(Caveat – I’ve rather amended my views on this book, but rather than re-write the review, I’d point you to my comments here….)

In case you haven’t noticed, I do tend to fall in love with my favourite authors a bit on an intellectual level – Woolf, Beauvoir, Calvino, Colette, Paul Morley and Bulgakov to name but a few have been some of my biggest passions. Georges Perec and Beverley Nichols are two current obsessions and even though the subject matter in this particular volume is not something I’d necessary want to read, the fact that it’s written by Beverley means it’s inevitable I’d pick it up!

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“A Case of Human Bondage” is a strange concoction and perhaps needs a little background information. Beverley Nichols was a friend of W. Somerset Maugham and his wife Syrie for many years – and if some sources are to be believed, he was also Maugham’s lover. The great writer’s menage was obviously an odd one, and despite having a wife and child, he spent much of his life with two male companions, Gerald Haxton and after his death, Alan Searle. Towards the end of his life, Maugham published a book called “Looking Backwards”, in which he painted such a negative picture of his late wife Syrie, that friends and supporters like Beverley and other such illustrious names as Rebecca West, Cecil Beaton and Sacheverell Sitwell (to name a few) were appalled. Because of the laws of libel, Nichols waited until Maugham’s death and then published this book, his spirited defence of his friend. So in “A Case of Human Bondage”, BN appropriated the title of one of Maugham’s most famous works to state his case and to give his views on the truth of the great man’s marriage and wife.

Maugham

Willie

This being a Beverley book, it would be foolish to expect a coherent narrative, and indeed the story jumps about all over the place as BN sets his scene – much of which is in the house Villa Mauresque in the south of France in which Syrie set up a home where Willie and Gerald could live together safely (as Gerald had been drummed out of the UK for committing an indecent act, as homosexuality was considered in those days). We witness Willie’s cruelty, Syrie’s sadness, Gerald’s awfulness and Alan’s saintliness. Beverley is shouted at by Willie, finds the atmosphere awkward and after one occasion leaves early to return to London, accompanied by Syrie who cannot stand the atmosphere much more.

It is quite clear that Beverley adored Syrie and felt very strongly that she and her memory had been wronged. However…. There is a however, as I believe from a few little things I’ve spotted online that Bev was not being entirely truthful. One striking incident he relates is when he finds Gerald naked and drunk on his bedroom floor, covered with banknotes, and is then dramatically ejected by Willie. Alas, according to an excerpt I read from “The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham”, Beverley later admitted that the circumstances he related here were not fact – it was apparently Noel Coward that burst into a room and discovered Beverley with Noel’s current boyfriend! Unfortunately, this rather shakes the reader’s faith in the author…. It’s obvious that BN felt really strongly about the issue, but it’s hard to know why he sought to right a wrong this way, replacing Maugham’s alleged lies about Syrie with lies of his own. If Maugham had really behaved so badly, surely the truth would have been enough?

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Beverley

Oddly enough, despite this, the book is incredibly readable, in Nichols’ inimitable and individual prose, with some really evocative passages:

“At tea-time Willie went upstairs to rest. I climbed up the steep path that led to the swimming-pool and lay down by the water’s edge. Summer had come at last and the first roses were in bloom – the pink, full-bosomed, utterly feminine roses of the Riviera, the roses that Boucher loved to paint. Down the gaunt walls of the villa, spilling from the roof like a torrent of wine, the bougainvillea drifted in a lazy breeze, laden with the spices of Africa. I was pervaded by a poignant nostalgia, haunted by the memory of things past.”

His description of the contrast between France and England, when he and Syrie are on the train back in the UK, is priceless:

“But it was the silence that reminded us, most poignantly, of the transition from one world to another, so short in space and time, so infinite in atmosphere. True, the car rattled like a bone-shaker, the wine-glasses clinked together as though they were proposing a phantom toast to departed friends, and the cutlery slid and clattered across the tablecloth, producing a strange effect of metallic castanets. In spite of this background music, the other occupants of the carriage conversed in whispers, observing the familiar British convention that in public it is vulgar to raise the voice. Even so simple a sentence as ‘Would you be kind enough to pass the mustard?’ was spoken sotto voce, and sounded like a correspondence between secret agents. When the lady on my right requested me to hand her the menu I was obliged to ask her to explain herself, so conspiratorial were her accents.”

And Nichols does paint a vivid picture of Maugham and his idiosyncracies – it is obvious that there has been friendship and rapprochement between them in the past, even though Maugham’s behaviour towards Syrie, Nichols claims, drove them apart. I can imagine that the book caused quite a sensation when it was published in the 1960s, although nowadays the kind of camp (Beverley’s word) and outrageous behaviour he portrays is probably no different from the variety of overdramatic overacting and hissy fits we see on any number of reality TV shows…

Syrie

Syrie

At the end of the day, I think I’ll simply regard this as a well-meaning but misguided attempt by BN to defend a friend he felt had been wronged. Through it all, he is always eminently readable, with lovely prose and his own unique style. And he is honest enough in many places about his friendship with Willie and his motivations. But as a portrait of Maugham (albeit spiced up with a little venom!) it’s fascinating and a reminder that BN is probably not being entirely truthful in any of his writings. With his gardening books this doesn’t always matter, as he’s setting out to delight us and tell a tale – so I think I shall be pleased to return to these and his murder mysteries. ACOHB was a fascinating read – if a little uncomfortable!

(ETA: Somewhat freakily, I scheduled this post earlier in the week for today – only to discover that 25th January, as well as being the birthday of Burns, is that of W. Somerset Maugham – oo-er, more synchronicity!!)

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