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This is the third in a series written exclusively for DailyLit by special guest contributor Sara Nelson. Sara is the author of the bestselling So Many Books, So Little Time. From 2005 to 2009, she was editor in chief of Publishers Weekly and is currently the Books Director for O, the Oprah magazine.
Special Guest Contributor Sara Nelson
I've just spent a week with my elderly mother who taught me, among other things, how to be a real reader. From the age of about 8 I was invited to take whatever I wanted off her shelves (did she not know that she had Harold Robbins books there?) and she wasn't shy about extolling her favorites. On, if not at the top of that list, the British novelist and short story writer W. Somerset Maugham, who many people know primarily as the author of Of Human Bondage (a great Bette Davis movie, and later an interesting if seriously weird one remade by...Bill Murray). Anyway, I thought for years I was the only person so steeped in Maugham. Apparently, I was wrong. Enjoy this excerpt from a new biography of Maugham by Selina Hastings (available in May 2010).
The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham
By Selina Hastings
For much of his long life — he lived to be over 90 — Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) was the most famous writer in the world. He was known everywhere for his superb short stories and for his novels, the most acclaimed, Of Human Bondage, becoming one of the most widely read works of fiction of the 20th century. His books were translated into almost every known tongue, filmed, dramatised, and sold in their millions, bringing him celebrity and enormous wealth. Wherever he went he was pursued by journalists, eager for information: this extraordinary man seemed to know everyone, from Henry James to Winston Churchill, from Dorothy Parker to D.H. Lawrence. His magnificent villa in the south of France, much photographed and written about, was a byword for luxury and elegance. On the Riviera, as in London and New York, Maugham, always elegantly dressed, looked every inch the conventional English gentleman. And yet conventional he was not. In Maugham's outwardly respectable life there was a great deal he was determined to keep hidden, and in old age, when he was besieged by would-be biographers, he did his utmost to make sure his privacy would remain intact. Evening after evening at the Villa Mauresque, Maugham, assisted by his secretary, went systematically through his papers, throwing every last scrap of personal correspondence onto the fire. He also wrote to his friends asking them to destroy any letters of his in their possession; and he issued strict instructions to his literary executor that no biography should be authorized, no access to his papers allowed, and all requests for information be firmly refused.
And what were these areas of experience that it was so important to keep concealed? Mainly they were to do with his homosexuality, for Maugham lived in an era when in Britain homosexual practice was against the law. He was 21 at the time of the trial of Oscar Wilde in 1895, an event which traumatized a generation of men who were not by nature inclined towards marriage. And although Maugham himself did marry, and indeed fathered a child, his relations with his wife, Syrie, were wretchedly unhappy, even although he never allowed her for long to keep him apart from the great love of his life, a dissolute charmer called Gerald Haxton. Now nearly half a century after Maugham's death, the details of his long affair with Gerald and the harrowing story of his life with Syrie have come to light. The executors of the Maugham estate in London, the Royal Literary Fund, recently rescinded the clause in his will forbidding access to his correspondence; and a transcript has been uncovered, of a long and detailed recording made by his daughter, Liza, of the inside story of her father's private and domestic life. The material has turned out to be richly revealing: Liza, speaking to a close friend, was extremely frank; and ironically, Maugham's request that his letters should be destroyed ensured not only that they were kept but that most were sold for very large sums to American universities.
The story that unfolds is that of a man who after a harrowing and unhappy childhood learned early to live under cover; perhaps appropriately, in both world wars he worked for British intelligence, sometimes at considerable risk to his personal safety. He was further distanced by developing at an early age a stammer that made him agonisingly self-conscious; it inhibited him, and as an adult he formed the habit of having by his side an interpreter, a sociable, outgoing type, usually also his lover, who would make the initial contact and enable Maugham himself to keep more or less in the background. And yet for all his elaborate defences Maugham remained intensely vulnerable; he was a passionate, difficult man, capable of cruelty as well as of great kindness and charm, but despite all his worldly success he never found what he wanted. His miserable marriage wrecked years of his existence and the great love of his life remained unrequited.
Many of his readers associate Somerset Maugham with the British Empire and the Far East, with Maugham himself a symbol of the quintessential English gentleman, the pukka sahib, descended from generations of old-established county family. Yet in fact Maugham's parents were recent arrivals among the professional middle classes, and they had lived not in England but in France: it was on French soil that Maugham's life both began and ended...
End of excerpt.
Copyright2009 by Selina Hastings. All rights reserved.
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