Book Stuff

Cakes and Ale: A Review

I read Cakes and Ale by Somerset Maugham for the Slaves of Golconda bookclub. Written in 1930, it is narrated by the midlist writer William Ashenden.

As a young man in the 1890’s, Ashenden knew the British literary icon, Edward Driffield (ostensibly based on Thomas Hardy, which Maugham denied). At that time Driffield was a little known working class writer married to Rosie, an earthy sexually promiscuous woman. Later in life, Driffield rose to fame and acclaim and a second wife. Now, after Driffield’s death and being, himself, in middle-age, Ashenden has been approached by Alroy Kear to get the inside scoop on Driffield’s life before his iconship was established.

Alroy Kear is a best-selling author and sychophant, who, in cahoots with Driffield’s second wife wants to produce an autobiography suitable to the elevated and refined status of an icon.

I loved this book for its satirical take on the literary scene, which I found just as relevant in 2011 as in 1930:

I read The Craft of Fiction by Mr Percy Lubbock, from which I learned that the only way to write novels was like Henry James; after that I read Aspects of the Novel by Mr E M Forster, from which I learned that the only way to write novels was like Mr E M Forster; then I read The Structure of the Novel by Mr Edwin Muir, from which I learned nothing at all.

(I’m sorry I don’t have a page reference for that–I finished the book a couple of weeks ago, then had to get my revision off to the editor and right after that my kids were off school.)

The character of Rosie, Driffield’s first wife, is a weakness of the novel, being rather flat. She is unremittingly sexual and cheerful. But I find that generally Maugham is less successful portraying men’s attractions to women than to other men, and that may be because he was primarily gay with a few ambivalent (and I have to wonder if somewhat forced) relationships with women in his life. These were brief and concurrent with his longstanding relationships with men: Maugham lived with his first partner for 30 years until his partner’s death, and then with his second for the remaining 20 years of Maugham’s life.

However for his time (1930), Rosie was a remarkable and disturbing character because of her happy sexual appetite and the lack of authorial criticism for it. The stock character of “the whore with a heart of gold” was supposed to realize her unworthiness and sacrifice herself for the hero. Instead Rosie outlives everyone and is entirely contented with herself.

What I loved about this book was its satirical portrayal of class and the literary scene. The sly cutting comments that Ashenden makes about Kear and his success made me laugh out loud. The conflict of class was vivid and so was the hilarious and yet sad manipulation of Driffield first by his patroness and then by his second wife to make him appear refined to the middle-class who read his books.

Poor Driffield rebelled in the only way he could, refusing to bathe at all in the last years of his life, and hiding out in the local pub as long as anyone would let him. But they didn’t let him much–and that’s the whole point. He wrote his best books while married to Rosie, everyone acknowledges that, and yet at the same time everyone around him believes that Rosie wasn’t good enough for him. They’re all virtuou and wants to make him so. And all he really wants to make him happy are cakes and ale. Rosie was the only one that got that.

The title of the novel comes from Twelfth Night. Sir Toby Belch (who would have been a pal to Driffield) says:

Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?

Cakes and Ale was reputedly Maugham’s favourite of all his books, and I can understand that. This was such a fun read for me, as a writer, especially as I read it just when I was re-entering the publishing process and anticipating the public literary scene that he criticizes.

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4 thoughts on “Cakes and Ale: A Review”

  1. I agree that the satirical aspects are the most enjoyable. Interesting point about Maugham’s sexual orientation. Certainly the relationships among the men are more thoroughly-developed and interesting, while the narrator’s fascination with Rosie is stereotyped and vague.

  2. I so enjoyed your review! I also found the literary satire very amusing and it made me laugh a lot. It is so true that nothing much changes in the book world. I had no idea that Maugham was gay, how about that. Now I am really curious to read a biography of him.

  3. I’m reading Cakes and Ale presently. The library in the czech town I’m living has a shelf of English language books, and every time I come there, I read from it for an hour. Very enjoyable book, his portrait of the literary scene is just nasty enough. Being a writer myself, I thnk a lot of it hits home pretty well

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