Cakes and Ale

Cakes and Ale is the fourth Somerset Maugham novel I’ve read, and with each book I keep changing my opinion of him. I really liked Of Human Bondage, which was my first book, and then I listened to The Painted Veil, which I loved. So far so good; I thought at this point that I should eventually read everything he wrote. Then I got to The Razor’s Edge, which I didn’t like at all. It felt dull and ponderous. I like idea-driven novels, but in that one, I didn’t care about the ideas and didn’t like how they were presented. With Cakes and Ale, I’m beginning to think Maugham may not be quite as good as I thought. There were interesting aspects of the novel and enjoyable moments — particularly the discussions of authors and writing — but I was hoping to love it and I didn’t.

The novel tells the story of the Driffields — Edward Driffield, a famous author, and two Mrs. Driffields, his first wife, Rosie, and his second, Amy. (My edition has a preface by Maugham that says Edward Driffield is most emphatically not Thomas Hardy, in spite of what anybody says, which meant that I spent the entire novel thinking of him as Thomas Hardy, of course.) It’s narrated by William Ashenden, a writer himself who knew Edward and Rosie at various points in his life. There’s another writer involved as well, Alroy Kear, who is planning on writing a biography of Edward, who in the present tense of the novel has passed away. Alroy approaches the narrator in an effort to gather information about Edward’s life, which sends him off on long reminiscences of his time with the Driffields.

The difference between what the narrator remembers about the Driffields, what he chooses to tell Alroy, and what Alroy will actually put in the biography is the novel’s source of tension. The Driffields — Edward and Rosie — were…not quite proper. The narrator first meets the couple when they move into Blackstable, his hometown. Edward’s father was a bailiff and Rosie had worked as a bar maid, which was a big part of the problem, but they also never quite followed the rules as they were supposed to, and everyone knew it. Eventually Edward’s fame as a writer comes to make up for his social deficiencies, but Rosie was always a bit of a scandal.

The novel is really Rosie’s story in many ways, in part because of the narrator’s fascination with her and her bohemian ways that stayed with him all his life. But there’s also the problem of what to do about the troublesome, sexually-suspect first wife after she is gone and the second wife is trying to establish her husband’s reputation as a respectable, important writer. How should that first wife be portrayed in the biography, and what to do about episodes such as the time the Driffields skipped town with debts and servants left unpaid? And what about Rosie’s sexual history?

It’s all a question of class, of course, about how Alroy and Amy Driffield try to transform Edward from his working-class roots into a solid bourgeois, respectable writer and how the narrator questions and resists them. It’s also about writers and writing. Alroy Kear is the object of much scorn from the narrator; not only is he going to whitewash Edward’s past in what is sure to be a bland biography, but his writing, at least according to the narrator, sounds blandly boring as well:

I could think of no one among my contemporaries who had achieved so considerable a position on so little talent. This, like the wise man’s daily dose of Bemax, might have gone into a heaped-up tablespoon. He was perfectly aware of it, and it must have seemed to him sometimes little short of a miracle that he had been able with it to compose already some thirty books. I cannot but think that he saw the white light of revelation when first he read that Thomas Carlyle is an after-dinner speech had stated that genius was an infinite capacity for taking pains. He pondered the saying. If that was all, he must have told himself, he could be a genius like the rest; and when the excited reviewer of a lady’s paper, writing a notice of one of his works, used the word … he must have sighed with the satisfaction of one who after long hours of toil has completed a cross-word puzzle.

There is no room in Alroy Kear’s world for the exoticism that someone like Rosie Driffield can offer, and so the narrator scorns him.

I was disappointed in part by Rosie as a character; the back cover of my edition promises that she is Maugham’s “greatest heroine,” but she never quite came to life for me. It was the moment when the narrator tells us what she wasn’t a big talker that did it: I had pictured her as vivacious and voluble, and when I tried to picture her being quiet, I couldn’t do it. Then I began to doubt that I had really understood her at all. I’m also not entirely sure I like the narrator. There are times his mildly ironic tone is amusing and I can’t help but agree with his dismissal of Alroy Kear, but there’s something off-putting about the voice, something distancing. I suppose the mildly ironic tone gets a little wearying after a while. I don’t think that we are meant to read the narrator uncritically; as a writer himself, he is not exactly a disinterested observer of the fates of Driffield and Kear, and his detached, judgmental attitude toward his subjects seems self-serving. But critiquing the narrator in this way wasn’t enough to make the book a satisfying read.

I read this book for the Slaves of Golconda and am jumping over to join the discussion right now. Please feel free to join in!


Filed under Books, Fiction

14 responses to “Cakes and Ale

  1. You should try reading theater. That was a good book.


  2. Eva

    I didn’t find Rosie convincing either when I read this last year, and the narrator got on my nerves. This was my first Maugham, and it hasn’t convinced me to pick him up again any time soon. It sounds like I should’ve gone with The Painted Veil; the only reason I didn’t was because I’ve seen the movie several times and love it. But it sounds like when I get around to giving Maugham another go, I’ll start there. 😉


  3. You know, it’s funny; I read this post and didn’t remark over the book review so much as your reflections in the first paragraph about your changing impression of Maugham. I’ve only read The Painted Veil and of course loved it; can’t speak to his work as a canon. But your feelings struck a chord. I think that perhaps a single extraordinarily good performance is actually easier to achieve than consistent extraordinariness. (You could apply this to bike racing, too, or any number of other pursuits.) I have certainly encountered some authors (and bike racers, etc.) who have done one wonderful thing and then foundered. It’s harder to be consistent with it, yes?


