Bondage(s) of Somerset Maugham

By Dr Myint Zan


Somerset Maugham’s two visits to Burma nearly forty years apart

The famous writer, novel­ist and playwright Somerset Maugham (25 January 1874-16 De­cember 1965) was born 149 years ago in January 1874. Maugham has had some Burmese connec­tions in that he had visited Burma for several weeks first in the year 1923 (a hundred years ago) and for several days in January 1960.


The well-travelled (among others) travel writer on his first visit, for a few weeks, travelled to the obvious ‘touristy’ places such as Rangoon, Mandalay, Pagan, and Amarapura. He also visited not only Kengtung (Kyaing Tone) but remote parts of the Shan states by various means including riding on mules. In his travels, he used steamers, railways, mules and motorcars. An overwhelm­ing majority of Burmese including those who lived in the Shan states all their lives and who continue to live there might not have visited the places Maugham had visited in his several weeks in Burma in the early 1920s. In A Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of the Journey from Rangoon to Haiphong first published in 1930 he narrated his travels.


Maugham’s first visit to Bur­ma was in 1923 when he was about 49 years old. The second and final visit was in late January 1960 just after he turned 86. Maugham’s second visit was covered on the front page of the 31 January 1960 issue of The Nation (Rangoon) newspaper. Of course, in January 1960 Maugham visited perhaps only then capital city of Rangoon and definitely not the remote parts of the Shan States which he visited nearly 40 years earlier.


Maugham’s demise was re­ported on the front page of The Working People’s Daily

Somerset Maugham’s death was reported in the 17 December 1965 issue of The Working People’s Daily (WPD) (predecessor to The Global New Light of Myanmar) on its front page. Just over four years later when Maugham’s fellow countryman (so to speak, when not travelling Maugham spent around half of his life in France) philosopher Bertrand Russell (18 May 1872-2 February 1970) died the WPD also reported the news in the front page in its 4 February 1970 issue.


I recall reading a Newsweek magazine obituary of Maugham where he was quoted as saying ‘When my obituary finally appears in The Times (of London) peo­ple may say, oh I thought he died ages ago’. From my recall, the last sentence of the Newsweek obituary quoted Maugham stating that ‘many people are not as lucky as him’ but he did ‘not want to repeat that fact’.


(Of) semi-autobiographical Of Human Bondage

Yours truly read, several decades ago, Maugham’s classic and perhaps most well-known semi-autobiographical novel Of Human Bondage and was moved and affected by it. I do think though that in a few parts of it, as in the statement quoted in Newsweek, there is a ‘tinge’ of self-pity.


The main male protagonist of the novel Philip Carey’s club-foot was an adaptation of Maugham’s stammer and (later commen­tators postulated) Maugham’s bisexuality with homosexuality being more ‘dominant’.


Online sources indicate that the first edition Of Human Bondage was published on 13 August 1915. On YouTube, there is a 21-minute video displaying the covers of some of the 451 edi­tions of Bondage in 35 different languages published between 1915 and 2015! The translator (U) Tin Maung Myint translated Bondage (not the whole novel but perhaps only about 1/3 of it) but the 35 lan­guages listed do not include the Burmese translation.


Time magazine’s obituary of December 1965 stated that Maugham was unable to read his semi-autobiographical novel ‘even years later without tears’. This fact was also stated in the biography by Ted Morgan titled Maugham (published 1980). Biographer Mor­gan stated that several years or a few decades after Maugham pub­lished Bondage, he was scheduled to record the novel in his own voice (one uncharitably supposes that his stammer wouldn’t affect his reading of his novel that much) but he broke down while narrating parts of his own story and had to abandon the project.


Time also stated that at least two Maugham characters Mildred Rogers in Bondage and Sadie Thompson in the short story Rain (first published April 1921 as ‘Miss Thompson’) had entered the contemporary literary canon.


‘Identity’ or ‘composite’ of Mil­dred Rogers in Bondage

As stated, Maugham’s Bond­age was semi-autobiographical. At least three persons in the novel were real persons: the protagonist Philip Carey’s mother, his Uncle (in real-life the Vicar of Whitsta­ble) and his wife Maugham’s Aunt.


