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’d 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 is the subject of The Moon and Sixpence.

But the character stuck in his mind, along with another minor character, Dr Saunders, who he had created to make a cameo appearance in his first travel book, 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 come and treat Kim’s cataracts.

Kim Ching’s two dutiful sons, who bring the invitation, offer to pay Dr Saunders a lot of money and so he overcomes his reluctance and goes. He arrives on the island, is put up at the best (in fact the only) hotel and performs the operation successfully. Kim is happy, pays up and offers him any little luxuries he needs but Dr Saunders is a man of modest needs. Now the doctor has to pass the time until the monthly ship arrives, to take him off the island and back north to his home in China.

So Dr Saunders eats on the balcony of the hotel, reads the out of date newspapers and smokes opium, prepared for him by his sleek young Chinese help, Ah Kay.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 and they all get to chatting. 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.

After some conversation Blake makes his excuses and leaves, whereupon Captain 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 he has just arrived in, to take a young man off for a cruise. Anywhere special, asks Nichols. ‘Just away from here,’ comes the threatening reply. All very suspicious.

Nichols continues to describe to Saunders the way he was given a cab ride to an out-of-the-way bay, rowed out to the boat – the Fenton, a relatively small vessel which can fish for pearls or do smuggling, as required – and had barely got his bearings before young Blake was put aboard from another dinghy. Nichols was handed £200 to go cruising and keep a low profile, and then the dodgy but obviously well-connected fixer who’d arranged all this disappeared back to shore.

And so it is that Nichols has spent the last month captaining the lugger as they cruise aimlessly round the south seas, all the time trying to puzzle out what Blake’s mystery is…

Later that day Saunders asks Kim Ching about the newcomers. Kim knows Nichols and says he is a no good man, and warns Saunders to have nothing to do with him.

Nonetheless, Saunders is impatient to go home and decides to ask Nichols if he can hitch a lift on the lugger, if it’s heading north. Nichols says sure, but Blake is dead against it and they have a fierce argument about it right in front of Saunders. Obviously Blake is hiding something pretty big.

But Nichols insists that he is captain and the captain’s decision is final. He also admits that he partly wants the doc to come along because he – Nichols – has bad dyspepsia which he (rather comically) complains about all the time and so he hopes the doc can cure him.

So Ah Kay packs Saunders’ bags, they say goodbye to the grateful and influential Kim Ching, and go aboard.

Saunders likes to think of himself as 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, his temper constantly ready to snap.

Another perennial theme of Maugham’s – that people often have unexpected aspect to their character – is demonstrated when a big storm blows up. It quickly becomes too rough for Saunders and he retreats below decks. The point is that Nichols, although without doubt a shifty crook, is able to show his true colours as a supremely confident master of sailing. He is in complete control of the little lugger, making all the right decisions, and absolutely fearless while enormous waves crash over it and threaten to capsize it for hours on end. Nichols may be a dodgy geezer, but Saunders has to admire his stamina, courage and competency.

This is the central Maugham theme – that people aren’t ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but complex mixtures of contradictory characteristics, which is why ‘judging’ them is so futile. On the 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 slow-paced, lazily 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.

After a while it reminded me of the Symbolist classic, Against the Grain by Joris-Karl Huysmans from 1884 in which the élite 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, a decadent almost symbolist approach.

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

Here they encounter the characters who will trigger the main 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).

Our team 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 soon form a strong friendship, going on some long hikes together up the side of the local volcano and around the ruins of the original Portuguese forts. They become close friends, Blake more or less hero-worshiping the strong young Dane who is so confident and bluff, while the Australian remains so nervous and unhappy.

A gay novel?

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, and 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 harassed and gnotty.

Christessen introduces our characters to a household which lives 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 gone to seed 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.

Fat old Frith and his wife had a daughter, Louise, before his wife, Catherine, died suddenly of heart failure. So now Frith lives with his batty father-in-law and his beautiful daughter.

After Erik has introduced them all, Frith hosts a dinner party, old Swan tells disreputable stories, Saunders is entranced by the eccentric Frith, Captain Nichols just tucks into the grub and Blake… Blake is stunned when the lissom 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. After more kisses they go back in.

But it is enough. Blake knows he can have her. He knows she wants him.

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 Catherine passed away, Christessen promised to keep his vow.

That night big simple Christessen goes back up to the nutmeg plantation where he spent so many happy days as a young man. He sits in the rocking chair outside the darkened building while 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, Louise 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 silently closes the window, but in those few moments Christessen has walked over to the figure on the ground, which is still fastening his shoes. Christessen hauls him to his feet and starts strangling him, without thought or remorse. Someone has been with his beloved Louise. He will kill him.

