Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Of Human Bondage – Is It Worth While?

Review of Of Human Bondage

I came across an interesting old review of Of Human Bondage (1915), published on 18 August 1915, exactly a hundred years ago and five days after the novel came out in Britain, in Daily Telegraph.

It was written by W. L. Courtney and was not selected by Curtis and Whitehead in their anthology of contemporary criticism of Maugham's works, The Critical Heritage.

I don't find W. L. Courtney in the anthology, but in Wikipedia there is a brief outline of who he was: William Leonard Courtney (1850–1928), author of books on philosophy, ethics, drama, and editor of The Fortnightly Review in 1894, but it doesn't say until when. Nevertheless, we know that he was still editor in 1903 when Maugham's play A Man of Honour was published there.

He seemed to be a very perspicuous reviewer and was puzzled by this thick novel of the bildungsroman tradition. I have the feeling that he didn't quite know what to make of it, although he enjoyed the read.

He pinpoints the underlying structure of the novel succinctly and highlights the main charm of the novel, which is the vividness of the characters portrayed, both mayor and minor—such as Aunt Louisa, Miss Wilkinson, Fanny Price, Cronshaw, Hayward, Mildred of course, Norah—influences in Philip Carey's life.

The reason why his review calls to my attention is the last question that he wasn't quite able to answer himself: is Philip Carey interesting?

Examining the coming-of-age novels, Courtney concludes that what distinguishes the good ones from the bad ones are the selection of events and the hero's significance as a person.

By his standard Maugham passed the first criterion with flying colours in Of Human Bondage. Indeed, subsequently Maugham acquired such skills in the selection of details that the biographical essays of his chosen subjects are impeccable. It must be due to, moreover, his artistry in short stories writing which demands brevity and the elimination of any irrelevancy.

Courtney notes the tyranny of circumstance, which later Maugham terms the force of circumstance (indeed he uses it for the title of one of his short stories), that shapes to a large extent a person's life, playing even a bigger part than the person's character, the development of which is determined by the series of incidents that is thrust upon him. So, there is no way out.

It is in this way that Philip is so conditioned that he can't see the world in another manner. This is a very unsettling point of view and Courtney writes:
If the Roman poet desired to subdue circumstances to his own personality, Mr. Maugham, on the contrary, sees human personalities subdued by their environment and their ancestry.

This point provides me with a lot of food for thoughts. Certainly, the world that Maugham portrays often is very grim; others may say it's immoral instead. I find it very difficult to comment on others' "morality," hardly being a saint myself.

However, it is interesting to examine this idea taking into account Maugham's late work. I am referring to Points of Views (1958), simply because my memory of this collection of essays is still fresh and it came to my mind when I read Courtney's review.

Although Courtney's conclusion carries substantial weight, if we continue with Maugham in his development of ideas, it is the character that matters at the end.

Philip's point of view, as has been pointed out by critics and even Maugham himself, is warped. The terrible life he has, as a cripple and an orphan left to be attended to by a couple of advanced age who had no experience whatsoever with little children.

If we compare this to Paul Léautaud, one of the three journalists, or the other, Jules Renard who had an equally miserable childhood, we may start to see why they attracted Maugham's attention. In fact, it is curious that Maugham only mentions the more well-known, or a more worthy subject as some would argue, André Gide, briefly.

When we come to this point in Maugham's career, it is not unreasonable to conclude that the character, or the personality, is what matters.

In spite of the circumstances, something unites these people that Maugham has chosen as his objects of contemplation. Paul Léautaud and Jules Renard as already mentioned, I may add the other journalists in the same essay, the Goncourt brothers, and the Maharshi, Katherine Mansfield, or even Goethe, Ignatius de Loyola, Miguel de Cervantes—(the latter two in Don Fernando).

What unites them is the inherent belief in their self-worth, even if it is in disagreement with the rest of the world. This is what inspires their ruthlessness, and in turn marks their idiosyncrasy that Maugham finds irresistible. They are unperturbed if you find them ridiculous, despicable, unethical, or in short, wrong. They believe so strongly in their own perceptions that disapproval or censorship of others seems to mean little to them.

This is what transcends them from the tyranny or the force of circumstance.

How do they get this personality in the first place?

Maugham appears to try to answer this question by looking at these people's ancestry, their childhood, but they are so diverse that no conclusion seems possible.

Then we come back to Philip in Of Human Bondage. If we take Courtney's question as meaning precisely this, whether there is certain idiosyncrasy in Philip's character that makes him interesting enough, then the answer most probably is no. His constant self-doubt and dependence on others' approval "ruin" him in a sense.

However, as usual, no complex question can be answered so easily.

Something else lurks underneath in Philip's character, which Maugham also explores in his works.

Besides the ruthlessness that can combat the force of circumstance, there is goodness. The simple goodness about which Maugham writes a short story especially, "Salvatore."

Ruthlessness and goodness, two incompatible traits (or are they?) to overcome the tyranny of circumstance that no one can escape.

Courtney's review can be read at the Daily Telegraph's archive.

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4 comments :

  1. Earlier today I was thinking about how some in England at that time didn't like the middle-class,"and their pathetic little morals" as Sackville-West puts it in The Edwardians. Philip Carey is thoroughly middle-class, but Maugham makes it okay to be middle-class. Perhaps the reason this reviewer is wondering if Carey is interesting enough is due to this. It must be nerve-racking for an author to put so much into a novel and to get such a mixed review as this; I don't think many people bought the book due to this luke-warm (both negative and good) review. It leans slightly more to the negative though.

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    1. Isn't that often the case? It is only when you get interested in an individual that the violence that is done to his life means anything to you. In The Moon and Sixpence is a passage about human communication and isolation that is deeply moving. Yes, it must be terrible to see one's work not properly appreciated.

      I find this review interesting because of "the tyranny of circumstance." It was developed into a major theme in many of the stories later and Courtney was very sharp to see it then. It is true too that even though Maugham's characters are able to a certain extent combat the force of circumstance, it is not a triumph of their personality in the Roman sense, let's say. Most probably it's this that gives the poignant mood. Most probably too that it is more truthful to everyday life. Yet, perhaps one does need something on the cheering side, a good old exemplary story of success and triumph of righteousness (mine of course) from time to time.

      I think although Courtney's review bends more towards the negative, he recognized that there was something that captured him in the novel, that made it irresistible nonetheless.

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    2. And an interesting point about the middle class, no high-handedness in Philip, to which he's more of a victim. Only in more recent history that our focus goes to the victims.

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