"I always find it more difficult to say the things I mean than the things I don't." - W. Somerset Maugham, The Painted Veil
William Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) was one of the most popular writers of the early 20th century and is said to have been the highest paid author in the 1930s. Born at the British embassy in Paris, the son and grandson of prominent lawyers, it was assumed that he would follow in the family footsteps. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was eight, and his father died of cancer two years later. Thus the young boy was sent to live with his uncle, a vicar in Kent, in the South East of England.
Unhappy at both his uncle's house and at school in Canterbury, the young Maugham (pronounced Mawn) developed a stutter which would stay with him for life. At sixteen, having refused to return to school, he was allowed to travel to Germany where he studied philosophy and German at Heidelberg University. On his return to England, he was strongly directed into accountancy or the law, both of which Maugham refused. The church was considered a non-starter due to his stammer, and the civil service was rejected as being no longer the career of a gentleman. Thus Maugham ended up studying medicine for five years while secretly continuing to write and nurse his ambition to become an author.
Far from being a literary dead end, his time studying medicine proved fruitful to Maugham who had the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life. His 1896 book, Lisa of Lambeth, was informed by his experiences as a medical student in Lambeth, then a London slum. It was sufficiently successful that he felt able to leave the medical profession and focus on his writing, which would remain his sole career for the next 65 years. His success grew slowly at first but increased substantially from 1914. During the war he served in the Red Cross, being too old to enlist, where he met Frederick Gerald Haxton, who remained his lover until Haxton's death in 1944. Although Maugham's first sexual experiences were with men (starting with an affair while he was in Germany) he had many relationships with both men and women, including one with Syrie Wellcome, who became his wife in 1917 after her husband, Henry Wellcome (founder of the Wellcome pharmaceutical company), divorced her - two years after Syrie and Maugham's daughter, Liza, had been born.
After spending much of 1916 in the Pacific researching a novel on the life of Paul Gauguin, The Moon and Sixpence, in 1917 he was asked by the British Secret Intelligence Service to undertake a mission to Russia. His experiences inspired a collection of short stories, Ashenden, which apparently influenced Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond books.
Divorced from his wife in the late 1920s, Maugham moved to the South of France where he spent most of the rest of his life (other than the World War II period which he spent in the USA), continuing to write prodigiously until his death in 1965. He is perhaps best remembered for Of Human Bondage, a semiautobiographical novel written in 1915, which was made into a film in 1934 and again in 1964. There are more than thirty films based on his books and plays.
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