W. Somerset Maugham.

The moon and sixpence online

. (page 1 of 17)
Online LibraryW. Somerset MaughamThe moon and sixpence → online text (page 1 of 17)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


W. SOMERSET MAU<




THE MOON AND SIXPENCE

W. SOMERSET MAUGHAM



SIXPENCE

W. SOMERSET MAUGHAM >
AvxiivaT of "Of Human Bondage"



GROSSET &. DUNLAP
VxMisKers

by arrangement with
GEORGE H, DORAN COMPANY




COPYRIGHT, 1 91 9,
BY GEORGE H. DORAN COMPANY



THE MOON AND SIXPENCE



PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA



Abo Micp
MAIN



THE MOON AND SIXPENCE



[ ; 095



THE MOON AND
SIXPENCE

Chapter I

I CONFESS that when first I made acquaintance
with Charles Strickland I never for a moment
discerned that there was in him anything out of
the ordinary. Yet now few will be found to deny his
greatness. I do not speak of that greatness which is
achieved by the fortunate politician or the successful
soldier; that is a quality which belongs to the place
he occupies rather than to the man; and a change of
circumstances reduces it to very discreet proportions.
The Prime Minister out of office is seen, too often,
to have been but a pompous rhetorician, and the Gen-
eral without an army is but the tame hero of a
market town. The greatness of Charles Strickland
was authentic. It may be that you do not like his art,
but at all events you can hardly refuse it the tribute
of your interest. He disturbs and arrests. The time
has passed when he was an object of ridicule, and it
is no longer a mark of eccentricity to defend or of
perversity to extol him. His faults are accepted as
the necessary complement to his merits. It is still
possible to discuss his place in art, and the adulation
of his admirers is perhaps no less capricious than the
disparagement of his detractors; but one thing can

7



8 THE MOON AND SIXPENCE

never be doubtful, and that is that he had genius.
To my mind the most interesting thing in art is the
personality of the artist; and if that is singular, I am
willing to excuse a thousand faults. I suppose Velas-
quez was a better painter than El Greco, but custom
stales one's admiration for him : the Cretan, sensual
and tragic, proffers the mystery of his soul like a
standing sacrifice. The artist, painter, poet, or mu-
sician, by his decoration, sublime or beautiful, satis-
fies the aesthetic sense ; but that is akin to the sexual
instinct, and shares its barbarity: he lays before you
also the greater gift of himself. To pursue his secret
has something of the fascination of a detective story.
It is a riddle which shares with the universe the
merit of having no answer. The most insignificant
of Strickland's works suggests a personality which is
strange, tormented, and complex; and it is this surely
which prevents even those who do not like his pic-
tures from being indifferent to them ; it is this which
has excited so curious an interest in his life and
character.

It was not till four years after Strickland's death
that Maurice Huret wrote that article in the Mercure
de France which rescued the unknown painter from
oblivion and blazed the trail which succeeding writ-
ers, with more or less docility, have followed. For
a long time no critic has enjoyed in France a more
incontestable authority, and it was impossible not to
be impressed by the claims he made ; they seemed ex-
travagant; but later judgments have confirmed his es-
timate, and the reputation of Charles Stricklai»d is
now firmly established on the lines which hp laid



THE MOON AND SIXPENCE 9

down. The rise of this reputation is one of the most
romantic incidents in the history of art. But I do
not propose to deal with Charles Strickland's work
except in so far as it touches upon his character. I
cannot agree with the painters who claim supercil-
iously that the layman can understand nothing of
painting, and that he can best show his appreciation
of their works by silence and a cheque-book. It is
a grotesque misapprehension which sees in art no
more than a craft comprehensible perfectly only to
the craftsman : art is a manifestation of emotion, and
emotion speaks a language that all may understand.
But I will allow that the critic who has not a practical
knowledge of technique is seldom able to say any-
thing on the subject of real value, and my ignorance
of painting is extreme. Fortunately, there is no need
for me to risk the adventure, since my friend, Mr.
Edward Leggatt, an able writer as well as an admir-
able painter, has exhaustively discussed Charles
Strickland's work in a little book* which is a charm-
ing example of a style, for the most part, less happily
cultivated in England than in France.

