in love with an older married woman, like his hero. Looking back at his romantic younger self, Flaubert gives Frédéric numerous flights of romantic reverie, indulging what was obviously his own early lyrical sensibility. But the older Flaubert is much more world-weary, cynical and pessimistic, a tone which is prevalent in the third person narrative, and above all in the course of events, and the cynical outcomes of almost all the characters.

More interesting than the character of Moreau himself is the network of acquaintances Flaubert creates around him to convey the Parisian artistic and intellectual life of his generation. The art dealer Arnoux is depicted as a crook, inciting artists to paint meretricious works for money and ripping them off in all kinds of dodgy deals. He runs a magazine, L’Art Industriel, and every Wednesday he holds open house for painters, critics, writers, composers and so on to come round and chat. Moreau bumps into the young joker Hussonet and via him worms his way into becoming a regular at these open days, with the sole view of talking to Madame Arnoux who, however, rarely appears.

Meanwhile, his old schoolfriend from back in Nogent, Charles Deslauriers, turns up in Paris to study law and the pair share rooms, drinks, jokes. Frédéric organises a Saturday soirée for his friends. In one or other of these settings, we meet the following characters and follow their endless arguments about art and politics. It turns out to be necessary to really get to know them since they all reappear over the course of the next 12 years or so, playing key roles in the complex personal story, and background political developments, of the age.

  • Baptiste Martinon, law student
  • Marquis de Cisy, nobleman and law student
  • Sénécal, math tutor and uncompromising Republican
  • Hussonet, journalist, drama critic and joker
  • Dussardier, a simple shopworker who Moreau and Hussonet help after he’s wrongfully arrested for assaulting a policeman
  • Regimbart, ‘The Citizen’, a fiercely doctrinaire revolutionary
  • Pellerin, a painter with more theories than talent
  • Madamoiselle Vatnaz, actress, courtesan, frustrated feminist

The ‘plot’ i.e. the tangled sequence of events over the next 11 years (1840 to 1851) involves the appearance, disappearance and reappearance of all these characters, shedding light on their changes and developments, generally in a pessimistic downwards direction. For example, Frédéric’s childhood friend Deslaurier fails as a lawyer and would-be politician, turning to journalism where he writes scurrilous pieces for other papers and nags Frédéric to loan him the money to set up his own.

Whenever there is political turbulence, we can be sure of hearing about Sénécal and Regimbart, who, in different ways, rage against the ruling classes and the king. Over the eleven years they follow drastically different courses, Regimbart becoming a monosyllabic drunk, Sénécal  undergoing a complete volte-face to become a violent reactionary.

Pellerin is a broadly comic character, reminiscent of Homais in Bovary, in that he is mechanically predictable: whenever we meet him he is in thrall to yet another theory of art, changing his allegiance from Michelangelo to Titian to Velasquez and so on, never achieving anything, always complaining.

The plot is complex and multi-layered, but two key elements are Frédéric’s love life and his career (both ill-fated).

Love life (1)

Frédéric sees Madame Arnoux on the boat to Nogent and it is love at first sight. He inveigles his way into Monsieur Arnoux’s confidences with the sole purpose of seeing more of Madame. However, he finds himself being taken up by the cheery, good-natured Arnoux himself and initiated into the fact that Arnoux keeps a mistress in a set of rooms. Arnoux takes him there, and Frédéric meets the rather bony, dry, sharp Madamoiselle Vatnaz.

This adulterous relationship of Arnoux’s is one of the revelations of a Big Night out, when almost all the Parisian characters go to the opening of a new cabaret, the Alhambra. In a scene which is very filmic, they encounter each other in different rooms, drink, gamble, bump into each other later in the evening, are introduced to girlfriends, mistresses and courtesans and so on.

Career

As she sends him off to Paris, his loving mother hopes that Frédéric will work hard at his law studies, become a lawyer, stand as a deputy to the National Assembly and become a minister. Needless to say, none of this happens. Frédéric fritters away his money and his time on pointless love affairs, and looks every possibly gift horse in the mouth. After getting into the arty set around Arnoux’s magazine, he decides to become a painter (cue comic advice from the inept painter Pellerin). Later, Frédéric thinks he might become a journalist. In actual fact he ends up becoming a well-heeled wastrel. This becomes increasingly frustrating for the reader, and by about page 300 I really wanted to give Frédéric a good slap and tell him to sort his life out.

Right from the start Frédéric is advised by Frédéric’s mother’s friend Roque to go and contact a high society banker, Monsieur Dambreuse, to whom he is given a letter of introduction. Over the next 300 pages Frédéric only occasionally goes to see Dambreuse who: offers him the low-down on buying share in a new company which is bound to succeed – distracted by yet another love visit somewhere, Frédéric fails to do this. Then Dambreuse offers to make Frédéric secretary in the new company, in exchange for him purchasing shares: again Frédéric misses this opportunity because he just has to go and visit Madame Arnoux (yet again).

The most unaccountable stupidity is when, after being rejected by Madame Arnoux, Frédéric returns to his mother’s house in rural Nogent, and discovers that the little girl next door who he used to play with, the daughter of his mother’s neighbour, old Roque, has blossomed into the lovely young woman, Louise. They immediately get on well and it becomes clear that Louise is infatuated with him. The parents, of course, are totally informed and approve the match, Frédéric’s mother because old Roque is loaded and, if he marries Louise, Frédéric will inherit all his money – old Roque because he wants his daughter to gain a title and buried deep in Madame Moreau’s past is, in fact, a landed title, which Frédéric could revive.

