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W. Somerset Maugham: The Critical Heritage…

W. Somerset Maugham: The Critical Heritage (1987)

by Anthony Curtis

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W. Somerset Maugham
The Critical Heritage

Edited by Anthony Curtis and John Whitehead

Routledge, Hardback, 1987.

8vo. xviii+470 pp. Compilation, introduction, notes, bibliography and index by Anthony Curtis and John Whitehead.

First published, 1987.


Note on the selection and its arrangement

I. BOOKS (1897–1909)

Liza of Lambeth
(September 1897, Fisher T. Unwin; September 1921, Doran)

1. Edward Garnett, reader's report, January 1897
2. Unsigned review, Academy, September 1897
3. Jane H. Findlater, essay, National Review, May 1900

The Making of a Saint
(May 1898, L.C. Page, Boston; June 1898, Fisher T. Unwin)

4. Unsigned review, Literature, August 1898
5. Unsigned review, Academy, September 1898

(June 1899, Fisher T. Unwin; no American edition)

6. Unsigned review, Athenaeum, June 1899
7. Unsigned review, Academy, July 1899

Mrs Craddock
(November 1902, Heinemann; 1920, George H. Doran)

8. Unsigned review, Academy and Literature, November 1902
9. A. St John Adcock, review, Bookman (London), December 1902

The Merry-Go-Round
(September 1904; no American publication edition)

10. Unsigned review, Academy and Literature, October 1904
11. Unsigned review, Athenaeum, October 1904

The Land of the Blessed Virgin
(January 1905, Heinemann; July 1920, Knopf)

12. Unsigned review, Athenaeum, March 1905
13. Virginia Woolf, unsigned review, Times Literary Supplement, May 1905

The Bishop's Apron
(February 1906, Chapman and Hall; no American edition)

14. 'The Baron de B[ook]-W[orms]' [Sir F.C. Burnand], review, Punch, February 1906

The Magician
(November 1908, Heinemann; February 1909, Duffield)

15. 'Oliver Haddo' [Aleister Crowley], review, Vanity Fair (London), December 1908
16. Unsigned review, New York Times, February 1909

II. PLAYS (1903–1914)

A Man of Honour (February 1903)
17. E. K. Chambers, review, Academy and Literature, February 1903
18. Max Beerbohm, review, Saturday Review (London), March 1904

Lady Frederick (October 1907)
19. J.T. Grein, review, Sunday Times, October 1907
20. Reginald Turner, review, Academy, November 1907

Jack Straw (March 1908)
21. J.T. Grein, review, Sunday Times, March 1908
22. Max Beerbohm, review, Saturday Review (London), April 1908

Mrs Dot (April 1908)
23. Unsigned review, Illustrated London News, May 1908
24. J.T. Grein, review, Sunday Times, May 1908

The Explorer (June 1908)
25. J.T. Grein, review, Sunday Times, June 1908
26. Max Beerbohm, review, Saturday Review (London), June 1908

Penelope (January 1909)
27. J.T. Grein, review, Sunday Times, January 1909
28. William Archer, review, Nation (London), January 1909

Smith (September 1909)
29. J.T. Grein, review, Sunday Times, October 1909
30. Unsigned review, Athenaeum, October 1909

The Tenth Man (February 1910)
31. J.T. Grein, review, Sunday Times, February 1910

Grace (Landed Gentry) (October 1910)
32. J.T. Grein, review, Sunday Times, October 1910

Loaves and Fishes (February 1911)
33. Unsigned review, Times, February 1911
34. A.A. Milne, review, Punch, March 1911

The Land of Promise
(December 1913 [New Haven, Conn.]; February 1914 [London])

35. Unsigned review, New York Times, December 1913
36. J.T. Grein, review, Sunday Times, March 1914
37. S.O., review, English Review, May 1914

III. BOOKS (1915–1933)

Of Human Bondage
(August 1915, Doran, Heinemann)

38. Unsigned review, Times Literary Supplement, August 1915
39. Gerald Gould, review, New Statesman, September 1915
40. Unsigned review, Athenaeum, August 1915
41. Theodore Dreiser, review, New Republic, December 1915
42. Marcus Aurelius Goodrich, essay, New York Times, January 1925

The Moon and Sixpence
(April 1919, Heinemann; July 1919, George H. Doran)

43. Katherine Mansfield, review, Athenaeum, May 1919
44. Unsigned review, Saturday Review (London), May 1919
45. Maxwell Anderson, review, Dial, November 1919

