Theo Todman's Web Page - Notes Pages
Somerset Maugham Short Stories - Volume 1
(Text as at 22/09/2022 10:04:48)
- I have now transferred these comments to a Note by analogy with those on "Somerset Maugham (W.) - Short Stories". As the bulk of them didn’t find their way into this “Greatest Hits” selection, some may not be worth such close attention. However, while this book is basically “holiday reading”, I have managed to annotate most of the stories in some detail.
- I have summarised the stories only to the degree strictly necessary to provide the context for whatever I have to say, so 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. But take this as a “spoiler alert”.
- I’ve provided links to the various summaries of the stories on Wikipedia where these are available. I’ve only read these after making my own summaries, so they may not always agree.
- 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.
Contents & Commentary
- Rain – 3
- The fall of Edward Barnard – 49
- Honolulu4 – 85
- As with almost all WSM’s stories, this is an entertaining yarn, but I was in two minds whether to write anything on it as it seems inconsistent, and the supernatural element makes it rather silly.
- However, I thought I’d try out a couple of reinterpretations that might make it more satisfying, though still of little philosophical interest.
- The story begins with an introductory passage saying that – while “armchair travel” might allow us to reflect on the generalities of tourism in foreign parts, it can’t provide the oddities that make such travel most interesting. The story that follows is an example.
- The Narrator5 is in Honolulu and has a letter of introduction to an American – Winter – who shows him the sights before taking him to a bar at which he’s encouraged to make the acquaintance of Captain Butler. The Captain is a jolly – if somewhat short and rotund – American who had been captain of a passenger steamer off the California coast until he negligently lost his ship and several passengers (presumably when drunk) and was stripped of his license in the subsequent enquiry. He now captains a freight ship for a Chinese who doesn’t care about his lack of a license because it enables him to pay less.
- The Narrator has initially little interest in Captain Butler, but Winter encourages them to meet up again as the Captain has an interesting tale to tell. So, they meet up on the Captain’s boat where, after rather too many whiskey and sodas – the Captain tells his tale.
- Captain Butler’s cabin and his own general appearance and clothing are grubby, but he has a very attractive native girl (a Kanaka6) who has been living with him for the last year or so – it is said – and who he’d purchased for $200 from her father, having had to borrow some of the money given a recent loss at poker. Quite what the attraction there can have been in him for her is left unexplained, but they appear to be genuinely in love.
- The Captain has an extremely ugly Chinese cook, and a strong but silent first mate, also a Kanaka and known as Bananas. The latter is a highly-competent sailor and an excellent deputy that the Captain esteems in that regard, but not otherwise as he’s always ribbing him, though the Captain is said to be a good natured sort who doesn’t hold grudges or otherwise think ill of people.
- Well, Bananas takes a shine to the Captain’s girl and tries to force himself on her so that the Captain knocks him out with a knuckle-duster to the chin. Bananas recovers after a couple of days, but is mightily resentful of the Captain, whose girl says that he must be dismissed. The Captain, however, considers Bananas indispensable and the matter settled.
- Over the next month, the Captain takes sick and after eventually consulting a doctor, who can find nothing wrong, but prescribes a placebo, as the Captain approaches death his girl persuades him to consult a native medicine man, who ascertains that someone is “praying for his death”. The Captain will still not get rid of Bananas, so his girl decides to do it herself – by defeating native magic with more of the same.
- It seems that if she can get him to look at the water in a calabash7 so that he sees his image – which is his soul – reflected in the water, and can then violently agitate the water, he will die.
- The girl pretends to be leaving the stricken Captain – by this time reduced to skin and bone and very near death – distracts Bananas by giving him what he wants so that Bananas become besotted – and somehow manages the trick with the calabash, at which point Bananas drops down dead, and the Captain subsequently returns to full health.
- The sting in the tail is that – according to Winter – neither the girl asleep on the Captain’s lap as he tells the story nor the ugly Chinese cook who serves the drinks are those that feature in the story. The girl is said to have run off with the previous Chinese cook, and the Captain found another girl two months ago, and recruited the ugliest replacement cook he could find, lest history repeat itself.
- The story appears to be inconsistent8, and given that the native magic is all hogwash, I wonder whether we’re supposed to suspect a cover-up of some sort, though how they explained the death of Bananas to the authorities is – well – left unexplained. Then, it’s also unexplained why the girl went to such trouble to eliminate Bananas and then ran off with the cook.
- The doctor had (supposedly) determined that the Captain was not being poisoned, so that seems to rule out some subterfuge by the former Chinese cook to poison the Captain and blame it on Bananas (murdering him in some non-supernatural way).
- Alternatively, maybe the whole calabash story and that of the elopement is a cover-up for the elimination of Bananas by non-supernatural means, followed by burial at sea, and the girl and cook are the same as those in the story.
- Or maybe the story is simply inconsistent for no reason other than carelessness.
- The luncheon – 112
- A brief tale of a lunch at a ruinously expensive restaurant that a middle-aged admirer of the then impecunious Narrator’s literary work invites herself to at his expense.
- The Narrator is bound by convention to pay whatever the meal costs, and as this cost mounts up his disquiet mounts likewise: it eventually accounts for all he has to live on for the month.
- All but the fabulously wealthy will have found themselves in something of a similar situation at one time or another.
- The lady claims to eat only one small thing for lunch, while choosing in turn the most exotic items on the menu, washed down with champagne, making an exception in each case. The author is chided for having chosen a lamb chop (in fact chosen as the cheapest item on the menu) which had “evidently” filled him up so he could eat no more.
- The closing paragraph reveals that the lady – when they meet again by chance 20 years later, the trigger for narrating the tale – is now 21 stone, though quite how this precise fact was elicited is not revealed.
- The episode reminds me of a hotel breakfast (the morning after a wedding celebration) at which the brother of the groom’s voluble and somewhat corpulent girlfriend was explaining in a loud voice how she normally ate very little. An involuntary and rather unkind (though not so intended) “liar!!” emerged from my mouth.
- I suppose a moral of WSM’s tale is that sometimes it is necessary to be open with people and not be constrained by convention or “saving face”. Not just for practical purposes, but because otherwise we don’t really “connect”. That, and avoiding being taken advantage of by flagrant spongers.
- The ant and the grasshopper – 117
- A reverse take on La Fontaine’s fable9, which is briefly rehearsed, the Narrator recording that he’d never warmed to the tale as a child and had always stamped on any industrious ant he’d come across.
- In the human anti-parallel there are two brothers – George and Tom Ramsay – of whom George is the long-suffering Ant who is always bailing out his profligate Grasshopper brother, who has given up a respectable job and family in order to pursue a life of pleasure.
- Tom seems to be the life and soul of the party, and many of his friends think it worth it to provide him the “loans” that enable him to pursue his extravagant lifestyle.
- When all else fails, he falls back on his brother, sometimes resorting to “blackmail” – in the sense of taking up jobs that will embarrass his socially-conscious brother (bar tender and cabbie are examples) unless he’s paid to desist. On one occasion an accomplice feigns to sue Tom so that Tom’s at risk of gaol, which is more than George could bear, though not on Tom’s behalf, and then the two squander the moneys provided by George in an out-of-court settlement.
- The story has a “happy ending” for Tom, in that he marries a woman old enough to be his mother, and when she dies inherits an enormous fortune. This contrasts with Tom’s careful and industrious life leading – he hopes – to a comfortable, but hardly lavish, retirement.
- The Narrator finds this hilarious, but George is incensed at the injustice of it all.
- No doubt there are many morals to be taken from this immoral tale, which is really just a re-working of the fable that goes back to Aesop. We can’t all be grasshoppers relying on the ants to bail us out, yet the ants could do the baling with a better spirit and not just to save face or avoid public embarrassment.
- Home – 122
- “Home” is an old farmhouse in a farm farmed by the same family for 300 years. Two brothers from the family – George and Tom Meadows – fall in love with the same woman – Emily Green – who chooses George, the younger and safer, rather than the older, who goes to sea and becomes a Captain plying the coast of China for 40 years, after which he retires – worn out – to a sailors’ home in Portsmouth. After another 10 years he decides to come home, walks up the long drive of Elms, meets the family – including the two generations that have arisen during his absence – and then rather unexpectedly – despite his decrepitude – dies in his sleep overnight.