Louise and Frédéric become so close that they are allowed to walk out together, the Nogent community is informed that they are engaged, and they themselves expect to marry. This goes on for some time, maybe a year, until Frédéric wakes up one fine day to find that a distant uncle – uncle Barthelemy – has died and left him a substantial fortune in property, from which he will be able to extract a very comfortable annual income.

This goes straight to his head and he tells his mother and Louise that he must go back to Paris to make his Great Career. Off he goes, hires himself an enormous apartment, decorates it in the finest fashion, hires a showy carriage and servant, and generally behave like a shallow idiot. What does he do with his position? Does he make careful plans to further his career by, for example, re-contacting the rich Dambreuse? No. He plunges back into the pointless vortex of love affairs and mistresses.

What is incomprehensible to me is that, after Frédéric returns to Paris, he promptly forgets all about Louise who is not mentioned for the next two hundred pages while Frédéric falls back into the same mind-numbingly boring routine of carrying a torch for Madame Arnoux, visiting the Arnoux household, getting caught up with Arnoux’s mistress, and so on.

Love life 2

Back in Paris Frédéric discovers that Arnoux has moved. It takes him some trouble to track him down, whereupon he discovers that Arnoux has completely changed career, selling his art magazine and investing in a pottery factory outside Paris. Moreover, he has dumped Mlle Vatnaz and his new lover is one Rosanette, a courtesan.

There is another Big Party scene, a fabulous masked ball. At this point I realised that Flaubert likes Big Set-Piece Scenes. Madame Bovary features a Rural Wedding, the Agricultural Show and a Rural Funeral, all reminiscent of big mid-Victorian panoramic paintings. As befits a novel set in the Big City, Sentimental Education includes similar Set Pieces but with an urban setting – The Cabaret Party in part one and The Masked Ball in part two, both described in loving detail, at length, and opportunities for Flaubert to display his ability with complex scenes featuring numerous characters, all displaying new and unexpected aspects of their personalities and unexpected relationships between each other.

A feature of these scenes, as with the several Big Dinner Parties given by M. Dambreuse, is that the reader is often as confused as Frédéric by the gossip, mutterings, sniggers behind fans, people looking at him with raised eyebrows, and so on. Whatever Frédéric does, social gossip is always one step ahead, and it’s a feature of the book that he’s not only the last one to find out various important facts about other characters, but that Flaubert makes the reader share in Frédéric’s imperceptiveness, his dimness.

Frédéric likes Arnoux’s mistress, Rosanette, and has Pellerin paint him a portrait of her (giving rise to many comic moments highlighting Pellerin’s ineptitude as an artist). His old schoolfriend Deslauriers is resentful of Frédéric’s new wealth and asks 15,000 francs of him to set up a new newspaper. Frédéric listens to the unrealistic proposal for it, but promises the money anyway.

However, just as he receives the money from his own solicitor, Arnoux comes bustling round to his apartment to tell him that he desperately needs about 12,000 francs as he is about to be declared bankrupt: just for a week, two at the most. Still obsessed with his ‘love’ for M. Arnoux, in the vague hope that by helping the husband he will get ‘closer’ to the wife, Frédéric gives Arnoux the money, and then has to make up some excuse for letting down Deslaurier who, not surprisingly, is bitterly disappointed. Frédéric himself is then let down when cheery Arnoux is unable to repay him next week, or the week after and, as the months go by, Frédéric realises that the money is lost.

Frédéric begins pursuing Rosanette in earnest and takes her to the races, but she goes home with a man named Cisy. At dinner one night at Cisy’s opulent home, Cisy reveals that he had gone home with Rosanette to win a bet. The guests talk about Arnoux and lewdly suggest that Madame Arnoux has been a mistress to many men. Frédéric throws a plate at Cisy, and the argument escalates. The men agree to a duel and Flaubert depicts the formalities of such an event in painstaking detail – but on the appointed day, Cisy faints and the whole thing – symbolic of all the romantic dreams which fizzle out in sordid disappointment – is a damp squib.

Thinking of money has raised the spectre of working with or for Dambreuse, who Frédéric goes to meet and who offers him job but – Frédéric fails to keep the appointment they make to discuss it in detail, because he hears that Arnoux’s fortunes have taken a turn for the worse and he makes a wild goose chase visit out to the factory in the country outside Paris to see Madame Arnoux – again. The journey, the countryside and the factory are all interestingly described, but I really want to shake Moreau and tell him to grow up.

Frédéric hesitatingly makes his feelings clear to Madame Arnoux who brushes him off with very sensible nostrums about how duty comes first and brief affairs never lead to happiness. Rebuffed, Frédéric goes straight back into Paris and to the apartment of Rosanette, who he has fancied since he met her. Only after he’s left, does Madame Arnoux have an epiphany and realise that she does love Frédéric.

The Rosanette connection becomes more and more complex in the final third of the novel, because Frédéric discovers that, as well as Arnoux as a lover, Rosanette has for some time had an elderly ‘sponsor’, M. Oudry. Later, in part three, we discover that she is seeing a rich Russian aristocrat. And then in another twist, Frédéric discovers that she seems to be in love with a pretentious Paris actor, Delmas.

None of this prevents Frédéric pursuing her and eventually having sex with her so that (presumably) she becomes ‘his’ mistress. At some point I had to give up and confess I didn’t understand the ‘love’ story in the novel at all. I don’t understand how Frédéric can be passionately in love with Madame Arnoux and yet dedicate so much time to seducing Rosanette, all the time knowing that Rosanette has been the mistress of his beloved’s husband and continues to see other men, and then in the rural scenes back at Nogent, go walking out with Louise and declare to her that he has never been happier.

