Of Human Bondage
Excerpt from the Introduction by Selina Hastings
hen Of Human Bondage
was published in 1915, Somerset Maugham, then in his early forties, was well established as one of the most popular writers of his generation. His novels sold well but it was his plays, performed regularly on both sides of the Atlantic, that had brought him fame and substantial wealth. His first commercial production, Lady Frederick, staged in 1907 at the Royal Court in London, had proved an instant success and ran for over a year. By the following year four of Maugham’s plays were running concurrently in the West End, a record which for a living playwright was to remain unbroken for a generation.
As a successful dramatist Maugham was much in demand, not only in theatrical circles but by fashionable London hostesses: everyone wanted to know him and in the relatively small society of the time almost everyone did. With a large income now at his disposal, Maugham bought an elegant five-storey house in Mayfair and began to enjoy himself as a man about town. Described as ‘one of London’s wittiest bachelors and most indefatigable dancers’, Maugham was deluged with invitations, appearing in white tie and tails at dances and first nights, two-stepping in fancy dress at the Chelsea Arts Ball, waltzing at a charity event at Covent Garden. The artist, Gerald Kelly, painted a portrait of him at this period entitled ‘The Jester’, in which the playwright is shown as the epitome of the Edwardian dandy: exquisitely turned out in grey morning dress and top hat, he poses, elegantly seated, in front of a Coromandel screen, one leg casually crossed, his right hand resting lightly on a slender gold-topped cane.
With Lady Frederick an established hit, Maugham’s career was furthered by a relationship now formed with the great American impresario, Charles Frohman. Frohman not only ruled over an extensive theatrical empire in London but by the early 1900s had developed a virtual monopoly on importing British drama to the United States. It was Frohman who first brought Maugham to New York and Frohman who constantly pressured him to produce new work. And Maugham was extraordinarily productive, full of ideas, rarely spending more than three or four weeks in the writing of a play. ‘I think the difficulty of playwriting has been much exaggerated,’ he wrote airily. ‘I had always half a dozen plays in my head, and when a theme presented itself to me it did so divided into scenes and acts, with each ‘‘curtain’’ staring me in the face, so that I should have had no difficulty in beginning a new play the day after I had finished [the last].’
By 1910 Maugham, aged thirty-six, had had eight plays staged, most of them on both sides of the Atlantic, with Frohman constantly at his heels, impatiently demanding new work. It was now, however, that Maugham felt his interest in the theatre wane. ‘After submitting myself for some years to the exigencies of the drama,’ he wrote, ‘I hankered after the wide liberty of the novel . . . I knew the book I had in mind would be a long one and I wanted to be undisturbed, so I refused the contracts that managers were eagerly offering me and temporarily retired from the stage.’
At this point in his career, Maugham had written only a handful of novels. His first, Liza of Lambeth, had been published in 1897 when he was only twenty-three, while his most recent, The Magician
, based on the life of Aleister Crowley, had appeared in 1908. Now for the first time in his fiction Maugham was to draw extensively on his own experience, his theme closely based on his early years, of his young manhood and, crucially, of a degrading sexual obsession. The more he thought about it, the more absorbed he became, the compulsion to write stronger and more powerful than anything he had previously known. His memories were literally forcing themselves upon him – ‘choking’ was the word he used: ‘I had all that stuff choking me, occupying my thoughts by day & my dreams by night, and I wanted to be free of it.’ Accustomed to writing a novel in two to three months, Maugham when he began was entirely unprepared for the length and arduousness of the project on which he was about to embark. Starting work in the autumn of 1911, with an unprecedented advance of £500, Maugham promised his publisher, William Heinemann, he would deliver the manuscript the following spring. In fact the book took over two and half years to complete, not appearing until August 1915. Of Human Bondage
is the most closely autobiographical of all Maugham’s fiction. Few of Maugham’s friends knew anything much about his early life. He rarely spoke about his past and almost never, even to his intimates, about his childhood. Most were aware that his parents were dead, and that he had two surviving brothers, both lawyers, both with wives and families, but the rest was unknown territory. Now at last the story would be told, and with an unflinching courage and integrity. Born in Paris in 1874, Maugham was the youngest of four boys, his father, Robert Maugham, a successful lawyer, the legal adviser to the British Embassy. The family lived in an elegant apartment near the Champs Elysees where Maugham’s mother, a beauty whom he adored, entertained a large circle of friends, not only from diplomatic but from literary and artistic circles. With his older brothers away at school, Maugham enjoyed an idyllic early childhood, much doted upon and indulged. But by the age of ten the boy had lost both his parents and his happy childhood was over. It was quickly discovered there was little money left, and Maugham was dispatched to England to be brought up by an uncle, the Rev. Henry Maugham, vicar of Whitstable in Kent.