But who in Bondage’s name was Mildred Rogers Philip Car­ey’s obsession in about half of the novel? Who represents ‘Mil­dred Rogers’ in the real life of Maugham? Maugham has stated that his novel was ‘semi-autobi­ographical’ and parts of it were fictional. Is it the case then that ‘Mildred Rogers’ has no real coun­terpart in Maugham’s life?


Alternatively, assuming that ‘Mildred Rogers’ was not entire­ly fictional and was a ‘compos­ite’ who was Mildred Rogers in Maugham’s life?


In his analysis of Emily Bron­te’s Wuthering Heights (first pub­lished 1847) in Maugham’s Ten Novels and their Authors (first published 1948) Maugham opined that the hero-villain ‘Heathcliff’ of Wuthering Heights was a compos­ite. (An edited version of Wuther­ing Heights was the Matriculation text from academic years 1986-87 to 1992-93). Maugham wrote that ‘the primary model on which un­couth difficult men’ portrayed in Emily Bronte and her sister Charlotte’s novels (for Emily her character Heathcliff) was ‘their father the Rev. Patrick Bronte’. The other composite of Heathcliff, Maugham argued was the unre­quited, frustrated lesbian attach­ment Emily Bronte probably had of another woman when she was the age of 19 while she was work­ing as a governess and teacher.


 Maugham wrote that the ‘unhap­piness it caused her sufficed to implant the seed in the fruitful soil of her tortured sensibility which enabled her to create the strange book we know’. Maugham’s as­sumption that Wuthering Heights and Heathcliff were arguably and partly prompted by Emily Bron­te’s unrequited lesbian love re­mains a projection (in both the Freudian and non-Freudian sense of the word) and perhaps more of a ‘guess’.


There is a Burmese saying ‘frying carp with carp oil’ ငါးကြင်းဆီ နဲ့ ငါးကြင်းကြော်. Maugham’s ‘queerness’ (so to speak) was quite well-known. I have read from online sources that ‘Mildred Rog­ers’ in Maugham’s real life might have been a male (or composite of males).


A few of Maugham’s literary works are studied in English major courses in Universities in Burma/Myanmar?

Around October 1970 a state­ment made by the then Deputy Education Minister the late Dr Nyi Nyi (1930-2021) appeared on the front page of The Guardian (Rangoon) newspaper. Dr Nyi Nyi stated that ‘language, not lit­erature’ was to be the focus of the then inaugural English major course to where only (initially) 15 students were admitted. Those entering students had to obtain distinctions in the compulsory English paper in the Basic Ed­ucation High School (Matricula­tion) examination. Fast forward from October 1970 to 25 August 1971. An editorial titled ‘English Major Students’ in The Guardi­an (Rangoon) (perhaps mainly written by the late ‘Min Kyaw Min’ who was to become Chief Editor of The New Light of Myanmar) states that ‘(English major) stu­dents should have read an im­mense lot of literature ranging from, let us say, Shakespeare to Solzhenitsyn, from Pope to Pas­ternak, from Dickens to Dostoev­sky, from Maugham to Mishima’. (Emphases added). One can only say ‘Wow!’. Forget the then 15 English major ‘freshers’ of 1971 (now well in their sixties) had the then Editor(s) themselves read even a few of the literary prod­ucts of these eight personages four of whom can be read only in translation? Still, for our purposes (Somerset) Maugham was there on the Editors’ list.


More than fifty-two years after Dr Nyi Nyi made that state­ment if not imprimatur much wa­ter has passed under the bridge. This writer understands that in the postgraduate Masters (MA) and Doctoral (PhD) courses avail­able for English majors at Yangon, Mandalay and Foreign languag­es Universities there are two ‘streams’: the language stream (or specialization) and the literature stream. Be that as it may, a few short stories and excerpts of a few of Maugham’s literary works may (or may not) be studied in English major courses. Still, the sever­al short stories that Maugham wrote in relation to Burma (where most of the Burmese characters were Burmese women some of them cohabiting with British men) can be considered ‘politically in­correct’ a concept and term not in vogue in the 1920s and 1930s. There might be a touch of Orien­talism in Maugham’s depiction of Southeast Asia and the Pacific in some of his short stories.


