January 25, 1874
Born In: Paris, France
Died On: December 16, 1965
Career: Playwright, Novelist, Short Story Writer
A prolific and popular writer in English, William Maugham is best known for his works ‘Of Human Bondage’, ‘The Razor’s Edge’, ‘The Moon and Sixpence’, ‘Cakes and Ale’, and ‘The Magician’. However, ‘The Gentleman in the Parlour’ that accounts his journey through Burma, Siam, Vietnam, and Cambodia, is considered to be his best work. It was due to his interest in travel that he became one of the most prominent travel writers of the inter-war years. His works have been compared to those of Evelyn Waugh and Freya Stark. Though he was the highest paid author in the 1930s, he was not successful in attaining much fame and recognition in Britain. Nonetheless, such was his popularity that several of his stories and novels were adapted into radio and television serials and movies. Learn more about William Maugham’s childhood, life and career in the following lines.
Childhood & Education
William Somerset Maugham was born to Robert Ormond Maugham and Edith Mary née Snell in the British Embassy in Paris, France. William was the fourth son of six children, of which only four survived. His father was an English lawyer at the British embassy in Paris, while his mother was a socialite and writer. His grandfather, another Robert, was an eminent lawyer and cofounder of the English Law Society and all of William’s brothers grew up to become distinguished lawyers. Hence, it was expected that William would follow their footsteps. But, fate had something else in store. William’s mother passed away in 1882 due to tuberculosis, when he was only 8 leaving him in a state of trauma for the rest of his life.
Further, his father passed away two years later of cancer. William was, thus, sent to England to be brought up in the custody of his paternal uncle, Henry Macdonald Maugham, the Vicar of Whitstable, in Kent. Unexpectedly, William went through terror and distress under his uncle’s care. As if these were not enough, his years at The King’s School, Canterbury proved to be another nightmare as William was constantly teased for his bad English and short stature. At the age of 16 in 1890, William withdrew from the school and with the permission of his uncle; he went to Germany to pursue his further studies. He entered Heidelberg University to study literature, philosophy and German. It was here that he had his first homosexual relationship with an Englishman, John Ellingham Brooks.
William returned back to England after completing his studies, where his uncle found him a job in an accountant’s office, which William rejected after working for a month. Due to his stammering problem, he was rejected a job in the church and civil service. On the advice of a local doctor, William’s uncle got him enrolled as a medical student at St. Thomas Hospital in Lambeth, London where he spent the next five years studying medicine. He qualified as a doctor in 1897, but abandoned medicine for his first interest in novels and plays. His first novel ‘Liza of Lambeth’ was printed in 1897, a result of his experiences of attending women during childbirth. Such was its popularity amongst reviewers and public that the first print was sold out in the first few weeks. With this, began William’s 65-year career in writing. His next works included ‘The Hero’, ‘Mrs. Craddock’, ‘The Merry-Go-Round’, ‘The Explorer’, and ‘A Man of Honor’ but none could match the thriving success of ‘Liza of Lambeth’. However, this soon changed with the publishing of his play ‘Lady Frederick’ in 1907.
Route To Success
With 10 plays produced and 10 plays published, William had managed to establish a place in the field of writing by 1914. Although he was too old to serve at the World War I at the age of 40, he, along with 23 other prominent writers, served as members of the British Red Cross’s “Literary Ambulance Drivers”. On this journey, he met Frederick Gerald Haxton from San Francisco, who became his companion and lover until Haxton’s death in 1944. His 1915 ‘Of Human Bondage’ received adverse criticism in England and America with the protagonist Philip Carrey’s role adjudged as “the sentimental servitude of a poor fool”. In 1919, he released his next novel titled ‘The Moon and Sixpence’ based on the life of Paul Gauguin. ‘Ashenden’, ‘The Casuarina Tree’, ‘Our Betters’, ‘The Letter’, ‘Razors Edge’, and ’The Constant Wife’ followed next.
Later Years & Recognition
After spending time in France during World War I, he worked in Switzerland and Russia during the World War II as an agent of the British Intelligence Service. He later shifted to the French Riviera, in 1946, where he bought the Villa Mauresque at Cap Ferrat. It was in this villa where he spent his remaining life. Several short stories came in, such as ‘Cakes and Ale’, ‘The Narrow Corner’, ‘Don Fernando’, ‘The Summing Up’, ‘Then and Now’, ‘Creatures of Circumstance’, ‘Catalina’, and ‘The Art of Fiction: An Introduction to Ten Novels and Their Authors’. In 1947, he introduced the Somerset Maugham Award to encourage and support British writers under the age of 35. Further, he himself was conferred upon with several awards, like the Queen’s Companion of Honor in 1954, Fellow of the Library of Congress, an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Toulouse, and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
During his entire life, William was involved in several sexual relationships with both men and women. His affair with Syrie Wellcome, daughter of Thomas John Barnado and wife of American-born English pharmaceutical magnate Henry Wellcome, was a much-talked about issue. Their affair produced the couple’s daughter and only child Liza, born Elizabeth Mary Maugham, in 1915. Syrie divorced her husband Henry in 1917 and soon after, married William in May 1917. Syrie later became a famous interior decorator, who popularized the all-white room concept in the 1920s. However, their relationship did not last long due to William’s frequent foreign travels and intimate relationship with Haxton. The couple divorced in 1927-28.
In 1961, William became the honorary senator of Heidelberg University. William died on December 16, 1965 in Nice, France at the age of 91 years. He does not have a grave as he was not buried; instead, cremated. The ashes were scattered in Galpin’s Garden near Maugham Library in The King’s School, Canterbury, England.
Liza of Lambeth, 1897
Mrs. Craddock, 1902
A Man of Honour, 1903
The Merry-Go-Round, 1904
Lady Frederick, 1907
The Explorer, 1907
The Magician, 1908
Of Human Bondage, 1915
The Moon and Sixpence, 1919
The Circle, 1921
The Trembling of a Leaf, 1921
On Chinese Screen, 1922
Our Betters, 1923
The Constant Wife, 1925
The Painted Veil, 1925
The Letter, 1927
The Sacred Flame, 1928
Ashenden: Or the British Agent, 1928
Cakes and Ale, 1930
The Narrow Corner, 1932
Don Fernando, 1935
The Summing Up, 1938
Christmas Holiday, 1939
Books and You, 1940
Up At The Villa, 1941
The Razor's Edge, 1944
Then and Now, 1946
Creatures of Circumstances, 1947
A Writer’s Notebook, 1949
The Writer’s Point of View, 1951
The Art of Fiction: An Introduction to Ten Novels and Their Authors, 1955
Looking Back, 1962
1874: William Maugham was born in British Embassy, Paris, France
1884: Moved to England and entered The King’s School, Canterbury
1890: Entered Heidelberg University, Germany to study literature, philosophy and German
1892: Enrolled as a medical student at St. Thomas Hospital, Lambeth, London
1897: Released first and highly-celebrated book ‘Liza of Lambeth’
1907: Much-acclaimed ‘Lady Frederick’ was printed
1915: Published ‘Of High Bondage’
1917: Married Syrie Wellcome in May
1927-28: Divorced Syrie Wellcome
1947: Instituted the Somerset Maugham Award
1954: Bestowed upon with the title of Companion of Honor
1961: Became the honorary senator of Heidelberg University
1965: William Maugham died on 16 December in Nice, France aged 91