Today in Literary History – January 25, 1874 – novelist W. Somerset Maugham is born

English novelist and playwright W. Somerset Maugham (known to his friends as “Willie”) was born on January 25, 1874 in the British Embassy in Paris. His father, a lawyer attached to the embassy arranged for Maugham to be born there (it was legally considered British territory) to ensure his British citizenship.

Maugham grew up in Paris, but after he was orphaned at the age of ten, he was sent to England to be raised by his uncle, a cool and distant Church of England vicar. Maugham was teased by his schoolmates for his poor English, French being his first language, and he developed a stammer which stuck with him throughout his life.

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Maugham came from a long line of distinguished lawyers (his brother Viscount Maugham was a judge who served briefly as Lord Chancellor of Britain) but Maugham knew from a young age that he wanted to be a writer.

He studied medicine while writing continually. He earned a medical degree but only practiced briefly, giving it up when his first novel, Liza of Lambeth, was published in 1897.

Maugham’s first success came as a playwright. In 1908 he had four plays running in London simultaneously. He also continued to publish novels.

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During World War I he was recruited by the Secret Intelligence Service (the precursor of MI6) and worked as a spy in Switzerland and Russia. In 1928 he bought a villa in Cap Ferrat on the French Riviera and lived there (apart from during the German occupation of France in World War II) until his death in 1965 at the age of 91.

Maugham became one of the most famous and wealthiest writers of his day, with a string of novels full of astute observations of human nature – The Razor’s Edge, Cakes and Ale, Of Human Bondage,  The Moon and Sixpence.

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Maugham was troubled by his sexuality throughput his life. Although primarily attracted to men, he did have affairs with women in his early years. One of them led to an unwanted out of wedlock pregnancy and to his subsequent marriage, although he and his wife lived mostly apart. He also had long term male partners.

In his old age he became more comfortable with his sexuality, writing to his nephew that “I tried to persuade myself that I was three-quarters normal and that only a quarter of me was queer—whereas really it was the other way around.”

Maugham believed that he inherited a talent for judging and evaluating other people from his lawyer father. His stammer, his experiences as a spy, his foreign residence and love of travel and his queerness all seem to have marked him off as a perennial outsider and a keen observer and describer and a great novelist.

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