Five years or so ago, I decided to read all of Somerset Maugham’s novels and short stories. It started with a chance encounter – I was attracted to a discounted copy of Of Human Bondage in the Waterloo Foyles after reading something (a Twitter thread perhaps?) about the film adaptation. The little I knew of Somerset Maugham was that he was also the author of The Painted Veil, the Edward Norton film version of which had taken me wholly by surprise with its sensitivity; of Ashenden, which I’d read in a classic spy novel phase; and that my very Year 7 English teacher, who was very influential on me, proudly promoted his work in defiance of the prevailing academic view.
I loved Of Human Bondage and having decided on my new project I, rather foolishly, set about the Maugham bibliography from top down with the Famous Ones first: The Painted Veil, The Moon and Sixpence, Cakes and Ale, and The Razor’s Edge, before the short stories (of which the first one in the Vintage edition, Rain, is as famous as any novel – and also adapted into a fascinating pre-Code film). By this point I was convinced I had discovered my new Favourite English Author, after having previously got obsessive about Patrick Hamilton, Graham Greene and Anthony Trollope.
But oh how I was disappointed by the remaining books. And so many of them. There are some enjoyable vignettes in The Narrow Corner and Christmas Holiday, and I always enjoy vicarious literary travel, but heavens: the early English ones (Liza of Lambeth, Mrs Craddock, the Merry-Go-Round) and the late bored ones (Then and Now, Catalina) are some of the most tedious books I’ve trudged through, clear signs of an early 20th century writer building and then living off a scandalous reputation and insouciantly writing to commission.
My enthusiasm for Willie sapped, I stopped there – I didn’t read any biographies (as I had done with Hamilton and Greene) or his non-fiction. Ridiculously, that means I’m still ignorant of On a Chinese Screen, his sketches of China during his 1919-20 travels there (although I understand it focuses more on the Westerners he meets there). I must correct this oversight.
Tan Twan Eng seems to have been smarter Maugham fan than me – no surprise for a Booker-shortlisted author. I also haven’t read The Garden of Evening Mists, though I can attest that it has been in my Amazon wishlist for nearly 12 years and I must have picked it up half a dozen times. I have no particular reason for never getting round to it, but I will now on the strength of its long awaited follow up, House of Doors, for which he credits no fewer than six Maugham biographies in his Acknowledgements.
House of Doors seems to have been inspired by one of those curious quirky overlaps of wildly different historical figures, like how both PG Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler were at Dulwich College together, or that the last remaining US Civil War widow only died in 2021. Because ‘Willie’ is one of the twin stars in this Penang-set novel, the other being Sun Yat-sen who was resident (albeit a decade earlier than Maugham) in 1910 before returning to China in the vanguard of the Xinhai revolution.
With not one but two dominant characters, it is no fault that the plot itself is rather slight. ‘Willie’ has come to the Straits Settlement in 1921 to stay with colonial types Lesley and Robert Hamlyn; a decade earlier, Lesley had had an affair with a Chinese man (Willie suspects Sun Yat-sen). Unlike most Europeans in the Straits Settlements, the Hamlyns are interested in China and Chinese people – perhaps rather too intimately. It is through the Straits Chinese – and inspired by the revolutionary Sun – that Lesley rebels from the constraints of her marriage. This affair coincided with the real trial of Ethel Proudlock which forms a key secondary plotline (a justifiable liberty by Tan, as the trial was a year later than Sun’s stay), about which Maugham wrote The Letter – also adapted to a film (those filmmakers sure did love Maugham). It’s not a calamitous spoiler to say that Robert Hamlyn also has his secrets.
Using real historical figures as fictional characters can be a risky move, but I felt in safe hands from the moment Somerset Maugham appeared. Tan captures his blasé, unseemly manner wonderfully, including an idiosyncratic pattern of speech. He is a hot mess, who loves nothing ‘more than snuffling out people’s scandals and secrets’. He even has Willie skinny-dipping and gives him something approximating a sex scene – which doubtless the old boy would have loved. Sun – Sun Wen at this time – is meticulous and powerful, but mercenary and kept more at a distance from us, which feels equally fitting – at the time of his visit, after all, Sun had been ‘deported from every place [he’d] set foot in’, as one character remarks. Tan himself acknowledges in Maugham’s voice: ‘a writer’s job is to fill in the gaps’.
Unsurprisingly, Tan finds the similarities between the two men:
‘His son left Penang many years ago to fight for Sun Yat-sen,’ she said.
Curious, Willie thought, how the Chinaman’s name kept bobbing up from her lips.
‘You remind me of him, you know,’ Lesley went on. ‘I thought so the first time I say you.’
‘In what way?’
‘Your fastidiousness over your clothes.’ She tapped the skin above her lips. ‘Your perfectly groomed moustache. The deceptively disinterested air you give off when you observe people from the corner of your eye.’ She leaned back at a slight angle, taking the measure of him from head to toe. ‘And you were both doctors too. Fancy that.’
‘First time I’ve ever been likened to a Chinaman.’
House of Doors is an enchanting book. I loved the sense of place – I don’t know Penang at all, but came away with a strong feel for the nature, the architecture and the people (at least of the 1920s). There’s a gentle poking of the colonial sensibilities (Mrs Millicent Skinner’s Friday musical evenings, the Macalisters showing off their electric lights) combined with an empathetic understanding of them. I loved its wit, lyricism and romanticism, which oscillates between earnest and nonchalant. Tan even just about gets away with lines such as ‘that night, side by side, we drifted among the galaxies of the sea-stars, while far, far above us the asterisks of light marked out the footnotes on the page of eternity’ – not many would.
Unsurprisingly, I also loved the portrayal of Sun, and the many references to Maugham’s work, some explicit, some oblique: I picked up Ashenden, the Moon and Sixpence and the Painted Veil, as well as those explicitly referenced, and I’m sure I missed more. I’ll always be fond of Willie, the hot mess.