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Somerset Maugham Short Stories - Part 1
(Text as at 02/07/2017 10:36:29)
(For earlier versions of this Note, see the table at the end)
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- For Somerset Maugham, see W. Somerset Maugham.
- I have now added brief commentaries on things that struck me from all the stories in the collection in "Somerset Maugham (W.) - Short Stories".
- I have managed to precis the stories to the degree strictly necessary to provide the context for whatever I have to say, but anyone other than me reading these accounts probably won’t fully understand what I’m on about unless they’ve read – and can recall – the stories.
- My intention has been merely to reflect on – and remind myself of – various “ethical1” or more generally philosophical issues that arise. I don’t claim to be a literary critic.
- Because of record-size restrictions in my database, this Note has had to be split in two:-
→ see Part 22 for the remainder of the Stories.
- The Pacific – 1
- Mackintosh – 2
- Mackintosh is a clerk whose health necessitates a retreat to warmer climes – a small island in the South Pacific under British administration – lest he catch TB in the London cold.
- This story raises a lot of questions – even ignoring the issue of colonial paternalism which would be frowned on these days. Under the empire “caring for the natives as your children” was a moral virtue, but would be seen as condescending today; if only because the “natives” – after another century of western influence – have grown up a bit, though maybe that’s equally condescending.
- Mackintosh comes to work for an Irish ignoramus who initially became administrator under the Germans, but stayed on when control was ceded to the British, and has now been in control for 20 years. He’s described as corpulent and is in his early 60s; Mackintosh is younger and thin. There’s a contrast between the precision, correctness and culture of Mackintosh and the vulgarity – but more positive and expansive, if bullying, character – of the “administrator” (Walker).
- Walker takes risks – his career was founded on an outrageous bit of luck in a 1000-1 winning bet on a horse – but “does things” – in particular building the roads that allow copra to be transported more easily, and hence adds to the prosperity of the island.
- Walker is an uneducated ruffian who metes out his own justice in a “hard but fair” way, bending the rules where necessary – lying and cheating if this is required for “justice” to be done. He has no doubts as to what to do in any circumstance – even dispensing medicines without any medical training, along the lines of “tomorrow (your child) will be either better or dead”.
- He views himself as invulnerable, and provided everyone submits to him, all goes well. He is honest, has never made a penny out of his position, and genuinely loves the native people and the beauty of the island, which he greatly appreciates, despite his coarseness.
- However, for those who won’t willingly submit to him, he is intolerable as he doesn’t perceive their resentment, and thinks everyone loves him – partly because they hide their true feelings as the oppressed must.
- In particular, he is greatly resented by his subordinate, Macintosh – whose subordination is forever before him – and also by the local chief’s son, whom he humiliates in a needless dispute over remuneration for road-building: the young man encourages the tribe to hold out for a sum that is within the grant, but Walker won’t be challenged – and thinks the payment would be bad for them (“they’d only spend it on drink”; paternalism again).
- However, things get nasty when the hospitality arrangements of the island mean that the local tribe has to support another tribe that Walker brings in to build the road. This results in the total humiliation of the chief’s son, who is punished by his tribe when they had supported him until Walker got the upper hand.
- Macintosh “accidentally” leaves his gun so the young man can find it, and – while he warns Walker not to carry on his routines alone – is complicit in his assassination.
- Walker is shot, and on his death-bed, forgives the “natives”, saying that the shooting should be put down as an accident lest the governor sends a gun-boat to destroy the innocent. The natives are distraught at the death of their “father” and Mackintosh commits suicide – maybe to draw the blame for Walker’s death on himself, given his complicity in it.
- There are doubtless many things to draw from all this. I have worked for worse people than Walker, and felt Mackintosh’s resentment. I have also worked for people who knew with certainty the way to go; sometimes they were sacked and replaced by the next monster who knew the opposite direction was the way to go, who was later replaced by …
- However, Walker does know the way, and Mackintosh probably doesn’t (and I don’t think I did – or anybody did – in the grand strategic sense).
- The Fall of Edward Barnard – 38
- Edward Barnard is engaged to the upright and intelligent Isabel when his father goes bankrupt and he goes to Tahiti to remake his fortune. This is supposed to take two years, but drags on and Hunter Bateman, his best friend who is secretly in love with Isabel, volunteers to go out to determine what has gone wrong.
- The trio belong to the upper crust of Chicago society, and they count (or – in Edward’s case – “counted”) Chicago as the greatest place on earth. However, their lives – unbeknownst to themselves – are far from authentic, but are entirely formulaic and unoriginal. Their houses are copies of Venetian palaces or French chateaux, filled with fine reproductions of slightly inappropriate furniture, and the men spend their lives bouncing back and forth between their homes and their company head offices, spending the evenings at the theatre. This is the life from which Edward “falls3”.
- Hunter finds that Edward has been fired for indolence and is working in a haberdasher’s. He has also become friends with Arnold Jackson – a (former) con-man and rogue who had spent time in a penitentiary and is the black sheep of Isabel’s family.
- The story is full of amusing examples of Hunter’s moral and aesthetic4 discomfiture – in particular at a private dinner involving Arnold and his “native” wife (bigamously acquired) and Arnold’s “half-caste” daughter who Edward hopes to marry if released from his promise to Isabel5.
- When Edward says he has “plans” for his life in Tahiti, Bateman imagines – with exhilaration – some ruinously exploitative scheme, but Edward’s idea is something far more eco-friendly, and not intended to earn him the millions he has no need of for a happy life.
- The story hinges on the different life-choices of Edward and Bateman, and the contrast between a lucrative and industrious treadmill that leaves no place for happiness other than a smug ranking in the social pecking order and a more laid-back approach that’s closer to nature and real humanity.
