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Cakes and Ale by William Somerset Maugham

Cakes and Ale : or the Skeleton in the Cupboard by William Somerset Maugham. 1930 French title: La Ronde de l’amour. Out of print.

Recently, a lot of skeletons fell onto me when I opened cupboards at work. As my mind stretched out to grab a healthy dose of humour to ease the stress, reading Cakes and Ale, or the Skeleton in the Cupboard seemed to be a sort of supreme irony. It proved to be a great idea, stress-wise and literary wise.

William Ashenden is our narrator. He’s a writer, not an excellent one, according to him. He’s middle aged, a bachelor who lives in a boarding house. He’s surprised when his fellow writer Alroy Kear invites him to lunch. Kear is a very successful writer of honest novels but he’s without the literary gift he’d need to reach immortality.

I could think of no one among my contemporaries who had achieved so considerable a position on so little talent.

In our modern world, Kear would be a novelist who dutifully attended creative writing classes, understood the rules and became a good enough craftsman to be widely read. Add to this perfect skills to manage his literary career and you have a pillar of the London literary world.

Ashenden knows that Kear wants something from him to issue such an invitation. And indeed he does. Kear intends to write a biography of Edward Driffield, a famous Victorian writer that Ashenden happened to knew in his youth. Ashenden befriended Edward Driffield at the time he was married to his first wife Rose. Kear needs writing material about this part of Driffield’s life. Ashenden starts reminiscing about his past and relates the reader how he met and started to see Edward Driffield.

I picked up Cakes and Ale without knowing anything about its background and I sure didn’t expect a satire of London’s literary life. Then Guy, seeing in the Currently Reading pad that I was reading Cakes & Ale, mentioned that Kear was supposed to be Walpole and Driffield, Thomas Hardy. I’d never heard of Walpole before but from the very beginning, Driffield reminded me of Thomas Hardy. Nothing to be proud of, obvious as it is. Driffield came from the village of Blackstable, Kent. He was married twice, once to Rose, a country girl and then to his nurse. His funeral led to a controversy about burying him in a cathedral or in Blackstable.

But I think I should have expected him to sing sea chanteys or old English country airs, you know, the sort of thing they used to sing at fairings—blind fiddlers and the village swains dancing with the girls on the threshing floor and all that sort of thing.

I haven’t read a lot of Thomas Hardy but music and country fiddlers seem to be part of his novels. Now have a look at Hardy’s biography on Wikipedia, and tell me that it doesn’t look furiously like Driffield’s bio. There’s the bio, but there are also the comments on Driffield’s work, that Ashenden doesn’t like:

My own heart sank when he led me into the forecastle of a sailing ship or the taproom of a public house and I knew I was in for half a dozen pages in dialect of facetious comment on life, ethics, and immortality.


His novels happen to bore me; I find them long; the melodramatic incidents with which he sought to stir the sluggish reader’s interest leave me cold; but he certainly had sincerity. There is in his best books the stir of life, and in none of them can you fail to be aware of the author’s enigmatic personality. In his earlier days he was praised or blamed for his realism; according to the idiosyncrasy of his critics he was extolled for his truth or censured for his coarseness.


Driffield’s strength lay evidently in his depiction of the class he knew best, farmers and farm labourers, shopkeepers and bartenders, skippers of sailing ships, mates, cooks, and able seamen.

Now tell me this isn’t a description of Hardy’s literary universe. As far as Walpole is concerned, I don’t know if Kear looks like him but Walpole wrote a biography of Trollope and Wikipedia says he was sensitive about his literary reputation and took adverse criticism badly. Reading his biography there, it’s difficult not to see Walpole in Kear. (Thanks Guy for the nudge, I wouldn’t have found out by myself because of my lazy habit not to research the books I read)

