The British novelist William Somerset Maugham (1874-1965), one of the most popular writers in English in the 20th century, is noted for his clarity of style and skill in storytelling.
Born in Paris, on Jan. 25, 1874, where his father was solicitor to the British embassy, Somerset Maugham was orphaned by the time he was 8 years old. He was reared by a paternal uncle, a clergyman, and at 13 was sent to king's School, Cambridge, intended for Oxford and preparation for the Church. Wanting to write, he obtained his uncle's permission to go to Heidelberg for a time. He chose the profession of medicine and spent 6 years in training at a London hospital. A year as an intern in the Lambeth slums followed, but he never practiced. For 10 years he wrote and lived in poverty in Paris.
In 1907 Maugham's first play, Lady Frederick, was successfully produced, and he became known as an author. In the early 1930s he settled in the Villa Mauresque in the south of France, though he continued to travel widely. He was forced to flee the Nazis in 1940 but returned after the war. In 1954, on his eightieth birthday, he was made a Companion of Honour. In 1961 he was named honorary senator of Heidelberg University. Maugham died in Nice on Dec. 16, 1965. Maugham archives were established in the Yale University Library.
The titles of some of Maugham's early novels were familiar to a whole generation of readers: Of Human Bondage (1915), The Moon and Sixpence (1919), Ashenden: or, The British Agent (1938), and Cakes and Ale: or, The Skeleton in the Cupboard (1930). A later novel that had something of the same success was The Razor's Edge (1944). Among his plays, perhaps best known and much produced was Rain (1922). An early autobiography is The Summing Up (1938). Praised by some critics for his craftsmanship and professionalism, he wrote much on the subject of fiction: Essays—Great Novelists and Their Novels (1948); A Writer's Notebook (1949); and The Art of Fiction (1955). His Travel Books appeared in 1955; The Magician, A Novel, Together with a Fragment of Autobiography in 1956; and essays titled Points of View in 1958. In his last years he worked on an autobiography to be published posthumously.
Productive throughout a long life, Maugham is still regarded as having done his great work in the early, largely autobiographical novel Of Human Bondage. Though his work was popular, he had a great many enemies because of his apparently malicious portraits of living people (for example, the characters based on Thomas Hardy and Hugh Walpole in Cakes and Ale) and because his view of humanity seemed to be one of contempt or of patronizing tolerance. He replied to the latter charge that humanity was like that; he also said that his sympathies were limited and that he had never felt some of the fundamental emotions.
A good introduction to Maugham's works is The Maugham Reader (1952). Biographical and critical studies include Cyril Connolly, The Condemned Playground (1946); John Brophy, Somerset Maugham (1952); Karl G. Pfeiffer, W. Somerset Maugham: A Candid Portrait (1959); and Richard A. Cordell, Somerset Maugham: A Biographical and Critical Study (1961). □