A Reader's Guide to W.Somerset Maugham and 'Cakes and Ale'
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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
It has to be one of the most ferocious novels ever written, and is a superb indictment of hypocrisy and the evils of fake piety. Its energy, bite and attacks on so many aspects of the 19thC meant that I could never view Victorianism in quite the same way again after reading it.
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.
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