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The Making of a Saint by W. Somerset Maugham

The Making of a Saint

by W. Somerset Maugham

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    Then and Now by W. Somerset Maugham (Waldstein)
    Waldstein: Maugham's two historical novels set in Renaissance Italy - and published within 48 years of each other! A rare opportunity for a comparison that no serious admirer of Maugham should miss. The late novel, Maugham's penultimate one actually, has a few dull descriptions of the political background, yet the plot, the writing and the characterisation are vastly superior to his youthful attempt along the same lines (his second novel actually, published when he was 24 years old).… (more)

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W. Somerset Maugham

The Making of a Saint:
A Romance of Medaieval Italy

Kessinger Publishing, Paperback, n.d.

8vo. 335 pp. Reprint on demand. Illustrated by Gilbert James with 4 black-and-white plates.

First published by L. C. Page (Boston), 31 May 1898
New edition by the St. Botolph Society (Boston), March 1922.


This is Somerset Maugham’s second novel. He was 24 when it was published on the next year after his fairly successful debut, the slum tale Liza of Lambeth. He is said to have called it his “worst book”[1] later in life, and though the source of this claim remains elusive, it’s not hard to believe considering Maugham’s well-known dislike of his early works.[2]

Many years later, Maugham amusingly recalled how he wrote the novel after he read an article by Andrew Lang in which the venerable Victorian advised young writers to write historical novels because they could know nothing yet of their own times. The mature Maugham knew this to be nonsense, but his younger self fell in the trap. He had for some time been immersed in the Italian Renaissance and it occurred to him that the story of Caterina Sforza from Machiavelli’s History of Florence might be a nice idea for a novel. So he wrote it during his next holiday on Capri. He got up at six in the morning every day and toiled with the pen until hunger intervened: “I had at least the sense to spend the rest of the morning in the sea.” Maugham later realised that the truth is precisely the opposite of Lang’s advice. A writer should tackle the historical novel only towards the end of his career when his experience of life and literature is big enough to recreate convincingly times long since passed and people long since dead.[3] So he did; his last two novels, published in 1946 and 1948, were historical, the penultimate one being set in Renaissance Italy as well.

At least one Maugham scholar has failed to trace Lang’s article[4], but it hardly matters whether or not it existed. The novel must stand or fall on its own (de)merits. It stands. Shakily, it is true, but it stands.

If you compare this novel to Cakes and Ale (1930) or The Razor’s Edge (1944), you would find the writing amateurish and the characters wooden beyond belief. All the more so since it is written in the first person singular – a tour de force Maugham didn’t try again until The Moon and Sixpence (1919). If you compare it with Then and Now (1946), Maugham’s other novel set in Renaissance Italy, you cannot but observe how sketchy, at best, is the historical background here. But for the names the story might be taking place in Elizabethan England or ancient Rome and you would never know the difference. It’s fair to say that this is Maugham at his worst and it’s no wonder he didn’t include this novel in The Collected Edition published by Heinemann from 1934 onwards. (In fact, he did include only three of his first eight novels in this edition!)

But one of the things that constantly surprise me about Maugham is how good he is at his worst. The Making of a Saint is not even among his better early books; The Hero (1901) and Mrs Craddock (1902), Maugham’s next two novels, are superior to it in every way. Yet this melodramatic tale of intrigue, seduction and murder is readable, well-constructed, amusing and often exciting. One of its last true editions (as opposed to prints on demand), by Popular Library sometime in the 1960s or 1970s (judging by the staggering price of 75c), called it on the front cover “a sweeping novel of passion and high action”. This is an accurate but incomplete description. It omits a good deal of graphic violence and humour. The latter dimly foreshadows the mature Maugham. For instance, the ironic meaning of the title, though hinted at in the ingenious introduction to the “memoirs” we are offered, becomes clear only when one has finished the novel. In that very introduction, which is as much part of the novel as any of the chapters, Maugham makes a lovely reference to his first novel and, talking from an Italian point of view, a devastating jibe at the prudish reading public in England:

I do not deny that it would have pleased me a little to falsify the history, for the Anglo-Saxons are a race of idealists, as is shown in all their dealing, international and commercial; and truth they have always found a little ugly. I have a friend who lately wrote a story of the London poor, and his critics were properly disgusted because his characters dropped their aitches and often used bad language, and did not behave as elegantly as might be expected from the example they were continually receiving from their betters; while some of his readers were shocked to find that people existed in this world who did not possess the delicacy and refinement which they felt palpitating in their own bosoms. The author forgot that Truth is a naked lady, and that nudity is always shameful, unless it points a moral. If Truth has taken up her abode at the bottom of a well, it is clearly because she is conscious that she is no fit companion for decent people.