- While I agree completely with this, I do retain a sympathy for the “protestant work ethic”. “Our England is a garden, and such gardens are not made, by singing:- “Oh, how beautiful,” and sitting in the shade” (Kipling - The Glory of the Garden). Maybe things are easier in Tahiti, in that the garden is mostly self-maintaining – but one of the things Edward wants to do is “read” (it’s not said quite what). There would be nothing to read unless lots of people were willing to work to provide the wealth to support writers to write stuff. We can’t all drop out. The “noble savage” isn’t a drop out either, and knows nothing of the positives or negatives of the life that ultimately dissatisfies his western admirers.
- Rain – 73
- This is supposed to be one of the short stories that has best stood the test of time in the public affections. I’m not so sure it deserves to, if it does.
- The situation is that two couples (the Davidsons and the Macphails) are holed up (for reasons that need not detain us) for two weeks in a makeshift guesthouse on a remote island in the South Pacific during the monsoon season. The two husbands are both medics, but Davidson is a medical missionary (he’s never referred to as “Dr” but only as “Mr” or “Rev”), while Macphail is a skeptical GP.
- The critical consensus6 seems to be that this short story exposes the hypocrisy of the pair of missionaries, but I’m not convinced it does anything so simplistic.
- Both couples are fairly snobbish and hold themselves aloof from the other passengers that were on the boat that brought them to the island, and who remain incarcerated there. This is hypocritical from a Christian standpoint.
- However, the Davidsons do seem to be genuine zealots – obnoxious, but not necessarily routinely hypocritical. Indeed, Rev. Davidson seems to have personal and spiritual courage in that he’s been willing to turn out in any weather – crossing in a canoe to remote islands in dangerous conditions – whenever there’s been a medical emergency. He sees an inconsistency in claiming to “trust the Lord” and to be worried about his own safety.
- The missionaries give an account of their “work” – which seems to involve inculcating in “the natives” a sense of sin. The people they work amongst seem to have had no sense of the wrongness of lying, stealing or adultery, and cannot be induced by normal means to repent. So, to teach them the wrongness of these activities, the missionaries use their stranglehold over economic resources to fine them and bring them into line, making it against the law to sin in these ways. One man is reduced from plenty to penury as a result of a dispute with Davidson. Indeed, the missionary organization as a whole seems to have undue influence in Washington, which gives them power over the civil authorities on the islands.
- In a sense, this focus on making sin illegal7 is consistent with Pauline teaching on sin: for instance, Romans 7:7 (Link) – Paul argues that if it hadn’t been for the law, he would not have known sin, and (for example) wouldn’t have known what it is to covet8 unless the law had told him not to.
- The question, though, is one of cultural and ethical imperialism. Just why should missionaries think they have the right to impose their moral values on other cultures that seem to get along all right without them? No doubt – in a fully worked-out apologia (not given by Somerset Maugham) – the place of sin in separating the sinner from God, and the need for repentance and forgiveness – would feature. It would be argued that sin separates whether or not the sinner knows she’s sinning, and so the realization of sin is the first set on the road to redemption.
- So, given the missionaries’ world-view, their actions might be seen to be logical and loving – however much of an oppression and kill-joy it may seem to be on the surface. Many evangelicals today could argue thus, though they would probably tut at the abuse of power now they no longer have it9.
- Of course, the question has to be how can the missionaries know with sufficient certainty that their system is right to justify causing the degree of unhappiness that their actions do when imposed on the unwilling.
- All this is highlighted by the case of Miss Thompson – a good-time girl who has worked in the red-light district of Honolulu. She was also on their boat, and consequently sets up shop for the entertainment of the sailors in a room below the Davidsons, much to their chagrin – which is exacerbated by a gramophone and the music played on it. Rev. Davidson takes her on as a project for reform, with initial “success” but ultimately disastrous consequences.
- Miss Thompson starts off in a robust life-affirming way and will have nothing to do with Davidson’s persuasion. However, Davidson has a hold over her because he can have her put on the next boat to San Francisco, where she will be arrested for previous misdemeanors and spend some years in the penitentiary, which fills her with terror. Eventually, Davidson persuades her to repent. However, he won’t let her have “cheap grace”, but insists that she demonstrate her repentance by going through with – indeed embracing – her future incarceration10.
- All this reduces Miss Thompson to a shadow of her former self, though she seems to come to terms with it all and to truly “repent”.
- Davidson spends some considerable amount of time with her – including much of the night before she is due to set sail – ostensibly in prayer and spiritual instruction (or argument, in the early stages).
- The denouement is incredible to me, given the way Davidson is described, though maybe understandable in the case of many obviously hypocritical and money-grabbing televangelists. Davidson is found with his throat cut, and Miss Thompson is back to her old ways – and has her old self-confidence back - with the gramophone on. She spits on Mrs. Davidson and, when Dr. Macphail asks what she’s doing, announces: “You men! You filthy, dirty pigs! You’re all the same, all of you. Pigs! Pigs!”. Dr. Macphail is then said to gasp, and to “understand”.
- Presumably, Davidson is supposed to have had a “weakness of the flesh”, and consorted with Miss Thompson on that last night. It’s not spelled out, but I can’t think of an alternative explanation11.
- If so, this is a major weakness in the story. The missionaries’ behavior is objectionable12 – in making people who fall into their power unhappy, and causing them problems they didn’t previously have – even if they don’t fall into overt and gross hypocrisy – and I don’t think a zealot of the kind Davidson is supposed to be would have “fallen”.
- I suppose a possibility is that Davidson had “softened” – actually improved, morally speaking – and felt genuine (rather than purely theoretical) love for Miss Thompson; then things got out of hand and Miss Thompson felt morally betrayed. And, maybe Davidson committed suicide because13 he realized his whole life had been misguided (and not just because he’d fallen in a moment of weakness). But this rather more nuanced conclusion doesn’t seem consistent with Miss Thompson’s contempt.
