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Somerset Maugham... a Bad Influence?

"A bad influence...? Me...? Oh come come!"

I like Somerset Maugham, the popular novelist and short story writer who had his heyday in the 1930s. However, I’m not sure he’s always a good influence.

If you wish to be taken back to the era of gentlemen’s clubs and dressing for dinner, then he’s your man. I do frequently wish to be taken back to those days, so he’s definitely my man. However, what comes with this old world charm and sophistication is a heck of a lot of what we would today think of as snobbery, sexism and racism. Tricky one, that.

Understand that Maugham wasn’t a malevolent creature. Not a bit! He was just a product of his time, expressing attitudes that were typical of his day. I understand that perfectly well, and I don’t have a problem reading him. Frankly, my problem might be that I’m actually too understanding, too tolerant of these attitudes and too easily influenced.

For example, the other day I read a short story of his set in Hong Kong when it was very much part of the British Empire. I cautiously admit to you, now, that I came away from this story feeling rather superior merely by virtue of my nationality. Now, before anyone starts accusing me of committing hate crimes, let me make it quite plain that I don’t for a moment think this is right! This is the very point I’m making! Maugham has a powerful influence and it’s not always a good one.

His writing contains insights into the human condition that are as valuable today as they were a century or so ago. However, it also contains elements that are less desirable in our more enlightened age. They’re bound up together. The problem is that you can’t separate the two. It’s not a case of the odd word that could be censored; it’s all more interwoven, more subtly manifest than that.

What, then, is the answer? Well, I would encourage anyone who likes the idea of bowler hats, furled umbrellas and general chapishness, to read Maugham. However, I would also give an unusual word of warning when you approach him: try not to be too open-minded!

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