But Cakes & Ale is also a meditation about fame and posterity, about writing, talent and one’s public image. Kear is very thorough in the management of his career. He tries to iron out all bad critics, makes himself agreeable in salons, gives lectures in universities, travels in the whole country to meet his readers. He’s far from the myth of the cursed writer pursuing their work locked in their room, whatever the chance of being published. For Kear, literature isn’t a calling but a profession. The second meditation about fame stems from Driffield’s posterity. His much younger wife manages his reputation and his legacy. She magnifies him as a Great Man and doesn’t want anything to get in the way of the image of a literary genius she wants the world to see. She doesn’t want to know all the details of his first marriage, it would hurt what we now call political correctness. Kear wants to write a flat biography, full of praise and intends to leave aside all the anecdotes that could tarnish Driffield’s reputation. She wants the world to worship his memory as people worship saints. She wants him to appear flawless, creating a perfectly dull character instead of accepting who he was and letting the world know the real man behind the writer. And Rose, the first wife, with her free sexuality, her lack of worldly manners doesn’t fit into the picture.

There are also great pages about literature and literary critics, and well it was funny:

I was much concerned and forthwith asked Alroy Kear (who reads everything, even the books he writes prefaces for) to recommend to me some works on the art of fiction. On his advice I read The Craft of Fiction by Mr. Percy Lubbock, from which I learned that the only way to write novels was like Henry James; after that I read Aspects of the Novel by Mr. E. M. Forster, from which I learned that the only way to write novels was like Mr. E. M. Forster; then I read The Structure of the Novel by Mr. Edwin Muir, from which I learned nothing at all.

Maugham boldly attacks the literary Establishment of his time. (Further, he writes They’d only say I was imitating Lytton Strachey.) For me, Ashenden is Maugham himself. He says he’s not a gifted writer but he seems better than he wishes to tell.

Cakes and Ale makes me want to read Hardy’s biography but I don’t feel like discovering Walpole after reading about Kear. He sounds like the English Anatole France, very famous during his lifetime, seldom read nowadays. Maugham’s assessment of Walpole’s literary talent seems accurate.

I had a lot of pleasure reading Cakes and Ale. I thought it was engaging and I’m fond of Maugham’s witty style. I had fun reading his ranting about the literary world. Things haven’t really changed, in my opinion. I was curious to see what Ashenden had to say about Driffield, what kind of dirty secret he knew. And finally, as I have the project to read ALL Thomas Hardy, that this writer (or his doppelganger) was a central character of the book was like a cherry on a delicious cake.

PS: Do you say I took my courage in both hands in English? It sounds very French (Il prit son courage à deux mains) I noticed another expression like this under Maugham’s pen and sometimes I had the impression to hear some French under his English. Perhaps it’s only wishful thinking.

  1. June 7, 2012 at 3:38 am

    Glad you enjoyed this, Emma, and it sounds as though you read it at the perfect time. BTW, Hardy’s second wife, Florence guarded her husband & his reputation fiercely. She wrote a biography of him and he dictated a great deal of it to her.


    • June 7, 2012 at 8:43 pm

      I didn’t know the them, but you know I love blind dates with good books.
      I want to read The Razor’s Edge and Of Human Bondage.

      I read about Hardy’s second wife on Wikipedia. I lacked the term when I wrote my billet but what I meant is that Driffield’s wife worked at creating an icon. Did you read that biography? Is it tasteless?


  2. June 7, 2012 at 2:29 pm

    I took my courage in both hands exists I think, but may now be an archaism.

    Maugham used to be hugely fashionable, and now isn’t, but his decline seems unfair. “(who reads everything, even the books he writes prefaces for)” is tremendous. He was a great favourite of my paternal grandfather. I’m not so familiar with his long fiction, but I’ve read a fair bit of his short (loans from my grandfather back in the day).


    • June 7, 2012 at 9:26 pm

      Hi Max, it’s good to hear from you again. How are you?

      OK, so I’d better not use “I took my courage in both hands”. In French, it’s not an archaism at all.

