Book review: Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham

Cakes and Ale
Cakes and Ale

I came away from reading this with quite a mixed impression. The introduction – quite useful for a book that was written near three quarters of a century back – gives some interesting background information as to the objects of Maugham’s satire: the literary lions of early 20th century England, and in particular Thomas Hardy and Horace Walpole, although near everyone who was everyone in letters at the time comes in for some flack. But the question arises: is satire relevant when everyone who is being satirised is long dead, as are almost all the attitudes addressed? It can be – think of Waugh’s A Handful of Dust – but in Waugh’s case that is as much for the cold deadliness of his dismantling of an entire class of people as for the satire itself.

Cakes and Ale is also praised for its portrayal of Rosie Driffield, the unsuitable first wife of the grand literary figure in the story. It’s supposed to be one of Maugham’s most rounded portrayals of a woman, and indeed Maugham himself said he based it on a real person, an actress of notable warmth and freedom – particularly sexually. So we have in Rosie a woman who gives herself, freely and unselfconsciously, to many lovers, sharing her body as easily as other women might share cake. I can’t get past the suspicion that she is a male fantasy of a woman (and I know that Maugham was mainly gay), a woman who has no sexual hang ups, who regards sex as casually and easily as some men like to think they do, a woman who can do sex without emotional entanglement. Was Maugham’s model for Rosie Driffield really like that? I wonder.


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