Saturday, January 13, 2018

Up at the Villa - Somerset Maugham

It's been a long, dull, exhausting, week of post Christmas clear up at work which has included a full audited stock count. Consequently I've not been reading much, or anything else really, but at least I'm out the other side now with exciting things to look forward to.

One of those things should be to add more Maugham to my reading list. The little I've read in recent years I've really loved, and there's plenty more on the shelf. I didn't see the 2000 film adaptation of Up at the Villa, which sounds like it had an excellent cast but took unreasonable liberties with the plot.

Mary Panton is a still young, and very attractive, widow. Her marriage wasn't altogether successful- her charming husband turned out to be an alcoholic gambler who lost all his money. Rich friends have lent Mary their Villa in the hills above Florence where she's contemplating her options. The obvious option is Edgar Swift. He's known and adored Mary virtually all her life, is considerably older, and looks set to be next Viceroy of India or somesuch.

It's an attractive package - wealth, security, a job to do, and prestige, but it also means a loss of freedom. Meanwhile there's the entirely unreliable Rowley Flint, who has ex wives and a shady past with women, but is interested and amusing, and finally there's a very bad decision that Mary makes in the form of a young man she picks up by the side of the road.

What she intends as a generous and romantic gesture in the form of a one night stand goes horribly wrong. The back blurb on my copy says that Mary "...comes to realise that to deny love, with all its passions and risks, is to deny life itself."

I don't quite agree with that conclusion, not least because attraction is the key here rather than love. If Mary could have added attraction to the affection and respect she clearly has for Edgar Swift he'd probably have been her first husband, and she'd certainly have agreed to be his wife by the end of the first chapter. Rowley Flint threatens her peace of mind because of the mutual attraction between them - there's always the possibility that it could become love, but no guarantees.

I'm not sure that Maugham is particularly interested in love here either, what makes this such a compelling novella to me are the moral and ethical dilemmas it raises rather than it's eventual conclusion - although I found that satisfying too. And I can't argue with the cover quote that declares Maugham 'One of the most underrated writers of the last century'. Reading more of him is definitely a New Years resolution.


  1. I come from a generation who as young readers eschewed Maugham as symbolic of everything we wanted to leave behind and as a result I have to admit that I have read nothing by him. Older (definitely) and wiser (I hope) this is clearly a gap I should do something about.

    1. This is the third and a bit I've read. All have been different, all good in different ways. 'The Magician' was the oddest of the 3, a kind of gothic horror with all sorts of lurid details that borrows heavily from the life of Aleister Crowley (who didn't much appreciate it). The bit is a book of reminiscences and essays that digs a quill into Elizabeth Von Arnim. He describes her as amusing but (paraphrasing) something of a bitch - which rings true. I must dig that one out and finish it. 'Up at the Villa' is novella length so it's a good place to start, and whilst he's undeniably of his time there's an edge to him that I find very satisfying here.

  2. I loved this book. I've read it several times and it's just as good every time. I have seen the movie version, which I found disappointing -- there are some plot changes (though I can't remember them offhand) and I thought Sean Penn was terribly miscast as Rowley, I thought he came off more sleazy then scoundrelly.

    I've read quite a lot of Maugham and I also loved The Painted Veil and Of Human Bondage, which is really his masterpiece. It's long, but it's worth every minute. I first read it back in college and loved it, and I reread it a couple of years ago and it absolutely was just as wonderful. I may have to read it again soon.

  3. I have lots of short stories and a handful of the earlier novels hanging around - so lots to get stuck into. I read The Painted Veil as a postal book group book. One I'm particularly grateful for because before that I didn't think I liked Maugham - it's a great thing to find you've been wrong about!