“He was the man and she was the woman, and the world was a garden of Eden conjured up by the power of passion.” – Mrs Craddock, by W. Somerset Maugham

December 4, 2010 at 9:39 pm (Book review, books)

Bertha Ley is a beautiful and spirited young woman. She is also an heiress; Court Leys, the family seat in the village of Blackstable, in Kent, becomes, with the death of her father, wholly Bertha’s, to do with as she wishes. And what she wishes is to bring Edward Craddock, yeoman farmer, into her home by making him her husband.

Bertha’s determination to marry “beneath her” raises eyebrows among the denizens of Blackstable. But Bertha is undeterred by the objections they raise to her plans for matrimony. She is wildly, hopelessly in love with Edward.

Or rather, she is wildly and hopelessly in love with love. That Edward should be the object of her yearning is not wholly irrational; he is young, good looking, robust, and congenial. But Bertha is cosmopolitan. She has a love of books and the arts, cultivated during her travels on the continent. For their honeymoon, she has plans for herself and Edward to make their leisurely way through Italy. She’s thinking in terms of a sojourn of several months. Edward is horrified; he couldn’t possibly leave the farm for so long a time. Besides, he harbors an innate distrust of foreign climes, maintaining stoutly that England was good enough for him. So, a stay of some months in Italy becomes a two-week stay in London. Problem? Not at all – at least, not at first. Bertha is so besotted, her beloved can do no wrong.

Once they are safely ensconced at Court Leys, Bertha is ready to live out a storybook idyll with her Prince Charming. She happily anticipates a life filled with passion and drama.  Alas, Edward is far more interested in matters agricultural. His nature is cheerful and pragmatic – and utterly devoid of romantic inclination.To give you an idea of what I mean: here, in the early weeks of the marriage, is Bertha speaking to her husband:

“”Oh, you don’t know how I adore you,’ she cried, passionately. ‘My love will never alter, it is too strong. To the end of my days I shall always love you with all my heart. I wish I could tell you what I feel.'”

This, on the other hand, is Edward:

“‘Women are like chickens,…Give ’em a good run, properly closed in with stout wire-netting so that they can’t get into mischief, and when they cluck and cackle, just sit tight and take no notice.'”

One can only be thankful that he expressed these barnyard-inspired sentiments to a friend and not to Bertha herself!

One does not need an advanced degree to know that we are venturing into Can This Marriage Be Saved territory. (How I used to love that feature in the Ladies’ Home Journal!)

Up until the time of her wedding, Bertha has a companion living with her at Court Leys: her Aunt Polly, usually called simply Miss Ley. It is tempting to describe the lady as a maiden or spinster aunt. She is in her forties and has never married. But there is nothing spinsterish about Miss Ley. Possessing an independent income, she is disinclined to marry because she has neither a financial nor an emotional need to do so.  But she also feels that Bertha must make her own decisions. Having seen her niece safely wed, Miss Ley promptly decamps, though she is assured that hers will always be a welcome presence at Court Leys. And indeed, Polly Ley has a further, crucial part to play in this narrative.

One of the many pleasures of this novel is Maugham’s depiction of the village of Blackstable.  It must be said, it’s not a particularly affectionate portrait. The denizens of the village are for the most part provincial and narrow-minded.  This is especially true of  the vicar’s sister Miss Glover, a tiresome busybody if there ever was one. The vicar himself, on the other hand, is merely dull and ineffectual. One character is summed up thus:  “‘Mr. Branderton has been to Eton and Oxford, but he conceals the fact with very great success.'” (This succinct judgment served up by Miss Ley.) And yet, there is a touch, if not of affection, at least of recognition and respect, in this evocative passage:

There is always a certain flurry in a country-house on Sunday morning. There is in the air a feeling peculiar to the day, a state of alertness and expectation; even when they are repeated for years, week by week, the preparations for church cannot be taken coolly. The odour of clean linen is unmistakable, everyone is highly starched and somewhat ill at ease; there is a hunt for prayer-books and hymn-books; the ladies of the party are never ready in time and sally out at last buttoning their gloves; the men stamp and fume and take out their watches.

