Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 4, 2019

Cakes and Ale, by W. Somerset Maugham

Given my poor track record, no one is more surprised than me that I have finished my book on time for the 1930s Club, hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Rambings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. I didn’t have anything published in 1930 that I hadn’t already read on the shelves at home, and I was not expecting my library to come up trumps so quickly. But here I am, delighted by my luck at discovering Cakes and Ale, said to be the favourite book of W. Somerset Maugham…

Maugham (1894-1965) was safely settled in the south of France when the storm broke over this book.  Cakes and Ale is a piercing satire of British literary circles, and features (apparently) very recognisable portraits of authors Thomas Hardy, and Maugham’s erstwhile friend Horace Walpole.  The Introduction by Nicholas Shakespeare gossips about these and other correspondences, but really, the pleasure in reading this novel for contemporary readers comes from Maugham’s self-awareness of his own adolescent snobberies; from the satirical depiction of literary circles and their modus operandi; and from the wonderful portrait of Rosie Driffield which foreshadows the rise of independent women free from the stuffy constraints of prevailing social and sexual mores.

Narrated by the author William Ashenden, Cakes and Ale tells the story of fellow-author Alroy Kear’s efforts to write a biography of the recently deceased Edward Driffield.  Urged on by Driffield’s legacy-building widow, the second Mrs Driffield, Alroy wants to plunder Ashenden’s memories of the Driffields from his days in Blackstable.  The first Mrs Driffield was a barmaid, so Alroy is interested in some salacious revelations, but not intending to include them.  What he is hoping to find for his ‘dignified’ bio is the reason why Driffield wrote his best work while with her, and not so much with the second wife who managed his career (and him). The book is structured so that Ashenden can trawl his schoolboy memories of Rosie and his eventual undergraduate affair with her—without revealing how much of any of this is to be disclosed to Alroy.

There are many lough-out-loud moments in Cakes and Ale. Alroy is soon revealed to have had a literary career that could have served as a model for other aspiring writers: Ashenden can think of no other among his contemporaries who had achieved so considerable a position on so little talent.  Which like the wise man’s daily dose of Bemax [a wheatgerm dietary supplement, presumably for constipation] might have gone into a heaped-up tablespoon.  Alroy has taken the advice of Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) who said that genius was an infinite capacity for taking pains.  Ashenden’s scorn for Alroy is obvious:

If that was all, he must have told himself, he could be a genius like the rest; and when the excited reviewer of a lady’s paper, writing a notice of one of his works, used the word (and of late the critics have been doing it with agreeable frequency) he must have sighed with the satisfaction of one who after long hours of toil has completed a cross-word puzzle. (p.9)

Note the order in the next excerpt, of Ashenden’s list of notables for Alroy to have courted.  Royalty comes second last, indicating Alroy’s laborious climb up the ladder rather than being born to high rank. There is, sneers Ashenden, something captivating about the jauntiness with which in his early novels he handles viceroys, ambassadors, prime ministers, royalties, and great ladies.  Ashenden puts this down to Alroy’s luck in having a parent who made many sacrifices to provide so costly an education and used his Colonial Office contacts to inveigle Alroy into a job as a tutor in society. Ashenden (Maugham’s alter ego) does a fine line in patronising commentary, skewering here not just his victim but also fashions in literary taste.  Note also the way he uses the diminutive Roy here:

I always think it a pity that, fashion having decided that the doings of the aristocracy are no longer a proper subject for serious fiction, Roy, always keenly sensitive to the tendency of the age, should in his later novels have confined himself to the spiritual conflicts of solicitors, chartered accountants, and produce brokers.  He does not move in these circles with his old assurance. (p.10)

Much later on in the book, when Ashenden claims to be embarrassed by his reflections about losing his virginity to Rosie, he says he wishes he hadn’t chosen to use first person in this book.  He then goes onto to deliver a serve to his contemporary Evelyn Waugh (1906-1966):

A little while ago I read in the Evening Standard an article by Mr Evelyn Waugh in the course of which he remarked that to write novels in the first person was a contemptible practice.  I wish he had explained why, but he merely threw out the statement with just the same take-it-or-leave-it casualness as Euclid used when he made his celebrated observation about parallel straight lines.  I was much concerned, and forthwith asked Alroy Kear (who reads everything, even the books he writes prefaces for) to recommend to me some works on the art of fiction.  On his advice I read The Craft of Fiction by Mr Percy Lubbock, from which I learned that the only way to write novels was like Henry James; after that I read Aspects of the Novel by Mr. E.M. Forster, from which I learned the only way to write novels was like Mr. E.M. Forster; then I read The Structure of the Novel by Mr Edwin Muir, from which I learned nothing at all.  In none of them could I discover anything to the point at issue.  All the same I can find one reason why certain novelists, such as Defoe, Sterne, Thackeray, Dickens, Emily Brontë, and Proust, well known in their day but now doubtless forgotten, have used the method that Mr Evelyn Waugh reprehends. (p.140)

Reflecting that as they age, authors become more conscious of—and write about—the unreasonableness of human beings instead of more important things, Ashenden suggests that it is evidently more sensible to occupy yourself with the coherent, substantial, and significant creatures of fiction than with the irrational and shadowy figures of real life.  [This is, of course, exactly what Maugham is doing here, though he apparently denied any allusions to the figures of real life that he lampoons in Cakes and Ale.]

