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.
I do think Maugham did a fine description of a first sexual experience here, Moira. And that's not easy to do. I find it so interesting, too, about the real-life drama behind his choice of characters and character depictions. I'd forgotten until I read this post just how he could make a scene and story flow. Must re-read some of his work...ReplyDelete
Whenever I read one of his books I am impressed all over again. he's so good at describing those life experiences, minor or major, in a way that makes you recognize them, even when separated by time and gender...Delete
Do you know, I don't think I've ever read this, Moira. I'll have to put it on my list. The corsets in the newspaper is lovely. Maughan was a very good short story writer, too.ReplyDelete
I think you'll love it Chrissie. And yes, his short stories are a very definite genre, and very enjoyable.Delete
It's a great book Moira - lovely to read about it here (and thanks for the very kind shoutout) :)ReplyDelete
I think we really agreed on this one. Perhaps we can encourage others to read it.Delete
The whole bit about the corsets is just the sort of detail that you were discussing in an earlier post. That detail about the feel of the ribbing of the skin from the pressure of the corsets makes it very real and alive, but it's not necessarily the sort of detail that would occur to a modern novelist.ReplyDelete
A lot of male novelists at the time did tend to view women from a distance, perfect porcelain figures without passion. There is a suggestion that Maugham viewed women as rivals for the attention of men, allowing him to put himself in their place much more easily. Is it easier for homosexual novelists to do this? I've read some straight female novelists who can't quite 'get' men, but then I've read others who can, so it's hard to say.
Maugham always thought that he was in the 'second rank' as a writer, in the sense that he was not really a literary author. But this seems to be his strength. He really was a story-teller, as can be seen by the number of film adaptions that continue to be made of his stuff. I would rather be told a story than marvel at the author's style.
Indeed, he had an eye for a good plotline. That's an interesting theory about his gay side - I have often wondered how he did women so well. There's an incident in Painted Veil that I do not think any other writer would have done in the way he did (it's an unexpected sexual encounter, a mistake for one of the parties, but described very unjudgementally)- it's my benchmark for his brilliance.Delete
Moira: This book must have been steaming on the bookshelves of 1930.ReplyDelete
I think it must have! I'm quite surprised by what he got away with, he was quite frank about sex...Delete
That's a closely observed detail in the passage you quote about the marks left on the woman's skin by her corset. Not entirely complimentary to her, either, which maybe places a slightly different complexion on his attitude towards her? I've never got round to reading him, but feel more inclined to do so now - thanks for the pointer.ReplyDelete
That part made me empathize with the poor woman. I've had enough ridges in my body made by too tight fitting undergarments. How horrible it must have been to have been mangled by corsets.Delete
Simon: The woman concerned is seen as quite tarty and common, and much older. But still he shows empathy with her. I think he is a very good writer.Delete
And yes, Paula, we've all been there. Lucky us that it wasn't worse for us.
Along similar lines, there are lovely details in the Little House books which have the ring of experience - particularly a scene in (I think) Little Town on the Prairie where Laura is describing how her hoopskirts had a tendency to creep up underneath her skirts, and how the girls had to spin round and round to make their skirts release their crinolines so that the hoops would descend again - and that's something that TOTALLY says "I experienced that."ReplyDelete
Oh that's LOVELY! Little House is a series I always resisted (although my daughter loved them) - I should look again. And yes, something just shout 'real experience.'Delete
I think they may be rather disappointing if you come to them as an adult reader, I was just looking through the bits of Little Town you can sneak-peek at on Google Books and thinking that I probably wouldn't really be drawn in if I hadn't grown to love them as a child. But there is a LOT of good stuff in there, particularly the later books once Laura finally gets her chronology sorted out with her own life (By the Shores of Silver Lake onwards). I was looking up on Wikipedia, and didn't realise just how convoluted the first three books are in relation to Laura's own real life experiences. They're not actual autobiography, but very much fictionalised/built up on real life experience, much like Gerry Durrell's My Family and Other Animals. However, from Silver Lake onwards it seems that Experience informs the stories a lot more.Delete
The good thing about children's books is that they're usually quick reads, not too long. Actually I DID read a fascinating book a few years ago which outlined the ways in which the story had been manipulated (by her daughter?) to create a specific story - probably what's in the Wiki entry. The book was looking at manipulation of facts to suit later tastes - it was a terrific book, I must see if I can find it.Delete
The clothes descriptions in the later books are superb. There's one passage where Ma has made a going-to-college outfit for Laura's sister Mary, out of clearly quite expensive fabric (cashmere, I think), and when she tries it on it doesn't fit. Then Laura realises Mary's corset strings must have stretched, and when they pull her in tighter the dress fits. There's a lovely Garth Williams illustration.Delete
That's a fantastic corset story, I will definitely have to look it up. I love the way T.Hardy and S.Maugham are leading to L.I.Wilder.Delete
This sounds like a very interesting book, although I am not sure I will ever get around to it. I do love your posts featuring corsets.ReplyDelete
I finally found my copy of Watermelon by Marian Keyes, so I might actually read it in the next few months.
There's something about corsets, isn't there?Delete
Oh I should read that Keyes book too, I think it was her first, and I've been jumping around so should start at the beginning!