Until a stifled squeak makes him look again and – he realises that the man is none other than 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 Christessen 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 outside the Frith house, and why on earth he attacked him like that.

Remember: Blake doesn’t know that Christessen considers himself engaged to Louise. Only we know this because Maugham created the scene where Christessen explains it all to Dr Saunders.

Blake arrives at the hotel room where Christessen lives, opens the door, tiptoes in, lights a match – and sees the big man lying on the floor with half his head shot away. He has committed suicide.

Terror-stricken, Blake stumbles out and blunders across town to Saunders’s hotel, where he wakes the good doctor from a pleasant opium haze.

Saunders listens impassively to Blake’s confused story – and then tells him that the Dane was engaged to Louise. Blake is horror stricken and collapses in tears. He is devastated at causing the death of his big strong friend. And hates Louise for not telling him about the engagement.

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 slept with her. Why oh why didn’t she tell him? Saunders gives Blake 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 can see that it was 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 the night before, then leaving, at which point everything had seemed alright.

The police attribute Christessen’s suicide it to the intense loneliness of the East which undermines so many good men. Blake is in the clear.

Blake’s story

So far so suddenly and abruptly, melodramatic. But as if this wasn’t enough, the book now lets us in on the reason Fred Blake is on the run. This is the result of another tragic love affair.

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 young Blake. (Blake 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 all, and tries to end the affair. She refuses to take no for an answer, bombards his home and office with phone calls, sends letters, waits outside his office morning, noon and night. She becomes a stalker.

Finally, Mrs Hudson sends Blake an unusually sober and sensible letter saying she sees his point, maybe he is right, maybe they should call it a day, but she has to tell him that her husband has been told some gossip  about them and now 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. Mrs Hudson starts off the conversation by continuing with the line about getting their stories straight. But then she asks for just one last goodbye kiss, then a goodbye grope and then — then she begs him to make love to her one last time.

Weak as only a young man can be, Blake agrees, and they are in mid-coitus when the door opens and the husband walks in. Seeing his wife being penetrated by young buck, no-nonsense Pat Hudson strides 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 placed into one of them. He grabs it and fires. Hudson falls off him. Blake fires again. Hudson is dead. There is blood everywhere.

He realises that Mrs Hudson planned it all. She lured Blake into her honey trap and made sure her husband would come home to find them, all the time having a loaded gun to hand. Now she wants to run away with him to America and get married and make love to him all day long.

Appalled by what has happened, 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 Blake Senior’s 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, his dad gets Blake spirited out of the hospital and onto the same lugger Captain Nichols had been deposited on only half an hour before. At this point the backstory and the main narrative join up. Now Dr Saunders understands why Blake was so nervy right from the start, and this also fills in all the background to Captain Nichols’ story of being hired by a mystery man.

It also explains the couple of occasions on their cruise together, when 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 had read that Mrs Hudson, widow of the leading politician Pat Hudson, had been found hanged, obviously being distraught at the still unsolved murder of her husband and having committed suicide.

Blake is even more horror-stricken. His father obviously arranged the ‘suicide’. She was mad and obsessive, but… they had slept together, he knew her, he feels awfully to blame for her ‘death’.

And now, as the story arrives back at ‘the present, Blake tells Saunders how he feels like a doomed man, a fated man. Everywhere he turns his handsome good looks attract women and instead of innocent fun and games, somehow it always 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 foll, with a grim detached expression on his face.

It’s at this moment, with a distraught Blake sitting in Saunders’ hotel room, that the door opens and Louise walks in. They stare intently at each other, neither talking, Blake with genuine hatred in his eyes. Louise leaves without a word. Later that day, the Fenton sails, carrying off Blake and Captain Nichols (never, alas, to be met again in Maugham’s fiction. 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.

Know what happened? That kid Blake disappeared overboard, fell or jumped. The sea was dead calm. It was night time, 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 of spiriting him away, 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 who he is always trying to avoid. Without further ado she commands the rough old sea captain to get up and follow her immediately, which he does like a scolded child. Comedy.

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.

the fat old philosopher is a corker, particularly the scene where he arrives in great deliberation at Dr Saunders’ hotel room to read to the good doctor an excerpt from his ongoing translation of The Lusiads and Saunders, despite his best efforts to the contrary, falls asleep.

