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

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.


  1. Did you find Mary’s desire to do good deeds to be a bit precious? She’s not one of those female characters written in that era that seems too good to be true, is she?

    It almost makes me think that Maugham was terrible at writing female characters, or that he just didn’t like women. I hated Mildred in “Of Human Bondage.” She was too heartless and self-serving to seem genuine, and it ruined the entire novel for me.

    I haven’t read “The Razor’s Edge.” I wonder what the women are like in that book.

  2. I don’t know, Char, it seemed to me that Mary’s desire to (frankly) show men a good time was indulging herself, and flattering to herself, at least as much as it was indulging them. That may or may not have been Maugham’s intention of course.

    Wikipedia (reliable source I know) suggests that Maugham’s sexuality (he was married for a time but also had many relationships with men) meant that he saw attractive women as sexual rivals and it was this that led him to give women in his fiction strong sexual appetites, contrary at least to outward social and literary convention of the time. Perhaps Mary sprouts from this too.

  3. I didn’t realize Chekhov was the source of that idea. I’ve read it many places in various forms, the most succinct being by the songwriter Peter Case (in “Put Down the Gun”): “A gun in the first act always goes off in the third.”

  4. Well I’m open to correction Pete, but that’s my understanding of the source. Peter Case’s interpretation seems much closer to mine (ie that it’s a sign of too-obvious foreshadowing) than to the apparent original intention (that an author should include nothing that is inessential). For the second time in a few minutes I am reduced to citing Wikipedia as a source: its article on the subject is here.

  5. I am having the same trouble settling down. I have books in my stacks that I keep putting back, while I am ordering new books online, waiting for some Hesperus ones to come in, and selecting more from the library.

    But, Up the Villa seems like a good novel to settle your mind down.

  6. I’m glad to here that I am not the only one having a hard time settling into a book right now. I’ve tried the same tact, reading some shorter novels, and it’s helping. I tried reading a longer novel, and I’m getting bogged down again.

  7. I bought a few Hesperus titles too, Isabel, and coming up I have two titles of 70 and 86 pages respectively – Ozick’s The Shawl and Roth’s The Prague Orgy – it’s amazing how much you can read when they’re that short!

    Brad, I sometimes wonder if I’m giving longer books a fair go: I gave up last week on Philip Hensher’s The Northern Clemency which I wasn’t enjoying at about page 300 (of 736!). But I can’t help feeling part of my frustration with it was due to the knowledge that it would take me a week or more to read, when I could get through a few other shorter books in the same time. Which isn’t really fair on the book…

  8. On a related note, I’m two-thirds through Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman and thus far the titular constable has only been spoken of by other characters but has not yet made an appearance. O’Brien must not have agreed with Chekhov’s maxim.

  9. Oh definitely not Pete! Now it’s a while since I read The Third Policeman, but is the third policeman MacCruiskeen, who shows the narrator his series of boxes, each of which is smaller than the last, until one is so small “it took me three years to make and another year to believe that I had made it”? This leads to the following lovely exchange:

    “There now,” said MacCruiskeen.

    “It is nearly too nice,” I said at last, “to talk about it.”

    “I spent two years manufacturing it when I was a lad,” said MacCruiskeen, “and it still takes me to the fair.”

    “It is unmentionable,” I said.

    “Very nearly,” said MacCruiskeen.

    I also enjoyed O’Brien’s The Poor Mouth but couldn’t finish At Swim-Two-Birds (and I’ve tried to read it three times, which is apt as it has three beginnings).

  10. Thanks for that Stewart. Updike says, apropos At Swim-Two-Birds:

    Like … Joyce, O’Brien is not afraid to bore the reader.

    And the Chicago Times said of it, “cagily”, that it is:

    of such staggering originality that it baffles description and very nearly beggars our sense of delight.

    Quite! I must read The Dalkey Archive sometime.

    (PS: Pete, don’t read the Updike piece yet as it gives away the final revelation in The Third Policeman.)

  11. (PS: Pete, don’t read the Updike piece yet as it gives away the final revelation in The Third Policeman.)

    I’ll say. That’s it ruined for me, for when I get round to it. Tried it once but only got a few pages in: may just have been a mood thing.

  12. Well, the third policeman finally showed up, at page 180 of this 199-page book. (It was Policeman Fox, not MacCruiskeen.) But his presence wasn’t consequential enough to name the book after him. His character was definitely an example of Chekhov’s “unfired rifle”, and one of many reasons I didn’t enjoy the book very much. That “final revelation” was another reason – though I can’t say I saw that twist coming, it was still less than satisfying.

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