Maugham’s Half & Half

Willie: The Life of W. Somerset Maugham

by Robert Calder
Saint Martin's Press, 429 pp., $19.95

A Writer's Notebook

by W. Somerset Maugham
Penguin, 332 pp., $5.95 (paper)

The Razor's Edge

by W. Somerset Maugham
Penguin, 314 pp., $4.95 (paper)

The Narrow Corner

by W. Somerset Maugham
Penguin, 218 pp., $4.95 (paper)

Cakes and Ale

by W. Somerset Maugham
Penguin, 203 pp., $3.95 (paper)


Mr. Robert Calder has written a biography of W. Somerset Maugham in order to redress, nicely, I think, some recent studies of the man who was probably our century’s most popular novelist as well as the most successful of Edwardian playwrights. Maugham’s last biographer, Mr. Ted Morgan, concentrated morbidly on the incontinences and confusions of a mad old age while scanting works and bright days. Doubtless, he was influenced by the young Maugham’s remark:

I cannot understand why a biographer, having undertaken to give the world details of a famous man’s life, should hesitate, as so often happens, to give details of his death…. Our lives are conditioned by outer circumstances but our death is our own.

Not, as it proves, with Mr. Morgan on the case. But then, as demonstrated by Mr. Morgan and other biographers of known sexual degenerates (or merely suspected—Lennon, Presley, by one A. Goldman, the master of that expanding cottage industry, Bioporn), a contemptuous adversarial style seems to be the current…norm. Despite the degenerate’s gifts, he is a Bad Person; worse, he is Immature; even worse, he is Promiscuous. Finally, he is demonstrably more Successful than his biographer, who is Married, Mature, Monogamous, and Good.

Although Mr. Calder is MMM&G, he does believe that

Morgan’s antipathy to the man is most damaging. Though his treatment of Maugham’s homosexuality is more explicit than anything previously published, it always emphasizes the nasty procuring side of his homosexual life.

Yet even a gentle schoolteacher in Saskatchewan like Mr. Calder must know that the men of Maugham’s generation paid for sex with men or women or both (the last century was prostitution’s Golden Age—for the buyer, of course). Would Mr. Calder think it relevant to note and deplore as immature Joseph Conrad’s visits to women prostitutes? I doubt it. Obviously a double standard is at work here. What is sheer high animal spirits in the roaring boy who buys a pre-feminist girl is vileness in the roaring boy who buys another boy.

To Mr. Calder’s credit, he does his best to show the amiable side to the formidable Mr. Maugham—the side that Mr. Calder terms “Willie,” as he was known to friends. But our schoolteacher also distances himself from “nastiness” in his acknowledgments where he notes “the unqualified encouragement of my parents, and my children—Alison, Kevin, Lorin, and Dani.” (Did they pipe “What’s rough trade, Daddy?” with unqualified encouragement?) No matter. By and large, children, your Daddy has done the old fruitcake proud.

Maugham spent his first twenty-six years in the nineteenth century and for the subsequent sixty-five years he was very much a nineteenth-century novelist and playwright. In many ways he was fortunately placed, though he himself would not have thought so. He was born in Paris where his lawyer father did legal work for the British Embassy, and his mother was a popular figure in Paris society. Maugham’s first language was French and although he made himself into the premier English…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.