The Trembling of a Leaf
(September 1921, George H. Doran; October 1921, Heinemann)

46. Louise Maunsell Field, review, New York Times, November 1921
47. Unsigned review, Saturday Review (London), November 1921
48. Rebecca West, review, New Statesman, November 1921

On a Chinese Screen
(October 1922, George H. Doran; November 1922, Heinemann)

49. Louise Maunsell Field, review, New York Times, February 1923
50. Gerald Gould, review, Saturday Review (London), January 1923

The Painted Veil
(March 1925, George H. Doran; April 1925, Heinemann)

51. Unsigned review, New York Times, March 1925
52. P.C. Kennedy, review, New Statesman, May 1925
53. Unsigned review, Times Literary Supplement, May 1925

The Casuarina Tree
(September 1926, Heinemann, Doran)

54. L.P. Hartley, review, Saturday Review (London), September 1926
55. Edwin Muir, review, Nation and Athenaeum, October 1926
56. Henry Albert Philips, review, New York Evening Post, October 1926

(March 1928, Heinemann, Doran)

57. Edward Shanks, review, London Mercury, May 1928
58. D.H. Lawrence, review, Vogue, July 1928
59. Unsigned review, New York Times, April 1928

The Gentleman in the Parlour
(February 1930, Heinemann; April 1930, Doubleday Doran)

60. Unsigned review, Times Literary Supplement, March 1930
61. Bellamy Partridge, review, New York Herald Tribune, April 1930
62. Arthur Colton, Saturday Review of Literature (New York), June 1930

Cakes and Ale
(September 1930, Heinemann; October 1930, Doubleday Doran)

63. Ivor Brown, review, Observer, October 1930
64. Evelyn Waugh, review, Graphic, October 1930
65. Leslie A. Marchand, review, New York Times, October 1930

Six Stories Written in First Person Singular
(September 1931, Doubleday Doran, Heinemann)

66. Lee Wilson Dodd, review, Saturday Review of Literature (New York), October 1931
67. L.A.G. Strong, review, Spectator, October 1931

The Narrow Corner
(November 1932, Heinemann, Doubleday Doran)

68. Anne Armstrong, review, Saturday Review (London), November 1932
69. Florence Haxton Britten, review, New York Herald Tribune, November 1932

Ah King
(September 1933, Heinemann; November 1933, Doubleday Doran)

70. William Plomer, review, Spectator, September 1933
71. Florence Haxton Britten, review, New York Herald Tribune, November 1933

IV. PLAYS (1916–1933)

Caroline (The Unattainable) (February 1916)
72. J.T. Grein, review, Sunday Times, February 1916

Our Betters
(March 1917 [New York]; September 1923 [London])

73. Unsigned review, New York Evening Post, March 1917
74. Desmond MacCarthy, review, New Statesman, October 1923

Caesar's Wife (March 1919)
75. Unsigned review, Times, March 1919
76. William Archer, review, Weekly Review (New York), June 1919

Home and Beauty (Too Many Husbands)
(August 1919 [Atlantic City, London])

77. Aldous Huxley, review, Athenaeum, September 1919
78. Alexander Woollcott, review, New York Times, October 1919

The Unknown (August 1920)
79. Unsigned review, Times, August 1920
80. Frank Swinnerton, review, Nation (London), August 1920

The Circle (March 1921)
81. Desmond MacCarthy, review, New Statesman, March 1921
82. W.J. Turner, review, London Mercury, April 1921

East of Suez (September 1922)
83. James Agate, review, Saturday Review (London), September 1922
84. Desmond MacCarthy, review, New Statesman, October 1922

The Constant Wife
(November 1926 [Ohio]; April 1927 [London])

85. Robert Benchley, review, Life, December 1926
86. Ivor Brown, review, Saturday Review (London), April 1927

The Letter (February 1927)
87. Unsigned review, Times, February 1927
88. Ivor Brown, review, Saturday Review (London), March 1927

The Sacred Flame
(November 1928 [New York]; February 1929 [London])

89. J. Brooks Atkinson, review, New York Times, November 1928
90. J.T. Grein, review, Illustrated London News, February 1929

The Bread-Winner (September 1930)
91. Desmond MacCarthy, review, New Statesman, October 1930
92. J.B. Priestley, review, Saturday Review of Literature (New York), November 1930

For Services Rendered (November 1932)
93. Peter Flemming, review, Spectator, November 1932
94. J.T. Grein, review, Illustrated London News, November 1932

Sheppey (September 1933)
95. Desmond MacCarthy, review, New Statesman, September 1933
96. J.T. Grein, review, Illustrated London News, September 1933

