W. Somerset Maugham, “Cakes and Ale” (1930) – I’ve fallen badly behind in reviews, so this one isn’t as fresh as one might like. Like many of Maugham’s short stories (this began its existence as a short story before becoming a shortish novel) this one has a frame that makes it a story about stories, along with whatever else it’s about. The main character is a writer tasked with helping another, more successful and more glib writer write a biography of still a third writer, Edward Driffield, a recently deceased late Victorian great probably modeled after Thomas Hardy. The main character knew Driffield in his youth before Driffield became famous, and so the biographer wants the details from the main character. This is a problem, because everything about those times is tied up with Driffield’s first wife, the disreputable but charming Rosie, and Driffield’s widow wants as little of Rosie to show up in the biography as possible.
That’s a lot of frame for a short novel but Maugham sets it up with his usual facility and eye for character. The main character knew Driffield and Rosie intimately, in more ways than one, and his recollections make up the meat of the book as he struggles with how much to tell the biographer. The main character believes (and Maugham basically decrees) that Rosie inspired Driffield’s greatest works. But she was also promiscuous, encouraged Driffield to run out on creditors (who he eventually made whole- Maugham strives to make Rosie not seem too bad), and eventually left him for a richer man, none of which Mrs. Driffield wants in the biography. The main character (and Maugham) like Rosie, and the reader basically does too- she seems like a fun old gal and neither Driffield nor the narrator can blame her too much for following the nature that made her such a charming muse to begin with. The biography is basically a framing device for Maugham to do character studies on Rosie, the biographer, and to a lesser extent some others, and Maugham always excelled at those. Worth a read for fans of Maugham or depictions of the turn of the 20th century artistic life. ****’