I used to have a serious crush on the works of W. Somerset Maugham. I’ve read most of his fiction, novels, and short stories and always find something fresh on re-reading them. I usually don’t mention this past-passion: Maugham is very much now out of fashion. However, a recent conversation with a student about short story writing sparked my interest again and serendipitously I discovered this novel Cakes and Ale (1930) in my local second hand bookshop. I bought it.
Modern short stories tend to be more like anecdotes. Maugham’s stories are very neat, some would say old-fashioned: with a definite beginning, middle, and an end. So, to anyone interested in writing, especially short stories, I would highly recommend reading a lot of W. Somerset Maugham.
In his day Maugham was the most famous, the most successful novelist and playwright. His early success was in the theatre. In 1908 he had four plays running simultaneously on the West End. After writing thirty two plays he abandoned the theatre in 1933 to concentrate solely on writing fiction, many of which have been produced for film and television. His greatest fiction masterpiece, some say, is Of Human Bondage (1915), the film adaptation (1934) – the first of four – featured a then unknown actress called Bette Davis.
Cakes and Ale (1930) with an alternative title, The Skeleton in the Cupboard, is a satire on the literary world of Maugham’s day. The 1st person narrator is a writer and ex-medical student called William Ashenden – a name Maugham had used several times when writing autobiographical flavoured fiction.
The plot swings around a noble writer, Edward Driffield who has reached the lofty accolades of his literary career and is considered the ‘father’ of British literature. However, he came from very humble beginnings which Ashenden can attest to as he knew the Driffields, Edward then an unknown writer, but more importantly he knew the first Mrs Driffield, an ex-barmaid and very forthright woman called Rosie. The story opens with the literary rumblings about who will write Driffield’s biography now that the grand old man of British letters has died. It is Ashenden’s recollections of his student days when he knew the Driffields that provide the background and understandings of the great man’s past, and especially the skeleton in his cupboard: Rosie.
The book created a furor when it first appeared as is was believed it was a blatant jab at the recently deceased British writer, Thomas Hardy. “Trampling on Thomas Hardy’s Grave” and “Hitting below the Shroud” were only two of the vindictive reviews that appeared at the book’s publication. Maugham denied the association, of course. He asserts it began as a short story about a notable writer whose famous works were all written while he was married to his first ‘common’ wife but whose second wife, his secretary, ‘made him into a figure’.
Maugham took his title from a line of Sir Toby Belch to Malvolio in William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” Cakes and Ale were literary symbols (thank you Aesop, whoever you were) for the good life.
It’s written in the literary style of the day and despite the often self-deprecating remarks from the narrator Ashenden, he (Maugham) comes across as a self-serving sarcastic ponse. Yet, the highlight of Cakes and Ale is the character of Rosie. Maugham was particular good at creating ‘common women’. He gave them self-awareness, honesty, and the ability to undermine the pompous men who usually sought their company.
It’s as entertaining as any of Maugham’s work but doesn’t quite meet the standard of his most famous, his novels The Moon and Sixpence (1919) and The Razor’s Edge (1944). The curious characteristic of both these novels is that they are both about someone who isn’t there: in the former it’s about a painter (based on Paul Gauguin) who is dead, and the latter is about a young American, Larry Darrell who is always abroad searching for the meaning of life. Their stories are told by those who were left behind.
You can buy the book in various formats here.
Here is the link to the W. Somerset Maugham page at The Gutenberg Project where you can find most of his novels, plays, and short story collections, all ebooks and all for free.
The BBC dramatised it for television in 1974 starring Michael Hordern and Judy Cornwell.