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Maugham, William Somerset (1874-1965)  

Frightened by the Oscar Wilde trial, Somerset Maugham avoided treating homosexual themes and characters in his novels and plays.

Maugham was an extremely productive writer who both mastered and gained popular success with novels, short stories, and plays. In 1908, he had four plays running simultaneously on the London stage; before he died, his novel Of Human Bondage (1915) had sold over ten million copies; and from Orientations (1899) to Creatures of Circumstances (1947), he was regarded as a master of the well-made short story, especially for stories such as "Rain" and "The Colonel's Lady."

Nevertheless, when assessing his long career, Maugham declared that he was "in the very first row of the second-rate."

Maugham was born in Paris, the son of the solicitor and legal adviser to the British embassy. Orphaned by the age of ten, he was sent to Whitstable, Kent, to be cared for by his uncle. He was educated at King's School, Canterbury, which later received his books, some manuscripts, an endowment, and his ashes; at Heidelberg University, where he did not take a degree; and St. Thomas's Hospital, London.

In 1897, he received his medical MRCS and LRCP, but the success of his first novel, Liza of Lambeth (1897), a realistic depiction of conditions in the London slums and the inadequacy of medical attention, turned him from medicine to literature.

Except for Liza, Maugham's early novels are largely forgotten. He began writing for the stage in 1903 and achieved considerable success with his light comedy, Lady Frederic (1907). He continued his stage success with Our Betters (1917), The Circle (1921), and For Services Rendered (1932). In 1933, he retired from the theater, largely because the topics he wished to treat were not welcomed by theater managers and sponsors.

In 1915, he fathered a daughter, and in 1916, he married her mother, Syrie Wellcome. He and his wife were frequently apart, and the marriage ended in divorce in 1927.

During this period, Maugham achieved success as a novelist. Of Human Bondage (1915) fictionalized his own early years in the life of Philip Carey, and The Moon and Sixpence (1919) used the life of Gauguin as the basis for the story of Charles Strickland, a stockbroker who goes to Tahiti to paint and to escape conventional norms of society.

Cakes and Ale (1930), famous for its fictionalization of Thomas Hardy, and The Razor's Edge (1945), which turns to the asceticism and mysticism of India in tracing its protagonist's search for self-perfection, are his best-known later works. Ashenden (1928) grew out of his service as an intelligence agent in World War I.

In 1914, Maugham met Gerald Haxton, a young American who would be his companion until his death in 1944, and in 1926, Maugham bought Villa Mauresque, at St. Jaen, Cap Ferrat, on the French Riviera, where he would live, when not traveling, for most of the rest of his life.

In 1940, Maugham fled France on a coal boat and lived out the war in America. In 1946, with a generosity surprising those who had experienced his caustic wit, Maugham founded the Somerset Maugham Award, which enabled young writers to travel.

Maugham carefully avoided treating homosexual themes and depicting homosexual characters in his works, possibly because, as the American novelist, Glenway Wescott, pointed out, "Willie's generation lived in mortal terror of the Oscar Wilde trial."

David Leon Higdon


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W. Somerset Maugham in 1934.
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literature >> Overview:  English Literature: Twentieth-Century

Homosexuality, both male and female, has a rich, divergent, and increasingly open expression in the literature of the twentieth century.

literature >> Maugham, Robin

The defiantly homosexual scion of a powerful family, Robin Maugham became a popular and prolific writer who regularly features homosexual themes and homoerotic situations in his work.

arts >> Shaffer, Sir Peter

British dramatist Peter Shaffer emerged in the 1960s in the paradoxical guise of the last great twentieth-century poet of the numinous who was also capable of writing commercially successful plays that could be turned into equally successful films.

literature >> Wescott, Glenway

American writer Glenway Wescott is author of a series of critically esteemed novels, but may be best known for his central position in New York's artistic and gay communities of the 1950s and 1960s.

literature >> Wheeler, Monroe

Publisher, book designer, and museum director, Monroe Wheeler was a leading figure in New York artistic and gay communities of the 1950s and 1960s, alongside his partner of sixty-eight years, the writer Glenway Wescott. 

literature >> Wilde, Oscar

Oscar Wilde is important both as an accomplished writer and as a symbolic figure who exemplified a way of being homosexual at a pivotal moment in the emergence of gay consciousness.


Calder, Robert. Maugham and the Quest for Freedom. New York: Doubleday, 1973.

_____. Willie: The Life of W. Somerset Maugham. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990.

Morgan, Ted. Maugham: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980.

Raphael, Frederic. Maugham and His World. New York: Scribner's, 1976.


    Citation Information
    Author: Higdon, David Leon  
    Entry Title: Maugham, William Somerset  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated July 12, 2005  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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