I heard the final part of the adaptation of Selina Hastings’ biography of Somerset Maugham on Radio 4, and the rancour against him, which I picked up on as a child and which has, apparently, been history’s verdict of the man, is explained.
Once Gerald Haxton died (of alcoholism), Maugham turned to Alan Searle for companionship, and it seems it was Searle who caused all the trouble which led to Maugham’s rift with his daughter Liza and, indirectly, to being ostracised by the English establishment and a very, very unhappy old age. He met Searle, who was more or less simply an upmarket rent boy, in the late Twenties and moved him into the Villa Mauresque after Haxton died, where Searle took over Haxton’s role and acted as companion, secretary and housekeeper. He was said to have none of Haxton’s charm,
An especially sad incident came when on his annual visit to London, he went to the Garrick Club as usual, but when he entered the first-floor bar, it fell silent and then one or two members ostentatiously walked out. (I would very much like to bet that the behaviour and moral worth of those who walked out would not have survived much close scrutiny, such is the hypocrisy of all too many of those who pass judgment.) Maugham was distraught. Back at the Villa Mauresque he would have bouts of uncontrollable weeping and outbursts of fury. And that little shit Alan Searle began writing to friends and Maugham’s nephew how impossible Maugham had become, although I should add that in later life he was full of remorse at his shit-stirring. So Maugham died an unhappy man.
The readings from Hastings book included recordings of Maugham himself, and he comes across as rather modest and self-effacing and with a generosity of spirit which is wholly lacking in many other self-regarding 'artists'. I’m sure that, like all of us, he had his faults, but his memory does seem to have been very harshly treated. It is so typical of life that, whenever possible, we prefer to take a narrow and vindictive view, and our judgments ignore almost everything which went before if we are given even half the chance to portray someone in a murky light. It is ironic that Maugham himself once observed: 'We know our friends by their defects rather than by their merits.' We should try to see the whole man. Let’s hope the future will value his work and the man a little more.
As I am something of a sentimental old softie, the pictures of Maugham I have chosen to illustrate this entry are neither of those with which we are probably all familiar, Maugham the sour-faced old queen who seems to be sneering at the world, but one from when he was much younger, when he was a charming, good-looking guest at parties in fashionable London and when all the ladies (and, of course, men) fancied the pants off him. It is very odd that those pictures of him in his last years portray a man who is totally at odds with earlier impressions.
Barry, who reads this blog, pointed out that Maugham did himself no favours by writing and somewhat sending up London society. It seems that London society bided its time and took its revenge when it finally got the chance to do so. What I find so admirable about Maugham - I have already said this, but I shall repeat it because it is worth repeating - was his sheer professionalism, that come what may and even on his very bad days, he sat down every morning to write. And he did so even knowing that what he was writing on that particular day was, perhaps, not even very good and would not be used. I do so like that attitude. Shame I don't have it, or better, don't yet have it, because I do know from experience that I can have it.
Incidentally, Liza inherited the Villa Mauresque, but Searle was not left destitute. He died a very wealthy man, thanks to Maugham's generosity. The excerpt I heard did not say so, but Maugham legally adopted him as his son.
NB. Pedant's Corner: there are two accepted spellings of 'judgment'. I choose 'judgment' rather than 'judgement' only because it is Daily Mail house style and the one I am accustomed to using at work, and thus also when not at work.