/*bootstrap*/ My Maugham Collection Concordance Library: Looking Back – Part I

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Looking Back – Part I

Non-Fiction > Looking Back >


Chamfort in his "Anecdotes et Bons Mots" tells the story of a man who for thirty years had been in the habit of passing his evening with a mistress, and on his wife's death was urged by his friends to marry her. "But if I did," he said, "I wouldn't know any more where to spend my evenings." I am in a similar, though less romantic, a pass. For as long as I can remember, except when on a journey, I have spent my mornings at my writing table. Now that I have written my last book I ask myself how I am to pass my mornings.

I had had for some time an idea, perhaps a foolish one, that I should like my complete production to have something in the nature of a pattern. I had begun my career as a writer of fiction with a novel dealing with the slums of Lambeth and it seemed to me that I should bring it to a seemly end by dealing with the slums of Bermondsey and so complete the pattern. I was fortunate in that my old friend and secretary, Alan Searle, had at one time run a club for poor boys south of the Thames and through him I was able to come to know with some intimacy a good many of the inhabitants of the district. The conditions they lived in were horrible. A man and his wife, with three grownup children, were living in two small rooms. The wallpaper foully writhed owing to the bugs behind it. I became aware of the bitter humiliation it was to a young man who was out of work and the affronts he had to put up with from his brothers who grudged the food he ate that they had sweated to earn. I learned of the long hours a man had to wait at the labor exchange in the hope of getting a job and the impatience and irascibility of the petty officials who dealt with the horde of applicants. I was told with a salacious laugh of the sexual coupling against a wall in the darkness of night because lovers had no better place to satisfy their lust. I heard too of love affairs more passionate, fierce, more frantic than any one heard of in the West End. But for all their troubles the people of Bermondsey were a good-natured lot. When a woman was ill, neighbors would be pretty sure to come in, do the washing up and help with the cooking. They accepted their hardships with good humor. Things had to be pretty bad if they couldn't get a laugh out of them, and there was always enough money to have a beer or two at the local of a Saturday night.

In due course I got pretty well all the material I needed. The story I proposed to tell was clear in my mind with its various details and I had familiarized myself with the created characters who would take part in it. I had nothing to do then but to start writing. I made up my mind that I would set to work early in the autumn. This was in 1939. War broke out. I found myself with other things to do. I put my novel aside, but I continued to bear it in mind and decided to write it when the War was over. But when it was and I began to go again to Bermondsey I found that it was a very different place from that which I had known. It had cruelly suffered. One night a great crowd of people had sought refuge under the railway arches and as a result of a direct hit more than three hundred–men, women and children–were killed outright. Rows of houses were shattered. But by the time I went back to South London many had been rebuilt. The family I knew best were living in a neat, clean County Council flat. They were earning more than they had never imagined they could afford. They were well dressed. They had a gramophone and they went to the pictures twice a week. But the great change I found was in their outlook. They had been on the whole a contented lot. They were devoid of envy. Now they were sullen and dissatisfied. Their wages, they said, were inadequate; their hours of work too long; they were exploited and they weren't going to put up with it. In the old days they had never concerned themselves with the people on the other side of the river; it was a world they had nothing to do with and were not interested in. Now they asked why the swine should have it easy at their expense. But it wasn't going to stay like that; they'd put up with the injustice too long and now they were going to get their own back. I realized that the conditions I had known existed no longer and the story I had to tell would not ring true. There was no point in telling it, so I never wrote my novel. The pattern, such as it was, has remained unfinished.

In my early youth I wrote, as Chekov said he did, like a bird, but as I grew older I wrote ever less and less easily. I have had to write, rewrite and write again and in the end left the script as it was because I could do no better. But for all its difficulties I have enjoyed writing. I have never been so happy or so much at my ease as when, seated at my table, from my pen word followed word till the luncheon gong forced me to put an end to the day's work. Time passed and I made up my mind to write one more book and then write no more. It was to be a haphazard collection of essays and I proposed to call it "Points of View." I knew very well that such a book would be forgotten as the thousands and thousands of books that are published every year are forgotten. I did not care. I enjoyed writing it. When I finished correcting the proofs I heaved a sigh or relief. I felt a delicious sense of freedom. But alas, such is the force of habit that soon I began to miss my happy mornings at my writing table and presently it occurred to me that there were a good many things that I would have liked to say, but had left unsaid–a page, for instance, that I had written and torn up because it did not fit the context; stories I had told to amuse people who were staying with me; passages of autobiography that I had never had occasion to relate; portraits of persons I had known; thoughts that for one reason or another I had found it better to keep to myself. It seemed to me that I had plenty of things to write about that it would amuse me to write. I set to work again.

