Friday, 11 December 2015

"The Great William Somerset Maugham Seen Through the Eyes of a Friend—"

W. Somerset Maugham, Barbara Back, Gerald Haxton, & Friends
W. Somerset Maugham, Barbara Back (middle row, second from right/left), Gerald Haxton, & Friends
from Hastings's The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham

This post concerns an article written by W. Somerset Maugham's closest female friend, Barbara Back, about him. Before talking about it, I am going to give some background about its writer.

Barbara Back is not an unfamiliar name to those who become interested in Maugham's life. However, I haven't come across much about her. From my less than thorough research, she was supposed to be about ten years younger than Maugham, so she would have been born somewhere around 1884. Rogal situates her flourishing years to be between 1925 and 1960,1 starting when she was no longer a spring chicken. Perhaps to the Maugham biographers or experts, her life really didn't begin until she met Maugham, in 1926,2 although Maugham knew her husband, Ivor Back, before. Stott records that the correspondence that has survived from Maugham to her lasted till the year 1962,3 after which supposedly Maugham was too old to write much to anybody. Calder says that Alan Searle, Maugham's secretary, continued helping her financially after Maugham's death,4 so we can surmise that she lived after 1965, until when, I am afraid I have no idea.

From the few biographies that I have consulted, the biographers agree that she provided the occasion on which we get a glimpse of the more intimate Maugham from the letters he wrote her. For his part, presumably he destroyed all hers in his bonfire nights at Villa Mauresque. I know it is perhaps not a very pleasant question, but then it has to be asked not because it needs an answer: if Barbara Back was such a great friend, how come she didn't concede to Maugham's wish to have all his letters destroyed? Possible answers come to mind. One would be that she recognized his greatness and the importance of his letters to posterity; the other because it was her gossipy character to do so, holding on to any privileged information; another because they would fetch substantial sum. The last of which can be proven and disproven easily by looking at the provenance of the letters, but regretfully I don't have the information now.

Barbara Back


Barbara Back
Barbara Back
from Meyers's Somerset Maugham. A Life

Barbara Back, née Nash, was married to Ivor Back, a well-known London surgeon. He was friend of Gerald Kelly and Aleister Crowley, with the latter he must have a somewhat close relation as he edited Crowley's collected works from 1905 to 1907, and Crowley dedicated some of his poems to Back. If Arthur Burdon in The Magician (1908) were more suave and charismatic Back could very well have been the model, but then Burdon was never taken by Haddo's eccentricity.

Ivor Back by Sir William Orpen Ivor Back, by Sir William Orpen (nature.com)
"He [Arthur Burdon] was very tall and very thin. His frame had a Yorkshireman's solidity, and his bones were massive. He missed being ungainly only through the serenity of his self-reliance. He had high cheek-bones and a long, lean face. His nose and his mouth were large, and his skin was sallow" (The Magician, 1908).

As for the relationship between the couple, opinions diverge. Calder explains that they were devoted to each other and that was why Maugham could keep a friendship with Barbara without tension.5 Meyers does not hesitate to say that Barbara had her own array of affairs,6 and Hastings puts Ivor's unfaithfulness on the table.7

What Maugham liked about her, this all agree, were her elegance, beauty, witticism, gossips, skills at golf and bridge. She would play hostess at Villa Mauresque and Maugham wrote her long letters expressing how entertained and uplifted he was by her gossips and merciless comments about mutual acquaintances.

All good things come to an end. Ivor died in 1951 and left his charming wife destitute, meaning that she couldn't possibly carry on with her style of life up till then, with Rolls Royce and cook and house (in fashionable district) and fancy dresses and maids and butler and hosting succulent free meals. As mentioned, Maugham helped her financially since then throughout the years until his own death, assistance which Searle continued to give.

Hastings mentions that Back had literary ambitions, but isn't very specific about what that means.8 I surmise from my readings that these consisted of a column at the Daily Mirror as "Britain's Star Beauty Adviser," which I haven't read. Her advice was reprinted in other newspapers from time to time, as far as I can see. I may, one day, search for them when I feel like ploughing through the microfilm.

