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ELT 48 : 2 2005 New Maugham Biography Jeffrey Meyers. Somerset Maugham: A Life. New York: Knopf, 2004. xvi + 411 pp. $30.00 JEFFREY MEYERS, author of numerous literary biographies on such writers as Joseph Conrad, Katherine Mansfield, D. H. Lawrence, and George Orwell, turns his attention to W Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) in his latest biography. As Meyers himself notes, "Maugham's life and works have been intensively examined"—no doubt because his life was so eccentric, eventful, and exciting. Maugham spent his childhood in Paris until the death of his mother at age eight ("a wound which... never entirely healed," Meyers tells us) and the death of his father at age ten left him orphaned and under the care of his vicar uncle in England. The young Maugham rejected the family profession of law for medicine, training at St. Thomas's Hospital near the London slums and discovering the power of being a detached observer. He parlayed the experience into his first novel, Liza of Lambeth (1897), and a writing career. His overnight success in 1907 as an Edwardian dramatist after years of literary poverty gave him money, fame, and entry into the most fashionable circles of English society, a world he portrayed in his plays. During the Great War, Maugham drove an ambulance at the front, married Syrie Wellcome, worked as a secret agent for the British government in Switzerland and Russia, and met the love of his life, Gerald Haxton. After the war, he became a world traveler with his companion Gerald and left his wife and daughter behind in London (Meyers's biography gives a useful and complete list of Maugham's many travels in an appendix). He eventually settled in the French Riviera, divorced Syrie, and became a Grand Old Man of Letters who feted royalty, celebrities , and other authors. After Haxton's death, he spent his later life with another companion, Alan Searle, destroying his personal papers, feuding with his daughter, and denigrating his late wife's memory. But throughout his life, he continued writing, turning his travels and experiences into plays, novels, short stories, travel books, and essays. Meyers aims, as he tells us in the preface, to fill in some of the gaps in this life through access to newly discovered unpublished materials and through an examination of the influence of Conrad on Maugham and Maugham's influence on later writers. Meyers's biography follows two previous full-length treatments of Maugham's life—Ted Morgan's Maugham (1980), which Meyers refers to often, and Willie (1989) by Robert Calder, whom Meyers thanks in his acknowledgements—yet 236 BOOK REVIEWS adds some important details to these accounts. Meyers describes Maugham's course of study at St. Thomas's Hospital in fuller detail, especially his introduction to human suffering in its wards. Also, Meyers succeeds in tracking down the antecedents to Maugham's lover and companion Gerald Haxton to find that he was the son of a San Francisco reporter and his wealthy wife. After the marriage broke up, Gerald and his mother lived in genteel poverty in London. He was a young man living on his wits when he met Maugham in Flanders during the war. In addition , Meyers gives a better sense of Maugham's activities as a spy during the war; Maugham's reports were "highly valued and seriously considered" by his government, especially his accurate assessments of the weak Kerensky government and the strength of the Bolsheviks in Russia. In his acknowledgements and preface, Meyers makes much (rightly so) of his access to the Somerset Maugham collection owned by Loren and Frances Rothschild, which contains letters written by Maugham and by Alan Searle. These help flesh out Maugham's later years, especially his legal battles with his daughter over his art collection and will. Other new information heralded by Meyers is less important, however . For example, he includes the text of Maugham's first letter written in French and later explains that Maugham's famous monogram represents a Moroccan sign of the hand to ward off the evil eye. The former tells us the seven-year-old Maugham loved his parents; Maugham probably did not care much about the...


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pp. 236-239
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Will Be Archived 2021
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