Week 100: Of Human Bondage

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Of Human Bondage book review

“The summer came upon the country like a conqueror”.

It’s not the first line of Somerset Maugham’s masterpiece, but it’s one of many I wish I’d written. I first read this book many, many years ago (don’t like to say just how many) and loved it. I was swept away by the characters, especially the protagonist, a young man with a club foot who is, as you might guess, inordinately sensitive about it. It’s not an understatement to say it profoundly shapes his outlook on life, given that he’s ridiculed by classmates and colleagues, who resort to calling him a “cripple” when they really want to wound.

Of all the novels Maugham wrote, Of Human Bondage is the closest to autobiography. His parents died when he was a child, and he was sent to England to live with his uncle, the Vicar of Whitstable. His uncle was cold and emotionally distant, and school was a difficult experience. As he put it later in The Summing Up, he had much going against him:

“I was small; I had endurance but little physical strength; I stammered; I was shy; I had poor health. I had no facility for games, which play so great a part in the normal life of Englishmen; and I had, whether for any of these reasons or from nature I do not know, an instinctive shrinking from my fellow men that has made it difficult for me to enter into any familiarity with them.”

If you substitute the stammer for a club foot, that passage is an apt description of Philip Carey, Maugham’s fictional protagonist. Philip also loses his parents at an early age and is sent to live with an uncle, the Vicar of Blackstable. His aunt, who’s never had children of her own, cares for him, but for the most part it’s a loveless childhood, relieved only by his uncle’s vast collection of old books. As lonely children have always done and will likely continue to do, Philip finds solace in reading: The Thousand Nights and a Night, Butler’s Lives of the Saints, and The Admirable Crichton, to name a few.

Sent off to boarding school in Tercanbury, Philip’s experiences closely mirror those of the author. He is shy, has difficulty making friends, and is mocked because of his disability. Left on his own to study, he does well academically and has every chance of winning a scholarship to Oxford. His uncle hopes he will go into the Church but Philip, who has at times been very religious, is sick of school and makes up his mind to go to Germany. There he comes under the influence¬† of an idealistic Englishman named Hayward who reads Browning and Shelley, dabbles in art history, and enjoys spouting poetry – his own and that of others.

Under Hayward’s guidance, Philip’s taste in art and literature matures, and for a long time he’s blind to his friend’s pretentions. When Weeks, an American friend, dismisses Hayward as “a pretty fair speciment of a waster”, Philip defends him: Hayward, of course, is a poet while Weeks, a theology scholar, is merely a pedant.

Philip’s guardians persuade him to return to England, and he takes a job in London as a shop assistant. He hates the work, and is terribly lonely, but a business trip to Paris inspires him to move there and study art. Paris proves to be much more agreeable. He loves the city, makes friends among the other art students, and develops an understanding of art far deeper than the airy pronouncements Hayward is given to. Through his friend Lawson, Philip is introduced to Cronshaw, an eccentric poet who’s regarded with a certain amount of awe.

“He knows everyone worth knowing,” Lawson explains. “He knew Pater and Oscar Wilde, and he knows Mallarme and all those fellows.”

It’s Cronshaw who comes closest to giving Philip the answer he wants; if there is no God – and Philip has decided there probably isn’t, then what is the meaning of life?

“Have you ever been to the Cluny, the museum?” Cronshaw asks. “There you will see Persian carpets of the most exquisite hue and of a pattern the beautiful intricacy of which delights and amazes the eye. In them you will see the mystery and the sensual beauty of the East, the roses of Hafiz and the wine-cup of Omar; but presently you will see more. You were asking just now what was the meaning of life. Go and look at those Persian carpets, and one of these days the answer will come to you.”

It is later, much later in the book, that Philip comes to understand what Cronshaw was saying. Life, he realizes, is a tapestry of experiences, some comic, some tragic. There are “tears and laughter, happiness and woe; it was tedious and interesting and indifferent; it was as you saw it: it was tumultuous and passionate; it was grave; it was sad and comic; it was trivial; it was simple and complex; . . . There was neither good nor bad there. There were just facts. It was life.”

While in Paris, a fellow art student, Fanny Price, befriends him, almost against his will. Fanny is rude, sullen, and disliked by almost everyone; she goes out of her way to be unpleasant, and seems to hate the world. She is also completely without talent, but believes herself to be a genius. When Fanny eventually hangs herself, having run out of money and reached the point of starvation, Philip is deeply shaken, knowing that she was in love with him and wondering if he could have done more to help her.

Unlike Fanny, Philip eventually accepts that he’ll never be a great artist. He returns to England and, like Maugham, trains to be a doctor. (Maugham studied medicine for five years but gave it up to write full-time after the success of his first novel, Liza of Lambeth.) It’s at this stage of the narrative that we finally meet Mildred Rogers, as unpleasant a piece of work as you might ever hope to meet. Or not. For reasons that remains inexplicable to me, Philip falls passionately in love with her, after encountering her in the coffee shop where she works. She’s boring, vapid, unpleasant, and rude, and not even all that good-looking, but Philip is obsessed with her. It would take another page to describe all the ways she uses him – suffice to say she’s a bad apple and when she finally disappears from the story, suffering, we think, from syphilis, the reader can only breathe a thankful sigh of relief.

As much as I dislike Mildred, I accept that she plays a hugely important role: she’s a living, breathing personification of the impulses that keep men and women in bondage. Maugham borrowed his title from Part IV of Spinoza’s Ethics, wherein he states that our inability to control our emotions constitutes a form of servitude. Philip is unable to control his passion for Mildred and she, in turn, is a victim of her own impulsive behaviour.

So while Mildred is nasty, she’s necessary.

While I think of it, if you want a laugh, check out Bette Davis’ portrayal of Mildred in the 1934 movie version. Her interpretation of a Cockney waitress is almost as awful as Dick Van Dyke’s chimney sweep 30 years later. Leslie Howard as Philip is quite wonderful but nothing will ever compare with the book. Not even close.

 

 

 

 

By | 2019-07-04T14:13:18+00:00 July 4th, 2019|Uncategorized|2 Comments

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2 Comments

  1. Jack Emberly July 5, 2019 at 1:27 am - Reply

    Wonderful inciteful synopsis of a great book

    • margietaylor July 5, 2019 at 1:39 am - Reply

      Thanks so much, Jack! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

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