It’s not a question of him being a cad or a ‘sexual predator’ as modern usage has it – it is much weirder than that. Throughout the novel I had the sense that Flaubert was describing a set of values and a mindset which I just simply don’t understand.

In the concluding scenes of Part Two Frédéric finally gets Madame Arnoux on her own, without her maid or small children, and there tells her he loves her and – for the very first time – she admits that she loves him too. For some reason there is no kissing or sexual contact at this moment, instead – as in so many of these 19th century fictions – they are left on tenterhooks of love and sensuality but…. make an appointment to meet the next day. The reader can’t help thinking this is a convention created purely and solely to create problems and misunderstandings, as in a bedroom farce.

And sure enough, the next day, Mme Arnoux’s son is seriously ill with croup and so, of course, she doesn’t keep the rendezvous. So Frédéric – thinking he has been jilted – promptly goes round to Rosanette’s place and for the first time really oversteps the bounds of 19th century caution, kissing her, putting his arm round her waist and – we are led to believe – finally having sex with her (the first time he’s done it with anyone, as far as we can tell).

Part three (1)

I am hopelessly confused by the love life aspect of the story. Frédéric knows that Rosanette has been the mistress of his beloved Madame Arnoux’s husband, has been attached to a rich old geezer, Oudry, as well as the rich Russian prince, and discovers that she holds a torch for the Parisian actor and yet still thinks he loves her.

The political scenes come as a relief from the love life because at least I understand their logic. The February 1848 revolution breaks out right at the end of part two, and Frédéric associates the sense of liberation and freedom in the air of Paris with his ‘love’ for Rosanette, who he is now regularly sleeping with.

Part three follows straight o from this, with Frédéric getting caught up in the February street fighting, which is described vividly.

French politics – an interlude

In 1830 France had one of its many revolutions and, in the ‘Three Glorious Days’ of July, overthrew King Charles X, the French Bourbon monarch, and replaced him with his cousin Louis Philippe, Duke of Orléans.

The reign of Louis-Philippe was characterised by a wide range of political factions, who jostled and bickered for the next eighteen years: on the right some dreamed of restoring the legitimate line of Charles X (hence ‘the legitimists’) – the ‘Orleanists’ supported Louis-Philippe himself – some ‘imperialists’ wanted a return to the glory years of Napoleon. In the ‘centre’ were all sorts of middle-class republicans, who thought France would thrive best without a monarchy, although they all disagreed about who ought to lead the government of this hoped-for republic. On the left was a florid assortment of socialists who wanted to see society reorganised for the benefit of the working class, and even the newly-coined term ‘communists’, who wanted the abolition of private property and the inauguration of a completely utopian, propertyless, and so completely equal, society.

There were insurrections and attempted coups against Louis-Philippe in 1832, 1834 and 1839. These disgruntlements are the backdrop to the occasional political arguments among the characters mentioned above. But it was a bad harvest and industrial depression in 1847 which threw both peasants and urban workers out of work, many of them making their way to Paris in search of employment. These men provided the mobs which rose up in February 1848 and marched on the royal palace carrying torches and muskets. Louis-Philippe fled out the back door and made his way to exile in England (as so many continentals did during the 19th century, monarchs and revolutionaries alike). A republic was declared, a Provisional Government cobbled together, and three years of instability and uncertainty followed.

Flaubert captures the confusion, and the violently opposing political opinions, very well, as Frédéric a) sees for himself the fighting on the streets in February b) hears how the cross-section of pals from his soirees back in part one have fared in the disturbances (shot, arrested, imprisoned, hero of the revolution etc).

In a farcical scene Frédéric is encouraged to go along to one of the countless political clubs which have flourished after the revolution, and stand for election as a deputy. Initially greeted as a hero because he had (more or less accidentally) spoken up against Louis-Philippe at a society dinner given by the banker Dambreuse, when he protests about a Spanish ‘comrade’ giving a long speech in Spanish, the fickle crowd turn against him and just as vehemently attack him for being a member of the hated ‘bourgeoisie’. He is forced to make a speedy exit, the whole scene embodying Flaubert’s contempt for ‘the mob’ and for politics in general. ‘Stupid’ and ‘stupidity’ are words which recur in Flaubert’s descriptions both of crowds and mobs, but also of high society with its reactionary clichés and stereotypes.

Months of political uncertainty follow, against which Frédéric finds out that Arnoux is still Rosanette’s lover. He tries to get Rosanette to choose between them, but she refuses and so – sick of politics and her vacillation – Frédéric takes Rosanette on a prolonged holiday in the beautiful countryside surrounding the royal palace at Fontainebleu. This four or five-day trip is described in minute detail, the precise itinerary of each day’s outings, with exactly what part of the forest and landscape they saw, what the light was like, and what they ate that night for dinner.

This is odd, because they are on this holiday precisely during the notorious ‘June Days’, the decisive event of 1848. Under Louis-Philippe, National Workshops had been set up to provide a dole for the large number of unemployed in Paris. After the February revolution the Provisional Government commissioned a report into the future of the Workshops, and the right-wing leader of the committee recommended closing them down to save money.

