Rogue Herries last year & being reminded of the scandal, I wanted to read Cakes and Ale, which, of course, has been sitting on my tbr shelves since 2011. Hugh Walpole's reputation never really recovered from his portrayal as Alroy Kear. He even wrote a letter to Maugham, asking why he had betrayed their friendship, & signed it Alroy Maugham Walpole. In his satirical portrait of literary society, Maugham also pokes fun at critics, society painters & literary hostesses. The book is very funny but I can understand why Walpole (& Hardy's widow, Florence) was so upset. The portrait of Alroy Kear is absolutely wicked & made Walpole a laughing stock.
William Ashenden is a moderately well-known writer. His friendship with Alroy Kear is intermittent & Kear usually only contacts him when he wants a favour. So, an urgent phone call from Kear asking him to lunch raises all his suspicions. Kear has been asked by Amy Driffield, widow of the famous Grand Old Man of English letters, Edward Driffield, to write a biography of her husband. Amy is summed up in one beautiful phrase, "Mrs Driffield looked as though she had taken a dose of castor oil and had just been trying to get the taste of it out of her mouth by sucking a lemon." Kear is a popular middlebrow novelist, an expert at self-promotion & flattery. He remembers that Ashenden knew Driffield when he was a boy, when Ashenden lived in the country town of Blackstable with his uncle, the vicar. Driffield was also a local boy & was married to his first wife, Rosie, who had been a barmaid. Kear wants Ashenden to write down his reminiscences but it soon transpires that only the facts & anecdotes that portray the literary lion in the making will be required. Rosie will be quietly airbrushed out of the story, an embarrassing mistake. The Edward Driffield who ran away to sea, enjoyed singing vulgar music hall songs & married beneath him will have no place in the official Life.
The request makes Ashenden suspicious as he knows exactly the kind of hagiography that Kear will write. Edward Driffield married Amy, who had been his nurse when he had pneumonia, when he was already an old man. She was much younger, very respectable & determined to make Driffield respectable too. Ashenden remembers his friendship with the Driffields. As a teenager, home for the summer holidays, he first met them out cycling & they taught him to ride. His uncle disapproved of Driffield, who has only published a few disreputable novels. Nevertheless, young Ashenden continues to see them during his school holidays until he is shocked by the news that they've skipped out one night, leaving debts everywhere. The locals suspect that "Lord" George Kemp (the local coal merchant, called "Lord" because he gave himself airs), one of Rosie's admirers, has helped with the flit.
Several years later, Ashenden is a medical student in London, trying to write his first novel in the evenings. He bumps into Rosie, who is pleased to see him & unembarrassed by the thought of their midnight flit. Ashenden becomes part of the Driffield's Bohemian circle that includes writers & painters, all of whom seem to visit for the sake of Rosie rather than Edward. Rosie is a wonderful character. She is completely natural. She's attractive, kind, thoughtful & just wants everyone to be happy. Ashenden soon discovers that this means having affairs with her husband's friends if it makes them happy & soon he, too, is one of Rosie's lovers. When Ashenden becomes jealous, Rosie sums up her whole philosophy of life,
I looked at Rosie now, with angry, hurt, resentful eyes; she smiled at me, and I wish I knew how to describe the sweet kindliness of her beautiful smile; her voice was exquisitely gentle.
'Oh, my dear, why d'you bother your head about any others?What harm does it do to you? Don't I give you a good time! Aren't you happy when you're with me?'
'Well, then. It's so silly to be fussy and jealous. Why not be happy with what you can get? Enjoy yourself while you have the chance, I say; we shall all be dead in a hundred years, and what will anything matter then? Let's have a good time while we can.'
She put her arms around my neck and pressed her lips against mine. I forgot my wrath. I only thought of her beauty and her enveloping kindness.
'You must take me as I am, you know.' she whispered.
'All right,' I said.
I don't know if Hardy refused to take a bath for the last three years of his life or if he liked to sing vulgar music hall songs but this is how Ashenden describes Edward Driffield. There are lots of parallels with Hardy though. The lower-class, embarrassing first wife; the much younger second wife who produced an official biography (actually written by Hardy himself); the scandal over the death of a child in one of his novels; the long old age at Fern Court (Hardy's Max Gate), the house in his old home town that the author had always wanted to own; the parade of younger authors & critics clamouring to visit the Grand Old Man of Letters in his last years; the fuss over the funeral arrangements with the establishment wanting a grand ceremony at Westminster Abbey against the author's wishes. Driffield is an elusive character. We never really know what he thinks about Rosie's behaviour. He seems content to be in the background. Rosie dominates the scene as she must do because we see her through Ashenden's recollections.
I feel as though I need to know more about Somerset Maugham's life now. He used the character of Ashenden in a series of short stories based on his own experience as a Secret Service agent during WWI. I wonder why he used the same character here? Was it because he was living in France when he wrote the book & felt he could poke fun at the literary world from a safe distance but still wanted them to know that it was really him, Maugham, expressing his own feelings? Although he denied that Kear was based on Walpole & Driffield based on Hardy, no one believed him. I have the Ashenden stories on the tbr shelves & I remember a TV series based on them in the 1990s (although I thought Robert Powell played Ashenden & I see it was Alex Jennings. Maybe Powell read the audio book?)