- So, maybe we are to suppose that a couple of hypocrites messed with the mind on a fun-loving girl, and that the husband got his just deserts when he couldn’t control his animal passions. If so, so much the worse for the story.
- Envoi – 116
- The Casuarina Tree – 117
- Brief – a page and a half: looks like the preface to “a collection of stories about the English people who live in the Malay peninsula and in Borneo”, justifying the title.
- The Casuarina tree is thought of as a symbol14 for these people “… the Casuarina tree stood along the sea shore, gaunt and rough-hewn, protecting the land from the fury of the winds, and so might aptly suggest these planters and administrators who, with all their short-comings, have after all brought to the peoples among whom they dwell tranquility, justice and welfare, ...”.
- Before the Party – 119
- A family is preparing to go to an English garden party at which they will meet some big-wigs, including the Bishop of Hong-Kong, who wants to talk to the recently-widowed daughter, Millicent, about her late husband, Harold, whom she had claimed had died of a fever in Borneo some eight months previously.
- The father, Mr. Skinner, is a “respectable family solicitor”, who works in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and never takes dodgy cases, but is quite happy to pass them on to others.
- The sister, Kathleen, has just heard – from the daughter of the Canon who’s hosting the garden party – that Harold didn’t die of a fever, but committed suicide.
- The family don’t seem in the least concerned as to why this should have been – but are more worried about the social consequences and their not having been properly prepared by Millicent. It seems that the Bishop met Harold, and is the one who let it be known that he had committed suicide by cutting his throat.
- So, they seek to get the background out of Millicent, more so they can be socially prepared than out of genuine concern, and a sorry tale it is.
- It seems that Harold – the “Resident” of a district of Borneo – had been a confirmed drunkard and had been threatened with the sack unless he could find a wife who could sort him out. So, he’d come back to England and selected Millicent who was short of offers, and an effective marriage of convenience was entered into (though it was not admitted as such).
- But, they had got on well enough and Millicent liked the life in Borneo and the status of Resident’s wife, and Harold stayed sober – except when out of her gaze, or otherwise tempted. There was one episode when he was entertaining visitors, but the worst cases were when Millicent was away for extended periods in the fictitious Kuala Solor, either giving birth to their daughter, Joan, or finally when Joan was ill.
- It seems that – when sober – Harold was a fine man who did his job well, and seems to have developed some affection for Millicent. In her turn, Millicent had developed a “hold” on Harold because he loved their daughter, and she had threatened to take her away from him if he failed to remain sober. Further, on the journey home with Joan after her illness, Millicent persuaded herself that she loved Harold.
- Unfortunately, while they were away, Harold had relapsed again and was asleep dead drunk when Millicent returns to their bungalow. She is consumed with rage at the betrayal and – it seems – somehow manages to cut Harold’s throat with a parang (a Malayan sword) while trying to get his attention.
- The region was remote, and she had Harold quickly buried and the murder (if that’s what it was) is made out to be suicide, no-one suspecting anything.
- So much for the story. It is well told, though the cause of Harold’s alcoholism is obscure.
- The interest is all in the family’s reaction to the account. Millicent just seems to be depressed, and has “let herself go” somewhat. There seems to be no concern for Harold (though Mrs. Skinner liked him) – or that Millicent is technically a murderess – their concern is purely that it shouldn’t get out. Mr. Skinner’s main complaint against Millicent is that she selfishly told him at all, as it gives him an uncomfortable crisis of conscience.
- Well, actually, not really conscience – because he has no moral sense at all. It’s the discomfort for him of having to hush up something he knows he – as an upstanding solicitor – would be expected to take further.
- They head off to the garden party because it would seem socially odd if they didn’t. It seems there is nothing genuine about their lives at all.
- P & O – 147
- This is an interesting tale, but not one that I’ve much to say about.
- The story is centered around the sad end of Mr. Gallagher, a robust Irishman on his way home from Malaya to Galway (on the eponymous P&O liner) after a career as a “planter”, and the life, intentions and observations of Mrs. Hamlyn, who is running away from her husband who is having an affair.
- Gallagher had taken a “native” wife, but has left her behind, well provided for by the standards of the place and time. She had become corpulent during their time together, as seems to have been standard for Malay women, and Gallagher liked to “live well”. But this isn’t – I don’t think – the reason Gallagher didn’t take her with him. On departure, his wife prophesies (this is taken to be a “native curse”) that he will not see land. Gallagher, however, departs in good spirits.
- On the journey home, Gallagher develops persistent hiccups, and – despite an attempted exorcism involving the sacrifice of a cockerel15, and all the efforts of a junior doctor – expired just before reaching Aden, to which the ship had been diverted so that he could receive further medical treatment.
- Mrs. Hamlyn’s husband – who’s in his 50s, while she has just turned 40 – has formed a liaison with another woman who’s just turned 50. He doesn’t want to hurt his wife, and hopes that they can just carry on as normal. But this is not conventionally possible, so she heads off back to England with bitterness in her heart to find an appropriate lawyer to arrange a divorce.
- The situation with Gallagher gets her to rethink things and she comes to the conclusion that there’s no reason to begrudge others their shot at happiness given the brevity of life; she remembers her husband’s remark that “we are so long dead”. The story ends with her writing a conciliatory letter to her husband, and posting it before she changes her mind.
- What to say about all this?
- I think we can side-step the “native curse” meme. The important thing is that Gallagher ought not to have treated his Malay wife as a chattel to be left behind when no longer needed. Maybe he subconsciously realizes this and it works on his subconscious, though he gives no such indication.