V. BOOKS (1933–1959)

East and West
(August 1934, Doubleday Doran)
(Altogether (August 1934, Heinemann))

97. Louis Kronenberger, review, New York Times, August 1934
98. Raymond Mortimer, review, New Statesman and Nation, August 1934
99. Graham Greene, review, Spectator, August 1934

Don Fernando
(June 1935, Heinemann; July 1935, Doubleday Doran)

100. Graham Greene, review, Spectator, June 1935
101. Raymond Mortimer, review, New Statesman and Nation, June 1935
102. Terence Holliday, review, New York Herald Tribune, July 1935
103. Osbert Sitwell, review, London Mercury, September 1935

(February 1936, Doubleday Doran; March 1936, Heinemann)

104. Florence Haxton Britten, review, New York Herald Tribune, February 1936
105. Unsigned review, Times, March 1936

(March 1937, Doubleday Doran, Heinemann)

106. Bernard DeVoto, review, Saturday Review of Literature (New York), March 1937
107. Elizabeth Bowen, review, New Statesman and Nation, March 1937

The Summing Up
(January 1938, Heinemann; March 1938, Doubleday Doran)

108. Montgomery Belgion, review, Criterion, 1938
109. Graham Greene, review, Spectator, January 1938
110. Stephen Vincent Bennet, review, Saturday Review of Literature (New York), April 1938
111. Malcolm Cowley, review, New Republic, March 1938

Christmas Holiday
(February 1939, Heinemann; October 1939, Doubleday Doran)

112. Evelyn Waugh, review, Spectator, February 1939
113. Richard A. Cordell, review, Saturday Review of Literature (New York), October 1939

Books and You
(March 1940, Heinemann, Doubleday Doran)

114. Lorine Pruette, review, New York Herald Tribune, April 1940

The Mixture as Before
(June 1940, Heinemann; July 1940, Doubleday Doran)

115. V.S. Pritchett, review, New Statesman and Nation, June 1940
116. Iris Barry, review, New York Herald Tribune, July 1940

Up at the Villa
(April 1941, Doubleday Doran; May 1941, Heinemann)

117. Morton Dauwen Zabel, review, Nation (New York), May 1941
118. Pamela Hansford Johnson, review, Books of the Month, June 1941

The Hour Before the Dawn
(June 1942, Doubleday Doran; no English edition)

119. Unsigned review, Nation (New York), July 1942
120. R. Ellis Roberts, review, Saturday Review of Literature (New York), June 1942

The Razor's Edge
(April 1944, Doubleday Doran; July 1944, Heinemann)

121. Joseph Warren Beach, review, New York Times, April 1944
122. Diana Trilling, review, Nation (New York), May 1944
123. Kate O'Brien, review, Spectator, July 1944
124. Cyril Connolly, review, New Statesman and Nation, August 1944

Then and Now
(May 1946, Heinemann, Doubleday)

125. V.C. Clinton-Baddeley, review, Spectator, May 1946
126. Edmund Wilson, review, New Yorker, June 1946

Creatures of Circumstance
(July 1947, Heinemann, Doubleday)

127. Olivia Manning, review, Spectator, August 1947
128. Charles Lee, review, New York Times, July 1947

(August 1948, Heinemann; October 1948, Doubleday)

129. Paul Bloomfield, review, Manchester Guardian, August 1948
130. Orville Prescott, review, New York Times, October 1948

Great Novelists and Their Novels (September 1948, Winston)
(Ten Novels and Their Writers (October 1954, Heinemann))

131. John W. Aldridge, review, Saturday Review of Literature (New York), October 1948
132. Noel Annan, review, New Statesman and Nation, November 1954

A Writer's Notebook
(October 1949, Heinemann, Doubleday)

133. Charles Morgan, review, Spectator, October 1949
134. V.S. Pritchett, review, New Statesman and Nation, October 1949
135. W.H. Auden, review, New York Times, October 1949
136. S.N. Behrman, review, New Yorker, October 1949

The Vagrant Mood
(October 1952, Heinemann; December 1953, Doubleday)

137. Sir John Squire, review, Illustrated London News, November 1952
138. Christopher Morley, review, New York Times, April 1953

Points of View
(November 1958, Heinemann; 1959, Doubleday)

139. Frank Kermode, review, Manchester Guardian, November 1958
140. Karl G. Pfeiffer, review, New York Herald Tribune, May 1959