- Everyone in the story has had a happy life – Tom would live his over again – yet there’s an element of regret. Tom only ever loved Emily, so never married, and Emily – a strong-willed and intelligent woman who continues to run the farm after her husband’s death – wonders whether she married the wrong brother.
- The pool10 – 127
- This story is a tragedy set in Samoa. A bank manager from England (or Scotland) – Lawson – moves to Samoa for the good of his health. He is fairly literate and cultured and only fits in with the rough ex-pat community after he’s “had a few”.
- Soon after he arrives, he meets – or in the first few instances “sees” – Ethel Brevald, a beautiful “half-caste11” – the daughter of a Norwegian and his native wife at the eponymous “pool” – a natural affair fed by a stream. She wears a modest “Mother Hubbard12” even for bathing, so the attraction isn’t of the raw Tahitian kind exemplified by Gauguin’s paintings.
- Eventually, they marry – against the advice of the ex-pats, who think he’d retain control of her better if they just lived together. They have a child (a boy) who turns out – “unluckily” (“luck” – particularly bad luck – being a key part of Lawson’s view of the world) – to be as black as the “natives”; there’s no suspicion of unfaithfulness on Ethel’s part, at this stage at least.
- Lawson loves Ethel and the boy, but he grows to hate the Samoan “paradise” and the ex-pat community, and gets a more junior banking job in Scotland, to which he and his family move.
- Initially, Ethel is keen on the move, but she can’t fit in properly to society there, ostensibly not for racist reasons (she’s said to look no darker than a Spaniard) but, while she’s been educated at a mission school, it has only been up to elementary level and she’s a fairly unsophisticated girl, quite young when they met. She takes to swimming in the freezing-cold Scottish analogue of her Samoan pool, thinking nostalgically of home. Eventually, she escapes back to Samoa, taking the boy with her, and produces another child soon thereafter.
- Lawson cannot live without her, and resigns his job in Scotland, sells up and returns to Samoa. There, he cannot find decent employment, and ends up working in a store for a “half-caste”, which he takes to be an ultimate indignity. He has to live at his father-in-law’s bungalow, which is small and squalid and over-run with Samoan family and hangers-on; so, he spends his evenings drinking at the English Club.
- He spirals down into drunkenness. Ethel has her own life, and Lawson gets jealous – assuming she’s seeing another white man – and occasionally gets violent with Ethel, who retaliates. He becomes a figure of scorn to his wife and everyone else.
- Eventually, Lawson loses a very brief fight with Miller – a robust and intelligent German-American he’d once worked for – and been sacked by – who threatens him over his “abuse” of Ethel and whom Lawson suspects of having an affair with her. Then, after picking himself up, he bumps into the Narrator and bares his soul, pondering how it all went wrong. Later, after attending the New Year’s Eve Midnight Mass with the Narrator, he returns to the pool and drowns himself.
- The story is rather too long for its themes, and contains many incidental passages I’ve not mentioned. I think the main moral is how the decisions in life – big and small – can snowball into an unfortunate and not altogether foreseen path. That, and how radically different cultures – while they can co-exist alongside one another – cannot really mix intimately because of their different expectations from life.
- Mackintosh – 170
- Appearance and Reality14 – 208
- This tale is a rather drole comment on French upper-middle-class morality.
- There’s an introductory reference to F.H. Bradley’s Appearance and Reality15, which has nothing to do with the story, but is mentioned – and its literary merits briefly and irrelevantly described – merely to justify taking its title.
- There are also introductory references to the French authors François Rabelais, La Fontaine16 and Corneille17, to prefigure, respectively, the ribaldry, horse sense and panache18 of the tale.
- The text of the story is – as usual for Somerset Maugham – witty and full of good natured but sarcastic asides on the compromised ways of politics, business and society generally.
- The story features Monsieur Le Sueur – a Parisian industrialist, politician and general business magnate and his (at the start, ‘soon to be’) mistress, Lisette, an impecunious young lady of respectable background – as determined by a private detective – then employed as a mannequin19.
- Monsieur Le Sueur has married his wife for her money, which has greatly helped him establish himself as the head of several companies and to obtain a seat in the French Senate. His wife persuades him to visit a fashion show at which he sees and ‘falls in love with’ Lisette as she models clothes.
- With the complicity of Lisette’s aunt he sets Lisette up in a Parisian flat, and he visits her for recreation during his free time away from business and politics. This makes him very happy, but when he visits her unexpectedly one morning to report that he has been made Minister of the Interior, he finds her having breakfast with her young lover, who is wearing his pyjamas.
- He’s understandably upset by this and throws the young man out, but after he’s calmed down he comes to an accommodation with her and the young man, whom Lisette loves (and did so before she met Monsieur Le Sueur). Lisette claims that he is being irrational, for she points out that if she were a married woman and he were committing adultery with her, he’d find this entirely satisfactory, so why is he upset in the present circumstance?
- This has all to do with Monsieur Le Sueur’s personal honour, of course. He cannot stomach being ‘cheated on’, especially if this were to become publicly known. But Monsieur Le Sueur comes up with an unusual idea. He suggests that Lisette and her young man get married, which they are more than happy to do, and settles a million francs on her – and a car on the young man – as well as acting as a witness at their wedding. Then he can carry on cheating on his wife, and Lisette will then be cheating on her husband, but this is all above board – or at least to be expected – according to the mores of the time. In any case those being cheated on are complicit (though it’s not really made clear what Madame Le Sueur knows and makes of it all; maybe she’s happy with the social status).
- No-one other than those directly involved seems to know what’s really going on – hence the story’s title. Monsieur Le Sueur even receives praise for his assistance to the young couple. The young husband is a travelling salesman, only in Paris at weekends, so Monsieur Le Sueur can go back to his happy life during the week.
- While this story is rather upbeat, and Somerset Maugham draws no moral from the immoral tale, I was somewhat reminded of the utterly depressing Everybody Knows20, by Leonard Cohen, though this is a much bleaker take on a similar theme and one more politically-focused, though it does have a verse on infidelity. Of course, if appearance is to differ from reality, there needs to be a denial that ‘everybody knows’ the true situation in our story. This is achieved by turning a blind eye: people could know, but choose not to.
- The three fat women of Antibes21 – 225
- This is a jolly, if rather silly tale.
- Three fat middle-aged – but wealthy – ladies have shared a friendship centered on unsuccessful dieting for many years. They need a fourth for bridge for a two-week holiday and the cousin of one of them joins them in Antibes, in the south of France.
- Unfortunately, she can eat anything – and does so ostentatiously – while the other three can’t. She also cleans them out at bridge – despite them being good players and her not playing a system.
- The three briefly fall out after she has left, but become reconciled when they give up the dieting and stuff their faces in the final scene.
- I’m not sure how significant the fourth’s ‘lack of system’ is allegorically, but no doubt the moral of the tale is to enjoy life and accept your limitations.
- The facts of life22 – 242
- A well told, but rather worthless tale.
- A young man is given sensible advice by his father on a trip to Monte Carlo for a tennis tournament: not to gamble, not to lend money and to avoid women. He ignores all three sets of advice, and all turns out well – he wins at the casino, he gets his loan back, and he out-smarts the woman who tries to steal his casino winnings. All of this is by luck.
- His father is distraught, because he thinks all this is a ‘flash in the pan’, and will deceive his son into thinking this is how life goes and that he will no longer take his advice.
- His father’s bridge friends think this very funny, with the suggestion that it’s better to be lucky – which they take the son to be – than rich or intelligent.
- Tosh. Over the long term luck evens out, but you can play the cards dealt you well or badly.
- Gigolo and Gigolette – 263
- The happy couple24 – 283
- I’m not sure what to say about this story. It’s an interesting-enough tale, but I’m uncertain what lessons to draw from it.
- Omitting all the details and the setting up, the plot is basically that a seemingly-happy and loving, though reserved, middle-aged couple with a young child just learning to walk are in fact murderers (though anomalously acquitted) living under an assumed married name.