- The idea of getting happiness where it can be found because life is short is an important idea; why be miserable when you can be happy? And bearing conventional resentments because that’s what you’re supposed to think, and others will think you odd if you don’t, or your pride will be hurt – all this may be irrational and only leads to more pain for all concerned. But, even so, we can’t all just do what we want – life is too complex, and commitments have to be respected reciprocally.
- The Letter – 180
- This is another jolly tale, but again I’ve nothing much to say.
- A lady (Mrs. Leslie Crosbie) has been imprisoned, awaiting trial, in Singapore for murdering a neighbor (Geoff Hammond) – allegedly in self-defense – at her home late one night while her husband (Robert Crosbie) is away.
- She is supposedly so refined and of such good “breeding” – and Hammond was a bit of a lad – and she has allegedly had little recently to do with Hammond – that she in expected to be acquitted of manslaughter or worse.
- She gives her defense to a solicitor friend (Mr. Joyce). Her story is in good order, so he expects a quick acquittal. His only concern is that she’d emptied the whole barrel into Hammond.
- Unfortunately, the solicitor’s Chinese clerk (Ong Chi Seng) announces that Hammond’s Chinese mistress has the eponymous letter that Mrs. Crosbie had allegedly sent to Hammond on the night of his death, imploring him to visit her. He hands over a copy, which is very incriminating.
- After further prevarication, and the thought of being hanged, Mrs. Crosbie suggests to Mr. Joyce – without fully admitting that she’d actually sent the letter – that they might buy the letter back.
- Mr. Joyce thinks this is similar to suborning a witness, but he’s been long enough in the East to cope with this irregularity for completely spurious reasons16; namely, that convicting Mrs. Crosbie will not bring Hammond back, and will adversely impact Mrs. Crosbie’s husband.
- Nothing untoward happens thereafter, and the incriminating letter is redeemed for $10k, the maximum that Mr. Crosbie can raise. The redemption takes place in a flat usually employed as an opium den. The Chinese mistress, a male relative, Ong Chi, Mr. Joyce and Mr. Crosbie17 are present.
- It is clear that Ong Chi Seng is to receive a cut, so doubly shares in the corruption. Mr. Joyce is aware of this, but doesn’t confront him – though he did attempt to bargain with him, suggesting $5k, but Ong Chi wouldn’t be moved. Mr. Joyce seems somewhat impressed by his astuteness18.
- As is expected, in the absence of the incriminating letter, Mrs. Crosbie is swiftly acquitted, and she and her husband retire to Mr. Joyce’s house. All – in ignorance of the facts – are entirely sympathetic towards Mrs. Crosbie and her “ordeal”.
- Mr. Crosbie reads the letter, perceives the inconsistency in the story Mrs. Crosbie gives for sending it, and bikes off to his estates. Mr. Joyce then burns it. Mrs. Crosbie pulls herself together and carries on publicly with the pretense of innocence.
- Mrs. Crosbie then reveals that Geoff Hammond had been her secret lover for years. He’d recently abandoned her in favour of his first love – the somewhat faded Chinese lady – and – under severe provocation from Mrs. Crosbie – had claimed (possibly only in reciprocal spite) that he had never loved her. Mrs. Crosbie had then lost her cool and repeatedly shot him in the red mist.
- What to make of this?
- Firstly – as noted above – some conflicts between the law and morality (only some of which are real).
- Secondly, the difference between inward and outward appearances, and the passions that can burn in the hearts of the outwardly self-controlled.
- Mr Harrington's Washing – 216
- This is a long – and sometimes fun – tale19, but not one that’s other than merely entertaining, in my view.
- There are three main protagonists:
- Ashenden, a British agent sent to Russia on an “impossible mission” in 1917. This turns out to be something to do with Czech nationalists being enlisted to distract the Central Powers and to keep Russia in the war.
- Mr Harrington, an American businessman sent to Russia to negotiate a contract for his company.
- Anastasia Alexandrovna, a romantic Russian revolutionary.
- The story splits into three main parts:-
- Setting up in Vladivostok and the account of Ashenden & Harrington’s train journey from Vladivostok to Petrograd.
- An interlude describing Ashenden & the married Anastasia Alexandrovna’s assignation years earlier. They have a “trial” in a Paris hotel – ostensibly required because Anastasia Alexandrovna’s husband, in true romantic Russian style, would have to commit suicide to release her – which would be a shame if they found they were unsuited to one another. It turns out to be well-advised as Ashenden cannot bear the thought of eating scrambled eggs for the rest of his life, and realizes that he’s more in love with Russian literature than Russians. He secretly absconds to New York.
- The ultimate denouement in Petrograd in which Ashenden and Harrington are involved in their respective negotiations.
- The story is intended as a farce, and ends with Harrington being shot at random in the early days of the Revolution while – together with Anastasia Alexandrovna – absurdly attempting to retrieve his unwashed washing from a laundry at some distance from his hotel.
- It all ends in tears before then – all the negotiations are fruitless as power changes hands from the Karensky government (according to Maugham, Karensky does nothing but make speeches) to the Bolsheviks.
- The amusing story is primarily a vehicle for displaying Somerset Maugham’s views on the pre-revolutionary Russians and early 20th-century Americans, as exemplified by the two non-British protagonists.
- Harrington is a bore who is “well read” and considers himself a “high-brow”, though appears to have no ideas of his own. He has some redeeming features, mainly arising from his naivety. The account of the train-journey is as long and boring as the supposed journey itself, a sort of self-parody (and maybe also a parody of the interminable Great Russian Novel).
- Anastasia Alexandrovna is a reckless heroine, doubtless a spoof on those appearing in classic Russian novels. Like Harrington – but unlike the pragmatic Ashenden – she is somewhat detached from reality.
- Sanatorium – 257
- This – as the title suggests – is a set of vignettes about life in a Scottish sanatorium. Ashenden – the controlling character in this story as in the last – has – like the other residents – TB. The narrative, however, revolves mainly about 3 pairs of characters.