141. J.P. Collins, essay, Bookman (London), October 1919
142. H.E. Bates, from The Modern Short Story, 1941
143. Sewell Stokes, essay, Theatre Arts (New York), February 1945
144. Unsigned leading article, Times Literary Supplement, January 1954
145. Unsigned leading article, New York Times, January 1954
146. John Raymond, review, New Statesman and Nation, January 1954
147. J.D. Scott, review, Spectator, January 1954
148. Christopher Isherwood, from Great English Short Stories, 1957
149. Walter Allen, tribute, New York Times, January 1964
150. Cyril Connolly, obituary, Sunday Times, December 1965

Select Bibliography


* In the table of contents the dates placed in brackets against titles are those of first publication in the case of books or first production in the case of plays. Two dates against any item indicate publication or production in both London and New York.
A.C. & J.W., Note on the selection and its arrangement.

I have added myself the publishers, the dates of few First American editions and corrected several minor slips, for the sake of clarity, completeness and conscientiousness, respectively. A.A.


I am notorious for making promises and not keeping them. There, I have just broken another one. Once I have promised to myself that there is one and only one book entirely dedicated to Somerset Maugham which I would never read: volume in The Critical Heritage series. When I am wrong, I say I'm wrong.

I was wrong about that book. Of course it is full of completely pointless stuff ranging from vacuous and flippant pieces to acrimonious ranting and malicious tirades. For students of literature eager to study the critical reception Maugham received during his lifetime, this book is indispensable. The common mortals interested in Maugham's personality and deeper appreciation of his work will find very little in these 470 pages they don't already know – provided that they have read carefully a good deal of Maugham, of course.

But, oh boy, what a fun to read!

But business first!

I daresay a decisive factor in my acquiring this book were the names of the editors. Both Anthony Curtis and John Whitehead are world renowned Maugham buffs for whom I have a lot of respect; indeed, for Mr Curtis this respect is mingled with something very much like admiration. That's saying a great deal – because about almost all of their colleagues in the field of literary criticism I have nothing but contempt.

Both Mr Curtis and Mr Whitehead have written critical studies of Maugham's complete oeuvre: the brilliant The Pattern of Maugham (1974) and the decent Maugham: A Reappraisal (1987), respectively; the latter might indeed have been partly stimulated by Mr Whitehead's editorial work on this volume for it was first published in the same year. All Maugham lovers also know, and should be grateful for, that Mr Whitehead was the man who compiled, edited and introduced the priceless collection of uncollected writings A Traveller in Romance (1984) which consists of 65 pieces spanning 63 years of Maugham's life that had never before been available in book form.

So when it comes to Somerset Maugham these gentlemen know pretty well what they're doing. There is no reason to suppose that they did not make the best of a really bad job when they chose 150 pieces out of the 2355 as listed in Sander's bibliography of writings about Maugham. They certainly achieved a very pleasant degree of completeness: apart from pamphlets and unpublished/unproduced plays, almost every single book and play Maugham ever published during his lifetime has at least one review reprinted here.

There are several omissions of course, but none of them is terrible. Some early novels like The Hero (1901) and The Explorer (1908), or rather obscure plays like The Landed Gentry (written and produced in 1910), are omitted; and so are Maugham's exercise in pure propaganda France at War (1940) or his closest to autobiography work, Strictly Personal (1941), but they don't in the least add to or change the general pattern of Maugham's stupendous output.

Having praised, with commendable moderation I hope, the editors of this volume, it will come as absolutely no surprise to note that the best part of it is the long introduction by them. It has a few exasperating points, to be sure, but it also has quite a number of perceptive ones. The remark for which I should like to thank warmly Messrs Curtis and Whitehead is their blunt statement that during his life Maugham was by far his own best critic, and that those who wrote reviews of his books often tended to be superficial. Or in their own words:

In the first place, during his lifetime the best critic of his work was Maugham himself – in The Summing Up, the prefaces to the collected editions and elsewhere. He was under no illusions as to its quality or value, appraising it coolly and judiciously; whereas reviewers tended to be erratic, superficial or merely prejudiced.

Nor do the editors make any bones that some of the most notorious, and scathing, reviews Maugham received from fellow writers were obviously motivated more by personal dislike than by anything else. On the whole, the introduction is an excellent summary of Maugham's vast literary output during the six decades of his writing career and especially how the critical opinion towards him changed through the years: from the promising reviews of the young Maugham, through the almost unanimous praise of the Far Eastern stories and non-fiction works of his middle period, until the Grand Old Man of Letters phase late in his life.

