“Somerset Maugham, Man of Letters”

Talk by Robin Taylor, well-known local speaker and friend of the Society
On Tuesday, 9 January 2018


The Society Chairman Trevor Humphreys welcomed members and visitors and introduced the speaker Robin Taylor. Robin, who is a native of Leamington Spa, went to Warwick School and studied history at Oxford. While in Oxford he picked up a book by Somerset Maugham while browsing in a large bookshop and was immediately hooked.

William Somerset Maugham was born in the British Embassy in Paris in 1874. His father was legal adviser to the embassy at the time. Somerset was a family name but anyone who knew him well called him Willie. Maugham grew up bilingual and by the time he was 18 he had also learnt German and Italian, then Spanish while he was living in Seville and became fairly good at Russian when he was an agent in Russia. He trained as a doctor, qualified at St. Thomas’s but did not practice.

While he was training he wrote ‘Liza of Lambeth’ which is still very readable. It had certain success and he decided he might make his living as a writer so he took the risk. During his 20’s he wrote several novels, none of which sold well. He was always a traveller because he had a gift for languages. He had written some plays, mainly light comedies, which no one wanted to put on the stage. When he was 34 the Royal Court had a play which failed, and with nothing else prepared Maugham was approached and ‘Lady Frederick’ (a very funny and cynical play) ran for a year. Towards the end of that year he had four plays running in London. After that he never had financial problems and was able to travel even more.

At the beginning of the war he had gone to the western front and done what doctors do, but since he spoke so many languages it was obvious to the intelligence people that it was a job for him. He was sent to Russia and believed that if he had been sent there six months earlier he might have succeeded in keeping the Provisional Government in power and stop the Bolsheviks taking control.

He wrote ‘For Services Rendered’ about WW1, ‘Home and Beauty’ and ‘The Constant Wife’. His short stories in particular made him famous – 91 of them in three volumes.

In the Ashenden stories he wrote about himself, Ashenden being one of the names he called himself when he ran spies during WWI. He wrote six stories based on his experiences, one of them called ‘The Hairless Mexican’ but destroyed others when Churchill told him they would be a breach of the official secrets act.

Robin read excerpts from Ashenden, The Hairless Mexican and many of Maugham’s other works, plays and stories.

Maugham was commissioned by an American magazine, Cosmopolitan, to write short stories. About six of his novels are masterpieces. In ‘Cakes and Ale’ which is exceptionally readable and one of his best, he was very good at mixing tragedy with comedy without one cancelling out the other.

‘Of Human Bondage’ is an autobiographical novel, ‘Christmas Holiday’ about political 1930’s in Paris and ‘The Moon and Sixpence’ a fictional account of a man who is not unlike Paul Gauguin. ‘Rain’ was made into a TV play.

Maugham lived in France for many years and died in Nice in 1965 at the age of 91. Most of his novels are still in print.


The Vice Chairman of the Society, Graham Cooper, gave the vote of thanks.

Attendance: 43

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