The vicar was not a bad man, but he was narrow-minded and self-centred, with not the faintest notion how to cope with a child. Maugham was sent as a boarder to the King’s School, Canterbury, where he was badly bullied: small for his age, he had never played cricket or football, knew nothing of current schoolboy customs or slang, and having been brought up speaking French, was still not entirely at ease with the English language. Most damaging of all, he had developed a stammer, which was a great joke to his classmates and an agony to him. Leaving school at sixteen, Maugham went to Heidelberg for a year to learn German, and on his return decided somewhat bizarrely to train as a doctor: he knew even then that he wanted to write; he also wanted to travel; and he thought that if the worst came to the worst, then at least as a qualified physician he could find a job as a ship’s doctor and so see the world.
And this is very nearly what happened. In October 1897, after five years as a medical student at St Thomas’s Hospital in London, Maugham, aged twenty-three, received his diploma, qualifying him to practise as surgeon and physician. A month earlier his first novel had been published, Liza of Lambeth, inspired by the appalling poverty of the Lambeth slums, which he had come to know well while doing his rounds. ‘I learned pretty well everything I know about human nature in the 5 years I spent at St Thomas’s Hospital,’ he was later to say. The book enjoyed a modest success, and Maugham believed he was now well launched on a literary career. Nothing if not industrious, he had finished a second novel even before the first had made its appearance, but the second work did far less well than Liza, and Maugham struggled to make ends meet. He engaged an agent, and just managed to scrape a living, but for ten years he remained chronically hard up, yet another struggling young writer hoping to break into the big time. It was at the end of this period that the success of Lady Frederick changed everything.
The novel on which Maugham began work in the autumn of 1911 was an entirely new departure. ‘No English writer is more transparently, more unblushingly autobiographic than Somerset Maugham,’ wrote the American scholar, Leslie A. Marchand, and nowhere is Maugham more self-revealing than in Of Human Bondage
. Maugham, who usually cultivated a fastidious detachment, shows in this work a personal commitment that was unusual, sweeping the reader up in his own passionate intensity. Compelling and uncompromising, written with an unflagging energy and drive, the work could hardly be more different from any he had previously published. At 300,000 words it is by far the longest of his novels, the story closely following the events of Maugham’s early life, with at its centre the terrifying experience of a masochistic sexual obsession.
The story begins when the hero, Philip Carey, is orphaned at the age of ten and dispatched to live with an uncle, the vicar of Blackstable (Whitstable) in Kent. The vicar is a selfish, unloving man and the boy is miserably unhappy, even more so when sent off to boarding-school at the cathedral city of Tercanbury (Canterbury). Here Philip is mercilessly teased by his fellow pupils, not for a stammer but for a club-foot, which makes him wretchedly self-conscious. Leaving school at sixteen, he, like Maugham, goes first to Heidelberg, spends some months in Paris, and for five years trains as a doctor at a teaching hospital in London. It is during his time as a medical student that Philip falls victim to a powerful and humiliating sexual passion. One day he and a fellow student drop in at a tea-shop near the hospital; here they are waited on by a young woman who treats them both with an offensive indifference. Mildred is thin and anaemic, ‘with narrow hips and the chest of a boy . . . the faint green of her delicate skin gave an impression of unhealthiness.’ Piqued by her rudeness, Philip tries further to engage her attention but again Mildred snubs him. ‘ ‘‘Ill-mannered slut’’, said Philip. ‘‘I shan’t go there again.’’ ’ Yet he finds himself perversely attracted, excited by her obvious contempt, and from this moment Philip is doomed, possessed by a voracious carnal craving, a masochistic bondage so overwhelming that it very nearly destroys him.
