Somerset Maugham – Whitstable’s controversial author inspires new ‘WhitLit’ literary festival

Author Somerset Maugham
Author Somerset Maugham © Carl Van Vechten

It doesn’t matter where you live, you’re sure to know a ‘character’. A person whose life seems to be full of drama and scandal and who naturally draws attention. For Whitstable during the 20th Century that character was the author Somerset Maugham whose exploits as a war spy and entanglements with a gay lover kept the gossips busy. Revelations following his death have left his reputation in tatters, however, and Victoria Falconer, the director of Whitstable’s new literary festival Whitlit, says it’s time to put the record straight.

In the following guest post, Victoria explains why Whitstable should be proud rather than embarrassed by its former resident and reveals her plan to put his name back on the literary circuit.

Over to you Victoria….

Somerset Maugham was the biggest selling novelist of the 1930s. His books sold in their millions and his plays performed all over the world, but since his death in 1969, his personal and professional reputation has suffered a sharp decline and he remains today a distinctly unfashionable literary figure.

Even in Whitstable, the town where he grew up and made famous (as ‘Blackstable’) in two of his most famous books, Cakes and Ale and Of Human Bondage, the locals feel distinctly ambivalent towards Maugham. When questioned, the few residents who have heard of him comment “Well he hated Whitstable didn’t he?” There are no Maugham plaques or memorials in the town, and his childhood home was knocked down over 50 years ago.

As the Founder and Director of WhitLit, I wanted to make sure Maugham was at the heart of the festival. I first read Maugham as a student having known of the Whitstable connection and enjoyed his books. I particularly remember reading Of Human Bondage in a two day marathon during a holiday to Greece. I’ve always found it sad that Whitstable hasn’t celebrated Maugham more and thinks he hated the town. It’s true Maugham had an unhappy and lonely childhood here, but that was because he was orphaned and sent to live with unaffectionate relatives who he’d never met before. But his recollections of Whitstable in Cakes and Ale are very fond. In later life he became alienated from his family by his private secretary and sadly, his personal life has cast a shadow over the rest of his work. But his books and short stories are still as relevant and entertaining today as they were when they were written. I think it’s a travesty that Maugham is rarely taught in schools or even degree courses and he’s overlooked in favour of more fashionable British 20th century authors like Greene, Waugh and Woolf.

All Saints Church - Victoria Falconer
All Saints Church – © Victoria Falconer

W.Somerset Maugham (1874-1965), was born in Paris but spent his formative years in Whitstable, after being orphaned at an early age. He lived with his uncle who was Vicar of All Saints Church, and had a difficult and lonely childhood. He attended the King’s School Canterbury, and studied in Germany before moving to London to train as a doctor. The success of his second book, Liza of Lambeth, enabled him to become a full- time author and playwright.

He penned over one hundred short stories and twenty one novels, and there are over thirty film adaptations of his work. His influence as a writer has been extensive, his detective Ashenden was said to be the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s James Bond whilst George Orwell said he was “the modern writer who has influenced me the most”. Outwardly his life was richly rewarding, but Maugham expertly concealed a turbulent private life. Predominantly homosexual, he made a disastrous marriage to Syrie Wellcome, but also suffered anguish from an unrequited love affair and a shocking final betrayal. He retired to the South of France, but his ashes were scattered at the King’s School, Canterbury. His uncle, the Reverend Henry Maugham, is buried in All Saints Churchyard.

Cover of Cakes and Ales © Vintage
Cover of Cakes and Ales © Vintage

Through a series of Maugham related events, WhitLit will spotlight the writer. The acclaimed one man play Mr Maugham at Home starring Anthony Smee will be performed at the Playhouse theatre, there will be a walking tour of Maugham’s Whitstable taking in the landscapes and landmarks featured in his books, All Saints church where Maugham’s uncle was a vicar will be holding an Ales and Tales event, and courtesy of Vintage Random House 200 copies of Cakes and Ale will be distributed free for local book clubs to read. A debate on the book will take place during the festival chaired by Val Hennessy, literary critic at the Daily Mail.

Headlining the Maugham events will be the screening of the recent documentary Revealing Mr Maugham, introduced by the director Michael House who will be flying in from Paris for the occasion. This will be followed by a debate on Maugham with House, his acclaimed biographer Selina Hastings, and his grandchildren Camilla Chandon and Nic Paravicini.

Camilla Chandon says of her grandfather: “I am very proud to be WSM’s granddaughter and would like to point out that spending much of my time in Spain and being married to a French husband, I am delighted to find that he is still extremely well known abroad and his books are recommended reading for post graduate students studying English in both these countries. He is still highly regarded in the States where people are always very interested in meeting one of his descendants. I have also noticed that hardly a week goes by without a mention or a quote from him in the many literary magazines to which I subscribe. ”

Jane Austen, DH Lawrence and Daphne Du Maurier all have literary festivals dedicated to them and I feel it’s right that Maugham is put on the literary map and celebrated in the town. It’s a real coup to be able to bring together Selina Hastings, Michael House and Maugham’s family, who have never appeared in public before to talk about their grandfather. They are delighted about WhitLit’s plans and we hope that the festival gets the town and wider area reading his books again. It’s about time Maugham got credit for his contribution to literature.

Thanks for sharing your inspiration Victoria, WhitLit sounds fantastic and I can’t wait to visit. 

WhitLit will be taking place in Whitstable from 8-11 May. For the full programme and ticket information visit www.whitlit.co.uk

Appearing authors: Selina Hastings, Lynn Barber John Gordon Sinclair, Anthony Browne, Jenny Boyd, Ben Moor, Margaret Pemberton, Sarah Harrison, Andy Miller, Nick Russell Pavier, Stephen Cooper, Mary Hamer, Linda M James, Aggie MacKenzie, Pen Farthing, Janetta Harvey, DE Meredith, Essie Fox, Lloyd Shepherd, Andrew McGuinness, Christopher Fowler, Barry Forshaw, Andrew Lycett, Peter Clark, Tom Hodgkinson, Gavin Pretor Pinney, Danny Rhodes, Emma Thomson, Paul Fraser Collard, Angus Donald,

Cover of May's Kent Life Magazine
Cover of May’s Kent Life Magazine

If you fancy a different kind of behind the scenes peek at Whitlit (and two of Kent’s other leading literary festivals) then please read my piece ‘Speaking out’ in the May issue of Kent Life magazine.

 

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