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I am dying. I do not mean by this statement that I expect to die tomorrow, or the day after, next week, next month or next year; though I know that I may do so on any of these occasions. At my time of life a cold may turn into pneumonia, an exertion may bring on a heart attack, a head-on crash with another car may kill me outright. Some years ago I happened upon an actuarial table drawn up for an insurance company in which was given a statistical list of the probable duration of life at certain ages. I was then eighty and could, I discovered, expect to live for five years and nine months more. At the time I write this five years and three months have gone by so that, barring accidents, I can count on six months more. Normally, dying is a slow business and a dull one. The body is a machine and it wears out as naturally as a steam engine, a motorcar or a lawn mower wears out. I have had occasion to observe the gradual disintegration of a number of old men and have been struck by the fact that in most cases the symptoms are much the same. They grow hard of hearing and complain that people mumble; they are unsteady on their pins and find it convenient to walk with a stick; at noon, when they are reading, or after dinner, while they are smoking a cigar, they feel drowsy and fall asleep. They can remember, often in tedious detail, things that happened thirty years ago, but forget events that took place the week before last. But the worst trick memory plays on them is that they know what word they want to use, but for the life of them cannot remember it. Sex no longer means anything to them and that, according to their temperament, they may regard as a loss or a relief. They are inclined to be irritable and even for some trivial reason apt to fly into a blind rage. There may be other affections that the aged have to put up with, but for the moment I cannot think of them. I have mentioned those which I have noticed in the very old and I have corroborated my observations, not without a certain grim amusement, by recognizing that I was subject to them too. It would be stupid at my age to suppose that I can live much longer. I do not fear death. That is easy to say–and true; but what I should feel if it were imminent I cannot tell. I should like to think that I shall feel as sometimes I do when I go to bed tired out, so tired that I murmur to myself what a lark it would be if I went to sleep now and never woke up. I like to think of the arrangements I have made with regard to various things that will be dealt with on my death. I can hardly wait to see my books disposed of in the way that I have stipulated and I picture to myself the scene at Sotheby's when my pictures and my objets d'art, which I have collected for fifty years, come under the hammer. I should be disappointed if there were not a great crowd and the things sold did not fetch substantial sums.1 I should like to discuss with the persons to whom I am attached to or to whom I am under an obligation what they should do, what course they should take, when I am dead; I could suggest, explain and advise as equably as though I were setting out on a journey; but I am deterred by the strong determination they show not to speak of death. It is as though by never mentioning it, by banishing it from their thoughts, by treating it as though of no concern of theirs they could escape it. The odd fact is, I think, that though we know we shall die, we don't know it with the same force and conviction as we know that if we go out in the rain without an umbrella we shall get wet.

I have directed in my will that on my death my body shall be cremated and that there shall be no memorial service. The memorial service is an ugly feature of contemporary manners. It was all very well when the deceased was a person of eminence or one who had been of outstanding benefit to the country. It was then a decent mark of esteem and respect for one who deserved it. But now memorial services are held for persons whose lives have been so obscure, whose activities have been so unimportant, that they have been of account only in the small circle in which they moved. The relict of the defunct arranges with the parson who is to conduct the service what they cost will be. Letters are written to friends and acquaintances begging them to attend. A reporter is seated at the church door and takes their names as they come in. Space has been bought in the Times so that next day their names shall be printed, and such is the passion for publicity that sways our world today that those who for some reason–absence from London, a more important engagement or merely indifference–have not attended take care that, notwithstanding, their names shall not be omitted. If the church is crowded, if the street is blocked with the cars that have brought the persons invited, the service may be reckoned a success. It is in fact just as much a social occasion as a cocktail party; it is moreover less expensive and gets more publicity. The luncheon parties that follow have a peculiar savor. Those present, as they sip their dry Martinis, cannot help feeling a certain complacency because they are still alive.

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In the late seventies and early eighties of the nineteenth century, Trouville, not Deauville, was the seaside resort to which the rank and fashion of Paris retired after the fourteenth of July to stay till the end of the summer when they left for their country seats. Deauville was a plage de famille. My father used to rent a house for his wife and his sons so that they might profit by the sea breeze and joined them by train of a Saturday to return to Paris on Sunday night. I was very small and was looked after a nurse. My mother sat on a campstool on the beach, busy with her embroidery and, while chatting with the acquaintances she had made with other estivants, kept her eye on the three big boys, my brothers. Bathing in the sea was not in the habit of the time and they were allowed only to paddle on the water's edge. There was a shabby little painter, far from young, who used to wander about the beach making little paintings on a panel of the smart ladies in the fashionable dress of the day and sell them for five francs apiece. That seems very little, but on five francs then he could get a day's board and lodging and, if the season was good, make enough money to paint during the winter landscape and seascapes that nobody wanted to buy. In summer he spent most of his time at Trouville where people were more grandly dressed and less sparing of their money; but now and then, perhaps only for a change, he came to Deauville. He would look out for possible customers and when he saw a group seated together gossiping, would go up to it and show one of charming panels. I don't think he often made a sale; the sort of people who spent their summer at Deauville, rather than at Trouville, were not in the habit of throwing money away. The ladies smiled at the pictures, they thought them pretty, but it seldom occurred to them to buy. I like to think that my mother may have been tempted to get one, but refrained because she knew my father wouldn't like it. Certainly it would have looked very odd when put in company with Gustave Doré's engravings which adorned the drawing room of the apartment in Paris. And after all, five francs was five francs. I saw one of these little pictures in New York not so very long ago and the dealer asked me seven thousand dollars for it. The painter, of course, was Eugène Boudin.

Eugène Boudin 010

My mother was a beautiful woman and one day when she was walking with her two elder sons along the promenade she saw another beautiful woman coming toward them. As they passed, as women will, they looked one and other up and down. "Who is that lady, mamma?" asked one of her sons. "Nobody," said my mother, "Mrs. Langtry." In those days children saw little of their parents. In Paris I shared a bedroom with my French nurse and next door to it was my nursery. My nurse took me out morning and afternoon to play with my little French friends in the Champs Elysées which were quite close to the Avenue d'Antin in which we lived. I was allowed to go into my mother's bedroom for a few minutes after she had taken her morning bath and was resting in bed, and sometimes, when she had friends to tea, I was sent for to be shown off and recite the fable of La Fontaine which I had learned by heart. My father was a stranger to me. On my seventh birthday Lady Anglesey, who was my mother's most intimate friends, gave me a twenty franc piece and I was asked what I wanted to do with it. I said I wanted to go and see Sarah Bernhardt. How I could ever have had the idea I cannot imagine. Anyhow, on that night I was taken by my eldest brother to the theatre for the first time in my life. The play was an atrocious melodrama; to me it was wonderfully thrilling.

