William Somerset Maugham was born in Paris in 1874. His parents died when he was very little and the boy was brought up by his uncle, a clergyman.
In his book The Summing Up (1938) Maugham recollects: "My parents died when I was so young, my mother when I was eight, my father when I was ten, that I know little of them but from hearsay".
After his parents' death the boy was taken away from the French school which he had attended, and went for his lessons daily to the apartment of the English clergymen at the church attached to the Embassy.
"His methods of teaching me English," continues Maugham, "was to make me read aloud the police-court news in The Standard and I can still remember the horror with which I read the ghastly details of a murder in the train between Paris and Calais. I must then have been nine".
At the age of ten the boy was sent to England to attend school. In 1890 he went abroad and studied at the university of Heidelberg from which he returned to England in 1892 and as his parents had destined him from the medical profession, he became a medical student at St Thomas's hospital in London.
Of this period of his life he writes: "All this was a valuable experience to me. I do not know a better training for a writer than to spend some years in the medical profession".
His experience in treating the sick in the slums of the working-class areas gave Maugham material for his first work, Liza of Lambeth (1897). After that, although he had taken his degree in medicine and became a fully qualified doctor Somerset decided to devote his life to literature. "I did not want to be a doctor. I did not want to be anything but a writer... When I began to write I did so as though it were the most natural thing in the world".
Soon after the publication of his first novel Maugham went to Spain and then travelled wildly to all parts of the world. He visited Russia, America, Africa, Asia and the Polynesian Islands, and wherever he was, he always sought material for his books. He was a keen observer of life and characters.
Somerset Maugham has written 24 plays, nineteen novels and a large number of short stories, in addition to travel works and autobiographies.
The most mature period of Maugham's literary career began in 1915,when he published one of his most popular novels, Of Human Bondage.
The revolt of the individual against the conventions of society is a theme which has always fascinated Somerset Maugham. It is the inspiration of the next novel The Moon and Sixpence (1919), which makes use of some outstanding facts in the life of Paul Gauguin.
The hero of the novel, Charles Strickland, is a prosperous stockbroker. At the beginning of the book the reader sees him through the eyes of a young writer, the narrator of the novel: "He looked commonplace... he was just a good, dull, honest, plain man. One would admire his excellent qualities, but avoid his company. He was a null. He was probably a worthy member of society, a good husband and father, an honest broker; but there was no reason to waste one's time over him..."
The rest of the book shows how wrong the narrator's first impression was and the reader's attitude towards Strickland's character changes as the novel progresses.
All those who came in touch with the Stricklands were puzzled and taken by surprise when they learned that Charles Strickland, at the age of forty, had given up his wife and children and gone to Paris to study art. Strickland was aware of all the hardships in store for him, but his desire to paint was so strong that no arguments were convincinv enough to make him alter his decision to devote his life to art. Strickland's conversation with the narrator who went to Paris to persuade the stockbroker to return to his wife, shows Strickland's character in a new light.
"What makes you think you have any talent?"...
His answer was no answer.
"I've got to paint".
"Aren't you taking an awful chance?"...
"I've got to paint," he repeated...
Strickland's life in Paris was "a bitter struggle against every sort of difficulty", but the hardships which would have seemed horrible to most people did not in the least affect him. He was indifferent to comfort. Canvas and paint were the only things he needed. "...When no food was to be had he seemed capable of doing without... There was something impressive in the manner in which he lived a life wholly of the spirit".
Strickland did not care for fame. Nor did he care for wealth. He never sold his pictures. He lived in a dream, and reality meant nothing to him. Never was he satisfied with what he had done; "it seemed to him of no consequence compared with the vision that obsessed his mind..."
The only aim of his life was to create beauty.
Not long before his terrible death of leprosy, far from his native land, on the remote island of Tahiti, Strickland realised his lifelong dream. The pictures on the walls of his dilapidated house were his masterpiece. In them "Strickland had finally put the whole expression of himself... he must have said all that he knew of life and all that he divined, and he had at last found peace..."
Maugham tries to be impartial to his characters. They are neither all good nor all bad. "I cannot bring myself to judge my fellows; I am content to observe them. My obsertation has led me to believe that, all in all, there is not so much difference between the good and the bad as the moralists would have us believe..."
The reader despises Strickland as a human being; he is selfish, cruel, pitiless and cynical. He loves no one. He ruined the life of Dirk Stroeve and his wife who had nursed him when he was dangerously ill. He did not care for his wife and children, and brought misfortune to all the people he came in touch with. But, on the other hand, the reader worships him as a talented artist, a creator of beauty. His passionate devotion to art arouses our admiration.
Maugham wants the reader to draw his own conclusion about the characters and events described in his novels.
The other most prominent works by Somerset Maugham are: Cakes and Ale (1930), Theatre (1937) and The Razor's Edge (1944).
Realistic portrayal of life, keen character observation, and interesting plots coupled with beautiful, expressive language, simple and lucid style, place Somerset Maugham on a level with the greatest English writers of the 20th century.