Maurice Huret in his famous article gave an out-
line of Charles Strickland's life which was well calcu-
lated to whet the appetites of the inquiring. With
his disinterested passion for art, he had a real desire
to call the attention of the wise to a talent which was
in the highest degree original; but he was too good
a journalist to be unaware that the "human interest"
would enable him more easily to effect his purpose.

* "A Modern Artist: Notes on the Work of Charles Strick-
land," by Edward Leggatt, A.R.H.A. Martin Seeker, 1917.



10 THE MOON AND SIXPENCE

And when such as had come in contact with Strickland
in the past, writers who had known him in London,
painters who had met him in the cafes of Montmar-
tre, discovered to their amazement that where they
had seen but an unsuccessful artist, like another, au-
thentic genius had rubbed shoulders with them there
began to appear in the magazines of France and
America a succession of articles, the reminiscences
of one, the appreciation of another, which added to
Strickland's notoriety, and fed without satisfying the
curiosity of the public. The subject was grateful,
and the industrious Weitbrecht-Rotholz in his impos-
ing monograph* has been able to give a remarkable
iist of authorities.

The faculty for myth is innate in the human race.
It seizes with avidity upon any incidents, surprising
or mysterious, in the career of those who have at all
distinguished themselves from their fellows, and in-
vents a legend to which it then attaches a fanatical
belief. It is the protest of romance against the com-
monplace of life. The incidents of the legend be-
come the hero's surest passport to immortality. The
ironic philosopher reflects with a smile that Sir Wal-
ter Raleigh is more safely inshrined in the memory
of mankind because he set his cloak for the Virgin
Queen to walk on than because he carried the English
name to undiscovered countries. Charles Strickland
lived obscurely. He made enemies rather than
friends. It is not strange, then, that those who wrote

* "Karl Strickland: sein Leben und seine Kunst," by Hugo
Weitbrecht-Rotholz, Ph.D. Schwingel und Hanisch. Leip-
zig, 1914.



THE MOON AND SIXPENCE H

of him should have eked out their scanty recollections
with a lively fancy, and it is evident that there was
enough in the little that was known of him to give
opportunity to the romantic scribe; there was much
in his life which was strange and terrible, in his char-
acter something outrageous, and in his fate not a lit-
tle that was pathetic. In due course a legend arose
of such circumstantiaHty that the wise historian
would hesitate to attack it.

Bnt a wise historian is precisely what the Rev.
Robert Strickland is not. He wrote his biogra-
phy* avowedly to "remove certain misconceptions
which had gained currency" in regard to the later
part of his father's life, and which had "caused con-
siderable pain to persons still living." It is obvious
that there was much in the commonly received account
of Strickland's life to embarrass a respectable family.
I have read this work with a good deal of amuse-
ment, and upon this I congratulate myself, since it
is colourless and dull. Mr. Strickland has drawn the
portrait of an excellent husband and father, a man
of kindly temper, industrious habits, and moral dis-
position. The modern clergyman has acquired in
his study of the science which I believe is called
exegesis an astonishing facility for explaining things
away, but the subtlety with which tht Rev. Robert
Strickland has "interpreted" all the facts in his
father's life which a dutiful son might find it incon-
venient to remember must surely lead him in the full-
ness of time to the highest dignities of the Church.

♦ "Strickland: The Man and His Work," by his son, Robert
Strickland, Wm. Heinemann, 1913.



IS THE MOON AND SIXPENCE

I see already his muscular calves encased m the gait-
ers episcopal. It was a hazardous, though maybe a
gallant thing to do, since it is probable that the legend
commonly received has had no small share in the
growth of Strickland's reputation; for there are many
who have been attracted to his art by the detestation
in which they held his character or the compassion
with which they regarded his death; and the son's
well-meaning efforts threw a singular chill upon the
father's admirers. It is due to no accident that when
one of his most important works, The Woman of
Samaria,'^ was sold at Christie's shortly after the dis-
cussion which followed the publication of Mr. Strick-
land's biography, it fetched £235 less than it had
done nine months before when it was bought by the
distinguished collector whose sudden death had
brought it once more under the hammer. Perhaps
Charles Strickland's power and originality would
scarcely have sufficed to turn the scale if the remark-
able mythopoeic faculty of mankind had not brushed
aside with impatience a story which disappointed all
its craving for the extraordinary. And presently Dr.
Weitbrecht-Rotholz produced the work which finally
set at rest the misgivings of all lovers of art.