Lady Anglesey2 was American. She had suffered so much on the journey across the Atlantic that she would never go back to the States. In England she married a brother of Lord Kimberley and on his death the Lord Anglesey of the day. The marriage was not a success and I am going to relate how it came to an end. It is a period piece and I don't think it should be forgotten. Ouida would have reveled in it. One evening the Angleseys were giving a party at which the Russian ambassador was to be the guest of honor. The guests arrived and Lady Anglesey greeted them, but Anglesey did not appear. Lady Anglesey thought he was still dressing and she apologized to the ambassador. They waited and still he did not come. At last she sent a footman to his room to tell him that their guests were assembled. The footman came back to say his lordship was not in his room and gave her a letter, addressed to her, which he had found pinned on the pincushion. In it he told her that he was leaving her for good and had started for England with Madame de So-and-So. (I have forgotten her name.) How the dinner proceeded I do not know. It must have been a grim affair. When all the guests had departed and only my mother remained, she tried to console Lady Anglesey, who throughout the evening had put on a bold front. "He'll come back to you," she said. "After all, Madame de So-and-So is as ugly as sin." Lady Anglesey gasped. "If she's ugly, he'll never come back." She was right. Lord Anglesey remained with his French mistress for the rest of his life.

Many years later being in Paris, I met Lady Anglesey at a party. She was by then an old woman and I well on in in [sic] my thirties. She had been very fond of my mother and she talked to me of her. My mother, as I have said, was very beautiful and Lady Anglesey told me how one day she had said to her, "You're so lovely, why on earth do you remain faithful to your ugly little husband when all these charming young men are madly in love with you?" My mother smiled and answered, "Well, you see, in all the years we've been married he's never hurt my feelings."

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My mother was consumptive and her sister had died of the complaint. At that time doctors held the theory that it was good for a woman who was thus affected to have a baby. That is how it came about that I was born six years after the birth of my youngest brother. When I was nearly seven, after we had spent a winter at Paris, which had done my mother good, the doctors decided that she should have still another child. It was born dead and my mother died. My father died two years later and I was taken by my nurse to England to be delivered over to my uncle and guardian who was Vicar of Whitstable. I loved my nurse and shed bitter tears when she was there and then sent away.

On my first Sunday in England I accompanied my uncle and his wife, my aunt, to church for the morning service. On several occasions my mother had taken me to the English church in the rue d'Aguésseau opposite the British Embassy, but my mother, like the other ladies, quietly walked out before the sermon, and I was astonished to see my uncle step up into the pulpit and begin speaking. When the service was at last at an end we drove back to the vicarage and had dinner. After the table was cleared I was deposited on a chair at one end of it and my uncle, with a prayer book open at the proper place, put it in front of me and told me to learn the collect of the day by heart. "I'll hear you say it at teatime," he said, "and if you say it properly you shall have a piece of cake." Then he went into his study to rest after the morning's exertions and my aunt went to lie down in the drawing room. I was left alone. An hour or so later my aunt went into the garden to have a stroll and as she passed the dining room windows, peeped in to see how I was getting on. My face was buried in my hands and I was crying, crying bitterly. She hurried into the dining room and asked me what was the matter. Crying all the more, I sobbed, "I can't understand it. All those words, I don't know what they mean." "Oh, Willie," she said, "your uncle wouldn't want you to cry. It was for your own good that he wanted you to learn the collect. Don't cry." She took the prayer book away from me and I was left alone once more to sob my heart out. When the table was set for tea my uncle did not speak to me. I could see that he was very cross. I think my aunt must have persuaded him that I was too young to learn a collect by heart; anyhow I was never asked to do so again.

King's School

After three years at the preparatory school I moved to the King's School with a scholarship that gave me the privilege of wearing a short black gown. When I was fifteen, during the Michaelmas term I had a bad attack of pleurisy and on my convalescence it was decided, in view of my clinical history, that it would be imprudent for me to spend the rest of the winter at school, so I was sent to Hyères, on the French Riviera, to an English tutor who settled there for his own health and took a few boys who were recovering from some illness or other. I did not go back to school till the beginning of the summer term. I found that in my absence I had been moved up into the fifth form. The master was a Scot called Gordon. I was placed at the bottom of the form and on the first day of the term he told me to construe a passage. The Latin was simple and I knew very well how to put it in English, but I was shy and nervous. I began to stammer. One of the boys started to giggle, then another, then a third, and in a minute or two the whole class was shouting, screaming, yelling with laughter. I pretended not to notice, but went on stammering my head off. At last the master thumped the table at which he sat with his clenched fist and, shouting to be heard in the uproar, yelled, "Sit down, you fool. I don't know why they put you in this form." I sat down. I was dazed–but not for long. I was enraged: I could have killed the man. I was helpless, I could do nothing, but I made up my mind, then and there, that I would never spend another term with that beast of a master. I knew exactly what to do. I was small for my age and frail, but cunning. I had no difficulty in persuading my uncle that with my delicate health it would be safer for me to spend the following winter again with the tutor at Hyères rather than take the risk of another winter in the cold and damp of Canterbury, with the happy result that at the end of that mortifying term I left King's School for good.

