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This novel was one of the very first I read from the adult section of the lending library, when I was finally allowed to ascend the stairs to what I perceived as, ‘the real books,’ and leave the children’s section behind. W. Somerset Maugham has always remained one of my favourite authors and re-reading this was a delight. It features a returning character; the narrator being William ‘Willie’ Ashenden. Much of this novel is autobiographical and, indeed, Maugham himself always said it was his favourite.
Ashenden is a novelist, who knew the great ‘man of letters,’ Edward Driffield as a young man. Driffield has recently died, leaving his widow, and former nurse, looking for a biographer to help present the vision of his life that she approves of. She asks Alroy Kear to write Driffield’s life and he, in turn, asks for Ashenden’s help. Ashenden knew Driffield well, and also his first wife, Rosie. Rosie is something of an embarrassment in terms of the biography – a former barmaid, she was notoriously unfaithful and Driffield’s widow is keen to play down her role.
This is very much a satire of literary London and you sense that Maugham is having a great deal of fun in writing this. He is keen to point out literary trends; gleefully pointing out that nobody remembers many of the people he met at literary soirees at the time. It is said that Edward Driffield was based on Thomas Hardy, while Alroy Kear, who approaches Ashenden for his reminiscences, is based upon Hugh Walpole. It was later suggested that this novel ruined Walpole’s literary reputation and, indeed, the remaining years of his life, although Maugham refused to acknowledge the suggested connections between the above mentioned authors and his characters. He certainly takes a side swipe at Evelyn Waugh (another favourite author of mine) and is at his best when sniping at the literary world and also laughing at himself as a young, priggish and snobbish youth.
Rosie, it is obvious, is not the embarrassment that Driffield’s widow wants her to be. As Ashenden recalls his life and his relationship with Driffield, it is Rosie who really comes to life on the page. Her character, charm, beauty and humour which draws everyone around her; like moths to a flame. This is a wonderful book and I am not surprised that Maugham wanted to be remembered for it. It contains much of himself and he obviously uses his young life to good effect, while cleverly poking fun at literary pretentions and how reputations are created.
One of my reading groups is ‘doing’ English writers between the wars, and so far I’m enjoying them hugely. The narrator of ‘Cakes and Ale’ is the only person who knows the true story of a grand old man of literature’s first marriage, and he’s keeping the secrets to himself. I loved this, and was amused rather than annoyed by a previous reader’s humourlessly pedantic pencil annotations of its minuscule stylistic faults, e.g. the overuse of ‘very’. In fewer than 200 pages, it is fabulously satirical of literary life and early 20th century English class snobbery, a brilliantly gentle and sad coming-of-age story reminiscent of ‘The Go-between’ by L P Hartley, a tantalising transformation of autobiography into fiction that itself deals in the transformation of autobiography into fiction, and a wonderful, living, breathing portrait of a woman of whom Maugham said: “I am willing enough to agree with the common opinion that ‘Of Human Bondage’ is my best work... But the book I like best is ‘Cakes and Ale’... because in its pages lives for me again the woman with the lovely smile who was the model for Rosie Duffield.” I think we can forgive a few ‘very’s. Brilliant!
I first came across William Somerset Maugham at the age of sixteen when I chanced upon a heavily annotated copy of his masterpiece "Of Human Bondage" in my father's study. He had read it many years before while studying English at university. The copy I picked up was my father's old university study one, but he retained it in pride of place and returned to it often decades later. Being young and unblemished by the heartache sometimes caused by intense and irrational love, I was deeply moved by the character of Philip Carey and his tribulations at the hands of the loathsome Mildred. When I learned many years later that "Of Human Bondage" was largely autobiographical, my heart went out to Maugham.
In "Cakes and Ale" Maugham makes only the slightest of attempts at disguising its autobiographical nature: for Willie Maugham, we have Willie Ashenden a middle-aged, wealthy and successful author; Blackstable takes the place of Whitstable (as it did in "Of Human Bondage"); and Maugham's own youthful infatuation with the libertine Sue Jones is reflected in the character of free-loving Rosie Driffield - she of the "body made for the act of love" - with whom the young Ashenden falls in love.
When asked by his author friend, Alroy Kear, to contribute to his forthcoming biography of a celebrated novelist called Edward Driffield, Ashenden revisits in his mind a good part of his early adulthood during which he knew Driffield and others associated with him and shares it with us. First, we are treated to his musings upon the bucolic life he spent in Kent as a boy in his late teens. Later we see the happy times he enjoyed in bustling London as a young medical student. During both phases, Ashenden encounters a variety of people at various levels of class-ridden Victorian and Edwardian society whom he describes with sympathy and warmth, when pleased by them, or with brutal vitriol when not.
