This is a long book: 700 pages cover Philip's life from age 9 to age 30. It is wonderfully realistic, especially when Maugham gives up the rather transparent attempts to disguise Canterbury and Whitstable (Maugham's uncle was vicar of Whitstable). It goes into the prices of things in detail and trains and cabs and hop-picking and diseases and streets. But it's real joy lies in the characters.
Maugham spares nobody. Philip, his hero, is a rather weak and quixotic man. He repeatedly throws up opportunities because he is upset with someone or because he wishes to pursue unrealistic dreams. Above all, he is governed by love. Love makes him do bad or foolish things. Even at school, when he has a crush on another boy, rejection means that he cannot work and he turns against the school and so he must forgo the scholarship that would take him to Oxford; instead he drifts off to Heidelberg. When he returns he has a one-night stand with an older lady, despite the fact that he doesn't much fancy her; indeed he spends much time worrying about how ridiculous he will appear (shyness and the fear of humiliation, especially connected to his club foot, are repeated themes). As a result he treats the lady appallingly badly. Later, in London, in a tempestuous relationship with Mildred, it is his turn to suffer. Nevertheless, he doesn't learn and he goes on to treat another woman very badly. He is rather an unpleasant hero (there is one bit where, to ease his money troubles, he becomes obsessed with the death of his uncle and how much inheritance he will gain) and it is to Maugham's credit that I was rooting for Philip so strongly at the end, even though near-ruin didn't seem to make him any nicer.
The other characters are also flawed. For example (and this is nowhere near an exhaustive list!):
- Mildred is a liar who will do her best to take advantage of any man (and is taken advantage of in her turn); she has the snobbishness of a waitress and her favourite cry is that Philip is "a gentleman in every sense of the word".
- Philip's uncle the vicar has arranged his life around himself and everyone else must fit in with this. He exploits his devoted wife (why she loves him is a mystery which Maugham does not try to analyse but explains simply as that mysterious bondage of love to which almost every character is in thrall). When Philip is on his beam ends the vicar refuses to lend him any money (his attitude is summed up by 'I told you so') and when Philip is summoned to his deathbed and has to leave paid employment to attend the vicar never enquires how Philip managed to survive in the intervening period. Despite preaching heaven he is terribly afraid of death.
- Hayward is one of a number of artistic temperaments who preach beauty but can never get around to doing the spade work that will lead them to create. When confronted by a scholar who questions some of his prejudices by Socratic dialectic he responds: "Of course the man's a pedant. He has no real feeling for beauty. Accuracy is the virtue of clerks."
- In contrast there is Miss Price who tries and tries and tries to paint but has no talent and cannot recognise the fact that she ought to just give up. She is a wonderfully rude woman.
This book teems with wonderful characters who are drawn with all their faults and weaknesses, their snobbishnesses, their touchinesses, their generosities and their rudenesses. It is a masterpiece.
It has also got some brilliant lines:
- "The summer came upon the country like a conqueror"
- "I thought it was only in revealed religion that a mistranslation improved the sense."
- "Accuracy is the virtue of clerks."
- "Genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains. The only thing is to peg away."
I also enjoyed Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence which also contains remarkable characterisations.
This is a must-read, for all its size. March 2015; 700 pages