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After my second winter in the south of France I returned to England and my uncle's vicarage. It had been built when the clergy lived in greater style than at a later period was possible. It was situated well away from the town, and more than a mile from the church: it had a large garden and from the dining room windows you had a view of green fields, the vicar's tithes. There was a front door, a side door and a back door. The front door was used only by persons of importance and when a new curate rang its bell it was looked upon as presumptuous. There were stables and a coach house. The gardener, on a pound a week, looked after the chickens and saw to the stoves that kept the house warm in winter. There were two maids who were paid twelve pounds a year and were entitled to a new print dress at Christmas. My uncle used to walk to the fisheries every morning before luncheon and eat twelve oysters for which he paid a shilling. On Sundays a landau was hired from the Bear and Key to take us to church for the morning service, but my uncle and I, if the weather was fine, walked to church for the evening service. Sunday was a hard day for me since I was not allowed to read a novel. My uncle did not like the holidaymakers who came down from London to Whitstable in July and August and was in the habit of putting a locum in his place who, with the curate, could look after the souls of those undesirable trippers while he and his wife went to Ems, Baden-Baden or Homburg to drink the waters. My aunt was a German, a Fräulein von Scheidlin, and I cannot imagine how she came to marry an English parson. She brought as her dowry a roll-top marquetry desk, some pieces of Nymphenburg china and four gilt-edged tumblers engraved with the sixteen quarterings of her family. My aunt was a very quiet, modest woman and seldom went out except to do a little shopping. She had her principles. On one occasion a wealthy banker rented a house not far from the vicarage for the summer. My uncle called on him to get a donation for the Additional Curates Society, but my aunt did not call his wife because as a banker he was in trade.

Having left school I was at a loose end and it may be that it was on my aunt's suggestion that I should go to Germany and learn German. My uncle, who was not sorry to be rid of me, approved and my aunt wrote to her relations in Munich to ask them if they could recommend a family with which I could live. They replied that they knew of a lady, geborene von Grabau, who had married a professor at Heidelberg and kept a small pension. It was well spoken of and the lady's husband, the professor, could give me lessons in German. My aunt wrote to her, signing her letter Sophie Maugham, geborene von Scheidlin, and on receiving the answer that I should be welcome, a date was fixed for my arrival. I have wondered why my uncle could have thought it would be of any advantage to me to spend a year or two in Germany. I had very little money, a hundred and fifty pounds a year, and some time or other I should have to set about earning my living. I was often in the doctor's hands and I have a vague recollection of being taken to London once to be examined by a specialist. It may be that my uncle thought it unlikely that I should live to manhood and so what I did, or where, didn't very much matter.

The Frau Professor's family consisted of two daughters and a son, a year or two younger than I; and the guests, when I first went to the pension, were a Frenchman who was studying at the university, a Chinaman and a tall, lanky New Englander who taught Greek at Harvard and was come to Germany to pursue his studies.3 Since he and I alone spoke English it was natural that we should talk to one another and after a little he asked me if I would like him to show me some of the walks in the woods. He took me to the ruined Schloss and we had tea there, for which he insisted on paying, and then to the Königssaal, from which you got a fine view of the valley of the Neckar. He asked me about myself and I told him the little there was to tell and presently he offered to teach me Greek. When I refused he pressed me, but my recollections of school were too near for me to yield. The weeks passed and he told me he was going to Switzerland for a fortnight's holiday and asked me to go with him as his guest. Delighted of course, I got my uncle's permission to go and we started off. I can remember nothing of the jaunt and soon after our return to Heidelberg he left for Berlin. His place was taken by an Englishman called Ellingham Brooks4 who, on coming down from Cambridge, had spent a dissolute year in London and was come to Germany in search of culture. We went for long walks together and he talked to me of Cardinal Newman, George Meredith, the Pater of the "Imaginary Portraits," Swinburne and Omar Khayyám. He had written out the quatrains in longhand, I suppose because the book then was expensive and this was before the days of the typewriter, and used to read passages to me. I was thrilled. After some weeks he drifted down to Florence. It was not till long after that it dawned upon me that the trouble these two men took to keep me interested was due not to the fact that I listened to their conversation entranced nor to any kindness they may have felt for a lonely, ignorant boy of sixteen, but to their concupiscence. I was so innocent (after three years at a public school!) that it never entered my head that they should want anything more from me than my company. If they made advances to me my blank incomprehensions must have utterly baffled them.

I never saw the American again, but later, when I was a medical student, Brooks came into my life once more. He had finally settled in Capri and he lived to an advanced old age. He never did a day's work in all his long life. I suppose he was a worthless creatures, but I owe him a debt of gratitude. He had a real love of literature, and he opened my mind to its beauties. Although I had read a great many novels, I read because I was lonely and had nothing else to do. It was his influence that induced me to read books that, but for him, I might never have known of and so provided me with a solace which in all the errors of my life has never failed me. It is true that with the passing years I have lost my interest in some of the writers he admired. I no longer read Swinburne, Walter Pater, or Meredith, but I still read FitzGerald's quatrains with delight.

I have sometimes amused myself by wondering what my life would have been if that master had not been the brute he was and I had remained at school. The end of term exams had brought me from the bottom of the form to within six or seven of the top and after another term I should have been moved into the sixth. Then with a scholarship I should in due course gone up to Cambridge as my brothers had done. It is just possible that I might have been elected to a fellowship, and in that case, though with my stammer I could not have been of much use as a tutor or a lecturer, I might, like Bradley5, have passed the rest of my life in the seclusion of college rooms. Though I could never have hoped to write such a fascinating, tantalizing work as "Appearance and Reality" I might have produced a discreet intervals a number of dull but learned books on aspects of French literature and in due course have brought an uneventful life to a decorous end.

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On my return to England from Germany my uncle wrote to an old Oxford friend of his who had achieved distinction in the Civil Service and asked him whether there was any chance of my entering it. His friend wrote back to say that owing to monstrous changes which had been enforced on the service by a Liberal government a very different class of man now entered it and he could only tell my uncle that it was in consequence no place for a gentleman. So that was that. Then my uncle wrote to a solicitor, Dixon by name, who had been an articled clerk of my grandfather's. My grandfather, Robert Maugham, was a lawyer and sufficiently eminent to have a long paragraph devoted to him in the Dictionary of National Biography. He must have been a man of some culture since he wrote a volume of essays which he dedicated to the Duke of Sussex, one of George the Third's disreputable sons who doubtless never read it. I have a copy of the second edition. My grandfather had a large family, as was usual in those days, three daughters and four sons: of these my uncle was the youngest and from his earliest years he was destined to take Holy Orders. On this account, when the other children went to parties at Christmas time, he, as a future clergyman, was left at home. I think it soured him for life.

After a certain amount of correspondence I went to London to see Mr. Dixon. He took me out to lunch. He told me a story that tickled my fancy. My grandfather asked young Dixon, as he then was, to dine with his family after church one Sunday. My grandfather at the head of the table carved the roast beef and then a dish of potatoes baked in their jackets was placed before him. He picked them up one by one and flung them at the pictures on the walls. Nobody said a word. My grandfather was evidently a man of character. Mr. Dixon told me that he had arranged for me to spend a few weeks in an accountant's office in Chancery Lane to see if the work suited me. It didn't, and after a month or so during which day after day I added account to account, I returned to Whitstable. My uncle was none too pleased to see me. He thought me incompetent, which I was, and lazy, which I wasn't. It was our local doctor who at last came to my rescue. He suggested that I might do worse than adopt the medical profession. The idea pleased me, chiefly because it would enable me to live in London, which I very much wanted to do, and so, after some weeks at a crammer's in order to pass the necessary examination, at the age of eighteen I entered St. Thomas's Hospital as a medical student.

St. Thomas's Hospital

We were all about that age except those who, as part of the curriculum, had spent a couple of years at Oxford or Cambridge and looked upon themselves as a cut above the rest of us who hadn't been to a university. I used to listen to my fellow students' bragging accounts of their sexual exploits, which in my innocence I believed, and I was ashamed to be still a virgin. One Saturday night I went down Piccadilly and picked up a girl who for a pound was prepared to pass the night with me. The result was an attack of gonorrhea and I had very shyly to ask one of the house physicians to tell me what to do about it. Undeterred by this mishap, however, I continued whenever I could afford it, and fortunately without untoward consequences, thus to satisfy my sexual instincts. At the end of five years I was qualified and having just brought out a novel called "Liza of Lambeth," which had a succès de scandale, I decided to abandon medicine and earn my living as an author. I went to Spain and spent the best part of a year there. Shortly after coming back to England I took and furnished a small flat near Victoria Station with a friend of mine. Walter Payne6 by name, whom I had first known in Germany, and settled down to write. Walter was a chartered accountant and away all day, so that I had the flat to myself. He was very good-looking and had no difficulty in getting girls to go to bed with him and when he was through with them he passed them over to me. They were small-part actresses, shopgirls or clerks in an office. About one evening a week Walter would arrange to go out and the girl I was then friends with came and dined with me, after which we indulged in sexual congress. Later in the evening we dressed and went downstairs, I put her in a cab, paid the fare and made an appointment with her for the following week. There was no romance in it, no love, only appetite. On looking back, these experiences of mine seem dreadfully sordid, but after all, I was in my early twenties and my sexual proclivities demanded expression.

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I worked steadily. I published two or three novels and a volume of short stories; I wrote a number of plays which no manager would accept. One of my novels, "Mrs. Craddock," had a modest success, and a play I had written some years before, called "A Man of Honour," was acted by the Stage Society. I made friends in the world of letters and began to be looked upon as a promising young writer. Literary ladies asked me to their parties. Through Mrs. Wilberforce,7 whose husband was Archdeacon of Westminster and who, to the delight of my landlady, had preached a sermon on "Liza of Lambeth," I came to know a number of persons in the world of fashion. They liked me. I was asked to luncheon parties and dinner parties. I went to dances and spent weekends in country houses. I have often wondered since why these rich and worldly people bothered about me. I had precious little to offer. I was poor and shy; I stammered; and I knew nothing about the sort of things they talked about. Many, many years later I asked one of the hostesses of my youth what she and others had seen in me that they were so kind to me. "You were different from other young men," she said. "Thought quiet and silent, you had a sort of restless vitality that was intriguing." I enjoyed my social life, I could have gone on living it indefinitely, but I could not but realize that it was getting me nowhere. I was thirty. I was in a rut and I felt that I must get out of it. I talked the matter over with Walter Payne with the result that we got rid of the flat we had shared, sold for a song the little furniture we had and I, thrilled, went to Paris. There I renewed my acquaintance with Gerald Kelly, many years later to be president of the Royal Academy, and through him I entered a world, new to me, of men devoted to the arts. I have told elsewhere something of the carefree, bohemian life I led there and so need here no more than mention it. I spent the summer in Capri and returned to Paris for a few more months, after which I went back to London. Walter, much better off than I, had taken rooms in Pall Mall and I was able to get a room next door to his. I wrote a novel called "The Magician," which was founded on a strange man whom I had seen much of during the months I spent in Paris. It was an indifferent novel.

I was still very poor. But living was cheap in those days and I managed to get along. Among the many friends I had made before I went to Paris was a Mrs. Stephens, widow of the Daily Mail correspondent who had died during the siege of Ladysmith. She knew everyone in the literary and theatrical world of the day. She had a house called Merton Abbey, where Nelson had lived with Emma Hamilton, and throughout the summer gave afternoon parties to which she would invite her friends. At one of these I met a very pretty young woman. She had pale golden hair and blue eyes; except that she was less florid and less buxom, she reminded one of one of Renoir's luscious nudes. She had a lovely figure, but her chief grace was her smile. She had the most beautiful smile I had ever seen on a human being. After that meeting I saw her often. She was by way of being an actress and was married, but unhappily. One evening, after we had dined together at a restaurant, I took her back to my single room in Pall Mall. I became her lover. On the way back in a hansom to where she lived she asked me how long the affair would last. "Six weeks," I answered flippantly. It lasted eight years. I shall call her Rosie.8

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When I look back on my long life I have the impression that pretty well everything that has happened to me has been occasioned by chance. I have had the curiosity to look out the word in the Oxford English Dictionary. Among other definitions I found one that described it as "a matter which falls out or happens; a fortuitous event or occurrence; often, an unfortunate event, mishap, mischance." The word "often" is, I think, unduly pessimistic. In my recollection these fortuitous events, though sometimes disastrous, have more often been to my benefit.

Of all my short stories, "Rain" is that which has become most widely known. I had gone to Honolulu with the intention of taking a ship that would land me at Tahiti. I wanted to go there because I had long had the idea of writing a novel based on the life of Gauguin, of whom I had heard a good deal during the year 1905, which I spent in Paris, and I hoped to find in Tahiti matter that would be useful to me. For some reason which I have forgotten there was no ship to take me there and it appeared I could do nothing but wait for one that put in at Honolulu on the way to New Zealand and stopped to put off passengers at Pago Pago. There I could get a schooner that would take me on. When the ship I was waiting for arrived at Honolulu I booked my passage. The night before this the red-light district of Honolulu, called Iwelei, to the general excitement had been raided by the police. A few minutes before my ship sailed a young woman hurried on board. As we came to know later, she was a prostitute escaping from the law. The other passengers were a doctor and his wife and a missionary with his. When we arrived at Pago Pago, we learned that there was an epidemic of measles there, often a fatal disease among the Kanadas, and telegraphic instructions had been received from Apia to say that the schooner, we–the missionaries, the doctor and his wife, and I–would not be allowed to enter the harbor till it was certain that no member of the crew was affected. We were obliged to stay at Pago Pago till further notice. The delay gave me the opportunity to write the story I wrote. It was given me by pure chance.

On one occasion I happened to be at Singapore and some friends of mine, a lawyer and his wife, asked me to dine with them. When I arrived, my hostess said to me, "We've asked a couple to come to dinner. You won't like them very much, but we had to ask them. They were sailing for Borneo tonight, but the ship is delayed and won't go till tomorrow morning, and as they are at a loose end and don't know anyone here we felt bound to ask them." Then my host told me about the expected guests. The man was Resident in charge of a district in Borneo; he was very competent, but a drunkard. He was in the habit of taking a bottle of whisky to bed with him every night and emptying it before morning. In the end the thing grew to be such a scandal that the governor sent for him and told him that unless he stopped drinking he would have to be fired. The man was good at his job and the governor, a kind man, suggested that he should be given leave for three months, go to England and marry a wife who would keep him straight. This he did and he was passing through Singapore now, completely sobered, to resume his post. My hosts had only just finished telling me this when their guests arrived. They were very ordinary people, both of them, I surmised, in the middle thirties, evidently not out of the top drawer, as people used to say, but quite decent members of the respectable middle class. They were dull. They seemed happy. The wife had never been out of England before and I guessed that she had been glad to get married. When we parted and went our different ways I would never have given them another thought except that what intrigued me was that the man had been in the habit of taking a bottle of whisky to bed with him and drinking it before morning. On that I wrote the story called "Before the Party." Obviously I should never have seen the pair, nor known the facts relevant, unless the ship they were sailing on had been delayed for a few hours. I owed my story to chance.

It could not, however, but occur to me presently that if chance had so much to do with my literary activities I might do worse than see what the learned had to say about it, so I sent to the London Library for a short book by C. D. Board which, by its title "Determinism, Indeterminism, and Libertarianism," seemed to deal with just that. I read it, but could not make head or tail of it, so I read it again, and though I think, I understood it, the conclusion left me disappointed. But I knew that Broad was a philosopher of distinction and I had read those sections of a book of his called "The Mind and Its Place in Nature" which particularly concerned me and which I found plausible and persuasive, so I ascribed my dissatisfaction with the little book to my own stupidity and read it a third time. So far as I could understand, the conclusion that the professor reached was that free will was a possibility; but I received the impression that in his heart of hearts he felt that determinism was more likely to be true. Perhaps it would not be too rash to suggest that chance is as inexplicable as gravitation. We all know that the attractive force of bodies varies directly as to their mass and inversely as the square of the distance between them, but so far as I know, no one has told us why. But if there is no accounting for chance, it does not follow, I should have thought, that its result is undetermined. When you are faced with a choice of actions, you choose one or the other because you are the sort of man you are. Are you responsible for being the sort of man you are? If your choice happens to be bad and you regret it, your regret has made you not quite the sort of man you were and once more surely your choice is determined. I don't like the conclusion, but I don't see how you can escape it.

It was by chance again that I became a popular dramatist. I had written a number of plays and the managers had unanimously refused them. It happened then that a play which was being given at the Court Theater unexpectedly failed and the cast which Otho Stuart, the manager, had engaged for his next production was not immediately available. He was in a quandary. A play of mine, "Lady Frederick," was brought to his notice and though it was not the sort of thing he cared for, his interest being in the theater of ideas, rather than have his theater empty he took my play. He thought it might run for six weeks, by which time the cast for his next production would be at liberty. "Lady Frederick" was a success. It ran for over a year. Its success meant much to me. During my ten years as a professional author I had never earned more than a hundred a year and the three thousand pounds my father left me had gradually dwindled to next door to nothing.

Punch cartoon Shakespeare Maugham

Other managers then took the plays they had hitherto refused and within a few months I had four running in London. Nothing of the sort had ever happened before and it made quite a sensation. My success, as was only natural, made me many new friends and I was made much of. I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Among the friends I made were the Allhusens.9 They had a large house at Stoke Poges and throughout the summer were in the habit of giving weekend parties. They were a pleasant medley of lords, politicians, society beauties, soldiers, sailors and authors. I was a frequent guest. I met Winston Churchill at the Allhusens' soon after he had married the beautiful Clementine Hozier. There were golf links a short drive from their house and Winston and I used to play together. We were very indifferent players; he didn't like being beaten and he was pleased to play with me because we were pretty evenly matched. One Sunday afternoon we had in front of us a very slow couple and after three or four holes we came up to them just as they were about to drive. Winston went up to them. "Would you mind letting us through?" he asked. "I have a Cabinet meeting at six o'clock and I've got to get back to London." The two men could do nothing but answer yes and (mercifully) we both did a good straight drive. Winston, his face set and grim, but with a twinkle in his eyes, thanked them and we walked on. We finished the round and drove back to the Allhusens' in good time to have a substantial tea. Then he went up to his room to rest until it was time to dress for dinner.

Dinner was a formidable ceremony. The ladies wore full evening dress and their diamonds, the men–tails, starched shirts, high collars and white ties. Everyone was seated according to his station. There were many courses–soup, fish, entrees, roasts, puddings, savories and fruit. Then the ladies retired and the men were left to smoke and drink their port. After a decent interval our host suggested that we should join the ladies in the drawing room. Those who played bridge sat down at the card tables, the rest engaged in small talk. Toward midnight our hostess suggested that it was growing late and the party broke up. The women retired, presumably to bed, whereas the men went up to their rooms to take off their tails and put on dinner jackets and assembled in the smoking room to smoke pipes and cigars. On one such evening, it was a Saturday night, there were about ten of us in the smoking room. Among us was a naval officer who was on his first visit to Stoke Poges. He was very self-assured and obviously had a good opinion of himself. He expressed himself well and even brilliantly. He very soon monopolized the conversation. I forget the matter of his really eloquent discourse, but I noticed that it was having a marked effect on Winston. He listened to the young man intently and was evidently impressed by the views he was expounding. I listened too, and I thought he was not only talking nonsense, but dangerous nonsense. The moment came when I could interrupt. I uttered a word, a single word, and everyone burst into a great roar of laughter. With that one word I pricked the bubble.

We separated soon after that to go to our respective rooms. Next morning, when I was sitting alone in the smoking room, reading the Sunday papers, Winston came in. He came straight up to me and said, "I want to make a compact with you." "With me?" "If you will promise never to be funny at my expense, I will promise never to be funny at yours." I could hardly believe my ears. "You're joking," I smiled. "I'm quite serious," he answered. "I want you to promise me that." "Of course I will," I said. "That's all right then," he said and left me to go on reading my Sunday papers. I was at sea. After all, Winston was First Lord and a Cabinet Minister. In those days, when Parliament was held in respect, to be a Cabinet Minister was to hold a position of importance; I was the author of several light comedies which had been extremely successful, but which the intelligentsia damned with even less than faint praise. We lived in different worlds, Winston and I, and how on earth could anything I said be of the least consequence to him? Of course I knew that the reason of Winston's strange request was the episode of the previous night in the smoking room which I have described above. The only explanation I could think of was that to his mind the most dangerous thing a politician had to cope with was ridicule and he wanted to be assured that, at least so far as I was concerned, he had nothing to fear.

I hope the reader of the above will not for a moment think that I have told it to depreciate Winston. That is far from my intention. He is a great man. In this connection I will quote some words of Goethe's: "The great man," he said, "is just like everyone else, except that he has greater virtues and greater defects." Though when he said this Goethe was doubtless thinking of himself, the remark applies very well to Winston. He was already a man of note when he entered Parliament and though his ability was quickly recognized, his self-assurance and arrogance made him many enemies. At this time of day it is hard to realize how intensely unpopular he was. When he left the Conservative party to join the Liberals it was generally asserted that it was to get office under Lloyd George. He was feared, mistrusted and hated.

My plays were produced in the United States and I went yearly to New York to attend rehearsals. Rosie was not a particularly good actress, but good enough for me to be able to get her understudying or small parts in provincial towns.10 She had divorced her husband by then and, though she never dropped even a hint, I knew that she would have liked to marry me. I didn't want to do that–for one reason because I knew that all my friends had been to bed with her. That sounds as though she were something of a wanton. She wasn't. There was no vice in her. It just happened that she enjoyed copulation and took it for granted that when she dined with a man sexual congress would follow. I was growing older. I was in my late thirties and it occurred to me that if I were going to marry I must do so soon.

I had lived for many years with my friend Walter Payne. When "Lady Frederick" brought me my first success we moved from our rooms in Pall Mall to an apartment in Mount Street and two or three years later, with greater affluence, I bought the long lease of a house in Chesterfield Street. It has now been taken over by prostitutes, but then, in the heart of Mayfair as it was, it was quiet and highly respectable. By then Walter had become director of companies. He was a good businessman and looked after my financial affairs as I was incompetent to do so. But our interests had diverged and though he continued to live in my house as a sort of paying guest we were no longer intimate. I began to think that I couldn't do better after all than to marry Rosie. I was not in love with her, but there was no one I liked better. I was fond of her. Why should I bother, I asked myself, that she had been to bed with so many of my friends? I had been pretty promiscuous myself. Finally I made up my mind.

I was about to go to America again. Rosie was acting in some play in the provinces, and with all sorts of things to do before I started I could not see her to say good-bye, but she had been given a good part in a new play that was to open in Chicago and I made up my mind to join her there and ask her to marry me. Before leaving England I went to a jeweler's and bought an engagement ring. Soon after my arrival in New York I went down to the docks to meet the ship on which I knew she had a passage. I saw her come down the gangway. She was talking gaily to a dashing young man of whom I caught a glimpse. We met and kissed. I was disappointed to learn that she couldn't stop even a day in New York since the company was taking a train to Chicago within an hour or two. We arranged that I should come and see her play when I could. I was kept in New York by my work for three or four weeks and as soon as I was free I wired to say that I would come to Chicago on the following day.

I arrived and took a room in the hotel in which Rosie was staying. I called her up. She seemed delighted to hear from me. She asked me not to come to the play as it would make her nervous, so we arranged to have supper together after the show in the small suite that had been allotted to her. I dawdled through the evening and about half past ten Rosie rang up to my room and told me she was ready. I joined her. She was looking her best. I ordered supper and while we ate she talked to me about the play. She had never had so good a part and was pleased with the personal success she had had. Then I rang for the waiter to take the supper things away. After some desultory conversation I said, "Rosie, I've come to Chicago to ask you to marry me." She paused for a moment. "Have you?" she said. "What do you say to it?" I smiled. I was certain of her answer. She paused for what seemed to me quite a long time. Then, "I don't want to marry you," she said. I was taken aback. I knew that for ever so long she had wanted to do so. "D'you mean it?" I asked. "Yes." "Why not?" I asked. "I just don't want to." I couldn't believe her. I supposed she wanted to be pressed. I thought it silly, but I was prepared to humor her. I went on: "I thought you could give a fortnight's notice which would give them time to get someone to take your place. And we'd get married at once and take a train to San Francisco. Then we'll get on a ship and go to Tahiti." "It sounds lovely," she answered. "I don't want to give up my part." "That's absurd," I said irritably. "I've had wonderful notices," she said. I took out of my pocket the engagement ring I had bought and handed it to her. "I bought this for you." She looked at it. "It's very pretty," she said. Looking back, I don't think it was so pretty as all that. It consisted of two rather large pearls set in a small ring of diamonds. She handed it back to me. "Keep it," I said. "No, I won't do that." "Are you serious?" I muttered. "If you want to go to bed with me, you may," she said, "but I won't marry you." I shook my head: "No, I won't do that." We sat in silence for a while. I broke it by saying, "Well, there's nothing more to be said, is there?" "No," she answered. I could see that she wanted me to go. I put the ring back in my pocket, got up, kissed her, and bade her good-bye.

I went back to New York next day and shortly afterward returned to England. Some weeks later, as I was walking down Piccadilly, I caught sight of an Evening Standard placard which was being held by a newsboy. In large letters I read, ACTRESS MARRIES EARL'S SON. I guessed at once who the actress was and bought a paper. I was right. It told me that Rosie had been married in Chicago to the son of a peer.11 I guessed this was the dashing young man I had seen talking so gaily with Rosie as she came down the gangway on her arrival in New York. I knew then why she had refused to marry me. I knew Rosie very well. I knew that if the dashing young man had made a dead set at her on the journey over, she would not have resisted his advances. I knew too how careless she was in these matters. I was pretty sure that when she refused to marry me she was pregnant.12 I never saw her again. I am sure the dashing young man made her a much better husband than I should have done. A few years ago I saw her death announced in the obituary column of the Times. She must then have been well over seventy. I still think of her with tenderness. I repeat, she had the most beautiful smile I have ever seen on a human being and, notwithstanding her moral looseness, she was a very good and very sweet woman. Soon after my return to London I took the engagement ring back to the jeweler who had sold it to me and he gave me the money it had cost less ten percent.

I was born to write. I took to writing as a newborn child takes to breathing. I wrote my first short stories while I was still in my teens, and while I was a medical student I filled notebooks with random jottings. It was only natural that sooner or later it should be borne in upon me that i could make use of Rosie as a character in a novel. I thought about it a great deal. The character was there, vivid in my mind, but I could not for the life of me construct anything in a way of a story in which the comely personage I could construct on my model might play a plausible part. I turned over various projects in my mind, but they did not satisfy me. It was not till fifteen years later that suddenly, out of the blue, coming I know not whence, a scheme presented itself to me that exactly suited my requirements. It was like one of those jigsaw puzzles, once the rage, in which you have, to begin with, a confused jumble of pieces, but which finally you can sort out into a coherent picture. The novel I had in mind was quite clear and I sat down to write. I have never written with more ease and more pleasure. I called it "Cakes and Ale." Of all my books it is the one I like best. When it appeared the critics took me to task because they claimed I had drawn a portrait of Thomas Hardy. I saw him only once. I was dining with Lady St. Helier, who liked to mingle men of letters with lords and ladies. Hardy had been invited and when the women after dinner went upstairs while the men drank port and smoked cigars, I found myself sitting next to him. We chatted until it was time for us to join the ladies. I never saw him again and knew nothing of his life. In point of fact, the character the critics took for a portrait of Hardy was founded on a disreputable writer whom I had known at Whitstable when I was a ward of my Uncle Henry. An author should be credited with some invention. The character whom I called Edward Driffield was necessary for the story I had to tell and even though I had no model to draw from I would have created him.
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