- They attend a small dinner party hosted by a spinster neighbour and otherwise attended by a rather curmudgeonly judge and the author. There’s a look of recognition between the couple and the judge, and the judge asks whether they have met before, but the couple deny it. The dinner proceeds uneventfully and boringly until the husband faints and – on recovery – is helped home. Next morning they are found to have fled, though having left cash payment for all their financial obligations.
- Later, following a game of golf between the judge and the author, the judge reveals the details of the case over which he had presided. The companion of a wealthy (and healthy) old lady had inherited her fortune of around £65k, the death being put down to natural causes by her doctor. Her maid of 30 years complains that she had been promised to be left provided for, but had been left with nothing, and that she suspected that the old lady had been poisoned. Eventually, the body is exhumed and poisoning is discovered (or at least death by an excess of sleeping pills, which the maid claimed the old lady had no need to take, though they had been prescribed by the doctor). It is discovered that the companion and the doctor had been enamoured, though they denied it, and the jury acquitted them as the companion is found to be virgo intacta. The judge, however, is convinced that they did it, and – assuming that the ‘happy couple’ are indeed they – it would seem that he is right.
- I’m left with a lot of questions, not least why the judge didn’t reveal any of this at the dinner. Maybe it’s because – in law – they are innocent, and so he cannot – again in law – harass them (even on foreign territory, the French Riviera).
- But the main question is why they committed the murder. A doctor wouldn’t have been poor, but I suppose it was down to a combination of greed and anno domini. If they were to have children they would have had to have married very soon, but to do so the companion would have had to have given notice and presumably lost her inheritance. The couple appear to have known one another for a long time, as both the companion and the doctor had been employed by the old lady for many years.
- It’s not stated when they had fallen in love. The spinster-hostess invents a story (in ignorance of the facts or any knowledge of who the happy couple really are) of why they had married so late – presuming it’s because it took the husband a long time to earn his fortune so he could marry his childhood sweetheart. The judge pours scorn on this idea, saying to the author that their hostess ought to have got married and had the sentimentality knocked out of her by half a dozen brats.
- Sentimental, it may be, but the idea of ‘waiting to get married’ is sound, I think. The villagers thought they were waiting for the old lady to die, and it seems the couple just hurried the process along, as they needed to if they wanted both to inherit and to have children. Had the maid not kicked up a fuss, they’d have got away with it.
- There are a few residual questions. Didn’t they already have enough money to live on, given that the husband-to-be was a doctor? They don’t seem to be money-grubbing as they left the money to pay their debts. And why are they honest in this small matter having been willing to commit murder?
- The voice of the turtle25 – 299
- The most intriguing part of this story is its title, which sounds very strange because it’s not obvious to take “turtle” as “turtledove”! There was a film of that title in 1947, so it was presumably a well-known saying around when Somerset Maugham was writing (The Complete Short Stories were first published in 1951). It comes from the AV of Song of Solomon 2:12 “The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land”. The NIV has “the cooing of doves”. See Why does the King James have "turtle" in Song of Solomon 2:12?.
- Well, the story is really a collection of autobiographical anecdotes told by a – naturally fictional – prima donna with the sobriquet “La Falterona”. In short, everything about her is shabby – though her life is exciting – apart from her voice. The point of the story is – I suppose – to show that people can have some wonderful characteristic or accomplishment while the rest of their character is of no account. And – I suppose – that we should accept them for their positives, but not imagine the rest of their lives live up to this standard.
- La Falterona does have a wonderful voice and a very affecting delivery, but has no real love of music or the arts. Her opinion of herself – affected, at least – is complete fiction. She thinks of herself as gentle, unselfish, frank, loyal, and disinterested. The author’s opinion is that she is “as hard as nails, absolutely ruthless, a born intriguer, and as self-centred as they make ‘em”.
- The positive evaluation has been provided by a young author – Peter Melrose – who’s written a novel obviously based on her. He’d had the idea of his second novel being about a prima donna and the author had invited them both for dinner so that he could find out what a prima donna was really like. After the evening, when he should have had his idealistic view corrected, he just finds his views confirmed.
- Peter Melrose isn’t even a good novelist, and his second novel doesn’t go down as well as his first, which drew more from his own experience. There’s not much too him at all, except he has a zest for life, and a way of expressing this – and an appreciation of the natural world and a way of describing it. Another seriously flawed character with a redeeming feature.
- The lion's skin26 – 317
- This is another tale with an interesting and enigmatic title. There are some essays on-line, and one suggested the outside appearances of a lion, but inside a sheep. It’s something like that, though the protagonist isn’t a sheep other than following what he perceives as a desirable social status. I wonder whether it’s a reference to Hercules, who wore a lion’s skin; but wearing a lion’s skin does not make you Hercules.
- The story is about Captain Robert Forestier & his wife Eleanor. To all outward appearances Captain Forestier is an English country squire – though he and his wife live on the French Riviera. But he is a complete sham. He was – most probably – a Captain in the ACS (Army Service Corps) in WW1, but wears a Guards tie. He has married his wife for her money – she’s a rich American widow: they met when he was convalescing in an army hospital – from ‘carbuncles’ (boils) rather than battle injuries. Eleanor is a tall, ungainly and foolish woman who wears inappropriate clothes and makeup and is incompetent and accident prone in everything she does - but has a very kind heart and believes everything her robust and handsome husband tells her and follows his advice in everything. Basically, he tells her that he’s from an aristocratic family that’s come upon hard times and have had to sell their estates which it would be ‘too painful’ for him to show her. He can’t find any ‘appropriate’ employment, and lives a sporting life using his wife’s money. But – despite having to lie all the time and cast aspersions on the characters of anyone it would be awkward for his me meet, lives a model of a respectable life.
- Eventually, Sir Frederic Hardy and his wife come to live close to them, and come round for dinner. Sir Fred recognises ‘Bob’ but can’t initially place him. Bob denies ever having met him. Later they meet up in the bar of a golf club by which time Fred has remembered who Bob is – he’s the chap who used to wash his car. It seems that Bob’s father had been a wine-waiter in a London Club and Bob had been a page-boy there. Ultimately, he’d enlisted in the Coldstream Guards, but had been ‘bought out’ by someone who made him his valet. Fred has an excellent memory and had even taken a Kodak photo of Bob during his car-washing days, but Bob continues to deny it all belligerently – even when Fred admits that his own life had been disreputable until he decided to settle down in his forties. He even says he respects Bob’s skill in carrying off his subterfuge. He tries to make contact – to ‘connect’ – and suggests that Bob is foolish to have this idealistic view of a social class that he aspires to, having had so much contact with them from the outside, when he – Fred – knows what they are like from the inside. In a sense, Bob’s wishful thinking and naivety is as bad as his wife Eleanor’s.
- The denouement of the story is when a forest fire engulfs the Forestier home, and Bob – having fought off Fred who tries to stop him – dies (presumably from smoke inhalation) while trying to rescue one of his wife’s dogs. He does this – we are led to believe – because that’s what people of the character he’s assumed would do. He appears to have been acting a part for so long that it’s become second nature.
- Fred doesn’t reveal any of Bob’s past to Eleanor, but tells her that Bob was “a very gallant gentleman”.
- The unconquered27 – 343
- This is a very well told and – in the context of the war in Ukraine – a highly topical tale. The introduction is particularly well written as it recounts the initial episode that sets up the tragedy in such a way as to demonstrate the confused and unpremeditated nature of it all. I had to read it twice to reassure myself of what had happened before reading on.
- The story takes place near Soissons28 in northern France in WW2, commencing fairly soon after the Nazis invaded. The Germans have had their initial victories but have not yet taken Paris when the story opens. Hans and his companion Willi are dispatch riders who have been given the run-around by the French and are lost when they turn up at the farmhouse of Monsieur and Madame Perier and their schoolteacher daughter Annette in order to ask the way to Soissons. Annette speaks German, having been a governess for a German family for a couple of years and Willi speaks French well, having been a dressmaker in Paris for a couple of years. Hans speaks French only haltingly. They buy a couple of bottles of wine from the naturally unwelcoming couple and proceed to get drunk. Hans – a typical though somewhat sentimental blond beast – says they’ll leave if Annette gives him a kiss. When she slaps his face, he drags her off into another room, having knocked out her father, and rapes her, during which she scratches his face violently. He suggests Willi also takes advantage of her, but Willi is reluctant, giving the excuse that she is unconscious. They leave after Hans leaves 100 francs for Annette to get a new dress.