Dr. Weitbrecht-Rotholz belongs to that school of
historians which believes that human nature is not
only about as bad as it can be, but a great deal worse ;
and certainly the reader is safer of entertainment in

* This was described in Christie's catalogue as follows: "A
nude woman, a native of the Society Islands, is lying on the
ground beside a brook. Behind is a tropical landscape with
palm-trees, bananas, etc. 60 in. x 48 in."



THE MOON AND SIXPENCE IS

their hands than in those of the writers who take a
malicious pleasure in representing the great figures
of romance as patterns of the domestic virtues. For
my part, I shouFd be sorry to think that there was
nothing between Anthony and Cleopatra but an eco-
nomic situation ; and it will require a great deal more
evidence than is ever likely to be available, thank
God, to persuade me that Tiberius was as blameless
a monarch as King George V. Dr. Weitbrecht-
Rotholz has dealt in such terms with the Rev. Robert
Strickland's innocent biography that it is difficult to
avoid feeling a certain sympathy for the unlucky
parson. His decent reticence is branded as hypocrisy,
his circumlocutions are roundly called lies, and his
silence is vilified as treachery. And on the strength
of peccadillos, reprehensible in an author, but excusa-
ble in a son, the Anglo-Saxon race is accused of prud-
ishness, humbug, pretentiousness, deceit, cunning,
and bad cooking. Personally I think it was rash of
Mr. Strickland, in refuting the account which had
gained belief of a certain * 'unpleasantness" between
his father and mother, to state that Charles Strick-
land in a letter written from Paris had described her
as "an excellent woman," since Dr. Weitbrecht-
Rotholz was able to print the letter in facsimile, and
it appears that the passage referred to ran in fact as
follows: God damn my wife. She is an excellent
woman. I wish she was in hell. It Is not thus that the
Church In Its great days dealt with evidence that was
unwelcome.

Dr. Weitbrecht-Rotholz was an enthusiastic ad-
mirer of Charles Strickland, and there was no dan-



14 THE MOON AND SIXPENCE

ger that he would whitewash him. He had an
unerring eye for the despicable motive in actions that
had all the appearance of innocence. He was a
psycho-pathologist, as well as a student of art, and
the subconscious had few secrets from him. No
mystic ever saw deeper meaning In common things.
The mystic sees the ineffable, and the psycho-pathol-
ogist the unspeakable. There is a singular fascina-
tion in watching the eagerness with which the learned
author ferrets out every circumstance which may
throw discredit on his hero. His heart warms to him
when he can bring forward some example of cruelty,
or meanness, and he exults like an Inquisitor at the
auto da fe of an heretic when with some forgotten
story he can confound the filial piety of the Rev.
'Robert Strickland. His industry has been amazing.
Nothing has been too small to escape him, and you
may be sure that If Charles Strickland left a laun-
dry bill unpaid It will be given you in extenso, and if
he forebore to return a borrowed half-crown no de-
tail of the transaction will be omitted.



Chapter II

WHEN so much has been written about
Charles Strickland, it may seem unnecessary
that I should write more. A painter's mon-
ument is his work. It is true I knew him more inti-
mately than most: I met him first before ever he
became a painter, and I saw him not infrequently dur-
ing the difficult years he spent in Paris; but I do not
suppose I should ever have set down my recollections
if the hazards of the war had not taken me to Tahiti.
There, as is notorious, he spent the last years of
his life; and there I came across persons who were
familiar with him. I find myself in a position to
throw light on just that part of his tragic career
which has remained most obscure. If they who be-
lieve in Strickland's greatness are right, the personal
narratives of such as knew him in the flesh can hardly
be superfluous. What would we not give for the
reminiscences of someone who had been as intimately
acquainted with El Greco as I was with Strickland?
But I seek refuge; in no such excuses. I forget
who it was that recommended men for their soul's
good to do each day two things they disliked : it was
a wise man, and it is a precept that I have followed
scrupulously; for every day I have got up and I
have gone to bed. But there is in my nature a strain
of asceticism, and I have subjected my flesh each week
to a more severe mortification. I have never failed
to read the Literary Supplement of The Times. It

15



16 THE MOON AND SIXPENCE

is a salutary discipline to consider the vast number
of books that are written, the fair hopes with which
their authors see them published, and the fate which
awaits them. What chance is there that any book
will make its way among that multitude ? And the
successful books are but the successes of a season.
Heaven knows what pains the author has been at,
what bitter experiences he has endured and what
heartache suffered, to give some chance reader a
few hours' relaxation or to while away the tedium
of a journey. And if I may judge from the reviews,
many of these books are well and carefully written;
much thought has gone to their composition ; to some
even has been given the anxious labour of a lifetime.
The moral I draw is that the writer should seek his
reward In the pleasure of his work and in release
from the burden of his thought; and, indifferent to
aught else, care nothing for praise or censure, failure
or success.

