William Somerset Maugham, CH (January 25, 1874 Paris, France – December 16, 1965 Nice, France) was an English playwright, novelist, and short story writer, one of the most popular authors of the 1930s and reportedly the highest paid.
Maugham's father was an English lawyer handling the legal affairs of the British embassy in Paris. Since French law declared that all children born on French soil could be conscripted for military service, Robert Ormond Maugham arranged for William to be born at the embassy, saving him from conscription into any future French wars and making it technically true that he was born in Britain. His grandfather, another Robert, had also been a prominent lawyer and cofounder of the English Law Society, and it was taken for granted that William would follow in their footsteps. Events were to ensure this was not to be, but his older brother Frederic Herbert Maugham did enjoy a distinguished legal career, becoming Lord Chancellor between 1938-1939.
Maugham's mother Edith Mary (nee Snell) was consumptive, a condition for which the doctors of the time prescribed childbirth. As a result Maugham had three older brothers, already enrolled in boarding school by the time he was three and Maugham was effectively raised as an only child. Sadly, childbirth proved no cure for tuberculosis, and Edith Mary Maugham died at the age of 41, six days after the stillbirth of her final son. The death of his mother left Maugham traumatized for life, and he kept his mother's photograph by his bedside until his own death at the age of 91 in 1965.
Two years afterwards Maugham's father died of cancer. Willie was sent back to England to be cared for by his uncle, Henry MacDonald Maugham, the Vicar of Whitstable, in Kent. The move was catastrophic. Henry Maugham proved cold and emotionally cruel. The King's School, Canterbury, where Willie was a boarder during school terms, proved merely another version of purgatory, where he was teased for his bad English (French had been his first language) and his short stature, which he inherited from his father.
It is at this time that Maugham developed the stammer that would stay with him all his life, although it was sporadic and subject to mood and circumstance.
Life at the vicarage was tame, and emotions were tightly circumscribed. Maugham was forbidden to lose his temper, or to make emotional displays of any kind -- and he was denied the chance to see others express their own emotions. As a quiet, private but very curious child, this denial of the emotion of others was at least as hard on him as the denial of his own emotions.
The upshot was that Maugham was miserable, both at the vicarage and at school, where he was bullied because of his small size and his stammer. As a result, he developed a talent for applying a wounding remark to those who displeased him. This ability is sometimes reflected in the characters that populate his writings.
At sixteen, Maugham refused to continue at The King's School and his uncle allowed him to travel to Germany, where he studied literature, philosophy and German at Heidelberg University. It was during his year in Heidelberg that he met John Ellingham Brooks, an Englishman ten years his senior, and with whom he had his first sexual experience.
On his return to England his uncle found Maugham a position in an accountant's office, but after a month Maugham gave it up and returned to Whitstable. His uncle was not pleased, and set about finding Maugham a new profession. Maugham's father and three older brothers were all distinguished lawyers and Maugham asked to be excused from the duty of following in their footsteps.
A career in the church was rejected because a stammering minister might make the family seem ridiculous. Likewise, the civil service was rejected -- not out of consideration for Maugham's own feelings or interests, but because the recent law requiring civil servants to qualify by passing an examination made Maugham's uncle conclude that the civil service was no longer a career for gentlemen.
The local doctor suggested the profession of medicine and Maugham's uncle reluctantly approved this. Maugham had been writing steadily since the age of 15 and fervently intended to become an author, but because Maugham was not of age, he could not confess this to his guardian. So he spent the next five years as a medical student in London.
Many readers and a few critics have assumed that the years Maugham spent training to be a medical doctor were a kind of creative dead end. But Maugham himself felt quite the contrary. He was able to live in the lively city of London, to meet people of a "low" sort that he would never have met in one of the other professions, and to see them in a time of heightened anxiety and meaning in their lives. In maturity, he recalled the literary value of what he saw as a medical student: "I saw how men died. I saw how they bore pain. I saw what hope looked like, fear and relief..."
There was then a vogue of books, most written by men and women living in comfort, describing the moral value of a life of suffering -- but Maugham saw clearly, again and again, how corrosive to human values suffering was, how bitter and hostile sickness made people, and he never forgot it. Here, finally, was "life in the raw" and the chance to see the whole range of human emotions.
