One hundred years ago this month, The Moon and Sixpence, a roman a clef based on the life of 19th-cenutry French Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin, was published in the U.K. by the firm William Heinemann.
The subject matter—a businessman's flight from his career and family obligations to creative and sexual freedom in the South Seas—might have rankled middle-class readers in any event. But W. Somerset Maugham also filled his novel with some of the most misogynistic characterizations that ever discolored a work of 20th-century literature.
Much of that tendency stemmed from a desire not simply to depict a character without illusion—what some might call cynicism and others realism—but also from Maugham’s personal situation. Gay in the decades after the trial and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde made it criminal to lead a homosexual lifestyle, Maugham found himself trapped in a loveless marriage to Gwendolyn Maude “Syrie” Barnardo, with whom he had a daughter.
The couple had only been married two years by the time he wrote The Moon and Sixpence, but already they were living separate lives—Syrie on her thriving interior decoration business, Maugham in writing for the printed page and theater when he wasn’t traveling with secretary and lover Gerald Haxton.
Still, it seemed, Maugham couldn’t put enough distance between him and his wife, and his bitterness toward her informed this and numerous other passages from the novel (not to mention a subsequent memoir, when he dispensed with the trappings of fiction to libel her):
“When a woman loves you she's not satisfied until she possesses your soul. Because she's weak, she has a rage for domination, and nothing less will satisfy her.”
In reimagining his artist protagonist, Maugham anglicized Gaugain as Charles Strickland. But, though the novelist changed a number of details about the man, he retained the broad outlines of the life: a restless middle-aged man who obeys the call of his genius, moving to Tahiti, where he passes away.
At the same time, as blogger Maya Alexandri has noted, Maugham still sandpaper the rougher edges from his real-life original, including:
*reducing the number of the artist’s dependent children from five to two;
*raising the age of Strickland's Tahitian wife from 14 to 17; and,
*having Strickland die of leprosy, not the less socially acceptable syphilis that struck down Gaugain.
Maugham can still be read profitably today for his carefully constructed plots and clear writing style, but—at least in the book group to which I belonged I belonged a quarter-century ago—today’s readers will have a hard time swallowing their disgust with his unpleasant if gifted protagonist.
(Surprisingly enough—at least to me—Maugham himself was deeply appreciative of the 1942 film adaptation of the novel starring George Sanders, pictured here. In fact, he wrote the movie’s director, Albert Lewin: “I cannot imagine that a novel could be adapted in a better way.")
By comparison, other Maugham works—the novels Cakes and Ale, Of Human Bondage, Ashenden, short stories, and plays such as The Constant Wife—are well worth revisiting.