Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Spring 2010 Newsletter

Walpole and Maugham: An Uneasy Friendship

By Selina Hastings

Listen to Selina Hastings discuss her work in the Ransom Center collections for her Somerset Maugham biography.

Hugh Walpole. Click to enlarge.

Hugh Walpole

Somerset Maugham. Click to enlarge.

Somerset Maugham

Diary. Click to enlarge.

Pages from Hugh Walpole's diary.

There are two collections at the Ransom Center—comprising letters, an unpublished diary, and the manuscript of a novel, Cakes and Ale—that shed a fascinating light on a bizarre friendship between a couple of twentieth-century writers, Hugh Walpole and William Somerset Maugham.

Walpole was one of the most prominent figures in literary London between the wars, exceptionally prolific and insatiably ambitious. By 1930 he had achieved a satisfyingly high profile: author of numerous popular novels, chairman of the Book Society, busy on numerous boards and committees, a devoted friend to the famous. Among these famous friendships, Walpole prized highly that with his fellow novelist, Somerset Maugham. The two men had known each other for over 20 years, Walpole rather in awe of the richer, cleverer, and more successful older man. For his part, Maugham had always regarded Walpole as a foolish fellow, although over time he had grown quite fond of him and enjoyed watching the spectacle he made of himself. Recently, however, the ruthlessness of Walpole's self-promotion coupled with a notable lack of generosity—"he was mean as cat's meat," said Maugham—had begun to repel him, and when in 1929 he began work on a new novel, he was unable to resist the temptation of guying Walpole, portraying him as the protagonist, Alroy Kear, a conceited, third-rate writer who forwards his career by shameless flattery of the great and the good.

Cakes and Ale was published on September 30, 1930. A new novel by Somerset Maugham was naturally a noteworthy event; no one, however, could have foreseen the brouhaha that broke out over the envenomed portrait of Hugh Walpole, described by one commentator as "one of the most memorable literary dissections since Dickens's treatment of Leigh Hunt as Mr. Skimpole in Bleak House." Walpole himself, completely unsuspecting, had received an advance copy a few days before publication. On September 25, he notes in his diary that he returned from a visit to Cambridge in the morning, attended a meeting of the Book Society, and in the evening had gone with a friend to the theater. Arriving home after midnight, he had started to undress when he caught sight of Maugham's book on his bedside table. Idly he picked it up and began to read. "Read on with increasing horror," he recorded. "Unmistakeable portrait of myself. Never slept!" At 4 a.m., by now in a frenzy, he telephoned Maugham's publisher, A. S. Frere, imploring him to stop publication. All the next day, "dreadfully upset," Walpole spent calling on friends, desperate to know what was being said. Most did their best to persuade him he was imagining it, while others swore that Maugham was already strenuously denying the rumour. "But how can he," wailed Walpole, "when there are in one conversation the very accents of my voice?... He has used so many little friendly things and twisted them round."

When Walpole finally summoned the courage to write to Maugham, complaining of the cruel treatment he had received, Maugham professed astonishment. It had never occurred to him, he claimed, "that there was any resemblance between the Alroy Kear of my novel & you... I suggest that if there is anything in him that you recognise it is because to a great or less extent we are all the same." In reply to this deeply disingenuous explanation ("Hugh was a ridiculous creature and I certainly had him in mind when I wrote Cakes and Ale," Maugham admitted later), Walpole wrote that naturally he accepted Maugham's word on the matter, although in truth he did nothing of the sort, and for weeks continued to agonize over the subject, rehearsing it again and again to anyone who would listen.

At the end of the year the fuss finally died down, and the relationship between the two men continued amicably, at least on the surface: when Walpole's new novel, Judith Paris, came out the following summer Maugham sent him a jokey telegram of congratulation signed, "ALROY MAUGHAM." And indeed, within a surprisingly short time Walpole succeeded in convincing himself that after all there was little similarity between himself and Alroy Kear, although of course he could understand how a popular and successful figure such as himself might appear "to a cynic and an uneasy unhappy man like Willie." Yet despite these consoling arguments his standing in the eyes of the world never recovered from Maugham's portrayal, and after the publication of Cakes and Ale there were few critics who regarded either the man or his work with much respect: Logan Pearsall Smith, in a wickedly apt metaphor, described the book as "the red-hot poker that killed Hugh Walpole," and when in 1937 Walpole finally received his longed-for knighthood the wits all said it was a consolation prize for Cakes and Ale.

Admiration for the work, however, continued to spread. After Cakes and Ale "Maugham's reputation as a novelist had no immediate parallel," wrote Frank Swinnerton. "Within a few months of its publication all active novel-writers were considerably his juniors."

Selina Hastings's Somerset Maugham Picks

Selina Hastings is a writer and journalist, the author of four literary biographies, including The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, which will be published in the United States in May. At the Ransom Center, she was a Mellon Fellow during 2002-03 and was awarded the Dorot Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Jewish Studies in 2009-2010.

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