Now the war has come, bringing with it a new
attitude. Youth has turned to gods we of an earlier
day knew not, and it is possible to see already the
direction in which those who come after us will move.
The younger generation, conscious of strength and
tumultuous, have done with knocking at the door;
they have burst In and seated themselves In our
seats. The air Is noisy with their shouts. Of
their elders some, by imitating the antics of youth,
strive to persuade themselves that their day is not
yet over; they shout with the lustiest, but the war
cry sounds hollow In their mouth; they are like poor
wantons attempting with pencil, paint and powder.



THE MOON AND SIXPENCE 17

with shrill gaiety, to recover the illusion of their
spring. The wiser go their way with a decent grace.
In their chastened smile is an indulgent mockery.
They remember that they too trod down a sated
generation, with just such clamor and with just such
scorn, and they foresee that these brave torch-bear-
ers will presently yield their place also. There is
no last word. The new evangel was old when
Nineveh reared her greatness to the sky. These gal-
lant words which seem so novel to those that speak
them were said in accents scarcely changed a hun-
dred times before. The pendulum swings back-
wards and forwards. The circle is ever travelled
anew.

Sometimes a man survives a considerable time from
an era in which he had his place into one which is
strange to him, and then the curious are offered one
of the most singular spectacles in the human comedy.
Who now, for example, thinks of George Crabbe?
He was a famous poet in his day, and the world
recognised his genius with a unanimity which the
greater complexity of modern life has rendered In-
frequent. He had learnt his craft at the school of
'Alexander Pope, and he wrote moral stories in
rhymed couplets. Then came the French Revolu-
tion and the Napoleonic Wars, and the poets sang
new songs. Mr. Crabbe continued to write moral
stories in rhymed couplets. I think he must have
read the verse of these young men who were mak-
ing so great a stir in the world, and I fancy he
found It poor stuff. Of course, much of it was. But
the odes of Keats and of Wordsworth, a poem or



18 THE MOON AND SIXPENCE

two by Coleridge, a few more by Shelley, discov-
ered vast realms of the spirit that none had explored
before. Mr. Crabbe was as dead as mutton, but
Mr. Crabbe continued to write moral stories in
rhymed couplets. I have read desultorily the writ-
ings of the younger generation. It may be that
among them a more fervid Keats, a more ethereal
Shelley, has already published numbers the world
will willingly remember. I cannot tell. I admire
their polish — their youth is already so accomplished
that it seems absurd to speak of promise — I marvel
at the felicity of their style; but with all their copi-
ousness (their vocabulary suggests that they fingered
Roget's Thesaurus in their cradles) they say nothing
to me; to my mind they know too much and feel
too obviously; I cannot stomach the heartiness witH
which they slap me on the back or the emotion with
which they hurl themselves on my bosom; their pas-
sion seems to me a little anaemic and their dreams
a trifle dull. I do not like them. I am on the
shelf. I will continue to write moral stories in
rhymed couplets. But I should be thrice a fool
if I did it for aught but my own entertainment



Chapter IH

BUT all this is by the way.
I was very young when I wrote my first
book.

By a lucky chance it excited attention, and var-
ious persons sought my acquaintance.

It is not without melancholy that I wander among
my recollections of the world of letters in London
when first, bashful but eager, I was introduced to it.
It is long since I frequented it, and if the novels that
describe its present singularities are accurate much
in it is now changed. The venue is different. Chelsea
and Bloomsbury have taken the place of Hamp-
stead, Notting Hill Gate, and High Street, Kensing-
ton. Then it was a distinction to be under forty,
but now to be more than twenty-five is absurd. I
think in those days we were a little shy of our emo-
tions, and the fear of ridicule tempered the more
obvious forms of pretentiousness. I do not believe
that there was in that genteel Bohemia an intensive
culture of chastity, but I do not remember so crude
a promiscuity as seems to be practised in the present
day. We did not think it hypocritical to draw over
our vagaries the curtain of a decent silence. The
spade was not invariably called a bloody shovel.
Woman had not yet altogether come into her own.

