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March 20, 2006

A Tale of Two Cities: the Sequel - Somerset Maugham's Christmas Holiday

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Christmas Holiday
by W. Somerset Maugham
first published 1939, Heinemann
Pp. 251. Vintage Classics (Random House), 2001

It is Christmas 1938 and Charley Mason is going to Paris for a week's holiday. He is twenty three, a Cambridge graduate who has flirted with both art and music as careers, but has settled for a position in the family property company, a successful business which has grown out of a Victorian market garden. One of his reasons for going to Paris is to visit his Cambridge friend Simon Fenimore who is working as a journalist there. The others are the normal reasons for which a young Englishman visits the Third Republic: to see a bit of life, if you know what I mean. His father expects him to make a discreet visit to the family doctor when he gets back.

He visits a topless bar cum brothel called Le Serail (French for seraglio) where he is set up with a Russian prostitute called Princess Olga. Her real name is Lydia and she speaks fluent English, having been partly educated in England. She also has a vicarious notoriety because her husband is a charming low-life called Robert Berger who is serving sixteen years on Devil's Island for the murder of a homosexual English bookmaker called Teddy Jordan. Lydia does not have to be a prostitute; she has been offered other work. But she chooses to subject herself to sexual humiliation to atone for the sins of her husband whom she adores with an unquestioning passion.

The two young people become companions, though without any physical relationship. They contrast in every way: he is a happy person, friendly, emotionally inexperienced, easy going, accustomed to making rational decisions. She is all the opposites.

Maugham sees this contrast primarily as an expression of nationality with class as a secondary theme. The English middle-classes are uniquely shallow, innocent and contented. They know nothing of the upheavals and tragedies of the continent, of the wistful and pathetic Russians, impoverished and displaced by the Revolution. The English regard as comical the bizarre and exotic ideologies which have taken over the continent. These are represented by Charley's friend Simon, who is that twentieth century archetype the fanatical revolutionary, busy experimenting with his own amorality and ruthlessness, demonstrating that the fanatics of the humanist religion can outdo their theist predecessors in every way. Eventually, he formally breaks off his friendship with Charley on the grounds that a future secret policeman cannot have friends, let alone bourgeois friends.

The Channel can rarely have seemed so broad as it did in the 1930s. On one side Communism, Nazism, Fascism, civil war. On the other, a place where (to borrow A. G. McDonnell's joke) the headline ENGLAND: COMPLETE COLLAPSE means five wickets going down before lunch. Lydia and Charley are a device for exploring these differences as they spend time together. In the Louvre he is expecting to teach her, having been well schooled in art by his sophisticated parents. But he is upstaged when she bursts into tears in front of a Chardin still life of bread and wine, explaining how it encapsulates her yearning for the simplicity and security denied to her as they have been denied to so many people. Charley's response is described on page 194:

Charley looked at it too, but with perplexity. It was a very good picture; he hadn't really given it more than a glance before and he was glad Lydia had drawn his attention to it; in some odd way it was rather moving; but of course he could never have seen in it all she saw. Strange, unstable woman! It was rather embarrassing that she should cry in a public gallery; they did put you in an awkward position, these Russians; but who would have thought a picture would have affected anyone like that?
Lydia has a story: the gripping narrative of the book is the flashback of her marriage to Robert, his arrest and conviction. This plot was in itself enough for a Hollywood movie: Christmas Holiday (1944) stars Gene Kelly and Deanna Durbin, but it takes only some names and incidents from the book; it is set in New Orleans and all the characters are Americans, which is contrary to the entire essence of the book. Charley has no story; it is his fate to be absorbed by Lydia's. In one sense the book has no story. A vulgar version might have had Lydia and Charley falling in love, rescuing Robert, but never seeing him again . . . Here Charley goes back to England on the train he had booked in the first place, Robert stays on Devil's Island (though communication has been established between him and Lydia), Simon carries on developing as a revolutionary and Lydia goes back to the brothel. It ends with Charley playing bridge with his family, though (p. 251):
the bottom had fallen out of his world.
Bear in mind that it is now 1939 so it would have fallen out anyway.