      I really like Maugham, he lightly puts heavy stuff in witty sentences. He’s got a way of looking at life and at situations that appeals to me. He’s really funny. If you read Cakes and Ale, you’ll see, the passages where he describes Kear are extraordinary.


  3. June 7, 2012 at 2:42 pm

    It wouldn’t be one I would have picked before but you make it soundvery good. I’m surprsied, I have read that quote before. It must be famous and it’s really great. I seem to remember having seen a translation of a Walpole novel among my grandmother’s things. I’m not tempted.
    I think Maugham always writes books about genius and creativity, be it a writer or a painter. I liked his book on Gaugin, The Moon and Sixpence.


    • June 7, 2012 at 9:30 pm

      It’s excellent, really. I gave The Razor’s Edge to my mom in her Christmas book package and she loved it, which is a good sign for me.
      I’m not a big fan of Gauguin, that’s why I’m not attracted to The Moon and Sixpence.


      • June 8, 2012 at 7:08 am

        I’m not a fan of Gauguin either but I still liked the way it was told.
        I’ve got Of Human Bondage and The Razor’s Edge here. I was going to read one of them last month but then got distrcated. i should do it soon.


        • June 9, 2012 at 8:38 am

          OK, so The Moon and Six Pence is also worth reading. Another one!


  4. June 7, 2012 at 6:47 pm

    Emma: Maugham is a favourite of mine as you know, so it makes me happy that someone else likes him too.


    • June 7, 2012 at 9:34 pm

      That’s one more writer we have in common.

      I want to read more of him. The next one will probably be The Razor’s Edge. Of Human Bondage is huge, I need to be on holiday to read it in English and it would be a pity to read it in French.


      • June 8, 2012 at 7:52 pm

        To have reading tastes in common is a really remarkable thing, and it doesn’t have to be a 100% either. For eaxmple, you know when I wouldn’t like something and vice versa


        • June 9, 2012 at 8:46 am

          It’s nice, isn’t it?
          The only problem is that you tend to be dangerous for my TBR. (And so is Caroline)


  5. Tony
    June 8, 2012 at 1:46 pm

    This sounds interesting 🙂 Probably one for the future – I’m much more into translated fiction at the moment, so writers from my native country are being somewhat neglected 😉


    • June 9, 2012 at 8:39 am

      You can read it in French or in German if you want. It will be reading in translation then 😉


  6. June 8, 2012 at 3:30 pm

    “I took my courage in both hands” is perfectly good English, and I agree with you, it has an echo of French.


    • June 9, 2012 at 8:40 am

      Hello, thank you for reading by billet and commenting.
      I’m not sure I’ll use that expression in English in the future, but I do say it quite a lot in French.


      • June 9, 2012 at 10:15 am

        Sorry my billet was somewhat brusque, Emma, but I wasn’t quite sure how the messageing worked. It’s such a joy to come across authors on your site that I read eagerly decades ago. Hugh Walpole! I remember the English master at school recommending we read him. I chose “Mr. Perrin and Mr. Trail”, was very impressed, yet never found time to read another work. Now I shall.

        re Thomas Hardy. I still find his works troubling—which is why I go on reading him. All I want to say is that far and away the best book on him, in my humble opinion, is Claire Tomalin’s “The Time-torn Man” (Penguin Viking, 2006). She brings a freshness and insight to the study of his life and work that I haven’t met before:
        ” … a fiddler’s son, with music in his blood and bone, who danced to his father’s playing before he learnt to write. This is how I think of him, a boy dancing on the stone cottage floor, outside time, oblivious, ecstatic, with his future greatness as unimaginable as the sorrows that came with it.” (p.380)



        • June 9, 2012 at 6:24 pm

          That was your first comment, I needed to approve it. Now that the system knows you’re not spam, it will be fine.

          I knew about Claire Tomalin’s book about Hardy. I read her bio of Jane Austen a couple of years ago and I thought it lacked of life. But the passage you quote is interesting, I imagine him like this too. Perhaps I should try her book. I’m not a great reader of biographies but I guess she found more material about Hardy than she found about Austen.


