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Somerset Maugham Short Stories - Part 2
(Text as at 02/07/2017 10:36:29)
See This Note1 for Part 1.
- The Book Bag – 466
- I’m not sure what we’re meant to make of this story.
- The preamble – about the eponymous book bag – is interesting. The narrator cannot bear to be without a book, and carries a large bag of them on his travels so that whatever his mood he has something to read. He describes reading as an addiction. I have sympathy with this plan, though doubt a bag of whatever capacity would be sufficient.
- The book of relevance is a biography of Byron, and it’s Byron’s – presumed incestuous – relationship with his half-sister that forms the link.
- This book was lent to the person – Mark Featherstone – that our author stays with in Penang, where Mark is Acting Resident, on his travels through Malaya, and – after prompting – compels his to tell his tale.
- This tale is of a brother and sister; Tim and Olive Hardy.
- Tim had joined them for a game of bridge the night before, and had played a good hand, but he rarely visited the club.
- The tale is well told, and the long and short of it is that Tim and Olive are very close, and while cultured and superficially welcoming, are very self-sufficient. They have been brought up mostly separately, Olive in Italy – their parents being divorced. Their family owns, but for generations had never afford to run, a large estate in England, which is leased out. Tim is a planter, though does not have a planter’s hands. He has hopes of one day being able to afford to take on his family estate.
- Mark is their closest friend, and visits them frequently. He’s very attracted to Olive, who – while very friendly towards him – refuses to marry him. Eventually, Tim is called back to his estate – originally for three months – to oversee a change of lessee and to buy some machinery for his plantation. While away, he sends a telegram to say his return has been delayed. Olive – presumably fearing the worst – is thrown into despair, and her fears are confirmed when she hears from Tim to the effect that he has married and is bringing his wife Sally to live on the plantation. Tim seizes his opportunity with the suggestion that they would be able to move away and Olive at last agrees to marry him – though gets him to promise not to reveal anything until Tim gets back.
- When Tim and Sally’s ship docks, Olive declines to go to great them, and breaks off her engagement to Mark, saying she was not in her right mind. Mark has to visit another town that day, so can’t be present at the reunion and meeting, but when he gets back to the bungalow, Olive has fatally shot herself. She has been taken to hospital and dies four hours after Mark gets there without regaining consciousness, the tension being raised by the suggestion that she has hideously disfigured herself.
- Sally demands that Tim helps her to return without delay; she says that it’s “monstrous” that Tim had ever asked her to marry him. It is not explicitly stated, but we’re clearly supposed to understand that Tim and Olive had been living incestuously.
- As noted at the start of this summary, I don’t know what to make of this story, or what Maugham intends us to learn from it. It’s very odd that the details hadn’t got out and been all over Malaya; also, it’s hard to believe that Tim wouldn’t have been blackballed from every Club in the east, given the conventional and coercive morality of the times2. So, presumably for the sake of Olive’s memory Mark had kept the reason for Olive’s suicide a secret. Quite why Sally would have is unclear.
- I suppose this could be just another case of Maugham chronicling the diversity of life he’s seen on his travels, though whether – or to what degree – the tale is drawn from life is unclear.
- Salvatore – 505
- This story is much shorter than most in this collection, and I have little to say about it. Maugham explains that it’s an exercise he set himself – to hold the attention of the reader while the principle character displays nothing but the quality of goodness (the story is sandwiched between two halves of this explanation, so the reader doesn’t know the aim until he’s read the story).
- In brief – the story – which cannot have been observed given the timespan and lack of attempt to place the narrator in the story – is as follows. We’re introduced to a 15-year-old boy – the son of a fisherman on an Italian island near Naples. He’s lithe, spends his time on the beach, and becomes engaged to an equally attractive young girl. He has to do his military service before he can marry and while away becomes afflicted with some arthritic condition which – positively – allows him to be invalided out of navy, but – negatively – means that he’ll have difficulty making a living as a fisherman. His prospective father-in-law refuses to give consent to his marriage (as a cover for his daughter not wanting to go through with the marriage), and he ends up marrying a much uglier girl a little his senior who has some money of her own so that – like his father before him – he can set himself up as a fisherman and rent a vineyard. There’s a description of his subsequent life – he develops into a “great bid husky fellow, tall and broad”. He and his wife “presently” have two sons, and there are descriptions of Salvatore gently bathing them in the sea as babies and toddlers. His life is hard, and while he is able to work as a fisherman, he sometimes has to rest on account of his arthritis. His wife, while grim-visaged and looking old for her years has a good heart and is no fool. They seem happy, and Salvatore is accepting of his lot, bearing no ill-will towards the girl who cast him over, though his wife has no good word to say for her.