The material is beautifully arranged in partly chronological, partly thematic way, and one can easily find any specific book or play one is looking for. The editors have supplied all contributors, from the most famous to the most obscure, with short introductory notes so that one should know whom one's dealing with. Most of Maugham's books and plays, too, have short and informative notes which put them in the right context of Maugham’s life and career.

Only a few times did Messrs Curtis and Whitehead write pure nonsense in this admirable introduction of theirs. Their claim that Maugham explored very different themes in his plays than in his non-dramatic works is bogus; not surprisingly, the themes in question are not mentioned. The statement that Maugham was partly to blame about the poor quality of the contemporary criticism of his works is positively ludicrous; the editors' argument is that he deliberately treated many ''sacred cows'' like religion, class and sexual morality in a disrespectful way. He certainly did, but what this has to do with the literary criticism I still fail to see.

Finally, the well-known tale how much Maugham resented his critics is here, too. It is so often encountered in the literature about the great writer that it has become almost a cliché, and a largely fictional one at that. Maugham sure cared for criticism more than he often confessed; there is quite enough evidence that he did read reviews of his works and he read them carefully. But that proverbial resentment that he is supposed to have felt for the critics is like his own personal unhappiness: largely a myth which rests on a very tiny piece of evidence. I have a notion that this resentment was created by the critics themselves in order to augment their own importance because they had the uneasy feeling that Maugham never took them very seriously; so was Maugham's personal unhappiness probably invented by people who were offended that they alone should be unhappy and naturally thought that the others, especially the successful ones, should be unhappy too. As usual, Maugham himself summarised the matter more brilliantly than anybody else:

I have been much praised and much blamed. Though I have been elated by the praise and cast down by the blame I have never let either disturb me in my chosen course. I should have been very willing to learn from the many criticisms of my work that I have read, but I have not found them very helpful. I suppose it is asking too much from a critic, who is often hurried and always ill-paid, that he should take the trouble to indicate an author's faults in such a way that he may be enabled to correct them. Perhaps my critics never thought it worth while to make the attempt; perhaps they had not the capacity.[1]

Now I come to the funny part, and the greatest fun most certainly are the famous and so often quoted reviews by Katherine Mansfield of The Moon and Sixpence and by D. H. Lawrence of Ashenden, as well as the legendary with its viciousness attack by Edmund Wilson on Then and Now and Maugham in general. The very fact that so many biographers thought such amazingly crappy stuff worth quoting is amusing. Reading these pieces is downright hilarious. They are so obviously motivated by personal animosity that one must be entirely devoid of mental resources to take them seriously. But it must be a dullard he who fails to be entertained by such stupendous distortion, outstanding ability to miss the point, and strenuous striving to fit everything into the world of one's own prejudices.

In the case of D.H. Lawrence the problem seems to have been Maugham's wealth, as revealed in his letters, and his popularity with the general reading public, not to mention his readability, probably was the lump in the throats of both Miss Mansfield and Mr Wilson. At least in the first two cases, it is saying a great deal that both The Moon and Sixpence and Ashenden are now considered classics; indeed, the latter was probably Maugham's most influential book since it became the foundation of the whole spy genre, the ''Bond, James Bond'' stuff included.

I should also like to mention another detail that is often badly neglected. Whatever Maugham thought of D.H. Lawrence or Katherine Mansfield, or their shameful ''reviews'', he did think well enough of them to include their work in his anthologies. Short stories by Miss Mansfield are to be found in all of them: The Traveller's Library (1933), Tellers of Tales (1939) and Great Modern Reading (1943). So, indeed, are works by Mr Lawrence, short stories in the first two books and two letters in the last one, even though The Traveller's Library was published just five years after his despicable ranting about Ashenden.

Maugham may well have had harsh words about both Katherine Mansfield and D.H. Lawrence, though far less vicious than their rambling, but in the selections about his anthologies he showed himself as a remarkably disinterested person. Now that is not something you often find in literary circles. Would Miss Mansfield or Mr Lawrence have included in their anthologies, had they compiled any, works of Somerset Maugham? I don't think so.