  4. LOL, love your comment about Thomas Hardy. Don’t think about a pink elephant!

    It’s interesting that both you and Stefanie mention the narrative voice/tone being off-putting. I definitely noticed a similar, mildly ironic tone in Of Human Bondage and remember thinking to myself that if it had been applied just slightly differently it could have been a disaster. I guess that’s what happened in Cakes and Ale. Too bad too, because all the stuff about versioning and what gets left out of and included in stories told about the past has such potential.


  5. How interesting the different reactions to Cakes and Ale. I have to post mine, lest I leave it all in the comments! I’ve been busy all day cleaning up after long neglect while engrossed in my revision.


  6. I loved it when I read it last year. I just couldn’t stop making comparisons between Rosie and Tess (because, of course, I didn’t for a minute believe that Driffield wasn’t Hardy).


  7. Hi Dorothy! I was re-reading the sex scene between Rosie and Willie (lovely names!) just last week. It was very disappointing. Just when he’s getting to the sexy bit he suddenly veers off on a response to Mr Evelyn Waugh’s article in the Evening Standard “in the course of which he remarked that to write novels in the first person was a contemptible practice.” Rosie is based on an actress Maugham knew, of whom he was very fond. But the sex scene is sad, as are many of his sex scenes involving women, for understandable reasons. But the novel has great relevance for modern novelists and the quest for publicity. Alroy Kear is based on Hugh Walpole, who wrote really dull books, but was a very good host to book critics, especially after they’d given him a bad review. He was Maugham’s friend until Cakes and Ale came out. Don’t give up on Maugham. I think his best work is in his short stories, many of which are brilliant. His novels can be a bit uneven. Still love your blog!


  8. Still think that Maugham’s talent was for the short story and that there are occasional difficulties in sustaining a consistent and consistently interesting narrative voice in the novels. I still enjoy his longer fiction, but not nearly as much.


  9. A Happy July 4th to you… maybe a bit late since it’s past midnight for you. As for WSM, I love his writing. I’ve read a few of his books but not Cakes & Ale. I bought his collection of short stories in a used book sale last year but haven’t read any in there. I read A Human Bondage and Razor’s Edge when I was very young… and loved them. I should be rereading them both now. Finally, I agree with your first commenter: read Theatre. It’s very good.


  10. I’m afraid I was distracted reading this and now have missed everything, but on a superficial level I actually enjoyed it every much. I liked the ironic tone and had to laugh when Stefanie called the narrator a prig as he really was, but I still liked the characters–or if not liked–enjoyed them. I also read that Maugham got himself in trouble by basing characters on real people so he must have got himself into trouble when the books were published. The Painted Veil is still my favorite and I want to read Of Human Bondage and it sounds like his short stories are really the place to go for his really good work. My book had no intro at all–maybe a good thing?


  11. I’ve not read Maugham’s fiction. I’ve read a critical essay he wrote about Jane Austen and it was some of the best writing I’ve ever read on Austen.


  12. This book sounds a lot like I Remember Christine (1942) by Oscar Lewis, which is still well regarded here in California. It too has a famous dead guy, a shady lady in his past, and a biographer trying to get at the truth. I’m now wondering how much Lewis swiped from Maugham.


  13. I wonder if Rosie would have seemed more real and compelling in 1930 than she possibly can in 2011–I share the disappointment in Rosie, and almost felt like she was a stereotypical “whore with a heart of gold.” Interesting how many other readers find Rosie disappointing.

    I did end up earmarking a fair number of pages with quotable quotes, and I think Maugham writes some of the most perfect-to-a-fault prose but I doubt I’ll be rereading this.

    Of Human Bondage has always struck me as so uncompromisingly depressing that I haven’t had the heart to tackle it.

    I’m on my way to Slaves of Golconda now 🙂


  14. Goodbyereality — thanks for the suggestion!

    Eva — I think I should watch the adaptation of The Painted Veil! I’m going to go put it on my list right now.

    Pagesofjulia — I think you’re right that it’s hard to go beyond one great performance. It’s kind of sad to think of artists who keep working but can never match their earlier work. To always be known for something you did when very young must be difficult!

    Emily — I love the stuff about the various versions of Driffield’s life story. But the book just didn’t come together for me. Perhaps the narrative voice is just satirical enough to create a distance from the reader that makes it hard to warm up to the book.

    Lilian — I’m glad you posted your thoughts, which were very interesting!

    Emily B. — it’s hard for me to know what to think about the Driffield/Hardy connection. I don’t know enough about Maugham or Hardy to say. But surely if the rumors were persistent, there’s some truth to them?

    Joseph — thanks for the information about the book — I didn’t know that about Walpole. How interesting that Cakes and Ale ruined their friendship! Thanks for the tip about his stories; I don’t read many short stories these days, but I’ll keep him in mind for when I’m in the mood for some.

    Frances — that’s good to know! Interesting about his problem with sustaining a voice over the length of a novel. I can see how that’s challenging and how he might not have succeeded with it in every book.

    Arti — good to know about Theatre! I wonder what you will make of Cakes and Ale if you do read it. I also wonder if I might have liked The Razor’s Edge in a different mood or if I read it when I was younger. I’ll never know I guess!

    Danielle — it probably was a good thing that your book had no intro. I think it’s best to read books that way, or at least most books. I definitely enjoyed the book in parts; it’s just that by the end, I didn’t feel that everything came together and there were moments I wasn’t enjoying myself. I’m curious about his stories, since so many people like them so much!

    Nicola — very interesting! I’ll have to hunt the essay down.

    Don — now that would be interesting to know! It would be fun to read the two books side by side and see how they compare.

    JaneGS — interesting point about the time period. I wonder what contemporary reviewers said about her? I suspect you are right that our impressions of her are influenced by when we live.


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