Men of Style – W. Somerset Maugham

W. Somerset Maugham Portrait by Philip Steegman, 1931
W. Somerset Maugham Portrait by Philip Steegman, 1931

The well-dressed man is he whose clothes you never notice.”
W. Somerset Maugham

Yet, you notice him! It is so important for a gentleman’s clothing does not supercede his own presence so that he strays into the foppish realm. A little about William Somerset Maugham, a worthy gentlemens style icon. He was an English playwright, novelist and short story writer. He was among the most popular writers of his era and, reputedly, the highest paid author during the 1930s.

W. Somerset Maugham
W. Somerset Maugham

Commercial success with high book sales, successful theatre productions and a string of film adaptations, backed by astute stock market investments, allowed Maugham to live a very comfortable life. Small and weak as a boy, Maugham had been proud even then of his stamina, and as an adult he kept churning out the books, proud that he could. Yet, despite his triumphs, he never attracted the highest respect from the critics or his peers. Maugham himself attributed this to his lack of “lyrical quality”, his small vocabulary and failure to make expert use of metaphor in his work.

W. Somerset Maugham by Graham Sutherland, 1949
W. Somerset Maugham by Graham Sutherland, 1949

Maugham’s masterpiece is generally agreed to be Of Human Bondage, a semi-autobiographical novel that deals with the life of the main character Philip Carey, who, like Maugham, was orphaned, and brought up by his pious uncle. Philip’s club foot causes him endless self-consciousness and embarrassment, echoing Maugham’s struggles with his stutter.

Maugham was one of the most significant travel writers of the inter-war years, and can be compared with contemporaries such as Evelyn Waugh and Freya Stark. His best efforts in this line include The Gentleman in the Parlour, dealing with a journey through Burma, Siam, Cambodia and Vietnam, and On a Chinese Screen, a series of very brief vignettes which might almost be notes for short stories that were never written.

Maugham’s last major novel, The Razor’s Edge, published in 1944, was a departure for him in many ways. While much of the novel takes place in Europe, its main characters are American, not British. The protagonist is a disillusioned veteran of World War I who abandons his wealthy friends and lifestyle, and travels to India seeking enlightenment. The story’s themes of Eastern mysticism and war-weariness struck a chord with readers as World War II waned, and a movie adaptations followed, including one starring Bill Murray.

Somerset Maugham by Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1942
Somerset Maugham by Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1942

Of course, Maugham integrated descriptions of mens style into his prose. In his novel, Of Human Bondage, he describes the protagonist Philip Carey meeting Thorpe Athelny in his home, his future father-in-law,

“He was dressed fantastically in blue linen trousers of the sort worn by working men in France, and a very old brown velvet coat; he wore a bright red sash round his waist, a low collar, and for a tie a flowing bow of the kind used by the comic Frenchman in the pages of Punch.”

William Somerset Maugham - Casual and Stylish
William Somerset Maugham - Always Casual and Stylish

Maugham presented the stylish man in both his dress and his prose. He did not let either become a slave to style but employed it to enhance them both instead, and in return, enhanced a gentleman’s ability to use style in the same fashion.

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