- I think Maugham has been successful in his aim.
- The Judgement Seat – 510
- This is a philosophical “conceit” somewhat unlike most of Somerset Maugham’s short stories.
- Four individuals are ushered into the presence of the Eternal. One is a philosopher, and the other three formerly formed a love triangle. All are rather confident of their position: the philosopher in his arguments; the three in their rectitude.
- The philosopher makes the argument from evil3: the difficulty of reconciling God’s omnipotence with his omnibenevolence, given the regrettable state of the world. If God cannot prevent it, he is not All-Powerful, and if he can but will not, he is not All-Good. Somerset Maugham has the Omniscient admitting he has no answer – even God cannot make 2+2=5. Unfortunately, the philosopher presses his case too far – saying that he will not believe in a God that is “not All-Powerful and All-Good” – despite – it may be presumed – such a One being there before him.
- The three are a husband and wife – John and Mary – and the third is Ruth with whom John becomes reciprocally infatuated a few years after his marriage to Mary. However, rather than divorcing Mary and living happily with Ruth, John “does his duty” and stays with Mary, who hates him for it, and hates herself for her attitude, and he hates her. Meanwhile, Ruth does her duty by renouncing love altogether, does “good works” while hating everyone. John’s final call of duty is to die in a failed attempt to save the wife he hates from drowning following their ship being torpedoed. Ruth then dies of a broken heart.
- The three have lived “grey and drab” lives, enjoying none of the good things on earth and longing for death when they will get their reward for doing their duty. The Eternal is wroth with them for their flint-heartedness and would have liked to tell them to “go to hell”, but these words “had a colloquial association he rightly thought unfitting to the solemnity of the situation”. The three are simply annihilated. He remarks that attention to “his works” would show that he has always been sympathetic to the human frailty of sexual irregularity.
- We’re not told the fate of the philosopher – we’d earlier been told that the Eternal smiled when people doubted his existence – except that the philosopher would have to admit that on this occasion the Eternal had successfully combined4 his omnipotence with his omnibenevolence.
- Gigolo and Gigolette – 515
- This is another enjoyable tale, but is not much worth commenting on.
- The basic idea is – I suppose – the pressure of the desire for a better life on those who are willing to take risks to achieve it, and the choice of when to take a less dangerous course.
- A side-plot is the observations that those who pay to see risk-takers taking their risks secretly hope that they will fail, and the stress such a realization can have on the nerves of those performing the spectacles.
- Another is the transience of the fame achieved thereby.
- The story also has some amusing sub-plots on failed authenticity – an “Italian countess” who is neither Italian, nor a countess; and a pair of genuine English aristocrats who cannot live up to what’s expected of them on account of poverty, and who spend their lives sponging off others.
- Anyway, the plot centers around the eponymous Gigolo (Syd Cotman) and his wife, Stella. They had made their livings as paid dancer-partners, more being occasionally required of Syd; but times had got hard – they had been reduced to dancing “marathons”. Then, Syd had dreamt up the stunt whereby Stella – formerly a swimmer – would dive from a 60-foot high platform into a 5-foot deep pool of water, the surface of which is covered with flaming petrol. It seems she can do this twice a night without losing her nerve.
- The action takes place in a casino; the act is the main attraction, though the hope is that the guests will progress on to the gaming tables. A problem arises when an antiquated couple arrive and reveal themselves as a now-forgotten similar pair from 40 years ago. The lady had been a “human cannonball”. But, when their fame started to wane, and the “public” got bored, they exited this dangerous pursuit and used their savings to set up a “pension” (boarding house) where they had made a comfortable living.