As soon as these findings leaked out, socialist leaders roused the working classes and barricades went up all over Paris (again). The government asked the newly appointed Minister of War, General Cavaignac, to put down the insurrection, which he did with great bloodshed. As many as 3,000 people were killed in the resulting street fighting and all the socialist leaders were arrested and put in prison. Cavaignac was appointed President of the Council of Ministers, becoming effective dictator, until the presidential elections which were held in December 1848.

Part three (2)

Anyway, Flaubert must get his hero back into the thick of things and so he invents the pretext that Frédéric reads that his long-standing working class friend, Dussardier, has been wounded. Despite Rosanette’s bitter protestations, Frédéric travels back into Paris (itself difficult because the coaches have stopped running) only to be arrested by various members of the suspicious and angry National Guard.

Flaubert vividly conveys the atmosphere of completely random violence and terror created by insurrection and street fighting. Frédéric is locked up in various ad hoc barracks and prisons, before finally convincing someone in authority to let him proceed to Dussardier’s house, where he finds the working class hero being tended by none other than wiry Mlle Vatnaz. Being a good chap – if also, as we know by now, hopelessly indecisive and weak-willed – Frédéric goes back every day for a fortnight to offer help and moral support.

Things move on. Frédéric attends a dinner chez Dambreuse which is fraught with currents and counter-currents, since Monsieur and Madame Arnoux are there and so is Louise, Monsieur Roque’s daughter, the one Frédéric is meant to be engaged to. Maliciously, the other male guests bring up the subject of the portrait Frédéric persuaded Pellerin to do of Rosanette. In a cameo moment earlier in the story, when Frédéric refused to pay for it, Pellerin had displayed it prominently in his window, with a caption proclaiming that Rosanette was Frédéric’s mistress. As the guests remember and discuss this incident, both Mme Arnoux and Louise realise that Frédéric is her lover. Nonetheless, as they all leave the dinner, Louise walks arm in arm with Frédéric, reminding him that they had pledged to get married. Frédéric makes a fool of himself trying to wriggle out of it.

Meanwhile, life with Rosanette is serene and pleasant. He has moved in with her. They tend the window boxes and watch passersby, neither of them needing to work for a living.

But that doesn’t stop Frédéric – upon hearing gossip that Monsieur and Madame Arnoux are becoming estranged – from going straight round to see Madame Arnoux and – finding her alone – blames her for not coming to see him the morning of their rendezvous. She explains that she had stayed at home to tend her ill son. All is forgiven and they declare their undying love for each other, and indulge in a long, lingering kiss. Then they hear a creak of floorboards and look up. Rosanette is standing there. She had followed Frédéric, and got past the front door, any servants, up the stairs and into the room unimpeded. For me this felt like almost any moment from Eastenders or a Whitehall farce. Somehow everyone involved takes it calmly, Rosanette asks Frédéric to come home with her, Madame Arnoux waves goodbye from the top of the stairs.

Back in their apartment, Frédéric has a furious row with Rosanette, accusing her of following him, in the middle of which she reveals that she is pregnant with his child. Eastenders. This argument makes him realise he despises Rosanette. From that point onwards, Frédéric continues to live with her but is increasingly repelled by her commonness and vulgarity. The happy honeymoon in Fontainebleu, the lazy days staring from the sunny balcony, are completely gone.

Whereupon – and this is the kind of turn of events which genuinely mystifies me – Frédéric decides to seduce Mme Dambreuse in order to gain social standing. The Seduction Scene is described in some detail and Frédéric, who is becoming expert at this, is astonished that Madame Dambreuse gives in so quickly, lying back on her sofa with her eyes closed, which is the signal for him to kiss her.

Once this intimacy is established, Frédéric is astonished to discover just how much Madame Dambreuse hates her husband. It turns out (rather inevitably) that he has also had many mistresses, and that the ‘niece’ they have brought up in their household – Cécile, who we’ve met at their parties and dinners – is in fact his love child by one of his mistresses, who Madame D agreed to raise, but loathes. To his astonishment, she asks if he will marry her.

In quick succession, two key events follow: the previously hale and hearty Monsieur Dambreuse falls ill and dies, and Rosanette’s new-born baby dies. (In one of the many aspects of the novel which seem incomprehensible to the modern reader, as soon as the baby was born she had farmed it out to a wet nurse who lived out in the country – why? – and on the one time Frédéric goes to visit he is appalled by the squalor of the hut the baby’s being kept in, the goats wandering round, the animal manure around the building: why?).

During M. Dambreuse’s illness his wife reveals to Frédéric that, what with her own dowry, all her husband’s business interests, she will be worth some three million francs! Given that Frédéric is living very comfortably on about 15,000 francs a year, this obviously represents an absolute fortune and – being the impractical dreamer that he is – Frédéric starts planning extensions to the house, the creation of his own personal library, a bigger, grander carriage, more servants etc.

Monsieur Dambreuse’s funeral is another typically Flaubertian Set-Piece, with great detail about all the practical arrangements, leading into satire on the starchy behaviour of the high society invitees, and then their unbuttoned conversations at the post-funeral reception.

But Frédéric comes round a day or two later to find Madame Dambreuse sitting on the floor surrounded by a sea of documents, safes, folders and papers, crying. Turns out her husband had destroyed the will in which he left everything to her and instead – has left everything to the love child, Cécile. Frédéric’s dreams go up in smoke, but he still pledges his loyalty to her.

From this point onwards, Frédéric secretly splits his time between the two women, spending the afternoon with Rosanette, going to see Madame Dambreuse every evening. He congratulates himself on his cleverness, on using the same phrases, reading the same poetry, with each of the women. He enjoys his own ‘wickedness’.