Although raised as a gentleman by a vicar uncle who was an extreme snob, Maugham resents snobbery and lampoons it in "Cakes and Ale" much as he did in his delightful short story "The Outstation". There are echoes of the hilarious way in which Maugham depicts the ridiculous snob, Mr Warburton in "The Outstation" in Mrs Barton Trafford the conceited lady who befriends Edward Driffield in "Cakes and Ale". You can almost hear Maugham laughing at them. Nevertheless, Maugham reveals much empathy for people like these perhaps because he acknowledges that he is cut from the same cloth as they are. As Willie Ashenden tells us, "It is very hard to be a gentleman and a writer."
I got the impression from "Of Human Bondage" that Maugham found writing it to be a wrenching, if perhaps cathartic, experience. "Cakes and Ale" is a much happier read. Contentment and a zest for life wafts off the pages like expensive French pefume. As we learn from Selina Hastings in her excellent biography, "The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham", "Cakes and Ale" was written in 1930 in Maugham's sumptuous home, the Villa Mauresque on Cap Ferrat, at the time in his life when he was happiest and most content. It is hardly surprising then that Maugham described "Cakes and Ale" as his favourite among his many novels; writing it was undoubtedly a very enjoyable experience for him.
In "Cakes and Ale" Maugham bares his soul as a writer and gives several descriptions of the art of writing which are as plausible as any I have ever read. "Whenever [the writer] has anything on his mind, whether it be a harassing reflection, grief at the death of a friend, unrequited love, wounded pride, anger at the treachery of someone to whom he has shown kindness, in short any emotion or any perplexing thought, he has only to put it down in black and white, using it as a theme of a story or the decoration of an essay, to forget all about it. He is the only free man."
I came to the end of "Cakes and Ale" with much regret that there wasn't more for me to delight in. Like "Of Human Bondage" on my father's bookshelf, "Cakes and Ale" will forever remain in a treasured spot on my bookshelf within easy reach. For I would be lying to myself if I said I will not be reaching for it again and again in the future.
I first heard about this from a teacher when I was eleven, and read it ten years later, nearly fifty years ago. I enjoyed it then, as I did a subsequent television adaptation. So I recommended it to my book group, but not without a degree of apprehension. Would I still enjoy it? I did.
In the Vintage edition the Introduction and Maugham's own Preface are most helpful.They set the scene, and in view of Maugham's portrayal of him in the persona of Alroy Kear, I really ought to read a Hugh Walpole book!
Although the book is not long, it is written at a fairly leisurely pace, at a time when people had the time to read, without the distractions of television or the internet.. It contains plenty of good, often amusing prose, as well as some sadness, and the descriptions of Blackstable (Whitstable) and London provide interesting social history, showing us that social taboos were even worse then than today. But in the middle of the book, Maugham begins to indulge in unduly long, even contorted, self indulgent paragraphs. As he says himself, "these recollections took so long to narrate", having come "higgeldy-piggeldy".
The characters are interesting and well drawn, not least Rosie. But the narrator, William Ashenden (in fact Maugham himself) comes across as priggish and cynical. Nevertheless, the book is a good read, and I can see why it was the author's favourite.
So rich were Maugham's powers of human observation that his need was rarely to write about writers, or writing, themselves. Cakes and Ale is the exception, poking acerbic fun at the literary world. The hero, William Ashenden, is asked to reminisce about the deceased idol Edward Driffield, whom he knew as a struggling writer in his youth, in the Kentish village of Blackstable. A third novelist, prompting these memories, wishes him to contribute to a biography in progress. But Ashenden is more interested in finding out what happened to Driffield's promiscuous first wife, and he will have little to do with the obfuscation that consists in painting Driffield into a great man. The literary muse, the self-appointed and self-aggrandizing elderly writer's guardian, the critic, the writer himself are all given a good ride in this witty piece of satire. The novel is loosely tied, it is also worth noting, both to Maugham's masterpiece Of Human Bondage through the provincial world, and the vicarage, of Blackstable, and to the collection of secret-intelligence short stories named after Ashenden. An exceptional insight into the world of literary production by an exceptional writer.
What a great read. I felt I would love to meet the author and have a naughty bitchy cocktails with him. His searing truthfulness and honesty would be at home in todays reality television. Yet this was written years ago. I felt almost as though I was in his company. I also shared his empathy and lack of judgement for the central character. Even judging myself less harshly after reading it. So a bit of a self help book for me too.