William Somerset Maugham was born in Paris, France, January 25, 1874, the youngest of four children born to Mr. and Mrs. Robert Ormond Maugham. There is not much recorded about his early childhood years, but at the time of his birth his father was was a lawyer attached to British Embassy, his mother apparently a homemaker. It is known his mother died of tuberculosis in 1882 and his three older brothers were sent to study in London, while William stayed in France with his father. Then, only two short years following his mother's death his father passed away. William ended up in Whitstable, Kent, England to live with his father's brother, the Rev. Henry Maugham, and his wife. Although they took the ten year old William in, and try as they may, they had no experience, expertise or particular desire in raising a child. William was not happy with the events that befell him, the death of his parents, living with relatives and all, and his life at King's School in Canterbury, the school he attended, reflected that. His situation was made even worse because of a speech impediment which, because of, he continually found himself taunted and isolated from the other boys.
Maugham proved to be an extremely intelligent young man, but the rigors of school discipline combined with continued taunts from his classmates forced him to leave school before he completed his education. With the help of his uncle he moved to Heidelberg, Germany where, unlike in England, his studies flourished. He learned to appreciate philosophy, language, literature, religion, and the theatre.
When Maugham returned to England he hoped to be a writer, but afraid of disappointing his uncle he decided pursue a career in medicine. In 1892, he entered St.Thomas Medical School. He served first as an outpatient clerk then an obstetric clerk, during which time he developed a strong awareness of the sufferings and feelings of the lower levels of society. Out of those experiences he wrote his first novel, Liza of Lambeth. Maugham eventually earned a degree in medicine, becoming a Doctor, but did not go into the medical field. Instead he wanted to explore the world, traveling to France, Spain, and Italy, ending with several years in Paris in the company of various artists and writers.
Maugham began writing plays, of which several went into production. His first, Lady Frederick, was produced in 1907. He slowly began to climb the ladder of success, always, however, more popular with the public than the critics, often having several plays running at once. His prime protagonist wasn't the critics however, but Terrence Gray, a proponent in those days of what came to be thought of as "guerilla theater" in more modern times, and who, in 1926, established the Cambridge Festival Theatre in the British provinces --- established with the avowed purpose of "attacking" realistic acting and production. The theater had no curtain, proscenium arch or orchestra pit and patterns of light were projected against a cyclorama in lieu of scenery while platforms and ramps served as set dressing. Gray eventually exhausted his interest in the avant garde theater and his thoughts turned towards philosophy and metaphysics. Interestingly enough, as Maugham and Gray moved through life they found themselves increasingly drawn toward areas and people that they both knew and traveled with (see below).
In 1912, Maugham began writing Of Human Bondage, a novel considered as being more or less autobiographical. It was completed in two years and published in 1915. In 1919 Moon and Sixpence, based on the life of the French expatriot artist Paul Gaugin, was published.
When Britain declared war on Germany at the start of World War I, Maugham was forty years old. He joined a Red Cross unit in France and served as an ambulance driver, becoming one of what later became to be known as the Literary Ambulance Drivers. Being a driver gave him a firsthand opportunity to observe dying men react differently to their fate. When the United States Army absorbed the ambulance units in August of 1917 he transferred to the intelligence service, where he remained for the rest of the war. The stories entitled Ashende, published in 1928, reproduced his wartime experiences.
In 1913 Maugham met Mrs. Syrie Wellcome, wife of Sir Henry Wellcome, a pharmaceutical manufacturer. They first met at a luncheon, then again at the opera. They seemed to be in mutual agreement that a good marriage sould be no more than a contract between two intellectuals. On their second meeting they found each other even more attractive and interesting. At that time Maugham was having a relationship with a woman of some repute named Sue Jones. Apparently Maugham proposed to her and she rejected him. Maugham inturn immortalized her as the character Rosie in Cakes and Ale. Sue married soon after and Maugham sank into a deep depression. During this period he ran into Syrie again. They picked up where they left off and started meeting regularly. Syrie previously had a son by her husband Sir Henry Wellcome, but Wellcome had taken the boy in some sort of custody dispute. She desperately wanted a baby and after a lot of pleadings, Maugham yielded to her proposal. Unfortunately, Syrie suffered a miscarriage and lost the baby. A few months later Syrie won the custody of her son. She and Maugham continued to carry their affair throughout war-torn Europe, and again she became pregnant. Maugham took her to Rome to give birth. In May of 1916, following Syrie's divorce from Sir Henry, Maugham and she were married.
One evening while in Rome, Syrie invited an intelligence officer to join the two of them for dinner. The officer suggested to Maugham, that with his knowledge of German and French and his profession as a writer, which would provide a good cover for activities, he should become a secret agent. Maugham agreed.
In 1917 Maugham was sent on a top secret mission to Russia in an attempt to persuade their government to engage in war with Germany and prevent the formation of the Bolshevik government. When the mission failed, his health deteriorated and he finally was forced to admit himself to a sanatorium in Scotland for the treatment of tuberculosis. His collections of short stories entitled South Sea Stories and Casuarina Tree are directly attributed to travels afforded by his intellegence.
In 1927 Maugham and Syrie were divorced and in 1928 he moved to the south of France to a spacious compound built in 1906 called Villa Mauresque on the French Riviera that had previously belonged to the Belgian king Leopold II.
In 1934, Maugham traveled to the West Indies, visiting the notorious French penal colony Devil's Island. His encounters with the prisoners resulted in the Ned Preston stories. His visit to Devil's Island was followed by a quick trip to the nearly as notorious old pirate haunt, Port Royal, Jamaica, that had been destroyed by an earthquake in 1692 with, according to local history, an overnighter at the great house at Bamboo Lodge, known to have been frequented by Admiral Lord Nelson. In 1938, he Travels in India, researching background on Hindu mysticism for his novel The Razor's Edge. While there Maugham met the venerated Indian holy man Sri Ramana Maharshi, and in the process of that visit was so overcome by the Maharshi he fainted. Terrence Gray, mentioned above, the one time protagonist of Maugham's, known to general public up until recently only as the anonymous mystical writer Wei Wu Wei, was known to have met the Maharshi as well.
Maugham died in 1965, at age 91. By then he had established himself in the literary world and the world generally as a top dramatist, novelist, and a short story writer. He sums up a great deal about himself and his views in Looking Back, a semi-autobiographical essay he penned in his later years.
SEE AS WELL:
BESTSELLING NOVELS OF THE 20th CENTURY: The Razor's Edge
WILLIAM SOMERSET MAUGHAM
Fundamentally, our experience as experienced is not different from the Zen master's. Where
we differ is that we place a fog, a particular kind of conceptual overlay onto that experience
and then make an emotional investment in that overlay, taking it to be "real" in and of itself.
ZEN ENLIGHTENMENT IN A NUTSHELL
ON THE RAZOR'S
THE BEST OF THE MAUGHAM BIOGRAPHIES:
- WILLIAM SOMERSET MAUGHAM
Good biography. Lots of Maugham graphics, from early childhood to late adult.
- W. SOMERSET MAUGHAM: A BIOGRAPHY
- MAUGHAM IN INDIA
- LITERARY AMBULANCE DRIVERS
Everybody knows Hemingway drove an ambulance during WWI, nobody knows Maugham did.
- THE ART COLLECTION OF W. SOMERSET MAUGHAM
SPIRITUAL GUIDES, GURUS, AND TEACHERS INFLUENTIAL IN THE RAZOR'S EDGE: