Classic of the Month: Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham (1930)

(20 Books of Summer, #12) This is the third Maugham novel I’ve reviewed here (after Of Human Bondage and The Moon and Sixpence) and my fourth overall. I’d recommend his work to fans of Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy, or to anyone looking to expand their knowledge of the classics: his books are short (with the exception of Bondage) and accessible, and the frequent theme of struggling one’s way to love and creative success in defiance of poverty and a cruel fate resonates.

Cakes and Ale is narrated by an older writer named William Ashenden, a Maugham stand-in who previously appeared in the 1928 linked story collection Ashenden, widely recognized as the first English spy narrative. He’s contacted by a popular author of his acquaintance, Alroy Kear (“I could think of no one among my contemporaries who had achieved so considerable a position on so little talent”) with a request: Roy is writing the authorized biography of the late writer Edward Driffield, at his second wife’s behest. Remembering that Ashenden knew Driffield as a boy, Roy hopes to mine his memory for some good anecdotes. The book contains his resulting recollections – though Ashenden is unlikely to share them all with Roy.

Ashenden shares a background with Philip Carey from Of Human Bondage: both were raised in a vicar uncle’s household in Blackstable, Kent. Young Willie would go for bike rides with friendly neighbors Driffield and his wife Rosie, until his aunt and uncle forbade him.

 

{SPOILERS FOLLOW}


The Driffields, you see, were considered low-class and vulgar, an opinion that was seemingly confirmed first when they ran away from their debts to London, and then when Rosie left Edward for a Kent coal merchant. Rosie comes to represent a familiar type: the whore with the heart of gold. As Ashenden knows from personal experience, she enjoyed sex and slept with men out of kindness or pity. Only decades later did he learn that Edward knew Rosie was stepping out on him, and that the couple had lost a six-year-child to meningitis. This is not, I think, meant to excuse Rosie’s promiscuity, but it does give her an extra dimension, and perhaps explains why Driffield’s first marriage failed. Unfortunately, Rosie’s sexuality is racialized, with Driffield’s second wife saying, “I’ve always thought she looked rather like a white nigger” and an illustration giving her stereotypically wide nostrils and thick lips.)


{END OF SPOILERS}

 

I felt Driffield must be inspired by Thomas Hardy, and I’m not alone: in a preface, Maugham reports that many assumed he had Hardy in mind, but denies basing his portrait on any author in particular. Yet the similarities are undeniable: the flighty first wife; the late remarriage to his secretary; childlessness; humble origins and the fight to be taken seriously in the literary world. Maugham does, however, mention loving Tess of the d’Urbervilles and its milkmaid heroine, so Rosie is his homage (in the preface Maugham explains that, while the book’s plot occurred to him for a short story, he didn’t want to ‘waste’ Rosie on something so brief).

Dickens is an influence, too; I enjoyed references to his work, as well as to (on consecutive pages!) the New Woman and Mrs. Humphry Ward, both of whom were part of my MA thesis. The Victorian shadow is long here. But the focus on Rosie means Driffield himself is never more than a cipher. Ashenden admits this: “I am conscious that in what I have written of him I have not presented a living man, standing on his feet, rounded, with comprehensible motives and logical activities; I have not tried to: I am glad to leave that to the abler pen of Alroy Kear.” But The Moon and Sixpence, which employs the same setup of an author reminiscing about a great man he once knew, makes its subject a three-dimensional character, and is better for it.

Note: Maugham’s titles are often unusual and allusive. “Cakes and ale,” as part of a Twelfth Night quotation, represent the luxurious lifestyle in opposition to the moral one. The book’s subtitle is “or The Skeleton in the Cupboard.”

Source: Free bookshop

My rating:

14 responses

  1. I ought to revisit Maugham. I read a lot of his work while still at school, but none since. I think I might get more out of him now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. He’s surprisingly popular in the Goodreads community; the consensus seems to be that he’s a lesser-known literary novelist well worth engaging with.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh, this sounds better than I thought he was. I can now say I’ll pick this up if I see it around, having dared to enter Oxfam Books …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Maugham is great! Where do you think you got that idea about him? This isn’t the first I’d recommend, though. The Painted Veil or The Moon and Sixpence would be a better place to start.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I might have got him mixed up somehow with F. Scott Fitzgerald, I don’t know. The Moon and Sixpence is about Gaugin, or someone, isn’t it? In which case I will look out for The Painted Veil.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Funnily, I do think of him as part of a set with Fitzgerald and Hemingway because they all chose random, allusive titles that I get mixed up all the time! Yes, The Moon and Sixpence is based on a fictionalized Gauguin figure. I think you’ll like The Painted Veil.

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  3. I’m so pleased to find another Maugham fan. I had a binge on him recently and read this among others, and also a very interesting biography. Loved The Moon and Sixpence and also Of Human Bondage.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Those two were my favourites. The other one I’ve read is The Painted Veil. This was the least of the four for me, but I have several others of his books on the shelf that I found for free (all part of a leather-bound set) and might read soon. One or two more this year, perhaps. My library has a biography, too, so I’d be interested in reading that.

      Like

  4. Great review, I adore Maugham! I’ve been meaning to read this one for years. I’ve read Of Human Bondage (one of my favorite books of all time), The Razor’s Edge, The Moon and Sixpence, and The Painted Veil, and enjoyed all to varying degrees (The Painted Veil the least).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad people are still reading Maugham! I only read my first by him (Of Human Bondage) in 2015. The Razor’s Edge is the major novel of his that I most want to read. I have a copy from the same leather-bound set. I might get to Liza of Lambeth for Novellas in November first, though.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ooh yes you’ll adore The Razor’s Edge! He’s one of those authors where I rarely think to reach for his books, but I also have a long-term goal of reading them all… reading him is always just such a pleasant experience.

        Like

  5. So…there’s no cake and no ale? That’s disappointing. The only book of his I’ve read is Of Human Bondage, which, like you, I really enjoyed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Nope! Just an allusive metaphor. But I think I knew that going in. He’s well worth reading more by.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. buriedinprint

        I don’t know. That’s quite a blow.

        Like

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