LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
Cakes and Ale by W Somerset Maugham
She undid her bodice and lowered my head till it rested on her bosom. She stroked my smooth face. She rocked me back and forth as though I were a child in her arms. I kissed her breasts and I kissed the white column of her neck; and she slipped out of her bodice and out of her skirt and her petticoats and I held her for a moment by her corseted waist; then she undid it, holding her breath for an instant to enable her to do so, and stood before me in her shift. When I put my hands on her sides I could feel the ribbing of the skin from the pressure of the corsets…
[The next morning]
We dressed in silence. She did not put on her corsets again, but rolled them up and I wrapped them in a piece of newspaper. We tiptoed along the passage and when I opened the door and we stepped out into the street the dawn ran to meet us like a cat leaping up the steps. The square was empty; already the sun was shining on the eastern windows. I felt as young as the day.
commentary: It has long been a contention on this blog that Somerset Maugham writes some of the best women characters in early 20th century literature. He was famously gay, but apparently described himself as “three-quarters ‘queer’, one quarter ‘normal’” in the idiom of the day. He certainly had relationships with women, and the narrator’s love affair in this book is apparently openly and recognizably based on one of his own.
There are other roman a clef aspects. The novel tells the story of a late Victorian writer who marries twice and becomes a grand old man of letters as he becomes more and more feted in his old age. By this time he is married to a much younger woman who guards his reputation fiercely.
I have recently read Claire Tomalin’s excellent biography of Thomas Hardy, but even if I hadn’t, I think the connection would be very plain. Driffield’s first wife in Cakes and Ale is quite different from the first Mrs Hardy, and the locations are different, but many many other details make the story clear. Maugham said that he didn’t know Hardy, and that he didn’t particularly mean him to be the novelist in the book, but really that sounds disingenuous.
In addition, Maugham very much hurt the feelings of Hugh Walpole – a novelist well-known at this time, but now largely forgotten – who seems clearly depicted as Alroy Kear in the book.
You don’t need to know any of this to enjoy the novel, which is short, satirical and satisfying. Maugham uses it to make many points about the literary world – this getting it off the chest is often bad for a book, but I think it works here.
Maugham plainly agrees with me that his women characters are better than anyone else’s – his 1st person alter ego Ashenden criticizes fictional ‘winsome types of English womanhood, spirited, gallant, high-souled’, and then has this rather startling passage:
We know of course that women are habitually constipated, but to represent them in fiction as being altogether devoid of a back passage seems to me really an excess of chivalry. I am surprised that they care to see themselves thus limned.He also has a go at various writers and writing styles, and artistic ways, and even English food – taken to a gentlemen’s club, Ashenden ‘sighed as I thought of the restaurants round the corner where there were French cooking, the clatter of life, and pretty, painted women in summer frocks.’
I loved the book – the vision of a certain kind of provincial life, the young man being taught how to ride a bicycle by the Driffields, the nuances of class, the busy London life, the streets and the landladies and lodgings. And the section above comes from a lovely description of a first sexual experience – I was charmed and enchanted by the corsets carried in newspaper and the happy morning.
My friend Sergio at Tipping my Fedora did a great piece on this book last month: I really recommend it.
Particular favourite Maugham books on the blog are Being Julia (aka Theatre) and The Painted Veil – both of which were made into terrific films in recent years.
The pictures are corset adverts of the era.