Maugham kept his own lodgings, took pleasure in furnishing them, filled many notebooks with literary ideas, and continued writing nightly while at the same time studying for his degree in medicine. In 1897, he presented his second book for consideration. (The first had been a biography of Meyerbeer written by the 16-year-old Maugham in Heidelberg).
Liza of Lambeth, a tale of working-class adultery and its consequences, drew its details from Maugham's experiences as a medical student doing mid-wifery work in the London slum of Lambeth. The novel is of the school of social-realist "slum-writers" such as George Gissing and Arthur Morrison. Frank as it is, Maugham still felt obliged to write near the opening of the novel: "...it is impossible always to give the exact unexpurgated words of Liza and the other personages of the story; the reader is therefore entreated with his thoughts to piece out the necessary imperfections of the dialogue."
Liza of Lambeth proved popular with both reviewers and the public, and the first print-run sold out in a matter of weeks. This was enough to convince Maugham, who had qualified as a doctor, to drop medicine and embark on his sixty-five year career as a man of letters. Of his entry into the profession of writing he later said, "I took to it as a duck takes to water."
The writer's life allowed Maugham to travel and live in places such as Spain and Capri for the next decade, but his next ten works never came close to rivalling the success of Liza. This changed dramatically in 1907 with the phenomenal success of his play Lady Frederick; by the next year he had four plays running simultaneously in London, and Punch published a cartoon of Shakespeare biting his fingernails nervously as he looked at the billboards.
By 1914 Maugham was famous, with 10 plays produced and 10 published novels. Too old to enlist when World War I broke out, Maugham served in France as a member of the British Red Cross's so-called "Literary Ambulance Drivers", a group of some 23 well-known writers including Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, and E. E. Cummings. During this time he met Frederick Gerald Haxton, a young San Franciscan who became his companion and lover until Haxton's death in 1944 (Haxton appears as Tony Paxton in Maugham's 1917 play, Our Betters). Throughout this period Maugham continued to write; indeed, he proof-read Of Human Bondage at a location near Dunkirk during a lull in his ambulance duties.
Of Human Bondage (1915) was described at the time by critics as "one of the most important novels of the twentieth century.". The book appeared to be closely autobiographical (Maugham's stammer is transformed into Philip Carey's club foot, the vicar of Whitestable becomes the vicar of Blackstable, and Philip Carey is a doctor) although Maugham himself insisted it was more invention than fact. Nevertheless, the close relationship between fictional and non-fictional became Maugham's trademark, despite the legal requirement to state that "the characters in [this or that publication] are entirely imaginary". In 1938 he wrote: "Fact and fiction are so intermingled in my work that now, looking back on it, I can hardly distinguish one from the other."
Maugham was bisexual. A recent biography  attributes to him the remark, "My problem was that I was one-quarter normal and three-quarters queer, but I tried to live as though it were the other way around." His affair with Syrie Wellcome, daughter of orphanage founder Thomas John Barnardo and wife of American-born English pharmaceutical magnate Henry Wellcome, produced a daughter named Liza (born Mary Elizabeth Wellcome, 1915-1998). Henry Wellcome then sued his wife for divorce, naming Maugham as co-respondent. In May 1917, following the decree nisi, Syrie and Maugham were married. Syrie became a noted interior decorator who popularized the all-white room in the 1920s. In 1922 Maugham dedicated his short story collection On a Chinese Screen to her. They divorced in 1927-1928 after a tempestuous marriage complicated by Maugham's frequent travels abroad and strained by his relationship with Haxton.
Maugham returned to England from his ambulance unit duties to promote Of Human Bondage but once that was finalised, he became eager to assist the war effort once more. As he was unable to return to his ambulance unit, Syrie arranged for him to be introduced to a high ranking intelligence officer known only as "R", and in September 1915 he began work in Switzerland, secretly gathering and passing on intelligence while posing as himself - that is, as a writer.
In 1916, Maugham travelled to the Pacific to research his novel The Moon and Sixpence, based on the life of Paul Gauguin. This was the first of those journeys through the late-Imperial world of the 1920s and 1930s which were to establish Maugham forever in the popular imagination as the chronicler of the last days of colonialism in India, Southeast Asia, China and the Pacific, although the books on which this reputation rests represent only a fraction of his output. On this and all subsequent journeys he was accompanied by Haxton, whom he regarded as indispensable to his success as a writer. Maugham himself was painfully shy, and Haxton the extrovert gathered human material that Maugham steadily turned into fiction.
