History: Published in 1930, it is often alleged to be a thinly-veiled roman à clef examining contemporary novelists Thomas Hardy (as Edward Driffield) and Hugh Walpole (as Alroy Kear) -— though Maugham maintained he had created both characters as composites and in fact explicitly denies any connection to Hardy in his own introduction to later editions of the novel.
Plot: The story is told by a first-person narrator and well-to-do author, William Ashenden, who, at the beginning of the novel is suddenly and unexpectedly contacted by Alroy Kear, a busy-body literary figure in London who has been asked by the second Mrs. Driffield to write the biography of her deceased husband, Edward Driffield. Driffield, once scorned for his realist representation of late-Victorian, working-class characters, had in his later years become lionised by scholars of English letters. The second Mrs. Driffield, a nurse to the ailing Edward after his first wife left him, is known for her propriety and interest in augmenting and cementing her husband's literary reputation. Her only identity is that as caretaker to her husband in life and to his reputation in death. It is well known, however, that Driffield wrote his best novels while married to his first wife/muse, Rosie, who seems similar to James Joyce's character, Molly Bloom.
Amy Driffield requests that Alroy Kear write the biography of her late husband. Kear, who is trying to prove his own literary worth, jumps at the opportunity to ride the coat-tails of the great Edward Driffield. It is Kear, knowing that William Ashenden had a long acquaintanceship with the Driffields as a young man and as a young writer, who contacts Ashenden to get privy information about Edward's past — including information about his first wife who has been oddly erased from the official narrative of Edward's genius.
The plot revolves around how much information the narrator will divulge to Driffield's second wife and Kear (while exposing it all to the reader), who ostensibly wants a "complete" picture of the famous author, but who routinely glosses over the untoward stories that might upset Driffield's surviving wife. It is William Ashenden who holds the key to the deep mystery of love, and the act of love, in the life of each character as he recounts a fascinating literary history of creativity, infidelity and literary memory.
Review: Maugham was not known as a bomb-thrower, but scandal erupted in bookish London when the novel appeared in 1930. It was believed to include flimsily veiled portraits of Hugh Walpole and Thomas Hardy. Maugham denied the charge in a letter to Walpole, claiming, “I certainly never intended Alroy Kear to be a portrait of you. He is made up of a dozen people.” After the fellow writer’s death, though, he admitted that Walpole was the model.
The odd thing: Kear is important only for getting the story started, he couldn't be a more minor character.
Opening Line: “It was as a short story, and not a very long one either, that I first thought of this novel."
Closing Line: "I'll tell you," said Rosie. "He was always a perfect gentleman."
Quotes: "It must be that there is something naturally absurd in a sincere emotion, though why there should be I cannot imagine, unless it is that man, the ephemeral inhabitant of an insignificant planet, with all his pain and all his striving is but a jest in an eternal mind"