- After the Nazi triumph in Paris, Hans returns. He tries to make amends by giving the family presents – mostly of food, which is in very short supply. Annette hates him and refuses all his advances and gifts whenever he visits, which he makes as often as he can. Eventually it is apparent that Annette is pregnant with his child, and he is elated. Annette had evidently tried to abort the child but had only made herself ill. Hans realises that he loves Annette – for good reasons including her intellect and strength of character – and proposes marriage, but – naturally – Annette rejects him, as – at this stage – does her father.
- Hans comes from a farming family and – as time goes by – persuades Annette’s parents that they should make the best of the situation. Their only son had died shortly before the narrative starts (in the War, though not at the hands of the Germans) and they need someone to help them with the farm, and Hans is ideally suited, especially in the current situation with Germany victorious and in control. Annette will have none of it – she hates the arrogance of the Germans and is in any case betrothed to another teacher who is currently a prisoner of war. However, the family eventually hears that her fiancé has been executed by the Germans following an attempted escape.
- Hans agrees with his brother to have his share of the family farm bought out so that he can invest the money in the Perier farm when he marries Annette. Her parents are now on board, but Annette is still full of hatred. Her parents point out the dire situation France is in – as reported in the Paris papers – but Annette argues that the reporting is biased and the reporters are traitors who will get their just deserts come the Liberation. She asks for strength to resist any pragmatic compromise; she has eaten a small amount of the food that Hans has supplied and she worries that she will weaken and become corrupted. She thinks that, if she marries Hans, she will forever be assumed to be a collaborator. She thinks of her life as irretrievably ruined. Things look a little in the balance until Hans brutally kicks the family dog, which had never accepted him. This confirms her in the path she thinks she must take.
- Hans – and Annette’s mother – are convinced that the baby will be a boy, and this is indeed the case. Hans turns up the day after the delivery and finds the boy to be blond and blue-eyed – he’s overjoyed. But Annette escapes from the house in the driving sleet and drowns the baby in a nearby brook. She informs us that she had to do it immediately lest she formed a maternal attachment and her moral strength failed her. The story ends with Hans – and Annette’s mother – distraught. One can only imagine what Hans will do as soon as he’s over the immediate shock; we’re not told, but I imagine it’ll involve copious use of his Luger before he gets sent to the Russian front, as has been intimated.
- What are we to make of all this. As usual, Somerset Maugham leaves us to make up our own minds.
- The infanticide is shocking, but seems almost expected and necessary as the story is told. It’s important not to see it merely as a callous way out of a bind, or merely as a spiteful way of Annette getting back at Hans, or merely as the result of post-natal depression, which has often been taken as making infanticide a lesser crime than common murder; it was so in France until 1994. But it is a crime for all that, and – while our sympathies are drawn towards Annette as the injured party – we’re also led to view the child’s rights as inconsequential. Why does Annette not drown herself and let the baby live? Does she think that German blood is intrinsically evil? If so, is her mind unbalanced in so thinking?
- Hans has – indeed – been brutal, arrogant and unrepentant. He probably thinks – all things considered – that he’s done the family a favour. In one sense his ‘sticking around’ and taking responsibility for the outcome – if not for the initial act – is a ’better’ response than simply slinking away. But, in another sense, it makes things worse for Annette. Matters are muddled by our knowledge of history; it could not end well. The best from Annette’s perspective would be for Hans to be killed in the Russian campaign. But we know that Germany loses the war, so any of the goods promised by Hans will not materialise, and Annette and her parents would indeed have been shamed as collaborators. But what if things had turned out otherwise and the Germans had won the war as seemed likely at the time? Could Annette have lived with her decision to marry Hans, had she done so?
- This leads to very important questions about the importance of autonomy. Annette’s free choice of the way her life should go has been taken from her. This has been the fate of very many women down the ages, and something they’ve just had to live with. No doubt this has been made easier when it was seen as the common lot of womankind. Not that most men had much autonomy until comparatively recently.
- There’s a parallel with the current conflict in Ukraine. Just how far should individuals or states go in an attempt to maintain their autonomy. Is it better to be a live dog or a dead lion? Is choosing life inevitably going to lead to corruption or is it the rational choice with the intention of surviving until the terror is over – whether in your own lifetime or in those of your descendants?
- Does the rationality – or even the morality – of resistance depend on its cost or on the chances of success? Does it depend on the qualities of the oppressor and what the oppressor will force you to do? Monsieur Perier is an anti-Semite and is unmoved by the fate of the Jews, but many would find complicity in their destruction by the Nazis deeply troubling, if not totally unacceptable. In probably all empires (and not just the British!) the imperial power has imposed its culture and values with greater or lesser severity on the conquered peoples. What are you to do in the face of irresistible force? What if that force will ultimately lead to a ‘better’ civilisation (if there is any such thing; something along the lines of Life of Brian’s ‘what have the Romans ever done for us?’)? What if capitulation is just a return to how things were a few decades ago?
- All in all, it’s Hans’s petty kindnesses that cause the problems. It makes it seem that Annette’s violation has been atoned for in some trivial way; that the family has succumbed to venality and been cheaply bought off. Then, if Hans revitalises their farm, that they have entered into full collaboration. Is there any way out of this other than the choice Annette makes?
- The escape – 375
- This is one of Somerset Maugham’s least interesting stories. Roger Charing is cited as the exception to the rule that once a woman wants to marry a man, she gets him. He appears to be a rich barrister and is pursued by the twice-widowed Mrs Ruth Barlow, who gives the impression of being vulnerable and needing protection, so he proposes marriage. But before they do so he comes to his senses and realises that she is stupid but scheming. The question is – how to escape from his obligation without incurring a substantial settlement?
- His method is to say they need to have a suitable house to live in and then filibuster by vising hundreds over several years – while retaining the appearance of infatuation – but finding each house deficient in one dimension or another until she gets fed up and marries someone else.
- I wasn’t convinced by the plot. Why should someone who could afford the settlement put his life on hold for years in order to avoid paying it?
- The judgement seat – 379
- Mr Know-All – 384
- This is entertaining and rather sweet in some respects.
- The narrative takes place after the war – it’s not stated which, but is presumably WW1 – and – because of a shortage of shipping – the author has to share his State Room with another passenger on a 14-day voyage from San Francisco to Yokohama. His heart sinks when he finds that is room-mate’s name is Kelada (rather than Smith or Brown).
- His fellow-passenger claims to be English – and has a British Passport – but is clearly Levantine – possibly Egyptian – and – even before he had met him – the author was determined not to like him. As the journey proceeds, his initial prejudice is confirmed.
- There are a number of analyses of this story on-line, and – from a quick look – it’s de rigueur to see racial and cultural prejudice in all this, when it’s really just a comedy of manners.
- The author describes Mr Kelada’s physical appearance in – to English sensibilities – unflattering terms, but this is purely descriptive rather than evaluative and necessary to demonstrate that he’s not English.
- Then there’s Mr Kelada’s ignorance of – or intentional ignoring of – the English upper-class conventions of the time: his flagrant over-familiarity, over-argumentativeness, display – as the title announces – of too much knowledge, being too pushy … all sorts of things that a well-schooled English gentleman doesn’t do. Mr Kelada is clearly successful, highly intelligent and full of energy – he organises all the recreational activities on the ship – but his manner grates with the English at the Captain’s Table, which he dominates.
- The author’s initial prejudice was one of anticipated discomfort caused by cultural differences rather than racial prejudice. It might have applied as much to a German or an Italian as to an Egyptian.