But the case of Edmund Wilson is pure pathology of human behaviour. Katherine Mansfield and D.H. Lawrence cannot hold a candle to such bitterness, viciousness, malice and pure hatred. Admittedly, Maugham's late historical novel Then and Now (1946) is not among his best creations (though I do think it's pretty close to them), but still: ''one of the most tasteless and unreadable books'', ''one of the less brilliant contributions to a prep-school magazine'', etc., etc. Mr Wilson also deftly used the opportunity to degrade Maugham's whole literary position reaching the absolute peak of deliberate perversity with this unforgettable description:

...half-trashy novelist, who writes badly, but is patronized by half-serious readers, who do not care much about writing.[2]

This from one of America's leading men of letters! I wonder whom I should be more sorry about: Mr Wilson himself or America as a whole. Trying to refute Mr Wilson's accusations obviously means nothing more than debasing myself to his own level. His motives are quite irrelevant, too. What should be stressed, though, is his competence in the matter, or lack of such indeed. Apparently, he later confessed that he had never read Of Human Bondage, Cakes and Ale and The Razor's Edge[3], not to mention that he read some of Maugham's short stories only after receiving many angry letters from Maugham fans – and only to dismiss them as ''magazine commodities''. But the case with the novels really passes belief. If that is true, Mr Wilson's stature as one of the leading literary critics of the twentieth century may well be in need of the same treatment as that of Eduard Hanslick as one of the leading musical critics of the nineteenth: thorough revision.

Now, if you are a literary critic and if you are going to evaluate a writer's career, let alone launch a scathing assault on him, the least you must do is to read carefully his complete works, even the most immature and obscure ones. Unless you're ready to do that, you have no right to write a single word about the author in question, let alone to dismiss contemptuously his literary position. It is tragic that so many people would later accept Mr Wilson's invective almost as a gospel, including his description of Maugham's writing style as ''a tissue of clichés''. I have never been able to accept it as such, and I would challenge anybody to present to me another writer's style which has so high a degree of uniqueness, clichés or no clichés, not to mention lucidity, simplicity, insight and power.

Yet, such unintentionally hilarious reviews are important historical documents one should be aware of, even if only to laugh one's head off. So is the piece, unfortunately omitted from this collection, that appeared in the New York World and gave the now legendary description of Philip Carey's obsession as ''the sentimental servitude of a poor fool''. Among the fascinating bits of literary history, here is the glowing review of Theodore Dreiser which is supposed to have been an important factor in establishing Of Human Bondage (1915) as a classic; for all its effusive adulation, not only does it make a pleasant read, but it does have several unusually shrewd moments.

Another review that, quite unintentionally, went on to made literary history is the one in the Times Literary Supplement (August 12, 1915) which described Philip Carey as a hero who was ''so busy yearning for the moon that he never saw the sixpence at his feet''. So much did Maugham like the description that he called his next novel The Moon and Sixpence (1919), though the title is much less appropriate to Charles Strickland than it is to Philip Carey, as the perspicacious editors rightly observed. Likewise, Maugham loved so much Mr Maugham's Mixture as Before, the disparaging review of his short story collection Cosmopolitans (1936) that he – well, he named his next collection The Mixture as Before (1940), graciously acknowledging in the Foreword his debt to the unknown reviewer's acumen. This particular review is also one the most stupendously ridiculous ever written about Maugham's work. It is downright mind-boggling how the reviewer could describe 29 very short stories the ''mixture as before'' when Maugham's five previous collections consisted of six very long short stories each. No wonder that the review is unsigned.

Much more serious and useful is Raymond Mortimer's review of Don Fernando (1935) which prompted Maugham to do something exceptional: to revise a book in order to improve it because of constructive criticism. It must be added, though, that Desmond MacCarthy's review of The Summing Up (1938), unfortunately omitted here, also played role in this revision.

Unequally important historically, and excruciatingly dull and tedious as well, is the review of Aleister Crowley himself, certainly included here as some kind of historical curiosity rather than for any intrinsic value. Apparently the charlatan was so outraged to recognise himself as a chief source for the main character in The Magician (1908), that he decided to set the record straight by reviewing the book for Vanity Fair under the name of this very character: Oliver Haddo. The review, if it may be called thus at all, is one of the longest in the book and consists almost entirely of comparing quotes and showing quite convincingly that Maugham shamelessly plagiarized passages from several great discourses on black magic and other stuff of similarly childish nature. As if it mattered!

Another charming piece which every biographer of Maugham quotes, but it's really nice to read in its entirety, is Edward Garnett's reader's report of A Lambeth Idyll, a working title of Maugham's first novel which he wrote as a 23-year old medical student and which was later published as Liza of Lambeth. Should Garnett's report in January 1897 not have been so positive, Maugham's debut novel might not have appeared under the printers of Fisher T. Unwin later on the same year and God knows how Maugham's life might have developed. He would probably have gone into the medical profession, though it is inconceivable that he would have remained there for very long; his compulsion to write was much too strong for that. Certainly, however, Maugham would have become a different writer, perhaps very different, perhaps not; he may again have become famous or he may have remained obscure until the end of his life. Tantalising speculations. But aside from such futile fantasy games and the indisputable historical significance of many pieces, there is indeed very little to admire here.