Maugham wrote about 91 short stories. Only about two doz­en or so short stories of Maugham were translated by the late writ­er (U) Kyaw Aung. Inevitably the translation included ‘Rain’ and ‘The Verger’ (a story about an illit­erate person becoming a million­aire and his statement at the end of the short story that had he been literate he would not have become a millionaire, sounds familiar?). But from my recall, U Kyaw Aung did not translate what can be con­sidered culturally insensitive and somewhat macabre short stories the most notorious being ‘The Book Bag’ where Maugham wrote about (brother-sister) (inclination for) incest. In a youtube video of a BBC interview with Maugham made in 1960, Maugham stated that ‘The Book Bag’ was the only short story his usual publisher Cosmopolitan magazine refused to publish.


The writer and transla­tor Shwe U Daung (24 October 1889-10 August 1973) adapted the Sherlock Holmes detective short stories of Arthur Conan Doyle (22 May 1859-7 July 1930) into ‘Maung San Shar’ Burmese detective stories. Maugham wrote more short stories than Conan Doyle but relatively few short stories by Maugham have been translated into Burmese. This writer is aware of only one adaptation: Maugham’s ‘The Ant and the Grasshopper’ by the late writer Maung Moe Thu and pub­lished in a Burmese magazine in 1986. Perhaps there are more cultural barriers to overcome in Maugham’s short stories than in Conan Doyle’s to produce reason­ably effective adaptations.


‘Of Human Bondage’: A brief juxtaposition of Spinoza and Maugham

In the Preface to the 1963 Penguin edition of Of Human Bondage Maugham wrote that he had initially titled his novel Beauty from Ashes. But later he chanced upon a phrase in the book Ethics written by the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza (24 November 1632-21 February 1677) published posthumously in the original Latin in 1677. In Latin the phrase reads De servitute humana.


In April 1988 the astrophysi­cist Stephen Hawking (8 January 1942-14 March 2018) published his phenomenal bestseller A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes the last sen­tence of which reads ‘… We would know the mind of God’. Hawking later wrote that before publica­tion he considered ‘cutting’ that sentence but decided to keep it. A tad mischievously Hawking wrote that if he had left out the sentence the sales of his book ‘would have been halved’.


A counter-factual hypotheti­cal is IF perchance Maugham had retained the original title Beauty from Ashes would his book gar­nered 451 editions in 35 languages 100 years after its publication? To be uncharitable (again) the fact that Maugham ‘purloined’ a phrase from the gentle philoso­pher Spinoza’s landmark work as the title of his novel perhaps contributed to its popularity throughout the decades. Indeed, Maugham himself wrote that he was lucky to have chosen that title for his novel.


Commemorating the 250th an­niversary of Spinoza’s death Time magazine in its 7 March 1927 issue under the title ‘Sub specie aeter­nitatis’ (‘Aspect of eternity’) stat­ed that ‘lenses found in his cabinet paid all his mortuary expenses’. In Within Reason: A Life of Spi­noza (1998) biographer Margaret Ghullan-Whur wrote that after his death Spinoza’s half-sister initially made a claim to Spinoza’s estate. When she discovered that all the assets Spinoza left were his bed where he was born, his books and a few lenses and grinding equip­ment the half-sister abandoned her claim.


Maugham, the author of the novel Of Human Bondage has had his own ‘bondage(s)’. In his twilight years, Maugham un­successfully tried to disinherit his only daughter in prolonged litigation in favour of his Secre­tary and live-in lover Alan Searle (1905-1985). Despite the fact that they flourished three centuries apart Maugham lived more than twice as long as Spinoza (91 years, 10 months to 44 years 2 months). And ‘money-wise’ Maugham was almost immeasurably rich­er than Spinoza and Spinoza was almost infinitesimally poorer than Maugham. Still, both personag­es made, respectively, significant philosophical and literary contri­butions. But who, dear reader, was more enmeshed in or free from ‘bondages’ in the Spinozist sense and who should be admired more?