Rain and Other Stories by W Somerset Maugham

A masterclass in character…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is a collection of short stories, many of them with a colonial setting in the South Seas, though a few are set in Britain. It’s billed as having eleven stories, but four of them are extremely short fragments of description or little anecdotes – well written and quite enjoyable, but more like linking passages than stories, and I decided not to rate them. The remaining seven are quite substantial in length, with a couple reaching novella length, and I found every one of them good, and several excellent. I listened to the audiobook version, narrated excellently by Steven Crossley who created perfectly appropriate voices for each of the myriad of characters who cross the pages.

In each case, while the settings and stories are interesting, the real strength is in the depth and variety of the characterisation. Maugham makes each character completely believable, however extreme or banal their actions may be, and in almost every case, with one notable exception, he makes the reader sympathise with even those whose attitudes and actions at first seem obnoxious. He penetrates below the outer shell, showing with a few deft and sometimes shocking revelations the complexity of each individual, and how they are the product of the attitudes of their society to class, gender, colonialism and religion. His narrators often learn this lesson along with his readers, so that they share the sometimes sudden insight that changes our view of a character we thought we understood.

Book 9 of 20

Of the seven stories to which I gave a rating, one earned 3 stars, two 4 stars, and four 5 stars, and a couple of the 5-stars rate among the best short stories I’ve ever read. I found myself completely absorbed, listening for long periods with no loss of concentration (which regular visitors will know is unusual for me with audiobooks). Here’s a brief flavour of the ones I enjoyed most:

Mackintosh – Mackintosh is sent to an island in the South Seas to be assistant to the Governor, Walker. Walker is a bullying, boastful old man who rules the island like an absolute monarch. In Mackintosh’s eyes, he behaves as a tyrant towards the natives, ready to humiliate them or worse if they refuse to obey his commands. But he treats Mackintosh as an underling too, rather than as any kind of equal, and though Mackintosh thinks his growing outrage and hatred for Walker is because of how he treats the natives, the reader wonders how much it is really to do with Walker’s treatment of himself. As the story progresses, I found my perceptions of both men changing, and the ending is shocking while still arising naturally and almost inevitably out of what has gone before. Brilliant characterisation and great storytelling – probably my favourite story in the collection.

Rain – A little group of people travelling to various destinations are held up when an outbreak of measles causes them to be quarantined in Pago Pago, and they lodge with a trader. Told in the third person, we see the other characters from the perspective of Dr McPhail. He and his wife are forced into a kind of intimacy with another couple – Davidson, a fanatical missionary who believes it is his mission to save souls, even when they’d much rather not be saved, and his wife, who believes as fanatically in her husband as he believes in God. The other person staying in the lodgings is a young woman called Sadie Thompson, who they soon realise is a whore. Davidson decides to save her soul. Another substantial story in length, and with a lot to say about religious fanaticism and colonialism, but also about the patriarchy in action. Davidson is the one character in the collection who I felt was given no redeeming features. I found the ending a little obvious, but still effective – another great story.

Jane – the story of two women as seen through the eyes of the male narrator. Both are widows – Mrs. Tower, an apparently happy society woman; and Jane, her sister-in-law, whom Mrs Tower sees as her “cross” – a rather annoying bore she tolerates only because of their family connection. But then Jane does something remarkable and quite out of character – she marries a man many years her junior, changes her look and becomes a society sensation. Again this story is mostly character studies of the two women, but this time with lots of humour and a touch of unexpected pathos. A sympathetic portrayal of both women, and very well done.

The Colonel’s Lady – Colonel George Peregrine is a typical bluff ex-soldier, in a seemingly contented but childless and passionless marriage to Evie. One day he learns his wife has had a book of poems published, and although poetry really isn’t his thing he skims a couple and tells her the book is “jolly good”. However, to his astonishment the book becomes a bestseller and soon everyone seems to be talking about it, and he feels his friends and acquaintances are giving him sly or sympathetic glances. Eventually he decides he’d better read it properly, and learns he doesn’t know Evie nearly as well as he thought! Another one with a lot of humour, and a great character study of George. But it also has quite a lot to say about the relative and changing positions of men and women in this society.

W Somerset Maugham

The cumulative effect of a lot of these stories left me with the feeling that Maugham was something of a feminist, so I was astonished on googling to find that he has been accused of misogyny! My extremely limited reading so far has turned up no evidence of this – quite the reverse, in fact, with all the women shown sympathetically and due attention given to the unequal expectations of them within a patriarchal system. So I suppose I’ll just have to read the rest of his books to find out what he did to earn this reputation. Given the quality of the little I’ve read so far, that will certainly be no hardship!

