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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.