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on November 13, 2004
Reading Somerset Maugham can be a little disorienting at times. I don't know about you, but when I read a first-person novel like "Cakes and Ale" I generally expect that first-person narrator to be the main character. Not this time; as usual with Maugham, the narrator is the storyteller, not the subject, and it is this seemingly unnecessary complication that leads to questions. Why not just write the usual third-person story?

Well, I haven't read much of Maugham's work, but what I have read concerns people whose actions and motives are mysterious to others. You can't very well preserve the aura of mystery around a character if the author knows everything the character thinks and does, can you? (Well, you can - see "Anna Karenina," for instance - but it's a difficult trick at best.) Much easier to give yourself a first-person narrator who can try very hard to understand your hero and fail, thus preserving the intrigue. That's what young Ashenden does here for the fascinating Rosie Driffield.

Everybody who knows Rosie loves her, in one way or another; some from afar, some (including Ashenden, Maugham's alter ego) from a good deal closer. Those who don't know her, on the other hand, hold her in contempt. Which wouldn't be all that important except that her husband, Edward Driffield, shortly emerges as one of the most important of the late-Victorian novelists. At that point, Rosie, a former barmaid, becomes a serious blot on Edward's reputation by her birth and background alone - bad enough when she's sleeping with every slightly interesting man who comes her way, worse after other developments ensue.

Ashenden tells us all this from a remove of several decades, long after Rose and Edward have both departed from the scene. He is a successful author and literary icon, narrating his memories of the Driffields at the request of his friend Alroy Kinear, another successful author who has received the commission to write Driffield's biography from the great man's second wife, now his widow.

Got all that? It sounds complicated, but it actually reads very clearly. Maugham had a genuine gift for direct, simple prose, and it operates brilliantly here.

He also had a gift for nasty caricature, and "Cakes and Ale" got him in a lot of trouble for the characters of Driffield (based on Thomas Hardy) and Kinear (based on Hugh Walpole). Why the trouble? It's hard to know at this late date, but Driffield as a character begins as an irresponsible lower-class cuckold and ends as a whipped dog, completely under the thumb of his self-appointed literary guardians. Kinear is a no-talent social climber, more than happy to give the dead Driffield the biographical whitewash his widow seems to want. Considering that these characters were obviously based on the universally praised Hardy and the very popular Walpole, the public outcry against "Cakes and Ale" is not surprising.

It is, however, ironic. Here's a piece of work aimed directly at the disgusting tendency of the establishment to turn warm, flesh-and-blood authors into literary marble and to forcefully disregard any embarrassing truths, and in response to this cry for honesty, the public insisted upon maintaining that marble façade.

Now that the controversy has long died down, though, we can enjoy the work for what it is, a brilliantly structured exploration of how one simple woman outwits all the forces lined up to push her aside as an affront to good taste.

Actually, it's not so much that she outwits anyone; rather, she does as she pleases and accepts any consequence with utter calm. That is, at a time and in a place where everyone, including her husband, pretends to be something they are not, she is always and unfailingly herself. She even says to Ashenden, "You must take me as I am." Surely it's a result of this attitude that those who know her love her - it's a very attractive characteristic in an oppressive society - and those who don't, don't.

A lesser writer might have given us a Rosie with a halo because of her self-knowledge; Maugham is not such a fool. Rosie's behavior hurts a lot of people, and what's worse, she doesn't seem to notice it. Even more interestingly, Maugham takes pains to show the impact on Rosie herself of her insistence on complete freedom. Ashenden at one point admits that Rosie inspired affection rather than love, and as the novel progresses, the reader can clearly see that though her life might be fun, it seems neither stable nor satisfying to her.

The point may be, though, that Rosie apparently likes it. Unlike many sinning Victorian heroines, she suffers no punishment for her misdeeds. That, more than her lower-class background and adventurous ways, may be the thing that drives her various opponents up the wall.

If "Cakes and Ale" were only a character study of a natural woman in an unnatural world, though, it would not move and inspire as it does. After all, Rosie is the same person at the end of her story as she is at the beginning. What good does that do?

Turns out that Ashenden, the narrator, the one who observes the story rather than participating in it much, is the one who grows and changes. He begins the story with a stuffy, conventional outlook on life, sneering down his nose at the socially inferior Driffields, and ends by defending Rosie against her tormentors. In public, he refuses steadfastly to denounce her to Driffield's widow or to Kinear, refuses to provide them with any source materials at all. In private, he keeps Rosie's secrets. And he narrates this long story to us as a justification of Rosie's life, and as a way to forgive her sins, to make us understand her. He denies having loved her, but if that's not love I don't know what is.

