On Manners and Literature

CAKES AND ALE by W. Somerset Maugham

If there is one thing I’ve learned about W. Somerset Maugham from reading CAKES AND ALE (my first from said author) it is that he is one of the best storytellers I’ve encountered.  Maugham’s narrator, writer William Ashenden, tells the true story of the recently deceased and highly revered writer Edward Driffield.  Alroy Kear, a mediocre writer with an admirable acumen for social leverage, is tasked by Driffield’s conservative second wife to write the authorized biography of the deceased’s life.  Kear and Mrs. Driffield, however, operate satirically within the social structure of the time and take great pains to ensure the end result depicts Ted Driffield as the well-behaved literary giant his peers wish to remember him as.  Primarily, they wish to effectively omit the impact of Driffield’s tumultuous first marriage on his eventual largesse.  Via his personal remembrances, however, the narrator tells the true story of Driffield and his salacious first wife.

Under normal circumstances, the life of Edward Driffield could be viewed as tragic.  As a matter of fact, Driffield lived in obscurity with a relentlessly unfaithful wife until she finally left him completely.  Driffield went on to achieve commercial success but it became increasingly clear that his creativity left along with Rosie, the infamous first wife.  However, despite the grim circumstances, Maugham’s ability to satirize the customs of the time render the book much more lighthearted.  In fact, the passages of young Ashenden’s first encounter with the Driffield couple in their hometown of Blackstable are very funny, replete with Ashenden’s indignation at the young couple for their lack of respect for social propriety.

The satire, however, does not end with poking fun at the manners of the time, early 20th century England, that is.  Just as effectively, the satire extends to the social aspect of the literary profession.  Supposedly, Driffield, the prolific writer who fictionalized his home town is representative of Thomas Hardy, and more amusingly so, the social climber and mediocre-at-best writer Alroy Kear is Hugh Walpole.  While Maugham denied these exact names, the fact is, the social aspect of the literary profession of both past and present is on full display in CAKES AND ALE.

W. Somerset Maugham’s CAKES AND ALE is a quick read, due in part to my edition’s large margins, but a fulfilling one.  It is a recommendation for anyone interested in reading about the tawdry side of literature.

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