Reading a review here and there throughout this volume, I cannot but be struck how incredibly superficial most of these pieces are. It is very seldom that one can find something fresh, insightful or perceptive in them; for the most part they are, to use Mr Wilson's phrase in a somewhat different context, a tissue of clichés. Typical example is the review of First Person Singular (1931) written by one Lee Wilson Dodd and published in Saturday Review of Literature (New York, 17 October 1931). He starts with the assertion that Maugham is ''the most competent'' of writers and he never tires of harping on this profound observation until the end of his review. He doesn't even mention the titles of four of the six stories in the collection.

Another outstanding review is the one by Olivia Manning of Maugham's last short story collection, Creatures of Circumstance (1947), which appeared in Spectator (August 1947) and runs to the remarkable length of one paragraph of exactly six lines. It tells us that these fifteen stories are mere entertainment but those who don't find them so are indeed hard to entertain. How could one help being diverted, with a condescending smile now and then, when reading such charming inanity?

It is a wonder that the unsigned reviews are not more, though there are quite a few of them. It seems that the despicable practice of writing a review without having the guts to put your name under it was very popular in the early (and not so early) twentieth century. It is amusing to reflect about the motives that might have been behind this anonymity in, say, so highbrow a magazine as Athenaeum. Were they proud enough of their reviewers to stand by them regardless of their names? Or were they too ashamed of them to even mention their names?

Surprisingly or not, there is on the whole a good deal of positive criticism among the reviews, sometimes even unabashed praise; not surprisingly at all, it is exactly as trite, superficial and useless as the negative one; only it is less amusing, and it gets tedious more quickly. There is also a good deal of criticism which is simply too dull to be amusing, the pretentiousness, pomposity and priggishness of Ivor Brown being an excellent example in this case; I no longer wonder he made so big a hash of so small a book as Maugham's slight portrait in the International Profiles series (1970).

Then there are other pieces, quite a number of them indeed, which are so ridiculously preposterous that one's pleasure is almost spoiled. Wonderful examples here are Frank Swinnerton's bitterness towards Maugham's popular success (remarked by the editors) and his completely nonsensical whining about Maugham's play The Unknown as well as Malcolm Cowley's ''review'' of The Summing Up which assumes the form of whiny complaint why Maugham never wrote another novel as great as Of Human Bondage. Needless to say, the obvious inanity of the statement, and the even more idiotic one that Maugham was ''separated by success from the circles that gave him his best subjects'', are the best possible examples for the highly detestable intellectual snobbishness of the literary critics and their truly pathetic inability to appreciate what they don't naturally like.

Fortunately, almost all of the reviews are admirably short. In one sentence, The Critical Heritage volume dedicated to Somerset Maugham is an excellent bedtime read when you are too tired to read anything worth reading.

There are few points more I should like to make.

Interestingly, Maugham's dramatic works fare much better in terms of criticism than his non-dramatic ones. Whether this is due to the fact that he was both very successful and very modern on the stage (whereas in his fiction he was only the former), or the reason is the higher quality of the reviewers themselves, I am not sufficiently learned to say. But it is notable that, firstly, there is a lot of repetition among the names of the drama critics and, secondly, their criticism is on the whole more sensible and certainly subtler than the one of their colleagues reviewing novels and short stories.

At all events, the reviews of Max Beerbohm, J.T. Grein and especially Desmond MacCarthy are well worth reading. These are men with exquisite writing styles, vast knowledge of the stage and remarkable personalities. One immediately sees why Maugham himself had a great respect for Mr MacCarthy and even once called him “not only a man of letters but also a man of the world”.[4] Both are considerable compliments from Maugham's lips, much more so from his pen.

Unlike many, many others who have reviewed Maugham and find place in this volume of The Critical Heritage series, Mr MacCarthy obviously had read quite a bit of Maugham and had thought seriously over it before he wrote his reviews. Most importantly, and an equally rare phenomenon, he does take Maugham seriously. His review of Our Betters (New Statesman, October 1923) is a minor masterpiece. It also is a well-known and most fascinating example of all too rare critical perspicacity. Mr MacCarthy pointed out as one the play's faults that it should have been Elizabeth, not Lord Bleane, who discovered the scandalous tea house escapade in the second act. Later Maugham wrote in New Statesman that he had indeed written the play that way, but he had to change it due to censorship. It was only human of Mr MacCarthy to mention this in a footnote (reprinted here).