- Well…, one passenger – a Mr Ramsay, in the poorly-paid American Consular Service – attempts to argue with Mr Know-All, and one particular argument involves pearls. Mr Ramsay takes on Mr Kelada on this topic which turns out to be the latter’s specialist subject, as he’s on his way to Yokohama to talk to the ‘cunning Japanese’ about cultured pearls. The question was whether such artifacts will inevitable depress the price of the genuine article if no-one can tell the difference.
- Mr Kelada insists that the trained eye – such as even half of one of his own – could always tell the difference, and uses the string that Mrs Ramsay is wearing as an example. Mr Ramsay asked him to guess how much they cost, and Mr Kelada claimed that they would cost $15k retail and maybe $30k on Fifth Avenue. Mr Ramsay then said they were artificial and offered a $100 bet with Mr Kelada who insisted they were real.
- At this point Mrs Ramsay started to look nervous and said it’d just be her word against that of Mr Kelada and that her husband shouldn’t bet on a certainty. But Mr Ramsay insisted on going ahead and Mr Kelada accepted. Then Mr Ramsay revealed that – or so he believed – his wife had bought them for $18 in a department store just before embarkation.
- So, Mr Kelada asked to look at the pearls closely and was about to pronounce them genuine when the look of terror in Mrs Ramsay’s eyes made him change his judgement. He said that on closer inspection they were a very good imitation. He suffered some humiliation as a result – his fellow passengers were delighted that he’d been – so they assumed – found out.
- But next morning an envelope simply containing a $100 bill is slipped under the cabin door. When the author asks whether the pearls were real, Mr Kelada simply says that ‘if I had a pretty little wife, I shouldn’t let her spend a year in New York while I stayed in Kobe’. Clearly, she’s had some dalliance of which her husband is unaware.
- Hence, the author – temporarily at least – ‘did not entirely dislike Mr Kelada’.
- I suppose this is something of a morality tale somewhat along the lines of the Good Samaritan. It’s of a piece with much of Somerset Maugham’s writing – observational rather than judgemental – and showing people as complex characters with both good and bad points.
- The happy man – 391
- This is a simple tale that raises some ‘meaning of life’ questions that may or may not have been in Somerset Maugham’s mind.
- In the prologue, the author says it’s difficult enough to know what you yourself should do, even though you know your own mind better than you know others’, so he’s always been reticent about giving advice. But on at least one occasion he did so and it turned out well.
- A young man – a doctor – turns up unannounced at his flat on the basis that he is also a medic (though non-practicing) and has recently written a book about Spain.
- The doctor is unhappy in his current employment in an ‘infirmary’ even though the pay is good. He can’t imagine living the rest of his life like that. He wants advice as to whether he might enjoy a happy life if he sets up an ‘English practice’ in Seville, for which he has a romantic fascination.
- The author warns him that Spain is nothing like Carmen, but that if he didn’t need to be rich, he should be able to make a living in Spain doing what he suggested. ‘Just enough money to keep body and soul together’ was his estimate.
- Our author thinks nothing of this for years until a chance indisposition in Seville leads him to seek out the English doctor. Lo and behold, this turns out to be the young man, now older, now very fat and bald. His English wife has returned to England, but he seems now to be married to a well-presented (well, ‘boldly and voluptuously beautiful’) Spanish lady. He announces that he is indeed perfectly happy and refuses to take his fee on account of the author’s excellent and free advice given all those years ago. He has a wonderful life – poor though he will always be – and wouldn’t exchange it for that of any king in the world.
- The author describes the doctor as dissipated, with a bacchanalian smile, who knew a good bottle of wine when he say one. But of entirely sympathetic appearance. A man you’d be happy to drink a glass of wine with, if not to have remove your appendix. He’s almost a ‘young Silenus30’.
- This raises – for me, and it’s probably Somerset Maugham’s – questions about what life’s all about. For our doctor (Stephens) it seems to be the pleasure of the moment. Once, in an Ethics lecture at Birkbeck Anthony Price let it be known that – in his view – those that said ‘this is the life’ when enjoying good food and drink had no idea. Maybe so. Somerset Maugham wouldn’t be so confident. One things that struck me is that Stephens made no mention that he might be doing some good at the infirmary, only that he was making a reasonable living. And he gives no indication of anything else in Seville – he enjoys his life and that’s more than enough.
- I wondered quite what his voluptuous Spanish wife saw in him given that he’s fat, bald and poor, though jolly. Maybe he’s only poor when compared with the author’s ‘set’. But you’d expect that he’ll end up dissolute and lonely.
- The romantic young lady31 – 396
- Not one of Somerset Maugham’s best tales, though well told for all that. It’s a comedy of manners32, and I’ve omitted all the colourful detail in the summary below.
- Briefly, the author meets in Seville a rotund middle-aged lady – the dowager Marquesa de San Esteban – whom he’d known in his youth, but cannot place. It turns out that she had been a young beauty – Pilar Carreon – the daughter of the dowager Duchess de Dos Palos.
- Well, Pilar had been a free spirit and had refused all the matches devised for her by her mother – including, initially, that of the Marques de San Esteban. Instead, she falls in love with Jose Leon, the incredibly handsome coachman of the Countess de Marbella, her mother’s enemy and main social rival.
- The Duchess naturally tries to persuade her daughter out of this inappropriate relationship – though it seems important to Pilar that Jose is from a once-prominent family fallen on hard times. Pilar will not be persuaded and elopes with Jose to his parents’ house. Scandal ensues and the Duchess seeks advice from the Archbishop, her former confessor. Having himself failed to persuade Pilar, he suggests that the Duchess seeks help from the Countess – allegedly the most intelligent woman in Seville.
- So, the Duchess swallows her pride and throws herself on the mercy of her rival. She complains that she can’t resolve the situation in the old ways, as it’s socially inappropriate for her son, the current Duke, to challenge Jose to a duel, and ‘new laws’ mean she can’t just hire some thugs to slit Jose’s throat.
- The Countess comes up with rather a crude plan. Pilar will not receive a penny from her mother, but Leon is content with that as he has a comfortable income as the Countess’s coachman. So, the Countess plays her trump card – she invents the rule that her coachman cannot be married, so Jose would have to be dismissed from her service should he marry Pilar.
- This causes Jose to reconsider. He’s particularly attached to the two mules that pull the Countess’s carriage – they are almost human beings who understand his every word. He can find a wife any day of the week, but his current situation is the chance of a lifetime. Pilar will understand – the Spanish are a practical rather than romantic people, the Countess – a French woman – had claimed earlier. Presumably the essay’s title is ironic on this account.
- It’s not clear whether Pilar does ‘understand’, but in any case she marries the Marques de San Esteban a year later.
- I’m not sure it’s worth spending any more time reflecting on this tale, so I won’t, other than to note that there’s a mention of bullfighting – and the use of old horses – which also appears in the next story (The point of honour) and which I’ll address here:
- Both stories use the term ‘old hack’ for worn-out horses. This was a bit of a revelation, but not one I’ve been able to follow up with incisive internet links. A hack is a leisurely horse-ride for the horse’s exercise and for riding practice, as anyone whose daughters have had riding lessons will know. Therefrom, a ‘hack’ refers to the horse so ridden on. An ‘old hack’ is therefore an old horse that is not very good at its job, though it does it faithfully every day. Hence its use of journalists.
- In the context of bullfighting, the picadors’ horses are likely to be gored, so it wouldn’t be economical to use a young one. Somerset Maugham’s narrator notes that they would be unlikely to survive the day. This seems an ungrateful reward for a lifetime’s service, but is consistent with a national consciousness that exults in baiting and killing powerful ruminants for fun.
- The point of honour33 – 407
- This is an excellent story, but slightly complex – as it’s a tale within a tale – and somewhat awkward to re-tell as neither the author nor his interlocutor are named.
- The author meets an unnamed Spanish aristocrat at a bullfight in Seville – though his likely identity is revealed at the denouement at the end of the story. They have an inconclusive conversation about whether bullfighting has a deleterious effect on the Spanish character – ‘why human life is of so little account in Spain’. They don’t have the same sensibilities – the author dislikes bullfighting and the play he’s been reading – but they part on good terms not expecting to meet again.
