W. Somerset Maugham

(1874—1965) writer and playwright

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British novelist, short-story writer, and playwright. He was made a CH in 1954.

Maugham was born in Paris, where his father was legal adviser to the British embassy, and he spent his childhood in France, speaking French as his first language. When his parents died he was sent to England and King's School, Canterbury: his delicate health and pronounced stammer made this an unhappy time for him. After a spell at Heidelberg University and a holiday on the French Riviera, recovering from suspected tuberculosis, he became a medical student at St Thomas's Hospital, London (1892). His contact with London slum life through his hospital work inspired his first novel, Liza of Lambeth (1897); after graduating he abandoned medicine, more on the strength of two legacies than the success of his first novel.

He next wrote some undistinguished novels, but in 1903 his first play, A Man of Honour, was staged, and in 1907 the phenomenal success of Lady Frederick made him the country's most popular playwright. In 1908 he had four successful plays running in London. His pre-eminence as a writer of comedy continued through the 1920s. In the years before World War I he worked on his major novel, Of Human Bondage (1915), and during the war he worked for British Intelligence in France and Russia. His affair with Syrie Wellcome led to her divorce from the pharmaceutical manufacturer Sir Henry Wellcome and they were married in 1916; the relationship engendered considerable acrimony, even after Maugham and Syrie were divorced in 1927. A principal factor in the breakdown of the marriage was Maugham's relationship with a young American, Gerald Haxton, with whom he travelled and eventually settled (1928), after Haxton was barred from Britain, in the south of France. Meanwhile Maugham continued his output of best-selling novels: The Moon and Sixpence (1919), The Painted Veil (1925), and Cakes and Ale (1930) among them. He also wrote short stories, which were collected in such volumes as The Casuarina Tree (1926); a number of these stories were filmed.

Maugham had to flee from France in 1940 to escape the Nazis. He lived quietly in the USA until the war ended, when he returned to France with a new companion, Alan Searle, Haxton having died in 1944. Maugham's last important novel, The Razor's Edge, was published in 1944, but he continued to write essays, short stories, and historical fiction. He also supplemented his earlier autobiographical works, The Summing Up (1938) and Strictly Personal (1941), with a notorious memoir called Looking Back (1962), reviving the old bitterness between him and Syrie.

Subjects: Literature.

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