- The purpose of the story as a whole is about our attitude to death, and the ability of love to conquer our fear of it – or at least our preoccupation with it. There is a passage early on that regrets the passing of simple belief in the possibility of resurrection.
- The three pas de deuces are as follows:-
- Two old gits – Campbell and McLeod – who have been there for 17 years – are rivals for the best room, and Campbell lives in the room below McLeod whose room he wants and tries to drive him out by continually playing his violin. They are both good bridge players and rivals at the table. The denouement is the last hand of a rubber-bridge session in which McLeod – playing against Campbell makes a redoubled grand slam involving two finesses and a squeeze. His arrogant celebration is such that he drops down dead at the table. Far from being satisfied, Campbell does not like the best room when he gets it, gives up the violin as there’s no McLeod to annoy, and his life loses purpose without his enemy to define himself against.
- Major Templeton – rich a playboy of about 40 – has led a worthless life with several casual relationships – but is now riddled with TB – falls in love with the 29-year-old Ivy Bishop who has been in sanatoria for the last 8 years. She is intelligent and virtuous, and it’s her virtue that attracts Templeton to her, much to his surprise. His love is reciprocated, and they decide to marry – despite the warnings from Dr. Lennox that it will drastically shorten their lives. Templeton had earlier remarked that he was not concerned about when death came – it didn’t matter much whether you left a party when it was in full swing or “went home with the milk”.
- Henry Chester is a rather boring banker who had nothing to hold him together beyond his work and family. When he becomes ill, he becomes resentful of his wife’s good health, and – while he looks forward to her visits – says spiteful things to her when she comes. The two are reconciled when Templeton & Ivy get married and Chester comes to realise that he loves his wife and is happy that she is well, irrespective of his own ill-fortune.
- The Princess and the Nightingale – 283
- This is a fable for children. See Link.
- It’s a story about the nine daughters of the King of Siam, the youngest of whom – September – is the heroine of the tale, though the hero is her nightingale.
- There are lots of stereotypical asides about the ways of oriental monarchs, but there is an important moral of the story, that freedom – rather than a gilded cage – is necessary for flourishing, and that true love does not seek to possess the beloved, but gives him freedom.
- The Round Dozen – 292
- On one level this is rather a silly tale. In brief, a bigamist and swindler – Mortimer Ellis – a very unprepossessing man – has been sent down for 5 years having married successively 11 middle-aged women and then left them in turn, having relieved them of their limited fortunes that he had purported to invest.
- Sometime after his release he arrives in a faded Georgian sea-side resort somewhat down at heel, but – initially unbeknownst to the narrator to whom he tells his story – he ultimately manages to elope with the 54-year-old niece – Miss Porchester – of a respectable elderly couple (Mr & Mrs St Clair) resident in the same hotel as the narrator, and with whom our narrator had also become acquainted. Thus he achieves the “Round Dozen”.
- Prior to the denouement, Mortimer Ellis explains his attraction to these women, and tries to justify his actions, expressing outrage at the public infamy that fell on his head on his conviction. Instead of acknowledging that he is a public pest, he considers that he has performed a public service. Three of his victims had asked for mercy to be shown to him on his conviction – and one had been willing to have him back (so that he had to leave prison by the back entrance lest she be there to collect him). The one who had betrayed him had been dishonest about the diminutive size of her fortune.
- His defense rests on the needs of those he deceives. He claims they would have married him if he’d had one leg and a hump on his back. It’s the married state – and the attention that comes with it – that they were after. They were either spinsters – who had never had attention paid to them – or widows – who missed it once it was gone. He had to earn a living, and this was what he did.
- Miss Porchester had once been beautiful and had been engaged to be married – but her fiancé – a barrister – had had an affair with his laundress and Miss Porchester “had sacrificed herself on the altar of Victorian morality” and rejected him, living a solitary life with her guardians thereafter.
- No doubt there could be an argument between the consequentialists and the Kantians about morality of all this. The Kantians are most likely right that Mortimer Ellis uses his wives as means rather than ends in themselves. However, it’s unlikely that his activities would satisfy the consequentialists as his wives are left destitute by his depredations, however satisfied they might have been with their married state while it lasted.
- Miss Porchester’s guardians say that they will never have her back. There is some slight hope that she may be helped by the laundress, with whom she has kept in touch and supported over the years, once Mortimer Ellis has exhausted her “trifling” £3,000.
- Jane – 321
- On almost all levels this seems to me to be a lightweight and silly tale, an explicitly Pygmalionesque story about the marriage of a rich but rather dowdy and “elderly” relict of a northern industrialist to a young architect half her age. In fact the eponymous Jane in her mid-50s.
- It’s initially thought that Jane’s then future husband is after her money, but he this is not the case. Instead he sees in her what others miss – and after a series of make-overs, brought about by Parisian dress-makers and hair stylists – reveals the swan in the place of the ugly duckling. Gilbert designs her dresses and advises her to cut her hair and wear a monocle.
- The pair have agreed that they would not be bound to one another – the initial assumption being that Gilbert Napier would want to move on – but in fact it is eventually Jane who divorces Gilbert in favour of an Admiral she meets at one of her soirees. She has come to need the companionship of someone more her age. Gilbert agrees to continue designing her attire, and it is hoped that he will eventually marry Admiral Frobisher’s daughter.
- The tale is told by the author, but amusingly also from the perspective of a Mrs Towers, who had initially regarded Jane as “her Cross”. Jane is a former school friend who subsequently became Mrs Towers’ sister-in-law, Jane Fowler being Mrs Towers’ husband’s sister
- Jane also becomes a famous humourist, yet her conversation is no different in this regard since her re-invention to what it was before. It seems that what amuses people – once her now striking appearance has attracted their attention – is that she tells the truth. Marion Towers is the only one who doesn’t find her amusing. Jane’s retort is “Perhaps you don’t know the truth when you see it, Marion dear.” This is, I suppose, an example of the innocent but truthful comment which is amusing if said without malice – and – as the author notes – if truthfulness is rare.
