The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, By Selina Hastings

The decline in Somerset Maugham's reputation stems from an inaccurate assessment of his character
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William Somerset Maugham was at various times the most famous, successful and wealthiest living writer of the first half of the 20th century. His books outsold stellar contemporaries such as Robert Louis Stevenson and Joseph Conrad, his plays were performed all over the world and his stories were a never-ending resource for the new moving pictures. Garlanded and gonged, in Britain he was made a Companion of Honour, while France, where he spent his early childhood and later life, bestowed upon him the Légion d'honneur.

After his death in 1965 at the age of 91, however, his reputation suffered a precipitous decline. It is a mark of just how low it had sunk that when I attended his alma mater, the King's School, Canterbury, only 20 years later, I do not recall once being encouraged to pick up one of his books, still less study him – even when I was being taught English in the library that was, evidently not so proudly, named after him and near which his ashes were buried. Maugham once modestly described himself as being "in the very first row of the second raters", but recently he has seemed not to merit even that faint praise. The author of Cakes and Ale, Of Human Bondage and all those fabulous short stories about the Far East and South Pacific was considered shallow, pedestrian, snobbish, middlebrow at best. His work – much of it concerning the sharply defined strata of Edwardian England and the late empire – had become irreparably unfashionable, and, despite the continued staging of his plays and production of films based on his work, there has been no reversal in his critical fortunes.

This is partly because, on top of his trashed literary reputation, he is also generally considered to have been a selfish, cruel, degenerate and odious character. "Somerset Maugham: is he the most debauched man of the 20th century?" asked the Daily Mail, somewhat hilariously, last month. His previous biographers have provided plenty of material to reinforce this picture, while Anthony Burgess viciously caricatured him in his masterpiece, Earthly Powers, as Kenneth Toomey, a pretentious, grasping, lascivious, self-loathing third-rater.

This is a completely one-sided, even wicked, portrait of the man, as Selina Hastings points out in her admirable new book. Yes, he was voraciously bisexual (not such a sin in our less judgmental times, one might think, but a disposition that carried great risk in his lifetime) and sometimes thoughtless, cutting and cruel. But this courageous, daring writer, whose realistic depictions of sex and the ease of the fall into degradation shocked contemporary reviewers, was capable of great friendship and patience.

"He was exceedingly kind in every way," recalled one former paramour. Much loved by his nephews and nieces, he took the trouble to remember those who had helped him, even when success had made him a darling of the salons and "the most charming man in London". Later in life he was unceasingly generous to the countless young hopefuls who sent letters asking for money, supported old friends who had fallen on hard times, and provided hospitality at his Riviera home to an endless stream of guests, with many of whom he had only the slightest acquaintance. "What many people did not understand," recalled Wallis Simpson, "was that Willie was at heart a very kind man."

But he was also a foremost observer of character, sympathetic to, but never sentimental about, the terrible penalties suffered by those who overstepped the rigid boundaries of respectability before the 1960s swung. He had a tremendous ear for dialogue and an elegant simplicity of style that makes his short stories some of the best that have ever been written. George Orwell called him "the modern writer who has influenced me the most"; Raymond Chandler wrote of his Ashenden tales, "there are no other great spy stories – none at all"; while Cyril Connolly included The Casuarina Tree in his 100 Key Books of the Modern Movement. Even Burgess, whose bile stemmed from his extreme jealousy at Maugham's renown and wealth, was a great admirer.

I sometimes wonder how many of those who so readily dismiss Maugham have actually read much of his work. To sit, as I have, in the bars of Raffles in Singapore and the Oriental in Bangkok, in the jungles of Borneo or within the precincts of Canterbury Cathedral, and recall what Maugham wrote about these places, is to acknowledge this: that one has witnessed the words of a master of setting and character.

Shortly before he died, the near-senile Maugham was inveigled into writing a bitterly curdled memoir by Alan Searle, his last private secretary and lover. "The ancient Maugham," commented Gore Vidal, "mined his own monument; and blew it up." No one should let the hostility that destroyed him as a man in his dotage, nor the dismissal of subsequent generations who saw only a genteel surface but failed to perceive the realism, modernity and keen insight into human frailty in his work, stop them discovering the genius of Somerset Maugham. His stories, for those who trouble to read them, ring mercilessly true through the decades.