It contains 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-world author like Maugham, old people are more free to be weird and strange, as I remember them from my own 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 pointlessness and absurdity of existence; almost all his characters seem to have blue eyes.

Maughamese

Just a few examples of his odd clunky way with the English language.

  • 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 with his opium trances, and Frith with 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 that 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 peculiar and random 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. Here is Saunders attending 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 papaya, 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)

Maugham isn’t a great novelist, and often struggles with the English language, but he is just such damn fine company!


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

Australia’s Impressionists @ the National Gallery

This is a very enjoyable, relaxing, easy-going exhibition. It’s small, with fewer than 50 works on display and a relatively short audioguide with only 15 items, meaning there is time to read and look and absorb all the works and then to stroll back through picking out favourites and re-examining them closely.

Australia’s impressionists

‘Australia’s Impressionists’ brings together paintings by three late-Victorian artists – Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Charles Conder – who used new European ideas of painting in the open air to capture the urban and rural landscape of Australia. Their open air practice and the often quick, blurred finish of the works led to them being called ‘Australia’s impressionists’. They are joined here by a fourth Australian artist, John Russell, who spent most of his adult life in France, where he became friends with leading artists such as Monet and van Gogh, developing a genuinely European impressionist style and was even mentor to the young Matisse.

Tom Roberts (1856-1931)

Roberts was in fact born in England – in Dorchester, Dorset to be precise. His family emigrated to Australia in 1869. He returned to England to study art from 1881 to 1884 before returning to establish himself in ‘marvellous’ Melbourne in 1885. The wall label explains that Melbourne was an economic and social phenomenon, having grown from a few shacks in 1800 to become the second largest city in the British Empire by the 1880s, with bustling docks, warehouses and busy streets teeming with soldiers, shopkeepers, sheepfarmers and well-dressed ladies.

Thus one of the most arresting images in the show is Roberts’ Allegro con brio, Bourke Street West, an immense panorama of one of the busiest streets in Melbourne. The palette of duck egg blue for the sky overwhelmed by the sandy orange of the streets and buildings makes a tremendous impact as a depiction of an authentic Australian urban scene. But the title is important and symptomatic, too. Roberts had just returned from 4 years in London where he was much influenced by the Aestheticism of James McNeill Whistler, the pioneering American painter who gave his paintings titles from musical terminology like ‘Symphony’ and ‘Harmony’.

Although they were determined to paint the Australian scene, all three of these artists saw it with eyes conditioned by the latest developments in European art.

Allegro con brio, Bourke Street West by Tom Roberts (1885-6, reworked 1890) © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra and the National Library of Australia, Canberra

Allegro con brio, Bourke Street West (1885-6, reworked 1890) by Tom Roberts © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra and the National Library of Australia, Canberra

While in London Roberts painted the city in a kind of foggy, blurry style which recalls Monet’s London paintings (e.g. The Thames at Westminster (Westminster Bridge) 1871). These made a big impression on his contemporaries and several examples are included here. (My favourite one dates from a later visit to London but is a splendidly evocative miniature of the base of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square – all the more so since the visitor to this exhibition has just walked past this very scene.)

Trafalgar Square (1904) by Tom Roberts © Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

Trafalgar Square (1904) by Tom Roberts © Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

9 by 5 Impression Exhibition

In August 1889 Roberts helped to organise an exhibition of works by himself and colleagues in Melbourne. It was titled the ‘9 by 5 Impression Exhibition’ because many of the works were painted on the 9-inch by 5-inch lids of cigar boxes, an easy resource for poor artists. Although small, the sheer number of works (180-plus) in such a consistently shaky, blurry, swift, impressionistic style, made a big impact on critics (who didn’t like it) and fellow artists (who did). In some accounts the show is credited with marking the start of a genuinely Australian art. It was also distinctive for its fin-de-siecle and Aesthetic trimmings, with the walls of the gallery swathed in Liberty silks and the works bordered by large blocky frames, often painted a kind of modernist metallic tint.

Roberts brought back from Europe this taste for painting en plein air and did much to encourage friends and colleagues to do likewise, and to consciously depict the Australian scenery and life. He set up artists’ ‘camps’ in rural locations a train ride from Sydney or Melbourne (just as the French impressionists used the new suburban train network to go out to the suburbs of Paris to paint semi-rural scenes) although the commentary wryly points out that they weren’t exactly primitive, the one at Box Hill near Sydney having a separate ‘dining tent’ and even a piano installed.

As you explore the exhibition more you understand why the 9 to 5 works are placed right at the start – small, fleeting ‘impressions’ of urban scenes they may be, but they soon give way to large and sometimes enormous works depicting the countryside near Melbourne and Sydney.