- The Alien Corn20 – 348
- This story was – at least in my retelling of my early life – pivotal to my development and life choices21.
- There are two main themes22 – it seems to me:-
- Belonging and authenticity, and
- Whether to risk all in the pursuit of excellence.
- The story revolves around a wealthy assimilated Jewish family – the Blands23 (formerly Bleikogel) – and their slightly less assimilated relative, Ferdie Rabenstein, who has kept his Jewish identity, refusing to change his name to Robinson, though his life as a socialite and aesthete is fully assimilated.
- Sir Adolphus Bland, known as Freddy, is the second Baronet, who has paid £180,000 for his country estate, Tilby. Towards the end of the story, it is announced that he has been given a peerage. His wife, Muriel is Jewish, her real name being Miriam, but has converted to Catholicism and likes to think of herself as having been raised by nuns. Freddy’s mother – the Dowager Lady Bland – still speaks with a German accent, and is Ferdy Rabenstein’s sister.
- The Blands have two sons – George and Harry. George is the elder, and is being groomed to take over the estate and, it is hoped, will ultimately take on the “family seat” as an MP. Harry is younger – still at Eton – and the cleverer of the two. He is expected to take over the family business in the City. George is a bit of a waster. He had fun at Eton and Oxford, but has recently been sent down for some unspecified minor misdemeanor.
- The Blands have kept their sons in ignorance of their Jewish heritage – indeed George is disgusted by the “filthy old Jew” Ferdy and his Jewish jokes. Ferdy has been estranged from the Blands for the last 20 years – essentially for the whole of George’s life.
- George – on discovering his Jewish heritage – rebels against the role for which he has been groomed by his parents, and escapes to Munich, where he studies the piano. He falls in with other Jewish students, and feels that he has found authenticity at last. But, the question arises what he is to do with his life. He cannot remain a permanent student – hanging out ridiculously with young men in his middle age.
- So, the stakes get raised. He agrees with his grandmother that if he can demonstrate that he has the qualities required to become a professional pianist, his family won’t stand in his way. However, if not he agrees to take up the position prepared for him in English society. We are given intimations that all will not end well. The narrator notes that his right and left hands are not quite synchronized. He asks George what he will do if his project fails, and he jokes that he will shoot himself.
- Well, the inevitable happens. It is arranged that he will audition before an internationally-renowned pianist – also Jewish – named Lea Makart24. He plays with brio, but she notes that he has neither the hands nor the ear to be a professional – “not in a thousand years … would he be a pianist in the first rank” – though as “a very competent amateur” he will have the pleasure of appreciating great music – and great musicians – more than the generality of mankind. After expatiating on the theme of “great art and artists are all that matter”, she offers to refer him on to Paderewski for a second opinion, but he says this will not be necessary – her evaluation reflected that of his teacher in Munich. She plays Bach for them, and George says “That clinches it, I fancy”.
- The story ends tragically, but is described in the same vein as the Blands’ lives – a retreat from reality and living in pretense. While his death is obviously suicide it is described as an accident while he was cleaning a gun.
- The Door of Opportunity – 390
- This is an interesting tale that raises various uncomfortable questions for intellectuals in the wrong spot.
- It’s set in the Dutch East Indies, now administered by Britain, and it features a couple in a middle-ranking position where the husband – currently the District Officer of a remote area – has hopes of ultimately ending up as the Governor.
- While he’s highly intelligent and a perfect administrator he’s obviously unsuited in some respects to the rough and tumble of colonial life. Both he and his wife are aesthetes – fond of books and music; he’s a competent and enthusiastic pianist, and she has artistic sensibilities which she uses to design the décor for their bungalows. They also love the aesthetics of the country, despite the hardships of the climate.
- Unfortunately, a lot of their virtues aren’t relevant to the position they hold, and they don’t really fit in. The other administrators are less educated, having gone East straight from their second-rate schools, and they resent the husband Alban’s airs, calling him “Powder Puff Percy” behind his back. His wife Anne hopes, however, that when Alban eventually gets the top spot they will be able to convert the administration into something more culturally appealing. In the interim, Alban is impervious to his unpopularity and Anne “worships the ground he walks on”.
- They are – or at least Alban is – put to the test in an up-country incident. Prynne, a local rubber planter, has invited them to visit his estate to investigate problems with the Chinese coolies who have become infected with communism and are causing a nuisance. We’re given some background. Prynne is in his mid-thirties, totally uneducated and – against what is expected of him – has taken a native woman by whom he has had two children, though Alban and Anne are very accepting of this arrangement. Initially, he’d been worried what the “highbrows” would make of him, but they get on fine and he tells them that “if all highbrows are like them, give me highbrows any time”.
- Before they can set off, they are told 150-odd coolies are in revolt, have killed Prynne and the fate of his family is unknown. Anne pleads with Alban to go to their rescue immediately with his eight policemen and a sergeant, but Alban thinks it’s too risky, and insists in waiting for reinforcements. This turns out to be a fatal error and ruins his career. He says it’s not reasonable to risk his life and that of his policemen for “a native woman and her half-caste brats”.