  7. June 9, 2012 at 8:56 am

    Strange but my billet about The Trembling of a Leaf by Maugham receives a lot of clicks these days.


  8. June 11, 2012 at 11:25 am

    I love this review, I’ve never read a Somerset Maugham book, and had no idea thats what Cakes and Ale is actually about. you’ve inspired me to read one of his books sooner rather than later, thank you!


    • June 11, 2012 at 7:57 pm

      Hi Charlotte, thanks for your comment.

      I hugely recommend Maugham, he’s witty, funny and serious at the same time. His style is great.


  9. June 12, 2012 at 3:16 pm

    This was a choice last year for the Slaves of Golconda online book group that I belong to. Oddly enough, most people didn’t get along with it. It was a reread for me, as I’d read it and loved it in my early twenties. I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as I had the first time around, but I do love Somerset Maugham and find his elegant understated writing style to be wonderful. I still enjoyed it. I love his short stories, too.


    • June 13, 2012 at 9:22 pm

      Why didn’t people like it? Too “literary world”?
      I found his thoughts about literature and fame very interesting. I wonder how he’d react in our marketing world.


  10. July 3, 2012 at 1:32 pm

    I love this novel. It is a curious mix of bitchiness and charm, of malice and generosity, and, somehow, it works! It is very, very funny, and also, at times, genuinely moving. I particularly love the figure of Edward Driffield: I do hope this is what Hardy was like in his old age!


    • July 3, 2012 at 9:00 pm

      You describe it very well. It made me read Under the Greenwood Tree; I felt like reading Hardy again.
      I don’t hope Hardy was like that in his old age: manipulated by a right-minded wife. If what Maugham describes is true, I like his wild youth better.


      • July 3, 2012 at 11:27 pm

        I didn’t actually get the impression that Driffield was being manipulated. Rather, I got teh impression of someone who is rather amused by it all, and is ironically detached. Driffield obviously has a very profound understanding of people, far more so than the people around him imagine: he knew perfectly well what his wife ws up to the night after they lost their baby, and Rosie, at the end of the novel, confesses she was taken aback when she read the fictionalised account of that night in one of his novels. She had no idea that he understodo her so well.

        Similarly, I think, when he is an old man. He can see through teh entire farce: he can see the irony of the literary establishment that had once rejected him now lionising him. And he finds it amusing. there is that marvellous scene where the narrator attend a dinner at Driffields’s house, all arranged with immaculate taste by his Driffield’s second wife; and in the midst of it all, Driffield looks over at him and winks, I get the impression of a Driffield who knew full well what is happening, but who just couldn’t be bothered protesting about it.

        Isn’t there another scene where Alroy Kear tells of when the gave driffield some prestigious award? When he asked Driffield how he felt about it, Driffield rather unliterary response as “rum, very rum”. Kear took that to mean that Driffield was overwhelmed: somehow, i think Kear got it badly wrong…


        • July 3, 2012 at 11:29 pm

          Oops! I pressed the “post” button before I had meant to…

          Anyway, if Driffield was, indeed, a detached and amused observer, then I certainly hope that Hardy was like that in his old age! of course, if I have misread Drifield, then it would hav ebeen quite tragic for Hardy to have ended up like that.


          • July 4, 2012 at 8:36 pm

            Then I agree with you, I’d like Hardy to have been the Driffield you describe.

            And yes, Kear doesn’t understand anything about Driffield even if he worships his work. The Narrator does but he doesn’t enjoy the novels. How ironic too!


        • July 4, 2012 at 8:35 pm

          You’re right “manipulated” is too strong a word. I meant more that he lets her have her own way (his second wife) and I’d rather see him protest a bit.
          But your analysis is very good and you’re probably right about him being detached and accepting it but without taking it too seriously.


  1. July 14, 2012 at 9:10 pm
  2. December 27, 2012 at 12:18 am
  3. February 26, 2013 at 8:03 pm

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