- This unsettles Stella, who loses her nerve and refuses to go on – despite their contract just having been extended at twice the fee. There follows a heart-to-heart in which Syd agrees that she can stop – they have had hard times before, and they will survive. This seems to take the pressure off Stella, and she volunteers to continue with the second show of the night, and to continue on “until she kills herself”. She can’t bear the thought of the alternative – though maybe in another month Syd will have thought of something.
- The Colonel's Lady – 534
- This is a difficult story to review. As always it’s well told, and the enjoyment is in reading the telling.
- The main characters are a rather stuffy “Colonel Blimp” – in outlook though not in bodily form (he has a commanding presence) – the eponymous Colonel George Peregrine – a Yorkshire bigwig living in his ancestral Georgian mansion with his wife Evie – the eponymous “lady” whom he neither loves nor truly respects, other than for her domestic capabilities. They dine at opposite ends of the baronial-style table, looked down on by Colonel Peregrine’s forebears.
- He’s decidedly low-brow – his interests are very much of the “hunting, shooting and fishing” sort, though he manages his estate well and supports his tenants in a paternalistic way – all they need do is vote for his candidate. He is contemptuous of “high-brows” – so has no interest in his wife’s books, which he simply treats as an indulgence. Their marriage is somewhat one of convenience, though Evie has some money of her own so is not entirely dependent on him. There appears to be no tension or rancor between them, but no real connection. They have no children, which grieves the Colonel, whose heir is his nephew. The Colonel, in his mid-50s, has a much younger mistress up in London. A chap has to have some fun.
- One morning over breakfast, a packet of books turns up for his wife, and it turns out to contain copies of a book of poems she’s had published under her maiden name. The Colonel has no interest in poetry, and his experience at prep school and Eton had led him to expect it to be “done properly”, rather than in the irregular way that his wife has chosen for at least some of her poems. She seems indifferent as to whether he reads the book or not, but he does so, without understanding any of it.
- It turns out that the book gets rave reviews and several editions sell out quickly. Evie (and the Colonel) are invited to the launch of the American edition, and the Colonel does not enjoy talking to the various high-brows, of whom he is contemptuous. He notices that some people seem to be laughing – or at least talking – behind his back. Evie refuses an invitation to a soiree put on by the local Duke. The Colonel is initially outraged at this lost social opportunity, until he learns that the invitation didn’t include him, when he is grateful for Evie’s tact.
- Evie had evidently retrieved the Colonel’s copy of the book, so he buys himself a new copy in a London bookshop. The bookseller praises it, but says it’s probably a “one off” as the author has been writing from personal experience. It seems that there’s a story-line running through the poems.
- The Colonel then decides to read the book properly, and he finally understands what the poems are about. The author had evidently had – or was imagining she had had – an affair with a much younger man, starting around ten years previously and continuing for some three years, when the young man had died. It is not stated what the attraction between the two was, and the death of the young man is also unexplained.
- The Colonel is incensed by all this – on the grounds that he’s been made into a laughing-stock. He says nothing to Evie, but visits a solicitor friend for advice and help. He wants to find out who the young man was, and wants his friend to recruit private detectives, but his friend refuses, and suggests that the Colonel just lets it all pass. What would he do with the information? Does he want his wife to leave him? His wife’s affair is in the past, he himself has had (and is still having) an affair, and an investigation can lead to no good and would disturb their marriage of convenience. The solicitor claims it’ll do the Colonel good even if he can‘t forget the incident – “it’ll get it into that thick head of yours that there’s a lot more to Evie than you ever had the gumption to see”. So, the Colonel agrees to ignore the episode and what people think, so he and Evie can continue their comfortable lives.
- The story ends with the Colonel remarking that to his dying day he’ll never understand what the fellow saw in Evie. This shows that he’s not taken to heart the solicitor’s suggestion to re-evaluate Evie.
- There’s much that could be added.
- The gulf between the moneyed / landed class and the intelligentsia is marked as is their mutual indifference and incomprehension. Each expects, but does not get, respect from the other. Strangely, there may be a contemporary parallel with the populist resentment of those in the “Westminster bubble” or the “liberal elite”, and the latter’s contempt of the low-brow. People of all sorts are to be respected for their positive qualities – which almost all have – rather than held in contempt for whatever of our favourite qualities they lack.
