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.
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.
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!