The Travel Writings of William Somerset Maugham

The 1930s English language literary scene was awash with names of which we are still familiar today; EM Forster, Rudyard Kipling, Virginia Wolf, Ernest Hemingway, Evelyn Waugh, F Scott Fitzgerald and William Somerset Maugham. Hemingway excepted, I’ve never read a novel by any of these authors and it is unlikely I will. Unfortunately movies based on any of these novels have not maintained the stature of these authors.

While preparing for my journeys to Spain and later to South-East Asia I encountered the travel writings of William Somerset Maugham and meagre though they maybe, I have determined that Maugham must have been a writer of exceptional quality.

As a traveller, Maugham was prolific. Although English he was born in France and in the closing years of the nineteenth century and the early years of the next he travelled easily throughout Europe; Italy, Germany and he lived for a period of time in Spain. He was fluent in six languages. In the war years he served the British government as a failed spy in Switzerland and Russia. After the war he made his first trip to America and the South Pacific and he continued his travels throughout his life. China, multiple trips to Southeast Asia, Australia, Latin America, Singapore and Malaya, North Africa and India.

It was the late 1890s when he lived in Seville, he returned to Spain for a period of time in 1934 and he provided an account of both sojourns, ‘The Land of the Blessed Virgin’ (or Travels in Andalusia) published in 1905 and ‘Don Fernando’ published in 1935. In both cases he spent much of his effort on architecture and art, he devoted a number of pages to El Greco (the Spanish artist from Italy with the name of ‘The Greek’), drama and Catholic mysticism. Of the food he declared that ‘it was not very good’. Perhaps Maugham’s palate was defective, or perhaps after 120 years the food of Spain, at least in the south, has improved for the better. In other travels of the world he scarcely mentions food or cuisine so it is hard to judge if his dislike for Spanish food was a one-off or like so many international travellers he had a disdain for the unfamiliar.

In the earlier work (which he described as defective) Maugham talked of the artist Murillo, who was representative of Andalusia, gives a brief history of Spanish Monarchs (Pedro the Cruel and Maria de Padilla). He praises the heroics of famous bullfighters and his views on Andalusian women. He spent a significant time on the influence of the Muslim Moors of centuries past, and while this is present even now in the architecture (Alhambra is clearly an example) he looks to the people and thinks that after 400 years they are still Moors, something other than Spanish, ‘to this day the peasant at his plough sings the same quavering lament that sang the Moor.’ He also found the poverty of the farmer quaint, he would look to poverty for inspiration throughout his travels.

Maugham spent four months straddling 1919 and 1920 travelling about China. Arriving in Saigon he coasted his way to Haiphong, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tianjin and onto Peking from where he made a jaunt to the Great Wall. Returning to Shanghai he arranged a 1500 mile journey up the Yangtze river by sampan.

This account: ‘On a Chinese Screen’, published in 1922 was less portrait of China than it was of people mostly, but not always, of Europeans. It is Doctors, ship captains who plied the rivers and coasts, diplomats, traders, nuns and priests and company men. Many of these people were lost or misplaced, or often escaping an irreconcilable life back home. Many were to die in China, Maugham visited a European graveyard with headstones of those in their 20s. Some were lost to the opium dens. There were those who were enamoured by the Chinese and others who despised the people in whose land they lived. These are people whose lives were re-written into characters of Maugham’s fiction.

The jewel in Maugham’s small collection of travel writing is ‘The Gentleman in the Parlour’, published in 1930. This is a true piece of travel writing which recounts a journey he made through Burma, north on the Irrawaddy River to the Shan states to Siam then south to Bangkok. From Bangkok he sailed to Cambodia, Phnom Penh and Angkor, onto Saigon, Hue, Hanoi then to Hong Kong.

Not unaccustomed to luxury Maugham was willing to rough it though he carried with him excessive necessities; folding chairs, a table, filters, lamps and other requirements and made his way by pony and mule train. He would manage 12-15 miles a day and would be able to bed down in PWB Bungalows maintained by the Burmese for travellers such as him. He had in his service a cook, a guide and Rang Lal, a Ghurkha man servant who would see to his every need. Upon arrival at the Bungalows his bed would be prepared as would a wash, a snack and always a drink. It seems that drink was the means of endurance for many Europeans in Asia as Maugham notes; ‘There was a man sitting on the veranda and as I walked up he nodded to me and asked whether I would have a whisky and soda or a gin and bitters. The possibility that would have nothing at all did not even occur to him. I choose the longer drink and sat down.’

Maugham travelled in ways and means that are for the most part lost to us now. Cars were a rare sight on his journeys and where he travelled by paths there are now roads carrying vans and buses of tourists rapidly passing villages where he would have slept. Today’s adventure tourist may attempt this means of travel but it is difficult to find, the hills of Ethiopia is the only place where the modern traveller might rival the journeys of Maugham.

Of his era Maugham was perhaps the highest paid author in the world, and provided him with a wealth that could afford such idle travels. Travel by sea from England, the hiring of a guide, a cook and porters with a mule train and all the accoutrements of his simple luxuries would not be afforded by the simple labourer unless in the pay of a European overseas company or of the many churches that plied the area for souls.

He did not back away from the dangers of Europeans travelling in this era. While in Singapore Maugham caught malaria and almost perished barely avoiding joining so many Europeans who were buried there. In Borneo his canoe was swamped and his entire party was near lost on the river.

Maugham was a keen observer of people but by his own admission was shy and found it difficult to approach and get to know strangers. His ability to connect came through a travelling companion, unnamed through all his travel writing, who had ‘an amiability of disposition that enabled him in a very short time to make friends with people…so that through him I was able to get into easy contact with an immense number of persons whom otherwise I should have known only from a distance.’

The ‘companion’ was Gerald Haxton an American whom Maugham had met in 1917 while both served in the Red Cross in France. Casually referred to as a ‘companion’ the two became long time partners. Their time together was often sporadic, Haxton was banished from England as an ‘undesirable alien’ for homosexual activities, but the two managed to spend time together on Maugham’s property in the south of France where laws were more tolerant than in England.

Did Maugham purposely hide from his reading public that his travelling companion and partner was of the same sex. While many in his literary and social circles were well aware of Maugham’s relationship much of the general reading public could have been scandalized should this become known. Others have written of their travels, seemingly alone, without companions and without support. Maugham wrote of his support, his guide, his cook and the porters, but nowhere made mention of Haxton.

It seems that Maugham has been largely forgotten, his writings perhaps set in an era that draws little attention from the reader of the twenty-first century. It is unlikely that I’ll ever pick up one of his novels, I rarely do read works of fiction it may well be an omission that is my loss.

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