On Human Bondage – W. Somerset Maugham

In recent years, I have taken to batch reading – that is, I read my way through an author’s oeuvre. The point is not to be academic or systematic – certainly not with Somerset Maugham because he wrote so much –  but to read enough to understand the man and his work. 

 

A long time ago, I read some of the short stories and many of them I still remember. I have never seen any of his plays – are any being produced? I haven’t noticed any. Apart from a short volume of short stories, this year I read eight of his his full length novels: Cakes and Ale, Lisa Of Lambeth, The Painted Veil, The Razor’s Edge, Theatre, The Moon and Sixpence, Of Human Bondage and The Explorers.

 

Cakes and Ale was a disappointment. I learnt later it was about Thomas Hardy. If I’d known about this before I might have enjoyed it more. From then on it got better. The Moon and Sixpence, loosely based on the life of Gaugin the artist.  It was a case study of what happens when someone devotes his life entirely to art. He sacrifices, family, friends, comfort and health so he could paint what his mind saw.It was an utterly unforgettable book. The last of the series was The Explorers. This was a a bit of a let-down. It was very much within the Edwardian thriller genre – good if you like that kind of thing but I found it a little mawkish and dated.

 

But it was Of Human Bondage when Maugham reached the height of his literary powers. It was by far the longest novel he wrote – in my edition it was 900 pages. It is the story of Philip Carey and is a strong parallel to Maugham’s own life. It starts with his birth in 1874 and finishes around 30 years later when he gets married and embarks on a career as a doctor.

 

The boy starts off life with enormous disadvantages: he has a club foot, his parents die and he is brought up by an unloving uncle. The reader is immediately drawn into the story of how Philip deals with this. It was the characters that brought this to life particularly after he left home. Carey (like Maugham) went to Heidelberg to learn German and complete his education. Here he met Hayward the poet and Weekes the New Englander who very politely saw through his pretensions. There was his first Miss Wilkinson, his first lover. She was very much lode than him and Philip considered her to be grotesque.  When he went to Paris to try his hand at becoming a painter, he met, among many others,  Cronshaw the poet. Cronshaw admitted he had little talent but believed the idea of life was not to pursue happiness but to form a pattern. 

 

But it was on his return to London and the start of his medical studies that he met the books most important character after Philip. Mildred must rank as one of the least sympathetic women in literature – and Philip fell in love with her. The love was hopeless – Philip found her physically unattractive and dull. The rest of the story was a struggle to pull himself away from her. Even at the very end, while he was on his way to propose to Sally, his new love, he thought he saw her in the street and admitted to himself that he will never rid Mildred’s ghost from his life.

 

The final scene of the book took place at the National Gallery, and, coincidentally, I finished reading the novel just after having visited it. The book ended happily  though there were plenty of clues to make the reader suspect otherwise.

 

The great thing about Maugham is that he understands the habit of reading. He knows readers are interested in how others read and there are continual references to other authors which I feel compelled to put on my To Read list including stuff that normally doesn’t find its way there such as Philosophy and French poetry. In many ways, Of Human Bondage is a novel about reading as this was what guided Philip through the first part of his life.

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