W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965)

W. Somerset Maugham, playwright, novelist and short story writer was born of British parents in Paris in 1874. Brought up originally in France, Maugham lost his mother at the age of eight. Two years later his father died of cancer and Maugham the orphan was moved to Kent, where he boarded at King's School, Canterbury. His holidays were spent with an uncle in Whitstable. About this time Maugham developed the stammer which made it difficult for him to make relationships and contributed to his shy and introverted manner.

Maugham studied philosophy and literature at Heidelberg University and then in London he qualified as a surgeon at St. Thomas's Hospital. Of Human Bondage (1915) is an autobiographical novel describing his unhappiness and anxiety in early life and recounting his experiences as a medical student.

Maugham served in the British Intelligence Service in World Wars I and II. In 1914 he was part of a Red Cross unit in France, later acting as a secret agent in Geneva. In Petrograd he was involved in trying to prevent the outbreak of the Russian Revolution. These experiences are related in Ashenden, or the British Agent (1928), a group of stories which influenced Ian Fleming's Bond stories. Maugham's travels fuelled his fascination with the Orient and South Sea Islands. The Moon and Sixpence (1919) is based on the life of Paul Gauguin, the artist who rejected France and civilization to live in Tahiti. The Painted Veil was originally set in Hong Kong but after threats of legal action Maugham changed the place-name to the fictional Tching-Yen. The now rare first printing of this novel still has Hong Kong as the colony.

Maugham became a witty satirist of the post-colonial world and wrote over thirty plays, mainly light satiric comedies. At one time he had four dramas running simultaneously; only Bernard Shaw has had more plays on at the same time in London. He died in 1965 at the age of 92 at his home, Villa Mauresque, in the south of France and was buried on the grounds of King's School, Canterbury.

Today, Maugham is probably best known as a short story writer. His clear, lucid and economical style makes easy reading and his short stories have been reprinted frequently in collected editions. Maugham said of himself: "I have never pretended to be anything but a story teller."

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