In emphasising the word "story" I am mindful that Maugham described himself variously as

merely a storyteller
among the best of the second-raters
and that these remarks roughly represent his reputation. Our perception of him must be complicated by his extraordinary glamour: a best-seller at twenty three (with Liza of Lambeth, written when he was a medical doctor), he had four plays on the London stage when he was thirty. He was brought up in France, went to Heidelberg, was notoriously bisexual, a millionaire and a major art collector, a world traveller who lived on the Riviera and died at the age of 91. There are more than 120 movies based on his work.

This may be why we do not take him as seriously as we do Orwell, Lawrence or Waugh, who all addressed similar themes to those in Christmas Holiday. But, coming to this fresh, I see no reason to take it less seriously. Admittedly, this is not typical Maugham and it is a book which is barely mentioned in discussions of his enormous oeuvre. Its faults are that it is rather didactic and its characters stereotypical. But those are faults shared with the great novels of the period. Its assets are that it is written with simplicity and clarity and is the creation of a mind which is both intelligent and knowledgeable. Faced with the claim that he is "second-rate" or "middlebrow" I am torn between the untypically modest thought that I am not qualified to judge and the suspicion that this is the sort of Eng. Lit. judgement which honest men don't need to make and that it is made because Maugham is in some respects less "critical" of society than those of his contemporaries who end up on the curriculum. Personally, I find most novels boring and fail to finish some 95% of those I start, but I always wanted to know where Christmas Holiday was going.

Given English innocence, complacency, smugness etc. as portrayed here most writers would adopt the hectoring tone of Fred Engels on the steps of the Manchester Cotton Exchange:

Don't you know what's going on out there? Don't you realise it's going to catch up with you personally?
But Maugham does not. If the English do not burst into tears because of how art represents the human condition, but instead read up on the artist's background and wonder which room the painting would look best in, then that is the consequence of a condition to be envied.

Which puts me in mind of my late colleague, Jim Bulpitt, mainly known for his analysis of Mrs Thatcher's "statecraft". Jim always argued that human life had peaked in England in the 1930s (when his own father was a Londoner commuting eastwards to the new Ford plant in Dagenham): safe streets, orderly football grounds, sensible and decent politicians like Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain, excellent trains, Lyon's Corner Houses with chops and pale ale . . . Jim commemorated the period by collecting recordings of the British big bands and by seeking out spotted dick and treacle pudding wherever he could find them. So what if we were "smug" and "doomed"? The doom was not our fault and, anyway, an illusion of decency and security is the best we mortals can ever manage.

Christmas Holiday was not meant for us; it was written by a writer guaranteed immediate attention and it was by and for 1939, its purpose being to warn the English about what was going on beyond their ditch. You could read all sorts of things into it now. We are less insulated and insular than we were then, but you might say that we have less sense of decency. Is our identity (even) more threatened by Europe, by globalisation and by terrorism than it was by Hitler and Stalin? But even if you want to avoid such pointed inferences and comparisons, Christmas Holiday offers a sharp sense of an underestimated period.

Lincoln Allison has recently retired as Reader in Politics, University of Warwick. His previous Retrospective Reviews can be read here.

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Your first thought was right: if you fail to finish 95% of the novels you start reading then you are unqualfied to judge Maugham, still less to compare your mind to those who've seen how accurate his own judgement was. Now and forever, Maugham is second-rate, and only second-rate minds would waste their time trying to advance him.

Posted by: L. A. at July 5, 2006 08:35 AM

"...Maugham is second-rate, and only second-rate minds would waste their time trying to advance him."

It sounds like a practiced, haughty little ditty of a putdown that some pseudo-intellectual, unpublished, unrated, wannabe uses a lot; variously substituting the name of whatever successful author or reviewer has his jealous dander up. Second rate indeed.

Posted by: Patrick Bois at July 10, 2007 07:09 PM
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