Looking for love in all the wrong places – in Edwardian England
W. Somerset Maugham’s saga of one young man’s search for love in Edwardian England is considered by many to be his masterpiece and one of the 100 best English language novels of the 20th Century. Of Human Bondage takes the reader from Philip Carey’s youth under the cold supervision of an emotionally stunted uncle, a vicar in a small English town that is wonderfully rendered, to his travels throughout the Europe of pre-World War 1 and ultimately Carey’s adulthood. Carey embarks on a series of failed and often disastrous relationships. Maugham’s restrained, precise style may seem slow to deliver at times but throughout the novel he drills down mercilessly to a core of human emotion often left unexamined in novels of this period. We see Carey at his worst much of the time: petty, weak, despairing in his obsessive longing for one particular woman, to a point where he becomes servile and pathetic (he willingly funds the tryst between her and a ‘friend’— entirely by his own design). At another low point Carey longs for the death of a relative so that he can inherit enough money to continue his studies. (The relative does take an excruciatingly long time to die though!) But even so, the reader ends up siding with Carey, even though his choices often make one want to scream. We keep turning the many pages because Philip Carey, with his club foot symbolizing our frailties made humiliatingly public, is an awful lot like us. To keep the reader this engaged is the sign of a great writer.
Despite the page count, Maugham covers a lot of ground in Of Human Bondage, much of it through territory one might have considered taboo for 1915: premarital sex, venereal disease, abortion, homosexuality (yes, it’s there, albeit well-veiled). The side-trips into the working class health care system of England at that time (Maugham trained as a doctor prior to becoming a writer) are simply fascinating. The characters, in particular Carey’s lovers and would-be lovers, are expertly depicted and completely devoid of sentimentality that might have reduced this novel to melodrama otherwise. And throughout, the prose is controlled yet powerful as it deftly delivers the odd detail that make even the most contemptible character poignant: the garish out-of-place dress of a woman desperately trying to mask her age, the dirty brown hem of another woman’s skirt, the deplorable eating habits of one potential paramour as she wipes a plate with a scrap of bread, Mildred’s skeletal frame as she strives to keep attracting the opposite sex despite her ominous condition.
Ultimately it’s Philip Carey who is the most well drawn. Far from heroic in the conventional sense, our opinion of him continues to reach new lows, yet Maugham subtly shows us a man trying to conceal his limp as he steadfastly searches for any kind of work while sleeping on the streets.
This book is not without its shortcomings: as said before, it’s simply too long—by a good fifty thousand words. There are diversions that could have easily been cut. Discussions on art between Carey and his friends in Paris read like essays; Carey’s time in Germany and Paris feel like detours that would have benefitted from major edits. And there are simply too many women in Carey’s life until he gets to Mildred, his femme fatale, the core of Carey’s emotional struggle as he reaches adulthood. Do we really need such a large cast of others, no matter how well portrayed? All of this tends to give the book an episodic feel in places.
But Of Human Bondage is a masterpiece nonetheless. Not only is the tension palpable and gripping as Philip Carey makes one disastrous decision after another, but the reader is taken to a place lost in the willing fog of our own painful memory.