- Of course, the asymmetry between what is expected of – and allowed of – the sexes is stark, though maybe less the case these days.
- The need to “truly connect” is on the surface, though the Colonel appears to have no such need. Evie evidently does, though not with him. No doubt many married couples could learn from this tale. Enough said.
- The Kite – 554
- What to say about this one? Well, it’s a fabricated tale about freedom, in the form of kite-flying, and restriction – in the form of family relationships, work and real incarceration.
- The tale is about a boy (Herbert Sunbury), his mother (Beatrice), his father (Samuel, a lawyer’s clerk in the City), and, when he’d grown up, Herbert’s fiancé / wife Betty.
- Basically, Herbert is strongly controlled by his mother – a lower-middle-class woman who has “standards”, though is largely uneducated. He is smart enough to grow up to work in accountancy, so that in due course he and his father go up to the City together on the train. However, on Saturday afternoons they have always flown a kite – indeed they have obtained increasingly sophisticated kites.
- This happy but tightly circumscribed life is disturbed when Herbert dates and subsequently marries Betty, very much against his mother’s wishes. Betty will let him have nothing to do with childish pursuits like kite-flying, though his mother had been supportive. For a while, “Herb” goes along with this, but eventually he chafes at the loss – in particular because his parents have taken delivery of a box-kite that can allegedly fly two miles high. He sneaks off to join his parents flying it, and soon Betty finds out. They row, and Herbert returns to his mother, where he considers himself better off.
- His mother attempts a settlement with Betty to pay maintenance (using Herbert’s money, of course), but Betty relents and wants Herb back. She’ll even put up with his kite-flying.
- However, Herbert has had enough of married life, and refuses to go back to her. In consequence, she is consumed with jealousy – in that Herb’s real affections are for the kite rather than for her – so she chops it up. Herbert then refuses to pay alimony and ends up in Wormwood Scrubs, being in contempt of court.
- It is made out that he will never forgive Betty or pay her maintenance, and is happy enough in prison in consequence. There is a feeble attempt to explain this in non-specific Freudian terms when the tale is told by a prison visitor to the author. I wasn’t convinced by any of this, and the story ends with the thought that it is more to do with freedom. It seems that Herbert is in chains whatever he does, whether it be shackled to his mother, his job, his wife, or actually in prison. It’s not clear why – when his mind is cleared by a period of solitude – he doesn’t agree to go back to Betty if she’ll allow him to buy a new kite. It seems that his mother’s life-long control has permanently infantilized him.
- Daisy – 580
- This is some form of morality tale – but not in the medieval sense of virtue rewarded. Its theme is to contrast surface honesty, virtue and respectability with the real thing, though there’s precious little of that on offer, and to expose hypocrisy. It’s a bit heavy-handed in this regard.
- The action takes place in a fictional town – Blackstable5 – on the coast, not too far from London and close to a cathedral city, Tercanbury6. It is conventionally religious, with the community centered around a Church of England with a Baptist church for “the dissenters”.
- Daisy is the daughter of Robert Griffith – a church warden and a carpenter with a specialty in coffins – and “Mrs. Griffith”, and the sister of George (who we later learn is a clerk to a coal merchant). Mr. Griffith had favoured Daisy and had had her educated in Tercanbury. This has led to considerable resentment within the family.
- Unfortunately, Daisy brings disgrace upon the family when she elopes with Captain Hogan, a married man from the barracks at Tercanbury. Daisy settles near Charring Cross but the situation is not made clear7, and it appears that Captain Hogan badly lets her down.
- Eventually, Daisy writes pathetic and desperate letters to her father asking to return home. He wants to have her back, but his wife and son will have none of it. She’s dead to them and deserves what’s coming to her as divine punishment. They are more concerned for their standing in the community, and the conventional morality of the community agrees with them at the time; even the dissenters attend the service at which the vicar preaches against her. Mrs Griffith & George intercept and destroy the increasingly desperate letters from Daisy. Eventually George is sent by his mother – purportedly from her father, who knows nothing of this – to tell Daisy to stop writing. He leaves her to her fate, superficially convinced of his own righteousness.
