Secret stories

The secret lives of Somerset MaughamOn a jag of thinking about who owns stories about real people’s lives, I’ve moved from fiction to biography. “Biography appeals to the base part of human nature” said Hermione Lee. I’m probably more base than most, because I love a good biography but I’ve never given much thought to how the subject might feel.

It seems while you’re alive you might think you own your story, but once you’re dead you know you don’t. You’d know it if you weren’t dead, that is.

Somerset Maugham fell into the trap of thinking he could control who knew what about his private life after his death as he had in his life, asking his friends to destroy any letters he had written to them. According to his biographer Selina Hastings, this guaranteed they sold for large amounts.

He made a huge bonfire of his personal papers and had a clause in his will embargoing those that survived, but the Royal Literary Fund rescinded the clause and gave Hastings access to his papers.

Maugham might have wanted his secret lives to stay secret, but the book called The secret lives of Somerset Maugham came out anyway.

Do your wishes count after you’re dead?

Secret Lives at Wellington Writers and Readers Week

Cover of The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham9.30 a.m. on the first day of Wellington Writers and Readers Week. Turning up at this hour on a Saturday shows true dedication to literature, but plenty of people were there to see Selina Hastings talk about her biography of Somerset Maugham.

Gratifyingly for those among us who like our authors to look the part (that is, me), she looked and sounded just as the biographer of Rosamond Lehmann and Nancy Mitford should: like an immaculately groomed English gentlewoman whose skin has never felt the relentless rays of the harsh Antipodean sun, and whose vowels were rounded at Oxford.

Hastings was attracted to telling the life story of that ‘dissolute charmer’ Somerset Maugham because, like so many of us, she read him off the shelves of her parents’ library when moving from children’s to adult’s books.

Maugham was once the most famous author in the world, although he said of himself: “I know just where I stand, in the very front row of the second rate”.  Probably best remembered now for his stories of the British in the Far East, his spy stories are his true legacy. John le Carré has said the modern spy story begins with Maugham’s Ashenden stories as he was the first author to write about the actuality of espionage. Winston Churchill, a life-long friend, actually told Maugham to destroy 14 of the Ashenden stories because they breached the Official Information Act.

Maugham was implacably opposed to the idea of a biography, holding a large bonfire of his personal papers and embargoing the rest, even writing to old friends ordering them to tear up his letters. All for naught though, as Hastings was granted access to his papers by the Royal Literary Fund, his literary executors. She even tracked down the notes made by his first biographer, who had spoken to people who knew him when he was alive. These notes were owned by a reclusive book collector in Sydney who was also very helpful.

Maugham’s stated conviction that “a life of myself is bound to be dull” seems to be very far from the truth; he trained as a doctor, completed over 90 undercover missions as a secret agent, survived a disastrous marriage to Syrie, the most celebrated interior designer of her time and the woman responsible for the craze for the all-white room, became fabulously wealthy and lived a long life on the South of France, that “sunny place for shady people”.

I couldn’t help feeling a bit sorry for Maugham, going to such lengths to thwart future biographers and being ultimately unsuccessful, but, as Hastings said, he died in 1965, so there is no-one left alive to be hurt by anything that could be said about him, he was an important figure and people are interested in him.  And I plan to read her book so I can’t get on any sort of high horse.

Should the wishes of those who don’t want to be written about after their deaths be honoured?