Long overdue post on Of Human Bondage

I read this in early September, in a flush of enthusiasm for the Outmoded Authors challenge. Then I meant to read more Maugham before posting but that idea got overtaken by what became a very busy month; and subsequently further overtaken by the fact that I moved on to more books, plus Greek. Sigh. If only I could live up to my own standards.

Of Human Bondage recounts the first 30 years in the life of Philip Carey, from the sudden death of his adored and adoring mother, to his decision to marry and to settle on a career as a doctor. This is a quiet book, and Maugham’s writing is deceptively spare and plain. His meaning is always clear so the story progresses swiftly, unobstructed by authorial cleverness. I found it absolutely gripping while I was reading it, despite the fact that Philip is not always sympathetic or even likeable.

The story draws heavily on episodes from Maugham’s own life: he was an orphan, he hated the boarding school to which he was sent, he attended university in Germany, he studied medicine; all these episodes are reproduced in the book. In addition, Philip Carey suffers from a club-foot, a physical disfigurement that perhaps stands in for the stutter that plagued Maugham throughout his life. And, Philip is a sharp-tongued, angry youth who does not make friends easily, another characteristic that he shares with Maugham. In the Foreword to my edition, Maugham says:

Of Human Bondage is not an autobiography, but an autobiographical novel; fact and fiction are inextricably mingled; the emotions are my own but not all the incidents are related as they happened and some of them are transferred to my hero not from my own life but from that of persons with whom I was intimate. The book did for me what I wanted and when it was issued to the world … I found myself free forever from the pains and unhappy recollections that had tormented me.

If the emotions are truly his own, then Maugham was capable of turning his penetrating and ruthless gaze inward. He pulls no punches in his telling so that Philip stands revealed in all his weaknesses; only in the latter half of the novel do his strengths begin to display. He would in fact be a deeply unpleasant character but for Maugham’s choosing to depict so many instances of petty meanness, jealousy, casual cruelty that Philip becomes only very human. Literary characters are so often better or worse than real people; Philip is not, and although the reader may dislike what they see of him as a child and a young man, by the time the book ends he is beginning to change into an altogether more personable individual.

Philip is nine when his mother dies, and although he does not quite understand, he knows he is a suitable object for sympathy: ‘He knew that Mrs Watkin and her sister were talking to friends and it seemed to him – he was nine years old – that if he went in they would be sorry for him…’
After his mother’s death, Philip goes to live with his aunt and uncle. Mr William Carey is the vicar at Blackstable and is a selfish, cold man around whom his entire household revolves. He is the sort of man who denies the use of the stove for heat because of the expense of the coal, but has a fire lit in his own study. His wife is a faded, pathetic woman who has longed desperately for a child of her own; she immediately loves Philip unconditionally and longs for him to reciprocate in whatever small measure. Philip does love her back, but rather fitfully, in that the emotion is usually prompted by his own guilt or regret at having, once again, reduced her to tears.

The solitary life with his aunt and uncle turns Philip into a shy, quiet, introverted boy who takes solace in reading and develops a precocious intelligence. His club-foot makes him self-conscious, and at school, he grows a carapace of bitterness and sarcasm to cover his loneliness and insecurity. At first he is destined for the church, but he begins to lose interest and decides against ordination. This is the first of several paths that Philip enthusiastically follows, then determinedly rejects, a pattern that repeats itself until he gets to medical school.

Maugham says of him that ‘he had the unfortunate gift of seeing things as they were’, and this is true for things but not for people. A passion for reading fills Philip’s head with romantic ideals of life at a German university or later, as an artist. Each time, his propensity for seeing things as they are means that he cannot mistake bad art for good, or tawdriness for glamour. But, at Heidelberg he falls in with a fellow-student called Hayward, the outward embodiment of the man steeped in literature, who can turn out an apposite quote for any occasion but has no real learning. Philip is entirely deceived by appearance, ignoring all the proofs that Hayward is a phony.

On his return to Blackstable after his year in Germany, Philip again displays that same lack of judgement and embarks on an ill-advised affair with Miss Wilkinson, who is a guest in the house. She is considerably older than him, and certainly experienced, although she affects the dress and manner of a younger woman. Knowingly, she reels Philip into a physical relationship, and he is too naive and too keen to experience sex, to escape. When he first visits her room and sees her unclothed and without make up, he knows he’s making a mistake:

She looked grotesque. Philip’s heart sank as he stared at her; she had never seemed so unattractive; but it was too late now. He closed the door behind him and locked it.

