Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Biographer discusses researching
Somerset Maugham biography

Selina Hastings is a writer and journalist, the author of four literary biographies, including The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, which was published in May 2010.

In this audio clip, Hastings discussed the challenges she faced in researching Maugham. In a case of being in the perfect place at the perfect time, Hastings was the first scholar to be granted access to Maugham's papers by the Royal Literary Fund.

Hastings also recently wrote an article for Ransom Edition about her work in the Ransom Center's collections and the "uneasy friendship" between Maugham and Hugh Walpole.

At the Ransom Center, she was a Mellon Fellow during 2002-2003 and was awarded the Dorot Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Jewish Studies in 2009-2010. She has previously worked in the Ransom Center's collections for her biographies on Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford, and Rosamond Lehmann. She is currently working on a biography of Sybille Bedford.

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SELINA HASTINGS: I'm Selina Hastings, and I'm working on a biography of Somerset Maugham, who is a writer I've long been interested in. Over the last 40 or 50 years, he's become rather neglected, but in his day—and he lived over 90 years, born in 1874, died in 1965—in his day, he was the most famous living writer in the world. His books sold millions. And some of his work is extremely impressive and distinguished, and for this reason, for the fact that he led a very interesting, extraordinary, and largely undercover life, I think he is very worthwhile writing about.

This is the first authorized biography because Maugham left it in his will—he died in 1965, which is a long time ago now—he left it in his will that nobody was to have access to his personal correspondence because he was very anxious that no biography of him should ever be written. Luckily for me, his executors, the Royal Literary Fund in London, recently lifted that.

They rescinded it, and so I can have access to his private papers, most of which are here, many of which are here.

There are advantages and disadvantages about working on someone who's dead. First of all, I have written—I started writing a biography once of someone still living, and that can be very difficult because the person, the subject, has a very clear idea of what they want written and what sort of work it is. So, in fact, it has its advantages, writing of a dead subject.

The trouble with writing about Maugham, who died at the age of 91 in 1965, which is a long time ago, there are very, very few people left who actually knew him. So, whereas in the past, subjects I've written about, I've been able to talk to wives and children and friends and so on to get a picture of the person. With Maugham, I haven't been able to do this, with very, very few exceptions. So, the paper trail is very important; therefore, you're much more dependent upon the archive.

I'd always been very interested in him. I knew people of my parents' generation who knew him, and I would hear those stories about him. You know, the old crocodile sitting on his millions, the greatest living writer, the bestselling English writer in the world, these extraordinary stories. And so he was a very fascinating figure to me. But because I also knew that there was no question of being able to look at his correspondence, his papers, I thought there was no point in even thinking about writing about him.

And then, as I said the other day, when I was just finishing my last book, which was the life of the novelist called Rosamond Lehmann, I came across a postcard from Maugham to Rosamond Lehmann of no conceivable interest—just saying "Dear Rosamond, Can you meet me for a drink? Come Wednesday. Love, Willie." So, I thought, "Well, I'll just test the waters." And I rang up the Royal Literary Fund, and I said, "Would you be kind enough to give me permission to quote from this extraordinarily interesting document of Somerset Maugham's?" And the woman on the other end of the telephone said, "Well, if you'd asked me that last week, I'd have said, 'Absolutely not,' but, in fact, we're going to have a meeting tomorrow, and we're going to decide whether or not to rescind this clause in his will, and I'll let you know what happens." And so to cut a long story short, it transpired that they did unanimously decide to rescind the clause in his will, and I was in the right place at the right time and was eventually appointed authorized biographer, which was very, very nice.

The downside is that the reason he didn't want a biography written was because he didn't want to be outed as a homosexual, which he was. When he was 21, it was the trial of Oscar Wilde in 1895, and it cast a very long shadow over that generation of English homosexuals. British law was the most punitive of any European country against homosexuals, and his brother was lord chancellor of England, deeply respectable, and Maugham always wanted to be seen as a very, very conventional, straight English gentleman. And that's the reason he didn't want a life written of him.

I'm just reading at this moment, what I'm here to do now, the diaries, the unpublished diaries of a friend of Maugham called Hugh Walpole, who was a sort of third-rate novelist. Quite successful in his day, but extremely pleased with himself, a pompous idiot, really. And he wrote these perfectly ludicrous diaries, mostly about how wonderful Hugh Walpole is and the wonderfulness of Hugh Walpole, but there's also quite a bit about Maugham in them. He thought Maugham was his great friend, but actually Maugham thought he was completely ridiculous. And he [Maugham] wrote a novel called Cakes and Ale, which is a very famous novel of his in which he completely skewers Walpole. And Walpole describes in his diary downstairs here—I was reading it this morning—and he writes every day what he does. And he describes how he'd come in from a dinner party, and he was getting ready for bed, and he was taking off his clothes, and there was Maugham's new novel on his bedside table, and he thought, "Oh, I'll just read a few pages of this," and then he begins to read. And he realizes that the novel is about himself, but portrayed in the most ridiculous, comic light.

It traumatizes him. It wrecks his life. He feels he can never go out and that everyone's going to be talking about him, and, of course, indeed they were. He goes on year after year, "The most terrible thing that ever happened to me was Willie Maugham's frightful—" you know, it's wonderful. So, that was all good grist for the mill.