Money

As in Madame Bovary it is money troubles which trigger the multiple crises and bring the long rambling plot to a climax.

  1. Rosanette is unable to pay off some debts she owes, and when she tries to cash in some shares which Arnoux gave her, discovers that they are worthless. She takes him to court and her suit is a contributory cause of the final collapse of all Arnoux’s financial scams.
  2. We learn from multiple sources that M. Arnoux has finally been overtaken by his financial difficulties and is preparing to flee the country, along with Madame A.

Initially Frédéric hears gossip that M. Arnoux only needs 12,000 or so francs to remain solvent. In fact he hears it from the painter Pellerin, who he and Rosanette (bizarrely) commissioned to paints a portrait of their dead child. Petrified at the thought of losing Madame Arnoux (if she flees Paris), Frédéric asks for money from Mme Dambreuse, making up a cock and bull story about a friend being threatened with prison.

But M. Arnoux’s debts are much bigger than a measly 12,000 francs and by the time Frédéric goes round with the money he discovers they have fled to Le Havre, presumably to flee the country and his debtors.

Madame Dambreuse discovers his motive for borrowing the money and confronts him in a big shouting match. She accuses him of having multiple lovers, which is close enough. Now earlier in the story we had been told how Frédéric’s oldest friend, Deslaurier, had himself made a pass at Madame Arnoux (is seducing each other’s wives and mistresses all these people do?). When she rejected him, he conceived an obdurate hatred for her. As part of his ongoing attempts to ‘get on’ he had then made himself a sort of legal adviser to Monsieur Dambreuse, and then to his widow.

Now, like the serpent in the garden of Eden, Deslauriers spitefully suggests to Madame Dambreuse that she sell some of the debts which Arnoux racked up with her husband on to a debt collector.

She does so, the debt collector acts with typical aggressiveness, and this results in the bailiffs declaring a public auction of all the Arnouxs’ furniture and possessions.

A few days later, on one of her Frédéric’s lazy afternoon coach rides, Madame Dambreuse deliberately makes the driver ride by the auction house and – as if on a whim – insists to Frédéric that they go in.

Frédéric is horrified to realise what is going on – the auction of all Arnoux’s possessions – but is forced to watch as all the intimate belongings of (despite everything) his one true love, are auctioned off – the carpet she tiptoed across, the bed linen she slept in etc.

Madame Dambreuse watches Frédéric’s discomfiture with real upper-class scorn. When a trivial object of Madame Arnoux’s, a silver keepsake, comes up, Madame Dambreuse insists on outbidding everyone else in order to own it. Frédéric begs her not to, to have pity on his heart – but she insists. It is a very powerful scene.

When they finally exit the auction house, Frédéric sees Madame Dambreuse into her grand carriage, shuts the door, bids her adieu and walks away.

It is over. It is all over. His love is dead. His heart is crushed. He hates Madame Dambreuse; there will be no reconciliation. He knows Rosanette has other lovers; their child is dead; he hates her too. And the only woman he ever loved has gone away, he knows not where.

Sick of Paris and its ‘high life’, he retreats like a broken animal to his home territory, catching a train and stage coach back to Nogent. But as he comes closer he hears church bells and – as a in a fairy tale – he arrives at the church just in time to see Louise in a wedding dress exiting the church on the arm of her new husband, none other than his oldest dearest friend, Deslauriers.

Here and there, in the previous hectic fifty pages or so, had been carefully inserted references to Deslaurier’s absence in Nogent. Now we realise (as does Frédéric) that his best friend had been a) badmouthing him to his own mother, Old Roque and Louise, telling everyone about his married mistresses b) working his way into the affections of both Old Roque and Louise c) using Old Roque’s influence to stand as deputy for the whole region – in all of which he succeeded.

Frédéric is crushed. All his hopes lie in tatters. There remains one last, brutal disillusionment. Frédéric returns to Paris and Flaubert engineers a scene whereby Frédéric witnesses a bit more street fighting (the timeline has moved on to 1851 now) and he sees the good simply working class man Dussardier mount a final barricade and be brutally hacked down with a sword by a policeman of the new order, the Second Empire of Napoleon III. And this enemy of the working class is none other than – Frédéric’s old friend, the violent republican Sénécal, who has completed an intellectual volte-face from fire-breathing socialist to murderous imperialist, a flaring symbol of the utter stupid futility of politics.

Coda

The last few pages of the novel are genuinely emotional. Burnt out, abandoned, Frédéric leaves France and goes travelling to lose himself and when he returns, is a broken man.

He travelled.
He knew the melancholy associated with packet-boats, the chill one feels on waking up under tents, the dizzy effect of landscapes and ruins, and the bitterness of ruptured sympathies.
He returned home.
He mingled in society, and he conceived attachments to other women. But the constant recollection of his first love made these appear insipid; and besides the vehemence of desire, the bloom of the sensation had vanished. In like manner, his intellectual ambitions had grown weaker. Years passed; and he was forced to support the burden of a life in which his mind was unoccupied and his heart devoid of energy.

‘Towards the end of March, 1867, just as it was getting dark, one evening, he was sitting all alone in his study, when a woman suddenly came in.’

It is Madame Arnoux. She and her husband are living in obscurity in rural Brittany. She and Frédéric swear their undying love to each other. Maybe their love has survived and meant so much because they were never together. She takes her cap off to cut a lock of her hair for him, and he is stricken to see that her hair has gone completely white. She is an old lady. She leaves. It is the last time they will meet.

In the final final scene, years later, Frédéric encounters Deslauriers again and the novel ends the way it began, with the pair swapping stories of the past. On the final page they decide that their best memory is of being about 16 and trying to sneak into the town brothel in Nogent. Like simpletones they picked nosegays for the girls but, once inside, all the girls laughed at their sweet innocence and, overcome by embarrassment, first Frédéric and then Deslauriers had fled.

Now they sit by the fire, too old men reminiscing and agreeing that, yes, that was probably the happiest moment in their lives.


Paris

Rosy clouds, scarf-like in form, stretched beyond the roofs; the shop-tents were beginning to be taken away; water-carts were letting a shower of spray fall over the dusty pavement; and an unexpected coolness was mingled with emanations from cafés, as one got a glimpse through their open doors, between some silver plate and gilt ware, of flowers in sheaves, which were reflected in the large sheets of glass. The crowd moved on at a leisurely pace. Groups of men were chatting in the middle of the footpath; and women passed along with an indolent expression in their eyes and that camelia tint in their complexions which intense heat imparts to feminine flesh. Something immeasurable in its vastness seemed to pour itself out and enclose the houses. Never had Paris looked so beautiful. He saw nothing before him in the future but an interminable series of years all full of love. (Part one, chapter five)

If Madame Bovary was a portrait of rural France, Sentimental Education, although it includes a few other settings (Frédéric’s home town of Nogent, the Fontainebleu excursion), feels like a portrait of Paris, its streets, its geography, the wide river Seine, its colourful nightlife, and then as a setting for street fighting and revolution.

The two big parties I mentioned are complemented by smaller but still grand affairs – a formal dinner at Monsieur Dambreuse’s, where Frédéric is surprised at how boring and staid the banking-class guests are – a day at the races in the Champs de Mars (where Madame Arnoux sees Frédéric accompanying Rosanette, one of the many small incidents which add complication to the endless bedroom farce of his love life). Here is Frédéric mingling his dopey romantic feelings with the street life of the city.

The dinners were now renewed; and the more visits he paid at Madame Arnoux’s, the more his love-sickness increased. The contemplation of this woman had an enervating effect upon him, like the use of a perfume that is too strong. It penetrated into the very depths of his nature, and became almost a kind of habitual sensation, a new mode of existence.

The prostitutes whom he brushed past under the gaslight, the female ballad-singers breaking into bursts of melody, the ladies rising on horseback at full gallop, the shopkeepers’ wives on foot, the grisettes at their windows, all women brought her before his mental vision, either from the effect of their resemblance to her or the violent contrast to her which they presented. As he walked along by the shops, he gazed at the cashmeres, the laces, and the jewelled eardrops, imagining how they would look draped around her figure, sewn in her corsage, or lighting up her dark hair. In the flower-girls’ baskets the bouquets blossomed for her to choose one as she passed. In the shoemakers’ show-windows the little satin slippers with swan’s-down edges seemed to be waiting for her foot. Every street led towards her house; the hackney-coaches stood in their places to carry her home the more quickly; Paris was associated with her person, and the great city, with all its noises, roared around her like an immense orchestra. (Part one, chapter five)

There are plenty of descriptions of sunrise over Paris, of Paris at twilight, of the fires burning over revolutionary Paris, of the excitement in the air of spring in Paris, and so on. Paris is intellectual ferment, the hustle and bustle of the streets, money and glamour but above all, the sensual promise of women.

The Seine, which was of a yellowish colour, almost reached the platforms of the bridges. A cool breath of air issued from it. Frederick inhaled it with his utmost energy, drinking in this good air of Paris, which seems to contain the effluvia of love and the emanations of the intellect. He was touched with emotion at the first glimpse of a hackney-coach. He gazed with delight on the thresholds of the wine-merchants’ shops garnished with straw, on the shoe-blacks with their boxes, on the lads who sold groceries as they shook their coffee-burners. Women hurried along at a jog-trot with umbrellas over their heads. He bent forward to try whether he could distinguish their faces—chance might have led Madame Arnoux to come out.

The shops displayed their wares. The crowd grew denser; the noise in the streets grew louder. After passing the Quai Saint-Bernard, the Quai de la Tournelle, and the Quai Montebello, they drove along the Quai Napoléon. He was anxious to see the windows there; but they were too far away from him. Then they once more crossed the Seine over the Pont-Neuf, and descended in the direction of the Louvre; and, having traversed the Rues Saint-Honoré, Croix des Petits-Champs, and Du Bouloi, he reached the Rue Coq-Héron, and entered the courtyard of the hotel. (Part one, chapter seven)

The role of women

Obviously, the main line of the plot is Frédéric’s extraordinarily tangled love life – which I found incomprehensible from start to finish. Saying he carries a torch for a beautiful, sensitive, married woman but ends up going out with a courtesan makes it sound too simple and comprehensible; in fact his love affairs proceed through a sequence of scenes with Madame Arnoux, Rosanette, Mlle Vatnaz and others, every single one of which is difficult to understand – their dialogue, their expectations, their attitudes – all seemed completely alien and unreal to me.

Lengthy dialogue which seems to completely miss the point, alternates with abrupt scenes which skate over what would – for a modern person – be profound emotional or moral issues. And they recur again and again. As an example, as the June Days approach, Frédéric bumps into the banker Dambreuse (who has shifted with the times to become a devout republican), who unexpectedly praises Arnoux for saving his life the last time the mob invaded the Chamber of Deputies and surprises Frédéric by announcing that he has been elected a deputy. In response to this news:

Frédéric, after he had quitted M. Dambreuse, went back to Rosanette, and, in a very gloomy fashion, said that she should choose between him and Arnoux. She replied that she did not understand ‘that sort of talk’, that she did not care about Arnoux, and had no desire to cling to him. Frédéric felt an urge to leave Paris. She did not offer any opposition to this whim; and next morning they set out for Fontainebleau.

