This year sees the 50th anniversary of the death of William Somerset Maugham: one of the most commercially successful English writers ever. His plays, short stories and novels sold in their millions; his work on stage, page and screen drew huge audiences. He remains the English writer most adapted for film and television. And yet he described himself as possessing only a ‘knack’ for writing and his place among the literary greats as being only ‘in the first row of the second rate’.
Despite his huge popularity with a mass audience, the literary establishment dismissed him as “middle brow”. Yet the subjects he wrote about, and his complex and exotic lifestyle moulded the image of the successful twentieth century writer – a wide circle of famous friends, a villa in the South of France, the adulation of readers across the globe and the ears of the Empire’s leaders. His own long life, too, reads like the plot for a novel. Born when Disraeli was Prime Minister, he died when the Sixties were in full swing. He trained as a doctor, dedicated himself to being a writer, and spent time as a spy during World War One. Then there were the travels – to the far reaches of the globe in search of material for his stories; he chronicled the boredom, frustration and scandals of the colonial class of empire builders.
His private life was complicated. In England he appeared a pillar of the establishment, yet he set up an exotic and promiscuous lifestyle in a villa on the Cote d’Azur with a succession of gay lovers. His last years were marked by an extraordinary and toxic quarrel with his family, betrayal and a public fall from grace.