Review: Of Human Bondage

Having never read any Somerset Maugham, I decided to read this one. Perhaps I would have been better advised to pick out one of his shorter novels – this one is exactly 700 pages – but as a semi-biographical novel, it gave me an insight into both his writing and his personality.

W Somerset Maugham

Maugham was born in the British embassy in Paris (and was therefore British) to the British lawyer, who handled the embassy’s legal affairs, and his wife. Both his parents died before he was ten and he was put into the care of his uncle, the vicar of Whitstable, Kent. He attended the King’s school in Canterbury, where his small stature and a stutter made him the butt of jokes by his contemporaries. He wrote steadily from the age of 15, and at 16 his uncle allowed him to study in Heidelberg, where he wrote his first book and had an affair with an Englishman ten years his elder. He returned to London, where, after a stint as an accountant, he studied medicine and was qualified as a doctor. In 1897, he published his first novel, Lisa of Lambeth, the immediate success of which persuaded him to abandon medicine and take up writing as a career. Maugham was particularly financially successful as a playwright, but he wrote short stories, travel books and a long list of novels. He was married in 1917 to Syrie Welcome, with whom he had a daughter in 1915. The marriage was unhappy, the couple separated, and Maugham lived most of the rest of his life on the French Riviera with a male partner. In 1962, Maugham sold a series of paintings which he had given to his daugher, Liza, who took him to court and won. The writer descended into mental illness, and unseemly vituperations which hurt his commercial image. He died in 1965.

Of Human Bondage is set in about 1900 and parallels Maugham’s real life until the protagonist, Philip Carey, becomes a qualified physician. As a nine-year-old, Philip is orphaned and put in the care of his uncle, the vicar of Blackstable. He is a shy, introverted boy, with club foot, who is harassed by his classmates at boarding school. Rather than accept a scholarship at Oxford, Philip goes to study art at Heidelberg University. In the company of an assortment of artistic friends, he discovers that he has little talent as an artist, and returns to London where he is an apprentice accountant for a brief spell before entering medical school. He meets Mildred a lower class waitress, who treats him with indifference, but he falls passionately in love with her. Mildred leaves Philip repeatedly for others, and descends into prostitution. While working at a hospital, Philip befriends a family man, Thorpe Athelny. Philip looses all his money on a failed investment and descends into abject poverty. He reconnects with Athelny who has an attractive but ordinary daughter, Sally. Sally and Philip admire each other, but do not profess love. Philip receives an inheritance from his uncle which allows him to finish medical school and be qualified. Sally fears she is pregnant. Philip decides to give up his dream of travelling the world to marry Sally. She tells him she is not pregnant, and that he is free to go. Philip decides to marry Sally and take up a post as a rural doctor.

Of Human Bondage is considered Somerset Maugham’s masterpiece. When it was issued (1915) it was criticized in both the the UK and the US. However, Theodore Dreiser, an influential American novelist and critic called it a work of genius and compared it to a Beethoven symphony. It has never been out of print since. Maugham himself was modest about his talent, saying that he was in the very first row of second class writers. In spite of its seven hundred page length, I found it calling me when I put it down. It is rich in characters, ideas, emotions and events. One has an almost constant desire to find out what happens next, and it is seldom what the reader anticipates. Maugham rarely ‘shows’; he ‘tells’, but most of his telling is about the intricate thought processes and feeling of the characters. In all their complexity they become knowable to the reader. Maugham derived the title from a passage in Ethics by Barch Spinoza: “The impotence of man to govern or restrain the emotions I call bondage, for a man who is under their control is not his own master … so that he is often forced to follow the worse, although he see the better before him.”

I have two criticisms of this novel. First, I find Philip’s passion for Mildred difficult to understand. She is unattractive, rude, selfish and fundamentally stupid. She should have been given one or two redeeming features. Second, the intricacies of Philip’s many friendships are, in only a few cases, contributing to the wealth of the novel. A modern editor would cut heavily in that area. Of Human Bondage has to be read as a great piece of historic fiction, not as a modern novel, which would be judged on today’s very competitive standards.

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