Philip’s attempts to extricate himself from the web in which he is now caught offer decidedly comic moments, but fortunately Miss Wilkinson lives in Berlin, and she leaves. Philip embarks on a career in accountancy, but after a year he leaves that and goes to art school in Paris. Faced with the knowledge of his own mediocrity he leaves that in its turn, and returns home again. His next career choice is medicine, and again he goes up to London and enrolls.

The third time is the charm, and after a somewhat rocky start, Philip begins to apply himself at medical school and to do quite well. During this portion of his life he also falls in love with and pursues the entirely ghastly Mildred. She is a singularly unpleasant character, with skin so pale that it is ‘greenish’, ‘of a faint green colour’, with a ‘greenish pallor’. Even when he first loves her, Philip is disgusted by her:

…he hated the thinness of her, only that evening he had noticed how the bones of her chest stood out in evening-dress; he went over her features one by one; he did not like her mouth, and the unhealthiness of her colour vaguely repelled him. She was common. Her phrases, so bold and few, constantly repeated, showed the emptiness of her mind; he recalled her vulgar little laugh at the jokes of the music hall comedy; and he remembered the little finger carefully extended when she held her glass to her mouth; her manners, like her conversation, were odiously genteel…

When Philip meets her she is a waitress in a cafe; by the time of her last appearance in his life, she is a prostitute with an unspecified communicable disease. Fully aware of her illness, she still continues to ply her trade. Throughout their protracted, wretched relationship, Philip is unable to break away from her entirely and indeed, for a while is subjugated to her. It is really difficult to like Philip when he is so smitten with Mildred that, for example, he pays for her and another lover to go away for the weekend. He also pays for her treatment when she is pregnant with yet another man’s child. Mildred, for her part, never wants Philip; but she wants him to want her. When he finally does reject her, her resentment explodes into violence.

(Mildred is the most fully described of all the female characters in the book, but all the women are either ‘mothers’ or ‘whores’, almost types rather than actual people. I wish Maugham had addressed this point in his Introduction.)

Of Human Bondage works as a protracted coming-of-age story, and Philip’s last rite of passage is his temporary poverty and homelessness. This downward mobility takes the edges off Philip’s stolid, middle-class snobbery. He is befriended by a mixed class family (father originally upper class, mother working class) and is also forced really to work at something he dislikes, with no luxury of changing employment at a whim.

Eventually, he does complete his medical studies and is a cooler, wiser and more sympathetic person.

He thought of his desire to make a design, intricate and beautiful, out of the myriad, meaningless facts of life: had he not seen also that the simplest pattern, that in which man was born, worked, married, had children, and died, was likewise the most perfect? It might be that to surrender to happiness was to accept defeat, but it was a defeat better than many victories.

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4 thoughts on “Long overdue post on Of Human Bondage

  1. Courtney

    What a wonderful review! I’ve been meaning to read this author for some time now…he will have to wait until I return from AWP but when I do I think I will turn directly to this book!

  2. Emily Barton

    Glad you finally got around to posting on it. Magnificent job (and you say you’re not a writer)! I’ll have to find my old copy somewhere in all the boxe and re-read it. For some reason, I can’t help thinking that Scott and Maugham seem to have had very similar childhoods (based on the very little I read about Scott and what you’ve noted here about Maugham).

  3. Becky

    Courtney, I have liked everything I’ve read by Maugham, except The Magician which I am currently struggling with in audio. It’s Maugham’s take on Aleistair Crowley, who he apparently met a few times and disliked. Even Maugham said it was ‘lush’ and over-written. And he’s right.

    Emily, you are too kind to me. I am an occasional scribbler. I don’t know anything about the life of Scott, so it would be interesting to see if the two compare.

  4. litlove

    I am a big fan of Somerset Maugham and I loved your review of this novel (which is shamefully one I haven’t read!). If you feel like reading more in an easy way, do pick up his short stories which are really fab. I never much liked short stories when I was younger (I find they’re an acquired taste) and yet I always loved his.

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