Cakes And Ale

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.

9 thoughts on “Cakes And Ale

  1. I have yet to write my review, but my reaction was similar. The Rosie story was eye-rolling, but I still loved the book for its sarcastic attitude toward what makes and follows literary success and class issues. I found it hilarious.

  2. It’s fun to read the many reactions to this book — and I look forward to hearing Lilian’s. I like how you’ve extracted from the book what interests you and noted the reader you once were (which is always so interesting upon re-reading something, isn’t it?) Thanks for this. xo

  3. I had a feeling this isn’t one of Maugham’s better ones, I see this confirmed. I’m sure there are some interesting aspects in this novel too but I will rather read another one first. (Thank you so much! I’ve been duly informed about Vians safe arrival…)

  4. Lilian – that’s so nice! The general consensus at the moment is a bit gloomy on this book, so we really need someone to point out its humour. I do hope you’ll say a few words about it at some point.

    Lily – sometimes I wonder how many times I can pull the old that-was-then, this-is-now approach to a book! But it is always fun to track change through differences in reading. I love group reads – you are so right that it’s hugely interesting to see what everyone else thinks!

    Emily – I really enjoyed it the first time I read it, and I did still enjoy it this time around. You might have to work on the others a bit, though! 😉

    Caroline – yes, we delivered books on Friday – it was quite fun. I generally really like Somerset Maugham, and loved The Razor’s Edge and Up At The Villa. When I didn’t read short stories, I read Somerset Maugham’s. But then I like the narrative voices from the early part of the twentieth century – so elegant, so lucid!

    • I like your description of the best part of the novel being an “anthropological depiction of the literary world”–for this I found it a good read. I think the layered approach to reality vs image was masterfully handled, and I have to admire Maugham because the novel does feel masterful…though not altogether true.

      Your question regarding whether we still require to have our geniuses likeable, charming, and noble is a good one. There are legions of my fellow Janeites who refuse to believe that Jane Austen ever uttered an unkind thing, manifold evidence to the contrary. And I will admit to not liking Dickens’ novels quite as much after I learned more about the man behind the myth, a prejudice I am still trying to overcome. While I don’t think we necessarily require geniuses to be likeable, charming, and noble anymore, I think we do expect them not to be ordinary in all aspects of life, not just the area in which they excel.

  5. I probably totally read it wrong, but I didn’t see Rosie as dumb necessarily, rather saw Willie’s perception of her as off–I think she was much smarter and did things for herself–whatever we may think of her–to make herself happy. Sort of having the last word despite all the nonsense men put her through. I figured we’re seeing her through his eyes and being rather priggish (I had a chuckle over Stefanie’s description of him) it’s not surprising that we’re getting this sort of skewed view of her. Of course I didn’t read very closely and it was a disjointed read so a second time through might bring an entirely different response. I sort of enjoyed it and liked the satirical aspects of the story and how the characters were presented–especially all the bits about writers and writing. That said I still like The Painted Veil much better and it sounds like his short stories may be the place to read really good work by him.

  6. Jane GS – what interesting comments about genius! I always hero-worshipped Colette, and thought of her as the author I most wanted to be like. Then I read a biography of her and was quite disillusioned; she came across as reckless and quite domineering at times. If you’d asked me, I would have said that I never expected anything particular from authors but I was deluding myself! That being said, once I’d got used to a fuller portrait of Colette, I was quite okay with it. It’s the messy bits that make a person interesting. I love to think of Jane Austen as having a subversive streak, or being a bit sharp; her literary vision is so brilliantly funny about the worst bits of human nature, she must have had a good idea what they were!

    Danielle – I really like your reading of Rosie here, and think you are quite right. It IS all channelled through Ashenden’s perspective, and that must necessarily account for the portrait of Rosie that we receive. I generally love Maugham, but I haven’t read The Painted Veil – yet! Your review of it certainly made me think it was a book I wanted to get hold of!

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