The last two sentences are ponderous, if not altogether nonsensical, flourish which the mature Maugham never would have thought of writing. But the rest would not be out of place in one of Maugham’s late essays. Some of the dialogue in this novel, it might be noted, is very nifty. The swift repartee and the serious issues lurking below the light surface have more than a foretaste of the brilliant playwright that Maugham would become later:

“Are you in love with her?”
“No; I was.”
“And now?”
“Now, I do not even hate her.”

“Remember that we hold your children, and shall not hesitate to hang them before your eyes if –“
“I know your Christian spirit, Monsignor,” she interrupted.

“Giorgio? Oh, he's a weak sort of creature; one of those men who commit sins and repent!”
“That is not a fault of which you will ever be guilty, Alessandro,” I said, smiling.
“I sincerely hope not. After all, if a man has a conscience he ought not to do wrong. But if he does he must be a very poor sort of a fool to repent.”
“You cannot have the rose without the thorn.”
“Why not? It only needs care. There are dregs at the bottom of every cup, but you are not obliged to drink them.”
“You have made up your mind that if you commit sins you are ready to go to hell for them?” I said.
“It is braver than going to Heaven by the back door, turning pious when you are too old to do anything you shouldn't.”
“I agree with you that one has little respect for the man who turns monk when things go wrong with him.”

Maugham follows closely Machiavelli’s brief sketch about the violent events in Forli in April 1488[5], but when history fails to supply the details he invents boldly and convincingly. Real historical personalities are vividly brought to life, though most of them appear but seldom. Lorenzo de’ Medici and Pico della Mirandola are granted only cameos when our (anti)hero visits Florence. Girolamo Riario and Caterina Sforza, the count and countess who rule Forli, are relatively prominent and not exactly forgettable figures. Girolamo’s suave manner is memorably sinister, as are his restless eyes, but Caterina Sforza is the standout. She must be one of the smartest, wittiest and bravest women in history, and her scenes – including the notorious one when she is threatened with the death of her children – are highly combustible dramatic stuff. The same goes for the terrifying descriptions of rebellious and marauding crowds. Some of these are truly haunting:

Scarcely one of them remained in the piazza. The corpse was lying on the cold stones, naked, the face close to the house in which the living man had taken such pride; and the house itself, with the gaping apertures from the stolen windows, looked like a building which had been burnt with fire, so that only the walls remained. And it was empty but for a few rapacious men, who were wandering about like scavengers to see whether anything had been left unfound.

Unlike Then and Now, in which the major characters are significant historical figures (Cesare Borgia and Machiavelli himself, no less), here Maugham prefers to concentrate on the obscure. Since history is completely silent about Filippo Brandolini, our lecherous, hedonistic, none too scrupulous yet rather charming narrator, we must assume he was invented for the purposes of fiction. Now and then he slips into all but omniscient narrative, but that’s a failing to be expected in a young and inexperienced novelist.

Most of the novel is concerned with Filippo’s amours. But Maugham being Maugham, even at this tender age he is much more interested in a full and frank picture of love, that mysterious mixture of bliss and despair, rather than in sentimental journeys. In later years Maugham was fond of quoting (as he does here) La Rochefoucauld’s famous maxim that there is always one who loves and one who is loved. He explored this major defect of love in most of his works. One-sided love affairs are central to novels like Mrs Craddock (1902), Of Human Bondage (1915) and The Painted Veil (1925), for instance. This is Filippo’s major problem, too. He describes his own predicament with dispassionate candour that La Rochefoucauld might envy:

I had never enjoyed such happiness before; she was a little cold, perhaps, but I did not mind. I had passion that lived by its own flame, and I cared for nothing as long as she let me love her. And I argued with myself that it is an obvious thing that love is not the same on both sides. There is always one who loves and one who lets himself be loved. […] I did not ask for such love as I gave; all I asked was that my love should let herself be loved. That was all I cared for; that was all I wanted.

This is the zenith of Filippo’s life. As you might guess, the nadir comes, not when he can no longer bear the one-sidedness of love, but when the woman he loves becomes anxious for some variety. This is linked with pathological ideas of honour which Maugham later explored in some of his “Spanish stories”, most notably “The Point of Honour”[6]. Nobody today can take this stuff seriously, but that’s beside the point. Filippo’s fits of rapture and anguish ring true. They form the backbone of his character and most highlights of the novel. Some of his reflections on love and life are not to be dismissed lightly. Granted that the writing is overwrought and even hysterical, I doubt many readers would fail to be moved by these rhetorical outbursts:

One does not really feel much grief at other people's sorrows; one tries, and puts on a melancholy face, – thinking oneself brutal for not caring more; but one cannot, and it is better, for if one grieved too deeply at other people's tears, life would be unendurable; and every man has sufficient sorrows of his own without taking to heart his neighbour's.

Is it not a curious irony that we should recall our miseries with such plainness, and that our happiness should pass over us so indistinctly that, when it has gone, we can scarcely realise that it ever existed?

I bear my soul in patience, but sometimes I cannot help rising up against fate, and crying out that it is hard that all this should happen to me. Why? What had I done that I should be denied the little happiness of this world? Why should I be more unhappy than others? But then I chide myself, and ask whether I have indeed been less happy. Are they any of them happy? Or are those right who say that the world is misery and that the only happiness is to die? Who knows?

Such bleak lines bring to mind Byron’s The Giaour (1813), another violent tale of love, murder and repentance, whose protagonist is described in a way that would fit Filippo Brandolini:

The common crowd but see the gloom
Of wayward deeds – and fitting doom –
The close observer can espy
A noble soul, and lineage high. –
Alas! though both bestowеd in vain,
Which Grief could change – and Guilt could stain –

Whether you take Filippo for a tragic or a pathetic character must depend on the amount of sympathy, if any, he forces you to feel. For my part, his story is closer to tragedy than to melodrama. Either way, The Making of a Saint, though far from Maugham’s best works, is a remarkable achievement for a second novel of a 24-year-old lad. As in many of his early writings, for instance the short story “Faith” (1899) which also contains an ironically anticlerical twist in the end, this novel is recognisably the product of the same mind, immature though it may be, which produced many masterpieces later.

Note on the Edition

Printing on demand is a risky business to get involved into, if only on the buying side. I have had some unpleasant experiences with Kessinger Publishing before, and The Making of a Saint unfortunately cannot be completely excluded from this company. The text is clean and free of typos, but not entirely complete. Two pages (289, 290) are missing. Fortunately, the novel is available on Project Gutenberg where you can read the missing parts. They belong to Chapter XXXIV and are flanked by:

“She made a sign, and the two men were led to the…”


“…centre an enormous space.”

The four illustrations are no great shakes, but they were black-and-white originally in the first edition and, considering Mr James’ penchant for angular figures, probably nothing to rave about. The subtitle “A Romance of Mediaeval Italy” was added for the 1922 edition by The St. Botolph Society, but otherwise the text appears unchanged.

[1] R. T. Stott, A Bibliography of the Works of W. Somerset Maugham, Revised and Extended edition, Kaye & Ward, 1973, p. 25.
[2] See Maugham’s Prefaces to Liza of Lambeth (1934) and The Trembling of a Leaf (1935) for Heinemann’s The Collected Edition and The Summing Up (1938), ch. 9.
[3] See the Preface to Liza of Lambeth for The Collected Edition (1934) and The Summing Up (1938), ch. 43.
[4] John Whitehead, Maugham: A Reappraisal, Barnes & Noble, 1987, pp. 27 & 48.
[5] See Niccolo Machiavelli, History of Florence, and of the Affairs of Italy, Walter Dunne, 1901, Chapter VII, pp. 403-5.
[6] From Maugham’s last collection of short stories, Creatures of Circumstance (1947). See also the Preface to The Travel Books (1955) for an especially gruesome example of Spanish response to cuckoldry. ( )
  Waldstein | Dec 1, 2016 |
A fairly quick read.....Maugham's second novel, one he himself was never fond of later in his career. A relatively simple swashbuckling Italian drama adventure.....one full of lots of wanton death and destruction, revealing this to be an apparent normal state of affairs for this late 1400's Italian time period of conquest, swordplay and defending honor. It was apparently based on an actual event, and it highlights that no matter how unpleasant our world can sometimes seem today, we've come a long way!! Some sappier romantic distractions occur and the overwhelming lighthearted tone of this somewhat violent story felt a little disjointed for me now and then. Overall, no complaints. ( )
2 vote jeffome | Feb 16, 2014 |
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Quanto e bella giovinezza,
Che si fugge tuttavia;
Chi vuol esser lieto, sia,
Di doman non c'e certezza.

Youth – how beautiful is youth!
But, alas, elusive ever!
Let him be light of heart who would be so,
For there's no surety in the morrow.
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These are the memoirs of the Beato Giuliano, brother of the Order of St Francis of Assisi, known in his worldly life as Filippo Brandolini; of which family I, Giulo Brandolini, am the last descendant.
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This is a classic novel, which takes place during 15th Century Italy. These are the memoirs of the Beato Giuliano, brother of the Order of St. Francis of Assisi, known in his worldly life as Filippo Brandolini.

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