- The author had wanted to see a Moorish ceiling at the palace of the Duke of Alba34, but it is closed for maintenance, so instead he initially wanders around gardens of the Alcázar35 – the palace of Don Pedro the Cruel36 - and then around the old city where he gets lost. By chance comes across the man from the bullfight, who offers to lead him out of the labyrinth. As he does so, the author mentions the Moorish ceiling, and the man says he can show him one just as fine. They go to a house – which turns out to be the man’s own – and the author is suitably impressed. They sit in the courtyard and start to discuss the play. The man’s wife is there at the start doing embroidery, but the man asks her to depart so he can talk to the author in private. The author has been reading a cruel Spanish play by Calderón37 set in the days of Don Pedro the Cruel that treats of the need for the preservation of honour even though it might involve the death of an innocent party. The author says he finds it revolting and antithetical to the sensibilities of today. The owner of the house disagrees, and asks the author whether he has ever heard of Don Pedro Aguria? The author has not, so his interlocutor tells him a tale.
- Don Pedro is married, but his wife Soledad does not love him. She is dutiful and bears him a child, but this doesn’t change matters.
- One day, an artilleryman by the name of Pepe Alvarez – the son of an attorney – returns from Cuba. He is the life and soul of the many parties that take place at that time of year, and Soledad delights in his company.
- Gradually, it emerges that Pepe and Soledad grew up together and were once engaged. However, when Pepe departed for Cuba and continued to stay away, Soledad’s unscrupulous and impecunious father – the Count of Acaba – marries Soledad off to Don Pedro, basically for the money.
- However, Soledad still loves Pepe – she admits as much to her husband, Don Pedro, though the love is no longer reciprocated by Pepe. She promises her husband that she will seek not to see Pepe any more. She feigns illness on a couple of occasions, but on the third neither she nor Pepe are at the event.
- The gossip is that they must be having a secret assignation. Don Pedro is mortified and rushes back home to see what’s going on. His wife is alone, doing her embroidery, and it turns out that Pepe has been to see his sick mother.
- But the gossip continues and Don Pedro has to do something about it. He is the best shot in Seville, but Pedro cannot hit a barn door – his expertise is with cannon. Don Pedro tries to get Soledad to persuade Pepe to flee to South America, but she says that Pepe would not run away like a coward.
- So, Don Pedro picks a fight with Pepe, even though he likes him as a man. He says he has to be out of town to visit an attorney, and claims that all attorneys are crooks – in particular, the attorney he is to visit is a crook who has been diddling him out of his money.
- Pepe says to ‘Pedrito’ – showing on what friendly terms they are – that this cannot be true as a generalisation because Pepe’s own father is an attorney and he is honest. Don Pedro laughs and says – to the astonishment of the onlookers – that Pepe’s father is as big a thief as any. Pepe asks him to retract, but he Don Pedro repeats the accusation even more strongly, saying that Pepe’s father is a thief and a rascal.
- Pepe – according to the sensibilities of the time – has no choice but to challenge Don Pedro to a duel, in which, of course, he is killed: ‘the attorney’s son died like a gentleman, with a bullet in his heart’.
- The author is profoundly shocked, claiming this was barbarous – an act of cold-blooded murder. But his interlocutor claims that our author is talking nonsense, and that Don Pedro did the only thing he could do in the circumstances.
- The denouement is that the owner of the house – whose name the author claims never to have been able to discover – has most likely been telling a story of himself38, and his wife is the unhappy Soledad.
- The story has a sub-text about Spanish decline. It’s set in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War39 of 1898 as a result of which Spain lost the residue of its Empire, so that ‘her ancient glory is now nothing but a name’ and all that’s left is ‘the sunshine, the blue sky and the future’.
- The author’s interlocutor is complex character, both civilised and refined, yet bound by honour, but detached and indifferent to his country’s decline. He’s not energised by the bullfight – either by the fate of the bulls or of their human opponents. He thinks ‘there’s an instinct in man to find pleasure in bloodshed and torture’. He doubts whether human life is of any great account. When the discussion gets serious, his eyes are full of mockery and he adopts an ironical tone of ‘sardonic hauteur’, despite having initially seemed amiable.
- I’m not sure what to make of the story by way of general ethical application, other than being glad not to live in an ‘honour society’.
- As for the loss of greatness, not only have the great Empires lost their empires, but are now taught that such Empires – rather than being glorious – were the height of wickedness. I suspect that the Spanish Empire has a lot more to answer for than the British.
- The story’s plot has a couple of dubious points.
- Firstly, I couldn’t believe that the author would be unable to ascertain his interlocutor’s identity, given that he knew where he lived.
- Secondly, I couldn’t see how picking a fight with someone over a specious claim could ever restore honour rather than brand the perpetrator as a bully and – as the author says – a cold-blooded murderer. Yet, the claim is – at the end of the nineteenth century – that – in Spain – ‘even now, a husband who finds himself in a ridiculous and humiliating position can only regain his self-respect by the offender’s death’. So, the issue seems to be one of self-respect rather than public esteem. But how could a fair evaluation of what is done restore self-respect without some sort of self-deception?
- The poet – 423
- This is an amusing piece that is presumably meant to show how we can jump to conclusions, draw invalid inferences and be led on by our own fancies.
- The story is briefly and well told. In summary, the author is reluctantly committed to visit in Ecija an aging Spanish poet, Don Calisto de Santa Ana, by whom he was much influenced in his youth. Omitting all the detailed description, the author finds the distinguished poet’s imposing but crumbling residence – not to mention the poet’s imposing but crumbling self – to be exactly as he was expecting, only to be informed that the supposed maestro is in fact a bristle salesman and the distinguished poet lives next door.
- As far as I can tell, the poet is fictitious. There was no such poet as Don Calisto de Santa Ana, though this is the name of an obscure Central Mexican Spanish official from the late 1500s. The town of Ecija is not far east of Seville.
- The mother40 – 428
- A grim but simple tale, set in a tenement block in the poorest part of Seville.
- Omitting all the colourful sub-plots and bit-part players, the story centres on a mother – La Cachirra (the Vixen, real name Antonia Sanchez) – her son – Currito – and a girl – Rosalia.
- La Cachirra has recently been released from prison where she has spent seven years for murdering her lover – Pepe Santi – because he beat her – which she could endure – but when he started to beat Currito she could do so no longer. It’s not clear who Currito’s father was, but presumably not Pepe as Currito – now aged 20 – remained dutiful towards his mother.
- La Cachirra is full of bitterness and lives only for her son’s weekly visits. She is morbidly possessive of him and does not want him to form any other attachments. But Currito meets the attractive Rosalia who lives in the same tenement as La Cachirra.
- Rosalia accuses Currito of being under his mother’s thumb, and this causes tensions between him and his mother, especially when Rosalia and Currito dance together at a festival in the tenement block, and they form a liaison, meeting nightly at the tenement front gate.
- Despite the daily visits to the tenement block, Currito skips a couple of visits to his mother – driving her to distraction and ever-increasing hatred of her neighbours. Then on the third week he does make a visit to his mother and admits that he’s been seeing Rosalia – and that if it wasn’t her it would be someone else – what does his mother expect of a man his age? La Cachirra cannot bear the thought that he’d been visiting Rosalia but not her, and after reminding Currito that she’d put up with Pepe Santi only to provide food for him, says she hates him and throws him out. Currito says he’s indifferent.
- Later, La Cachirra lies in wait for Rosalia – who provokes La Cachirra by saying that Currito has said he hates his mother and wishes she were dead or still in prison, and claims the two of them have agreed to marry. In a rage, La Cachirra stabs Rosalia in the neck. As she’s being led away, she asks whether Rosalia is dead and – when the doctor confirms that she is – thanks God that it is so.
- Comments: This is a well-told tale, but somewhat wears its heart on its sleeve. What is one to say? Of course one can sympathise with victims of domestic violence and financial dependence: presumably the sentencing judge had done so for La Cachirra’s killing of Pepe Santi as 7 years doesn’t seem a long sentence for murder. But, one doesn’t hold out much hope for her the second time round as the crime is committed for reasons of possessiveness and jealousy, albeit provoked. La Cachirra is a victim of circumstance for whom one might still feel some sympathy, though presumably this magnanimity would be more difficult for Rosalia’s mother.