Somerset Maugham was born to English parents living in Paris in 1874. As a child there, he led a charmed existence, enjoying an especially close and loving relationship with his mother. But Edith Maugham died of tuberculosis in 1882. The blow was  devastating. Maugham’s father tried to fill the gap for his traumatized son but was himself dead of cancer just two years later. Maugham was shipped to England, a country that was utterly alien to him, at the age of ten. He went to live with his uncle Henry MacDonald Maugham, vicar of Whitstable, in Kent. The vicar was cold and self-regarding; his wife Sophie, only slightly less so and doting slavishly on her husband. While dwelling there, young Maugham was acutely miserable. ( The couple eventually sent him to boarding school, an experience which he likewise loathed.) Whitstable? Blackstable? The likeness is as clear as…well, black and white.

Maugham did gradually develop an affinity for the surrounding landscape. Here he describes the coastline of Kent:

The Kentish coast is bleak and grey between Leanham and Blackstable; through the long winter months the winds of the North Sea sweep down upon it, bowing the trees before them, and from the murky waters perpetually arise the clouds, and roll up in heavy banks. It is a country that offers those who live there what they give: sometimes the sombre colours and the silent sea express only restfulness and peace, sometimes the chill breezes send the blood racing through the veins, and red cheeks and swinging stride tell the joy of life; but also the solitude can answer the deepest melancholy, or the cheerless  sky a misery that is more terrible than death.

Mrs. Craddock was written in 1900. For its time, it was considered daring. Maugham was trying to write frankly and honestly about a woman’s sexual desire. It came as something of a surprise to me that at the turn of the century, British authors were still having to tiptoe around this subject. Maugham had some difficulty in securing a publisher for this novel, succeeding only when he agreed to delete certain passages that were deemed offensive. In his introduction to the Penguin edition pictured above, Robert Calder observes the following:  “Bertha is very likely representative of a great many young women of the time who were asserting themselves socially, intellectually and, especially, sexually. What were uncommon were novels that portrayed such women explicitly and positively.”

It is instructive to recall that D.H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, published privately in 1920, was not made available in unexpurgated form to the general reading public until the 1950s. Calder again:  “Lawrence is now rightly regarded as the author who most vigorously challenged the Victorian inhibition about sexuality that hung over British literature like a cloud in the early twentieth century, but Maugham deserves some of the recognition.”

Calder rightly cites the social and intellectual needs of women, as well as their sexual needs. In Blackstable, Bertha is stifled  by the social milieu; moreover, she has no way in which to engage her exceptionally lively mind. Church sponsored good works are about all in the way of occupation that is open to her. Small wonder then that she is so fixated on her relationship with her husband, expecting him to be one with her in a state of almost perpetual exaltation. It would be a tall order even for a man with more imagination and a greater capacity for passion than the stolid, relentlessly upbeat Edward Craddock!

As mentioned previously, Mrs. Craddock was written in 1900. It was published – finally – in 1902. The novel was an amazingly fast read; I actually had trouble putting it down. I decided to check as to which novels by Henry James saw publication around the same time.  The Wings of the Dove came out in 1902; The Ambassadors, in 1903.  I’ve not read the former, but I recall struggling through the latter in college. Generally speaking, I like and admire James, but I’m not sure it would be accurate to describe the great late novels as unputdownable.

(In The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, Selina Hastings recounts a meeting between James and Maugham that took place in Boston in 1910. Maugham was ambivalent about James’s fiction:

Maugham’s attitude to James’s work over the years was to grow increasingly equivocal, a mixture of impatience and admiration, impatience with what he saw as a lack of that empathy essential to a novelist and admiration for a superb technique. “The great novelists, even in seclusion, have lived life passionately,” Maugham wrote. “Henry James was content to observe it from a window.”)

Mrs. Craddock offers believable, appealing – or if not always appealing, interesting –  characters, a vivid picture of rural life in England at the turn of the last century, and marvelous writing, full of wit and astute observation. I absolutely loved this novel.


William Somerset Maugham, taken by Imogen Cunningham in 1935

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