In June, 1917 he was asked by Sir William Wiseman, chief of the British Secret Intelligence Service (later named MI6), to undertake a special mission in Russia to keep the Provisional Government in power and Russia in the war by countering German pacifist propaganda . Two and a half months later the Bolsheviks took control. The job was probably always impossible, but Maugham subsequently claimed that if he had been able to arrive six months earlier, he might have succeeded.
Quiet and observant, Maugham had a good temperament for intelligence work; he believed he had inherited from his lawyer father a gift for cool judgement and the ability to be undeceived by facile appearances.
Never losing the chance to turn real life into a story, Maugham made his spying experiences into a collection of short stories about a gentlemanly, sophisticated, aloof spy, Ashenden, (1928), a volume which Ian Fleming cited as an influence on his character of James Bond.
In 1928, Maugham bought Villa Mauresque on twelve acres at Cap Ferrat on the French Riviera, which would be his home for most of the rest of his life, and one of the great literary and social salons of the 1920s and 30s. His output continued to be prodigious, producing plays, short stories, novels, essays and travel books. By 1940, when the collapse of France forced Maugham to leave the French Riviera and become a well-heeled refugee, he was already one of the most famous writers in the English-speaking world, and one of the wealthiest.
Maugham, by now in his sixties, spent most of World War II in the United States, first in Hollywood (he worked on many scripts, and was one of the first authors to make significant money from film adaptations) and later in the South. While in the US he was asked by the British government to make patriotic speeches to induce the US to aid Britain, if not necessarily become an allied combatant. Gerald Haxton died in 1944, and Maugham moved back to England, then in 1946 to his villa in France, where he lived, interrupted by frequent and long travels, until his death.
The gap left by Haxton's death in 1944 was filled by Alan Searle. Maugham had first met Searle in 1928. Searle was a young man from the London slum area of Bermondsey and he had already been kept by older homosexuals. He proved a devoted if not a stimulating companion. Indeed one of Maugham's friends, describing the difference between Searle and Haxton, said simply: "Gerald was champagne."
Maugham's love life was almost never smooth. He once confessed: "I have most loved people who cared little or nothing for me and when people have loved me I have been embarrassed... In order not to hurt their feelings, I have often acted a passion I did not feel."
Maugham's last years were sadly marred by several quasi-scandals which can probably be set down to an itch for attention mixed with cloudy thinking from approaching dementia. The younger Maugham was far too wise and discreet to have made such basic errors in judgement. The worst of these quasi-scandals, and one which cost him many friends, was a bitter attack on the deceased Syrie in his 1962 volume of memoirs, Looking Back. In his last years Maugham adopted Searle as his son in order to ensure that he would inherit his estate, a move hotly contested by his daughter Liza and her husband, Lord Glendevon, and which exposed Maugham to much public ridicule.
Commercial success with high book sales, successful play productions and a string of film adaptations, backed by astute stock market investments, allowed Maugham to live a very comfortable life. Small and weak as a boy, Maugham had been proud even then of his stamina, and as an adult he kept churning out the books, proud that he could.
Yet, despite his triumphs, he never attracted the highest respect from the critics or his peers. Maugham himself attributed this to his lack of "lyrical quality", his small vocabulary and failure to make expert use of metaphor in his work.
It seems equally likely that Maugham was underrated because he wrote in such a direct style. There was nothing in a book by Maugham that the reading public needed explained to them by critics. Maugham thought clearly, wrote lucidly, and expressed acerbic and sometimes cynical opinions in handsome, civilized prose. He wrote in a time period where experimental modernist literature such as that of William Faulkner, Thomas Mann, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf was gaining increasing popularity and won critical acclaim. In this context, his writing was criticized as "such a tissue of clichés that one's wonder is finally aroused at the writer's ability to assemble so many and at his unfailing inability to put anything in an individual way".
Maugham's homosexual leanings also shaped his fiction, in two ways. Since, in life, he tended to see attractive women as sexual rivals, he often gave the women of his fiction sexual needs and appetites, in a way quite unusual for distinguished authors of his time. "Liza of Lambeth," "Cakes and Ale" and "The Razor's Edge" all featured women determined to service their strong sexual appetites, heedless of the result.