- A man from Glasgow41 – 443
- This is a ghost story, set in the south of Spain near Gibraltar. It is well told – but of no real philosophical or moral interest.
- A madman is killed by his keepers in a remote cottage, and – years later – the eponymous Scotsman hears laughter followed by shrieks and groans on the night of the full moon when the madman had his ‘turns’. He investigates the cottage and follows the sounds to a locked but empty room. These noises recur monthly and follow the Scotsman to Seville and we’re left wondering whether they will continue when the Scotsman returns to Glasgow.
- Before the party – 455
- Louise – 484
- This fairly brief tale is about selfishness. Louise has a weak heart following a childhood illness, and uses the condition as an excuse to avoid anything unpleasant in her life, though not things that please her. She manipulates two rich husbands who pre-decease her. She adopts the same formula at each pivotal situation – if anyone proposes do anything that will inconvenience her, she says that they must of course do it, but that it will kill her. They are encouraged to bear with her for the few months she has left.
- Then – in her forties, maybe having run out of eligible husbands – she tries to do the same with her daughter, Iris, whom she has managed to bear without dying. Her daughter comes to live with her, but eventually finds a young man she wishes to marry. Her mother persuades her to postpone the wedding as it will – of course – kill her.
- The author – seeing through Louise’s manipulations – confronts her, and also Iris, and the wedding goes ahead; but, on the morning of the wedding, Louise has her fatal heart attack and dies ‘gently forgiving Iris for having killed her’. The author describes her as ‘that devilish women’, so we’re led to believe that the denouement is her final selfish act.
- Comment: I wasn’t totally convinced that the denouement would be possible. I suppose that the tale has some general application. I dare say we all use our situations – the job, the children, the dog … on occasion to get us out of awkward or boring situations. But, few of us make a career out of it.
- The promise – 492
- Lady Elizabeth Vermont is the daughter of a duke who has had a free, profligate and scandalous youth with numerous marriages and affairs. For all that, she is an honest woman – in that she sees and tells the truth. Then, when in her forties, she falls in love with and marries a man half her age.
- They live happily for ten years, during which time she changes into a dutiful wife. But – given the disparity in ages – she had made the eponymous promise that if her husband found another love, he could have his freedom. So, after these ten years, her husband finds himself in that situation, and has an affair that’s known to everyone – including to Lady Elizabeth – though she doesn’t initially let on. Eventually, as she sees that the two really love one another – she agrees that her husband can divorce her. It is done this way round so that the young lady’s father will agree to the marriage. All this, despite Lady Elizabeth still loving her husband.
- I don’t really have anything significant to say.
- A string of beads – 499
- This is a slightly self-referential piece. Like some other tales in this volume, it’s a story within a story.
- Laura, one of the author’s friends, wants to tell him a true story over dinner which she thinks he – as a writer – will be able to use. He’s sceptical – saying that ‘a true story is never quite as true as an invented one’ – but she insists on recounting it all the same.
- The story within the story centres on Miss Robinson – a thoroughly reputable – but young and pretty – governess who gets invited to her employers’ – the Livingstones’ – dinner party to make up the numbers when one guest drops out – thirteen being deemed an ‘unlucky’ number.
- Count Borselli – an expert on pearls – is present and complements Mrs. Livingstone on the quality of her string of pearls, saying they must be worth £5k. He then notices those Miss Robinson is wearing and says these must be worth £50k. The governess is astonished and says that she’d bought them for 15 shillings. Later in the meal the butler reports that two men are in the hall wanting to see the governess. While she is out of the room, there’s much excited discussion about whether she’s a criminal in an international gang of thieves.
- However, it turns out when she returns to the table – rather than being arrested – that it’s all been a big mix-up. Count Borselli notices that the pearls she is now wearing are fake. The governess had taken her fake pearls into a shop for some repairs and the shop – not expert in such things – had mixed them up with the ‘real thing’, also in for repair. So, the gentlemen were there to swap them back. They award Miss Robinson a cheque for £300 – then a very considerable sum for a governess – as recompense.
- Laura then interrupts her account to say that it all ends unhappily. But, this is a pejorative description.
- Miss Robinson decides to spend her ‘winnings’ on a month-long stay in Deauville. She buys up her employer’s end-of-season clothes for a snip and heads off. Later, Mrs. Livingstone hears from her – now former – employee that she has found an alternative career. This turns out to be living the high life attached to various rich men – ‘far and away the smartest cocotte43 in Paris’.
- After the tale is told, the author points out that he has used the trope of pearls himself before44 and that such tales are very common.
- The hostess would like our author to tell the tale with a modified ending that would be more morally instructive, in which the governess lives a good life – rather than the good life – with a poor man, possibly one injured in the Great War. Our author is unimpressed and thinks this would make it dull.
- I suppose this raises questions about the purpose of ‘art’ that go back to at least Plato. Laura – like Plato – thought that art should intend to be ‘improving’. Since Somerset Maugham’s stories usually raise moral questions without being didactic, I presume he wants things to be more subtle. Not because morality is relative or has no meaning, but because often situations are more complex than the moralist supposes. Or, even where the moral situation is clear, the reader does best to make his own judgements.
- The yellow streak – 506
- Another well-told tale, though I’m slightly confused about the title. Naturally – before reading the story – I’d assumed this merely had to do with cowardice, but I think it may be a double entendre, as will be revealed below.
- The tale is set in Borneo45 and is quite complex in its characterisations – though the main plot is simple enough46.
- The system of accommodation afforded the white men is interesting. While the details of the overnight stays provided by the local Dyaks47 in their long houses are explicitly laid out, the reasons why they should provide the welcome are not explained.
- The plot centres on Izzart being put in charge by Willis – the Resident in Kuala Solor48 – of safely taking Campion – a mining engineer – on a trip prospecting for minerals in the employ of the Sultan. Izzart has been chosen because he is fluent in Malay and Dyak49. The grounds for this appear only later. Izzart is assisted by his ‘boy’ – Hassan.
- On their final return to the coast by prahu50 from the interior of the (fictional) Sembulu, after having stayed at numerous longhouses, they accommodated by the local Resident, Hutchinson. Their intention is to stay overnight before catching the Sultan Ahmed the next day to take them on to Kuala Solor. Izzart stays up far too late talking to Hutchinson and gets rather drunk. When he wakes up, he is very queasy and both he and Hutchinson breakfast on whisky and soda.
- They are all aware that the tidal bore is due that afternoon, but Hutchinson gets them to eat and drink until the afternoon – not wanting to lose the company – so both Izzart and Campion are pretty sozzled when they get on the boat to take them down river, and fall asleep. Izzart assumes that the steersman will be able to control the boat, which is rowed by ‘prisoners51’. However, when the bore hits, the boat eventually overturns and rolls over and over. Both Izzart and Campion nearly drown. At one point Campion cries out to Izzart for help, but Izzart is too exhausted to do anything about it, and affects not to hear. In itself, this is not really too reprehensible, and Campion doesn’t blame him; but Izzart – while he can rationalise his actions as all that he could have done – feels overwhelmed with guilt and worry that he will be blamed by Willis, given his commission to keep Campion safe. Somehow, they both get to the bank, covered in mud.
- The incident is well-told by Somerset Maugham and doesn’t need to be re-told here. The bottom-line is that Izzart is effectively saved by Hassan letting him have an oar to hang on to and Campion is saved by his oarsmen rolling up the mattress he and Izzart had been sleeping on for him to act as a buoyancy aid. The upshot is that while the white men are unable or unwilling to help one another, they are themselves helped by the supposedly unreliable ‘natives’. It’s important that all the heroes in the story are the indigenous people, and not the Europeans.
- When they get to Kuala Solor, Izzart tries to get to Willis first so that he can put his side of the story – a fabrication in which he blames Campion, saying his excessive drinking made them late and so get caught up in the bore. He also insinuated that Campion was mostly concerned for his own safety. To his surprise, Willis says – with a little smile – that Izzart’s and Campion’s accounts ‘agree pretty well’. Presumably by this he means there’s a certain symmetry, with each blaming the other. It seems that Willis – hearing of the incident – had visited them the previous night when Izzart was asleep.