The case is so extraordinary that I sometimes wonder, cynically and rather unkindly, if Mr MacCarthy didn't know the play before its London premiere. After all, Our Betters had been first produced in New York, causing an expected storm of controversy due to national prejudice, full six years earlier, and as far as I know there had been no problems with the moralists of the day. Interestingly, too, the play was published by Heinemann in September 1923, the previous month before Mr MacCarthy's review appeared in New Statesman.

I wonder if it is a coincidence, but it is funny to note that the more famous the reviewer, the higher his or her classical status as creative writer, the worse reviews he or she writes. The aforementioned pathetic tirades of Katherine Mansfield and D.H. Lawrence are excellent examples, but Graham Greene's trite and superficial ranting or Rebecca West's worthless blabbering will do nicely, too. Even when such writers are more sympathetic to Maugham, most notably in the case of Evelyn Waugh, they have very little to say about his works but what is obvious to every person of average intelligence who has read these works carefully.

The best reviews of Maugham's non-dramatic works, surprisingly or not, come from the most forgotten today, like the totally obscure novelist Louise Maunsell Field for instance. She doesn't say anything strikingly original about The Trembling of a Leaf (1921), but she at least gives a comprehensive overview of the obvious fact that this short story collection is nothing short of masterpiece. And she does notice the singular repetition in “Red” and The Circle of the very same, and now famous, phrase that the tragedy of love is not death or separation but indifference: one of the most remarkable examples about the unity of themes between Maugham's works for the stage and those for the reading public. Messrs Curtis and Whitehead would do well to remember that next time they fantasise how very different these parts of Maugham's output are.

I suppose it is to be expected that the more famous creative writers, who must be highly original and unique personalities after all, would have little respect for anything but what they themselves write and would thus be unable to appreciate anything else. And, of course, they have to have a good opinion of their work and its value; otherwise they would not be creative writers but critics. As usual, Maugham put it best of all in The Summing Up (1938):

One of the reasons why current criticism is so useless is that it is done as a side-issue by creative writers. It is only natural that they should think the sort of thing they do the thing best worth doing. The great critic should have a sympathy as wide as his knowledge is universal. It should be grounded not on a general indifference, such as makes men tolerant of things they care nothing about, but on an active delight in diversity.

Since I do believe that Messrs Curtis and Whitehead did choose the best pieces from the voluminous critical attention which was accorded to Maugham during his life, I really shudder to think what its worst incarnations must look like. For those who are already quite familiar with the works of Somerset Maugham, this Critical Heritage volume is certainly a very enjoyable, occasionally enlightening but all too often worthless read. For those who are yet to become familiar with Maugham's writings, it is an excellent source of numerous highbrow prejudices and silly preconceptions. If you want to research Maugham's critical reception during his life, the book is an invaluable resource. But do this research at your peril.


[1] Preface to Liza of Lambeth, Heinemann, 1934, The Collected Edition.

[2] To be precise, this famous description does not occur in the original review as reprinted here. Mr Wilson later revised the piece and included it in his book Classics and Commercials: A Literary Chronicle of the Forties (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1950) as “The Apotheosis of Somerset Maugham”, pp. 319-26. Only in this later version does the famous description occur; apparently it was a brilliant afterthought.

[3] This comes from Ted Morgan’s gossipy biography of Maugham (1980) and Heaven knows if it is accurate. Mr Morgan gives no specific source and he appears to have "heard it on the grapevine”:

Later, discussing his Maugham article with a colleague of Richard Cordell’s at Purdue who was his neighbour for the summer, Wilson said: ‘You know, I think I settled that fellow’s hash. And do you know, I’ve never read Of Human Bondage, Cakes and Ale, or The Razor’s Edge.’

[4] “The Art of Fiction”, introductory essay in Ten Novels and Their Authors, Heinemann, 1954. See also the essay “The Short Story” from the collection Points of View (1958) where Maugham pays this generous compliment to Desmond MacCarthy:

Memories are short nowadays and I may remind the reader that Desmond MacCarthy was not only a charming companion, but a very good critic. He was widely read, and he had the advantage, that not all critics have, of being a man of the world. His judgements within their limitations (he was somewhat indifferent to the plastic arts and to music) were sound, for his erudition was combined with a shrewd knowledge of life. ( )
2 vote Waldstein | Aug 25, 2010 |

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