- It looks from Alban’s questioning of Prynne’s native assistant, who has escaped, though wounded, that the coolies have some arms, though probably not many, so their numbers are mostly immaterial, and what is important is that the situation be brought under control immediately, whatever the risk. But Alban is too rational for this. It is said later by Anne that the fear was clear in his eyes. This is – to me – all by the by; one can be afraid and act or not act irrespective of the fear if controlled by reason. The question is whether his fear controlled his reason, and the consensus was that it did. Worse than this, part of the calculation should have been the realization that even if his judgement had not been controlled by fear, those who resented him would think – or at least claim – that it had been. Anne points this out to Alban, and sees – or thinks she sees – that he really is ruled by fear.
- Anyway, the situation ended in a complete debacle for the British administration. By the time 20 reinforcements have arrived, a local Dutch timber-camp manager with three others had sorted the problem, shooting the only coolie who pulled a gun. Alban is summoned to see the Governor, and asked to resign. Alban is completely impervious to the situation. He argues he’d made the rational decision, so the Governor dismisses him for cowardice. Alban doesn’t care what any of them think, and goes to his club for tiffin and a drink. The Governor is secretly impressed: “Courage is a queer thing. I would rather have shot myself than go to the club just then and face all those fellows.” I doubt whether courage had anything to do with it. Alban is so sure he’s in the right – and has such a low opinion of his colleagues – that he doesn’t care what any of them think.
- Anne supports Alban on the journey home – with everyone talking about them behind their backs. Alban receives an enormous powder puff as an anonymous “gift”. While Anne pretends not to care what others think, she is secretly mortified and thinks that Alban has betrayed them both and the cause they espouse. Moreover, when they get back to London, Anne tells Alban she’s leaving him, and the story ends with Alban abjectly begging her to stay, saying he can’t live without her – but Anne leaves anyway, stopping her ears.
- What should we make of all this?
- Anne claims that Alban has betrayed their principles: everyone will now say that aesthetes are cowards. To me, this seems neither here nor there. Courage and aesthetic sensibilities are at best orthogonal qualities, but are more likely to be inversely correlated. The important thing is that aesthetes lacking courage shouldn’t be in positions where aesthetic sensibilities are irrelevant and courage essential. Alban is probably wrong not to care that people don’t share his sensibilities: it would be good for them if they did. But having his sensibilities respected for irrelevant reasons, but not shared, does no real good.
- However, Anne’s defense is the value of their aesthetic stance – which is to make them “better, nobler, wiser and braver”; but Alban – in his inaction – hadn’t been better, nobler or braver. She doesn’t mention “wiser”, and I can’t see why aesthetes or intellectuals generally – qua intellectuals – need to be braver than the rest – or otherwise without betray their aestheticism – though it would no doubt be good if they were. The question is the purpose of being an aesthete or an intellectual – is it a good in itself or an instrumental means of making one a better or more noble person? I suspect the Greeks and Stoics would have thought the latter. I suppose it depends on the form one’s intellectualism takes. If it’s just appreciating what others have done, it does no good unless it makes you a better person in other ways. However, if it involves creativity that is of benefit to others, it would seem to be of use irrespective of its impact on one’s own character.
- Alban definitely does wrong in expressing a lack of concern – and respect – for Prynne’s family. He places too high a regard for his own safety compared to that of others. He may treat others respectfully when there’s no cost to himself, but this doesn’t reflect his counting some people – himself in particular – as more valuable than others. I think it’s this evaluation – rather than sheer cowardice – that leads to his inaction. Is such an attitude to be viewed with horror, as Anne views it, or is it rational, as Alban sees it? Are some lives worth more than others? I think this is obviously true, but it’s not a popular idea these days.
- Alban takes his wife for granted. He doesn’t appreciate – until too late – that he’s not really facing the world with indifference alone – but relies on the fact that at least his wife supports him. Also, he doesn’t appreciate the impact his actions have on her. He would – I suspect – care about her feelings if he’d taken the trouble to take her into his calculations, but he hasn’t.
- The Vessel of Wrath – 426
- This is a diverting but rather improbable tale. The eponymous “Vessel of Wrath” is Ginger Ted – an English reprobate (real name Edward Wilson) in a Dutch East Indies island-group (the Atlas Islands) governed by the Contrôleur – a young hedonist named Ewart Gruyter – the other characters being a Baptist missionary (Rev. Owen Jones) and his middle-aged sister (Miss Martha Jones) who double as a medical team.
- Ginger Ted is probably educated, but is a violent drunk who cares for no-one, and goes about dressed in rags, though he enjoys a drink with the Contrôleur. He has a small annuity, presumed to be from someone who wants him out of the way. Ted gets into a fight with some Chinese and the Contrôleur gives him six months hard labour.
- On his release, Ginger Ted shares a boat back to the main island with Martha, who had been performing an appendectomy in lieu of her brother who was laid aside with malaria, but the boat breaks down and the small crew has to spend the night on the island. Martha is in fear of her life or virtue, and attempts to stay awake armed with a scalpel to resist the attentions of Ginger Ted. Eventually she falls asleep and awakes to find that Ted has simply performed an act of kindness (covering her with some copra sacks). She assumes he had intended to have his way with her, but his hidden good nature had relented. In fact, no wicked thought had entered his head as Martha wasn’t in the least attractive. As it turns out, she falls in love with him and tries to reform him – initially just by inviting him to tea, but he’ll have none of it.
- A cholera epidemic breaks out and the Europeans have to split up so that all the islands can be visited and appropriate measures enforced. Ginger Ted is eventually persuaded – against his worst nature – to accompany Martha. Their mission is a huge success.
- The story ends with Ted and Martha about to get married. It seems that Ted turns out to be a “natural” missionary – converting the natives by the dozen (well, 17 of them). The Contrôleur said he’d not known him to believe, and Ted admits that he hadn’t, but that when “they came into the fold like a lot of blasted sheep” he “thought there must be something in it”, and didn’t want to waste his talent. “You don’t know the joy of bringing all them bleeding sinners to repentance, and Christ!” He and Martha intend to set up a mission. His reason is stated as “She’s not a bad old girl when you get to know her. It’s her last chance, if you understand what I mean, and I’d like to do something to oblige her”. And she can make an excellent treacle pudding.
