W. Somerset Maugham, portrait by Herbert K. Nolan
W. Somerset Maugham, Portrait by Tom Blau, 1950.
Cakes and Ale is a parody on the literary world and biographies; the difference between perceptions and the truth. It follows William Ashenden’s recollections of acclaimed novelist Edward (Ted) Driffield, thought by many to be inspired by Thomas Hardy though Maugham denied the connection. Driffield’s origins are humble and his life varied with color. His official biography will be written by Alroy Kear, who is well practiced in the art of manipulating everything into it’s most flattering light. Episodes such as moonlighting from Blackstable leaving unpaid debts and details on the divorce from his first wife, Rosie, are best left glossed over. He must be stainless and respectable. Otherwise how can he be revered?
Remembering the past, I asked myself curiously what he thought of this grand company, his neatly-turned out wife, so competent and discreetly managing, and the elegant surroundings in which he lived. I wondered if he regretted his early days of adventure. I wondered if all this amused him or if the amiable civility of his manner masked a hideous boredom. Perhaps he felt my eyes upon him, for he raised his. They rested on me for awhile with a thoughtful look, mild and yet oddly scrutinizing, and then suddenly, unmistakably this time, he gave me another wink.
The son of a bailiff and former sailor, Ted’s background is considered common. Rosie was a bar-maid before their marriage and rumors cast a shadow on her virtue. At first young Ashenden only sees her friendly, mischievous, and open-hearted nature but he begins to wonder when he sees her familiarity with coal merchant ‘Lord’ George. He joins in their afternoons of banjo music, whist, which Rosie is very good at, and conversation. He’s hurt when he gets back from school holidays and learns they’ve left. Financial difficulties happen to everyone but it’s their deceit in sneaking away during the night that shocks him. More so because they’d so much credit from the merchants and lived comfortably.
Ted’s novels are about ordinary people like him. At first they’re not recognized because the working class aren’t in vogue, but as he grows older popular taste turns to the plight of working men and his books gain popularity as well as some controversy, and his name greatness. Ted tries to remain in the shadows but people want him to mix with high society, they invite Rosie out of courtesy. She puts no restrictions on herself, she wants to make those infatuated by her happy and enjoy herself. Maugham portrays her with an aura of purity, her conscience is clear and it’s that ease that makes those at the tea parties & etc. uncomfortable. It’s agreed, especially by Mrs. Barton Trafford (his patron/society press agent), that Ted has a most unsuitable wife.
The three men each have writing in common: Ashenden is unpretentious about his work. The surname seems to be Maugham’s favorite for his fictional self– it’s also used in his collection of short stories, Ashenden: The British Spy, inspired by his experiences in MI6 during the war. Driffield’s a quiet writer, it’s others who talk about his novels. Kear uses his loquacious talent to puff up his writing, befriend his critics, and make a name for himself among the public, who are, unfortunately, taken in. Driffield’s second wife, Amy, and Kear are kindred spirits, I imagine Kear’s infatuated by her. They both use others to benefits themselves. Amy treated Ted like a child and bordered on spying on him: writing down what he said and saving tidbits of things all to be used after his death so she could sponge off his fame and mould his image into how she’d like it presented. It must also be said Kear was based on Hugh Walpole and although Maugham, again, denied a connection Walpole retaliated with a portrait of him in John Cornilieus.
It’s about differences between the truth and perceptions and assumptions. About letting go of perfection and accepting peoples flaws. Remembering that greatness can sometimes be missed, between the lines I think Ashenden was the greater writer of the three but he passed under the radar.
But the weather was dreadful, a boisterous wind whistled down the street, piercing you to the bone, and the few who had an errand were swept along by their full skirts like fishing boats in a half gale. The cold rain scudded in sudden squalls, and the sky, which in summer had enclosed the friendly country so snugly, now was a great pall that pressed upon the earth with awful menace.
I wish now that I had not started to write this book in the first person singular. It is all very well when you can show yourself in a amiable or touching light, and nothing can be more effective than the modest heroic or pathetic humorous which in this mode is much cultivated; it is charming to write about yourself when you see on the reader’s eyelash the glittering tear and on his lips the tender smile; but it is not so nice when you have to exhibit yourself as a plain damned fool.