In most particulars, the plot closely follows the author’s own experience. Maugham’s miserable boyhood with his uncle in Whitstable, his school days, his training at St Thomas’s Hospital, are accurately retailed in Philip’s story. Yet although Maugham was unhappy for much of his early years in England, this part of the narrative, if sometimes harrowing, is also imbued with an admirable wit and verve, the author using to great comic effect not only the vicar’s pomposity but his own adolescent naivety and conceit. The latter is particularly in evidence during a sequence when a Miss Wilkinson, a woman well past her first youth, comes to stay at the vicarage and sets out to seduce the young man of the house. Philip is at first puzzled, then thrilled, before quickly growing bored and embarrassed. The morning after Miss Wilkinson has finally lured him into bed, she encounters him alone at the breakfast table. ‘ ‘‘Ah, je t’aime. Je t’aime, Je t’aime,’’ she cried, with her extravagantly French accent. Philip wished she would speak English . . . he did not know why it slightly irritated him. At last he said: ‘‘Well, I think I’ll tootle along to the beach and have a dip.’’ ’ ‘Oh, you darling!’ Miss Wilkinson rapturously exclaims. ‘ ‘‘Go. I want to think of you mastering the salt sea waves, bathing your limbs in the broad ocean.’’ [Philip] got his hat and sauntered off. ‘‘What rot women talk!’’ he said to himself.’
As well as of his time as a medical student, Maugham makes good fictional use both of his year in Heidelberg in 1890–91 and later of the several months which he spent in Paris in 1905. It was in Heidelberg, for instance, that he encountered that flamboyant dilettante, John Ellingham Brooks. Brooks, who was briefly a lover of Maugham’s, made such a memorable impression with his vapid beauty and intellectual pretentiousness that he was later reincarnated not in one but in two fictional roles, as Hayward in Of Human Bondage
and more pathetically as Thomas Wilson in the short story, ‘The Lotus Eater’. All his life Maugham went regularly to Paris, and when on one of his visits there he met the artist Gerald Kelly, who was not only to become a friend for life but over the years painted his portrait on no fewer than eighteen occasions. Kelly had a studio in Montparnasse, and he introduced Maugham to a group of friends, mainly artists and writers, who convened regularly at a small restaurant, Le Chat Blanc, spending hours drinking, smoking and talking over dinner. In the novel these sessions are vividly reproduced, with Kelly himself significantly contributing not only to the character of the genial Lawson but also, later in the story, to Griffiths, a bonhomous but deceitful colleague who carelessly betrays Philip in the most humiliating circumstances.
Although Of Human Bondage
essentially derives from Maugham’s own experience, there is one brief section of the story which comes entirely from outside. Towards the end of the book Philip, by now penniless and reduced to near starvation, manages to find work in a shop in Oxford Street, where his job requires him to stand all day at the top of the staircase directing customers, at night sleeping in a squalid dormitory with the other male assistants. Needless to say, this was a world unfamiliar to the novelist, but he was able to commission a report from a young actor, Gilbert Clark, who when ‘resting’ would regularly find employment at the Piccadilly department store, Swan & Edgar. At Maugham’s request Clark wrote a 6,000-word description of his routine, for which he was paid the generous sum of 30 guineas. ‘I can’t tell you how pleased I am with what you have given me,’ Maugham told Clark, who later confirmed that ‘Willie used my stuff practically word for word.’