Also, the fact that Maugham's own sexual appetites were highly disapproved of, or even criminal, in nearly all of the countries in which he traveled, made Maugham unusually tolerant of the vices of others. Readers and critics often complained that Maugham did not clearly enough condemn what was bad in the villains of his fiction and plays. Maugham replied in 1938: "It must be a fault in me that I am not gravely shocked at the sins of others unless they personally affect me."
Maugham's public account of his abilities remained modest; toward the end of his career he described himself as "in the very first row of the second-raters". In 1954, he was made a Companion of Honour.
Maugham had begun collecting theatrical paintings before the First World War and continued to the point where his collection was second only to that of the Garrick Club. In 1948 he announced that he would bequeath this collection to the Trustees of the National Theatre, and from 1951, some 14 years before his death, it began its exhibition life and in 1994 they were placed on loan to the Theatre Museum in Covent Garden  .
Maugham's masterpiece is generally agreed to be Of Human Bondage, an autobiographical novel which deals with the life of the main character Philip Carey, who like Maugham, was orphaned and brought up by his pious uncle. Philip's clubfoot causes him endless self-consciousnessness and embarrassment, echoing Maugham's struggles with his stutter. Later successful novels were also based on real-life characters: The Moon and Sixpence fictionalizes the life of Paul Gauguin; Cakes and Ale contains thinly veiled characterizations of authors Thomas Hardy and Hugh Walpole.
Maugham's last major novel, The Razor's Edge, published in 1944, was a departure for him in many ways. While much of the novel takes place in Europe, its main characters are American, not British. The protagonist is a disillusioned veteran of World War I who abandons his wealthy friends and lifestyle, traveling to India seeking enlightenment. The story's themes of Eastern mysticism and war-weariness struck a chord with readers as World War II waned, and a movie adaptation quickly followed.
Among his short stories, some of the most memorable are those dealing with the lives of Western, mostly British, colonists in the Far East, and are typically concerned with the emotional toll exacted on the colonists by their isolation. Some of his more outstanding works in this genre include Rain, Footprints in the Jungle, and The Outstation. Rain, in particular, which charts the moral disintegration of a missionary attempting to convert the Pacific island prostitute Sadie Thompson, has kept its fame and been made into a movie several times. Maugham said that many of his short stories presented themselves to him in the stories he heard during his travels in the outposts of the Empire. He left behind a long string of angry former hosts, and a contemporary anti-Maugham writer retraced his footsteps and wrote a record of his journeys called "Gin and Bitters". Maugham's restrained prose allows him to explore the resulting tensions and passions without descending into melodrama. His The Magician (1908) is based on British occultist Aleister Crowley.
Maugham was one of the most significant travel writers of the inter-war years, and can be compared with contemporaries such as Evelyn Waugh and Freya Stark. His best efforts in this line include The Gentleman in the Parlour, dealing with a journey through Burma, Siam, Cambodia and Vietnam, and On a Chinese Screen, a series of very brief vignettes which might almost be notes for short stories that were never written.
Influenced by the published journals of the French writer Jules Renard, which Maugham had often enjoyed for their conscientiousness, wisdom and wit, Maugham published in 1949 selections from his own journals under the title "A Writer's Notebook". Although these journal selections are, by nature, episodic and of varying quality, they range over more than 50 years of the writer's life and there is much that Maugham scholars and admirers find of interest in this book.
In 1947 Maugham instituted the Somerset Maugham Award, awarded to the best British writer or writers under the age of thirty-five of a work of fiction published in the past year. Notable past winners include V.S. Naipaul, Kingsley Amis, Martin Amis and Thom Gunn. On his death, he donated his copyrights to the Royal Literary Fund.
One of very few later writers to praise his influence was Anthony Burgess, who included a complex fictional portrait of Maugham in the novel Earthly Powers. George Orwell also stated that his writing style was influenced by Maugham. The American writer Paul Theroux, in his short story collection The Consul's File, updated Maugham's colonial world in an outstation of expatriates in modern Malaysia.
The 1995 film Se7en has a character played by Morgan Freeman, named Lt. Somerset. The film makes explicit reference to Of Human Bondage.
There are many portraits of Somerset Maugham, including that by Graham Sutherland in the Tate Gallery and several by Sir Gerald Kelly. Sutherland's portrait was included in Painting the Century 101 Portrait Masterpieces 1900-2000 at the National Portrait Gallery.
See main article, Bibliography of works by Somerset Maugham