Given that sheep farming was one of the fundamental activities in Australia it’s striking how few images of it there are in the exhibition. A Google search shows that Roberts did do many sheep-related paintings, including ones of herding and shearing, but there’s only one here, a big and dramatic composition, Break away! in which the mounted farmer is trying to stop sheep bolting for a dried-up waterhole during a drought.

A Break Away! by Tom Roberts (1891) © Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

A Break Away! (1891) by Tom Roberts © Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

This is a strikingly naturalistic work, concerned to give a realistic depiction of every detail, for example of the horse’s sweating coat, the cowboy’s lean, his braces, every detail of the fence. It’s great fun but it isn’t really impressionism.

Charles Conder (1868-1909)

Conder was also born in England, in Tottenham, north London. After a boyhood in India he was sent to Australia in 1884. In 1888 he moved to Melbourne where he met Roberts and Streeton. A notable early work is Departure of the Orient – Circular Quay. Note the high vantage point, as used by Roberts in the Bourke Street painting, the smudginess of the clouds and smoke from steamships, the sheen of rain on the dockside. But I saw more of L.S. Lowry in this work than Monet.

Departure of the Orient – Circular Quay by Charles Conder (1888) © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Departure of the Orient – Circular Quay (1888) by Charles Conder © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

In fact Conder went back to Europe in 1890, never to return to Australia, and became deeply involved in the Aesthetic movement, mixing with leading artists and writers of the day including Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley. Critics consider his later period less convincing than the earlier Australian paintings. Conder took part in the rural painting camps organised by Roberts outside Sydney or Melbourne. Towards the end of the show there’s a sequence of works by all three artists depicting beaches outside Sydney. Conder produced this work which became quite famous.

Points of interest include:

  • the text on the building at the right being cut off, as in contemporary photographs or the paintings of Degas who enjoyed chopping off objects mid-frame
  • the image is dominated not by a long sweeping beach but by the man-made walkway or bridge – bridges loom large in the works of the French impressionists and Whistler did a series depicting bridges of London in different moods
  • the (to us) absurd formality of these Victorian ladies and gents. The commentary picks up on Conder’s characteristic use of pink in the discarded parasol, ladies’ hat and newspaper held by the lying figure – I was more struck by the intense blackness of the top hat and the couple behind one of the bridge supports
A Holiday at Mentone by Charles Conder (1888) © Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

A Holiday at Mentone (1888) by Charles Conder © Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

Arthur Streeton (1867-1943)

Streeton was actually born in Australia, unlike the previous two who migrated there. The paintings of his here are among the largest, and the most evocative of rural Australia. This dramatic depiction of a mine works on what looks like a blisteringly hot day is initially striking for its scale, for the portrait format and for the brilliance with which he creates the slabby effect of hard rocks. It takes a while to focus on the small humans down at the entrance of the mine, and to realise that they are bringing out of an injured miner on a stretcher.

Fire’s On by Arthur Streeton (1891) © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Fire’s On (1891) by Arthur Streeton © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Streeton’s work is possibly the most accessible and enjoyable of the three. The second room of the show features a number of his really large paintings of rural Australia which make it look like paradise. Golden Summer was painted when he was just 21! painted at the artists’ camp at Heidelberg, outside Sydney, set up by him and Roberts. It was the first painting by an Australian-born artist to be exhibited at both the Royal Academy in London, in 1890, and the Paris Salon the following year, where it won an award. A reproduction can’t convey the size and the sheer sensual pleasure of this astonishingly assured masterpiece.

Golden Summer, Eaglemont by Arthur Streeton (1889) © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Golden Summer, Eaglemont (1889) by Arthur Streeton © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Nationalism

The commentary points out that the states of Australia only came together to form a nation in 1901. The late 19th century was a great era of nationalism in politics, an interest or concern or issue which spilled over into art, music and literature. And so, for Australian politicians, commentators and artists, there was a lot of debate about what made it a nation, what was ‘Australian-ness’ etc. The commentary points all this out but it would have been good to have more from the artists or maybe contemporary commentators on what they thought Australian-ness consisted of, what they thought the distinctive features of the Australian landscape, or light, or flora consisted of.

A handful of beach paintings are brought together later in the exhibition to show the distinctive white sand of beaches outside Sydney. But in fact one of the most striking things about the show is how European most of these paintings looked to me. My early impressions of Australia were formed by movies, specifically Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971) and Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), or the TV series Skippy the Bush Kangaroo (1968-70). Desert and drought and hard red rock, or lush sub-tropical suburbia.