Audible UK Link

33 thoughts on “Rain and Other Stories by W Somerset Maugham

  1. So please do enjoy this volume FF. As you know, ‘Rain’ is one of my favorite short stories ever. On the issue of Maugham and misogyny, that’s the first I’ve heard of it too. He was married but was in exclusively homosexual relationships in his later years, which suggests he might have sympathy for the marginalised.

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    • Rain is a great story! I preferred Mackintosh very slightly but I thought those two were far and away the best in the collection. Yes, it’s odd about the misogyny – I have a feeling that some people think any negative portrayal of a woman character is misogyny these days. But I thought his women were just as fairly treated and just as believable as his men. And I agree – I felt all his sympathy was for the marginalised or the oppressed, whatever the reason for it. Strange!

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  2. Glad you enjoyed this! I’ve only read The Painted Veil so far, which became a real favourite. I was also surprised about the supposed misogyny, but when I googled it out of curiosity, it sounded like it was mostly related to one book and not sustained across his career.

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    • It is odd how people jump to the misogyny label, often just because a woman is portrayed negatively. I must say I thought he was considerably more insightful about the position of women and sympathetic towards them than most male writers of his generation, and even than many female writers of that era. I think you’d enjoy these stories, and I’m really looking forward to reading more of his stuff. Don’t know why it’s taken me this long to try him!

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  3. I’m very glad you liked this as much as you did, FictionFan. I don’t think I’ve ever thought of Maugham as misogynist – funny that’s been said about him! I see his writing more the way you do when it comes to women. Interesting how people will see the same writer in completely different ways. At any rate, very happy you liked this collection!

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  4. The awful thing is I can’t remember whether I’ve read this particular collection of Somerset Maugham stories or not. I have enjoyed his short stories in the past. And you’re right, his characters have depth and often unexpectedly win readers’ sympathy at end.

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    • I have a feeling this collection might be exclusively an audiobook, with the stories culled from different paper collections. I couldn’t find a book with an exact match of stories. Yes, I loved that his characters are never all good or all bad, and that he lets us see beyond the exterior.

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  5. I also never thought of the author as a misogynist, though I’ve never looked him up on the internet for any reason, quite frankly. I’m glad you enjoyed this collection so much. My ears always perk up when someone mentions great characterization—something I don’t see a ton of these days.

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    • I looked to see if he had a reputation as a feminist, so it was a shock to find people talking about him as a misogynist! I suspect they must be mistaking portrayals of flawed women as misogyny, but his men are all flawed too, often considerably more than the women, so is he a misandrist too?? Pah! I don’t care – the stories are great!

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  6. This one sounds interesting, and your appreciation of it comes clearly through. I haven’t read much Maugham, so a good collection of short stories might be just what I need to remedy that — thanks!

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    • I liked that the stories are quite substantial and actually have a proper story – beginning, middle, end. Often with literary short stories I find they’re more like fragments and they leave me unsatisfied, but these are like mini-books, if you know what I mean. Thoroughly enjoyable!

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  7. You have me REALLY wanting to read this! I checked my library and it’s not among their Maugham offerings (though there’s a book by the same title, but a different author – Mia Couto) I’ll have to check my Amazon options.

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    • I have a feeling this might be purely an audiobook, with the stories culled from several different book collections. I couldn’t find an exact paper match for it. But I think some of the stories are his best known, like Rain and Mackintosh, so they may show up in many other collections. However the narration is excellent too if you can access the audiobook! Such a good collection! 😀

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  8. I’ve never read any of his books, so maybe short stories would be a good place to start. And interesting about the accusation of his attitude toward women. I, too, am curious how that came about, if there’s no evidence of it here.

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    • Several people have told me that they prefer his short stories to his novels so I agree this could be a good place to start. I really don’t get the misogyny accusation – I felt he was considerably more sympathetic to his women characters than many male writers of his generation. Odd!

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    • They’re proper stories with beginnings, middles and ends, which so often isn’t the case with “literary” short stories. I don’t know why I’d never read Maugham before, but I’m glad I’ve found him now!

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  9. You’ve got me intrigued – this sounds like the perfect entrée to Maugham’s work, an author whom I felt I “ought” to read and so, perversely, avoided reading altogether! Thanks for this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Several people have told me that his short stories are his best work, so I agree this would be a good place to start. I always like when an author writes “proper” short stories – with beginnings, middles and ends!

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  10. Wow this does sound like an incredibly good collection, good on you for even discovering it! The story about the people being holed up together with measles really interests me, it could be written today but with COVID as the disease keeping them in isolation LOL

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to discover Maugham – he used to be huge over here and is still quite widely read, I think! Ha, yes, the quarantine story sounded too familiar, though at least they didn’t all have to wear masks and listen to daily bulletins on how awfully things were going… 😉

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