Monday, 10 October 2016

Analysis of "A Traveller in Romance" (1909): A Narrative of Strangeness

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Printers' Pie 1909
Printers' Pie 1909

"A Traveller in Romance." Printers' Pie (1909): 97-100.

"A Traveller in Romance," the very phrase must have caught John Whitehead's fancy when he published his volume of uncollected writings by W. Somerset Maugham under the same title. The story was written in 1909 when Maugham was thirty-five, published in quite an unlikely venue: Printers' Pie.

Printers' Pie was an annual publication (shortly I will talk more about the magazine), and most probably Maugham wrote the story before 1909, perhaps the year before or even earlier, a reminiscence of journeys that he had taken. This was published after his overwhelming success as a dramatist, back in 1907 with Lady Frederick, but before Of Human Bondage (1915) and his consolidation as a story-teller with the collection The Trembling of a Leaf (1921).




Mockery - Will Owen
Mockery - Will Owen

The narrator is very similar to the one in "A Marriage of Convenience," a story that was published a year before (not the revised version), very nineteenth-century, a gentleman who observes all the rules imbued in him, who would transform later with age to become more tolerant, cynical, and completely un-self-righteous, a process which Maugham captures fantastically in The Moon and Sixpence.

"A Traveller in Romance" is a story about a narrator who travels from Switzerland to Italy on a post-chaise, and on his way, meets someone who fascinates him in a certain way. It is a very short story, fewer than 2,000 words.

Told economically, in the first sentence we know that the narrator is English, in Switzerland in winter, and snow has been falling thickly for quite some time.

For six and thirty hours snow had fallen in the valley of the Engadine. It was not the soft snow of England, which flutters down in heavy flakes like the petals of roses overblown, but a blinding storm, tenuous as a Scotch mist, driven by the wind from the Alpine heights.

The whole scene is built in the first paragraph. The journey, in post-chaise, an enclosed space, shut in by the weather, all white around. The trip's destination is told, from St. Moritz to Chiavenna.

In style, it reminds me very much of Maupassant's "Boule de suif" and some of Arthur Conan Doyle's stories, the closeness and constraints of being thrown into the company of strangers, which, in some way, reveals something about oneself.

Interestingly, what arrests the narrator's attention is Casanova's memoirs. Later in The Gentleman in the Parlour (1930) Maugham is going to do something similar, injecting associations into his trip with literary works, in the latter case, Hazlitt's formulation of what comes to be used as the title.

Nevertheless, there is no love story, no conquest. What it is is about someone who doesn't fit so neatly into what we expect. In subsequent works, Maugham fills them with similar characters, Captain Nichols in The Narrow Corner (1932) came to mind first, Charles Strickland in The Moon and Sixpence (1919), even Larry Darrell in The Razor's Edge (1944), or in short stories, "Mayhew," "The Lotus Eater," "The Dream." These are people who seem to see life from another perspective, defying norms and stereotypes.

It is a curious way of building up strangeness. In a foreign country, a chance meeting with someone different, who is travelling too but coming from a different place from the one one is travelling in and from where one comes from. Then, the narrator himself is a stranger in strange land too. At the same time, they are crossing borders from one world to another. Maugham has succeeded in building up the atmosphere of these layers of "strangeness," let's call it.

A Narrative of Strangeness

Firstly, it is deep winter, full of snow. The narrator is enclosed in a post-chaise that fits to its capacity of holding 4 people. Everything is white outside, and visibility is zero. Besides the already cramped space, the narrator is deprived of his open window by his unknown companions, thus the atmosphere of confinement and claustrophobia. The narrator then escapes to a different world, the world of books, for he has with him Casanova's memoirs. A well known philanderer, but the narrator is telling us that he is more than that. Casanova is an adventurer, living life to its fullest is his venture.

However, the narrator is forced to close his book, because his companions are chatting too cheerily for him to read. He listens to them instead, trying to feel the romance in the actual world. However, they discuss tedious business details in two different languages, both badly spoken, and the potential romantic lady is a stout matron towards the age of 50.

While we don't know what to make of such a trip, everyone leaves, and another passenger gets on, a foreigner who speaks English (but obviously not his native tongue) of unknown origin hops in. Surprisingly the newcomer isn't well impressed with the beautiful Swiss Alps, in fact he is glad to leave it.