So their ‘honeymoon’ trip to Fontainebleu is Frédéric’s response to the fact that his mistress refuses to stop seeing (and presumably having sex with) the husband of the woman he really loves??

I found the endless indecisiveness of the central ‘love story’ more remote from my understanding of human nature  than something out of Chaucer or an Icelandic saga. Why does Frédéric ping pong between just these two women – are they the only two women in Paris? Why is he proud at making Rosannette his mistress when he knows that she continues to see Arnoux, as well as old M. Oudry, the Russian aristocrat and who knows how many others?

Putting that to one side, I think even if you aren’t particularly feminist in outlook, it’s also hard not to get upset at the way women are discussed and treated in the book. Whenever the men get together (which is a lot – Frédéric’s one-on-ones with friends, Frédéric’s house parties, Arnoux’s regular ‘at homes’, in nightclubs, in restaurants, at formal dinners) the conversation among men left to themselves quickly turns to ‘women’, with the men discussing the merits of this or that mistress, or type of woman, or women in general, usually dismissed as fickle or shallow.

When the young lads go for a night out at a new nightclub, the Alcazar, in part one, the aim is to pair off with one of the women there, who are categorised as ‘courtesans, working girls or prostitutes’.

The conversation turned on women. Pellerin would not admit that there were beautiful women (he preferred tigers); besides the human female was an inferior creature in the æsthetic hierarchy.

‘What fascinates you is just the very thing that degrades her as an idea; I mean her breasts, her hair…’

‘Nevertheless,’ urged Frederick, ‘long black hair and large dark eyes…’

‘Oh! we know all about that,’ cried Hussonnet. ‘Enough of Andalusian beauties on the lawn. Those things are out of date; no thank you! For the fact is, honour bright! a fast woman is more amusing than the Venus of Milo. Let us be Gallic, in Heaven’s name, and after the Regency style, if we can!’

Entry-level feminism will be outraged at the relentlessly secondary role given to women, often nameless, judged only on their appearance and seen as appendages to the named and ‘interesting’ men.

Sénécal placed his glass of beer on the mantelpiece, and declared dogmatically that, as prostitution was tyrannical and marriage immoral, it was better to practice abstinence. Deslauriers regarded women as a source of amusement – nothing more. M. de Cisy looked upon them with the utmost dread.

A little to the side of this obvious perspective, I was interested in the way that the objectification and denigration of woman helped the men to bond: Discussing women is a ‘safe’ activity – as opposed to discussions of either art of politics, which lead immediately to bitter arguments. Discussing sex may have its own disputes, but is essentially a unifying exercise at which older men nod and boast about their conquests, while younger men brag and lie.

Flaubert’s overall artistic intention – as stated in a series of famous letters – was to eliminate the intrusive narrator’s voice from his fiction. Narrators had cheerily interrupted their novels to point a moral and make suave generalisations for a hundred years or more. Flaubert very self-consciously set out to reject this entire tradition. The author’s tone was to be everywhere felt but nowhere explicitly visible.

Another aspect of this approach is that Flaubert claimed to be just presenting reality as it is.

If Charles Bovary is weak, if Emma Bovary is a bad mother, if Rodolphe is a sexual predator – it is not Flaubert’s fault. He is presenting humanity in all its weakness.

Ditto, in Sentimental Education, if Frédéric is weak-willed, a prey to feeble sensuality, in thrall to stupid ideals of romance, utterly unable to make the most of the opportunities life presents him with, it is not Flaubert’s fault. If a group of men at a dinner party or a nightclub end up talking about women, Flaubert is showing what the life of his time was like (and the life of men has been right up to the present day).

He would claims that men are like that and he is simply showing it, warts and all.

On the plus side, Flaubert presents the character of Mademoiselle Vatnaz, an avowed feminist and a reminder that, like the arguments of socialists, the arguments of feminists have existed, been published, promoted and discussed, since at least the time of the French Revolution.

The ill-temper of Rosanette only increased. Mademoiselle Vatnaz irritated him with her enthusiasm. Believing that she had a mission, she felt a furious desire to make speeches, to carry on disputes, and – sharper than Rosanette in matters of this sort – overwhelmed her with arguments.

One day she made her appearance burning with indignation against Hussonnet, who had just indulged in some blackguard remarks at the Woman’s Club. Rosanette approved of this conduct, declaring even that she would take men’s clothes to go and ‘give them a bit of her mind, the entire lot of them, and to whip them.’

Frédéric entered at the same moment.

‘You’ll accompany me – won’t you?’

And, in spite of his presence, a bickering match took place between them, one of them playing the part of a citizen’s wife and the other of a female philosopher.

According to Rosanette, women were born exclusively for love, or in order to bring up children, to be housekeepers.

According to Mademoiselle Vatnaz, women ought to have a position in the Government. In former times, the Gaulish women, and also the Anglo-Saxon women, took part in the legislation; the squaws of the Hurons formed a portion of the Council. The work of civilisation was common to both. It was necessary that all should contribute towards it, and that fraternity should be substituted for egoism, association for individualism, and cultivation on a large scale for minute subdivision of land.

