30 May 2012

Cakes and ale (book review)

Cakes and Ale: Or, The Skeleton in the CupboardCakes and Ale: Or, The Skeleton in the Cupboard by W. Somerset Maugham

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Alroy Kear has been asked by the widow of Edward Driffield to write her late husband's biography, and he asks the narrator, fellow writer Willie Ashenden, for some information about obscure parts of Driffield's life that Ashenden knew something about. But Kear also makes it clear that he plans to censor any stories, since it was well known that Driffield's first wife was unfaithful to him.

The request sparks of Ashenden's own reminiscences of Driffield and his first wife Rosie, and the story jumps back and forth between the 1890s and the 1930s.

The thing that struck me most about it was the class-consciousness and snobbery that pervaded English literary circles and society generally, especially in the earlier period, set in the 1890s. The narrator is roughly the same age as Somerset Maugham himself, and there is no reason to suppose that in writing of these things he is not writing from his own experience. I was aware of the class-consciousness, though what Maugham writes seems totally over the top. That a schoolboy spending his holidays with his uncle and aunt at a Kentish vicarage should be faced with such deeply-felt dilemmas about who he could and could not talk to beggars belief. Yes, as I say, Maugham lived through that period, and so must be writing from experience. I had always had the impression that the clergy, and especially vicars and below, were always rather looked down on by the gentry, but perhaps that only made them, or some of them at least, more determined to look down on all the rest.

Driffield's second wife, who was originally his nurse after an illness, was very much a managing type, and also appeared to want to manage her husband's memory and biography. On reading the book I was reminded of Alan Paton's second wife, who had been his secretary, and seemed to be similarly managing, though not to quite the same extent. She kept him isolated from other people, ostensibly so that his writing time would not be interrupted by numberous callers, but whatever the motive, he certainly became far less accessible after his second marriage.

Some have seen Driffield as modelled on Thomas Hardy, and Alroy Kear as modelled on George Meredith, though Maugham himself insisted that they were composites. That I can believe, because of the echoes in the life of Alan Paton, whom Maugham can hardly have known, and was not a published author when Cakes and ale was written.

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James Higham said...

Interesting review, Steve. I had to teach this at university to second years.

Steve Hayes said...

Interesting, James. I wonder what you said to them about it, if you can summarise it in a few sentences?

I suppose the thing that struck me about it it most was the obsession with respectability -- in the earlier life of the narrator, and later in the author's widow and biographer, while the narrator had softened on that score, due, in no small measure, to his relationship with Driffield's first wife.


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