In the 1970s at the St Xavier’s Godavari School library, books by the physician- turned writer A J Cronin were in prominent display ; but I can’t recall if another physician- turned writer Somerset Maugham’s books were even in the library. Just like Maugham’s life ( 1874-1965), his books may have been hidden from view. In a recent comprehensive and fascinating biography entitled “The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham” ( Random House), Selina Hastings traces the life of this acclaimed story teller who was predominantly homosexual. Maugham was also an amazingly observant human being, a talent he put to good use as a dramatist, novel, and short story writer. For certain this gift would have been very handy had he continued his career as a physician.
“It seems to me that I could see a great many things that other people missed,” he once remarked. And what he saw has enthralled us over the years. He wrote about the London slums, eccentric characters in colonial outposts in South-East Asia, and the hypocritical upper class in England in memorable classics as “Liza of Lambeth”,” Of Human Bondage”, “The Painted Veil”,” The Razor’s Edge” and a captivating collection of short stories.
In “Of Human Bondage”, probably Maugham’s most popular novel and partly his own life story, Philip Carey, the principal character has a clubfoot which is thought to represent Maugham’s stammer. This stammer often made Maugham painfully self conscious. Some think that Philip Carey’s clubfoot is actually a metaphor for what Maugham perceived to be a graver disability, his homosexuality. In his time homosexuality was sternly frowned upon by the political establishment and you could be thrown in jail for homosexuality. Furthermore, Maugham was afraid that if he came out of the closet this would spell ruin for his writing career. So he played it safe. He pretended to be straight as far as possible.
Some think Maugham married the wife of Henry Wellcome, the famous owner of the pharmaceutical company so that he could use her as a cover for his life as a homosexual. There is some truth to this as he had many male lovers when he was still married to her.
Although in English departments in universities the world over, Somerset Maugham’s books have probably been replaced by many more modern writers, there is no question that in the 1940s and 50s, he was perceived to be one of the most successful and well known writers. At one time he had 4 productions running simultaneously in London’s West End and his novels were best sellers. More than his books it is thought that Maugham made his money writing plays which were a big hit time after time.
For many of us his short stories cast a spell. Like the one about the baffled psychiatrist, Dr Audlin who treats the snobbish Lord Mountdrago whose dreams and reality became inseparable; or a story about a fateful passion that seizes Violet and Knobby in “The Back of Beyond”; and finally like “Rain” about the excessively self- righteous missionary and a prostitute. Because his personal life was painful, he probably found release and happiness in these magnificent stories.