Of Human Bondage – W. Somerset Maugham
At long last I have finished reading the Somerset Maugham classic – “Of Human Bondage”. At 259,000 words, it was a bit of a monster, which I hadn’t realised when I started out, as I read it as an eBook.
Below is a reprint of the review I wrote a few days ago on Goodreads.
What a towering piece of literature! It’s right up there with the English classics of the nineteenth century and in terms of its breadth, vision and passion, it puts me in mind of War and Peace or Anna Karenina.
It has been rated as one of the top 100 novels of all time and is certainly a book that any serious reader of English literature should read at some time in their lives. But alas, I doubt whether many modern day readers have the patience to get through it.
(I was astonished to read recently that most of the actors in the recent TV adaptation of War & Peace had not read the book, and neither had the writer of the screenplay, Andrew Davies, prior to his commission by the BBC.)
I should talk!- it has taken me to my 70th year to read it – but I have an excuse – a lifetime of alcoholism…
This will probably come across as vanity in the extreme, but as I started to read Maugham’s masterpiece, I couldn’t help but think that in many ways it was quite similar to my own semi-autobiographical novel, “A Lust For Life.”
Don’t get me wrong – in terms of writing quality, I’m not fit to lick Maugham’s boots, but in terms of plot, there are distinct similarities.
Although the two protagonist’s lives were very different, there are many parallels between my character (Toby) and Maugham’s (Philip).
My book is a whopping 211,000 words and “Of Human Bondage” comes in at an even more whopping 259,000 words. My book covers Toby’s life from the age of three to his mid-sixties. Maugham’s book covers a shorter period of Philip’s life – from the age 6 to age 30.
In “Of Human Bondage” there is far more introspection and self-analysis – not only by the main protagonist but also by many of his close friends – than there is in ‘Lust’. As a writer in the 21st-century, I would never dare to write page after page about Toby’s thoughts and fears and hopes and dreams, and still less about the opposing views on such subjects as art, philosophy, literature, religion and much else besides.
In this regard, “Of Human Bondage” is similar to War and Peace, as Tolstoy also goes off on many tangents to expound views on similar subjects – not least which is the folly of war.
I guess it was the nature of the beast at the time. Serious novelists were ‘expected’ to do this sort of thing, mid-plot as it were, and there are few nineteenth-century novels which don’t contain some kind of contemplation about people and life in general.
The above-mentioned Andrew Davies has cited the 19th/early 20th Century authors’ predisposition to write long, drawn out pages of introspection as one of the reasons why it is relatively simple to adapt these massive classic novels for TV. He is able to cut out much of which does not pertain directly to the plot.
Having said all that, I enjoyed most of Maugham’s meanderings but confess I found it difficult to wade through the substantial amount of text devoted to discussions on art during the period that Philip spent in Paris as an art student.
I enjoyed reading about the life he described in Paris, as indeed I enthused over his description of the year he spent in Heidelberg. I also enjoyed reading about the fascinating ‘larger than life’ characters, in Germany and Paris and London; especially the Japanese gentleman in Heidelberg, who – horror upon horror – was having it away with a respectable German young lady. But when he wrote about these people philosophising and arguing the toss with each other for page after endless page, I confess that it sometimes became a little tiresome.
More to my taste were his years as a medical student in London, to say nothing of his year as an articled clerk to a chartered accountant – a road I had trod myself some 60 years later. I loved reading about his life in a London teaching hospital at the turn of the century, which was clearly based on his personal experiences.
Indeed, any medical historian who is researching how hospitals operated in those far-off days could do no better than to read “Of Human Bondage.” Philip moves through each department, from A & E, to surgery, to midwifery, to internal medicine and so on, and there is a veritable wealth of fascinating material.
Many things stand out in my mind about Maugham’s tales of the hospital and its patients. Amongst the most memorable was the fact that male patients were always seen before the female patients; that A & E were always at their busiest on a Friday night when the working men were turned out of the pubs (no change there); that so many illnesses had their roots in alcohol abuse, (no change there); that so many poor housewives prayed that their babies were stillborn, and if they survived birth, they often died ‘mysteriously’ within a day or two. Today we call it legalised abortion.
Then there were the music halls, and the large stores whose employees who were treated more like indentured servants than human beings.
At one point in Philip’s young life, he becomes totally destitute, without even the money to put a roof over his head, let alone any food his stomach. The poverty and the terrible conditions which he and countless thousands like him had to endure made difficult reading.
Life for the poor working classes was brutal, and Philip questions what motivated these people to continue their meagre, wretched, hopeless lives? Many didn’t – suicide was commonplace – always due to extreme poverty and rarely due to a broken heart.
At the heart of this maelstrom of life which existed over a hundred years ago, we have the story of Philip. His mother died when he was six, his father soon after and he was sent to rural Kent to live with his harsh, mean, self-obsessed uncle who was the local clergyman. (All very faithful to Maugham’s own life)
We follow Philip’s largely unhappy and lonely life as he first goes to boarding school where he is mercilessly ribbed and looked down on because of his clubfoot. He refuses to go to Oxford and instead spends a year in Germany followed by another year in London as an accounting trainee before spending two years in Paris studying art.
Finally, he returns to London as a medical student, but he loses what is left of his meagre savings. He drops out of medical school for a year and is forced to work in a shop. When his uncle finally dies and leaves him a small legacy, he returns to the hospital to complete his training.
During these years, Philip meets many people, good and bad, who became part of his life for varying periods of time. Many of these ‘friends’ and acquaintances are remarkable ‘characters’ and liven up some of the grimmer parts of the plot. He also describes in intimate detail the death of one of his close friends, and of his uncle.
But like most novels, at its centre, it is a tale of love. Love lost, love won and love betrayed. We read about two women, one who Philip meets in Kent and another in Paris. They both fall in love with him but he does not reciprocate their feelings. The first woman leaves heartbroken and the second, who he meets in Paris, ends up completely destitute and kills herself.
The love of Philip’s life is Mildred, a thin, anaemic waitress working in a café. She is so mean-spirited that she all but destroys his life. She was certainly the main reason he lost all his savings. She never showed Philip the slightest sign of genuine affection or compassion and she used him to further her own selfish ends.
Sounds familiar? It doesn’t really matter if boy meets a girl or girl meets boy in the backstreets of Soho, an East End pub or at a high society party in Knightsbridge. Some lovers will be good hearted caring individuals and others will be mean, cruel bastards, only out for themselves.
Philip’s love for Mildred is so profound, so all-embracing, and so irrational that no matter what she does, he always comes back and asks for more. She leaves him for a married man and has a baby; she takes off with his closest friend; she ends up walking the streets as a prostitute. But still he takes her back and showers her with money and presents until his savings are all but gone.
Then, when she has finally had enough for him, she physically destroys all his belongings – every single thing he possessed and disappears. Two years later he meets her again and she has contracted syphilis. He still helps her. But he no longer loves her… thank God.
When I read about Philip taking Mildred back time and time again, it brought to mind my own, quite similar experiences with my own female demons. Indeed, people who have read my latest novel, “AZZY”, have commented that they screamed out loud how stupid I was and how exasperated they felt by my actions towards my own mean-spirited bitch.
That is exactly how I felt about Philip.
This review is full of spoilers, but I won’t tell you how it ends.
Of Human Bondage should be on your list of novels to read before you die.