Sometimes the novelist feels himself like God and is prepared to tell you everything about his characters; sometimes, however, he does not; and then he tells you not everything that is to be known about them but the little he knows himself; and since as we grow older we feel ourselves less and less like God I should not be surprised to learn that with advancing years the novelist grows less and less inclined to describe more than his own experience had given him. The first person singular is a very useful device for this limited purpose.(p.141)

I loved this book, and I recommend it to all aspiring authors, for the reasons so cogently explained by 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die:

[When] Ashenden refuses to countenance Kear’s proposal to write a biography with all the objectionable details left out, [what is at stake] are questions about literary value, the marketing of authors, modern advertising, the cult of the public personality, and the transient nature of literary reputations. (1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, 2006 edition, p.346)

Amd it was written 90-odd years ago in 1930!

That beautiful cover image is by Finn C-Notmann.

Author: W. Somerset Maugham
Title: Cakes and Ale
Introduction by Nicholas Shakespeare
Publisher: Vintage, 2000, 193 pages, first published 1930
ISBN: 9780099282778
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Cakes And Ale



  1. You’re killing me – I’ve read both the Muir and Lubbock books! But not the Forster. Anyways, what a paragraph.

    I am, right now, reading Ashenden, in which the Maugham-like title character is a spy, in the English secret service. How amusing to see him pop up again.


    • Wow, *snap*!
      I’ve read the Forster. I rather think he might have shaped my ideas about the novel!


  2. Hi Lisa! I very much enjoyed your review and your great selection of quotes, particularly poor old Roy’s recipe for genius! A few months ago I read and reviewed Cakes and Ale as part of a TBR challenge; many years ago I had been a great fan of Maugham’s novels and wanted to discover whether the magic was still there, at least for me (my answer was a qualified “yes”). Although I didn’t enjoy C&A quite as much as you, I did find it a very pleasurable read. As you noted, Maugham can be very, very funny and the novel has some great characters (I particularly loved Rosie).


    • Hello! And thank you for your comment:)
      I’ve found your review ( and found it entertaining to read. I have never read Of Human Bondage and now I know I really should!


      • Thanks for the kind words! Maugham was one of my favs, back in the day — such a great story-teller and such a very wicked sense of irony (didn’t you love his depiction of the second Mrs. Driffield in C&A? Not to mention poor Roy!) I’ve been intending to re-visit Of Human Bondage myself; if you get around to it I’ll be very interested to see your “take” on it.


        • I just loved the whole thing, not a word of it faltered for me. He does have that early C20th way of writing which may not suit all readers, but British irony has always appealed to me. Have you read Henry Green? I’ve only read one of his, but I really like him too.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I, too, am quite fond of early (and mid) 20th century writing and I love the ironical. Like you, I’ve only read one Henry Green (Loving); I’ve always meant to get back for more . . . and will! Green is one of those writers who just isn’t LIKE anyone else, IMO at least.


            • Yes…
              If only we had more time to read!


  3. Well, this sounds absolutely delightful! I loved Ashenden — Maugham’s collection of spy stories — when I read it a year or so ago and have often thought of returning to this author ever since. Cakes and Ale might well be the ideal follow-up, Maughum’s alter ego in a different guise.


    • I’m going to have to find that collection, I think…


  4. My goodness me – not only on time, ahead of the game! I’m impressed! And I do want to read this one day – I’ve only dipped my toe in to his work. Like Jacqui I loved Ashenden, but I’d like to explore further! Will link to your post when my 1930 Club page is live! :D


  5. I loved this book when I read it and your review reminds me why.
    Maugham is a wonderful writer.


    • It would be interesting to read his bio to find out if moving to France somehow enabled him to write more freely…


      • Why would it change anything? It would have freed him from peer pressure? Removed him from the British literary atmosphere?


        • Well, apart from being gay and the British being so stuffy about that in those days, he was away from all the people that he was satirising in this novel. So he didn’t have to worry about what they thought.


  6. […] 1930s library book that was also in 1001 Books. Cakes and Ale came in immediately, and I loved it, (see here) and then The Maltese Falcon and I hate to waste my library’s time so I felt I had to read […]


  7. Beautiful review, Lisa! I think I read an abridged version of ‘Cakes and Ale’ when I was a teenager, but can’t remember much of the story. I love Maugham – he is one of my favourite authors. I think I have read five books by him and I loved them all. My favourite was probably ‘Of Human Bondage’. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Maybe it is time for me to read my next Maugham novel.


    • Yes, I’m going to read another one soon. Thanks for dropping by Vishy:)


      • So wonderful! Can’t wait to hear your thoughts! Maugham is so good! Which is your favourite Maugham book?


        • I’ve just borrowed The Moon and Sixpence from the library…


          • So nice to know that, Lisa! I loved The Moon and Six Pence! Happy reading! Will look forward to hearing your thoughts.

            Liked by 1 person

  8. How did I miss that Cakes and Ale was published in 1930? You now tempt me to reread it. I was quite a Maugham fan in my youth and have his Ashenden stories to look forward to (which I haven’t read yet).


  9. Many thanks for being our first review for this club! This was on my list of possibles but didn’t make it to the top – which I regret now, because you make it sound so delicious. I’ve read a couple of Maugham’s books and they were quite melancholy – though good – and I was surprised to hear how funny this one was. And considerably more tempted to pick it up!


    • Hi Simon, I’m glad I read it too because now I’ve got The Moon and Sixpence out from the library. I’m just a little anxious about having enough time to read it because I’ve got The Eighth Life out as well, no renewals because it’s got 8 other reserves on it and it’s 900+ pages long!


  10. […] it as Hugh Walpole, the author so wickedly lampooned in Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale (which I’d read recently courtesy of the 1930s Club). So it’s not as if I didn’t know what I was in for, all 736 pages of […]


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