The nature of the column is between beauty9 and gossip,10 or they are one and the same thing. On top of writing a beauty column for the Daily Mirror, she also "taught debutantes at the Constance Spry classes how to curtsy to royalty."11 Constance Spry was someone who was great at flower arrangement, and from there to cooking and home economics. According to Wikipedia, she opened a domestic science school at Berkshire in 1946. It could be this that Morgan is referring to.

Meyers writes that her book Back Chat (1935) was a collection of what she wrote for a gossip column in a popular newspaper.12 The book is nothing less than "extinct," so at the moment I can't say if Meyers's gossip column is Morgan's beauty column. This book was dedicated to Maugham.

The word that comes to mind after reading these little bits and pieces is "catty" (sounds much better than the canine alternative). She could be funny and adorable to some. I guess she could be amusing when her ingenious tongue isn't directing against you. I further guess that it was a bygone era when one was not supposed to make much of one's life, except to look beautiful and talk engagingly. Or is it bygone?

The reason why I am talking about Barbara Back is because I came across an article written by her, so I do have a sample of her work. I don't seem to be able to find any reference to it, not in my almighty Stott, or in Sanders's formidable catalogue W. Somerset Maugham. An Annotated Bibliography of Writings About Him.

"The Great William Somerset Maugham Seen Through the Eyes of a Friend—"


The article was published in Nash's Pall Mall Magazine in the February issue of 1931. It contains a few anecdotes with the objective to show how great Maugham was.

If my tone sounds irreverent it isn't my intention. I suspect this article was written in the midst of the Cakes and Ale scandal, which I discussed a bit earlier when talking about two editions of the novel. Interestingly, it was three months after this that Elinor Mordaunt's Gin and Bitters came out, with a damning portrait of Maugham as a retort towards the disrespect he paid Hardy in Cakes and Ale, stirring once again the controversial dust that was about to settle.

One gets a sense of Back's style by the opening paragraph and perhaps a feeling of her presumably amusing conversation:
Mr. Somerset Maugham is so popular a figure nowadays that one cannot open a paper or magazine without finding him mentioned on one page or another. In a recent fashionable weekly so much space was given to a discussion of his genius that the hunting beauties, the Le Touquet golfers, the Channel swimmers, the Atlantic flyers and the social climbers scarcely got a look in at all. That genius admits of an easy explanation: he describes life as it is, and is not concerned to cover up the truth with metaphorical pink lamp-shades to give it a rosy hue, and therefore the critics call him scathing, cynical, bitter, etc. In truth, he is none of these things.
Back proposes to describe to her readers Willie as she knows him, a thoroughly humane human being.
He is a gentle creature with a beautifully modelled nose and exquisite manners. He is terribly nice to women, because he understands their weaknesses and makes allowance for them. He is aware that they must be extravagant in dress and have plenty of time to make up their faces! He is the only man I know who says, "That's a new hat you've got on, my dear," when it really is a new hat and not one he's seen you wearing many times before. I know one woman whose maid insists on her wearing her smartest frock if she is dining with him. "He knows about clothes, Madam," she says; "he will appreciate it."
We get the same comment from Lady Aberconway, who remarks how attentive Maugham is to her frocks and physical appearance.

Now we come to the meat of the article, Back is going to illustrate Maugham's greatness with anecdotes.
I was once at a dreary dinner party in Paris with him. He tried for a long time to roar like a lion, as was expected of him. Suddenly I felt that he was beginning to wilt.

"Willie," I said, "let's dance."

We went round the room once or twice in silence. "Rather dull, all this, isn't it," I said, "and what on earth made Lady Blank choose this restaurant?"

"Have you noticed the tumblers?" he asked.

I had. They were made of opaque glass, each with a different design of black figures prancing round it, rather like the Portland Vase.