The Woman’s Club? This is the only mention made of it in the text. It is fascinating to learn that such a thing existed in 1848, and that all the characters take it and the various arguments for women’s liberation entirely for granted, much as they take the arguments of the legitimists or the socialists, or any other political point of view.

Like Flaubert I am pessimistic about political change. The socialists in this book argue passionately for a change to the system which will abolish poverty and inequality. The feminists argue for a transformation of relationships between the sexes to make men and women truly equal.

170 years later, the arguments are exactly the same and being put with exactly the same vehemence, as if the Great Day of Freedom and Equality is just around the corner, just within reach, only requires a handful more newspaper articles, a couple more stirring speeches and… human nature will be transformed forever. Always mañana.

Summary

Early on I stumbled across the criticism made by Henry James – who adored Madame Bovary – that Sentimental Education lacks charm. He is right. The first hundred pages or so seemed qualitatively superior to the remaining 300. The boat trip to Nogent, Frédéric’s reunion with his old school friend, his poor student days rooming with Deslaurier, his mother’s fussing concern, old Roque the neighbour and his little daughter – all this have a charm and novelty.

But once he has inherited his fortune and goes off to Paris, Frédéric and the novel settle into a boring and repetitive pattern of him repeatedly visiting a) the Arnoux household to be ignored by Madame b) the apartment of Rosanette, where there are hundreds of pages of incomprehensible 19th century etiquette, before he does the simplest thing in the world and puts his arm round her waist and kisses her – at which point she ‘succumbs’ and becomes his mistress. Which is complicated in the final hundred or so pages with the addition of Madame Dambreuse. I freely admit I just didn’t understand the behaviour, motivation or psychology of any of the characters in Frédéric’s three-cornered love life, and so I failed to really understand the core of the book.

That said, as with Bovary the pleasure of the text is in the precise description of almost any individual scene – you can open the book at random and soon come across one of Flaubert’s wonderful descriptions of scenes and settings, large or small. Take this excerpt from the big dinner party chez Dambreuse.

Under the green leaves of a pineapple, in the middle of the table-cloth, a dolphin stood, with its snout reaching towards a quarter of roebuck and its tail just grazing a bushy dish of crayfish. Figs, huge cherries, pears, and grapes (the first fruits of Parisian cultivation) rose like pyramids in baskets of old Saxe. Here and there a bunch of flowers mingled with the shining silver plate. The white silk blinds, drawn down in front of the windows, filled the apartment with a mellow light. It was cooled by two fountains, in which there were pieces of ice; and tall men-servants, in short breeches, waited on them.

There are many moments of lucid clarity like this.

But that said, where Madame Bovary seems to me superior is that its narrative is carried forward in a much more dynamic and straightforward way, with a kind of tragic inevitability – the book is the record of her decline and fall which unfolds with the unstoppability of a Greek tragedy. Whereas Frédéric in Sentimental Education is more like a hamster who just goes round and round in his wheel for hundreds of pages, shilly shallying between one women or another, his personality and his situation never really changing or developing, not till towards the end anyway.

You could be clever and argue that this quality of stasis, of the hero being stuck in a rut, is itself a critique of the limitations, the paralysis, of ‘bourgeois’ society.

But plenty of people in 19th century France lived wildly exciting and achieveful lives, went abroad to run its growing empires, or developed new technologies, industries, made scientific discoveries, even rebuilt Paris – during this period. Fortunes were made, political careers forged, and new arts and designs created – the ‘Second Empire’ style in furniture was created and, as Flaubert was writing this novel (1862-69), the young generation of painters who would be dubbed ‘the Impressionists’ were developing entirely new ways of thinking about art and reality.

Flaubert’s era was one of staggering change and innovation. In other words, the choice of a bumbling ne’er-do-well as protagonist, like the earlier choice of a small-town adulteress, reflect Flaubert’s personality, temperament and aesthetic, rather than the reality of his era.

To make a really sweeping generalisation – insofar as Flaubert is often seen as a patron saint of modern novelists, you could say that he helped to create the stereotype of the author as outsider, as ineffectual bystander – despite living in one of the most dynamic and exciting eras of European history.

Flaubert helped create the reputation of literature as carping and critical of contemporary society – and as deliberately getting its own back on the society which increasingly rejected it, by dwelling on the one area where it could hurt and sting bourgeois culture – by deliberately and provocatively defying conventional sexual morality, by focusing on increasingly degraded or deviant ideas of sexuality.

The political timeframe

Anyway, back with Sentimental Education, I haven’t really brought out the very artful way Flaubert sets the entire story against the fraught political events of 1840 to 1851; how he creates different political points of view for the gang of characters we meet early on and then shows how their initial political beliefs develop, triumph, fail, mutate or are disappointed.

Not only does the final third take place against the revolutionary turmoil of 1848, but the final scene of the auction, when all his hopes and illusions are utterly crushed, is made to coincide with the coup mounted by the President Louis Napoleon, who will go on to have himself crowned the Emperor Napoleon III.

This is a deep and fruitful aspect of the novel but it would require a separate review to do justice to it.

Conclusion

Sentimental Education is a complex, rich, deep, carefully organised and in many places beautifully written novel, but which I really struggled to understand or sympathise with.

The final pages – Madame Arnoux’s appearance as an old lady, and the final scene of two wistful old men reminiscing about their schooldays – are immediately understandable and moving: but too much of the preceding 400 pages was psychologically and morally incomprehensible, so completely alien to modern behaviour and values, that I can’t honestly say I enjoyed it.


Related links

Flaubert’s books

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