- A year passes, and George is up in London on a trip and sees Daisy standing in Piccadilly. She does not return his stare, and it is assumed (but not stated) that she is working as a prostitute.
- Further years pass, and things turn around for Daisy. She forms a liaison with Sir Herbert Ousley-Farrowham either before or after she becomes an acclaimed pantomime actress. She appears as the principal boy – Robin Hood – at a show in Tercanbury and all Blackstable go to see her. It’s announced that she is to marry her Baronet and become Lady Ousley-Farrowham. Mrs Griffith writes to Daisy in a conciliatory manner – “all is forgiven” – but receives no reply. She even goes to visit her, but is not allowed in. They don’t go to the wedding uninvited lest others from Blackstable are there and see their shame.
- Mr. Griffith – now “old Griffith” adopts a completely different attitude. He’s in despair about what’s happened to Daisy. He’d have had her back repentant any time, but now he thinks of the situation as her “flourishing in her sin, and he loathed her”.
- The town now reproach the Griffiths for not being good parents. Mr. Griffith is asked to step down as churchwarden as his wife has become a dissenter in protest. The town turns against them, and Mr. Griffith’s business – which had in any case been in decline because of competition from specialist funeral directors – collapses. He keeps this from his family by drawing on their savings. In the meantime Mrs. Griffiths does likewise to maintain her new status by buying expensive clothes. Eventually, there’s a crash – their savings run out and they either need to sell up and move to a smaller house out of town or ask for help. Mrs. Griffith wants to ask Daisy for assistance now she has new-found wealth – despite the fact that she had herself refused her any help when she was in desperate need – far more desperate than they are now in. Mr. Griffith would rather go to a workhouse, but is a broken man and is prevailed upon to write a pathetic letter at dictation, followed up by a desperate telegram.
- Daisy obtains leave from her husband to support her family – and goes to visit them. She agrees an allowance of slightly more than the family had at the peak of their prosperity. After she’s gone, George remarks that they might have got more out of her.
- Daisy asks to see her father alone, but nothing is resolved. All he can say is that “they made him do it”. She still seems to repulse him, and he cannot kiss her – though the others have done so gladly. He “looks like a hunted beast”. Daisy admits she’s caused him suffering, but she has suffered too. He just repeats that he didn’t write the letter – they stood over him and made him do it. Daisy leaves and wanders around Blackstable reminiscing about the past in a maudlin way, before returning to her husband and promising to be a good wife to him. They confirm their love for one another.
- It’s a grim tale. It depicts the generality of mankind – at least in its small-town form – as self-serving and hard-hearted. The only people of true feeling and honesty are Daisy and her father. Mr. Griffith is wrong but genuine, and has been deceived. His wife and son are just after what they can get – whether it be status or financial reward.
In-Page Footnotes:Footnote 2:
Footnote 3: Footnote 4:
- Certain misdemeanors might be common or not, but you’d be expected to shoot yourself if found out.
- Others are so beyond the pale that others might shoot you if they found out!
- This is the approach of believers in “conditional immortality”, though maybe with some retribution towards the more evil before their annihilation.
- That said, there remains the problem of evil. While evil does not go on forever, on this account, much suffering goes unrecompensed on this account too.
Footnote 6: Tercanbury is obviously based on Canterbury.
- Blackstable is fictional, but is assumed to be based on Whitstable in Kent, for obvious reasons.
- Presumably at the time of the story Whitstable was much smaller than it subsequently became.
- It turns out that Daisy subsequently will take no money from Captain Hogan when she gets in desperate straits, and appears to hate him, so it may be that he had not told her he was married, and had hoped to install her as his mistress.
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|Somerset Maugham (W.)
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|Peterson (Michael) & VanArragon (Raymond)
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|Rowe (William L.), Howard-Snyder (Daniel) & Bergmann (Michael)
||Debate: Is Evil Evidence against Belief in God?
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||Peterson (Michael) & Van Arragon (Raymond) - Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Religion, 2004
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