- There is a passing thought of Martha’s – not wholly unknown to the evangelical mind – to the effect that God had arranged25 the cholera academic in order to bring Ted and Martha together. The narrator says he’s “not well versed in the ways of omnipotence”, but that it seems to be “rather a clumsy device” that 600 innocents should have to die for such a matter.
- As I said, I didn’t find much of this very convincing, though it’s a well-told tale; particularly the description of Ewart Gruyter and Ginger Ted.
See Part 226 for the rest of the Stories.
In-Page Footnotes:Footnote 1: In the widest sense, including matters of life-choice and self-evaluation.
Footnote 4: I’m not sure this is the right term – Hunter is persuaded to wear a native garland of flowers along with his formal suit, having refused to wear native dress.
- The use of the term “fall” is obviously intended as ironic by Somerset Maugham, but is firmly believed to be the case by the Chicago set.
- The ugliness and inauthenticity of the life – together with its dependence on social standing and mores – reminds me of that castigated in "Tolstoy (Leo) - The Death of Ivan Ilyich".
Footnote 5: It’s not clear why Edward retains this aspect of conventional morality, nor what he intended to do were his release not forthcoming. A return to Chicago didn’t seem to be on the agenda.
Footnote 7: This is important for the missionaries, not just that sin should be financially inconvenient.
- See, for instance, Link, and
- Link: this is interesting in that it discusses the religious aspects in some detail, being written by a highly-educated former Catholic priest (Emanuel R. Fernandez) who is now a Filipino career diplomat.
- There are also opportunities to buy essays on the significance of “rain” in the story, but I don’t care about such issues.
Footnote 9: From Elizabethan times until the (partial) repeal of the Act of Uniformity (Link) in the late 19th century, recusants (Link) had ruinous fines or worse laid on them, and non-conformists of all stripes were excluded from the universities and the professions until the Test Act (Link) was repealed early in the 19th century.
- Such ideas are tricky. Presumably Paul doesn’t mean that he literally wouldn’t have wanted what wasn’t his unless the law had told him not to, but wouldn’t have known it was sinful to covet.
- Ie. Maybe – in Paul’s mind – it’s analytic that “coveting” is sinful; otherwise (maybe) I’m just wanting what’s not mine without realizing there’s anything wrong with this.
- No doubt “coveting” is “stealing in the heart”, just as lustful looks are “adultery in the heart”, and the desire is almost as sinful as the act itself.
- This is all good Christian doctrine, by the way.
- C.S. Lewis taught that the duty of a Christian murderer was “to be hanged”.
- However, what is distasteful in the Davidsons’ approach is the imposition of all this by means of coercion. The acceptance of retributive punishment as evidence of true repentance is supposed to be voluntary, but the missionaries enforce it.
Footnote 12: Or at least highly questionable, for the reasons the story highlights.
- I don’t think their having had a “relationship” throughout much of the time he spent with her is consistent with her apparent repentance and emotional collapse.
Footnote 13: Fernandez makes a parallel with Judas, who also – he claims – felt he couldn’t be forgiven.
Footnote 14: Fashions may have changed in appreciating the appropriateness of the symbol, as it depends on a positive evaluation of paternalism.
Footnote 15: The sourcing of which on the P&O liner is left unexplained.
Footnote 17: I’d expected a shoot-out, but it’s all very civil, rather surprising as Crosbie is effectively ruined.
- Few would be convicted if lawyers entertained such considerations.
- Mr. Joyce admits that his role is to defend his client to the best of his ability, whatever his private suspicions about her guilt or innocence. However, cheating – by interfering with the evidence or witnesses – ought to be a step too far.
Footnote 18: It had earlier been pointed out that Ong Chi is working for Mr. Joyce for a year before establishing himself independently. Mr. Joyce has a high opinion of his abilities.
Footnote 19: It seems to be the last of 16 in a series involving Ashenden: see Link.
- An article in Oxford Academic – Music & Letters attributes the title to Keats:- One of Somerset Maugham’s most disquieting short stories is ‘The Alien Corn’, a study of the ‘Jewish question’ as refracted through the prism of British high society in the years immediately after the First World War. Maugham drew his title from Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, which sings ‘the self-same song that found a path / Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home, / She stood in tears amid the alien corn’ (Keats refers to Ruth 2: 2–3).
- See Link
- I could expatiate on this topic at length.
- Briefly, it was not to go “all out” in any one direction – which in any case suits my rather diffuse talents.
- I’m not sure I’ve stated these quite correctly at the moment.
- A previous footnote refers to “The Jewish Question” – true, but maybe only on the surface. The same problems of assimilation and authenticity would apply to any immigrant community.
- Another (“Virtuosi”) has it that it’s a disguised study of homosexuality – always possible with Maugham – and marks both George and Ferdy down as homosexuals. Seems fanciful to me.
Footnote 24: Footnote 25:
- The name “Bland” is surely suggestive.
- The narrator notes that the Blands’ “stately home” is really a pastiche – devoid of that family history that would make it a home.
- To be fair to the evangelicals, they would probably spin this by saying that God can bring good out of evil, not – of course – that God does evil that good may come.
- The narrator’s reference to “omnipotence”, of course, leads directly to “the problem of evil”. Isn’t an omnipotent God as responsible for what he fails to prevent as for what he directly causes?
- But, the narrator’s “non-well-versedness” also leads to “noseeum” arguments in theodicy (see "Rowe (William L.), Howard-Snyder (Daniel) & Bergmann (Michael) - Debate: Is Evil Evidence against Belief in God?", for instance): we don’t know enough to evaluate God’s deep purposes.
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