Of Human Bondage – W Somerset Maugham
I’m on a bit of Somerset Maugham roll at the moment and Of Human Bondage, published in 1915, is rightly acclaimed as his masterpiece. It is a wonderful book and I cannot understand why it has taken me so long to find it. Perhaps it was its length that was off-putting or simply that Maugham is an author who is rather passé these days. Anyhow it is a wrong that I am delighted to have put right.
Described as a Bildungsroman, a novel which follows the emotional and moral development of an adolescent, the book is the story of Philip Carey from the age of nine to around 30. Philip is born with a club foot, which sets him out from the crowd, and is raised by a stern, unsympathetic, selfish clergyman uncle. Trapped in a late-Victorian vicarage, the book opens in 1885, and praying for a cure to his disability to a God whom he realises is indifferent to his plight, Philip is looking for a way out of his life of bondage.
Carey is sent to boarding school, but he finds it hard to fit in and is bullied. There are strong echoes of David Copperfield, and Rose, although he eventually disappoints him, is a quasi-Steerforth character. The lengthy account of his schooldays allows us to get to know him better and understand his search for love. After school he escapes to Heidelberg where he studies and then spends time in Paris in the hopes of becoming an artist. When it dawns on him that he is never going to be any better than second-rate, Philip returns to London to study medicine, his late father’s occupation.
It is while he is in London that Philip meets his femme fatale, Mildred Rogers. Their relationship is very much a one-way street, Philip giving and Mildred taking. So desperate and needy is Philip for the love and affection that he was deprived of as a child that he is almost prepared to do anything to cling on to a woman who betrays him by having another man’s child. This section of the book is the most poignant and moving of the section.
Mildred’s behaviour, though, eventually becomes too much for Philip and they part, leaving him all but destitute. He is rescued by the kindly Athelney family and in a rather twee and slightly disappointing ending, he finds a sort of contentment and a place in the world that he desperately wanted. Along the way he loses his faith and with the aid of an Arabian carpet discovers the meaning of life.
Maugham’s masterful portrayal of the development and growth of a young man, the birth and death of his hopes and aspirations and the compromises he has to make to find his way in life is powerful and gripping. There are no narrative tricks, we follow Carey’s life on a strictly linear timeline, and no real set pieces. It is a series of rather mundane and ordinary scenes which reflect the mundanity of most of our lives but, over the course of time, come to shape who we are and how others perceive us.
The book is highly autobiographical, although Maugham was at pains to call it an autobiographical novel rather than an autobiography. Maugham had a disability, a stammer, and was brought up by an aunt and uncle. He too studied medicine and had aspirations to be a painter, although he was never an artist. Maugham’s talent is to understand and portray emotions and to create a central character who is no super-hero but, really, no different from any of us mere mortals.
It is a powerful and enjoyable book, lit up with moments of humour, Maugham’s sharp observations of human traits and characters, written in an unpretentious prose which makes it a delight to read. Thoroughly recommended.