I lived near Victoria Station, and I recall long
excursions by bus to the hospitable houses of the
literary. In my timidity I wandered up and down

19



so THE MOON AND SIXPENCE

the street while I screwed up my courage to ring
the bell; and then, sick with apprehension, was ush-
ered into an airles'"> room full of people. I was
introduced to this celebrated person after that one,
and the kind words they said about my book made
me excessively uncomfortable. I felt they expected
me to say clever things, and I never could think of
any till after the party was over. I tried to conceal
my embarrassment by handing round cups of tea
and rather ill-cut bread-and-butter. I wanted no one
to take notice of me, so that I could observe these
famous creatures at my ease and listen to the clever
things they said.

I have a recollection of large, unbending women
with great noses and rapacious eyes, who wore their
clothes as though they were armour; and of little,
mouse-like spinsters, with soft voices and a shrewd
glance. I never ceased to be fascinated by their
persistence in eating buttered toast with their gloves
on, and I observed with admiration the unconcern
with which they wiped their fingers on their chair
When they thought no one was looking. It must
liave been bad for the furniture, but I suppose the
hostess took her revenge on the furniture of her
friends when, in turn, she visited them. Some of
them were dressed fashionably, and they said they
couldn't for the life of them see why you should
be dowdy just because you had written a novel; if
you had a neat figure you might as well make the
most of it, and a smart shoe on a small foot had
never prevented an editor from taking your "stuff."
But others thought this frivolous, and they wore



THE MOON AND SIXPENCE 21

"art fabrics" and barbaric jewelry. The men were
seldom eccentric in appearance. They tried to look
as little like authors as possible. They wished to
be taken for men of the world, and could have
passed anywhere for the managing clerks of a city
firm. They always seemed a little tired. I had
never known writers before, and I found them very
strange, but I do not think they ever seemed to me
quite real.

I remember that I thought their conversation bril-
liant, and I used to listen with astonishment to the
stinging humour with which they would tear a
brother-author to pieces the moment that his back was
turned. The artist has this advantage over the rest
of the world, that his friends offer not only their
appearance and their character to his satire, but also
their work. I despaired of ever expressing myself
with such aptness or with such fluency. In those
days conversation was still cultivated as an art; a
neat repartee was more highly valued than the crack-
ling of thorns under a pot; and the epigram, not
yet a mechanical appliance by which the dull may
achieve a semblance of wit, gave sprlghtliness to
the small talk of the urbane. It is sad that I can
remember nothing of all this scintillation. But I
think the conversation never settled down so com-
fortably as when it turned to the details of the trade
which was the other side of the art we practised.
When we had done discussing the merits of the latest
book, it was natural to wonder how many copies
had been sold, what advance the author had re-
ceived, and how much he was likely to make out



SS THE MOON AND SIXPENCE

of it. Then we would speak of this publisher and
of that, comparing the generosity of one with the
meanness of another; we would argue whether it
was better to go to one who gave handsome royal-
ties or to another who "pushed" a book for all it
was worth. Some advertised badly and some well.
Some were modern and some were old-fashioned.
Then we would talk of agents and the offers they;
had obtained for us ; of editors and the sort of con-
tributions they welcomed, how much they paid a)
thousand, and whether they paid promptly or other-
wise. To me it was all very romantic. It gave me
an intimate sense of being a member of some mystic
brotherhood.



Chapter IV

NO one was kinder to me at that time than Rose
Waterford. She combined a masculine intel-
ligence with a feminine perversity, and the
novels she wrote were original and disconcerting.
It was at her house one day that I met Charles Strick-
land's wife. Miss Waterford was giving a tea-party,
and her small room was more than usually full.
Everyone seemed to be talking, and I, sitting in si-
lence, felt awkward; but I was too shy to break into
any of the groups that seemed absorbed in their own
affairs. Miss Waterford was a good hostess, and
seeing my embarrassment came up to me.

"I want you to talk to Mrs. Strickland," she said.
"She's raving about your book,"

"What does she do?" I asked.


1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17

Online LibraryW. Somerset MaughamThe moon and sixpence → online text (page 1 of 17)