OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe first story in Somerset Maugham’s four volume collection (Penguin, 1974[1951]) is called Rain, and has in it one of those unexpected asides that without warning rips attention away from the story itself and onto the author.

Rain is one of the South Sea stories, which in the early nineteen twenties re-made Maugham’s already well known name, as a new writer of short stories. He was already a ‘man of letters’ and with a string of successful plays on the London stage. Rain is a story of sexual repression, religious bigotry and the odious class awareness of the British (perhaps even, of the English! – or should that be the Norman-French?). In it two couples making their way by boat to a colonial outpost are waylaid by the need to be quarantined for a couple of weeks on a remote island. The Davidsons are missionaries, the Mrs in thrall to her saintly and repressed husband. The Macphails are a timid and unsociable Doctor and his wife. Because, perhaps, of his timidity the Macphails are taken as being respectable enough for the Davidson to consort with, but another ‘white’ traveller, Miss Thomspon is beyond the pale of all four. She is an American of lowly station, vulgar habits, and, as Davidson divines, of loose morals. In fact, she is fleeing from the closing down of a famous red-light district.

The good missionary weaves a web of condemnation around her, as he has done with others before, and has boasted of to the Macphails. He works through the natives, the landlord of the rooming house in which they are lodged, and the American governor. Using her fear of an enforced return to America, where she will be arrested and imprisoned, Davidson bullies her into a sort of conversion, and spends days, enclosed with her, struggling for her soul. The Doctor, too weak to oppose the man’s bullying, but not too stupid to recognise it as such, tries, but fails to help. As the crisis approaches the missionary appears more and more obsessed, and excited, by his redemptive project.

There is a denouement, which I sensed arriving, but which was no less appropriate for that, and I’ll leave it for you, should you read the story. What interested me, as a writer, was that Maugham should have chosen the feeble shoulders of Doctor Macphail on which to rest the lens of his writer’s camera. For, though the story is told in the third person, and without the presence of a storyteller (elsewhere in these stories, a common feature), it is without doubt through Macphail’s eyes that we see it unfold. This technique creates a peculiar perspective, which allows us to see, and to understand what is going wrong, yet also to recognise that the Doctor himself will fail, which he does, time after time, to do anything effective to prevent it. This adds a certain frustration to the sense of disquiet that Maugham creates, building to an antipathy towards, not only the Davidsons, but to the Macphails as well. Our opinion of Miss Thompson, mine at least, changes too, as we proceed, but the ending left me wondering.

None of which brings us to that ‘aside’ I mentioned, for that is to do not with the events of the story, nor with the presentation of the characters, but with the eponymous rain. This broods over the story and flavours our perception of, not only the place, but the characters who play out their drama in it. If you have seen the Powell & Pressburger film, Black Narcissus, you might have experienced a similar effect towards the end. Filling in the detail of this rain Maugham says, as Macphail watches it falling: ‘It was not like our soft English rain that drops gently on the earth.’

It was the phrase ‘our soft English rain’ that arrested me. Macphail is not an obviously English name, so if it is Macphail’s thoughts we are encountering, I’m surprised by that ‘English’. And our British rains do not always drop gently in my experience. That it might be Maugham’s recollections of ‘our’ rain reminded me that he was one of those curious ‘Englishmen’ who is held to typify the ‘race’ or ‘nation’ or whatever it is, yet who lived their lives in the main, elsewhere; England being, as it is for many of his characters, a memory, perhaps even a fantasy – which of course, it may be for many of us who do live here! What that ‘our’ would also do, if it is Maugham’s rather than Macphail’s, is to remind us that he was writing for an audience that thought of itself as English, whatever its surname.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA