CAKES AND ALE (1930) by W. Somerset Maugham

Maugham-Cakes_and-Ale-penguinLate in life, Somerset Maugham claimed that this was the favourite among his novels and it is easy to see why, with its wit and provocative themes handled with consummate skill. It is certainly among his most autobiographical, resurrecting the author’s occasional alter-ego William Ashenden for this tale of social mores, notions of respectability and literary one-upmanship. Subtitled The Skeleton in the Closet, this is not a crime or mystery novel, so I’ll keep this post nice and short but wanted to draw attention to one of the best books I’ve ever read (or re-read).

I offer the following review for Friday’s Forgotten Books meme, hosted today by Todd Mason at Sweet Freedom.

“You must take me as I am, you know,” she whispered.
“All right,” I said.

Ashenden, a successful author now in his mid 50s, much like Maugham himself at the time, tells his life story, focusing in particular on his friendship with the late Edward Driffield and his first wife, the earthy and charming Rosie. He has been contacted by Amy, Driffield’s second wife, via Alroy Kear, a popular writer who plans on writing the official biography (or rather, hagiography) of what is now generally considered to be a great man. Ashenden ultimately opts not to contribute to the project having initially supplied his memories of the time they spent together in his youth, and we eventually find out why and what he really thought of the lovely ex-barmaid Rosie and the talented Driffield, a figure closely modelled on Thomas Hardy.

“I could think of no one of my contemporaries who had achieved so considerable a position on so little talent.”

Despite the author’s denials at the time, the entire work is constructed and designed as an elaborate roman a clef, with Hardy clearly the inspiration for the central figure, Ashenden self-evidently Maugham, while Kear was based on the then popular but now little-read Hugh Walpole. This caused something of a scandal in 1930, with Hardy’s widow Florence taking particular umbrage at her literary equivalent, Amy Driffield, going so far as having a friend publish a novel attacking Maugham entitled Gin and Bitters under the pseudonym ‘A Riposte’ (!) in which he appears as ‘Levesron Hurle.’ While Maugham laughed this off, Walpole was very deeply hurt, ending a friendship between the two men that had lasted almost twenty years. Maugham was known to be cruel but as the subject is truth and the way the establishment tends to filter it in the name of respectability both in fiction and in life, it does make a hard kind of sense and posterity would seem to back up Maugham’s judgements of Walpole’s talents and the banalities that kept realism in art at bay for so long.

“We know of course that women are habitually constipated, but to represent them in fiction as being altogether devoid of a back passage seems to me really an excess of chivalry.”

maugham_cakes-and-ale_pocketAnd yet, for all the intertextual playfulness, this remains an exceptional novel for its witty dialogue, its damning of both literary pretensions and the literary establishment and its unconventional portrait of unconventional lives; and for its general unwillingness to blame or condemn anyone for their choices, even when these cause pain to to others. As my old English Lit teacher used to say, trust the text not the author, and this is triumphantly proved here. Maugham lied a lot about his inspiration for this novel and was apparently not a very nice man at all; but his work, especially in short form, remains remarkably fresh and insightful. Of his novels Of Human Bondage, Cakes and Ale and The Razor’s Edge are the ones that I think stand up the best.

“My imagination played with terrible possibilities. Bigamy, murder, and forgery. Very few villains in books failed to hold the threat of exposure of one of those crimes over some helpless female.”

Cakes and Ale is a fine portrait of a vanished age and about literary heritage, prestige and pretension – and about what a bad idea respectability really is. But mostly it is about posterity, and how people seek to construct and manipulate it, a theme that it seems will never go out of fashion, not when politicians can lie relentless day after day, week after week in 140 characters or less, and nobody cares. Maugham reminds us that we should, that people matter and that truth should always be respected and faced, bravely, intelligently, and humorously. We are not here for long after all – why waste time passing in judgement on others instead of getting on with your own life and making sure you live up to your own standards and expectations?

I’ll be back to reviewing crime and mystery fiction (and Ed McBain!) from next week but probably on an increasingly occasional basis, due to pressures of work and other sorts of real life entanglements – thanks for reading and participating.

***** (5 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in Five Star review, Kent, London, Somerset Maugham. Bookmark the permalink.

42 Responses to CAKES AND ALE (1930) by W. Somerset Maugham

  1. Colin says:

    The only Maugham I’ve read, and that was a while back was Ashenden, which I enjoyed fro the most part.
    Hope those pressures that are keeping you occupied at present aren’t too heavy, although I quite understand your decision to publish less as I’ve been doing the same myself, and also due to real life getting in the way.

    • Cheers matey – I’m not having to do anything as major as you chum, just incredibly busy. Thanks for the kind words. Ashen den I like a lot as a collection – Maugham’s short stories are I think what will survive the longest, but this is a tremendously good novel.

  2. conormg says:

    “Late in life, Somerset Maugham claimed that this was the favourite among his novels and it is easy to see why, with its wit and provocative themes handled with consummate skill. It is certainly among his most autobiographical, resurrecting the author’s occasional alter-ego William Ashenden for this tale of social mores, notions of respectability and literary one-upmanship.”

    With richly informative writing like this your reviews are very welcome, so I am sorry to hear of their “increasingly occasional basis” in the future. All the best, and many thanks.

  3. Margot Kinberg says:

    Sorry to hear that the pressures of life are getting a little extra-heavy right now, Sergio. I hope things ease up soon. In the meantime, I think Maugham is always worth a read, so I’m very glad you featured his work.

    • Thanks Margot – I will do my best to keep up with other blogs of course but even finding the time for that is proving a challenge. But I do have a couple of posts lined up for next week so not quite fallen off the blogging cliff yet 🙂

  4. realthog says:

    I hope those pressures of real life are pleasant rather than irksome ones, Sergio.

    I’ve almost certainly read more Hugh Walpole than I have Maugham, and I remember enjoying the two or three Walpole books that came my way. To be honest, I may not have read any Maugham except for an abortive attempt at Cakes and Ale when I was maybe 15.

    • Thanks for the kind words John – all about turning difficulties into opportunities, or some such humph I’m sure! Well, you may be one of the few people I know who admit to reading Walpole, but Maugham is really worth getting your teeth into, especially the four volumes of collected short stories. And I think The Razor’s Edge can be, if you are in the right mood, a marvellous work – Anthony Burgess even singled it out as one of the best postwar novels in English.

  5. Rosemary says:

    Thank you Sergio. I read the Painted Veil recently, having heard it on the radio, and really enjoyed it. When I was a girl, there were lots of dramatisations of Maugham, but he seems to have fallen very much from favour. Funny that Hardy is generally taken much more seriously. I like Far from the… But hate Tess where he seems to be miserable simply for the sake of it. But he seems to have had the last laugh on Maugham in the posterity stakes. I have some Walpole knocking around and must try it but Cakes and Ale looks like a must.

    Did you ever go to 39 Steps? Hope life fun in its busyness


    • Thanks Rosemary – no, we didn’t make it in the end – they basically overbooked their stay with social events so we just never made it, sad to say, I reckon they would have loved it. In fairness, Maugham was attacking Walpole in particular and the literary establishment in general – he was not actually knocking Hardy, more the way he was lionised after his death. Hardy is I think considered rightly a major author and is not likely to be forgotten. Maugham considered himself in the top rank of the second tier, and I think he is right.

      • Rosemary says:

        I think that is about right too. Still doesn’t help me ‘love’, rather than appreciate, Hardy, although I do love his ‘and is it true?’ poem about Christmas.

        Always good to have leftover things to do on the next visit.

        • A lot of the poetry is wonderful, I agree – RETURN OF THE NATIVE may be the best – and UNDER THE GREENWOOD TREE is at least a happy novel …

          • Rosemary says:

            By the way Sergio, in case you like to collect extra information, and don’t already know it, you may be interested to know that, despite his homosexuality, Maugham was cited in the divorce of Henry Wellcome (the man who founded the Wellcome Trust, major funder of medical research) and married his ex-wife Syrie, who was the daughter of, the great philanthropist, Dr Barnardo, and a noted interior designer.

          • Thanks for that – I did read a bit on that. Apparently their subsequent marroage and divorce was truly diabolical. Got the decree just as he was finishing CAKES AND ALE apparently.

          • Paula Carr says:

            Hi, Sergio, just found you via a link on Moira’s Clothes in Books blog. Very glad to have clicked through. As an English Lit major myself, I found myself loving Hardy’s poetry, while having to slog through his novels. And, based on yours and Moira’s recommendations, I’ll have to give Maugham a go. I’ve only seen the Leslie Howard (one of my sister’s girlhood crushes) film of “Of Human Bondage,” and it seemed rather dated and a bit silly.

          • Thanks very much Paula. Of Human Bondage is probably un-filmable as a movie though perfect as a mini-series. It remains Maugham’s magnum opus in terms of size, but a century later I’m not sure it holds up all that well, even though the characters remain very compelling. The long-suffering Philip and the castrating Mildred are only a part of a lengthy bildungsroman and the movie adaptations always privilege it, to its detriment it seems to me. Howard and Bette David (barring the accent) are good casting (though he is too old for it) but I agree, all seems very strident now! Razor’s Edge holds up much better, I reckon …

  6. Sergio, “Of Human Bondage” is probably the only Maugham I have read and that too many years ago. This has a strong philosophical slant to it, as I have also noticed in the Classics and books from the early 20th century.

    I hope your work and other pressures ease out soon. I know what that’s like. I haven’t been blogging or visiting other blogs much either. Unlike in the past, I no longer force myself to do something — so now I do things only if I have the time and inclination. Good luck to you, Sergio!

  7. Great review! I loved the Ashenden stories very much, and this is one of the many Maughams I have lurking on the shelves ready to read!

  8. vicky blake says:

    As far as I recall Maugham wrote a huge number of very successful plays which are all completely out of fashion but I enjoy his fiction. Thanks for this I haven’t read Cakes and Ale but will look for it.

  9. neer says:

    Sergio, very few can match Maugham’s genius as a short-story writer. As for his novels, I remember reading this book a long time ago and have been meaning to re-read it. After reading your review, I think I really must pick it up.

  10. tracybham says:

    I have not read anything by Maugham and you have piqued my interest. Of course I love that paperback cover. I look forward to whatever posts you have time to share with us.

  11. Patti Abbott says:

    One of my favorite books of all time.

  12. Maugham’s short stories are first-rate. His novels vary in quality. I think Maugham’s work will still be read 100 years from now.

  13. This is one of the best reviews/critiques I’ve read in a long time. And even though this one will not fit well within my reading plan — crimes-and-punishments in novels, stories, and elsewhere — I’m going to scurry off to the library in hopes of finding a copy. Thank you for introducing me to what seems like a first-rate book that I need to add to my “must read” list.
    All the best from a new and improved crimes-and-punishments blogging effort with an unlikely address name:

  14. I’ve never read any Maugham but I may begin with this one, Sergio. Only because you recommend it so highly and so well. Lately I seem to be on a humorous bent (possibly because of the upcoming election – you KNOW how much angst I’m suffering over that – HA!) of the light-hearted sort (even if murder is involved). But eventually I’ll get over it. 🙂

  15. Matt Paust says:

    Read this in a college English class, and loved it then. Time to take another look. Thanks for the reminder, Sergio!

  16. I recently read this book too, and agree with everything you say – it is a terrific book, with complex, interesting characters. I think Maugham is under-rated: he’s rather dismissed as middlebrow and I think he’s much better than that. For a start, his women characters are head and shoulders above those created by his contemporaries… have you seen/read Theatre/Julia, the novella made into a fabulous Annette Bening movie? A wonderful book and film, I think you’d love if you’ve missed it so far…

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