March 30, 2008
W. Somerset Maugham: Up at the Villa
One of the consequences of my inability-to-settle-down-with-a-book-recently (I told you we need a word for that) was that I read a few shorties to get back into the flow of things. Last year I had enjoyed Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil, so it was predictable that when I was shopping around for some more I would go not for one of his most famous – say, Cakes and Ale, or The Moon and Sixpence – but the one with the nicest cover. And this really is just about the finest and most elegant of the old Vintage Classics designs, which are now being replaced with something altogether more ill-advised (more of that in due course). That it’s only 120 pages too is just a happy coincidence.
Up at the Villa was published in 1941, when it would probably be agreed that Maugham had his best work behind him (of the four further novels he published, only The Razor’s Edge would join the list of Major Works). Sure enough it’s a slight thing both in length and substance, made up as much of featherweight entertainment as of the social insight Maugham is known for.
A brief digression: Anton Chekhov, in a letter in 1889, said “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” This idea of ‘Chekhov’s gun’ is that only the essential elements should be included in a story or a play. But the corollary is that if a gun does appear in the first act, it’s pretty obvious to the viewer that someone is later going to be shot. It becomes less a device of authorial concision than of plot predictability.
Maugham in Up at the Villa takes Chekhov’s advice literally. At the end of the first chapter, there are three separate times when we are told that the heroine is bringing a gun with her. The heroine is Mary Panton, a young woman living in a sixteenth century villa with “a magnificent view of Florence.” She doesn’t own it, but has been loaned this dream home for a time by its English owners: “though the rooms were large and lofty, it was of no great size and she managed very well with the three servants they had left her.” Mary is privileged in other ways too: she is beautiful and much desired, and at the opening scene receives a marriage proposal from Edgar Swift, a family friend twenty years her senior but whom she has known and loved since childhood, and who was particularly ‘kind’ and ‘understanding’ when Mary’s husband died suddenly at a young age.
Mary is also pursued by another man, the roguish handsome Rowley Flint, who is much more her age but not quite her class. It is her desire to do the best for everyone, and to use her gifts to benefit the less fortunate, that leads to trouble. She tips a restaurant musician heavily: “That’s why I gave it. It’ll mean so much to him. It may make all the difference to his life.” This could be marked with the symbol of a clanging bell in the margin for its obvious foreshadowing, just as much as the gun at the end of chapter one (don’t tell me you’d forgotten it!). She expands on this:
“I’ve sometimes thought that if I ever ran across someone who was poor, alone and unhappy, who’d never had any pleasure in life, who’d never known any of the good things money can buy – and if I could give him a unique experience, an hour of absolute happiness, something that he’d never dreamt of and that would never be repeated, then I’d give him gladly everything I had to give.”
Well: be careful what you wish for. What follows could, aptly enough, be expressed in a play as easily as a novella, because almost everything comes from what the characters say and do, and much of that is, if not outright predictable, at least reasonably foreseeable. But it’s a fine and entertaining diversion, and it’s got guns in, and sometimes that’s all we need.