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48-Sept-Oct-2010
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A Biography

A-The Secret LivesSelina Hastings has previously written biographies of British novelists Evelyn Waugh, Rosamond Lehmann, and Nancy Mitford. Her latest effort focuses on the accomplished, complex, and sometimes pitiable life of renowned British author Somerset Maugham.

The Topic: "I know just where I stand, in the very front row of the second rate," British author Somerset Maugham famously (and maybe a bit disingenuously) said of his reputation. Maugham, who penned such classics as Of Human Bondage, Cakes and Ale, and The Moon and Sixpence, was one of the most famous, prolific (78 books and 31 plays), and wealthy authors of the first half of the 20th century. Still, his legacy is far from secure. Maugham, who died in 1965 at the age of 91, lost his mother early and developed a persistent stammer. Unhappily married and unable to live his life as he would like--openly gay, with longtime companion Gerald Haxton--Maugham spent the end of his life in sad, bitter reflection on his earlier exploits as a doctor, an intrepid British spy, and an irrepressible bon vivant.
Random House. 640 pages. $35. ISBN13: 9781400061419

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Selina Hastings’ excellent The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham may not be the final word on [Maugham], but hers is a perspective likely to endure. Hastings ... has given Maugham something no other biographer has: his due." David Walton

Daily Beast 4 of 5 Stars
"Behind the bling was ever a hint of more: more of the dark we feel in the chilling love of club-footed Philip for the cruel waitress in Of Human Bondage; more of the light of the man who mused on Capri, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ Selina Hastings, in her often breathtaking new biography The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, proves that there was indeed more--much more." Brad Gooch

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"The story of William Somerset Maugham, the stammering young boy who became a doctor and then the world’s most famous writer since Dickens, has often been told, but in this new biography, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, Selina Hastings draws upon previously unavailable material to create the fullest, most sympathetic portrait thus far. ... Hastings may not have unlocked all of Maugham’s secrets, and she can’t always make us like him, but she offers the most intimate, persuasive glimpse inside the old bag thus far." Richard Rayner

Time 4 of 5 Stars
"In The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, Selina Hastings ... has written a magnificent, gripping account of the contrarieties that were held together in Maugham’s personality. ... Hastings exposes the polarities." Neel Mukherjee

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Ms. Hastings draws on thorough research and recently released documents to trace Maugham’s busy life--his stormy marriage, his attentiveness to his daughter, Liza, his world-wide travels, his literary quarrels, his generosity to younger writers, his often furtive homosexuality--but she also pays a great deal of attention to his literary output, where the emphasis belongs. ... Ms. Hastings’s uncommonly absorbing and judicious biography allows us to see the writer in full." Martin Rubin

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"While certainly a page turner, Hastings’s new biography won’t replace the far more detailed work of [Ted] Morgan. Still, my only serious reservation about The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham is that it lays out the plots of many of its subject’s stories and of all his novels (though the political reading of Christmas Holiday seems a bit one-sided, given the love affair at its heart)." Michael Dirda

Critical Summary

Veteran biographer Selina Hastings scrupulously, and with great heart, reexamines the life of Somerset Maugham, one of the most talented and enigmatic writers of the 20th century. The author was given access to the available correspondence, as well as first look at a frank remembrance of her father by Maugham’s daughter, Liza. Hastings takes full advantage of the opportunity, deftly handling the complexities of Maugham’s character and the writer’s careful navigation through the minefields of Victorian and Edwardian social mores. The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham is not only the rare biography that transcends the mere story of a life; it is also "one of [the year’s] outstanding social and literary histories" (Cleveland Plain Dealer). Just don’t read it before reading Maugham’s works--spoilers abound here.