- The story really revolves around Izzart’s inferiority complex, and unwillingness to be himself, whatever the consequences of such honesty might be. One imagines that these consequences can hardly be worse than his inauthentic life of fear, especially as his secret is probably ‘out’ in any case, as he himself has always feared and suspected.
- In his discussion with Hutchinson, Izzart makes much of the fact that he has been to Harrow, and Hutchinson to Winchester, while Campion – while well-travelled and experienced – has had no such advantage. Izzart looks down on Campion, but has to keep secret the fact that his own father had died young and a relative had paid for his education. Further – and more importantly – his mother, who has to be kept hidden in England, is a ‘half-caste’, presumably half Malay. Izzart himself – while tall and well-built – has thin legs like a ‘native’ and is somewhat swarthy, something he explains by the lie that his grandmother was Spanish. Hutchison asks whether the Malay suspect he has ‘native’ blood, and he admits that they do – ‘damn their impudence’. He also admits to having been accused of being a ‘half-caste’ at Harrow. He opines to himself elsewhere that his knowledge of the languages – learnt from his mother – betrays him.
- Hutchison has taken up with a Malay girl who has given him two children. Izzart later thinks to himself that Europeans have no right to act like that, as their mixed-race children ‘have no chance, ever’: thereby betraying his own concerns. But when talking to Hutchinson his reason for not taking a local girl is that it would complicate matters were he ever to want to get married to a European girl. Then he worries about how finding a decent match could ever work out, given his mother would not be acceptable as an in-law to anyone with money.
- The story’s title appears in the final brief paragraph. Izzart has just confessed to Campion that he’d lost his nerve, and Campion has said he’s on his way to Singapore and won’t tell a soul. Rather surprisingly he then asks Izzart not to recount the incident so as to paint him – Campion – in a bad light: something that Izzart had just done in his account to Willis. Izzart suspects him of being in the know, but nervously asks why he should think he’d do this. Campion ‘chuckles good-naturedly’ and says – not what Izzart suspects – but that the reason is ‘the yellow streak’.
- I’ve tried to construe this. It could be that he just sees a general cowardly fault in Izzart’s character, but the whole story revolves about Izzart’s fear of his Malay heritage being discovered and him thereby written off as ‘unreliable’. ‘Yellow’ could, therefore, be a reference to conventional oriental coloration, but the colour presupposed throughout the story is darkness, with one use of the N-word, and another reference – by Hutchinson, affectionately of his children – to the ‘tar brush’. I don’t know. But the final sentence does seem to indicate that Campion knows something that Izzart wishes he didn’t. And, maybe, they all do. If they do, then this knowledge isn’t as detrimental to his prospects as Izzart fears.
- I think the unexpressed moral of the story – which has many strands – is that we do best to accept ourselves for what we are, and not to live a life of pretence. I can remember being ashamed of my own humble origins in my youth when at King’s, while others of similar background didn’t care what was thought of them. In fact, a disadvantaged background is a cause for being thought the better of, as regards one’s subsequent successes, as is explicitly acknowledged today, though not so much in the 1970s, and certainly not in the time Somerset Maugham was writing.
In-Page Footnotes:Footnote 1:
Footnote 4: Footnote 5:
- In the widest sense, including matters of life-choice and self-evaluation.
Footnote 6: Footnote 7:
- I think WSM says somewhere that when he uses the term “I” it is a literary device, so the reader doesn’t worry about how the author could know the various details of the plot. The stories are imaginative creations, not accounts of anything that really happened, though inspired by such.
- This is a bowl – usually made from the calabash gourd, but in Hawaii from hardwood.
Footnote 9: Footnote 10: Footnote 11:
- The Narrator clearly states that the girl on the Captain’s lap is the one purchased a year ago, while the closing codicil says the Captain only took up with her a couple of months ago and that she’s not the same one.
- But, maybe there’s some other consistent construction of the text?
Footnote 12: Footnote 14: Footnote 15: Footnote 16: Footnote 17: Footnote 18:
- Given the era in which it was written, Somerset Maugham’s writings reflect the casual racism of the colonial societies in which the stories are set.
- The N-word is used without a second thought of any dark-skinned person.
- This footnote is to be understood to apply to comments and descriptions of like ilk passim. I’m not unaware of them, but it’s tedious to keep pointing them out.
- Explained as ‘dignity and bravado, display and heroism, vainglory and pride’.
- Originally, the plume on a knight’s helmet.
Footnote 20: Footnote 21: Footnote 22: Footnote 24: Footnote 25: Footnote 26: Footnote 27: Footnote 28: Footnote 30: Footnote 31: Footnote 32: Footnote 33: Footnote 34: Footnote 35: Footnote 36: Footnote 37: Footnote 38:
- While this term nowadays refers to a tailor’s dummy, it used to refer to a what is now referred to as a ‘model’ – a person who displays recent designs of fashionable clothes.
- Somerset Maugham doesn’t actually say that the author’s interlocutor is Don Pedro, only that the wife is most likely Soledad. So, it’s possible that Don Pedro had to flee after the duel, or was arrested and executed for murder and that Soledad has re-married.
- But then why focus so much on the interlocutor’s character?
Footnote 40: Footnote 41: Footnote 43: Footnote 44:
- This involved the loss of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines, the larger Meso- and South American territories already having been lost to revolutionary independence.
- See Wikipedia: Spanish–American War.
- See Mr Know-All.
- I’m pleased to say that I recognised the similarity before it was pointed out, momentarily wondering whether I’d read this story before.
- The usage of the trope is entirely different in the two stories, however.
Footnote 46: Footnote 47:
- See Wikipedia: Borneo.
- It is useful to know the geography and ethnography of Borneo to better understand the story.
- Presumably the Sultan of the story is the Sultan of Brunei (see Wikipedia: Brunei) which is – and was then – an enclave within Sarawak, though had controlled the whole territory in earlier times. He’s called the Sultan of Sembulu in the story, and had been Izzart’s initial employer in the region.
- The tidal bore is supposed to be based on that in the Sri Aman district of Sarawak. See:-
→ Wikipedia: Sarawak
→ Wikipedia: Sri Aman District, and
→ Wikipedia: Sri Aman Division.
- The bore would be on the Lupar River (Wikipedia: Lupar River).
- See Wikipedia: Dayak people.
- Presumably the tribe in question is the Iban people (see Wikipedia: Iban people).
- For Arak, see – maybe – Wikipedia: Indonesian Batavia-Arrack. It’s not clear how a 70% ABV spirit would be made by indigenous people, but Wikipedia says it was popular in colonial times and also that it was produced as a form of moonshine. As it’s distilled, while it might be ‘rough’ it would not be disgusting to European sensibilities like some indigenous alcoholic concoctions.
- Presumably the (fictional) capital.
- Kuala Solor also features in Before The Party, also set in Borneo.
- Obviously, it sounds like Kuala Lumpur, but that city is on the Malay peninsula. It does add to the presumption that the area of Borneo in which the action takes place is what is now the Malay state of Sarawak.
- I have my doubts whether this is possible. There’s a very large number of Dyak tribes, and Wikipedia says that – even today - 170 Dyak languages and dialects are spoken on Borneo.
- But, maybe the language presupposed is Iban.
- See Wikipedia: Dayak people - Ethnicity and languages.
- I’m not sure what sort of boat this is supposed to be. I’d assumed it was a large canoe, as the story opens with the two protagonists in one of two, but a quick Google only revealed: Wikipedia: Proa, which seems to imply it’s a trimaran, but the description of the incident with the tidal bore – when the boat rolls over and over – makes this unlikely (though their boat isn’t explicitly referred to as a prahu at that point in the narrative, though it is said to be crewed by oarsmen).
- Then, there’s a book published by OUP, “Prahu: The Traditional Sailing Boat of Indonesia”, that implies it’s a large single-hulled boat.
- Neither of these boats looks terribly likely. I could re-read the story and do more research, but I don’t really care about the resolution of this question.
- Just who these are, why they are used, and why they don’t just run off isn’t explained.
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