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Thursday, January 15, 2015

Cakes and Ale (1930) by W. Somerset Maugham

Book Review
Cakes and Ale (1930)
by W. Somerset Maugham

  It is two and out for W. Somerset Maugham: He contributes Cakes and Ale and Of Human Bondage to the 1001 Books Project and bows out gracefully.  If Of Human Bondage is the prototypical "first novel": with a heavily autobiographical main character,  then Cakes and Ale is his mid period masterpiece, and the author's self proclaimed favorite.  Cakes and Ale features a first person narration by William Ashenden, himself an independently wealthy doctor novelist, but it is mostly about another, older author, Edward Driffield, who most consider to be based on late Victorian novelist Thomas Hardy. Told through a combination of present-tense narration and flashbacks which take place during Ashenden's childhood and before Driffield/Hardy's canonization as England's "greatest living novelist" late in life,  Cakes and Ale focus gradually shifts away from Ashenden and Driffield to Rosie Driffield, Driffield's blowsy first wife.

   It is very, very, very easy to see Thomas Hardy in Edward Driffield, and Hardy's own foreword denying it merely reinforces the similarities  Although the central story of the Driffield's marriage and Ashenden's social and indeed, sexual involvement with Rosie is compelling, the insight into the literary world of turn of the century and early 20th century England perhaps seals Cakes and Ale's place in the literary canon.

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