Mockery - Will Owen
Mockery - Will Owen

The sense of place is created very effectively, from the descent of the Swiss mountains into Italy, and subsequently the change of the sleigh to wheels, to denote a warmer climate, from German gutturals to Italian soft vowels, and then sunlight breaking through the clouds.

The narrator fails to adopt the viewpoint of this commercial traveller who smokes execrable cigar. This Pole who left his country to work in England and then became a commercial traveller lives in an incomprehensible world for the narrator, a lesser Don Quijote who sees beauty in sordidness. Yet, even though the narrator can't see eye to eye, he can still perceive the romance of such a figure.

The focus, however, isn't as strong as Maugham's more mature stories. Attention is diverted to the narrator, his cleverness in gaining time to have a bite by offering wine to the driver, to the description of his first 3 fellow passengers who somehow drop out of the picture without more ado. Yet, there is a strong sense of displacement and movement. We are taken with the narrator on a not unpleasant journey. Are we able to see the romance too?

Printers' Pie


Ex(screw)cruciating - G. E. Studdy

The story was first published in Printers' Pie, which is an interesting magazine. Maugham didn't get any money for his story, as the magazine was a charity venture. With his recent success in the theatre, he must have felt that he could be generous.

Printer's pie itself is a printers' slang. The Typographic Hub has an excellent definition. I include also other slangs mentioned, as they are amusing to read.

Pie, the earliest of all printers’ slang, is short for printers’ pie, which since 1659, has meant unsorted or jumbled type; hell-box, the box containing unused type; fat, easy to compose, and lean, difficult to compose: the former also means profitable, the later unprofitable work. Antimony, type; sorts the character in a fount of type; out of sorts, a deficiency of material in the type-case, has since 1780 also meant unwell; squabble, is type that gets mixed up; sling type, to set or compose; devil, short for printer’s devil, a "handy boy"; pencil-shover, a journalist; brains, the paste with which a sub-editor sticks his cuttings together; eye-out of register, an inaccurate eye; put in pie, is to make a mess of thing or lead another astray; and chalk your pull, means things are on hold.

The magazine belongs to the Printers' Pension Corporation, and since 1828 they held the Anniversary Festivals. The magazine itself was published first in 1903 and Maugham's issue was the 7th. All the sale went to the Printers' Pension Corporation and the idea was to help those who qualified to be independent of State Old Age Pensions, which in turn relieved their burdens on the Treasury.

The Love Potion - George Morrow
The Love Potion - George Morrow

Its sale went quite well, from its inaugural issue of 10,000 copies to 150,000 in 1908. The then editor was W. Hugh Spottiswoode (1864–1916), Director of Eyre & Spottiswoode Ltd. (His Majesty's Printers), which printed Printers' Pie. He himself was the President of the Festivals in 1903, when the magazine started; and his uncle, G. A. Spottiswoode (1827–1899), also printer (partner in Spottiswoode & Co., the chairman of which was Edward Chenevix Austen-Leigh, descendent of Jane Austen's brother) was the President in 1898, a year before his demise.1

A Traveller in Romance - Somerset Maugham
A Traveller in Romance - Somerset Maugham

For the 1909 issue, Spottiswoode decided to arrange the contributions by drawing names out of a hat because he ran out of ideas as to how to order them without getting himself into trouble, and he begged Maugham's forgiveness for the cheeky drawing opposite his story titled "The Liars" by Lance Thackeray, and the ingenious juxtaposition of William Le Queux's "The Little Lady in Brown" and Charles Sykes's "The Classical Dances and a New Conductor."

Printers' Pie 1909 - little lady in brown
Printers' Pie 1909 - little lady in brown

You have to decide for yourself whether you believe him...

"A Traveller in Romance" can be read on MMCCL. It was never included in any of Maugham's short story collections. Likely he had forgotten all about it. It was republished in John Whitehead's A Traveller in Romance: Uncollected Writings 1901-1964.

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Printers' Pie issues at AbeBooks


Note
1 Read this interesting account by Richard Arthur Austen Leigh: The Story of a Printing House being a Short Account of the Strahans and Spottiswoodes. London: Spottiswoode & Co., 1912.

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