Benshlomo says, To love is to see clearly.
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on June 29, 2005
In the late 1920's, an aged literary lion, a venerated late Victorian novelist, Edward Driffield, has died and his widow thinks his life should be written down. She appeals to a younger novelist, Alroy Kear, who had attached himself to their society. In turn, he appeals to a friend who he knows must have known the legend earlier in life. The friend he turns to is the first-person narrator of CAKES AND ALE, Ashenden, also a novelist, who gradually reveals to the reader the truth of the deceased's early life. How much he will reveal to the other characters is another thing, and even if he did, the controlling widow, the man's second and much younger wife, would most likely excise what does not fit the public image she had worked hard to preserve. When it comes to pinning down a protagonist, however, the novel turns on the character of Rosie, Driffield's long-gone first wife.

Several things are going on in CAKES AND ALE. One is the real history of Edward Driffield (whose stature and career bear something of a resemblance to Thomas Hardy, who died in 1928), and the narrator's own interlinked coming of age. Then there is the narrator's scathing look at literary society and the machinations by which critical success and public favor are won. He drops a lot of industry insider jokes, and several actual personages are discussed, but he also returns to the eternal writers' theme of who among them will be read past their deaths. Lastly, the sharp contrast between Victorian life and 20th century existence emerges as a dramatic theme; there is the sense that those with one foot in each culture will never be able to fully absorb the rapid change in mores and fashions. The only figure who floats across the divide is the person who from the outset bucked convention of any kind, Rosie.

Maugham infuses the narrative with a sharp wit and good conversation. It is very shrewd and justifiably cynical about human ambitions and weaknesses. The dramatic story unfolds slowly but with tensions and secrets that keep going until the very end. This remains very satisfying reading 75 years after publication.
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on August 4, 2000
Maugham once said of himself that he was in "the first row of second tier" of writers ... but this book leaves novels by "first tier" writers in the dust. Wonderfully written, great paragraphs, insights into the human condition, and a story line and builds and builds. You really identify with the characters by the end and feel their emotions as they feel them. I loved it. Maugham did, too - he said it in the intro to my edition that it was his favorite novel.
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on July 29, 2000
I have never been disappointed by Maugham Somerset: Cakes and Ale is a light, beautifully written, partially autobiographical story about a barmaid with a big heart, British class-conciousness and snobbery and the literary scene in the first half of the twentieth century.
The narrator (Willie Ashenden, modelled after the author, a medical student turning into a writer) is mainly observant and doesn't influence the events taking place: The origins and later success of the great writer Edward Driffield and the touching portrait of his first wife, Rosie.
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on March 10, 2013
I am a huge fan of W. Somerset Maugham novels and short stories and this book didn't disappoint me. Maugham fleshes out the story at the end (do not peek ahead) and leaves us with a good feeling with this one.
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on May 15, 2000
"I have noticed that when I am most serious people are apt to laugh at me, and indeed when after a lapse of time I have read passages that I wrote from the fullness of my heart I have been tempted to laugh at myself. 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." p.189
Well crafted. I genuinely enjoy Maugham's style. It seems every author, at some point, is compelled to write about writing. Cakes and Ale is such a novel. It is the reconstruction of an author's life after his death. An ugly process. In this case, one that replaces the sordid experience of inspiration with the conformity of societal acceptance.
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on May 5, 2015
This book is awfully British in tone and texture, as it should be, I really enjoyed the wonderful story telling ability of Maugham. As an American born in the seventies, it is hard for me to really understand the British societal castes, but this book was clear on the fact that most of the divisions are made to make the "elite" feel better about themselves. The character of Rosie is richly drawn and although her true motivations are left to the reader's imagination, she jumps off the page full of life. Ashenden's point of view is also interesting in that he recognizes the class structure but disregards it when he wants something. Does this not make him as vulgar as the common folk beneath him? There are many things that could have been tied up at the end, but ultimately the reader must decide how each character's story should end. I will probably read more of Maugham's work because I enjoy the way he writes. Wish I had known of him in high school.
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on April 14, 2013
Lyrical descriptions of the angst of 1920s youth caught up in 'socially incorrect' sexual longing make this a delightful short novel. The major characters are real and wonderful, Maugham never puts a word wrong.
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on July 2, 2015
Maugham has a unique voice with which he describes characters and narrates plots in such a way that characters and plot merge imperceptibly one into the other, and one never knows what or why one is compelled to read on.
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on April 16, 2014
Not much I can say about Somerset Maugham or "Cakes and Ale" that hasn't already been said by much more articulent people than I. Just let me say that this is, perhaps, the best Maugham work I've read, in large part because I read it AFTER absorbing Selina Hastings' superb biography of Maugham. Once you know the backstory, Maugham's novel takes on added life. His parodying of fellow writer Hugh Walpole, for example, in the character of Alroy Kear, is delicious to read.
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