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Somerset Maugham Short Stories
(Text as at 14/11/2020 12:41:46)
(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.
- 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 “falls2”.
- 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 aesthetic3 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 Isabel4.
- 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 consensus5 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 illegal6 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 covet7 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 it8.
- 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 incarceration9.
- 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 explanation10.
- If so, this is a major weakness in the story. The missionaries’ behavior is objectionable11 – 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 because12 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 symbol13 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 cockerel14, 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 reasons15; 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. Crosbie16 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 astuteness17.
- 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 – tale18, 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 W. Somerset Maugham - Princess September and the Nightingale.
- 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 Corn19 – 348
- This story was – at least in my retelling of my early life – pivotal to my development and life choices20.
- There are two main themes21 – 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 Blands22 (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 Makart23. 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 arranged24 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.
- 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 times25. 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 evil26: 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 combined27 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 – Blackstable28 – on the coast, not too far from London and close to a cathedral city, Tercanbury29. 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 clear30, 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.
This Note was originally – on account of technical constraints I’d not then resolved – output in two parts:-
In-Page Footnotes:Footnote 1:
- In the widest sense, including matters of life-choice and self-evaluation.
Footnote 3: 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 4: 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 5: Footnote 6: This is important for the missionaries, not just that sin should be financially inconvenient.
Footnote 8: From Elizabethan times until the (partial) repeal of the Act of Uniformity (Wikipedia: Act of Uniformity 1662) in the late 19th century, recusants (Wikipedia: Recusancy) 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 (Wikipedia: Test Act) 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 11: 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 12: Fernandez makes a parallel with Judas, who also – he claims – felt he couldn’t be forgiven.
Footnote 14: The sourcing of which on the P&O liner is left unexplained.
- Fashions may have changed in appreciating the appropriateness of the symbol, as it depends on a positive evaluation of paternalism.
Footnote 16: 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 17: 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 18: It seems to be the last of 16 in a series involving Ashenden: see Wikipedia: Ashenden: Or the British Agent.
- 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 Gerald Finzi: His Life and Music
- 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 23: Footnote 24:
- 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.
Footnote 26: Footnote 27:
- 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 29: 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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