Works like Streeton’s ‘Still glides the stream, and shall for ever glide’ (painted when he was just 22) are lovely but don’t look anything like the Australia I grew up seeing. It could be somewhere in the Cotswolds. The fact that the title is a quote from Wordsworth emphasises the Englishness of the imagination which is creating it.

'Still glides the stream, and shall for ever glide’ (1890) by Arthur Streeton © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

‘Still glides the stream, and shall for ever glide’ (1890) by Arthur Streeton © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Naturalism

The entire exhibition is premised on identifying these artists as impressionists but I wondered. They remind me less of their French contemporaries and more of late-Victorian English naturalistic painters, as can be seen at the wonderful Guildhall Gallery. A painting like Golden Summer is not unlike some of George Clausen’s bucolic scenes of rural England.

How much these paintings are not really that impressionist is highlighted by the fourth member of the show –

John Russell (1858-1930)

Russell left Australia when he was 22, travelling to France where he made friends with the major painters of the day, including Monet and van Gogh. The section of 10 of his paintings here are completely unlike the preceding three artists.

In the Morning, Alpes Maritimes from Antibes by John Russell (1890-1) © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

In the Morning, Alpes Maritimes from Antibes (1890-91) by John Russell © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Now this has the full French impressionist feel, vague and blurry blobs of very light and bright colours used loosely to create an impression of a scene. Also no people – unlike all the examples above. Streeton, Roberts and Conder also depicted people-less landscapes, but they are concerned with accurately depicting it, whereas Russell seems much more interested in playing with the possibilities of oil paint and colour – pushing, stretching and experimenting.

This can be seen in his many paintings of the Breton coastline where he settled and lived for decades. Here he used Monet’s tactic of painting the same scene multiple times at different times of day to capture different light and mood, in this example the cluster of rocks off the Breton coast named Aiguille de Coton.

Aiguille de Coton, Belle-Île (about 1890) by John Russell. Kerry Stokes Collection, Perth © Acorn Photo, Perth

Aiguille de Coton, Belle-Île (about 1890) by John Russell. Kerry Stokes Collection, Perth © Acorn Photo, Perth

As might be expected from a friend of van Gogh’s, Russell experiments with oil paint to express not what he literally saw in front of him but the psychological impact of colour. Similarly the big crude super-obvious brushstrokes are designed to emphasise the paintwork itself rather than the ‘subject’.

Russell’s bold colour experiments led to his work being included alongside those of André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck in the 1905 exhibition at the Salon d’Automne in Paris. A critic wrote that the works looked like they had been painted by ‘wild things’ or fauves in French, and this nickname was quickly applied to the movement which became known as Fauvism.

Russell’s section of the exhibition shows us hard-core French impressionism morphing into post-impressionism. One of the curators makes the case – in the very informative film which accompanies the exhibition and runs in a projection room off to one side – that Russell deserves to be better known and included in our accounts of late impressionism. Without doubt. But if you then walk out of his rather dazzling section and back past the restrained realistic works of Streeter, Conder and Roberts it makes you question the label ‘impressionism’ as applied to them. Plein air naturalism might be closer.

Ariadne

One of the most evocative images in the show is Streeton’s fabulous Ariadne (1895). For once this feels like a landscape which is impossible to confuse with England or even Europe. It could be a Mediterranean sky but the red rocks on the horizon and the mottled eucalyptus trees clearly indicate the Antipodes. No reproduction can convey the intimacy and power of this painting.

The commentary points out that it is typical of the French symbolism of the 1890s to deploy a mysterious, generally female, figure to point and focus a landscape, as is done here. But it’s only if you get really close to the painting’s surface that you can see details like the way the sandy beach is achieved by broad horizontal brushstrokes whereas the woman’s figure is made by vertical brushstrokes, as is the white of the tumbling surf. Or the way the vertical sweeps of the dress merge into the beach. The branches of the tree on the left are achieved with just one or two confident strokes. It is an astonishing masterpiece, and no surprise that this image was chosen for the posters and publicity for the exhibition.

Ariadne (1895) by Arthur Streeton © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Ariadne (1895) by Arthur Streeton © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Conclusion

This is a lovely exhibition, full of what’s-not-to-like images of turn-of-the-century Australia, urban and rural, and shedding light on a quartet of artists who are well worth knowing about.


The video

Most galleries nowadays produce at least one video about their exhibitions.

Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

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