Poor Willie

When the Horsebridge Arts and Community Centre opened in 2004 the large gallery was named the Somerset Maugham Gallery.

This news drifted around the town, settling uneasily in the minds of the older natives. Vaguely remembered whispers, passed down and since consigned to the past, re-emerged. They were unhappy, but why? We’ll travel back through the centuries to discover what was troubling them.

William Somerset Maugham’s father, Robert, was a lawyer based in the British Embassy in Paris. In 1894 when their new baby was due his wife Edith moved into the Embassy to give birth to William, ensuring that when grew up he could not be conscripted into the French military. His first years were ones of some refinement amongst a culture of art and respectability. Life changed dramatically for him after his mother died of TB when he was 8 and his father died when he was 10.

William Somerset Maugham

William Somerset Maugham

His nannie brought him to Whitstable to live with his uncle, the Vicar of Whitstable, Henry Maugham. Henry and his German wife Barbara decided that they couldn’t afford the nannie and sent her back to Paris. This left the French speaking and lonely William, living with his Uncle who was known as rather bigoted and severe, not even allowing him talk to the local children or tradesmen.

William was sent to King’s School in Canterbury where he was often teased about his poor English. To compound this, the children in Whitstable would jibe him about his ‘poshness’ and the knickerbockers he was forced to wear. During these years of an isolated childhood, he developed a stammer which was to stay with him in some form forever. At 15, in way of escape, he began to write stories, but let no-one see them.

At 16, William continued his education at Heidelberg University in Germany, studying literature and philosophy. When William returned to Whitstable his uncle tried to persuade him to go into law, but eventually agreed that the medical profession was a suitable career for a gentleman. William spent the next five years studying medicine at St. Thomas’ Hospital in Lambeth, London.

During that time, he gained an insight to the lives of ordinary working people, using this as a background for his novel, Liza of Lambeth, which was published in 1897. It was panned by the literary critics as dirty and poorly written. The working class loved the reality of it and the book’s first print run was soon exhausted, at which point William left the medical profession to become a full-time writer.

Even when rich and successful, the memories of his life in Whitstable still haunted him and he tried to resolve this through his novels. In ‘Of Human Bondage’ he drew on his life here, writing of Blackstable and Tercanbury. His characters, thinly disguised and based often on locals, displayed unpleasant traits. In ‘Cakes and Ales,’ he actually used the family names of respectable Whitstable residents for many of his villains. The town was horrified.

In 1944 William, in a New York studio, was recording ‘Of Human Bondage’. Whilst reading the section that was based on his life in Whitstable he broke down and sobbed. He never finished the recording.

William did come back to Whitstable. The first time was for his uncle’s funeral in 1897 where he was a pall-bearer. The last time was in 1951 to visit the Vicarage, off Canterbury Road, where he had lived, now a private house owned by Dr. Nesfield. He stayed at the Bear and Key Hotel and, although seen by many townspeople, was shunned by them all.

Was the eventual naming of a gallery at the Horsebridge a sign of forgiveness by the locals? Somehow I doubt it, but perhaps one day it should be seen as such.