"What's that got to do with it?" I asked.

"Our hostess entertains here because of them. When conversation flags, she draws her guests' attention to them and they become a subject for fresh wit and more chatter."

"Idiot!" I said.

The band stopped and we went back to our table where sure enough she was holding a glass in each hand.

"Aren't they unusual?" she was saying, "and so attractive. Mine's got a sailor riding a bicycle on it. What's on yours, Mr. Maugham? I must find out where they got them. Waiter, ask the proprietor to come and talk to me?"
The following is supposed to show how Maugham cleverly avoided an admirer of his.
A woman he knew slightly, made dozens of unsuccessful efforts to get hold of him, until at last by chance she ran him to earth on a yacht in the Mediterranean, where there is no outlet. To escape from her adulation, he asked her to lunch in desperation.

"Coward," we said, when he broke the news to us.

He sent for his cook on the appointed day, and ordered her to produce the best lunch that she could think of. "But, mark my words," he said turning to me, "she won't come."

"I'll bet you a thousand pounds to a bilberry she will," I answered.

At two o'clock she had not turned up and we had a very pleasant lunch alone. While we were drinking our coffee, I said, "Now out with it; how on earth did you know she wasn't coming? She was crazy to get here."

He looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and said, "Well, you see, I never gave her my address!"
This no doubt would make a nice picaresque episode. The last one is not unsimilar in nature:
Once in the South of France we went to a grand lunch party together. When we got there, we discovered that it was being given in his honour. I was feeling very well and enjoying myself hugely when my hostess came up to me, looking rather worried.

"I'm sorry you're feeling ill, my dear," she said. "But of course I quite understand that in the circumstances you want to go home at once."

I was too amazed to protest and, when we got outside, I said to him. "What on earth made her think I'm ill; do I look awful?"

"Not at all," he said. "You have never looked better or more charming, but I should have shown how bored I was if I'd stayed a moment longer; and I should hate to hurt her feelings. I could think of no other way of escaping, so I said you'd suddenly become very unwell; and now I will drive you into Cannes and buy you a lot of that beach jewellery at Worth's that everyone is wearing this summer."
I guess I can see Maugham rubbing his hands with a naughty smile on his face, pleased to have played successfully a prank on his hostess.

So how did Maugham take this portrayal of him? Back did tell him about it and stated the reason why she wrote it:
"I've just written an article on you," I said to him.

"Why?" he asked.

"Well, it's an awfully nice one and I've pointed out you're not the cynic the critics accuse you of being, but just a very human creature. If people bother to read it they won't be frightened of you any more and then you'll get a lot of nice new friends!"

"Then, for God's sake, my dear," he implored, "publish it after my death!"
Back's naïveté in content and style does come through. Of course here I can't provide the effect of the beautiful and animated face when it thus in like manner prattles on, or the whiff of perfume, or the presumably pleasing voice.

As for whether these little incidents would endear Maugham to his critics showing how reluctant he was to hurt others' feelings or shed light on his greatness, I leave it to you to judge.
                                                                                                 
                                                                                                                                                                    
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Notes


1 Rogal, Samuel J. A William Somerset Maugham Encyclopedia. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1997. 4.
2 Meyers, Jeffrey. Somerset Maugham. A Life. New York: Alfred Knopf, 2004. 188.
3 Stott, Raymond Toole. A Bibliography of the Works of W. Somerset Maugham. London: Kaye & Ward, 1973. 303.
4 Calder, Robert. Willie. The Life of W. Somerset Maugham. London: Heinemann, 1989. 207.
5 Ibid., 207.
6 Meyers, op. cit., 190.
7 Hastings, Selina. The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham. London: John Murray, 2010. 379.
8 Ibid., 319.
9 Morgan, Ted. Somerset Maugham. London: Jonathan Cape, 1980. 543.
10 Meyers, op. cit., 189.
11 Morgan, op. cit., 543.
12 Meyers, op. cit., 189.

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