Beverley Nichols: An Apology


NPG x26713; (John) Beverley Nichols by Bassano

Dearest Beverley,

I feel I must send you my profuse apologies following my review of your book “A Case of Human Bondage”.

While reading the book, with great enjoyment, I accepted your versions of events (which did, after all, include excerpts from your diaries) and felt that you were making a very heart-felt case for the friend you believed had been maligned. However, when preparing my review, and doing a bit of random searching online, I came across an extract from Selina Hastings’ “The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham” which stated clearly that you had fabricated some of your claims. I confess I *was* disappointed and I think my review reflected this.

However, when posting a link to my review yesterday on LibraryThing, I noticed that there was only one other review of ACOHB, by someone who obviously didn’t like it. But – and this is a big but – this review stated quite strongly at the end that Hastings had “confused two separate episodes involving different people, and unfairly charged Nichols with a falsification” (the review is here). Apparently there were *two* incidents that eventful night – the one which involved Gerald and the banknotes, and another which involved Noel Coward surprising you in bed with his boyfriend. That must have been *some* wild night!!

So you *weren’t* being misleading in your book, and you *weren’t* trying to correct a lie with another one – you were simply relating the relevant experience from that fateful night which concerned Willie and Syrie.

And I should have followed my instincts – instead of blindly believing the Hastings book, I should have checked. It didn’t feel right that you would twist events quite so much, and even though you were writing with an agenda, I should have trusted you not to provide complete fabrications.

So I apologise, dear Beverley, and hope that your spirit (wherever it might be!) will forgive a foolish reader – one who has come to love your books and is very, very glad to have been proved rather silly on this occasion!

With fondest love and admiration,


P.S. I have reserved your biography by Bryan Cannon at my local library and shall make sure I check my sources in future!

P.P.S. I further read that Rebecca West described Maugham as “an obscene little toad” when he published “Looking Backwards” and that Graham Greene described the book as “a senile and scandalous work”; so I really think it’s obvious which side I should come down upon!

Recent Reads – A Case of Human Bondage by Beverley Nichols


(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!

“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.



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?



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…



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!!)

Recent Reads: Ashenden by W. Somerset Maugham


One of the things I love about books is following my reading muse randomly and finding an unexpected gem. “Ashenden” by Somerset Maugham, the second book I’ve read by this author, turned out to be one of those! I picked up a set of his books via The Book People, a lovely collection of Vintage paperbacks with gorgeous covers at a ridiculously cheap price. I read “Up at the Villa” last year, and liked it but wasn’t really overwhelmed. However, I wanted something to contrast with what I’ve been reading recently and a book about espionage adventures during the First World War sounded like it would be quite readable – which it was!


“Ashenden believed much more in his acuteness than in a firearm, which is apt to go off at the wrong time and make a noise, but there are moments when it gives you confidence to feel your fingers round its butt, and this sudden summons seemed to him exceedingly mysterious.”

“Ashenden” is more of a collection of linked episodes, almost short stories, than a coherent novel, but is none the worse for that. The title character is apparently based on Maugham himself, and the tales on his own experiences doing just this kind of thing in WWI. Ashenden is a well-known playwright and he is approached by a Colonel, known only as R., who recruits him to collect information for the allies. Based mainly in neutral Switzerland, Ashenden undertakes a number of missions, encountering some larger than life characters along the way –  diplomats and adventurers from all manner of countries, the wonderfully named Hairless Mexican, the traitor Grantley Caypor, a travelling salesman from the USA by the name of Mr. Harrington, and even his ex-lover Anastasia Alexandrovna, an exiled Russian revolutionary. The settings are wide-ranging, from Switzerland, France, unnamed Balkan countries and ending up in revolutionary Russia.

Maugham is a deceptively good writer. What seems like simple prose is not, it’s wonderfully constructed and he’s very good at building up characters in a subtle way until you suddenly realise you have a perfect picture of them. There are long digressions which are not necessarily relevant to the business of spying, but which paint pictures of men and women and their lives, and so add to the richness of the book. Certainly this work encompasses many facets of human nature: love, adventure, cruelty, violence, art, poetry – the whole gamut of emotions and reasons for living. It is also very realistic in that much of Ashenden’s time is actually routine and dull – long hours labouring over coding a message; endless days travelling in boredom across Siberia in a train; hanging around waiting for orders. According to Wikipedia, this book was very influential on later works by authors such as Fleming, and certainly this seems to be the first work of fiction portraying a spy boss known by a single letter! This boss, R., is a masterful creation – stern, with an incredible amount of power but out of his depth in some situations where Ashenden is much more in control.

“Luxury is dangerous to people who have never known it and to whom its temptations are held out too suddenly. R., that shrewd, cynical man, was captured by the vulgar glamour and the shoddy brilliance of the scene before him. Just as the advantage of culture is that it enables you to talk nonsense with distinction, so the habit of luxury allows you to regard its frills and furbelows with a proper contumely.”

(Yes, I had to look up ‘contumely’ – which apparently means “Insolent or insulting language or treatment”!)

The book is full of bon mots and clever comments, but this apparent lightness hides much deeper subject matter. Maugham has perfected the art of wrong-footing the reader. Just as you start to think of Ashenden as an aloof, foppish kind of Bertie Wooster type, Maugham shakes you by casually dropping a shocking event into the narrative – the cold, bare portrayal of an execution; a dog’s chilling reaction to the death of its beloved master; the discovery of dead bodies on the streets of revolutionary Petrograd.

“Though he had both esteem and admiration for the sensibility of the human race, he had little respect for their intelligence; man has always found it easier to sacrifice his life than to learn the multiplication table.”

Ashenden himself is an engaging figure; shy, a little detached, full of dry wit, and gradually revealing himself more as the book goes along until towards the end we find out about his love affair with Anastasia Alexandrova. He describes this in a humorous, self-mocking way, but it is still nevertheless very affecting and we become interested in seeing how he will respond when they meet again. The ending of the book is sad and unexpected and left me quite shocked, actually.


I really enjoyed my first proper excursion into Maugham’s work and if I wasn’t halfway through a readalong, I’d be grabbing another volume off the tbr – highly recommended!

(A word of warning to those of sensitive disposition – and I hate myself for even saying this – the book is of its age and so inevitably displays some racial stereotyping. Ignore this as being something that will displayed in all books from this era, and just enjoy great writing.)

July Reading Plans: Another spanner….

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So, having made my July plans and then having them disrupted by the lovely arrival of the collection of Dickens books mentioned in my post below, I rather shot myself in the foot when a colleague at work was putting in an order for the Book People and said did I want anything to get free postage. I had a quick look at their site, and there was this lovely set of 10 Somerset Maugham books, reduced to £5 – 50p a book!! I’ve never read any Maugham but decided this would be a good time so needless to say, I caved in instantly and they’ve just arrived looking very lovely and ready to read. Fortunately, some are rather slim and so I may well get started on one of these next. It’s a good thing I’ve allowed myself some flexibility this month…


The books are:

The Magician
Don Fernando
Liza of Lambeth
Cakes and Ale
Up at the Villa
The Narrow Corner
The Painted Veil
Christmas Holiday

I rather fancy Up at the Villa myself!

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