W. Somerset Maugham & 'Cakes and Ale'

Whenever I re-read Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham, I want to go cycling with Rosie down English country lanes and share a fish supper with her and Ted. Will you fall under Rosie’s spell too?

There are not many novels that can be described as having charm, but this is one of them. I love Cakes and Ale! I so enjoy its devastating critique of the literary world, I warm to its heroine, I laugh over its comic passages and I enjoy picturing the Kentish countryside and the world of literary London as I read. Maugham is not as popular now as he once was, but his pen could be acidic, his wit penetrating, and he could capture a character in a few well-chosen words. Can’t you just feel provincial snobbery being skewered in this example: “Lady Hodmarsh and the duchess immediately assumed the cringing affability that persons of rank assume with their inferiors in order to show them that they are not in the least conscious of any difference in station between them.”?

It was Maugham’s own favourite amongst his works, the one by which he most wished to be remembered. Cakes and Ale is a delightful satire of London literary society between the wars and the story of a writer who gets all his inspiration from his first wife, to the horror of his second. It is also a portrait of novelist Hugh Walpole (as the character Alroy Kear), in what one critic called “one of the most memorable literary dissections since Dickens’ treatment of Leigh Hunt as Mr Skimpole in Bleak House”. Walpole’s reputation never quite recovered, but the critics all loved Cakes and Ale.

“Enjoy yourself while you have the chance, I say; we shall all be dead in a hundred years and what will anything matter then?”
― Cakes and Ale, W. Somerset Maugham

When Maugham wrote this novel, he was under contract to an American publisher to produce a short story a month and he wondered if the idea in his head about a famous writer in Whitstable might do for a story. But he came to see that there was too much of his idea, and he wanted to do full justice to the character of the famous author’s wife, who was to be based on his old love Sue Jones. There was far too much of voluptuous Sue to be limited to a few thousand words.

I encountered this novel, the first of Maugham’s I’d ever read, as a result of the 1974 TV version. I was so enchanted that I just had to read the book – I was not disappointed. I hope that you enjoy going cycling with Ted, Rosie and Willie down Kentish lanes, lunching in a London club with Willie and Alroy, and that you relish the satire and comedy of this gorgeous novel.

What did you think of this book? How do you respond to Rosie – is she just a lying and unfaithful wife, or is she a generous and charming character? I always love to hear what you think. Leave a comment.

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I only recommend books I have read or know. Some of these links are my affiliate links. If you buy a book by clicking on one of these links I receive a small commission. It doesn’t cost you anything extra, but does help cover the cost of producing my free newsletter.
Body image credit- W. Somerset Maugham, Cakes & Ale book cover, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17281533
Body image credit- W. Somerset Maugham, Tucker Collection – New York Public Library Archives, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16242864
Body image credit- Judy Cornwell as Rosie Gann, Cakes & Ale, W. Somerset Maugham, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0072482/

Comments (3)

  1. Lindy Jefferson

    Hi Susannah,

    I managed to track down the 1974 TV version of ‘Cakes and Ale’ and have just finished watching it online.

    Open Vault in WGBH located in Boston Massachusetts hold it. I contacted the following person, Peter Higgins who arranged for me to be able to view it.

    If you contact him directly, he will email you with instructions. You then reply to confirm so that he can then send you the link and temporary password. You can view the three episodes over two weeks with the option to extend if necessary.

    Here are his contact details and the webpage where I discovered that they had it:

    Peter Higgins
    Archivist
    WGBH Media Library & Archives
    ‪One Guest Street‬
    ‪Boston, MA 02135‬
    p| ‪617-300-4206‬
    e| archive_requests@wgbh.org

    http://openvault.wgbh.org/catalog/V_2208632F39F746A1BBAF7D00487847F5

    Kind regards,

    Lindy Jefferson

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Lindy, you have made my day! How exciting that I might get to watch the series again. I hope it lives up to my good memories of it. I have contacted Peter and am so very grateful to you for passing on this information. Many many thanks!

  2. Susannah Fullerton

    I am so glad you enjoy my newsletters. Feel free to share them around with book-loving friends.

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