I first read Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale when I was in my early twenties and an ardent admirer of his prose style, which I admired for its supple, civilised elegance. Maugham always seemed so in control of his narrative, entering his stories behind the façade of an ironic and urbane first-person voice, a witness to the vagaries of the human condition. These he described with a sharp but sympathetic eye ever intent on pointing out the messy, less than noble reality that lies underneath his character’s attempts to dress up life as something respectable and meaningful. I liked all of that, but I was probably more attached to the lingering romanticism in Maugham’s works, that always made his characters quest after an ideal of achievement or a perfect relationship – although of course they were destined to be disappointed in both. In Maugham’s stories that’s okay, though, since experience is all that really matters in the end; to live life fully is as much about the stupidities and self-deception of ambition and desire, as it is about success and admirable behaviour.
All these things I still appreciated about Cakes and Ale when I reread it for the Slaves. But I was surprised to note that there was much about the narrative that irked this time, too. The story is told from the perspective of William Ashenden, a successful writer in late middle age who is approached one day out of the blue by another writer friend of his, Alroy Kear. Ashenden is suspicious about Kear’s motives from the start. The trouble is that Kear represents a kind of superficiality that he really dislikes. Kear has won himself a tremendous reputation in the world of letters by being a suck-up, basically, a sycophant and a social climber, trading on his bluff, hearty manner and the impression he emanates of being a sound, reliable chap, the right sort. Kear is conservative with a small c, someone who buys into the ongoing ideology, who doesn’t rock boats or wake sleeping dogs, and it’s for these qualities that he has been asked to write a biography of a now eminent Victorian novelist, Edward Driffield, a man who Ashenden knew well in his younger days.
Ashenden knew Edward Driffield all right, but not in the guise of the great writer Kear wants him to be. The Driffield Ashenden knew was a bit of a rogue and a bounder, a man who sang music hall songs accompanying himself on a banjo, who came from humble roots and wrote vulgar books that no one cared to read, and who had an attractive, easygoing wife, Rosie. It’s Rosie, in fact, whom the young William really gets to know. She is an ex-barmaid who has a reputation for being free and easy with her favours, and when William spots her one evening, arm-in-arm with the local coal merchant, laughingly known as Lord George for his pretensions, he is both shocked and intrigued. Rosie and Edward Driffield eventually depart from Blackstable under a cloud and several years pass before Ashenden, now a young man studying medicine, meets up with them again in London. And this time his relationship with Rosie will become his first love affair.
When I first read this book, I think I found all this quite satisfyingly romantic. Now, in my more callous years, I rolled my eyes a bit at the old tart-with-a-heart routine. The portrayal of Rosie seemed patronising and incomplete; she was pretty and sensual and dumb, just the kind of woman, then, who could be slept with and cast aside, idolised in later years as generous and loving but thankfully not really one’s sort. To be fair, a little historical sympathy is called for – this is the early twentieth century, a time thoroughly steeped in class divisions, when respectability was of primary importance, and working ‘in trade’, indicated a lower social standing. If women were in any way sexual, they were not suitable marriage material. Life was spent policing the behaviour of one’s neighbours, reinforcing the boundaries between castes, and urgently covering up any faults or indiscretions.
And it’s from this sort of cultural conditioning that the most interesting part of the book arose for me. What I did appreciate on this reading, was the almost anthropological depiction of the literary world. Edward Driffield remarried later in life and his second wife is determined to turn her husband into the star of literature that he deserves to be. With the help of a mentor, the deliciously formidable Mrs Barton Trafford, Driffield has risen to great eminence, and his recent death has left his widow determined to set the seal on his reputation. Literary success is dependent on social acceptability. His early misdemeanours – described by our narrator as Driffield’s genuine source of vitality and interest – must be whitewashed. There’s a gently savage attack going on across this narrative on people who prefer image to reality, who revile the warts and the blemishes of humanity when they could be seen as our most authentic and sympathetic parts. And of course, the notion that we really must have our geniuses likeable, charming, and noble is surreptitiously but repeatedly challenged. Is this a vanquished world, or do its traces live on still today? That’s the question that remained with me, long after I had finished reading.