The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham

Written by Selina Hastings
Review by Eva Ulett

Fascinating throughout, this epic biography of one of the great men of English letters covers Maugham’s unhappy childhood, a youth in which he tried to persuade himself “that I was three-quarters normal and that only a quarter of me was queer,” his prolific literary career, and his lamentably unhappy last years. A far-ranging traveler conversant in five languages, involved in intelligence work during both world wars, Maugham was a keen student of human nature. He lived to ninety-two; his life, as revealed here, contained all the elements of passion, betrayal, love and obsession he depicted in his classic works of fiction.

In Maugham’s autobiography The Summing Up, a chronicle of the writer’s intellectual and artistic development, personal matters are never broached. The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham explores the private life the writer wished to conceal: a marriage made against inclination; a long-term affair with charming, intelligent, alcoholic lover Gerald Haxton; a financially rewarding career attended by slights from the literary establishment that deeply embittered Maugham. His work, criticized early on as too explicit, featured “sexual passion, the mores of society, and the nature of goodness.” Selina Hastings has written a rich biography of a cosmopolitan, complex man.