0199 | Cakes and Ale – W. Somerset Maugham


Context: Was reading this by the side of the pool at our host’s place when we couchsurfed Cairns.

What name beginning with W could possibly be so bad that you would decide instead to use your middle name of Somerset? Well, it turns out to be nothing more shocking than William. Okay, not the most funky of names but certainly more reasonable than being named after a county in southwest Britain.

Anyway, Cakes & Ale is a story about prejudice and a woman who defies it. Like The Picture of Dorian Gray actually which I finished before this one, it illustrates how we judge people on the basis of appearance and not knowledge. It’s less dramatic than Dorian Gray and therefore less tragic. But it’s no less damning in its attempts to show just how human ideas of morality can be so unjust and lacking of love.

I thought perhaps the title refers to the clash of class that is always present in the novel. Cakes being more refined, do not well complement the heavy solidity of ale. I wondered if the title was a metaphor for how little the people in the novel really relate to each other despite being from the same community.

I found Maugham to have a great way of keeping the story going by cutting straight to the next bit you want to read. For example, he’ll say that his exciting time in the village is drawing to a close as he faces six more weeks of school. But rather than take you off to school to endure with him, the very next chapter begins exactly where you want it to, with him returning from school. This was very satsifying.

Maugham has also got a style which I found very insightful into human character and this gives rise to a full complement of characters to populate what is in fact a very short novel. Again, satisfying.

And if you are at all considering being a writer or are one, there’s some great stuff in this novel about what a writer’s lot really is.

I have noticed that whenever someone asks for you on the telephone and, finding you out, leaves a message begging you to call him up the moment you come in, as it’s important, the matter is more often important to him than to you.

The Americans, who are the most efficient people on the earth, have carried this device [the use of “ready-made phrases”] to such a height of perfection and have invented so wide a range of pithy and hackneyed phrases that they can carry on an amusing and animated conversation without giving a moment’s reflection to what they are saying and so leave their minds free to consider the more important matters of big business and fornication.

“I’ll tell you,” said Rosie. “He was always such a perfect gentleman.”

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  1. This sounds like a fascinating read. I have not heard of it – I’ll ask my wife if she knows anyone who has read it.

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