‘Of all Somerset Maugham’s novels Cakes and Ale is the gayest’ says the blurb on the back of this 1960s Penguin edition. Having only read The Moon and Sixpence and Of Human Bondage, I can’t offer a definitive judgement on this, but it’s definitely a light-hearted and enjoyable read. Indeed, these are two descriptors I would immediately associate with all the Maugham I have read. Cakes and Ale follows in this tradition. I won’t talk at length about this novel because it’s short and I really think I’d do it an injustice to pull it apart – it’s a book made for reading and the simple pleasure thereof.
So, a short synopsis. It’s a story within a story – the protagonist and first-person narrator is a writer, asked by a friend and biographer to recall his association with an eminent writer called Edward Driffield whom he met during his childhood and who is now deceased. The past association that our protagonist had with Driffield; his family and acquaintance in his youth makes up two-thirds of the novel, while the trials of the present day make up the remaining portion. The tone is always slightly tongue-in-cheek – there is an awareness of the ridiculousness of the social norms and niceties of the day that pervades this novel and that makes it sparkle for the modern reader. There is also a fair amount of space given to the exploration of ‘greatness’ in writers. Maugham has an inkling that being made into ‘a monument’ whilst still alive must be irksome to a writer, and paints the character of Driffield in such a way as to emphasise his point.
The linchpin of the whole thing, however, is Rosie, the prodigiously unfaithful wife of Driffield and lover of our protagonist. She is portrayed as a simple, even common, country girl – significantly not a great, timeless beauty* – with an inexhaustible love of life and loving; ‘she was a very simple woman. Her instinct were healthy and ingenuous. She loved to make people happy.’ She is neither secretive nor ashamed, her unstinting infidelity ‘had no effect on her character; she remained sincere, unspoiled, and artless’. It’s an astonishingly liberal, accessible and empowering portrait, all the more so for the comic way in which it depicts those characters who attack or wilfully misunderstand Rosie. Maugham states in his preface that he had ‘long had in mind the character of Rosie’ and ‘had wanted for years to write about her’ which confirms my suspicions that this novel is really built around her. Great stuff.
* which puts me in mind of countless writers who have spoken about women and ‘beauty’ in literature – the way in which it is too often offered as an excuse for all manner of things, used as a sole defining characteristic, or simply inflicted as an unattainable ideal. One notable example is Adrienne Rich’s Ideal Landscape; ‘Our friends were not unearthly beautiful/Nor spoke with tongues of gold’.